Blu-ray Review: Les Miserables

les-miserables 1Starring: Harry Baur, Charles Vanel,
Director: Raymond Bernard
Rating: 9/10

Clocking in at around 4 ½ hours, Raymond Bernard’s epic 1934 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel was originally released as three separate films – apparently you could buy tickets to all three at once and see them all on the same day. The tripartite structure works very well, breaking the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean (Harry Baur) and his pursuit by the remorseless Inspector Javert (Charles Vanel) into manageable and distinctive sections. The pace is leisurely, rippling out to include various important subsidiary characters – the wronged woman Fantine, her daughter Cosette, the evil Thenardiers, the revolutionary idealist Marius and the street urchin Gavroche in the third.

Watching the whole thing on Blu-ray, it feels less like a piece of cinema from the ’30s than a piece of television from the ’60s. Throughout, Bernard pioneers what would later become familiar TV techniques – shooting in long takes, eschewing panoramas and long shots in favour of medium shots and two shots (presumably with an eye to economy) and using wobbly hand-held close-ups for a riot scene. On the whole, it’s an approach that works very well, even though you feel the pinch of the tight budget in the street battle scenes of Part 3.

Although each of the sections has its dramatic highlights, the centrepiece of the trilogy les-miserables 2is Part 2, The Thenardiers. Set mainly in a seedy tenement, this Doré-esque picture of Parisian low life shows Bernard’s direction at its most stylish and assured, and it’s build around a wonderful performance by Charles Dullin as the sly, Fagin-like Thenardier, a dodgy innkeeper turned to a life of crime. Anyone who admires David Lean’s Dickens adaptations (made well over ten years later, and surely influenced by Bernard’s example) will respond warmly to the film’s eye for a grotesque underworld of paupers and thieves. Among a generally excellent cast, Harry Baur is a very weighty Valjean – he conveys a sense of the character’s physical strength in several very credible scenes, including a gritty and long drawn out fight. Occasionally there’s a certain lack of subtlety, but on the whole Bernard’s sincerity and feeling for authenticity win the day.

Drawn from several different sources, the 4K transfer is variable, but at its best – as in the expressionistically shot courtroom sequence in Part 1, and most of Parts 2 and 3 – it is stunningly crisp and immediate, with even higher resolution than on the recently les-miserables 3released 4K restoration of Le Jour se Leve. The scene early on in Part 2 for instance, where the young Cosette has to brave the scary woods at night to collect a pail of water, shimmers with barbed shadows and flickering moonlight, and later on the scene where the grown-up Cosette meets her beau Marius in the Luxembourg Gardens has a beautiful, airy, dappled quality to it. In moments such as these, it’s hard to imagine a movie of this vintage looking better.

Extras include an 11-minute chat with the director, in which he talks about eloquently about working on the script and casting the actors (the boy who plays Gavroche was a caretaker’s son who later become the doorkeeeper at a bistro) and the pain of editing the film down later from three parts to two. There are also two talking head pieces, one with a French film historian (18 minutes) and the other with a French academic (22 minutes). We learn more about previous silent movie versions of the book, the various members of the cast and Bernard’s meticulous historical research.

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Blu-ray Review: Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari

Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Director: Robert Wiene
Rating: 10/10

The Least Picture Show already aired its thoughts on Robert Wiene’s 1920 masterpiece when it was re-released in the cinemas recently (see here). In this review, we’ll confine ourselves to commenting on some of the features of this new Blu-ray edition from Eureka. Just as well, as there’s a lot to say.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari 3What we have here is a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with new colour tinting and recreated intertitles. While it still retains some fine scratches and the occasional flicker and roughening of texture, the film looks altogether much fresher and livelier than it has seemed in previous incarnations. So much so, in fact, that you might find yourself rethinking some of your long-held notions about it. Whereas before the movie seemed dimmed by neurosis, exuding an atmosphere of exhaustion right from the outset, now it feels much more lively and robust. The actors playing Alan and Jane wear surprisingly little make-up, and their faces come across as cheerfully youthful, people you might meet in the street rather than figures from a nightmare, starved of light and oxygen.

All of the scenes with strong directional lighting, such as the one where we first cabinet-of-dr-caligari 6encounter Alan in his wonky-walled garret, or the one where the police puzzle over the dead body of the town clerk, now punch through with strong contrasts of brightness and shadow. The sequence where Jane visits the fair looks extremely clean and crisp too, as does the famous close-up of Cesare awakening. The newly applied yellow tinting makes his face look like an Aztec mask, so it’s all the more dramatic when he finally twitches into life, and you can see every flicker of his eyelids and the grain of his irises.

