DVD Review: Out of the Unknown

Starring: David Hemmings, Milo O’Shea, Yvonne Mitchell, Lesley-Anne Down
Director: Various
Rating: 8/10

out-of-the-unknown 5Running for four series between 1965 and 1971, Out of the Unknown was an ambitious anthology show that saw the BBC making a rare attempt to do serious full-on sci-fi on the telly. Short stories by top science fiction authors (Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, John Brunner, etc,) would be brought to the small screen by talented writers (Troy Kennedy Martin, Stanley Miller) and directors (Peter Sadsy, Philip Saville, James Cellan Jones) and a bunch of well-known or up and coming thesps (Milo O’Shea, David Hemmings, Anthony Bate).

Although some of the stories in Series One have contemporary or near-contemporaryout-of-the-unknown 7 settings, it’s the straight SF ones that impress the most. As so often with British science fiction, these offer a downbeat, darkly cynical view of life among the stars. In the very first episode, John Wyndham’s No Place Like Earth, a human marooned on Mars after the Earth has exploded gets a shocking reminder of just how horrible humans can be when he samples the totalitarian miseries of mankind’s new Venusian nation. Made at a time when the BBC had only just moved from live broadcasting to pre-recorded shows, it’s very much a filmed play, a bit slow and talky by modern standards, but literate and willing to explore the issues it raises in some detail. It’s also an episode that’s clearly had some money spent on it, filmed on a big sound stage and even with a bit of location shooting on Loch Lomond.

???????????????The dreariness of space flight is emphasised in The Counterfeit Man, in which the exhausted crew of a space ship on the way home from a miserably uneventful trip to Ganymede discover that they’re playing host to a shape-shifting alien and then have to try various ruses to draw it out. The stars outside the ship’s porthole seem to have been created with strings of Christmas lights, but aside from that, this is a taut, well-crafted episode with a story (by Alan E. Nourse) not dissimilar to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (also 1965). The effects of being stuck in a spaceship are further analysed in Thirteen to Centaurus, a typically subtle and probing J.G. Ballard story about a crew on a multi-generational journey that spans the decades. To say more would be to spoil its various twists, but it’s another highlight.

Isaac Asimov’s Sucker Bait is even more impressively gloomy. It concerns a scientificout-of-the-unknown 4 expedition to a alien planet to find out what has happened to a lost colony. There’s a lurking menace, but the various experts are too busy bickering to notice, and the only one who grasps the full scale of the problem is a highly strung, data-collecting savant who winds everyone up as he goes about asking unsettling questions. It’s a clever story, and director Naomi Capon stylishly uses swathes of deep shadow to evoke the sense of a hostile landscape.

Although a few of the episodes from Series One look a little soft and grey on these DVD transfers, the best have an attractive starkness, with the graininess of the black-and-white lending itself to the gritty nature of the tales. In all cases, the audio is clean and natural.

out-of-the-unknown 1Even more visually striking is the adaptation of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops that kicks off Series Two. The setting is a future where people live deep underground in high-tech cells, catered to and controlled by a vast, all-encompassing machine. A young man rebels against the system and tries to escape to the surface, while his rather brittle mother is torn between disapproval and the tug of unacknowledged maternal instincts. With its bleak, high-key lighting and angular, pulsating set designs, it’s an episode that brews up an intense, almost deranged atmosphere, and Yvonne Mitchell (in a bald cap) gives a brilliant performance which is all the more welcome as there were so few female faces in Series One.

With Series Three, we arrive at the era of colour. Unfortunately, it was also the era of the BBC’s junking policy. This had already taken a chunk out of Series Two, with nine out of thirteen episodes being wiped, but in the case of Series Three the devastation is even more complete. Only one and a bit episodes remain, and this is all the more galling as the series seems to have been an absolute corker.

