Blu-ray review: Sweet Smell of Success

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis
Director: Alexander Mackendrick

sweet-smell-of-success 3“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, powerful newspaper columnist, sneers at Sidney Falco, the boyishly charming but endlessly corruptible press agent played by Tony Curtis. It’s an apt description, too, of this masterly film – sour to the core, yet wrapped in the gorgeous glitter of Elmer Bernstein’s swaggering jazz soundtrack, James Wong Howe’s glistening nocturnal cinematography of Times Square and Mid-Town Manhattan and the gutter poetry of Clifford Odet’s stylized, wise-cracking dialogue.

At its heart are two of cinema’s finest monsters – Hunsecker, paranoid, megalomaniacal, able to make or break careers with a word, and his ambitious minion Falco (“The best of everything is good enough for me”), for whom pimping, conning and blackmailing are all in a night’s work. The way he bites his nails hints at a restlessness and inner unease on Falco’s part – perhaps he’s a tiny bit redeemable – but Hunsecker is Genghis Khan with a typewriter, a towering figure of implacable malevolence, whose twisted, near-incestuous interest in his sister and his determination to break up her relationship with a jazz guitarist drives the plot to its explosive conclusion. A high point for all concerned, this is one of those classic films that lives up to its reputation and then some. 10/10

The 4K transfer from the camera negative looks outstandingly silky and clean in 1.66:1 sweet-smell-of-success 2aspect ratio – a few of the exteriors retain some grain because of fast exposure times, presumably, but the ominous high-key lighting that accompanies Hunsecker everywhere, giving a cold glitter to his glasses, has a delicious crispness and sparkle. Subtle effects such as the uplighting on Rita the cigarette girl’s worried face in the jazz club are captured beautifully, and even the the monochrome greys of Sidney’s crummy apartment have great presence and solidity. 9/10

sweet-smell-of-success 1A slightly odd-looking but very interesting 26-min appreciation by Philip Kemp – he goes through director Alexander Mackendrick’s bio, talks about the source of the film in a semi-autobiographical short story by Ernest Lehman (who was himself a press agent) and Odets’ mammoth 4-month rewrite of Lehman’s script. Philip Kemp returns for a selected scenes commentary looking at some of the film’s classic set-pieces, with discussions of the use of noir imagery and the brilliance of Odets’ scene construction. Best of all, though, is a 54-min documentary about Mackendrick made for Scottish TV. It offers a very detailed look at his career, with Burt Lancaster chipping in a few barbed remarks, and it also gives some glimpses of his later occupation as a teacher at a film school. The man himself tells funny stories in a soft Scottish brogue. A delight for Mackendrick’s many admirers. 10/10


Blu-ray review: Day of Anger

Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Guiliano Gemma
Director: Tonino Valerii

day-of-angerDespite its director being a protégé of Sergio Leone, Day of Anger (1967) owes more to the tough psychological westerns of Anthony Mann than it does to Leone’s swaggering horse operas. It’s a tale of innocence corrupted as lowly Scott Mary (Guiliano Gemma), a kid who works as a dustman (in the old-fashioned sense of collecting people’s faeces), falls in with Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef), an ageing gunman who teaches him the tricks of his deadly trade, forewarning him, “Don’t get your hopes up too high, because it’s a dirty life.” With Scott tagging along, Frank starts to take over the small town where Scott was once the lowest of the low, squeezing its sanctimonious citizens with a combination of blackmail and threats.

From the moment he rides into view, Van Cleef shines as the smart, dapper Frank, a clever, alert character who knows how to stay just on the right side of the law. As corrupting influences go, he’s pretty likeable – Mephistophelean, yes, but also capable of a disarming honesty and charm. Aside from Van Cleef’s controlled performance, the film’s key distinguishing feature is its visual slickness. It was shot mainly in Italy, and there’s an Italian flair and prettiness to its ‘Scope cinematography and production design, culminating in the sequence where Frank brings Art Nouveau to the Wild West with The 45, a sparkling new saloon that boasts gold and silver murals in the style of Alphonse Mucha and an entranceway flanked by giant gilded Colt pistols. Recommended to admirers of Van Cleef’s performances opposite Clint Eastwood, and to anyone intrigued by the thought of a classically shot western with a European twist. 7/10