Turning to the extras, there’s a 52-minute celebration of German silent cinema that goes into a fair bit of detail about the country’s social history in the years before and after WWI. It talks about the rise and fall of Expressionism (already passé in other artforms when it became fashionable in cinema), and the way in which an unstable and inflation-beset society took solace in ever more lavish films. It paints a picture of the ’20s as a decade when German cinema changed with a speed akin to pop music in the ’60s.

There’s also a witty 15-minute video essay by David Cairns which examines the competing claims that have been made by various parties to be seen as the film’s auteur, and a nice-looking 8-minute piece showing the digital restoration of the film – including the reinsertion of missing frames and the repair of perforations – in a high-tech lab.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari 4The audio commentary by David Kalat goes over some of the same territory again in scholarly detail, sketching in the cultural context, patiently unpicking who among the film’s key contributors did what, and trying to reconcile the different accounts that have been left to us, namely by co-scriptwriter Hans Janowitz, the producer Erich Pommer and the set designer Hermann Warm. Along the way, he describes how the love triangle in the film reflected one that the two screenwriters had with a young actress named Gilda Langer, and he also mentions the various attempts at getting sequels off the ground, which didn’t bear fruit until 1962. All in all, there is much to chew over here for fans of Caligari, not least an HD transfer which leaves this silent classic seeming more vital and fascinating now than perhaps at any time since its original release.

Blu-ray Review: Madame DuBarry

Starring: Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Reinhold Schunzel
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Rating: 8/10

madame-dubarry 1It’s not often that you watch a silent film and find yourself right at home, but that’s the case with Madame DuBarry (1919). Ernst Lubitsch – a director best remembered for his later Hollywood comedies, but who also had a prolific career in silent era German cinema – presents this tale of the humble milliner’s assistant who became the mistress of Louis XV and the most powerful woman in France as if it was ripped fresh out of the pages of Hello! magazine. Savouring its own scandalous content and amoral characters, it fairly effervesces as it charts her rise from rags to riches (and ruches).

Grinning and clowning around, Pola Negri’s version of the young Jeanne might be a madame-dubarry 2cheeky lass off Geordie Shore. She has a doting fiance, Armand (Harry Liedtke), but that doesn’t stop her dallying with rich men, including one Count Dubarry (Eduard von Winterstein), who encourages her to flaunt her wares at court, then passes her on to the king (a leering Emil Jannings) for a financial consideration. No respecter of royalty and as kittenishly playful with him as she is with everyone else, she soon has Louis trimming her fingernails and putting on her shoes for her. But she can’t quite forget the tiresomely scowling Armand, and that’s her downfall.

madame-dubarry 3What you note about Lubitsch’s direction – aside from the fluidity, the sprightly pace, the eye for the picturesquely absurd – is the absence of moral tone. This milieu of easy money, loose women, shady deals and snobbery is enjoyed for what it is, and the characters who stalk through it are fascinating beasts – the Count, with his Punch-like face and his unpaid bills; the coldly reptilian Minister Choiseul (Reinhold Schunzel), who becomes Jeanne’s arch-enemy at court. But none is more fascinating that Jeanne herself. One of the highlights of the first half of the movie is a brilliantly conceived opera ball scene with Pierrots and ladies in huge wigs, and Jeanne sitting on the edge of a box, her legs dangling over the side. As an image of provocative, empowered female sexuality, it’s up there with Lola Lola strutting her stuff on the stage of the Blue Angel.

Another of the film’s delights is the very modern way it uses striking costume designs madame-dubarry 5and décor to point the drama. Cloiseul’s clothes are covered in silver filigree which glitters like scales, heightening his lizard-like appearance and reminding you that money runs in his veins. The higher up Jeanne ascends on the social scale, the more OTT her outfits become. This culminates in the sequence when she is formally presented at court. Arriving in a parade of sedan chairs, she saunters towards the throne trailing a train that’s at least ten feet long, and sporting a wig that looks like she’s got a poodle on her head. She’s arrived, and it can only be downhill from here.

madame-dubarry 4The film works best in the first half when Jeanne is driving the action and making things happen. It becomes less fun when, having achieved her goal, she turns into a tragic heroine, beset by opponents, an easy target for the revolutionaries who start who throng the streets. Even so, the later scenes of social turmoil are spectacularly mounted and convincingly venomous, and the ending gives you a chill. And even if Pola Negri’s performance gets a little lost in the segue from sex farce to Victor Hugo-esque melodrama, Madame DuBarry remains a dazzling example of Lubitsch’s silent era work.

