Global Discoveries on DVD: Reassessments

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

One advantage to growing older is having more opportunities to reassess and reflect. This isn’t only a matter of understanding and/or judging what one sees: it’s also a matter of evaluating why one has seen certain films and not seen certain others. Why, for instance, did I never get around to seeing Billion Dollar Brain (1967)—the only Harry Palmer spy thriller that ever piqued much of my interest, because it’s also the first theatrical feature directed by Ken Russell—until recently, on a multiple-format Kino Lorber Classic release? I can’t offer any conclusive reason, but now I have at least a plausible hypothesis: because of the Cold War and the grossly unflattering view of Yankee stupidity conveyed by this movie, which made it an embarrassment to many Americans. Even if many subsequent Ken Russell films are celebrated for their stylistic excess, this one is subdued enough to allow the ideological excesses of Red-baiting Americans to register more fully than any stylistic filigree. (It also, thanks to casting a blonde Françoise Dorléac as its villainous Bond-style bimbo, is the only time I’ve seen the actress when she can momentarily be mistaken for her sister, Catherine Deneuve.)

More generally, reassessing how much the Cold War affected my film taste in the ’50s and ’60s has inflected my recent revisits to two exceptional releases, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) and Jules Dassin’s He Who Must Die (1957)—both of which I liked until ’60s auteurists and other scolds convinced me to downgrade them into “Bad Objects” for ideological reasons that were partially disguised as aesthetic preferences. Truthfully, I now harbour mixed feelings about High Noon—not so much because of Carl Foreman’s efforts to allegorize the Hollywood Blacklist as because of the movie’s reluctance to criticize or even question Gary Cooper’s refusal, as a just-retired marshal, to skip town with his bride (Grace Kelly) rather than face down a band of outlaws, and his determination to foster violence by “standing ground” and confronting his murderous enemies for dubious and obscure macho principles that no one was expected to question in the early ’50s. The movie is far more willing to have the bride overcome her Quaker/pacifist principles by shooting one of the faceless bad guys to save her husband—the same sort of “ironic” turnaround delivered by Elia Kazan in East of Eden (1955), The Visitors (1972), and his second novel, The Assassins, in which supposedly non-violent characters suddenly turn out to be unstable hypocrites. (Keeping the villains faceless, however, is a tactic happily shared by Rio Bravo [1959], supposedly High Noon’s antithesis.) 

What I and many others continue to like about High Noon is its ongoing dialectic between Cooper’s elegant stoicism and Tex Ritter and Dimitri Tiomkin’s plaintive song about all the raw romantic emotions that Cooper is repressing (“Do not forsake me oh my darling, / On this our wedding day”), a model and expedient form of duplicity known as “having it both ways” or “working both sides of the street.” Furthermore, Ritter repeatedly recapitulates the movie’s narrative set-up like a mantra, leaving us more elbow room to emote and reflect on Cooper’s situation in spite of the ongoing Pavlovian suspense generated by pretending to equate real time with movie time: “He made a vow while in state prison, / Said ‘it would be my life or hissen,’ / I’m not afraid of death but oh! / What will I do if you leave me?”

For several decades I’ve been wrongly assuming that my automatic dismissal of He Who Must Die, which was largely encouragedby the disdain ofboth Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, stemmed from the pretensions of its bucolic Passion Play theme. (It was also the first of Dassin’s several Melina Mercouri movies, another apparent yet dubious pretext for much critical scorn.) But I’d completely forgotten the pertinent fact that the film is in CinemaScope (according to Daniel Kremer’s fact-filled audio commentary, it’s the only widescreen Dassin film), and that it uses that format quite inventively and masterfully, making it understandable that Dassin reportedly considered it the best of his own movies. Even an anti-Communist like Manny Farber could appreciate that aspect of the film when it came out, even while tweaking its Marxist reflexes. 


Flicker Alley’s two-disc Blu-ray of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922)has got to be therelease of the year—it’s as impressive a resource as Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray edition of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), setting out to do everything that a book about the movie might do and almost succeeding, thanks to its elaborate documentation. (However, as insightful and as informative as the spoken segments by Brad Rosenstein and Dave Kehr are, I miss the sort of developed insights Kehr used to offer in his written prose.) What’s ripe for reassessment here isn’t so much Foolish Wives itself—a semi-ruined monument that I regard as second in density only to Stroheim’s Greed—as it is the theory and practice of film restoration. Arthur Lennig’s restoration of Foolish Wives (still available, with many extras of its own, onboth Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber) seems superior when it comes to telling and pacing Stroheim’s story, but the newer version is vastly better as spectacle, especially when it comes to reproducing all the hand-painted colours and toning. Consequently, I find it both difficult and ultimately unnecessary to choose between them, because each version has its own strengths and limitations, and both are well worth having.


