August 13, 2019

Razzia sur la Chnouf

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Henri Decoin - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The title translates as "Raid on the Dope". It's the second of two films starring Jean Gabin using French slang in the title, the other being Touchez pas au grisbi ("Don't touch the loot'). Also on hand is Lino Ventura, who would be seen again with Gabin in other crime films. More importantly for Gabin, this is one of the films that helped return the actor to commercial viability mostly in roles as a top gangster or maverick cop.

Gabin appears as Henri, a former associate of an Italian named gangster, returning from the U.S. to France in order to re-organize the languishing heroin trade. He first meets up with his French boss, Liski, who provides the names on the various employees. Henri's job is not only to make sure sales quotas are met but also employ two thugs who act as enforcers for those proving less than reliable. Henri's cover is a fashionable piano bar. Of interest to cineastes is that Liski is played by Marcel Dalio, Gabin's co-star in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game, from seventeen years earlier.

According to director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier, Henri Decoin was unfairly dismissed with other French directors of his generation primarily due to the inconsistency of his work, some of which was clearly simply for hire. Tavernier also points out how Decoin was able to take what he learned directly from Hollywood directors onto his own work. This is most obvious in some of the more violent scenes, such as the use of a shot that is almost subliminal when the thugs' victim is beat up. The image of a getaway car's windshield cracked by a bullet anticipates as similar image in Bonnie and Clyde. A shot that first appears to be tilted is revealed to be of a mirror when the camera pulls back. Tavernier compares Decoin to Raoul Walsh in how he films action, not an inapt comparison.

What really struck me was Decoin's depiction of drug addiction and a multicultural Paris, unusual for a French film made in 1955, and unthinkable for Hollywood at that time. Lea, a drug dealer looking older than her years, snorts heroin off her hand in a well-lit bar. A group of men presumably from North Africa gather in their own little bar, smoking marijuana. Lea, who's attempts to bed Henri are rebuffed, seeks solace with a shirtless African, seen performing a solo dance, the camera framing the movement of his hips. One of the other dealers is Chinese, with his own opium den. There is also some dialogue indicating that one of the drug dealers is in a relationship with his male companion. Another unusual feature is the jazzy film score by Marc Lanjean, with arrangements by twenty-three year old Michel Legrand - his first film credit.

In his commentary track, Nick Pinkerton gives Decoin short shrift, relying primarily on an overview of Decoin's career from the French film criticism magazine Positif. In terms of evaluating Decoin, at this time Razzia is the only film available for accessible viewing for English language viewers. One of the problems with discussing some older French films and filmmakers is that the dismissals made by the Cahiers du Cinema critics have been taken at face value, with a handful of those directors only more recently getting fairer reassessments. Where the commentary is more helpful is pointing out some of the actors, especially the less familiar supporting players. Pinkerton also discusses the connection between some of the French films of the 1930s with those of the 1950s, especially in connection with the novels by Georges Simenon. In the case of Razzia, the author of the source novel, Auguste Le Breton also appears as a small time hood named Auguste Le Breton. There is also a connection to The French Connection with a brief appearance by Marcel Bozzuffi. The print source appears to have been in pristine condition with beautifully rendered images. Most of the film takes place at night with a sky that is pitch black. This is French film noir at its blackest.

August 06, 2019

The Girl in the Fog

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La ragazza nella nebbia
Donato Carrisi - 2017
Icarus Films Home Video R1 DVD

The Italian mystery writer, Donato Carrisi, has made his filmmaking debut, adapting one of his own novels into film. Carrisi's efforts were considered good enough that he was awarded the 2017 David di Donatello award, Italy's version of the Oscars, for Best New Director. I've not read the source novel so I am unable to comment on any changes. Carrisi does demonstrate visual flair, with the only weak spot being the final would-be twist at the end which should only surprise viewers not paying attention to several verbal and visual clues.

The story takes place in a small village in the Italian Alps where the residents all seem to know each other, and what tourist industry existed has virtually evaporated. A high school age girl, Anna Lou, has disappeared just prior to Christmas. Celebrity detective Vogel has taken on the case, bringing with him a small army of journalists and investigators. Vogel has become something of a reality television star. He is dogged by possibly misidentifying a serial bomber who was eventually found innocent. Vogel is intent on solving the mystery of Anna Lou, even at the cost of his reputation.