The HD transfer is excellent. There’s a little print damage at one point, but otherwise themadame-dubarry 6 picture is almost crystalline in its clarity, without that crumbly look you get in some silent movies. The deep apartments with their chequered floors, the glint of silver on Choiseul’s clothes, the moiling crowd scenes – all of these come up in near clinical detail. The disc also comes with a nice transfer of the 37-minute When I Was Dead (1916), Lubitsh’s earliest surviving film, in which he also stars. It’s a fanciful comedy about a chess fanatic with a tyrannical mother-in-law, very slight and mainly of interest now for its lavish set-dressing and for the opportunity it affords to get a look at the young Lubitsch. It’s remarkable to think that just three years later he was making a film as flamboyant and sophisticated as Madame DuBarry.

Blu-ray Review: The Gang’s All Here

Starring: Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, James Ellison
Director: Busby Berkeley
Rating: 8/10

gangs-all-here 2The gang might have been all there, but you wonder if Busby Berkeley was when he made this remarkable psychedelic soufflé of a musical, which sees America on a wartime footing (the film was released in 1943) but still finding time to drink cocktails and dance the Uncle Samba. The action centres around the Club New Yorker, with its specially imported South American showgirls and apparently infinite stage. Chorine Edie (Alice Faye) – who prides herself on assiduously comforting the troops – is pursued by GI on leave Andy (James Ellison) who seems to have forgotten that he already has a childhood sweetheart, who in turn harbours a desire for the showbiz life. There’s only one way this can all be resolved, of course, and that’s by putting on an all-singing, all-dancing gala War Bond Garden Party in a studiobound Westchester mansion, how else?

In his witty accompanying notes, David Cairns makes a tongue in cheek comparison gangs-all-here 1between Busby Berkeley and Luis Bunuel. He has a point, because whether intentionally or not, The Gang’s All Here seems to dissolve cinematic narrative even more radically than The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The plot is perfunctory, with the supposed key players – Ellison’s ha-ha-hahing, clench-jawed love pest and Alice Faye, who was suffering from morning sickness during the shoot and who looks thoroughly down in the dumps as a result – going through the motions somewhere in the background, while the foreground becomes a free-for-all of scene-stealing turns, most noticeably Carmen Miranda’s “Brazalian tomata” Dorita, always strutting around with something unlikely on her head.

gangs-all-here 3Rolling her eyes, flashing her teeth, talking a mile a minute in her own private variety of Spanglish, and looking like a trashy souvenir doll come to life, Miranda lights up the screen whenever she appears. She achieves her apotheosis in the famous – or infamous, take your pick – musical number “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat.” Here she rocks a bonnet made out of bananas, plays a banana xylophone, and cavorts with a bunch of bathing beauties who skip around with giant banana phalluses, and some extremely plump strawberries too. Watching it, you’ll wonder if someone has slipped something in your pina colada. But no, it’s just Busby, going to places most other people only reach by taking LSD.

“Tutti-Frutti Hat” is garish and silly beyond words, but its achieves its own kind of plastic beauty. And there are several other musical numbers almost as stunning, as well as plenty of comic business and a cast of delightfully clownish characters, in particular the lanky, jitterbugging Mrs Potter (Charlotte Greenwood). It’s all enormously endearing, and if you have an itch for kitsch, this will satisfy it. It ends with a whirl of disembodied heads. Of course it does.

The HD transfer has a touch of grain on grey or off-white backgrounds, but overall the gangs-all-here 4loud-as-an Hawaiian-shirt 20th Century-Fox Technicolor has a real pop to it, as well as plenty of crispness, and Berkeley’s floaty set-ups, with the camera dancing around the performers on a crane, have an exhilarating sense of depth and movement. The disc comes with a 19-minute featurette which surveys Berkeley’s strange career (amazingly he couldn’t dance a step himself), including his golden years at Warners. There’s also a very informative audio commentary which explains, among other things, how the film’s Latin flavour was due to the government’s Good Neighbour policy (as European markets closed down, the US sought to reinforce its ties with South America), and how the movie became a favourite of the New York gay scene when it was revived in the 1970s. We also learn that Berkeley allegedly almost clonked Carmen Miranda on the head by accident during the opening scene with one of his beloved crane shots.