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June 25, 2019

The Wild Heart

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Gone to Earth
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1950

The Wild Heart
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

"He (David O. Selznick) never had the guts to direct a picture himself. He shunned the responsibility. He preferred to spend hours and days of his life dictating memos telling other people how to direct films. This made him a rather pathetic figure." - Michael Powell

Two perfect shots: First, Jennifer Jones as Hazel Woodus is introduced in a long shot, seen from a distance walking up a hill. The wind in blowing from the right of the screen. There are a row of trees all tilted leftwards that frame Hazel on the right side. Hazel walks leftward and then right, facing the wind. The shot establishes Hazel's character as being both part of the natural world but also fighting against it. As played by Jones, Hazel is connected to Pearl Chavez and Ruby Gentry, the woman as the perpetual outsider due to societal roles and her own rebellious nature.

The second perfect shot is a tilt-down at two pairs of feet. The recently married Hazel agrees to a rendezvous with Reddin, a local squire who previous tried to seduce Hazel, and has since pursued her, disregarding her status as the wife of a minister. The marriage has yet to be consummated. The two meet in the vicinity of the same area of the opening shot. Hazel is barefoot. Reddin is wearing brown boots. Hazel is carrying a handful of flowers. We see the two meet within the shot of the two pairs of feet coming closer. Hazel is standing on her toes. The flowers fall down onto the ground as the shot continues. We then see one of Reddin's boots trample the flowers as he picks up Hazel. The shot refers back to an earlier scene, with Hazel unaware of the connotations of the expression "pick up". Within that single shot is all we need to know about Hazel's infidelity.

For those who are not aware of the film's history, The Wild Heart is the re-edited version of Gone to Earth, supervised by Jones' husband, producer David O. Selznick. Kino Lorber has chosen to make The Wild Heart the main feature of the new blu-ray, with Gone to Earth listed as a bonus. Most cinephiles would probably have it the other way around. In any case, viewers can finally see both films and compare for themselves. This long awaited release may well be one of the more important blu-ray releases of the year.

That first shot of Hazel, a small figure among tall trees, was not part of The Wild Heart. David O. Selznick was reduced to co-production status in 1949 following Portrait of Jennie and a loss of $12,000,000. to his studio. Selznick recognized the directorial talent of the time with films by Carol Reed, Powell and Pressberger, and Vittorio De Sica. At the same time, Selznick was unable to leave the films alone, making his own versions for U.S distribution. Minor tinkering with The Third Man was followed by heavy editing and re-shoots on Powell and Pressburger's film. De Sica's Terminal Station was significantly abridged, re-edited, and given the lurid title of Indiscretion of an American Wife. I would guess that not a day went by when David O. Selznick would not remind someone within earshot that he had produced Gone with the Wind, at the time the biggest box office success ever. In terms of his relationship with filmmakers on his European co-productions, Selznick was the Harvey Weinstein of his day.

The basic story, adapted from a 1917 novel, takes place in Shropshire, a county in northern England that borders Wales, in 1897. Hazel Woodus lives in a remote part of the countryside with her father, a craftsman who makes coffins. Hazel's closest relationship is with her pet fox called Foxy. She also relies on a book of spells left by her mother, described as a gypsy, for her decision making. Hazel is emblematic of the tensions of British history, between its past as a Roman colony and identity more tightly defined as Christian. This is made more clear with the relationships with the hedonistic Jack Reddin and the chaste Edward Marston, complicated by Hazel's own mixed feelings about both men. Just as the pet fox can not be completely domesticated, neither can Hazel.

Even at age thirty, when Gone to Earth was produced, Jennifer Jones still looked youthful enough for her role as Hazel. She was able to speak with the appropriate accent to the approval of Michael Powell. The blu-ray is for me a quite beautiful rendering of the original Technicolor film.

