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New Article: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

I have a new article out in Senses of Cinema on the restored film of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

As I write, “I’ve always had a curious affection for George Hoellering’s 1951 film adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot composed it as a stage play in 1935, with the first performance taking place on June 15th that year in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, in every way an appropriate location for the production. As is well known, Eliot’s play deals with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by four knights in 1170 at the Canterbury Cathedral. This crime was committed at the behest of King Henry II, who was seeking both to establish his own authority on a higher scale and to break ties with the Papacy in Rome. Eliot’s play uses a great deal of material written by one Edward Grim, who saw the actual assassination of Becket in person, and was even wounded during the attack.

The first production at Canterbury Cathedral featured actor Robert Speaight as Becket, which then was transferred to London’s Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate for a modest run, with Speaight reprising his leading role. As many have noted, the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral. It’s a superb accomplishment as a text, and requires a minimum of dramatic translation for the stage: it is essentially performed as a series of tableaux, and so eloquent is Eliot’s text that it needs little more in the way of staging or blocking.

Subsequent stage productions included Robert Donat’s turn as Becket in an Old Vic production directed by Robert Helpmann in 1953; a 1971 New York stage version with Dark Shadows alumnus Jonathan Frid in the title role; a Royal Shakespeare Company version in 1972 starring Hammer Films regular Richard Pasco as Becket; and most recently in 2014 at St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church in London, testifying to the continual appeal of Eliot’s work. Murder in the Cathedral also served as source material for one of the very first experimental television broadcasts: the 1936 BBC presentation of the play directed by George More O’Ferrall, which according to Kenneth Baily (who witnessed the transmission on television) included ‘the earliest recollection I have of a really inspired use of the close-up in television drama.’

But there the matter of a visual translation of Eliot’s work rested, until George Hoellering stepped in. He was an Austro-Hungarian filmmaker and entrepreneur who had fled the continent in 1936 to escape the Nazi onslaught, with only a handful of films to his credit. Hoellering brought Murder in the Cathedral to the screen in what was clearly a ‘passion project,’ with Eliot’s full help and participation. Hoellering’s previous films included the 1936 movie Life on the Hortobagy (a slightly fictionalized feature documentary centering on the everyday life of Hungarian peasants) and the 1944 British-made shorts Tyre Economy (of which the title says all) and Message from Canterbury (essentially an ode to Canterbury Cathedral, centering on a sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple).

What resulted was the product of a collaboration between one of the 20th century’s most gifted and exacting poets and a filmmaker intent on creating a feature film based on Eliot’s work, which had moved him deeply since his youth. The most conspicuous – even conscious – aspect of Hollering’s film of Eliot’s play is its theatricality, coupled with an austere visual sensibility that prefigures the dark landscapes of such later films as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1943), or harkens back to Carl Th. Dreyer’s equally severe Day of Wrath (1943). For many years, Murder in the Cathedral has been out of circulation – even as a 1952 book by Eliot and Hoellering on the making of the film, replete with numerous stills, remained tantalisingly in print – but now, in a newly restored DVD and Blu-ray combination release from the BFI - we have a chance once again to see Murder in the Cathedral for ourselves.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above - essential viewing.

Classic TV Series “The Defenders” Comes to DVD At Last

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

The Defenders, one of the most important drama series of the 1960s, finally gets a DVD release.

Completely forgotten today by most, this stunning series racked up 132 episodes over a four year on CBS, and starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father and son legal team that specialized in handling “difficult” cases. Unlike most courtroom dramas of the era, such as the wildly popular CBS legal procedural Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr in the title role,

The Defenders was never really about the law unto itself – it was more concerned with social justice, and used the courtroom setting as way of opening up a discussion on a wide variety of issues of the day. From September 16, 1961 – May 13, 1965, each week The Defenders tackled subjects no other series of the era would touch. During its run, The Defenders won 13 Emmy Awards (including three in a row for Outstanding Drama Series) and received an additional seven nominations.

As historian Mark Alvey wrote, in part, in The Encyclopedia of Television, “The Defenders was American television’s seminal legal drama, and perhaps the most socially conscious series the medium has ever seen. The series boasted a direct lineage to the age of live television drama, but also possessed a concern for topical issues and a penchant for social comment.

