This is John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece and one of my ten favorite films ever made. The high-definition transfer on this Blu-ray is stunning and truly showcases James Wong Howe’s brilliant wide-angle lens distortion frames. This movie is as close to a nightmare as any I’ve ever seen. Rock Hudson gives his very best and most tormented performance in a role that surely must have been deeply personal to him: a man pretending to be something he is not and slowly coming apart at the seams. I was obsessed with this movie about fifteen years before I saw it, after reading Danny Peary’s chapter on it in his book Cult Movies 3. I have a deep fascination with this era of Frankenheimer’s work, particularly with what seems to be a series of films dealing with the excruciating pain of men struggling with middle age (Seconds, The Gypsy Moths, I Walk the Line). Much to my astonishment, Frankenheimer was only in his mid-thirties when he made Seconds and not quite forty when shooting I Walk the Line in 1969! Everything about this movie just destroys me down to the marrow: Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, Saul Bass’s freakish opening title sequence, and a wonderful cast of character actors (John Randolph, Murray Hamilton, Richard Anderson, Jeff Corey, Will Geer, and Wesley Addy, to name but a few). One of Frankenheimer’s always articulate commentaries is included on the disc too. Essential cinema.
Fanny and Alexander — The Television Version
Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece was an international critical and financial success, winning four Oscars. And that was in its truncated, just-over-three-hour version. Included in this set is Bergman’s full version, made for Swedish television. Presented in four parts, it comes in at over five hours, nearly twice as long as the theatrical cut. It’s truly a marvel to behold, intricately detailing every aspect of the lives of the Ekdahl family in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Sweden. As it brilliantly charts a span of several years through the eyes of children, the film is equally detailed with its adult characters’ points of view. Equal parts joyous and tragic. A marvelous and loving tribute to Bergman’s life in the theater. Full of magical realism and stark, painful reality. A meditation on death and a celebration of life. Dickensian in nature (Dickens is said to have been a major influence on Bergman for this film). Truly unlike anything else he ever did. It recalls the great epics of David Lean, which were massive in scope while also being concerned with intimate details of the human condition and its fragility. A masterwork in either version. Watch them both and never be bored for a moment.
What can be said about this movie that hasn’t already been said? Mike Nichols’s masterpiece precipitated the sixties youth movement in all its melancholic glory while also being a hilarious satire of contemporary consumer culture. My brother Jim has always been an early adopter of movie technology. The first Criterion release I ever remember seeing was the Graduate laserdisc in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen (we had seen the film previously only on a pan-and-scan VHS borrowed from our local library). It has one of the first commentary tracks I ever heard on a disc (maybe the first), by film scholar Howard Suber. I learned a lot about film analysis listening to that track in 1987. But the new Blu-ray also features one of Nichols’s many commentaries in conversation with the great Steven Soderbergh. They have done several together (Catch-22 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and they are never less than fully engaging and fascinating. When making my own film, I took to heart Nichols’s assertion that “a movie is about something, but it is also about something else.” And in this new transfer, The Graduate has never looked or sounded better. Robert Surtees’s brilliant compositions are a touchstone of modern cinema. Often imitated, never duplicated. By casting Dustin Hoffman, Nichols also flipped the idea of what a leading man was and could be, and changed the history of cinema.
Sweet Smell of Success
Alexander Mackendrick is probably the least well-known genius director to ever live. Nowhere is his brilliance more evident than in the down-and-dirty depiction of high-class gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker and lowlife press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. The great James Wong Howe films the gritty streets of New York in the style of the tabloid newspaper photographs that the protagonists traffic in. The movie was shot entirely on location, a rarity in 1957 but probably allowed due to the triumph of Kazan’s On the Waterfront just a few years prior. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis give career-best performances in this noir that depicts the fall of the mighty Hunsecker (Lancaster) and the sniveling, conniving Falco (Curtis) as the former tries to retain his crown and the latter tries to make it to the top of the heap of garbage he so aspires to reign over. The screenplay, by giants of the trade Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, crackles with what is commonly considered some of the best dialogue in the history of cinema. I just love every single thing about this gem of sleaze. Also featured on the disc is a great documentary, Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, about how the director, fed up with Hollywood, took a job teaching film at the then nascent CalArts and became a great influence on his students—among them James Mangold, who is featured in an interview here.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
I can’t explain this movie. It’s just perfection. Sad and funny, light and heavy, full of boisterous color and nonstop singing. Probably the most romantic movie I have ever seen. Catherine Deneuve has never been so lovely. I have never been to France, but I imagine it is just like it is depicted here. Maybe I will never go so I can keep my fantasy and save myself from disappointment. Jacques Demy was a singular talent. There was never anyone like him and there never will be again. I highly recommend the entire box set of his work, but this one will always be my favorite. I remember seeing it on the big screen at the Music Box in Chicago in the early nineties and walking out on clouds while also being filled with an intense melancholy. I can’t think of a single other movie that makes me feel both of those things at the same time and has left those feelings lingering inside me twenty-plus years later. Michel Legrand’s score is, it goes without saying, iconic and magnificent. And what this movie lacks in dancing, Demy makes up for in his constant gliding camera movements. As if the dance is between the actors and his lens. Pure cinema. Perfection.
