By Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Let me start by paraphrasing and slightly expanding a comment of mine appended to my 2017 ten-best list for DVD Beaver. A major reason for listing Criterion’s Othello first is that it includes the digital premieres of not one, not two, but three Orson Welles features: both of his edits of Othello available with his own soundtracks, carried out respectively in 1952 and 1955 and heard for the first time in the US in several decades, and Filming Othello (1979), his last completed feature.
Fans of Mudbound (2017) like myself who want to get acquainted with Dee Rees’ previous work should check out the second of her three previous features, Pariah (2011), available inexpensively in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. This autobiographical look at the tribulations of a gay black teenager and her family, shot in a very different style from Mudbound (much more documentary-like), is beautifully and richly acted by its lead, Adepero Oduye—though I wonder if the use of Brooklyn rather than Rees’ native Nashville as a location (occasioned, I would guess, by the services of Spike Lee as executive producer) made any significant differences in terms of Rees’ script and/or characters. (I also wonder where she made the 2007 short with the same title, which isn’t included among the extras.)
With your indulgence, I’d like to propound a crackpot theory of mine about why “flawed,” truncated or never-completed masterpieces—e.g., Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955), the original Blade Runner (1982), Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno—tend to be preferred nowadays by both cinephiles and the companies that produce DVDs and Blu-rays to such relatively flawless masterpieces as Chimes at Midnight (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Avanti! (1972), and The Wages of Fear (1953): simply because more spinoff products can be derived from the former, a boon to buyers and sellers alike. The studios have already discovered ways of selling the same product repeatedly to the same individuals: first on VHS, then on DVD, finally (or is it only semi-finally?) on Blu-ray; and first in a fucked-up release version, then in an actual or alleged “director’s cut,” and finally or semi-finally in a new and improved something-or-other. Maybe this is just a hallucination on my part, but it seems like every season nowadays, a fresh edition of Wilder’s truncated Sherlock Homes and/or Clouzot’s never-finished Inferno turns up in the mail, and this particular quarter has given me both, from Masters of Cinema and Arrow Academy, respectively. (I’m actually far more interested in seeing Clouzot’s 1956 The Mystery of Picasso all the way through for the first time from the same Arrow Academy label, but alas, all my efforts to rejig my Oppo player to play this Blu-ray failed.)
Do these new editions disclose new secrets or offer new riches not found in their predecessors? I haven’t yet found the stamina to check, but I suspect that the new discoveries, if there are any, are likely to be less than monumental, and that it’s really the impulse that counts. I also presume this is why Criterion’s so-called The Complete Mr. Arkadin turned out to be so popular and got so much press coverage. The set was so titled because it’s widely believed to be both possible and desirable to have a “complete” (that is, collectible because artificially finished or at least inflated like an inner tube) version of something that Orson Welles himself regarded as incomplete and unfinished, with the Munich Film Museum’s Stefan Drössler on hand to service the so-called “completists” and to silence all the Wellesians such as François Thomas or myself who are more interested in what Welles had in mind than in what might “play” better commercially and conventionally. In this fashion, archivists and viewers can now join forces in carrying out the “polishing” work that was once dutifully performed by studio employees.
I don’t mean to suggest by any of this that there might not also be legitimate and not merely mercenary reasons for preferring The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and perhaps even Fedora (1978) to Avanti! (although I would scoff or shake my head at anyone who would find Inferno preferable to The Wages of Fear). My point, in any case, is that the allure of do-it-yourself (or imagine-it-yourself) masterpieces is apparently irresistible to vendors and customers alike.
According to Wikipedia, Jet Pilot (1957)—starring John Wayne as an Air Force colonel and Janet Leigh as (I kid you not) a Russian pilot/spy—“was reportedly Howard Hughes’ favorite film, one he watched repeatedly in his later years.” Another imagined masterpiece? Josef von Sternberg was the credited director, and apart from his uncredited work on Duel in the Sun (1946), I believe it’s his only work in colour. He worked on it from October 1949 until February 1950, before half a dozen other directors—including screenwriter Jules Furthman, Don Siegel, and Hughes himself—were brought on during the seven years that Hughes tinkered and dithered with the film. (During the time I was able to spend with Leigh, thanks to my work on the re-edited Touch of Evil , she told me she was only willing to go on a date with Hughes if she could bring along her parents as chaperones, and during the same period Hughes frequently had her under surveillance.) The first time I saw it, at age 14, it already looked quite dated (despite the fact that its sexual symbolism involving planes was seven years ahead of Dr. Strangelove ), and it has generally been ignored because it’s so demented, campy, and downright stupid—though the colours are often ravishing, Leigh’s wardrobe is borderline surrealist, and the comic eroticism fairly singular. (Who can ever forget the sounds of passing jets punctuating Leigh’s early striptease?)