So what’s left? Well, there’s The Last Lonely Man, a story about a form of technology out-of-the-unknown 6which allows the minds of the dead to be transferred into the brains of the living as a kind of back-up copy. It features a good performance from George Cole as a man who literarally finds himself in two minds. And then there’s a fair percentage of The Little Black Bag (with restored colour from a black-and-white recording), in which a dodgy doctor and a con girl get their hands on some futuristic medical kit.

out-of-the-unknown 3The DVD set also includes reconstructions of several missing episodes, using methods similar to those employed with lost episodes of Doctor Who, combining audio, stills and CG. Although it would be churlish not to be grateful for these efforts, in a way it would have been kinder if they hadn’t bothered, as it only reinforces the impression that the episodes that survived were the ones that weren’t good enough to be wiped. Basically, anything with a robot or a space ship or a death ray went in the dustbin. For all their interest, then, the later discs make for rather depressing viewing.

It’s typical that while Series Three has been all but obliterated, you get a whole five episodes of the inferior fourth and final series. By now, the show had shifted away from science fiction towards Tales of the Unexpected-style psychological thrillers, employing small-scale teleplays written to a formula and a budget. The best of those that survive is To Lay a Ghost, which stars a young Lesley-Anne Down as a sexually frigid newlywed who acquires a spectral stalker when she and her husband move into an old dark house. It’s a story whose attitude to its rapey subject matter now seems somewhat cavalier (there’s an unsavoury pun in the title), but it’s livened up considerably by the presence of Peter Barkworth as an eager psychic investigator, and Down is at her best as the twisted lead character. The rest of the remaining episodes are perfectly watchable, but they’re much less arresting than the earlier science fiction stories. It’s a bit of a sad end for a show that started so full of ambition.

Extras include an extremely informative 42-minute documentary, with interviews with out-of-the-unknown 8many of those involved. It’s very good on what it was like making telly back then, in those days of 2-inch videotape and bulky pedestal cameras – each episode was recorded in one mammoth three-hour shoot, in an almost continuous performance. The only downside is that there’s lots of talk about episodes you’re not going to see because they don’t exist any more.

There are also audio commentaries to eleven of the episodes. Peter Sadsy, who seems to have total recall about those long ago days, makes several valuable contributions, supplying just the sort of minute technical details that fans will delight in, and there’s a very jolly commentary by Jack Headley to This Body Is Mine – he talks in an extremely unsentimental way about the constraints the actors operated under back then, recalling that on camera days “you didn’t stop for anything.” Overall, this box set is a worthy monument to a show that at its best brought some first-class grown-up science fiction to British televisions.

Blu-ray Review: Diary of a Lost Girl

Starring: Louise Brooks, Valeska Gert
Director: G.W. Pabst
Rating: 8/10

diary-of-a-lost-girl 4Louse Brooks’ second collaboration with G.W. Pabst is a sustained attack on gender inequality when it comes to matters of sex. Brooks plays an innocent pharmacist’s daughter who finds herself on the slippery slope when she is gotten with child by her father’s lecherous assistant. Refusing to marry a man she doesn’t love, she’s packed off to a reformatory and from there winds up in a brothel – although ironically this turns out to be something of a haven of honesty and plain-dealing in a society rife with injustice and double standards.

As you would expect with Pabst, the film’s high-minded indignation is complicated by a rather more libidinous response to the lead character’s travails. diary-of-a-lost-girl 2The standout moments of the movie are the scenes in the reformatory, run by an extraordinary pair of sadistic ghouls – a leering bald thug and a mean-mouthed lesbian – who regiment the girls’ every movement and make them take part in vigorous forced aerobics. The nightmarish, 1984-like nature of the regime is emphasised by the fact that the inmates dress in militaristic garb and have their hair slicked back – an androgynous get-up which actually serves only to make Brooks more delectable. By contrast, the brothel is a place where people are accepted for the mixed bags they are. Witness Dr Vitalis, an avuncular character who’s torn between wanting to save the girls from prostitution and his eagerness to make the most of their personal services.

diary-of-a-lost-girl 1Throughout, Brooks displays that combination of passivity and poise that has made her such an object of enduring interest to filmgoers, a cool, Buster Keatonish quality in the face of life’s ups and downs – responding to good things with a wry, lopsided smile, and to the news that she’s going to have to earn her living on her back with a brief look of sadness and resignation. It’s a poise that Pabst clearly adores, while also feeling an impulse to shake it up, as in the comical scene where, putting into practise what she learned at the reformatory, she dresses up in a leotard and tries to interest a male customer in a course of energetic aerobic exercises.

