Blu-ray review: Rocco and his Brothers

Starring: Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Annie Girardot
Director: Luchino Visconti

rocco-and-his-brothers 1Coming at a midpoint between the social realism of Visconti’s early work and the operatic flavour of his later films, Rocco and his Brothers concerns a widowed mother and her family who move from the impoverished rural south to Milan in the wealthy and industrialized north of Italy. Her five strapping sons apply themselves in various ways, including taking their chances in the boxing ring, but there are complications. His plans to get married thrown into confusion by the need to take care of his throng of relations, the eldest son finds himself on the wrong end of a family feud. And on top of that there are various jealousies and romantic entanglements, plus further problems as one of the brothers slides into a life of crime.

Eventually it all dials up into full-blown melodrama, but not before the film has offered a powerful, concrete depiction of the divided state of Italy at the time. Detailing the plight of migrants, it offers a poignant worm’s eye view of the city, which matches documentary precision with lyrical, evocative black and white cinematography. Throughout, Visconti shows an energy level and firmness in handling the big ensemble set-pieces that you don’t always get in his more languorous later work. For the first reel or so, the film’s young stars, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, are buried in complex deep focus set-ups, so that their beauty becomes touchingly fugitive, faces glimpsed in a crowd. The result, particularly for Delon, is an aching sense of vulnerability that stays with you long after the machinery of the plot has closed around the characters.

With migration such a hot topic again, Rocco and his Brothers continues to be relevant, and it arguably has much more meat on its bones than the stately epics of the director’s later years. 8/10

TRANSFER
This 4K restoration has a slightly busy grain in some of the night-time scenes, but overall is very attractive, with plenty of detail and wet-looking inky blacks doing full justice to Visconti’s layered mise-en-scene. Vicenzo’s engagement ceremony is a riot of ribbons and dense floral wallpaper, and the high-key boxing sequences are all starkly impressive. 10/10

EXTRAS
This Blur-ray release is enhanced with an excellent selection of special features.~ 1 rocco-and-his-brothers 2hour documentary about Visconti, exploring his career in film and theatre and offering a very interesting picture of Italian cinema in the early ’40s when the director started. ~ Short but informative 20-min documentary going through the film’s shooting schedule on location in Milan. ~ 26-min interview with Guiseppe Rotunno, who talks about his career and along the way offers some fascinating insights into Italian cinema. ~ 30 min interview with Annie Girardot in which the actress describes working for Visconti on stage and screen, covering a lot of ground very briskly. ~ 23-min interview with Claudia Cardinale – the actress’ many fans with be pleased to have this piece in which she reviews her career, starting with winning a beauty pageant in her home country of Tunisia. 10/10

Blu-ray review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan
Director: Peter Yates

Godfather of the likes of Fargo, The Wire and even Reservoir Dogs, this adaptation of George V. Higgins’ classic crime novel showcases the author’s rhythmical, laconic dialogue and leery, jaundiced view of human nature, while director Peter Yates shows an eye for the humdrum and seedy as he evokes a world of small-time hoodlums and hustlers. An excellent Robert Mitchum rolls back the years to his halcyon film noir days in the role of doomed protagonist Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a low rent felon facing a long stretch in jail who is tempted to try and keep himself out of the slammer by giving up a gang of bank robbers to the cops. Really, though, it’s an ensemble piece, with a cast of character actors familiar from other prime slices of ’70s cinema giving chillingly convincing turns as the “friends” (in heavy inverted commas) of the title – urbane, morally shadowy, deadly and dead-eyed as sharks. The ending is breathakingly downbeat and nihilistic even by ’70s standards, but the film doesn’t stint on tension with slow-burning set-pieces, including a grippingly cold and clinical heist. 8/10

TRANSFER
A little soft and grainy in some of the two shots and dimly lit interiors, but the exteriors have a nice sparkle and Yate’s more ambitious compositions (as in the shot from inside the robbers’ car just before the heist) come across very crisply. 7/10

EXTRAS
Lengthy interview with Peter Yates recorded in front of a live audience in the 1990s. Slightly juddery audio, but the director is on excellent form chatting about, among other things, Steve McQueen and the value of having a writer on set. ~ 22-min piece with film critic Glenn Kenny, who has some interesting things to say not only about the movie but about Higgins’ novel. 9/10

Blu-ray review: A Touch of Zen

Starring: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih
Director: King Hu

Modern example of the period martial arts dramas known as wuxia – The Assassin, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers – all pay homage to the films of King Hu, especially this mammoth 3-hour offering from 1971. And the debt extends not just to its set-pieces and imagery either – the bamboo forests, the tree-top battles, the balletic trampoline work – but also to the elevated tone, panoramic cinematography and otherworldly feeling which have become part of the DNA of the genre.