Even Wayne was embarrassed by this movie, and the Conseil des Dix in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 86 was far from enthusiastic—Godard and Rohmer each accorded it two stars, Rivette only one, and Georges Sadoul none (with only Truffaut’s pal Robert Lachenay defiantly giving it four)—though I was surprised to discover that on the same critical chart that month, Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb, which I’ve generally regarded as good, fared slightly worse. But Luc Moullet’s review of Jet Pilot in the same issue, entitled “Sainte Janet,” offered at least a half-hearted defence, linking the film’s eroticism to that of The Fountainhead (1949), noting the two films’ shared hatred for collectivity, and dryly concluding, “Sternberg amuses himself. Therefore, it’s serious.” If you’re interested, you can get a no-frills DVD of this jaw-dropping monstrosity in Universal’s Vault Series.
I’ve never been much of a fan of Louis Malle’s 1958 Elevator to the Gallows, but Criterion’s “Blu-ray Special Edition” goaded me into revisiting my capsule review for the Chicago Reader and checking out the various special features devoted to the Miles Davis score (which has also always struck me as disappointing). Here’s the former: “The debut feature of Louis Malle, this efficient but soulless 1957 thriller is often classified as part of the French New Wave, though that reputation seems unwarranted. The defining situation—an adulterer who’s just committed a murder (Maurice Ronet) patiently tries to pry his way out of a stuck elevator—shows the influence of Robert Bresson, for whom Malle worked as an assistant. There’s also some of the youthful insolence of Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman) when two young lovers take the killer’s car for a joyride. But the incompatibility of these influences suggests how little Malle’s absorbed them, though he gives Jeanne Moreau a juicy early role as the murder victim’s wife and engages Miles Davis to play the score (used conventionally as mood music).”
Thanks to the skillful commentaries of jazz critic Gary Giddins and trumpeter Jon Faddis, I’m now willing to concede both the inadequacy of my parenthetical demurral and the musical importance of Davis’ innovatively conceived score (improvised on the spot during a screening, rather like Neil Young’s much later score for Jarmusch’s Dead Man ), which launched the bold modal adventures that would subsequently blossom into the albums Milestones and Kind of Blue. My only complaint about these extras is that the otherwise excellent interview with French pianist René Urtreger, who freely admits that his contributions to the score are inconsequential, doesn’t offer any musical examples of what his improvising elsewhere was (and is) like; even as a hardcore jazz fan who lived in Paris for five years, I’m at a loss to describe his work.
It’s hard for me to find much to say about Sayonara (1957), out now on a Twilight Time Blu-ray, beyond calling it a well-intentioned relic that makes me nostalgic for an era when Americans—or at least some of them—were sufficiently embarrassed about their ignorance of foreign cultures to want to address this problem, even in incremental ways. One of those Americans was Marlon Brando, who, as we learn from Julie Kirgo’s accompanying essay, had the rather brilliant idea of making his character—an Air Force Major who falls in love with a Japanese actress and gradually overcomes his xenophobic prejudices—a Southerner, and even giving him a heavy accent.
One of those Americans who apparently wasn’t embarrassed was Truman Capote, who later wrote about his famous on-location interview with Brando for The New Yorker, “The Duke in His Domain,” that, contrary to Brando himself, he considered it a “sympathetic” account “of a wounded young man who is a genius, but not markedly intelligent.” Yet as a sample of Capote’s own marked (and Southern) intelligence, consider Donald Richie’s account of him on his first visit to Japan, to interview Brando, in The Japan Journals 1947-2004: “What I did not understand about Truman was how anyone could go to a new country, any country, and pay so little attention to it. He was supposed to be some sort of reporter, at least he was reporting for his magazine, but he stayed entirely in the Imperial [Hotel], ate there, slept there. And, he never asked a question.” After Capote subsequently cancelled shopping with Richie and explained that he had no interest in Japan, he added, “‘Look, I have seen Japan. And I may just as well tell you that I do not like a country that has little cocks.’”
