Friday 29 July 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on classics KISS OF DEATH and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and provokes a discussion on the great actor Richard Widmark

Pillaged from David's Facebook posts for the greater enjoyment of Film Alert readers

Victor Mature (Nick Bianco) has his great moment of redemption in what I think is the most emotionally powerful moment of Hathaway's ground breaking Docu-Noir from 1947, Kiss of Death. The entire sequence is filmed within an actual convent orphanage complete with images of Marian Christological love, and Christian resurrection which are also compellingly and powerfully central to Ben Hecht's wonderful screenplay. 
The sheer emotional purity and the impact of this moment, along with Mature's absolutely superb performance makes Tommy Udo's/Richard Wiidmark's third big scene a few minutes later and his violent murder of Mildred Dunnock (Mrs Rizzo) in the wheelchair even more shocking than it already is. Hathaway is one of the great directors of males and male camaraderie, even amongst socially oppositional characters. In Kiss of Death he brings together one of his strongest casts including a tired but sanguine Brian Donleavy, and the fascinating debut of a young Karl Malden, a Method performer straight out of Broadway whose very different performance style gives Hathaway the opportunity to radically block and stage 

Malden's first "intrusion" into the police's setting up of Bianco'a new post prison role as snitch. Watching the multiple setups and independent reblocking of two and four shots, with the wider reverse shots which locate Malden outside the primary group is an object lesson for five minutes of inventive decoupage and staging which is what a director like Hathaway can demonstrate with complete mastery of the medium, here simply to attend to divergent performance styles. This isn't simple formula editing or routine staging, it's expressive control through mise-en-scene. 
The new Blu-ray is from a flawless, spotless super high contrast fine grained 2k from Schawn Belston's team at Fox It's a major upgrade from the older master Fox used for it's Fox Noir series DVD from seven or eight years ago. The 1080p image wipes that and the equally older PAL BFI DVD out of the water. The new BD also includes the fine Silver/Ursiini commentary track from the NTSC Fox disc and the on stage London interview with Widmark from early 2000s which was included on the BFI. This is another must have Blu from Signal One with more Hathaway Noir's to come including The Dark Corner.

The movie birth of 19 year old Lauren Bacall in Hawks' 1944 To Have and Have Not.  I hope the FB compression of the grab displays enough of that lovely pearly nitrate film grain that suffuses the entire length of Warner Archive's gorgeous new Blu-ray of the picture. To Have is surely one of Hawk's most free form works, so totally dedicated is it to the real life meeting and flowering of the Bogart/Bacall relationship which literally comes to life on the screen.

I especially love the way Hawks and his great screenwriter Jules Furthman toss out Hemingway's ponderous source after stealing only the title, and invent this greatest of riffs on four or five characters getting into trouble and singing a few songs and lighting up the screen in scene after scene with barely a nod to conventional narrative, rhythm, plotting, or formal characterization. The movie is so wildly superior even to something as thoroughly professional (indeed entertaining) as Curtiz' eminent studio production, Casablanca I think that the disparity between metteur-en-scene and auteur is nowhere more openly on display for students of the movies than here in these two related studio pictures. The director's personality bobs and flows with the actors, and the writer's work is free enough to endow even the most plot bound bits of story-telling with air and space for improvisation in both dialogue and physical performance.

And speaking of good old film grain, I think the movie's restoration deserves a paragraph of its own. Warner had no O-neg or any other original elements for To Have making it one of their most problematic titles for reissue over the years. When it came to making a new 2K master, Ned Price's team there was able to source the only high quality prime element, a 35mm fine grain nitrate dupe positive held by MoMA in New York. Hence the lovely nitrate quality grain and texture that endows the new transfer with such authenticity. It speaks volumes about such newly arisen co-operation between major Archives and major Movie Companies that such a level of trust and co-operation between the disparate arms of the business is now able to happen. After scanning the dupe positive Warner was able to progress to a completely new master having performed grading, physical and digital correction, stabilization and meticulous timing and the result is a new 4K ready and 35mm archival source which was used for the new BD. Thus does art, industry, preservation and quality control join hands. This would not have likely happened without the current state of the Blu-ray market. I dearly hope such commerce driven film preservation continues into the imminent future of 4K disc and download/streaming media.

...and now a little discussion about Richard Widmark provoked by Kiss of Death from twosupercinephiles.....