With its contemporary premise and its serious tone, The Defenders established the model for a spate of social-issue programs that followed in the early sixties, marking a trend toward dramatic shows centered on non-violent, professional ‘heroes’ (doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians).

The series had its origins in a 1957 Studio One production entitled The Defender, written by Reginald Rose, one of the most prominent writers from the age of live anthology dramas. Having collaborated with Rose on the original two-part Defender teleplay and other productions, veteran anthology producer Herbert Brodkin teamed again with the writer to oversee the series.

The Defenders’ creators went against the overwhelming tide of Hollywood-based programs, following the tradition of the live anthologies–and the more recent police drama Naked City–by mounting their show in New York. Although The Defenders was primarily a studio-bound operation, with minimal location shooting, its success proved to be a key contributor to a small renaissance in New York-based production in the early 1960s.

The series concerned the cases of a father-and-son team of defense attorneys, Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall), the sharp veteran litigator, and his green and idealistic son Kenneth (Robert Reed). As Rose pointed out a 1964 article, ‘the law is the subject of our programs: not crime, not mystery, not the courtroom for its own sake. We were never interested in producing a “who-done-it” that simply happened to be resolved each week in a flashy courtroom battle of wits.’

Certainly The Defenders exploited the inherent drama of the courtroom, but it did so by mining the complexity of the law, its moral and ethical implications, and its human dimensions. Rose and his writers found much compelling drama in probing the psychology of juries, the motives of clients, the biases of opposing counsel, the flaws of the system itself, and the fallibility of their own lawyer-heroes.

The series frequently took a topical perspective on the American justice system, honing in on timely or controversial legal questions: capital punishment, ‘no-knock’ search laws, custody rights of adoptive parents, the insanity defense, the ‘poisoned fruit doctrine’ (admissibility of illegally obtained evidence), as well as immigration quotas and Cold War visa restrictions. The Defenders avoided simple stances on such cases, instead illuminating ambiguities and opposing perspectives, and stressing the uncertain and fleeting nature of justice before the law.

As a serious courtroom drama, The Defenders series meshed well with network aims for prestige in the early sixties in the wake of the quiz show scandals and charges of creeping mediocrity in TV fare. The dramatic arena of the courtroom and the legal system allowed for suspense without violence, and the avoidance of formula plots characteristic of traditional crime and adventure drama.

With consistently strong ratings and a spate of awards unmatched by any other series of its day, The Defenders proved that controversy and topicality were not necessarily uncommercial. The series was in the works well before FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s 1961 ‘vast wasteland’ speech, but there is little doubt that the new Minow-inspired regulatory atmosphere augured well for the rise of such programming.

The show’s success supported the development of a number of social-issue and political dramas in the following years, notably Slattery’s People and East Side, West Side, and gave further impetus to a shift in network programming from action-adventure to character drama. But most significant of all, it grappled with larger ethical and political questions, pulling social problems and political debate to center stage, presenting a consistent, ongoing and sometimes critical examination of contemporary issues and social morality.

In one episode (written by Rose) a judge takes the elder Preston to task for invoking the social roots of his clients’ acts as part of his defense: ‘The courtroom is not the place to explore the questions of society.’ Lawrence Preston responds: ‘It is for me.’ So was the television courtroom, for Reginald Rose and the writers of The Defenders.”

Finally, the first season of this indispensable television series is being released on DVD; among the guest stars in the 32 episodes included in the eight disc set are Jack Klugman, William Shatner, Ossie Davis, Richard Thomas, Frank Gorshin, Eva Gabor, Robert Duvall, Robert Loggia, Martin Sheen, Julie Newmar, and many more.

There’s also a slew of extras, including The Studio One Presentation Of The Defender (1957) Starring Ralph Bellamy, Steve McQueen And William Shatner; the pilot episode for the series, as well as interviews with associate producer Bob Markell, writer Larry Cohen, and a 1973 interview with E.G. Marshall on the series.

Well worth watching – and still compelling viewing today, immaculately restored.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

Tina Hassannia – No DVDs of Many Films by Women Directors

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Tina Hassannia has a superb article on the lack of DVDs of films directed by women in Movie Mezzanine.