A lovely transfer of a good-looking film. No grain, and a warm, airy glow to the panoramas of the town. The velvets and satins of Frank’s saloon have a luxe sheen, the town cathouse is a riot of bright dresses, the sweating close-ups have a vibrant presence, and there’s plenty of depth and detail in the ‘Scope long shots. 8/10

As well as the original 1 hr, 55 min Italian version of the film, there’s an international version which trims 30 minutes from the second hour. A 10-min interview with the director, in 4:3 aspect ratio, with talk about the Oedipal content of the story, the origins of the script and the shooting schedule (2 weeks in Spain, 8 weeks in Italy). Co-scriptwriter Ernesto Galstaldi gives a nice, chatty 13-min interview, discussing his long collaboration and close personal friendship with the director. 43-min talking head piece with critic Roberto Curti – lots of info about Tonino Valerii’s career and his relationship with Sergio Leone. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Darling

Starring: Julie Christie, Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey
Director: John Schlesinger

darling 1With hindsight you can see the clear European influences on this 1965 tale of a carefree Chelsea girl who rises up to become a countess, shedding men and illusions upon the way. There’s a Truffautesque blitheness to the early scenes where Julie Christie’s Diana is swept out of obscurity by Dirk Bogarde’s awfully nice man from the BBC (presenter of a horribly earnest programme called “Art and You”). Then Fellini takes over as Diana parties with Laurence Harvey’s cynical, sexually ambivalent playboy and his louche Eurotrash cronies. And finally Antonioni is the presiding spirit in a final act that’s all spiritual desolation under harsh Italian sunlit.

By the end we’ve learnt that Diana is shallow, hypocritical, mercenary and cruel to her goldfish – points all hammered home in Frederic Raphael’s bitchy, loquacious script, which ironically contrasts a gushing woman’s magazine style voiceover with the less than lily-white realities of the model-turned actress-turned socialite’s life. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a lyricism to director John Schlesinger’s scene-setting which softens the script’s obvious tilts at declining cultural and moral standards, and Christie does something miraculous with Diana – breathing life into her and making her hypocrisy and fakeness seem not like cold calculations but like the restless trying on of hats of someone who feels cramped and confined by society’s traditional expectations of women.

On top of that, you get excellent performances from Bogarde and Harvey as the languid men who get trampled under Diana’s feet, a parade of beguiling Mod fashions, and darling 2some marvellously acidic lines: “I don’t take whores in taxis.” “Put away your Penguin Freud, Diana.” It was a daring film for its time too – in its depiction of a London that not only swings but swings both ways, in Christie’s brief but telling nude scene towards the end. For all these reasons, Darling stands head and shoulders over most British movies of the early ’60s, even if, like its heroine, it seems to have identity issues and even if it is a bit dated around the edges. 8/10

Some rather busy and persistent grain, but no print damage, and the set-pieces come up with airy freshness and an attractive bloom – an early stroll on the banks of the Thames, the cottage on Capri. The HD transfer retains the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of the original theatrical release, with slim borders at each end. 6/10

Trailer only.

Blu-ray review: Wooden Crosses

Starring: Pierre Blanchar, Charles Vanel
Director: Raymond Bernard

wooden-crossesRaymond Bernard’s WWI movie saves its heavy artillery – literally – for its latter stages, with a set-piece assault on the pulverized remnants of a village that features some powerful imagery of bleached earth and half-buried, casually ignored bodies. More generally, though, its tone is one of quiet romantic pessimism as it follows the fate of a squadron through the slow attrition of the trenches.

For a film made back in 1932, Wooden Crosses in many ways has a strikingly modern sensibility. Its mood is anti-heroic, with an emphasis on the fear and misery of war and the randomness of death – a slaughter caused by friendly fire, someone getting shot by a sniper as he goes off to fill some canteens with water. Verité-style scenes capture the rough but kindly characters who make up the backbone of the squadron. But admirable though the film’s attempts to portray the humdrum realities of a soldier’s life are, it lacks that little bit of dramatic focus, and it’s not helped by some overly poetic flourishes on the director’s part. As a result, certain episodes – most notably, one where the squadron sit helplessly in their dugout, listening as the enemy dig a tunnel underneath them and plant a mine – which should be nail-bitingly tense, somehow fall short of the mark.