The first image is of Anna's house in the fog. The haze, the flatness, and limited nighttime colors initial make the image look like an illustration. Some of the other exterior shots give the impression of cardboard houses on an artificial studio set. The fog even carries over to the interior sets. There are also images within the shots, often of televisions set to the news, but also computer screens, and a VHS tape. These images within the image bring up the questions regarding the trustworthiness of what is supposedly documented. Carrisi also divides some of the sequences with overhead shots of a model version of the village, akin to something created from a fairy tale wooden toy shop. The village is pointedly remote, with the residents deliberately keeping themselves at a distance from aspects associated with life in the major cities. There are moments when Vogel appears to be visiting an alien landscape.

Carrisi uses a good number of overhead shots, as well as slow dolly shots, with the camera moving in or away from his characters. Most of the narrative is a series of flashbacks of Vogel's initial investigation from his point of view, as well as a sub-plot of Vogel's suspect. The actual mystery, or perhaps I should say mysteries, are subordinate to the themes of how public images are manipulated, and how an anonymous crowd response to those images.

Toni Servillo stars here as Vogel. Best known for his award winning performance in The Great Beauty, Servillo brings from that film the continued sense of someone world weary, who has seen and done everything, for whom nothing is new. Jean Reno appears as a psychiatrist with whom Vogel discusses the case, as part of an unofficial return to the scene of the crime. A virtually unrecognizable Greta Scacchi has a small role as a journalist whose decades long investigation suggest new clues.

August 01, 2019

Ladyworld

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Amanda Kramer - 2018
Cleopatra Entertainment

Amanda Kramer has mentioned The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Repulsion as two films that were key influences on her own feature debut. Ladyworld is about eight women attending a birthday celebration, trapped after an earthquake encloses the house of the hostess. The influence of Fassbinder is the more obvious with the all female cast.

Food and water are limited. There is no electricity, nor cell phone service. The hostess, Olivia, attempts to have some sense of organization, with meetings held, and speaking determined by whomever is holding the designated piece of crystal. One of the eight girls mysteriously disappears. There is also concern about an unseen man who is supposedly stalking the young women. Four of the women for their own clique, with heavy eye brows, smeared kohl around the eyes, excessive lipstick, and splotches of white powder on the cheeks. There are territorial disputes and personal grudges. The breakdowns and schisms become more extreme, yet there is a point where you wonder if the young women actually want to escape.

What I did find most interesting in Ladyworld was the soundtrack. Rather than a traditional use of music, there are what sounds like the mewing of cats, squawking of birds, and electronic and industrial sounds. Between the abstract sounds and the ambiguous ending is the sense that what transpires should perhaps not be taken totally at face value. The use of sound recalls Luis Bunuel's use of cat's mewing in Belle de Jour. Here, instead of indicating what may or may not be a dream, the sounds are more suggestive of the tensions between the characters. That the film can be interpreted on different levels is to the credit of Ms. Kramer. One thing is certain, when push comes to shove, literally, these young women are hardly ladies.

July 23, 2019

Luminous Motion

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production still by Nan Goldin

Bette Gordon - 1998
Kino Lorber BD Region A

It takes a few seconds to make sense of one of the images. A close-up of a map, but the various connecting roads are a thick red, almost a network of veins. This image that suggests human geography is echoed later when we see the young boy, Phillip, sleeping with an open anatomy book partially exposed under his pillow. Throughout Luminous Motion is the repetition of patterns and colors, as well as the doubling of the three family members with what might be described as their distorted twins.

There is deliberate ambiguity beginning with the first person narration. We see Phillip as a small, ten year old boy. The language of the narration appears to be that of an adult looking at the past, with certain choices in the vocabulary that would seem appropriate for an adult, yet the voice we hear is that of the child. That narrative voice is one of several devices Bette Gordon uses to disorient the viewer.

