It’s time for another look at (relatively) recent Blu-Rays and DVDs aimed at the hardcore movie lover — though more casual viewers looking for something beyond Hollywood’s latest mass-market offerings are certainly allowed to kibitz at the Corner as well. Today’s selections are from Hollywood, off-Hollywood, England, and France and were made mostly in the 1930s or the 1970s, though we will be looking at one from 1998 — only yesterday!
And so we begin…(after the flip, that is.)
* “The Lady Vanishes“ turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock‘s penultimate English film before launching his Hollywood blockbuster career with “Rebecca.” Since it came out within a few years of the somewhat better known “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in 1934 and “The 39 Steps” the following year, this 1938 box office smash sometimes tends to get lost in the shuffle. That’s a crime because “The Lady Vanishes” is one of Hitch’s jolliest and most entertaining films, even if Hitch himself might have played it down because of all the justified attention the writing team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder received for their classic screenplay.
Like the master’s self-homaging “North by Northwest,” “The Lady Vanishes” is set largely aboard a train and features an in-the-dark protagonist suddenly embroiled in dangerous espionage shenanigans. The innocent who gets in over her head this time is a mostly charming but also somewhat entitled young lady of means (Margaret Lockwood) who has already had a run-in with a rude but chivalrous musicologist (Michael Redgrave). When she befriends a lovably hobbitish Englishwoman (Dame May Whitty) who disappears not only from the train but, apparently, from the memory of everyone she has encountered, something is very obviously up. Chills, suspense, comedy and romance definitely ensue, with an accent on comedy and romance.
Contemporary audiences might be a bit thrown off by the fact that the film opens as a light comedy with only the barest hint of a thriller element until a genuinely shocking murder about half an hour in. They might also be thrown by the use of very obvious miniatures for the establishing shots of a small Balkan village that open the film. Go with it — once the thriller elements kick in, it’s one tense little ride.
Also those miniatures, necessitated by a lowish budget — even Hitchcock, no stickler for realism, worried about them — are a fun reminder than this is a movie, not real life, and the lengthy intro is a pretty delightful comedy set-up which, among other treats, features one of the English screen’s most popular classic era comedy teams. Though they teamed up for the first time on “The Lady Vanishes,” actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne would come to be at least as tied to cricket-obsessed travelers Charters and Calidicott as John Cho and Kal Penn are seemingly forever wed to cannabis-loving journeyers Harold and Kumar.
Radford and Wayne would reprise their roles, sometimes under different character names and sometimes not, in a number of films. Their films ranged from a segment of the 1945 anthology horror classic “Dead of Night” to low budget vehicles like “Crooks Tour,” which is featured on this typically chock-full-of-greatness Criterion disc, a Blu-Ray update of a 2007 release. You can also see them in “Night Train to Munich”, a worthy World War II-era follow-up from writers Gilliat and Launder directed by Carol Reed (“The Third Man“) that is very nearly as much fun as “The Lady Vanishes.”
* While we’re on the topic of great thrillers set aboard trains, if you were one of the masses left perhaps a bit less than overwhelmed by 2009’s “The Taking of Pelham 123,” taking a look back at the nifty though special-feature free Blu-Ray edition of the crackling 1974 “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three“ may reveal something about the way violent action thrillers should actually be made, or at least the way I think they should be made.
Grumpy-not-yet-old-man Walter Matthau stars as a hang-dog head of the New York subway police who suddenly finds himself confronted by a group of murderous hijackers. Led by a wiley, utterly ruthless ex-mercenary played by the equally superb Robert Shaw (“Jaws“), the gang requests a cool million in return for the lives of a group of luckless passengers.
With a screenplay by one of the wittiest scenarists of his day, Peter Stone (“Charade,” “1776”), this adaptation of a novel by John Godey blends R-rated suspense with plenty of black comedy and satire. It’s main target is the brutality of contemporary urban life. “Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents – to live forever?” asks the world’s most callous dispatcher who seems to be angling for a position in the hardline Giuliani administration two decades early. Few movies not made by Sidney Lumet or Spike Lee capture the contentious humor of the people of New York with this much accuracy and aplomb.
The top-notch supporting cast includes Hector Elizondo, Woody Allen pal Tony Roberts at his absolute best as an ultra-blunt deputy mayor, and Jerry Stiller — best known today as both Ben and George Costanza’s dad — as a lackadasical deputy. “Reservoir Dogs” fans will take note of the color coded names of the hijackers, Ringo Lam’s 1987 Hong Kong crime flick, “City on Fire,” was not the only movie Quentin Tarantino was borrowing from.
* We’re incredibly late for Valentine’s Day (and even later if you know when the Blu-Ray dropped) but, even among French films, there are few productions as purely romantic as 1934’s “L’Atalante.” The most famous of the two features included on Criterion’s “The Complete Jean Vigo,” it’s a moving, evocatively filmed, and extremely simple fable about a the highs and lows of love as experienced by the captain of a small canal barge (Jean Dasté) and his lovely bride (Dita Parlo). Delicate but also fierce in its gritty depiction of down-at-the-heels pre-World War II France, it also features a great comic performance by the legendary comic Michel Simon as a lovable old sea salt whose blood would probably test out at 40 proof.