As she notes, “one consistent request on Twitter from female film critics and cinephiles in particular is more female-directed films. Last month, film critic Sophie Mayer analyzed Criterion’s entire collection and found that only 21 of their titles were directed or co-directed by women (including films released under Criterion’s Eclipse banner). That’s 2.6% of the whole collection, which in Mayer’s estimation is a ‘pretty meagre number.’

As telling as that number might be about a potential gender bias, the statistic only scratches the surface of what is a much broader and more complicated picture when it comes to releasing female-directed films on home video. It’s worth pointing out other characteristics of Criterion’s collection in relation to that figure.

While Mayer notes a higher number of films are directed by women in mainstream film—a still-measly 7%—Criterion’s titles represent a diverse number of cinemas that do not fall necessarily in the mainstream category; it would likely be impossible to determine the percentage of women directors in every national cinema around the world since the birth of movies. That number is likely to be much lower than 7%.

The 2.6% number also doesn’t account for the decades when there were few working women directors around the world. While women directed movies in the early Hollywood era, the profession became mostly male territory by the 1930s, and for several subsequent decades, there were almost no female directors working at all in the studio system (with some notable exceptions, like Ida Lupino). Even by the 1960s, some of the world cinemas we cherish today were only starting to find their roots and hadn’t yet standardized the practice, or even implicitly decided to allow, encourage, or prohibit women to helm a picture.

There were also more notable films made by women in the 1930s-1960s in other types of cinema—like avant-garde, independent, and documentary films—than in Hollywood. This hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century, as the gender bias in Hollywood continues to be a systemic problem. Even so, think of your favorite female-directed films: no matter which genre or country they hail from, the largest percentage were likely made in the 1970s or later.

Despite the continuing gender bias, more women have been making movies of note in the last 30 to 40 years than in the decades preceding. This is an important factor to consider, as more than half of Criterion’s collection are films that were made in the 1930s-’70s. Much of their library derives from a period when there were generally fewer working female filmmakers.

Instead of relying on statistics to examine Criterion’s collection, then, it may be more helpful to think of women-directed titles that deserve a deluxe treatment. No matter what the numbers, statistics, or decades show, given their power, Criterion would go a long way in challenging the canon by releasing more titles made by women. But the reality is that releasing films from a smaller demographic is much more difficult than one might imagine.

Last week, I queried Twitter for female-directed titles that should get the Criterion treatment. Great responses poured in, among them the films of Dorothy Arzner and Maya Deren, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. Some of these films, however, are already available from other distributors, some with restorations and supplements that are on par with or close to the quality associated with Criterion.”

All I can do is second this heartily, but also note that in addition to the directors mentioned, I would love to see a complete box set of the films of Alice Guy – some of her films are out on a Gaumont two disc set – Lois Weber (pictured at the top of this post), Ida May Park, and especially Ida Lupino, who is mentioned in this article, but whose pioneering work deserves a complete box set of all her work in the 1950s, when she was the only female director working in Hollywood. In any event, this is a real issue, one that won’t go away, and one that needs to be rectified, not only by Criterion, but by all the archival DVD labels – and no EST downloads, either. DVDs – restored, remastered, pristine, living – are the only way to go here.

This is a sharp, impassioned article – you can read the entire essay by clicking here.

Network Distributing – The British Film Collection on DVD

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Network Distributing in the UK have launched an incredible new series of classic films on DVD.

Network Distributing Ltd. has just initiated an excellent series of restored British films, effectively reclaiming not only the canonical classics of British cinema, but also the films of such now forgotten but brilliant filmmakers as Brian Desmond Hurst, Basil Dearden, the lost films of the Ealing Studios, and so much more. As their website notes, “I never want to see anything conventional on this network. A single line of dialogue from Sidney Lumet’s 1976 movie Network provided both the name and the company philosophy for the Network brand.

Since 1997, Network has been anything but conventional. Experimental, passionate, diverse, challenging, ever-willing to champion the underdogs of film and television; titles unjustly neglected and gathering dust in the vaults of TV companies; visionary directors from the fringes of mainstream cinema and beyond. TV and film titles which might otherwise have been lost to posterity have been rescued, preserved and restored where possible.

A forgotten cache of Public Information Films – destined for destruction – was saved, digitized and turned into a hit video release. Castaways like Robinson Crusoe provided the launching pad for an ongoing series of archival releases which continues to this day.