Phillip lives an itinerant life with his mother who supports the two of them with what Tennessee Williams referred to as the kindness of strangers. The two seem to be running away from Phillip's father, with no particular destination. Phillip is introduced reading a children's science book, and while quite bright and perhaps too sophisticated for his own good, eventually reveals an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. No matter where Philip and his mother go, his father seems to know how and when to call Phillip. And while Phillip has this unwavering belief in constantly being on the move, his mother makes a couple of attempts at something resembling domesticity.

Luminous Motion is one of three films that Gordon did not write, but that share in varying degrees similar thematic concerns. The other two films would be Handsome Harry (2009) and The Drowning (2016). While not exact, what these films have in common are traumatic incidents that took place in the past, failed father-son relationships, and males establishing their territory in the form of relationships with other males and women. Phillip has an outsized image of himself as the only one capable of taking care of his mother, even going as far a getting a fake driver's license, totally unaware that his small height and youth make him look silly. Phillip's attempts at control only cause more havoc. Phillip sees two men in his mother's life, his father and a hardware store owner, Pedro, both as temporary father figures and as rivals. The actions Phillip takes to re-establish his position as the primary male in his mother's life may or may not have happened, even Phillip is not certain.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Gordon and her cinematographer, Teodoro Maniaci. Aside from discussing how certain shots were accomplished, the commentary may prove educational for novices in low-budget independent filmmaking. Supplements also include illustrated pages from the script, some story boards, and production stills by Nan Goldin. In addition to young Eric Lloyd meeting the challenge of a convincing performance as Phillip, Luminous Motion is one of the few films since David Cronenberg's Crash that made use of Deborah Kara Unger's talents. Wearing a cheap looking fake leopard skin coat and haphazardly dyed and combed blonde hair, thirteen year old Paz de la Huerta uncannily seems to have set the template for her future film roles.

July 19, 2019

Death Takes a Holiday

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Mitchell Leisen - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I have a vague memory that takes place in the early Sixties. Reading the listings of movies shown on television, I came across the title, Death Takes a Holiday. I'm a bit puzzled by what this means. My mother gave be a brief explanation. The movie was shown at a time when I wasn't able to watch it. And somehow this film that has piqued my curiosity never seems to have reappeared either on television or at any of the many venues in New York City showing older films in the early Seventies. I can't really explain why I didn't bother getting getting the DVD when it was a bonus included with Martin Brest's remake, Meet Joe Black, a film I actually liked quite a bit. (Disclosure - I was acquainted with Martin Brest at NYU and made a student movie with him.)

Mitchell Leisen's second directorial effort is now a standalone blu-ray. In reviewing Leisen's filmography, the suits at Paramount were quite patient with Leisen as his early films generally got good reviews, but were financially uneven. Leisen would hit his stride about two years and several films later once he teams up with charismatic actors like Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, Don Ameche and his most frequent star, Fred MacMurray, combined at best with screenplays by Preston Sturges or the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Death Takes a Holiday originally was a an Italian play, later performed in an English language version on Broadway. Leisen's graceful traveling camera cannot totally transcend the portentous dialogue.

Most of the film takes place in a large villa, in the Paramount studio version of Italy, marginally less elaborate than the exotic locations of fellow studio directors Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch. Death is first seen as a blobby shadow following several aristocratic celebrants speeding on a mountain pass in their elongated roadsters. Making an appearance late at night, Death shows up again at the villa in the form of a tall man draped in black cloth, partially transparent. He reveals to the villa's owner, Duke Lambert, his identity, plus his request to appear in human form as a guest for three days. Death wants to know why he is feared. Suspension of disbelief is required here. Not because I have a problem with Death appearing in the form of Fredric March, Brad Pitt, or the chess playing Bengt Ekerot, but because I figure that Death has been around long enough to have a clue or two about human behavior. Death reappears as the Duke's friend, Prince Sirki, complete with monocle and an East European accent, to learn about life from the leisure class, where men wear tuxedos and the women wear tiaras.

During the three days, people miraculously survive ship sinkings, school burnings, getting trampled by horses, and other disasters. Death questions the futility of existence, which is pretty easy to do when your with people who do nothing but race boats, play ping pong, or visit exclusive casinos. Death is attracted to Grazia, first scene praying at a church, meeting her would-be fiance, Corrado, son of the duke.