There are also commentary tracks for each version that are largely complimentary with minimal duplication of information. Samm Deighan makes the connection of Gone to Earth with the earlier Powell and Pressburger film, A Canterbury Tale, as well as the novel's position as part of a history of gothic novels. On The Wild Heart, Troy Howarth provides more history on the cast and crew, as well as some discussion on David O. Selznick's revision of Gone to Earth which began as soon as he saw the first rough cut prior to the 1950 release.

What would have been more helpful, but would require deeper research, is details on who actually worked on the footage commissioned by Selznick. The film begins with a voice over spoken by Joseph Cotton, prose about Roman Britain and pagan beliefs. There are several scenes that are not in Gone to Earth, as well as more close-ups of Jones, and insert shots. One example is of Hazel standing over a sundial at Reddin's estate. In Gone To Earth, Hazel is seen in a long shot. Selznick has a cut so that the audience reads an adage on the sundial. There is some information to be gleaned from a website devoted to the films by Powell and Pressburger. While it has been acknowledged that Rouben Mamoulian directed the scenes per Selznick, based on the history of Selznick's other productions, there may have been other hands involved. Did Ben Hecht write the Selznick prologue, and who wrote those revised scenes? Troy Howarth tries to give a good defense of The Wild Heart. My own sense is that David O. Selznick was uncomfortable with letting the images speak for themselves, remaking the film to conform to his own idea of a star vehicle for wife Jennifer Jones, with underlining to eliminate any possible ambiguity. Selznick's odd grandiosity is also displayed by cutting the actual movie down to about 82 minutes, and then bookending the film with two minutes of music, an overture and exit music, on each end for a "Roadshow version".

For some film viewers, simply having Gone to Earth and The Wild Heart together may be more than enough. I would be surprise if this KL Studio Classics release was not among the nominations of significant home videos by Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:36 AM

June 23, 2019

Ted Talk

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Tramps (Adam Leon - 2017)

In the interests of journalistic transparency, I am a Netflix subscriber both of the DVD services and streaming.

I also want to express regret at not writing more legible notes, but that that's what happens to me when I scribble in the dark. Hopefully, I will remember this event correctly.

Maybe I should have tried to get an interview with Ted Sarandos has some of my questions and concerns were not covered.

This was my first time attending Series Fest, which as is indicated by the name, a weeklong event in Denver dedicated to series television. My interest in seeing the dialogue between Liberty Global's Ted Fries and Netflix's Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, stems from the crossover of filmmaking talent providing Netflix films and television series. This event took place on June 21. Due to the number of attendees, I watched the discussion as a simulcast on one of the screens at the Sie Theater.

After providing a bit of personal background, Sarandos explained his decision to have the Netflix content team based near Los Angeles in order to cultivate relationships with the studios, and to keep a separate identity from the tech team. This was when Netflix had just begun, before DVD technology dominated home video. Even at that time, Reed Hastings anticipated home streaming even though what existed about twenty-years ago was virtually unwatchable on small screens within the computer monitor. I don't remember when I started streaming myself, but it was initial on a laptop for the first few years until I bought my first blu-ray player that had a streaming option. I have seen the streaming content change from older, previously unavailable films to primarily recent programming of films and series. I miss being able to see such obscurities like Irvin Kershner's The Young Captives or the Italian costume drama, The Tempest, with second unit work by Michelangelo Antonioni. More recently, having gone to bat for Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, interest has apparently been generated for the streaming of older films by Welles.

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Nappily ever After (Haifaa al-Mansour - 2018)

Sarandos explained that Netflix measures success based on how many households watch a certain show. The publicly announced figure of thirty million households for Murder Mystery was mentioned. How this translates into number of viewers is subject for dispute. The key takeaway for me was that the reason why Netflix largely eschews traditional ratings formats is because the success of a film or series is specific to that show. Too give a more quantifiable example from the way success is measured in theatrical films, Dark Phoenix has earned about 209 million dollars. Yet with a reported budget of 200 million, the film has lost money for the studio after factoring in costs for publicity, among other costs. Booksmart has earned a modest 20 million to date, with low box office standing. Alleged box office pundits who wrote off Booksmart did not anticipate that this "little" films would recoup its Six million dollar budget, or prove to have unexpected resiliency in finding its audience. While I would not be able to provide specific examples, what this would mean in terms of a Netflix branded film is that while it may not be a breakout success like Bird Box, most of their films are moderately budgeted so that they are free from the same expectations as a theatrical film.