Nonetheless, this in an impressive, pioneering piece of work, with earthy performances from a cast of ex-soldiers, and striking open air cinematography which has the close, cross-hatched quality of an old daguerreotype. 7/10

Occasional flickering grain here or there, but on the whole the restoration from the original camera negative looks very handsome, with wet inky blacks during the numerous nocturnal scenes, and lots of close-grained detail in grimy costumes and backdrops. 8/10

Plenty to chew over here. A 32-min piece looking at the film and the novel by Roland Dorgeles on which it is based. A fascinating 24 min account of the restoration of the film, which has gone through various edits over the years. An extremely interesting 11-min piece on the technicalities of early sound recording and mixing. Short archive interviews with Bernard and Dorgeles, who was a family friend of the director. Plus two very enjoyable and nicely crafted pieces not directly related to the film, one on a WWI artist, another on a soldier who captured the conflict in photographs. 10/10

DVD Review: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

Starring: Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock

This 4-DVD set collects together the first season of the BBC’s 1960s series featuring the famous sleuth, and between them these 13 episodes cover an impressive range – as well as lively adaptations of famous stories such as The Speckled Band and The Copper Beaches, you get tales of the macabre such as The Devil’s Foot (in which Holmes goes on holiday to Cornwall to recuperate, only to find himself investigating a case of some strange deaths during a card game); the frothy, lighthearted puzzle of The Six Napoleons (why is someone breaking into houses and smashing plaster busts of the famous French general?); and sturdy melodramas such as The Illustrious Client, in which a society girl is sucked into a relationship with a wily and twisted villain (played with gleeful relish by Peter Wyngarde), who gives as good as he gets and puts Holmes on the back foot.

Solidly entertaining though it is, however, you do have to make allowances for the series’ age – the pace is slow by modern standards, visually it’s hardly a thing of beauty, and you probably wouldn’t want to bother with it now if it weren’t for one very important factor – the genius of Douglas Wilmer. Aside from being slightly short, he’s the spitting image of the famous Sidney Paget illustrations of Conan Doyle’s detective, and in terms of looks and manner, never was there an actor more fitted to take on the legendary deerstalker and Meerschaum pipe. But that’s only the half of it, because he also brings something very special to his portrayal of Holmes – a sparkle, an affability, something that tells you that this guy is on the side of the angels, and yet at the same time touches of humbleness and human vulnerability.

In all of this, he’s well matched by the wonderful Nigel Stock – no other Watson has ever had quite such a comical look of eternal puzzlement. The various tete-a-tetes between the two are a total joy, and together they have to rank as one of the wittiest and most lovable Holmes-Watson pairings ever to have been put on screen. It goes without saying, then, that this DVD release will be of major interest to all those millions of Holmes fans out there. 8/10

The DVD transfers are taken from a 16mm version of the original 405 line videotape recording, and even with the benefit of high-def restoration techniques the results are still rather soft and grainy – rather less impressive, for instance, than the transfers of the BFI’s recent Out of the Unknown box set. On the plus side, the sound is clear and resonant, with no hiss or tinniness. 6/10

An interesting 21-min interview with Wilmer, in which he reveals that he didn’t do a second series because he was worn out by the BBC’s short rehearsal schedules. It’s not his only complaint about the show, and you get the impression that he wasn’t the easiest of actors to please. In addition, there are five audio commentaries. Those with Wilmer aren’t exactly chatty, but we also get to hear from various other cast and crew members, who provide plenty of insights into the difficulties of making TV shows in the mid-60s. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Network

Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch
Director: Sidney Lumet

network 2

When it first came out in 1976, Paddy Chayevsky’s satire on the world of television was attacked as shallow and obvious, but in these days of Ukip and the Tea Party movement its portrait of a public stewing with anger and discontent only seems to have gained in depth and relevance.

Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his performance as Howard Beale, the patron saint of grumpy old men, a veteran news anchor who becomes the “mad prophet of the airwaves” when he cracks up on live TV and delivers an unforgettable rant that strikes a chord with the viewers. William Holden is in his element as Max, Howard’s friend and boss, who finds the editorial autonomy of his news division threatened by a sinister conglomerate that has taken control of the network, and Faye Dunaway – who actually receives top billing – is Diana, the hotshot executive who exploits Howard and turns his cri de couer – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” – into a catchphrase.