Fredric March plays Death as an alien being whose speaking and mannerisms become less stilted and more fluid over the course of the three days. Evelyn Venable, was Paramount's ingenue at the time, seen here as Grazia. Venable has a passing resemblance to Olivia De Havilland, but she lacked that sparkle needed for more more than brief stardom, and I got the sense, especially in Venable's close-ups that Mitchell Leisen was looking for De Havilland, but may not have known it at the time.

There is one nice shot of March and Venable sitting together by a fountain pool, seen upside down in reflection. The camera tilts up to the two sitting together, Death has only an hour left as a guest in the villa and wants to spend that last hour with Grazia. Death Takes a Holiday was produced before the Production Code took effect, but what happens in that last hour is never shown, nor stated.

Where the code was challenged all involve actress Gail Patrick, uttering an inaudible "damn", trying to seduce Prince Sirki by informing him of her flexibility regarding the need to get married, and sharing a bed with another female guest.

Leisen got start working for Cecil B. DeMille, and the interior of the villa looks like a DeMille set moved indoors, with huge classical statues in the hallways and oversized Renaissance paintings on the walls. There is a traveling shot, with the camera moving backwards as the guests enter the villa, walking through that very long entry way.

Kat Ellinger's commentary offers some information on the production of Death Takes a Holiday, but I was hoping for something on how much of the screenplay was the work of the two credited writers, Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman. I'm guessing that most of the declamatory scenes were by Anderson. Ellinger takes time to discuss the theatrical origins of Death Takes a Holiday, as well as reviewing the careers of several of the stars and production team.

There may be a little bit of irony that when I finally get to see Death Takes a Holiday, it's a time when I've been dealing with my own mortality. No fear of dying, but if Death comes to meet me in human form, I'm hoping she resembles Tiffany Haddish.

July 16, 2019

Hold Back the Dawn

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Mitchell Leisen - 1941
Arrow Films BD Region A

The past - did novelist Anna Seghers see Hold Back the Dawn sometime prior to writing Transit? Was she familiar with Ketti Frings' screen treatment? Both Seghers' novel and Leisen's film are about refugees, told in the first person. The narrator is of questionable background, telling his story to a vaguely known acquaintance. Both narrators are waiting for the documents that will allow them to travel, and both use fraudulent means, involving a woman, to accomplish their goal. Both men stay at a crowded, run-down hotel with other refugees. The routine is overwhelmingly tedious. In both the novel and the film, a refugee frustrated by bureaucracy hangs himself. Hold Back the Dawn takes place in a small border town in Mexico, directly across from the United States. Hitler was considered Europe's problem, and the U.S. government maintained a strict limit on immigration. Transit takes place in Marseilles in 1942, at a time when refugees were hobbled by time-limited travel visas, and the hope of going to Mexico or Brazil, should a ship be available. Both Dawn co-writer Billy Wilder and Anna Seghers, as well as Frings' husband, spent time in Mexico before getting approval to live in the United States. Anna Segher's 1939 novel, The Seventh Cross was made into a movie by MGM that came out in the same year that Transit was published in English. The director of that film was Fred Zinnemann. Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann were among the aspiring filmmakers who made the German People on Sunday in 1930.

The present - I don't think anyone can watch Hold Back the Dawn without thinking about current events. Even Olivia de Havilland's character isn't immune from xenophobia. Yesterday's "scum" become today's invaders. Unfortunately, no one at Homeland Security seems have that right combination of strictness and understanding as Walter Abel. It's also unavoidable to look wistfully at a film that takes place in a world where marriages of convenience aren't investigated too closely, immigrants wait patiently for legal approval, and the two times rules are circumvented are both gently comic moments.

First and foremost, Hold Back the Dawn is a Hollywood movie. It was produced at Paramount, a studio founded by Adolph Zukor. As an orphaned eighteen year old Hungarian Jew, Zukor probably showed little obvious promise of becoming a self-made millionaire even before getting into the motion picture business. Charles Boyer plays a Romanian gigolo, officially a dancer, told that due to quota restrictions, he can expect to be allowed to leave the Mexican border town for the U.S. in at least five years. His "dance partner", played by Paulette Goddard meets up by chance at the border town's Climax Bar. Boyer learns he can expedite things by getting married to a U.S. citizen, and once he receives citizenship papers he can file for divorce. Boyer encounters schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland shepherding a group of school boys for a brief visit across the border. Temporarily stranded due to a car accident, Boyer acts as a rescuer for De Havilland and her charges, sweet talking her into marriage.