This 2K transfer of the 1997 restoration of the film is on the whole very nice, with plenty diary-of-a-lost-girl 3of detail and vibrant contrast, although inevitably there are some scratches and scrapes and a slight dropping-off in clarity in some of the restored cuts (the film was heavily censored upon its initial release). For some reason the picture always seems crisper and brighter whenever Brooks is on screen – her trademark bob looks very shiny and silky throughout, and the black velvet of her funeral dress towards the end comes up with particular fidelity. In addition to the main feature, you get an informative 11-minute video essay which looks at Books’ and Pabst’s careers and a boolet stuffed with writings, most notably a memoir of various meetings with Pabst by famed German film critic Lotte H. Eisner.

Blu-ray Review: Spirited Away

Starring: Daveigh Chase, Suzanne Plechette
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Rating: 10/10

spirited-away 3Spirited Away was so universally hailed as a magnum opus upon its original release that it actually caused a mild backlash among long-term Miyazaki fans, who began to argue the case for others of his movies to be considered as his masterpiece. But looking at it now on Blu-ray, it’s hard to view this story about a timorous ten-year-old girl who finds herself trapped inside a bathhouse for the spirits as anything less than one of the most densely magical fantasies every put on screen.

It bursts with moments of wonder – as when the girl, Chihiro, penetrates the spirited-away 1bathhouse’s smoky underbelly and meets the strange, six-limbed creature who toils in the boiler room, or the washing and scrubbing of a stink spirit in a giant bath overflowing with expensive scented water – but at the same time what is seen feels like only a tiny part of what is being suggested, and it’s this that makes it so hypnotically compelling. It’s also why the film is so moving and beautiful in a way that’s difficult to articulate. The sequence, for instance, when Chihiro, the mysterious creature called No Face and a couple of other taggers-along catch a train through waterlogged marshland, as evening falls – it’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, packed full of gentle humour and melancholy poetry, and it ranks with the waiting for the bus in the rain scene in My Neighbour Totoro as perhaps the finest sequence in all of Miyazaki’s movies.

spirited-away 4On this stunningly sharp HD transfer, the animation seems richer than in almost any of Miyazaki’s other films, with a handmade, painterly quality that’s full of nuance and texture – early on, the mysterious shortcut, with its mossy shrines, looks extremely vivid; there’s a visceral thrill as night falls in the deserted theme park, the lanterns glow into life, and the richly garbed spectres come out; and the effect is psychedelically colourful when Chihiro runs through a maze of flowers to visit her parents in the pig pen. Time and again, the visuals have a solidity of presence and sense of depth which you just don’t get on DVD. The disc also features an enjoyable 47-minute Japanese-language “making of” with some revealing behind the scenes footage. It offers an earthy, unsentimental perspective on a director it’s all too easy to view as an ethereal auteur – we see him scribbling away at his little desk, running staff meetings and cooking a dinner of poor man’s salty noodles with beaten eggs for his team as they work late to meet tight deadlines.

Blu-ray Review: The Thief of Bagdad

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong
Director: Raoul Walsh
Rating: 8/10

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, Douglas Fairbanks and Anna May WongOver 90 years since it was made, Douglas Fairbanks’ silent era swashbuckler continues to wow with its combination of gymnastic action, cheeky humour, inventive special effects and lavish scale. Although Raoul Walsh was the putative director, this was very much Fairbanks’ baby. After first considering famous painter Maxfield Parrish for the role of art director, he drafted in the young William Cameron Menzies to create a glittering, towering Art Deco vision of Baghdad on 6 ½ acres of the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio backlot. The result was a perfect setting for Fairbanks’ remarkable physical grace and strength.

At the start of the film, his Ahmed is a barechested idler and braggart – convincingly thief-of-bagdad 4boyish despite the fact that Fairbanks was 40 years old during shooting – who filches while others toil and has a good laugh doing it. However, he rapidly grows up when he breaks into the Caliph’s palace and falls swooningly in love with Julanne Johnston’s Princess (although a modern viewer’s eye is more likely to stray to her scantily clad serving girls, in their pre-Code short shorts and bandeau tops). Intrigue and amiable comedy follow as he disguises himself as one of the princely suitors courting her, finding a deadly rival in Cham Shang, the treacherous prince of the Mongols who has designs on the whole of Baghdad.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, Douglas FairbanksThen, in the latter half of the movie, Ahmed goes into full heroic mode as he sets off on a quest to locate a magic chest and encounters a series of perils and wonders brought to life with the best trick shots and mechanical effects the era had to offer, including a creepy tree man, a zippy magic carpet and a green-tinted mermaid’s cavern complete with octopus chandeliers, a giant water bug and floaty slowmo swordplay.