With its encyclopedic knowledge of TV and film archives and library content, Network – in partnership with ITV, BBC, Rank, ITC, Thames, FremantleMedia, Studiocanal and many others – has brought back to the marketplace a wealth of material that would otherwise have been left unseen. Restoration work on iconic brands such as The PrisonerThe SweeneyRobin Of Sherwood and Ripping Yarns, has introduced these and other series to new audiences in a quality never previously seen, supplemented by a wealth of brand-new material.

The restoration program continued in 2014 with the first ever restoration of the iconic 70s crime series The Professionals as well as hundreds of titles from the Studiocanal library for which Network launched an imprint called simply The British Film in 2013.

Network’s theatrical releasing arm adds an eclectic range of world cinema, introducing UK audiences to the works of new directors such as Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and Oscar-nominated NO), Xavier Dolan and Cristián Jiménez. In 2012 Network commissioned Nitin Sawhney to compose a brand new score for Hitchcock’s 1927 silent film The Lodger which premiered at the Barbican to a sell-out audience and widespread acclaim.

Network continues to champion the ongoing documentary work of luminaries such as John Pilger, whose new film Utopia was released in 2013 and which also saw Network come on board as a major investor for the first time. 2014 saw further acquisitions, strengthening further its Latin American slate including Berlinale winner Gloria and Cannes awarded Heli.

Other special projects have included the soundtrack releases of some of the best-known ITC shows from the 60s, with limited edition vinyl releases planned for 2015. Network is a brand run by specialists with inside knowledge of the TV and film industries, and a passion for quality. Preserving the old whilst promoting the new, Network offers something for everyone: from world cinema students to those nostalgic for the TV memories of their childhood.

After more than fifteen years and 2000 releases on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and in cinemas, there is still nothing conventional on this Network.” There are some real gems here – and some dross – but if you can’t see it, you won’t know which is which, and a review, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned, can never substitute for a screening of the film itself.

Check out the nifty trailer for The British Film Collection by clicking here, or on the image above.

Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Here’s a fascinating collection of British wartime short films – another treat from the British Film Institute.

As CineOutsider reports, “continuing the BFI’s work of unlocking film heritage in Britain, this fascinating DVD collection brings together a selection of public information films, propaganda shorts and adverts from the Second World War, drawn from the BFI National Archive, and contains films that give essential advice to a nation living in an age of austerity.

Originally shown in cinemas to British audiences during the Second World War, these films served to boost morale, covering topics which include rationing, staying healthy, how to grow vegetables, cooking tips and salvaging and recycling. These films were crucial to the British war effort and the campaign messaging has been much reproduced in modern advertising to this day.

Highlights of the collection include Tea Making Tips (1941), with ‘the six golden tips’ for making the perfect cuppa; director/artist/animator Len Lye’s When the Pie Was Opened (1941); Did You Ever See a Dream Talking (1943) starring comedian Claude Hulbert playing a Home Guard volunteer; Wisdom of the Wild (1940), a wartime twist on the long-running Secrets of Life natural history series; the Wicked Witch (1943), an advert for Rinso and A-Tish-oo! (1941), an instructional film on how to make a face-mask.”

There’s also a collection of Food Flash mini-shorts, each about 15 seconds long, which cover everything from ‘victory meals’ to the necessity of reporting rat infestations to the local council to prevent them from raiding food supplies. All the films are very brief, and together they give a fascinating look at a time and place long vanished from authentic recall for most people.

There’s nothing like living history – which this DVD supplies – to bring the past back to life before our eyes. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from the BFI, and it’s a pip! You won’t see these films anywhere else – pick up a copy, and support the BFI, and international film history.

A fascinating collection – absolutely worthwhile, and beautifully restored.

20th Century Fox Launches Ambitious EST Program

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Just a few days ago, Manohla Dargis quoted me on the disappearance of DVDs – well, here’s more proof.

As Brent Lang notes in Variety, 20th Century Fox “has just reached the century mark and to recognize the milestone, it is re-releasing a hundred films spanning the silent era, continuing through the golden age of Hollywood and ending in the early ’90s.