Another interesting point was the freedom the content team had in choosing choosing content, and likewise in the freedom given to the content providers. While it was not mentioned, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman will probably be a test of the limits of auteur driven films produced by Netflix. In addition to household numbers as the tool for measuring success, social media was mentioned as used by viewers as a driver for success, referring back to Bird Box.

What wasn't addressed is that with the sheer number of films and series available, how do you find what's worth watching? My own viewing has included films that have not involved Facebook memes or national conversations. One thing Netflix could do that would be helpful for some films would be to list the name of the director along with the main actors in their screens that provide the title and short synopsis. It was through an article on independent filmmakers choosing Netflix over tradition theatrical distribution that I found out about Tramps by Adam Leon - and additionally saw his earlier Gimme the Loot. I had been following Alice Rohrbacher's career from the beginning, and am sure more people have seen Happy as Lazzaro than her two older films. But how many who delighted in Wajda, the first narrative feature from Saudi Arabia and debut from female filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, are also aware that she directed Nappily ever After?

Sarandos final major point was that international series would be local in both language and content, using the German series, Dark as an example. While something like Murder Mystery might be the television equivalent to comfort food for fans of Friends and Adam Sandler movies, that subscriber base also allows for more niche viewing of foreign language series and films, as well as the independent films branded as Netflix Originals. I'm not sure how the algorithms and data gathering work on this, as some of my more enjoyable experiences with streaming have been taking chances with the unfamiliar.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:24 AM

June 21, 2019

Midnight Lace

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David Miller - 1960
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Would Midnight Lace have been a substantially better film had Ross Hunter's usual go-to director, Douglas Sirk, hadn't retired the year before? We can only guess based on such prior works as the wonderfully nutty Lured with the eclectic cast of Lucille Ball, Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, and the more obvious wife-in-peril Sleep My Love. David Miller probably got the gig on the strength of Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford threatened by two-timing Jack Palance. Midnight Lace isn't exactly suspenseful, but it is entertaining.

Doris Day plays Kit Preston, heiress and newly-wed to British businessman Brian Preston (Rex Harrison). Brian is so busy with work that the two have yet to go on an actual honeymoon. The film opens with Kit walking home across a park in London fog so thick it's called a "pea souper". A strange voice from an unseen source tells Kit that she will be murdered. Kit runs home in a panic. Later, she begins getting telephone calls from the same unknown person. Brian tries to convince Kit that it is a prank. There are a series of "red herrings" to keep the audience guessing as to who wants Kit dead, including the constantly sponging son of the housekeeper, a gaunt man dressed in black, and the foreman of the construction site next door. For me, the biggest mystery is why Midnight Lace received an Oscar nomination for the costumes - the only thing uglier than Doris Day's fur-collared coats is one of the hats worn by Myrna Loy.

Russell Metty may have been a house cinematographer at Universal, but he may well be the one to credit for the use of color and shadows. In addition to his work with Sirk, Metty also had Orson Welles' Touch of Evil to his credits. There is one scene with tension between Kit and Brian in their bedroom. During the day, the bedroom is an extremely light shade of pink. In this scene, when Kit is certain that her stalker is standing in view of the bedroom window, the colors of the bedroom are stronger shades of pink, purple, blue and red. The choice of colors is suggestive of a proto-giallo, and not entirely unrelated to a film like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Sergio Martino's delirious version of the gaslit wife. There is also the scene with Kit trapped in her apartment building's narrow elevator, in fear of a man seen only as a black silhouette. Somebody like Dario Argento would have stretched the scene further, and milked it for greater terror. I was struck use of red lighting on the interior walls when the true identities of several characters are revealed.