Walsh’s direction is just a little static compared to, say, Murnau or Griffith, but the film thief-of-bagdad 7bubbles with a wit and an intelligent eye for detail that keep it from feeling even remotely old and fusty. The characters are brightly sympathetic. The Princess, a modern girl under her gauzy draperies and nose jewellery, charms us by reacting with understandable horror when she catches sight of her suitors, wincing at their various flaws. At the same time there are touches of the full-bloodedly exotic, as in the way the Caliph’s palace is guarded at night by tigers and a huge, furious-looking chimpanzee.

thief-of-bagdad 1The screen is also livened up enormously by some unusually brave and thoughtful casting in key roles – Japanese actor Sojin Kamijama gives a leanly malevolent performance as the Mongol Prince and the stunning, long-legged Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong in all allure as the Mongol slave girl who is his spy in the Caliph’s palace. There’s even a bit of cross-dressing going on, with actress Mathilde Comont doing a comical turn as a portly Persian prince who is in the running for the Princess’ hand.

The HD transfer, taken from a 35 mm print, is very clean and sharp, with little in the wayTHE THIEF OF BAGDAD, Douglas Fairbanks of dirt, grain or scratches. The textures of costumes, the sheen of skin, all come up very nicely, as do the spectacular set-pieces, such as the suitors’ procession into the Caliph’s palace, Ahmed’s visit to the Valley of Fire and the cast-of-thousands-style scenes of Mongol hordes towards the end of the movie. Extras include a 17-minute video essay (stills with captions) by Fairbanks’ biographer Jeffrey Vance with some nice technical info and some great behind-the-scenes shots, including one of the magic carpet suspended on steel wires from a giant crane.

Vance returns for an extremely informative and authoritative audio commentary. He talks about the various trick shots and practical FX that were employed on the movie – such as piano wire for the magic rope, and glass shots (a sheet of painted glass interposed between the camera and the scene) for the mermaids’ cavern – and about how influenced Fairbanks was by ballet, particularly Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (hard to imagine a modern Hollywood A-lister being quite so au fait with the avant-garde performing arts).

Blu-ray Review: The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Starring: Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd
Director: Val Guest
Rating: 9/10

day-the-earth-caught-fire 5Perhaps because his other credits include such dubious titles as Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Au Pair Girls, Val Guest’s most ambitious film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) has never quite received its due as a classic of British science fiction. Yet over 50 years on, it remains a surprisingly plausible picture of a doomsday scenario.

Starting with a topaz-tinted vision of a capital city deserted and sizzling in the heat, it day-the-earth-caught-fire 7then flashes back ninety days to a London experiencing unseasonal floods and to a busy Fleet Street newsroom which begins to suspect that something is up with the British weather. Under the avuncular eye of the newspaper’s science editor (Leo McKern), a sulky, alcoholic reporter named Peter (Edward Judd)investigates and runs straight into a White Hall cover up. This being the Cold War era, soon the suspicion builds that the odd climatic conditions have got something to do with the nuclear testing being carried out by the Russians and Americans.

day-the-earth-caught-fire 2Guest – a reporter himself in his younger days – is at pains to present all of this with the utmost verisimilitude. Harry Waxman’s superb widescreen black-and-white cinematography delivers documentary-style scenes of London descending into chaos and melting in the heat. The newsroom set was meticulously copied from the offices of the Daily Mail, its fictional editor played by a real former editor of the Daily Express, Arthur Christiansen (the amateurishness of his performance has come in for some stick, but he has one of the best moments of the film when he reacts to the news of the world’s imminent demise with an understated slump of the shoulders).