The film both plays up to, and against Hollywood conventions and the on-screen personas of Boyer and De Havilland. In her booklet notes, Farran Smith Nehme describes Boyer as having a "chocolate-ganache voice". Boyer's performance as he woos De Havilland borders on self-parody, but perhaps that's partially the result of seeing too many Pepe Le Pew cartoons. It is after the two are married that Boyer fights his own impulses and screen image to make sure the marriage is unconsummated. De Havilland, Warner Brothers' resident "good girl", is first seen bouncing in anticipation in a hotel room with a wedding cake, and sheds her clothes to take a dip at a deserted beach. Boyer is the worldly conman from Romania by way of Paris, while De Havilland is proudly from small town Azusa, California. This is a film that requires surrendering to an on-screen romance of this mismatched couple.

I like, but do not love, Hold Back the Dawn. My own estimation of Mitchell Leisen is still that his best work was done between 1937 and 1941, with screenplays by Preston Sturges and the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. My own favorites are Arise, My Love, written by Brackett and Wilder, and Remember the Night, written by Sturges (and why is this film not shown on Christmas?). The two moments I will savor in Hold Back the Dawn include the previously mentioned scene of De Havilland anticipating giving up her virginity to Charles Boyer, and Walter Abel's U.S. customs agent discovering the birth of an anchor baby in his office. Farran Smith Nehme's booklet notes discuss the making of the film and the rift between Wilder and Leisen over changes in the screenplay. IMDb lists Richard Maibaum as having made uncredited contributions to the screenplay, yet neither Nehme, nor Adrian Martin in his commentary track made note of this, making that credit questionable, although Maibaum did write several credited screenplays for Leisen. Martin's commentary track, aided by an additional interview with BFI programmer Geoff Andrew, argue for Leisen's auteur status, remarking on the recurring themes in his films as well as his visual choices. Martin also refers to the Senses of Cinema survey of Mitchell Leisen by David Melville, also worth reading. This month is seeing a Leisen revival with new blu-ray discs of Easy Living and Death Takes a Holiday on the way.

July 12, 2019

The Tough Ones

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Roma a mano armato / Rome Armed to the Teeth
Umberto Lenzi - 1976
Grindhouse Releasing BD Regions ABC two-disc and one CD set

There's a scene in Raoul Walsh's White Heat, where the manic gangster, Cody Jarrett, has escaped from the penitentiary with a con, Parker, who had attempted to kill him, hiding him in the trunk of the getaway car. Jarrett is a sociopath, but because he's played by James Cagney, he's the kind of gangster that the audience roots for in spite of themselves. The morning after the escape, Parker is still enclosed in the car trunk. From inside the trunk, Parker tells Jarrett that it is getting stuffy inside the trunk. Jarrett shoots several bullets into the trunk, in his words, to provide ventilation for his victim. While most contemporary viewers will probably chuckle at the black humor of this scene, in its time it was considered horrifying. I thought of White Heat and Umberto Lenzi's documented admiration for Raoul Walsh while watching The Tough Ones.

In The Tough Ones, Tomas Milian plays the part of Moretto, a hunchback who has thus far hidden his criminal activity. Moretto goes to a pawnbroker, with the premise of pawning some jewelry, and offers the pawnbroker to touch his hump for good luck, as according to the superstition. The pawnbroker declines the offer. Moretto turns around with a machine gun, shooting the pawnbroker, with the comment that not touching his hump brings bad luck. It's the combination of violence and cruel sarcasm that makes the character of Moretto appear inspired by Walsh's Cody Jarrett. Lenzi also adds a propensity for Roman rhyming street slang for Morretto. Moretto's gang of bank robbers are an especially nervous bunch, equally as ready to fire their machine guns at random targets.