Flamboyant to a fault, Chayevsky’s script has its wordy, armchair theatre moments – network 1most particularly in the scenes between Max and his long-suffering wife – but there’s a majesty to the way it builds towards Howard’s ‘mad as hell’ speech, exactly halfway through the movie, and later on Ned Beatty gets to deliver a speech which is arguably even more remarkable. Chayevsky is also unexpectedly even-handed, giving even the less sympathetic characters (such as Robert Duvall’s number-crunching corporate hatchet man) a fair hearing. Diana isn’t simply some coldly cynical power bitch, she’s a neurotic fuelled by a visceral desire to make TV history and, much more than Howard, she’s the true mad prophet of the airwaves. On the flipside, Max’s attempt to hide behind high principles isn’t entirely convincing, and you sense that he’s sterile and out of ideas. Sidney Lumet’s direction acts as a foil to Chayevsky’s baroque story, keeping it rooted in a gritty, naturalistic mise-en-scene, so that you hardly notice when the film detaches entirely from reality into a blackly comic nightmare towards the end. 10/10

Perhaps it has something to do with Lumet’s ultra-fast shooting style or the quality of the film stock, but the transfer seems rather soft dull most of the time. That said, the scenes of the revamped Howard Beale Show (with stained glass window) come up crisply as do the exteriors and the pale natural light in Max’s office. 6/10

An hour-long documentary on Sidney Lumet, a useful survey of his large, uneven body of work with contributions from the likes of Rod Steiger and Jack Lemmon. An excellent 47-min video essay by Dave Hizkoff that looks in detail at the development of the script, the casting and the shooting schedule – it has a lot to say about the way in which Chayevsky researched and developed his ideas, and we also learn that Finch only managed 1 ½ takes of the ‘mad as hell’ speech (apparently Chayevsky originally wanted Paul Newman to play Beale). 8/10

Blu-ray review: The Tales of Hoffman

Starring: Moria Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Frederick Ashton
Director: Powell and Pressburger

tales-of-hoffman 3

Powell and Pressburger’s sumptuous Technicolor adaptation of Offenbach’s operetta – in which the poet hero chases various unattainable women, to little avail – has some brilliant moments, as when Frederick Ashton’s Cochenille unrolls a carpet which reveals a trompe l’oeil staircase, or, for that matter, whenever Moira Shearer is on screen. But by virtue of the very fact that it is an adaptation, it lacks the distinctive personality of the pair’s best films, and the decision to use dubbed sound throughout adds to its feeling of muffled remoteness.

It’s very much up to Shearer to give the film a pulse, and this she does enchantingly tales-of-hoffman 4well in the opening prologue and the Olympia segment, where she plays a life-size wind-up doll – there’s a real magic and allure to her dancing, as well as wit and technical bravura. You miss her whenever she’s not on screen, but by way of compensation there is the decayed opulence of Hein Heckroth’s remarkable set and costume designs, culminating in a ghostly, mausoleum-like Venice with a spooky Gothic gondola. The whole thing is undoubtedly a visual feast, but it lacks the emotional impact – and the good tunes – of the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes. Still, Powell and Pressburger fans will be delighted with this release, as will opera aficionados. 6/10

tales-of-hoffman 1The 4K transfer from the 3-strip Technicolor camera negative has plenty of detail and no grain or print damage, and Christopher Challis’ dark, dusky, sepia-tinged cinematography comes across with a painterly richness. The puppets’ ball looks especially good, a riot of lemon crinolines, and you can admire every detail of Shearer’s daringly skin tight costume in the dragonfly ballet. As a bonus this HD transfer includes some additional footage to Act III and a charming never-before-seen end titles sequence in which the singers who supplied the actors’ voices take a bow. 8/10

Martin Scorsese supplies a brief intro in which he talks about the film’s influence on his own blending of imagery and music. And there’s an interesting 18-min chat with Thelma Schoonmaker, who places The Tales of Hoffman in the context of Powell and Pressburger’s uneven post-war career before going on to discuss the film’s use of in-camera effects and the arduous restoration process. 7/10