Integrated carefully into this docu-drama approach are some surprisingly classy (given day-the-earth-caught-fire 3the film’s modest £200,000 budget) special effects, culminating in Les Bowie’s beautiful matte painting of a dried-up Thames. Although individually some of these sequences have their drawbacks, what they capture with uncanny foresight is the feel of a climate teetering out of control, the weather throwing one anomaly after another at the bemused British public – a gale, a cyclone, fires, an impenetrable heat-mist that comes rolling up the Thames past Battersea Power Station to bring London to a standstill.

The other way in which the film feels very modern is in its scepticism about those in power, whose bungling has allowed the disaster to occur. When the Prime Minister makes a vaguely reassuring speech over the radio, the journalists listening to it in the pub react with chortles of cynicism.

day-the-earth-caught-fire 8With the film’s plucky Londoners displaying the same sport of spirit they showed in the Blitz, social collapse is gradual. But there’s a psychological dimension too, as the soaring temperatures begin to loosen up social mores. Witness the frisson of sexual permissiveness in the scene – daring for British cinema of the time, and still quite titillating even today – where Peter takes shelter in the flat of a switchboard operator called Jeannie (Janet Munro). While he’s skulking in the bathroom, she’s lying in bed in the nude with just a thin sheet on top of her. She then calls him in to answer the phone, and the ensuing erotic tension is thicker than the heat-mist that has left Peter stranded. (There’s no sign in this cut of a completely topless scene by Munro which was filmed for the continental market, although several stills from it are reproduced in the extras.)

There’s only one thing that mars the pleasure slightly, and that’s Peter. Conceived in theday-the-earth-caught-fire 9 Angry Young Man mould that was then fashionable, he now seems obnoxiously boorish and self-pitying and a bit of a sex pest. Luckily, Janet Munro more than compensates as the crop-haired, assertive Jeannie. Fed up of doing goody-goody parts in Disney films, Munro was apparently eager to tackle a more adult role. Almost unbelievably, her sultry performance failed to make her a star and in fact alienated what fanbase she had.

day-the-earth-caught-fire 4This Blu-ray features a 4K scan taken mainly from the original camera negative, reinstating the yellow tinting to the beginning and ending of the film that was omitted in many cinema prints. It’s an absolutely stunning, flawless, silky smooth transfer. The detail is incredibly sharp – after Jeannie has washed her hair, you can see a tiny bead of water trickling down the back of her neck. You feel the movement of the camera lens, and the visuals have a hyper-real, almost 3D quality which is actually enhanced in some of the scenes by the gigantic backing photos of London locations that Guest used as a cheaper alternative to live sets.

The disc also comes with some very enjoyable extras. There’s a 33-minute day-the-earth-caught-fire 1documentary which looks at the film’s origins (Guest had been nursing the idea since 1954, but was only to realize his ambitions after the success of Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Neville Shute’s post-nuclear novel On the Beach), as well as its themes and the restoration process. There’s a nice, gossipy 9-minute chat with Leo McKern, and a trio of Cold War oddities, including a half hour documentary about something called the “United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring System” – people in a bunker like something out of Dr Strangelove. There’s a one hour video of a Guardian Lecture with Val Guest at the NFT in 1998, with the director sporting a dashing goattee. Guest is a great interviewee, meticulous with dates and facts. He talks about his early career writing comedies for Will Hay, and his time at Hammer where he was given a pile of Nigel Kneale scripts to adapt into a film.

day-the-earth-caught-fire 10We hear from him again in an audio commentary, in which he mentions Judd’s difficult personality – “like an annoying gnat.” He also refers to Janet Munro’s early death in surprising terms, remarking that she drowned when she fell out of a boat, which is not what it says on IMDb and Wikipedia.

Just to show that the BFI has left no stone unturned for this release, we also get “Think day-the-earth-caught-fire 6Bike”, the bluntly menacing road safety ad for which Judd was best-known later in his career, and a collection of stills and various other bits and pieces, including some raunchy publicity shots that Guest arranged for Munro to take with cheesecake photographer Harrison Marks, whose wife, ’50s pin-up Pamela Green, has a small bit part in the movie as a nurse on duty at the gates of Battersea Park. With excellent extras and an amazing transfer, this has to count as one of the releases of the year for SF fans, and it should do a lot towards reclaiming The Day the Earth Caught Fire as one of British science fiction’s finest moments.