The pictures will be available on digital HD for the first time in their history, and include such classic films as F.W. Murnau’s  Sunrise, Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail and John Ford’s Men Without Women. The first batch of titles will be available Thursday and includes the musical Can-Can, the western My Darling Clementine and Pigskin Parade — a 1936 musical that marked Judy Garland’s film debut. There are also more modern offerings such as the Julia Roberts thriller  Sleeping With the Enemy and the Michael Douglas adventure Romancing the Stone.

The shift away from DVDs and the collapse of the video store could have dealt a death blow to classic movies, but Fox’s home entertainment team says the digital revolution appears to have ushered in a renaissance of film appreciation. ‘You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet,’ said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

‘It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be completists.’

In fact, catalogue titles now make up more than 40% of digital sales. That’s massive growth from four years ago, when they comprised approximately 5% of digital receipts, and Dunn expects their popularity will continue. To help draw attention to the offerings, Apple will have a dedicated iTunes landing page featuring these new titles.

‘Acquiring movies is so easy now,’ said Dunn. ‘You read about something and maybe there’s a reference to a filmmaker’s historical work, and my thumb moves across my phone and I’ve bought it.’ Although there are financial incentives to offering these pictures to the public, the studio positioned the move as about more than dollars and cents.

‘We are custodians of a great legacy of filmmakers whose contributions here span 100 years,’ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film. ‘We owe their work our best efforts to preserve and protect it, and to make these important films accessible in their best possible presentation for generations to come.’”

Well, that’s all very well, but for those who want the superior visual quality of physical media, HD downloads just don’t make it. Watching a film on your iPhone really has nothing to with really experiencing the film on the screen – these films were never made for such small dimensions. While this is better than simply storing these titles away in a vault, it’s just not the same as theatrical, or physical media, which with care will last a fairly long time. HD downloads, not so much.

But this is the future – EST, or “electronic sell through” – is here to stay.

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

Too Many Films Stuck in The Vaults

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

Too many great films are still stuck in the vaults, with no way to see them in any format.

As Michael Hiltzik writes in The Los Angeles Times today, “Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of Alias Nick Beal, a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be The Wild Party (1929), the first talkie to star 1920’s “It” girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner.

Film critic Leonard Maltin says he’d like to score a viewing of Hotel Haywire a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges. Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount’s 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They’re frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles.

Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there’s not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets.”

I, too, would love to see a legitimate copy of Alias Nick Beal, one of my favorite noirs, but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. To date, Universal has done almost nothing in this regard. As just one example, I’ve been waiting for years for a DVD of William Castle’s The Night Walker (Universal, 1964), which, as Wikipedia notes, is “one of the last black and white theatrical features released by Universal Pictures, and Barbara Stanwyck’s last motion picture, [but] The Night Walker is one of the few William Castle films from his ‘horror’ period that is unavailable on DVD.”

Yet Hiltzik’s article demonstrates that there’s clearly a market for these older films, beyond the canonical classics. As George Feltenstein, who heads the Warner Archive imprint of on-demand DVDs of classic films notes, the WB service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved “far more successful than we even dreamed. I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we’ve been.” And that’s putting it mildly – to date, no other major studio has stepped up to the plate with the same commitment as WB has.

This isn’t altruism. As Feltenstein candidly told Hiltzik, “‘my job is to monetize that content, make it available to the largest number of people possible and do so profitably.’ That gives [Warner Archive] a window into values that others might miss. Take B-movie westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s that landed in the Warners vault. To Allied Artists and Lorimar, their producers, ‘these films were worthless and they said it’s OK to let them rot,’ Feltenstein [said].

Instead, Warner Archives packaged them into DVD collections, ‘and they’ve all been nicely profitable.’ Feltenstein says Warners is releasing 30 more titles to its manufacturing-on-demand library every month. ‘It’s growing precipitously and there’s no end in sight.’”

Yet much more work clearly needs to be done, and especially since all films made before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which decomposes rapidly and is highly flammable, things have to move along at a much faster clip if we’re going to preserve what’s left of our cinematic heritage. I’ve been noting this for a long time, in any number of articles, but even though Warner Archive is leading the pack, there’s plenty of films left that need a solid DVD release – not streaming, thank you, but on a DVD, which can be permanently kept in one’s collection.