For me, the prime interest and appeal of Foolish Wives has a lot to do with Erich von Stroheim, the film’s producer-writer-director-star, being the son of a Jewish hat merchant in Vienna and a possible army deserter who convinced most people in the US that he was a high-ranking aristocrat with much military experience. Furthermore, the part he wrote for himself and played was that of an unscrupulous imposter pretending to be a Russian aristocrat—that is, a scam artist like himself, even though the implications of this “truthful” form of fakery and make-believe wouldn’t become clear to most people until after his death, when his true origins were revealed.

I’ve been a fan of producer-writer-director-star Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990, for the past 32 years, for reasons that in many ways overlap with my enthusiasm for Foolish Wives: namely, its status as an existential comedy about a member of a minority group fraudulently pretending to be various movers and shakers in order to enter and enjoy the upper echelons of society. Like Stroheim, Harris is telling a “true” story, although in this case it isn’t his own but rather that of Douglas Street Jr., who at various times successfully impersonated a surgeon, a Time Magazine reporter, a corporate lawyer, and a student at Yale, periodically being hauled off to prison for his diverse impersonations when he wasn’t enjoying the fruits of these endeavours. A new 4K restoration of Chameleon Street on a Blu-ray from Arbelos, with many extras, is therefore highly recommended.

As the career of Donald Trump amply demonstrates, the public often worships cheats and robbers, maybe because their antics stroke various public grudges. (The fact that Trump’s behavior can also be interpreted as the decadent reductio ad absurdum of unfettered capitalism—fleecing the world simply for the satisfaction of making it uglier and meaner—is generally overlooked.) So it isn’t too surprising that Harris managed to sell the remake rights of Chameleon Street for half a million dollars. No remake ever materialized, although Spielberg’s superficially similar Catch Me If You Can (2002)—based on another allegedly true-life story, this one about a white teenager who successfully impersonated a pilot, doctor, and prosecutor—raked in a lot of dough.

Harris’ talent is partly performative, so that his character’s scams, like those of Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat! (2006), often function satirically in exposing the attitudes (racial and otherwise) and/or dimwittedness of his marks. And the degree to which race becomes an aggressive weapon rather than a liability in these scams is part of the comic message. 


The Rouben Mamoulian retrospective held at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this summer made a certain amount of reassessment obligatory. For me, at least, the first two Mamoulian features, Applause (1929) and City Streets (1931), which I liked and respected more during the late ’60s and early ’70s, seem clunky and relatively graceless now. But three of the next four—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Love Me Tonight (1932), and Queen Christina (1933)—look and sound even better today. The Song of Songs (1933), however, is a stinker, far worse than Applause or City Streets—perhaps partly due to the machinations of the Hays Office, although David Luhrssen, in his 2013 book Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen, plausibly points to its lame, multi-authored, and cobbled-together script. Luhrssen also points out that Mamoulian was hand-picked by Josef von Sternberg to direct Marlene Dietrich in this picture, and in fact I’m tempted to call the extended, slo-mo lap dissolves in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mamoulian’s third feature (available on a Warner Archive Blu-ray), as Sternbergian as anything in Dishonored (1931) or Shanghai Express (1932). 

Queen Christina, Mamoulian’s fifth feature—and arguably his best, along with Love Me Tonight—is as directly and brazenly about sex and gender as the giddy, Brechtian camp in this year’s Barbie,and consequently it seems every bit as up to date. (As for where the outlandish look of Barbie comes from, one could cite the offbeat 1954 Paramount musical Red Garters, with its similarly skeletal, see-through sets, as well as the “Think Pink” number in the 1957 Funny Face, not to mention Tashlin and Tati.)


I’ve been praising William Dieterle a lot in this column, especially for the literary virtues of many of his early talkies and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). I suppose he also deserves some credit for attempting, as producer-director, to explore the racial and aesthetic inequities of swing music over jazz music in Syncopation (1942), but sad to say, Hollywood’s thought police apparently strangled that project in its cradle, or at the very least limited it to a few afterthoughts and an uneasy aftertaste. After a credit sequence granting equality to both behind- and in-front-of-the-camera participants, then a bold depiction of the African slave trade wending its way to New Orleans, followed by a story clearly meant to evoke the early days of Louis Armstrong when he was hired by King Oliver, the ofays and moldy figs gradually take over the story, music, and screen space of Syncopation, culminating in an all-white jam session “selected from among leaders in the Saturday Evening Post poll.” 

Having just collected samples of my literary and music criticism, along with my film criticism, for a forthcoming anthology, I wish I could have reviewed the 146-minute rough cut of Syncopation (as reported in the American Film Institute’s directory, minus its all-white finale) before it was rudely reduced to 88 minutes a year later for its release, which is the version now available on Cohen Media’s DVD and Blu-ray. According to J. Hoberman’s review in the New York Times, Dieterle screened the release version for his friend Bertolt Brecht, who reported in his diary that Dieterle complained about his financial backers “forcing him to cut out as many negroes [sic] as possible” for the sake of more “boy meets girl.” We all lost out on that process—jazz, Dieterle, Negroes, and viewers of all races—but at least we can now buy the Blu-ray or DVD of the dismal results if we want to, for bargain prices. Rosenbaum Jonathan