In my last column, I recommended a CD box set devoted to the Frederick Hollander score for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953). This time around, I’d like to call attention to The Orson Welles/A. F. Lavagnino Collaboration, the 11th CD of Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s movie soundtrack scores to be released by Alhambra Records in Germany. This is devoted to the scores of the latter three of Welles’ four Shakespeare films, with pride of place given to the completed but never-released 40-minute version of The Merchant of Venice, made in 1969 for American television and never seen because its middle reel was stolen after a single private screening in Italy. There are also ten tracks devoted to the music for Chimes at Midnight; Othello, which occasioned Lavagnino’s first score for Welles, gets only three tracks, drawn directly from the film’s soundtrack. Four additional tracks are devoted to interviews in Italian about Lavagnino’s work with Welles.
As long as I’m branching out to audio, let me recommend a recent half-hour interview with Michael Anderegg about Welles and Shakespeare, at folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/orson-welles. You should also check out his Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture, by far the best book on that subject.
While going on a delightful Luis Buñuel binge over the December holidays, I discovered I didn’t have a copy of Subida al cielo (1952), usually known in English as Mexican Bus Ride, and further discovered that the easiest way of rectifying this was to order a no-frills PAL DVD from the UK under the title Ascent to Heaven (a literal translation of the Spanish original). Buñuel showed an interest at some point in adapting William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and this comedy shows a few traces of its influence in spots.
Loaded with informative extras, including a 28-page booklet, the high-definition restoration of Cy Endfield’s 1957 Hell Drivers is available on Blu-ray from Network (networkonair.com), a company in the UK that sells Blu-rays of English features at affordable prices. The first of the director’s British films to be released under his own name, following his blacklisting and subsequent relocation to the UK, Hell Drivers is one of two Endfield films starring Stanley Baker that shows the direct impact that Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had on him, as Endfield himself once told me; it also has the advantage of a strong secondary cast that includes, among others, Peggy Cummins, Herbert Lom, Patrick McGoohan, Jill Ireland, and even an early appearance of Sean Connery. Although I’ve previously expressed some doubts about how much the sociopolitical insights that Endfield displayed in his early Hollywood pictures such as The Argyle Secrets (1948) and The Underworld Story and Try and Get Me! (both 1950) carried over into an English context, the extras here suggest that I might have been wrong about this.
The most valuable extra on the Olive Signature Blu-ray of Elaine May’s first feature A New Leaf (1971) is the Jack Ritchie story “The Green Heart,” which May’s screenplay is based on. This already makes this Blu-ray edition preferable to the earlier ones issued by both Olive and Masters of Cinema, because the story gives us a better idea than does any other extra of May’s original cut, in which Matthau’s character murders Jack Weston’s character. But it’s too bad that the publication of this story isn’t properly coordinated with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ essay in the same 16-page booklet, which not only cites an incorrect description of the story—taken from a sloppy, secondhand journalistic account of a May interview—but also wrongly credits May with this description. (Anyone who reads “The Green Heart”—and I assume that Heller-Nicholas wasn’t one of them—will know that the story isn’t “about a banker who kills his solicitor.”) But, then again, May freely admitted to me when I met her in Bologna a few years ago that many false facts about her and her career (she was born in Chicago, not Philadelphia, and she didn’t act in Yiddish theatre) originally came from her own playful habit of making up whoppers in some of her early interviews.
I still don’t have much of a fix on Alexander Mackendrick’s auteurist identity, assuming he has one, but one thing suggested by cross-referencing his interestingly oddball 1967 comedy Don’t Make Waves with his 1957 Sweet Smell of Success is a capacity to view the US critically and sharply as an outsider (even though he was actually born in Boston to parents who’d emigrated there from Glasgow the year before). At once sexy and disturbing, Don’t Make Waves virtually begins with Tony Curtis’ car crashing upside down and then exploding and virtually ends on the same Malibu coastline with Curtis’ swimming pool collapsing and his luxurious house turning upside down and sliding into the mud, despite the fact that the movie’s three crazy couples (Curtis and Claudia Cardinale, Sharon Tate and Mr. Universe, Robert Webber and Joanna Barnes) are implausibly reunited or united inside the house at the same time this catastrophe happens. You might even say that this is a caustic comedy about corruption, conspicuous consumption, and West Coast impermanence to match the acerbic East Coast melodrama of a decade earlier about corruption, power, and celebrity, with Curtis embodying some form of the corruption in both movies.