Let’s get these films out where everyone can see them – now!

Home at Seven (1952)

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Here’s another “lost” classic brought back to life by Network DVD in Great Britain.

I regularly write about contemporary “foreign” films that get lost in the shuffle, but here’s a gem from 1952 in Great Britain, Home at Seven, the only film ever directed by the gifted Sir Ralph Richardson (though he wasn’t a “Sir” yet when he directed it). He also stars in the film with Margaret Leighton and Jack Hawkins, from a play by the great R.C. Sherriff, which chronicles what happens when mild mannered mid-level banking clerk David Preston (Richardson) arrives home at his house one evening at 7, as he usually does, only to be greeted by his wife Janet (Leighton) in hysterics – he’s “home at 7″, all right, but 24 hours later than he should have been – in short, he’s missed a whole day. At first he thinks this is impossible, but when his wife shows him the evening paper, and his manager at the bank confirms that he hasn’t been at the office all day, David realizes that somehow, he’s completely forgotten what happened for one entire day of his life. And – much worse – he has absolutely no idea what’s happened.

Richardson’s acting and direction are impeccable, as is Anatole de Grunwald’s script from Sherriff’s play, along with Jack Hildyard’s suitably muted monochrome cinematography, but the centerpiece of the film is Richardson, who absolutely inhabits the character he plays, who only gradually realizes that in addition to misplacing an entire workday, he’s also somehow mixed up in a murder and robbery, but has absolutely no idea what’s happened. In an attempt to keep himself out of danger, and secure a much-needed promotion, David begins to make up lies to cover his absence, but this only gets him in deeper with the police and his employer, despite the help of sympathetic Doctor Sparling (Jack Hawkins), who does his best to help Preston recover his senses – until in the final scenes of the film, with a stroke of very good fortune, order is finally restored – but I won’t tell you how.

Nor should I. Indeed, one of the signature successes of Home at Seven is that it leaves one absolutely in the dark as to what’s going to happen next, as if we, as the audience, are afflicted with the same sort of amnesia as David is, blundering blindly in the dark with complete loss of memory. Richardson’s restrained performance, coupled with the solid, assured direction he gives to the film, creates a deeply unsettling vision of Post World War II England, in an era in which some sort of normalcy has supposedly returned, but the strains of the war are still all too evident, and neighbors offer scant comfort in times of crisis – indeed, they’re all too willing to “shop” you to the police on the slightest shred of supposed “evidence.”

Home at Seven is just one of the many hundreds of modest British films that have been preserved by the British company Network, who have a mission to rescue films at the margins that otherwise might be consigned to undeserved neglect. As their company philosophy states, in part, “since 1997, Network has been anything but conventional. Experimental, passionate, diverse, challenging, ever-willing to champion the underdogs of film and television; titles unjustly neglected and gathering dust in the vaults of TV companies; visionary directors from the fringes of mainstream cinema and beyond. TV and film titles which might otherwise have been lost to posterity have been rescued, preserved and restored where possible. A forgotten cache of Public Information Films – destined for destruction – was saved, digitised and turned into a hit video release. Castaways like Robinson Crusoe provided the launching pad for an ongoing series of archival releases which continues to this day. With its encyclopaedic knowledge of TV and film archives and library content, Network – in partnership with ITV, BBC, Rank, ITC, Thames, FremantleMedia, Studiocanal and many others – has brought back to the marketplace a wealth of material that would otherwise have been left unseen.”

In an era in which the DVD market is collapsing in America, Network is acting very much like an archival revival house – focusing on the films that have been somehow overlooked in canonical film history. I just saw Home at Seven last night, and I can attest that the quality of the transfer, both in image and sound, is exceptional. These films will never run on TV in the United States, but you will need an all-region DVD play to see them here – they’re all Region 2 releases, in PAL format, so an all region player is a must. But at this point, of course, you can get such a player for less than $100, and you should have one anyway – these artificial boundaries of “regions” for DVDs and Blu-rays are an absolute nuisance. Too many excellent films, old and new, get released only in France, of England, or Canada, and never make it across the border to the States. So get an all region player, check out some titles from Network, and expand your cinematic horizons. It’s really worth the effort.

This is just one of the films in Network’s series The British Film – click here to see the entire catalogue.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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