Blu-ray Review: The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Starring: Leticia Roman, John Saxon
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: 8/10

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) has a place in the history books because it is widely credited with laying down the template for the giallo subgenre – Italian thrillers with bags of style and an element of horror. It’s also an example of Bava using his genius to transform a rather routine storyline. An impressionable young American girl, Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) comes to Rome to visit her aunt, only for the old dear to expire on her very first night there. Fleeing the deathbed in horror, Nora gets mugged and conked on the head on Rome’s famous Spanish Steps, and while she’s still fuzzy with concussion she witnesses a brutal stabbing. The unfortunate girl is soon getting threatening phone calls and apparently being stalked by a bloodthirsty killer.

The script essays various half-hearted double bluffs. Nora’s a keen reader of murder mysteries – could her imagination be getting the better of her? There was a stabbing on the exact same spot ten years before – could she have had a psychic flashback? The guy sitting next to her on the plane in the opening scene gives her a pack of cigarettes laced with marijuana – could she be high? None of these gambits is worked out with any great degree of logic, and Bava pays them scant regard as he concentrates on brewing up a mood of paranoia and derangement, turning The Girl Who Knew Too Much into a study of fear and isolation. Nora’s night terrors are captured in Bava’s most elaborate Gothic style – the aunt’s death and the murder on the Spanish steps are both brilliantly disturbing – and on top of that you have a fetishistic attention to detail and flashes of kinky sexuality (Nora’s naked under her shiny leather raincoat, the policeman who comes across her after she’s been mugged immediately notices, taking a quick peek).

Given free rein, Leticia Roman’s acting style is somewhat wild, so she’s at her best when Bava deploys her as a kind of human mannequin in his twisted fashion plate world. These moments come up well on the HD transfer, which has a touch of grain and a few scratches but which captures the deep shadowiness of the director’s visuals. Her aunt dead in bed, Nora sprawled unconscious on the Spanish steps – it all looks suitably nightmarish and drenched in darkness.

This release from Arrow Video also includes The Evil Eye, the version of the film issued in America by AIP. Don’t let the thought bubble-style voiceover or the the fact that it labours under a rather polite-sounding English dub put you off, because not only is it well worth seeing, you might actually prefer it to the Italian version. Whereas that cultivates a mood of the dreamlike and irrational, The Evil Eye is very much a lighthearted romantic thriller (and, ironically, the more Hitchcockian of the two versions, despite ditching the Hitchcock-quoting title).

Seven minutes longer than the Italian version, it reinstates several scenes presumably cut from the original for being too frivolous or broadly comical.These include some pratfalls at the airport; an extra scene with a mad professor who believes in psychic phenomena; a moment where our heroine is pursued by a suspicious looking goon who turns out to be a randy admirer; and a scene which will delight Bava fans where a photo on Nora’s bedroom wall of her dead Uncle Gustavo (in fact Bava himself, with a Salvador Dali moustache) follows her around with his eyes while she parades about in a short teddy. All of this extra footage is very welcome (although AIP also take away from the viewer’s enjoyment by cutting out the long pan down Nora’s bikini-clad body as she’s lying on the beach). Combined with dialogue rewritten to allow for plenty of jolly banter, the result is undoubtedly a smoother, calmer film than The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and arguably a more rounded, less one-note one as well.

This is reflected in the look of the American print, which is much more silvery-toned and softly graded than the Italian film – a Hollywood gloss which diminishes some of Bava’s chiaroscuro effects, but which allows for an extremely sharp and clean HD transfer. For example, when Nora rings the bell of her aunt’s flat, you can see the sheen of her fingernails in minute detail, and the murder scene looks stunningly nightmarish. If you don’t mind the loss of some of the shadowy starkness of the Italian original, this is a lovely, immaculate transfer, one that adds greatly to appeal of the AIP version.