People like me who routinely and naively think that Roberto Rossellini’s “historical” films—discounting his War Trilogy and Europa ’51 (1952), which deal with recent or contemporary history—begin in the mid-’60s with La prise de pouvoir de Louis XIV (1966) are overlooking such notable exceptions as The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) and Viva l’Italia! (1961), a Giuseppe Garibaldi biopic of sorts commissioned by the Italian government that deals with only a short slice of his literally colourful exploits. The latter, perhaps the most spectacular and certainly one of the most neglected of Rossellini’s films (at least outside of Italy), has been given a 2K restoration for an Arrow Academy Blu-ray, decked out with a shorter version in English (Garibaldi) prepared for the US market, an audiovisual essay by Tag Gallagher, a printed essay by Michael Pattison, and a new interview with Ruggero Deodato, Rossellini’s assistant on the film.
To its credit, Milestone Films has possibly done more in its releases for our sense of history than any other digital label in the US—but to its discredit, it sometimes does more to make its history lessons cumbersome and user-unfriendly with its unfathomable methods of serving them up. Thus I was delighted when they finally made my favourite Charles Burnett film, the 12-minute When it Rains (1995), available on its two-disc Killer of Sheep collection, but frustrated (and often inconvenienced) when they didn’t bother to clarify anywhere on the package which of the two discs it was on. Similarly, on its otherwise well-appointed Blu-ray edition of Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916), you may have to use a magnifying glass in order to read the text on the back of the jacket, and the year in which this film was released is nowhere to be found, even though the dates of all the extras are given. (The same anomaly applies to their concurrent Blu-ray release of The Dumb Girl of Portici, co-directed by Weber the same unlisted year as Shoes, with its own slate of carefully dated extras.) I realize that these problems are simply oversights, but I wish they didn’t keep happening.
To cite only two of the fascinating history lessons offered by the Shoes Blu-ray: (1) the film’s main villain, the heroine’s lazy father, visibly spends most of his life reading, even during his meals with his family, and his use of books to screen out his relatives and everything else anticipates precisely the social uses of radio, TV, and the internet by subsequent generations, not to mention Donald Trump; (2) one of the extras is Unshod Maiden (1932), a ten-minute digest of the 70-minute Shoes with a wisecracking and ridiculing narration, a sort of Mystery Science Theater avant la lettre, released by Universal only 16 years after the original—a phenomenon skillfully glossed by Richard Koszarski in a separate 1971 extra.
Moses and Aaron (1974) isn’t one of my favourite films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, largely because I still haven’t found a way of enjoying this unfinished opera. But this Grasshopper Films release, striving to play catch-up with Straub-Huillet while bringing their work to Blu-ray for the first time, includes no less than three of my favourite films of theirs as extras: Machorka-Muff (1962), Not Reconciled (1964), and Introduction to Arnold Schönberg’s “Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene” (1972). There’s also a thoughtful new analytical essay about the feature by Ted Fendt that’s well worth reading—even if (once again!) one has to do this with a magnifying glass.
I assume it’s mere happenstance that led Twilight Time to include in its latest quartet of Blu-ray releases two hoary Gothic romances from Fox at mid-century (Dragonwyck, 1946, and My Cousin Rachel, 1952) and two contemporary looks at marital dysfunction as seen through the interactions between two couples who are best friends, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky’s satirical first feature, which looks considerably better to me now than it did in 1969) and Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen at his most technically transgressive and most ideologically predictable, yielding scenes that look far more barren and mechanical to me now than they did in 1992); a dialectical package, in any case. In Allen’s film, the deliberately jarring “rough” camera movements and jump cuts serve mainly to distract us from the clichés in the dialogue, where lines meant to represent intelligence are just as stereotypical as those meant to represent stupidity. But Mazursky’s resourceful and inventive découpage remains wholly at the service of his actors/characters and the movie’s acute observations about some of the enduring befuddlements of the ’60s.