Without giving too much away, the final scene could have been David Miller's Vertigo. Doris Day clings on to a steel column in the building next door, still an empty skeleton. There are no photographic effects, nor any sense of the kind of danger Hitchcock could convey. Again there is the sense that more could have been done, restrained by Ross Hunter's desire not to make his audience too uncomfortable.

On the debit side, the film takes place in a tourist's idea of London. Either the screenplay should have had a slight revision, or the film should have been recast as John Gavin, at age 29, was clearly too young to play the part of the building foreman, a man who tells Kit about his traumatic experience in World War II. A night out at the ballet means an excerpt from Swan Lake, billed with Giselle and Petrushka, middle-brow and middle-class idea of culture.

As it turns out, Kat Ellinger also makes the connection between Midnight Lace and giallo in her commentary track. Ellinger draws the line with connections to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace to the films made about a decade later by Argento, Martino and others. Ellinger discusses also how producer Ross Hunter packaged the film primarily for a female audience, as well as employ stars from an earlier era in supporting roles, as Myrna Loy and Roddy McDowell appear here. Connections of various cast members to the films by Alfred Hitchcock are mentioned, notably Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but also supporting cast members Gavin, John Williams and Anthony Dawson. Unless I missed it, Ellinger does not mention Herbert Marshall as having appeared in two Hitchcock films. Being from London, Ellinger is able to point out how the rear screen appearance of a bridge makes it appear longer than it really is. It may be redundant to mention that the first giallo is considered to be Mario Bava's The Woman Who Knew Too Much.

As for the title, our heroine buys what is probably best described as loungewear, black pants with a lacy black top. Hardly the diaphanous nightie that the title Midnight Lace might suggest, but would anyone expect that from Doris Day? In keeping with the title's undelivered suggestions of eroticism, the best way to enjoy Midnight Lace is to enjoy what the film is, not for all the things it isn't.

Kino Classics has also taken the unusual step of offering a choice of aspect ratios when viewing Midnight Lace. While most cinephiles will probably choose the original 2:1 version, there is also the option of 1.78 for those who insist that the entirety of their wide-screen television frame be filled.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:02 AM

June 19, 2019

The Running Man

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Romanian poster

Carol Reed - 1963
Arrow Academy BD Region A

I only have very general information, but what ever it was that happened on the set of the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty severely rattled original director Carol Reed. As it was, that film turned out to be the last by Reed's replacement, Lewis Milestone. Most of the time, or at least at a time when the stakes weren't quite as high, directors usually bounced back, even when fired from high profile productions. George Cukor's career hardly suffered from losing Gone with the Wind. Carol Reed thought he could make his return on a mid-budget production, something like the thrillers that brought him his greatest acclaim.

As the booklet notes also remind us, The Running Man is one of five films with "man" in the title. And there are some thematic similarities to Reed's earlier films. Freelance transport pilot Rex Black has lost his plane and cargo in an accident. He considers himself cheated out of his insurance when it is discovered that he missed his most recent payment. With his wife, Stella, he fakes his own death. Stella successfully collects on the life insurance policy. An insurance investigator, Stephen Maddox, comes to Stella's apartment to ask a few questions. He concludes his visit by encouraging Stella to go on holiday following her mourning. Rex, in disguise, and Stella go to Malaga, Spain. Stephen appears in Malaga, but it is never clear whether this is coincidence, or an attempt to verify fraud.

The booklet notes and the supplemental interviews with several surviving crew members all stress that Reed was indecisive during the production of The Running Man. Reed's uncertainty brought about an end to his collaborations with cinematographer Robert Krasker and editor Bert Bates. Adding to Reed's own second guessing himself were impositions by Columbia Pictures - the opening credits designed by Maurice Binder, with a separate title score by Ron Grainer, attempted to open the The Running Man more in the style made popular by the James Bond films. And while no names have been mentioned, it has been suggested the Laurence Harvey was not Reed's first choice as Rex Black. Adding to the confusion was the status of Lee Remick, briefly leaving the Spanish set to replace Marilyn Monroe on the ill-fated Something's Got to Give. Given all the problems, it's a wonder that The Running Man turned out as well as it did.