The story concerns a remote town which suddenly fills up with people who aren’t what they seem – among them, a blind beggar, a secretive herbalist and a mysterious girl living in the ruins of a fort – and who turn out to be either secret agents or the fugitives they’re chasing, family and supporters of a high official brought low by a crooked rival. All of which we learn through the eye of Ku, an unambitious calligrapher who is slowly drawn into the intrigue.

Very slowly – but because A Touch of Zen is a film that likes to take its time. The early sections deliver slow-burning chills as Ku becomes aware that something is going on in the fort (the primary location for the first half of the movie, it’s a palpably eerie place, a triumph of large scale set-building which Hu left standing for a year before primary shooting until it was suitably overgrown with magnificent feathery reeds), and it’s not until the 50-minute mark that we get the first proper fight and some clear idea of what is going on. After that the film is studded with visually stunning ruckuses, but it’s the long-stretched-out quiet moments in-between that linger most in the memory.

Another of Hu’s valuable contributions to the wuxia genre was the invention of the kind of kickass, sword-wielding heroines who make your average James Bond femme fatale look like a total drip. Here there’s another fine example of the type in the form of Yang, daughter of the wrongfully disgraced high official, who recounts her backstory while calmly forging a brace of throwing darts for the decimation of her enemies. As the film progresses, she and her doughty sidekicks are endowed with a poised, graceful quality that makes them seem more like supernatural spirits that earthly folk, a sign of things to come as the story grows ever more strange and mystical.

If you’re dipping your toe into vintage wuxia for the first time, Hu’s previous film Dragon Inn (also available from Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label) is probably a slightly more accessible starting point, but, leisurely and dreamlike as it is, A Touch of Zen shows the genre at full stretch. 8/10

TRANSFER
Another strong transfer, up to the standard of Dragon Inn. In the close-ups you can literally count the hairs on Ku’s head, the dusky colours of the vintage film stock come across very attractively, and the atmospheric scenes in the fort have a lovely bloom. Even the darker interior scenes, such as those inside Ku’s house, are surprisingly crisp. 9/10

EXTRAS
Go-to expert on Eastern cinema Tony Rayns provides an excellent audio commentary for five (long) scenes from the movie. He talks about the film’s source material and its Daoist and Buddhist themes, and serves up a detailed bio of the director. ~ A well-made 48 min featurette on King Hu, which as well as providing lots of welcome info about the director offers fascinating insights into the Hong Kong movie scene. ~ Sharply observed 17-min video essay by David Cairns. 10/10

Blu-ray Review: Pickup on South Street

Starring: Richard Widmark, Thelma Ritter
Director: Samuel Fuller

pickup 1Samuel Fuller eschews his usual flamboyance for a lean, steely Fritz Lang-like shooting style in this tight little cold war thriller. When slicker than slick pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) rifles the purse of a girl on the subway, he suddenly finds himself in possession of a valuable microfilm laden with US military secrets. Thinking of the big score he can make by selling it onto the Commies, he laughs in the face of the authorities when they appeal to his patriotism to hand it over: “You’re waving the flag at me?”

His reaction isn’t really all that surprising, because, like most of the characters in Pickup, Skip lives on the edge on society – in his case literally, in a crumbling bait shack on the Bowery waterfront. The strength of the movie comes from its sympathetic portrait of these marginal figures who live by their own rules. Thelma Ritter is given a role that extends her range beyond her usual comedy routines as Moe, an elderly woman who sells information to the police to get by. And there’s a very well written part for Jean Peters as Candy, the girl with a chequered past who serves as the Communist’s unwitting courier and who is tasked with getting the microfilm off Skip.