Peter Kemp One of the creepiest all Hollywood's noir villains.

Noel Bjorndahl Even when he got more respectable, he still carried that unnerving edge. It all began with his giggling psycho who shoves a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs in Hathaway's Kiss of Death. It proved a career making move. Sam Fuller, however, got the very best out of him in Pickup on South Street in another bent but much more complex performance.

Peter Kemp Indeed,Noel. Widmark never really seemed to 'shake' loose Udo-ness from his onscreen persona. I wonder what he might've been 'really' like away from the camera. I so hope he wasn't boring or bland. Anyone know?

Noel Bjorndahl  In interview, Widmark came across as an easy, affable guy quite proud of his Scandinavian origins. He cited several later performances that he liked, a number of them Westerns. He claimed to have enjoyed working with John Wayne on The Alamo although heour compelling advocacy has fired me up to watch Kiss of Death again, David. I've always liked it as one of Hathaway's best and toughest films but I haven't seen it for years. My copy is not arriving until early October.

Peter Kemp Indeed,Noel. Widmark never really seemed to 'shake' loose Udo-ness from his onscreen persona. I wonder what he might've been 'really' like away from the camera. I so hope he wasn't boring or bland. Anyone know?

Thursday 28 July 2016

A Young Cinephile's Diary - Shaun Heenan discovers Seijun Suzuki

Seijun Suzuki
This week’s streamed Fandor/Criterion viewing came from a collection of Japanese crime stories. Most weeks the selection contains at least one movie I’ve been hoping to cross off a list, or from a favourite director, but this week the films were all unknown to me. I chose to watch three films by Seijun Suzuki, who is not a director I’ll seek out too fervently in the future.

I watched Take Aim at the Police Van (Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 1960), Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 1966) and Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 1967) and found that Suzuki is consistent, if nothing else. I found the plots of all three of these yakuza films more or less incomprehensible, with the basic premise dashed out at a rapid pace in the opening minute and then completely ignored. 

These are style experiments, not stories. This bothered me over the course of a single film, and became truly irritating as I watched two more and found them to share the same problem.

With the plot a tertiary concern at best, Suzuki’s films live and die by their sense of style, and they deliver the goods on that front. Take Aim at the Police Van (my favourite of the three films, and easily the most coherent) closely resembles the film noir efforts of American film makers in the preceding two decades, complete with faked deaths and mysterious women linked to underworld figures. The film is in black and white, and employs quick camera movements and rapid editing to match the onscreen violence.

Tokyo Drifter avoids the mimicry of the earlier film, as the focus becomes the use of colour. For the most part, the action here takes place in snow-covered exteriors or in rooms dominated by a single bright colour, with the final confrontation set in a gigantic pure-white room. The film’s visuals are the most impressive of these three, with the vibrant colours adding a touch of surrealism. Some research tells me the film was intended as a parody of the yakuza genre, which is not something I picked up on while watching it. It’s essentially just a series of pretty action scenes.

Branded to Kill was my least favourite of the three films, though perhaps only because I was growing weary of these after watching the first two. Here Suzuki returns to black and white for the story of a hitman, though he employs a number of unusual visual gimmicks, with elements of animation introduced to the frame. Again, the film is intended as something of a parody and again that wasn’t obvious to me while watching it. Apparently the bizarre style of this film was enough to get Suzuki fired from his position at production company Nikkatsu.

Stories of the producers’ frustrations make me wish I liked these films more. I want the director to be the misunderstood artistic hero, and the producers to be the money-hungry Philistines. But if they were wrong, so am I (very possible). I’d like to get hold of a Suzuki film with a good commentary and have someone explain to me what I’m missing here.

Editor’s Note: Suzuki is indeed a strange beast to discover. The shock of his discovery which took some time after the Nikkatsu films were screened in Japan got a huge kick along when a major retrospective was presented at a long ago Edinburgh Film Festival in the 80s and which was accompanied by a major monograph by Tony Rayns. It reverberated for many years. A mini-retrospective at an early BIFF drew good crowds and was as far as I know the first sighting of the director’s work in these parts though at around the same time Philip Brophy curated a selection for MIFF. 

For an excellent introduction to Suzuki’s work I would suggest readers go to to this essay on the Criterion website by Tony Rayns. Happy discovering of this major figure in Japanese cinema.