Saturday 10 December 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare rejoices over Joseph L Mankiewicz's HOUSE OF STRANGERS (USA, 1949)

They're so smart it hurts. Richard Conte/"Max" and Susan Hayward/"Irene" at a boxing match in Mank's terrific fourth feature House of Strangers. The new Blu-ray is the third BD "Hollywood Classics" series in a line from Fox France through the ESC label (fnac limited distribution) following the recent Dragonwyck (his second feature) and Hathaway's Kiss of Death from the same outfit. 
The screen is the end of a long take, in which Irene and Max discuss how their relationship as would be mistress and would be husband is going nowhere, in one of Mank's very best pieces of extra marital dialogue. To compound the unexpected upon the unexpected she acutely nails Max as a neutered mamma's boy who's too busy repairing the damage to a dysfunctional immigrant family that's been undermined by an old time paterfamilias (Eddie G Robinson/"Gino"). So her searchlight burns open that rarest of Italian secrets, the impotent, sexless son. 
The movie simply bristles with observation almost always within caesurae like these in which characters break to reflect, not on the action we've just seen, as a lesser director as literal as Huston might, but upon what the audience has barely begun to suspect. Mark's genius resides in these moments of relative inaction in which discourse enlarges and contradicts actions, layering narrative while endowing relationships with greater complexity. Firmly on the Far SIde of Paradise is Mank, and a movie like this almost straight after a studio turkey like Dragonwyck, easily makes the politique des auteurs sing again.
The French disc is fixed Region B with removable French subs. The master has been scanned from an older, unrestored but very good - I am guessing - fine grain which, while not as razor sharp as a new 2K from Mr Belston, shows beautiful grain, and a creamier than noir look. In that respect I think the encode is an excellent reflection of DP Milton Krasner's work for the film.

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