Robert Krasker was nominated for a BAFTA award for his cinematography. The Running Man is less visually stylized than Odd Man Out or The Third Man, Krasker's most famous work with Reed. Maybe it's the nature of the format, but Krasker's black and white films almost always are more interesting to watch than the films he did in color. There was one very simple shot that I liked, that also owes to the production and costume design. As Rex, Laurence Harvey is wearing a wine red shirt and matching pants. Alan Bates as Stephen is wearing a white shirt and a very light blue suit. Also monochrome Is Lee Remick in a pink sheath dress. Rex and Stephen are conversing at a fountain outside the hotel where all three are staying. Stella has walked back to her room. This is a full shot that probably played better on a movie screen, with the two men seen sitting across from each other with hotel entrance behind them. One has to take the shot in its entirety to notice the small pink figure, Stella, observing the conversation from her window up above the men.

The film ends with a car chase through a mountain road. Reed's most famous films are about men trying to escape, often pursued, closing with death or failure. There is no defense for Rex's dubious scheme to scam the insurance company. His fate appears pre-ordained, a small scale reversal of the adage that events repeat themselves, first as tragedy, and again as farce.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Peter William Evans, author of a book on Carol Reed. Evans primarily discusses the thematic connections of The Running Man with Reed's earlier films, as well as the use of color as signifiers in the clothing of the characters. Also covered are the ways Reed and screenplay writer John Mortimer diverged from the source novel by Shelley Smith, The Ballad of the Running Man. Somewhat of a stretch is comparing the triangle of Rex and Stella Black and Stephen Maddox with that of Harry Lime, Anna and Holly Martins in The Third Man. Evans concedes that The Running Man is a minor film. Even though Reed would realize critical and commercial success just a few years later with Oliver!, it is The Running Man that can be said to be his last truly personal film.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:11 AM

June 11, 2019

My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie

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Mijn Nachten met Susan, Olga, Albert, Julie, Piet & Sandra
Pim de la Parra - 1975
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC/DVD All Regions two-disc set

I still remember my visit to Amsterdam, about fourteen years ago. At the store called Boudisque, I asked if they had any DVDs of films by Pim de la Parra. I don't know for sure if the clerk even knew who Pim de la Parra was. Such was the fate of pioneering Dutch filmmakers Pim de la Parra and his production partner Wim Verstappen. It's only been in the past couple of years that the Netherlands' Eye Institute as rescued the films of "Pim and Wim", and with those films, a bit of film history that was virtually forgotten. Cult Epics has in turn made several of the films available on home video.

The title is a bit misleading as it suggests some kind of hedonistic romp. The character with the title in the first person is Anton, a young man who arrives at a converted farm house to meet up with Barbara, a woman never seen in the film. The farm house and a nearby shack are the home for Susan, Sandra, Olga, Julie, and as listed in the Dutch title, Piet and Albert. The farmhouse is an informal commune for these six dropouts. Anton's presence has disrupted the relative equilibrium of the group, although the first scene reveals Sandra and Olga to be anarchic forces. The French title of the film is Les Furies which more specifically would seem to refer to Sandra and Olga as vengeful female spirits, although no motivation for their actions is provided.

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Like his debut feature, Obsessions, de la Parra again visits the themes of sex, murder and voyeurism. There is nudity and soft-core sex, as was par for European films during the mid-1970s. Pim and Wim produced films that straddled the line between serious commercial filmmaking and outright exploitation, constantly pushing the envelope of what Dutch censors would allow. This is a much more polished work than de la Parra's previous films, aided by use of a widescreen format. The six commune dwellers have chosen to isolate themselves from society at large, with Albert choosing to enclose himself in a room illuminated by a hanging red light bulb, while Piet lives in the nearby shack, physically expressive but orally mute. Julie is mostly seen sleeping. With police investigating a possible murder in the vicinity of the farmhouse, the choices are to break the cycle of self-enforced separation from others, or to totally succumb to madness.