Since writer-director Jean Vigo died at 29 the same year as his best known film was released, he has attained a sort of John Keats-like status among cinephiles enchanted by his romantic, melancholy surrealism. As sad as Vigo’s early passing remains, it at least means that it’s not hard to put the great cineaste’s complete works on a single disc and you can watch them all in a single long afternoon. These include the anarchy laden boarding school drama, “Zero de Conduit” (“Zero for Conduct”), and some frequently arresting experimental silent shorts.
* Is there a stranger, more interesting, confounding, and compelling 1990s movie than Todd Haynes’ seductive and mostly very entertaining 1998 ode to 1970s glam-rock, “Velvet Goldmine“? Somewhat hampered by the refusal of David Bowie to allow any of his songs to be used, Haynes nevertheless takes advantage of a treasure trove of iconic pop from such stalwarts as Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, and, of course, T-Rex, as well as such contemporary (14 years ago) bands as Pulp and Grant Lee Buffalo.
Although I once felt like a pretty lonely fan of this odd amalgam of rock and roll musical and off-kilter “Citizen Kane” rip-off by way of Phillip Dick and George Orwell, I’m glad to see the young folks have recognized it’s problematic brilliance. The new Blu-Ray, naturally looks superb, sounds amazing, and is a great vehicle for Haynes’ appropriately stylized vision. The commentary by Haynes and producer Christine Vachon is also a must for anyone who’s interested in the film and its many antecedents.
* It’s a thrill to finally see 1958’s “The Big Country“ in high definition 1080p on a big screen TV, but it would be even greater to see it in 35mm on an actual movie screen. Still, the home version ain’t bad for this big, big epic in which the characters themselves are obsessed with just how very, very large their little piece of the American West happens to be. Directed by William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Roman Holiday“) and co-produced by liberal-minded star Gregory Peck, this very unusual epic western plays today as something of an enjoyably longwinded rebuttal to the those in public life for whom every problem may be solved by a war.
As with “The Lady Vanishes,” I could easily spend days writing about this film — and I’d link to a blog post about it on my old web site right now if I hadn’t been hacked — but all you need to know is that it’s much more than a message picture. There’s some really stirring action pieces, in particular an epic final three-way confrontation and a lengthy fight featuring Peck and his unbending romantic rival, played by Charlton Heston, who was cajoled by Wyler into taking a gig between playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and taking on the part of Judah Ben Hur in Wyler’s follow-up epic. It’s definitely one of my two or three favorite Heston performances.
“The Big Country” is also chock of sexy late-fifties romance, sexiness largely supplied by its two outstanding female leads, Carroll Baker (“Baby Doll”) and Jean Simmons (from “Guys & Dolls,” “Elmer Gantry” — not Kiss!). It’s a perfect movie for a long Sunday afternoon. I don’t like to say “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” but I really do wish this kind of grand “something for everyone” mass entertainment still existed at the movies.
* There was a time when featuring a television star in a movie was pretty much considered the box office kiss of death. Since it starred two stars of a hugely successful TV series and did, in fact, bomb miserably, 1972’s “Hickey and Boggs“ might have been Exhibit A for that viewpoint. The real marketing problem, however, was that the stars were Bill Cosby and the late Robert Culp of “I Spy,” a lighthearted globetrotting buddy spy show that no one would have considered edgy or groundbreaking in any way if it weren’t for the fact that Cosby was the first African-American star of a U.S. TV show. The movie is anything but lighthearted.
Cosby and Culp had become buddies in real life and both were men of some real artistic ambition. Clearly, Culp — a cartoonist in his youth — wanted to be a serious filmmaker and he went all-in on this very dark tale post-noir about two down on their luck Los Angeles PIs. Though beset with a somewhat shambling and overly complicated screenplay by a young Walter Hill, it was clear that Culp had a strong sense of style and an eye for striking and stylish visuals. This really good looking transfer on a on-demand DVD is the first time the film has been available for a decent home video viewing in some time. (A previous DVD is, by all accounts, horribly inferior so be sure you’re getting the new MGM edition.)
* It’s fortunate for everyone that, unlike Jean Vigo, the very skilled director Alan Rudolph has enjoyed a good long life and a lengthy career, because if his filmmaking had ended with 1976’s “Welcome to L.A.,“ I wonder if anyone would remember him. This is a tough film to sit through and not in a good way, despite the requisite first-rate cast.
Presented by Rudolph’s mentor, Robert Altman, clearly the idea is to present something of a West coast follow-up to Altman’s heartland masterpiece, “Nashville.” Set largely in the Los Angeles music business, the results are mostly kind of unwelcome, as are the musical stylings of singer-songwriter Richard Baskin whose work, along with stars Keith Carradine and Geraldine Chaplin, had also been featured in “Nashville.” Baskin’s songs, like the movie, are morose without being engaging in any particular way.
Also featuring a young Harvey Keitel, Sissy Spacek, and Sally Kellerman (the original Hotlips from Altman’s film version of “M*A*S*H”), this is a movie that only a young man could have made. It sports the special bitterness of those who have recently figured that life is not always what your parents said it would be. On the plus side, Angelenos might get some fun out of spotting old L.A. locations now long gone or transformed. On the other hand, there’s more of that stuff in Altman’s great “The Long Goodbye” and, yes, “Hickey and Boggs.” Watch those instead.