Whatever filament of a plot there is concerns a Roman cop, Tanzi, searching for a criminal on the run. Tanzi is portrayed by Maurizio Merli, and is typical of many of his other film appearances, is that rogue detective who disregards bureaucracy, slaps around bad guys and asks questions later, and can be counted on for a high speed car chase. To his credit, Merli also does his own stunts including the driving. Tanzi encounters a virtual catalogue of the kind of crime that took place during the time The Tough Ones was made including the previously mentioned bank robbery, kidnapping, rape, purse snatching and illegal drugs. In his commentary track, Mike Malloy states how several set pieces in The Tough Ones are to found in other Eurocrime movies. Lenzi's film helped set the template for similar films featuring the names of cities in their titles, the various narrative elements as well as star Maurizio Merli's on-screen persona.

Of the many extras, one I found of interest was an older supplement by Michele De Angelis of the late, lamented DVD label, NoShame. A personal note here - NoShame was the first company to send me screeners when I first launched this website. De Angelis positions The Tough Ones within a history of Italian narrative films that documented the social changes in Italy following World War II. That Eurocrime thrillers would have a connection to neorealism is less of a stretch when one considers the influence these films had on Hollywood film noir. De Angelis goes on to discuss the influence of films such as The French Connection and Dirty Harry on the Eurocrime genre.

The Calum Waddell produced documentary about Umberto Lenzi's career is frustrating as there is nothing about his life prior to his career as a director, and does not bother mentioning films made prior to the thrillers with Carroll Baker. While Lenzi's giallo and crime films are his best known, I encourage those unfamiliar with the early works to check out Lenzi's official debut feature, Queen of the Seas, a costume adventure film about the female pirate Mary Read, and Lenzi's version of Gunga Din, Three Sergeants of Bengal. Hollywood veteran Arthur Kennedy appears in The Tough Ones as Tanzi's supervisor. If someone wasn't familiar with Kennedy, they would think the only film of note he appeared in was Lawrence of Arabla. Aside from multiple Oscar nominations, Kennedy had roles in a handful of film noir classics, notably Too Late for Tears. It may possibly be coincidence that Kennedy had also appeared in one film each by Raoul Walsh and another director Lenzi admired, Samuel Fuller.

It's the first supplement on the second disc, titled "Umberto", that I would consider required viewing. Umberto Lenzi talks about his life and career for almost an hour. In addition to Walsh and Fuller, Lenzi also names Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak as part of the four most influential directors. Three of the four have directed key films in the history of film noir, with Fuller making a contribution as a screenwriter. The Fuller connection is more obvious in Lenzi's use of social commentary and also with the war films that Lenzi describes as being his most personal work. Several other film noir filmmakers are also cited, including Edward Dmytryk and that director's masterpiece, Christ in Concrete. There are also some brief clips from Lenzi's first film, made in Greece, Mia Italida stin Ellada. Lenzi is forgiven exaggerating is memory of working as an assistant on Raw Wind in Eden. The only person whose career really suffered from that film's failure was star Esther Williams. Lenzi offers a first-hand account of film production practices in Italy when genre films were imported around the world.

Additional information of genre production practices, as well as more specific information on the making of The Tough Ones is in the interview with screenwriter Dardano Sachetti. Supporting player Corrado Solari offers several humorous anecdotes. The still beautiful Maria Rosaria Omaggio talks about making her film debut under Lenzi's direction. There is also an hour and a half interview with Tomas Milian which includes discussing his time with the Actors Studio. In all, be prepared to set aside several hours on the supplements. And if an interview with composer Franco Micalizzi isn't enough, there is also the enclosed CD with the soundtrack.

As for information regarding the making of The Tough Ones, Lenzi recounts how he filmed the car chases on the street, in real traffic. The additional secret sauce is that Lenzi would have the camera run at 22 frames per second, heightening the sense of speed when projected at the normal 24 fps. A conversation with composer Franco Micalizzi offers more information on their several collaborations. Film historian Roberto Curti's booklet notes provide context regarding the real life inspirations for several scenes, as well as some background on the production of the film. Umberto Lenzi had an interest in history, as well as film history. It would seem in light of much of the material included with The Tough Ones that Lenzi understood that as a genre filmmaker, much like those directors he admired, that his work would receive greater appreciation by future film fans and scholars.