The blu-ray comes with several supplements. In his video introduction, Pim de la Parra tells of how Rutger Hauer, not yet an international star, turned down the role of Anton. Three early short films are also included, with the two about the perpetually clumsy Joop showcasing the goofy humor of Pim and Wim. The supplement with stills and posters provided the information on the French title for My Nights . . .. The film is notable also has containing the final film work by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, whose atonal film scores had previously been part of several horror films produced by Amicus and Hammer.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:00 AM

June 04, 2019

Devil's Kiss

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La perversa caricia de Satan
Jordi Gigo - 1976
Redemption BD Region A

Devil's Kiss has just about everything needed for an exploitation horror movie - gratuitous sex, unmotivated violence, and a story that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And yet I got the feeling that for whatever reasons, writer-director Jordi Gigo was holding back on the sex and gore when he really should have been fearlessly tasteless. This was a French/Spanish co-production made for Eurocine, a French company that specialized in low budget fare that played in the grind houses of Europe.

While the better known Eurocine productions were directed by Jesus Franco, with Jean Rollin also on hand for a couple of films, one of the other frequent filmmakers was Pierre Chevalier. I have to admit I have seen only a handful of films compared to historian Tim Lucas, who contributed some notes on the back of the blu-ray cover. But I have seen Chevalier's Orloff and the Invisible Man which is deliriously unhinged. More laughable than horrifying, the film also presents an argument that some actresses should not be seen in the nude, even if it is a requirement. Not only were these movies made to be screened in theaters where paying close attention to the story was besides the point, the films sometimes would have pornographic inserts based on when and where said film was shown.

There is very little information on Jordi Gigo. In writing about an earlier DVD release of Devil's Kiss, critic Aled Jones commented, "Not wanting to belittle Jordi Gigo and his directing chops but he does come across as a third assistant on a Jess Franco shoot in terms of talent which is hardly a recommendation." IMDb indicated that Gigo had a hand in writing Exorcismo with star Paul Naschy in 1975. Following Devil's Kiss, Gigo made a soft-core film, Porno Girl, before slipping into obscurity. Devil's Kiss definitely has a cult following, but it is primarily based on enthusiasm for the genre both dismissed and loved as "Eurotrash".

A spiritualist, Claire Grandier, blames the Duke of Haussemont for the suicide of her husband. She accepts the invitation to one of the Duke's parties as part of her scheme for revenge. With Grandier is the scientist, Romain Gruber, who specializes in mental telepathy. The guests at the party are part of what use to be known as "the jet set". Grandier holds a seance where the lights suddenly go out, but that's far less horrifying than the fashion show beforehand featuring garishly ugly bell bottom jumpsuits. The two become houseguests of the Duke. The reanimation of a bald, facially scarred corpse is only the beginning of their havoc.

Jordi Gigo appears to have taken various elements from horror movies almost at random, to form an incoherent mix. I bet you didn't know that zombies could be stopped by the sight of a crucifix? The blu-ray comes with both the English and French language dubbed tracks, but neither makes a difference in any added nuances. The expository dialogue is dull enough to make one long for the inane prose of Ed Wood, Jr. The cast is made up of primarily secondary Eurocine contract players Silvia Solar, Olivier Mathot and Evelyne Scott. Were it available online, I would love to read what horror film historian Stephen Thrower has written that might cast a brighter light on Devil's Kiss. As it is, the critical consensus is that this is cinema audit, loved by the most dedicated genre aficionados. You can't totally hate a film with the line, "No one will notice an additional grave in a cemetery."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:20 AM