The film provides a portrait of a society where no one has any reason to trust anyone, and it also rattles along nicely towards a tense conclusion. Throughout, Widmark is in his element, sneering, snapping, eyeballs rolling with paranoid watchfulness. It’s hard to think of any other film that packs so much plot and trenchant social commentary into 80 minutes. 8/10

TRANSFER
Slight softness and graininess at times, but on the whole the smooth, evenly lit pickup 2camerawork comes across in pleasant silvery tones. The early scene where Candy enters the hotel foyer through slanting shadows looks particularly crisp, as does the shadowy denouement in the subway tunnels. Throughout, Candy’s white dress and silvery jewellery look fresh and seductive. 7/10

EXTRAS
Wide-ranging and thoughtful 32-min interview with critic Kent Jones, who talks about Fuller’s sympathy for the underdog and reflects on the careers of the various cast members. ~ In a 23-min piece (presented in 4:3 aspect ratio), French critic Francoise Guerif discusses film noir and Fuller’s contribution to the genre. ~ Very nice 12-min featurette in which Samuel Fuller is interviewed watching Pickup on a Moviola – he discusses the origins of the story and reveals that the whole subway section was shot on a specially constructed set. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Cruel Story of Youth

Starring: Miyuki Kuwano, Yusuke Kawazu
Director: Nagisa Oshima

cruel-story-of-youth 1With it jukebox soundtrack and mood of torrid melodrama, this early film from Nagisa Oshima (best remembered for his explicit BDSM art movie In the Realm of the Senses) has something in common with the sort of American drive-in flick of the 50s which would set out to explain what happened to good girls when they kept bad company. Bored thrill seeker Makoto is saved from the clutches of a rapey middle-aged man by arrogant, fast-with-his-fists Kiyoshi, but it’s out of the frying pan into the fire. Eager for money and an excuse to beat people up, he starts using her as a honeytrap for drunken businessmen, and it’s not long before she’s been eyed up as fodder for violent pimps.

What Cruel Story of Youth (1960) has which its American B-movie forebears don’t is an unflinching honesty beneath its lurid surface. It’s focus is firmly on Makoto and the jeopardy she’s in. Kiyoshi is a nasty piece of work who exercises a lordly, arbitrary power over her, but she puts up with it because for all his flaws she finds the experience of being with him liberating. Even with a Kiyoshi figure to drag her to her doom, the film makes it clear what a razor’s edge an independent-minded Japanese woman had to walk in the early ’60s.

The movie is shot in colour ‘Scope in a style that seems determined to outdo the sultry, cruel-story-of-youth 2heightened ambience of Nicolas Ray films, and the sharp Italian fashions and scenes of shadowy, cross-lit jazz bars ensure that the couple’s downfall has a sulphurous, nourish glamour. In its own way, Cruel Story of Youth is just as searingly intense as In the Realm of the Senses, and the fact that it delivers such hard-hitting subject matter within the stringent censorship rules of the time only adds to its explosive feeling of bottled-up turmoil. 8/10

TRANSFER
No grain or dirt, figures seem solid and sharp-edged, and the hot, intense palette of the cruel-story-of-youth 3Shockiku Grandscope cinematography comes up vibrantly on this transfer. During an early scene that takes place on some floating logs, you can see minute details of bark and grain. Later, in a scene where Makato is talking on a red telephone, there’s a clear contrast between the greenish tints of her face and the intense scarlet of the handpiece. All all all, the best HD transfer of a vintage Japanese colour movie we’ve seen. 10/10

EXTRAS
Thorough and articulate 55-min talking head piece by Tony Rayns, the go-to guy for info on Asian cinema. He talks about the background to the Shochiku studio and how it was keen to cash in on the then hot topic of juvenile delinquency, before going on to sketch in Oshima’s career (he soon left the studio to strike out as an indie filmmaker), his political beliefs and perennial themes of social unrest expressing itself in sexuality and violence. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Stalag 17

Starring: William Holden, Otto Preminger
Director: Billy Wilder

stalag-17 1At his best, in films like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Billy Wilder elevated cinema to such a rare pitch of perfection, it’s amazing other directors didn’t simply give up and go home. Stalag 17 isn’t quite in that class, but it shows Wilder bringing his customary flair to the POW movie genre. The setting is a German prisoner of war camp for American airmen. When some escaping POWs are ambushed by the guards, the men suspect that there’s a “dirty, stinking stoolie” in their midst. Prime suspect – Sergeant Sefton (William Holden), a cynical wheeler-dealer who trades with the Germans and never seems short of creature comforts.

Eschewing the stiff upper lip of British war movies, the early sections of Stalag 17 are noisy and energetic, with a lot of time given over to the antics of barracks clowns Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Otto Preminger’s OTT camp commandant, all polished boots and Cheshire cat grin. While all this robust knockabout seems to anticipate Sergeant Bilko and MASH, it actually shows Wilder dipping into the past to channel the broad, screwball style of his old idol Ernst Lubitsch, as witness his casting of Lubitsch regular Sig Ruman as comical camp heavy Sergeant Schulz.