Extras include a brisk and insightful 21-minute piece with Alan Jones, Richard Stanley, girl-who-knew-too-much 1Mikel Koven and Luigi Gozzi, who discuss the film’s contribution to the giallo genre and its place in Bava’s oeuvre. There’s also an enjoyable 9-minute interview with John Saxon, who talks about how he came to be in the movie thanks to his friendship with Leticia Roman, about living in Rome with other American expats such as Jack Palance and about his prickly relationship with Bava. And Video Watchdog‘s Tim Lucas serves up another of his extremely thorough audio commentaries – in particular, he makes some interesting observations about the importance of camera operator Ubaldo Terzano to the striking look of Bava’s films.

Blu-ray Review: Spione

Starring: Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Rudolf Kleine-Rogge
Director: Fritz Lang
Rating: 7/10

spione 1“A small film but with a lot of action,” is how Fritz Lang described Spione. Which is a bit misleading, since the film clocks in at a hefty two and a half hours – only about half the length of Die Nibelungen, admittedly, but still no one’s idea of a quick watch. But perhaps Lang meant small in terms of budget. Spione was certainly that – at 800,000 Reichsmarks, it cost about a fifth of his previous film, Metropolis. The spiralling budget of his sci-fi epic had left his relationship with his film studio, Ufa, at a low ebb, and Spione was Lang’s attempt to retrench his position by delivering a solid hit on a less lavish scale.

As for the action Lang mentioned, there’s no denying that the film starts off with a blast spione 2of energy. A gang of spies are murdering and thieving at will. Their leader, a Bond-like villain – years before Bond – called Haghi (Rudolf Kleine-Rogge), who is also a banker, and who dispatches masked and greatcoated henchmen to do his bidding from the comfort of a futuristic HQ. Determined to stop him is the secret service’s finest, No 326 (Willy Fritsch), who disguises himself as a filthy, stubbly street lout. Unfortunately, Haghi discovers No 326’s true identity and sends his best operative, Sonja (Gerda Maurus), to ensnare him. However, Sonja and No 326 end up falling in love with each other.

And this is where the film slows to an amble. Lang’s scenarist (and wife, although he was to leave her for Gerda Maurus) Thea von Harbou does little with the espionage milieu other than to use it as a backdrop for a conventional romantic melodrama, much as she was to do with the Jules Verne trappings of their next film, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon). Forgetting that he’s a master spy, No 326 acts like a giddy schoolboy. Sonja cools her heels in one of Haghi’s cells, kept from the man she loves by her jealous ogre of a boss. Hold on, weren’t there important state secrets at stake or something?

During this part of the movie, most of the enjoyment comes from a subplot to do with a kindly Japanese intelligence agent waylaid by one of Haghi’s sexpots (Lien Deyers), who’s soon flouncing around his apartment in an open kimono and not much else. It’s only really in the last forty minutes that the film really delivers on its initial promise. There’s a good sequence on a night train, culminating in a bravura crash in which we see sleeper compartments flattened one after the other by the business end of a colliding locomotive, with Sonja wriggling gamely though the smoking wreckage. And this is followed in turn by a motorbike and car chase shot with a bouncing, juddering camera that still has a Nouvelle Vague-like freshness. All of this is totally compelling – it’s just a shame that Lang takes his foot off the pedal for such a long time in the middle stretch.

spione 3Otherwise, the film is most notable for its austere, functionalist set design and for the cold, sharp style in which it is shot, foreshadowing the aesthetic of Lang’s Hollywood years. It’s a look that is well-served by this excellent 2K transfer, taken in the main from a nitrate print. Bar a little scratching and occasional rough patches, the picture has a crisp, crystaline quality that makes some of the scenes looks like they were shot yesterday. You can practically count the whiskers on No 326’s chin (before he shaves and falls in love), and the train sequence, with its high key lighting, looks spectacular.

There’s also an attractive bonus in the form of a 71-minute German-language spione 4documentary about the making of Spione. All of the German documentaries issued alongside Masters of Cinema’s silent movie catalogue have tended to be very thorough and informative, but this one is particularly enjoyable for the portrait it paints of what it was like to shoot at Ufa’s studio (apparently it was extremely noisy, with the crew yelling at each other all the time, even during takes). It also talks about the process of restoring Spione, which was complicated by the fact that the best negatives were supplied to Britain and the USA, who cut the film drastically to get to the nub of the story. Apparently, a negative was flown to New York by Zeppelin, although this publicity stunt did little for the movie’s prospects in a country on the verge of going crazy for the talkies.