Paths of Glory
Outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey, these are my favorite Kubrick films. The Killing is a tense and lean noir starring the great Sterling Hayden and a cast of character actors (Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Timothy Carey, et al.), each of whom possesses his or her own special brand of menace and pathos. The film’s dialogue is by the best crime writer who ever lived, Jim Thompson (who worked with Kubrick and Calder Willingham on Paths of Glory as well), and it’s the music in Kubrick’s nonlinear racetrack heist caper, which I think is the best noir ever made. Hayden is one of the most curious creatures to ever grace the screen. I can never take my eyes off him, and as gruff as he is, I always feel for him. The tragic, cosmic joke at the end of this movie will break your heart—even when you’re wondering why you wanted this bum to get away with the crime. Johnny Clay is the ultimate “beautiful loser.”
Paths of Glory is, in my humble opinion, the finest war film ever made. While not concerned primarily with combat and focusing instead on its multilayered consequences, the drama is as explosive as any battlefield action you’ll ever see. It lays bare the blatant hypocrisy of the powers that be, who never get their hands dirty but put innocent and well-intentioned men in the trenches to fight their battles for them. Kubrick takes us through the trenches with dazzling tracking shots that show us the weathered faces of the men who fought the Great War, some of whom will later be brought to trial and executed for “cowardice” after not being able to pull off an impossible mission. Kirk Douglas has never been better. And if the final scene in the battered cabaret, featuring Kubrick’s future wife, Christiane, singing a German folk song, doesn’t destroy you completely, you are probably some hideous sun demon.
Army of Shadows
Jean Pierre-Melville was the undisputed master of the French crime drama. Here he turns his gaze on the French Resistance during World War II (of which he himself was a member) in an entirely unsentimental, unflinching portrait. It not only de-romanticizes the movement with its rigorous and austere account of the day-to-day operations in this gray world, it also indicts it. For all the good the Resistance did, its members were only human: prone to betrayal and petty revenge. The movie is so specific in its regard of the loneliness and fear of these operatives, whose everyday lives alternate between boredom and peril. Unreleased in this country for thirty-seven years, the film was an absolute revelation to me when I saw it upon its release in 2006. Already a major fan of Melville’s crime films, I loved how this one both expands and distills his unique technical skills and his ability to tap into his characters’ emotional states. What emerges is something both complex in design and deeply personal. Casablanca it is not. Melville shows us the inner workings of something so intricate and important while also asking us whether the ends truly justify the means.
The Night of the Hunter
Robert Mitchum stars in his signature role as the demonic preacher Harry Powell. The great actor Charles Laughton’s only work as a director is a horrifying fable about the loss of innocence and the darkness barely contained beneath the veneer of American pastoral life. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie. There’s nothing like it. Powerful, beautiful, darkly funny. Visually stunning. Both expressionistic and harshly realistic. It’s an American fever dream that I don’t think was equaled until David Lynch launched Blue Velvet into an unsuspecting Reagan-era public three decades later. The disc features Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” a deconstruction of the film featuring outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage that enhances the experience of an already perfect film in ways unimaginable. Compiled by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, it’s a special feature as good as the film itself.
I love David Cronenberg and everything he is about. He’s crawled inside my head and shown me dreams I never thought I’d have. His seminal 1983 psychodrama about the power of the media to corrupt and manipulate the minds of the people through sex and violence is as prophetic as it is horrifying. The mind-boggling effects dreamt up by Cronenberg and the master Rick Baker are a work of art unto themselves. It’s prophetic and horrifying and fascinating. Poetic, where other horror films are just gruesome and punishing. And Cronenberg gives a great commentary in conversation with longtime DP Mark Irwin. The edition also contains one of my favorite special features ever: Fear on Film, a half-hour roundtable discussion with Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter, who were all making classic horror films at Universal at the same time. It’s a nice little taste of what it must have been like to be around at a revolutionary time for American horror. I wish I had been there.
Haskell Wexler’s Top 10
For Haskell Wexler, the director of Medium Cool, and the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory, writing about his ten favorite Criterion films became a trip down memory lane.