The stereotyping of this German character and others as beefy, stupid and obsessed by rules might seem rather lazy and obvious to modern eyes, but to fair the Germans aren’t the real target of the movie, which is more keen to lay into various aspects of the American way of life: Sefton discovers to his cost that capitalist individualism will only get you so far in a wartime situation, while his fellow prisoners display a nasty vigilante streak as their suspicions of him deepen. As the pressure on Sefton mounts and he begins to wonder who the real culprit might be, the earlier high spirits become tinged with irony and the story morphs into a claustrophobic, solidly constructed thriller with an ending that is deceptively cynical. 8/10

TRANSFER
The transfer has a slightly granular quality in some scenes, but there are no scratches stalag-17 2or print damage. The evenly lit scenes within the barracks have plenty of detail (the walls are plastered with posters and pin-ups which show up sharply), and crane shots of the prison camp exteriors are also very crisp in pale, wintry greys. The beautifully choreographed scene – probably the most complex set-up in the movie – when the men sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” with a disaffected Sefton looking on has a particularly impressive depth of field. 8/10

EXTRAS
Oldish but interesting 22-min “making of”, in 4:3 aspect ratio, with contributions from some of the cast and one of the writers. We hear about the hit Broadway show on which the film was based (heavily reworked by Wilder, who was still doing rewrites while shooting was under way) and learn that the director originally wanted Charlton Heston for the role of Sefton. ~ Nicely made 25-min piece on the historical background to the stalags, with archive footage and interviews with veterans, who talk about how – as if the film – the Germans tried all sorts of methods to get information out of them. ~ A 23-min talking head piece with critic Neil Sinyard, who discusses the film in the context of Wilder’s career (it was something of a retrenchment for him after the commercial failure of Ace in the Hole) and examines its themes. ~ Audio com with some of the cast and one of the writers of the original play – a few interesting reminiscences emerge from the old timers between the long silences and the chat about who’s no longer alive and what they died of. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Forty Guns

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan
Director: Samuel Fuller

forty-guns 3“She’s a high ridin’ woman with a whip…” The spicy theme song, plus the film’s plethora of double entendres (“May I feel it?” Barbara Stanwyck asks of Barry Sullivan’s six shooter. “It may go off in your face,” he warns her) has earned Forty Guns (1957) a reputation as a lurid, kitsch horse opera in much the same mould as Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Actually, it’s a far more thoughtful and considered film, the closest thing director Samuel Fuller came to making a Hawksian western.

Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a tough, formidable businesswoman who dresses up like Elizabeth I when she’s at home and who is the de facto governor and tax collector of Cochise County. Alas, she’s let down by the stupid and corrupt goons who work for her and her drunken good for nothing of a younger brother. Forced to clean up after them, she’s put on a collision course with visiting marshal Griff Bonnell (Sullivan playing Wyatt Earp in all but name). This is all the more tragic as she and Griff feel an instant connection when they meet.

The dialogue emphasis an element of crackling sexual tension, but actually, the way theforty-guns 2 two leads play it, it’s more of a sweet-tempered Autumn romance, a question of an Alpha male and an Alpha female suddenly finding their soulmate late in life – and they do have a great deal in common: they’re both survivors, shaping the land they live in, and their both have siblings whom they fret about. The fact that both Sullivan and Stanwyck were showing their age by this stage of their career only adds to the charm and pathos of the pairing.

As you would expect with Fuller, the whole thing is told in an urgent, compressed style full of virtuoso camerawork, but it’s in the warmth of its characterisation and the thoughtfulness of its gender politics that Forty Guns really impresses and endears. 9/10

TRANSFER
Fuller’s striking b/w ‘Scope compositions come up very nicely in this silvery-toned transfer, with no grain and plenty of detail. Early on, you can clearly see the dust caked forty-guns 1on the faces of Griff and his brothers as they trundle into town, and the tracking shot of Barney carrying buckets to the bathhouse, with the mining town spread out behind him, has a crystal clear depth of field. Later on, the dust-storm scene has an eerie, dreamlike beauty. Fuller fans will be delighted. 9/10

EXTRAS
16 min featurette in which a French critic places the film in the context of what was happening in Hollywood in the ’50s and the decline of the western, points out its use of well-researched period details and explains how the original bleak, downbeat ending was substituted for a softer, more romantic one. ~ Audio-only interview with Samuel Fuller recorded in 1969, which serves in the place of a conventional audio commentary. The director tends to wander around the point, but eventually tells some amusing, jokey anecdotes about his start in the film business as a writer, explaining how his early scripts drew on his background in journalism. 6/10