Blu-ray review: Eureka

Starring: Gene Hackman, Rutger Hauer, Theresa Russell
Director: Nicolas Roeg

Loosely based on the real-life case of the Sir Harry Oaks – a notorious unsolved murder which took place in the Bahamas in the 1940s, and which also served as the basis for William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart – Eureka is a typically Roegian mix of the baffling and the visionary, part courtroom drama, part mob story, part tale of the occult.

Gene Hackman gives a powerfully enigmatic performance as Jack McCann, a prospector who strikes gold in the Yukon and becomes the world’s richest man, only to apparently lose his soul and become bent on self-destruction. He’s backed up by a remarkable cast, including a lean, youthful Rutger Hauer as his playboy son-in-law who dabbles in voodoo and alienates his daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell); and Mickey Rourke as the smooth mobster who is dispatched from Miami to get McCann to sign off on a big casino deal, over his dead body if necessary.

Playing down the Agatha Christie whodunnit aspect, Roeg turns the whole thing into a picture of futility and a portrait of one man’s inner hell that acts itself out against a series of superbly shot backdrops, first turn of the century Yukon, with its deep frozen mining towns and plush bawdy houses, and then the decadent, leafy beauty of the Bahamas. It’s one of the most visually stunning of all Roeg’s movies, and as always with his best work, you’re gripped and disturbed and left wondering at the meaning of what you’ve seen. 8/10

TRANSFER A very good transfer which does justice to the film’s striking cinematography, with no dirt or grain. The early bawdy house scenes have glowing firelit tones and plenty of detail, and the later shots of McCann’s Bahamas home have beautiful pastel dues, with the sumptuous set-dressing coming up a treat. 8/10

EXTRAS 13-min interview with producer Jeremy Thomas, who covers a lot of ground very briskly – the origins of the film in a book about the Harry Oaks case, and the problems of location shooting in sub zero British Columbia. ~ Extremely interesting 55-min interview with scriptwriter Paul Mayersberg. He talks fascinatingly about how the material was reshaped into something suitably Roegian and delves into the film’s themes and symbolism. ~ 13-min piece with editor Tony Lawson, who describes splicing together the film while they were still shooting it halfway around the world. ~ Audio only interview with Nicolas Roeg recorded at the time of the film’s release and presented here instead of an audio commentary. Despite having his jaw wired shut at the time, the director manages to talk insightfully about how he got into movies, his theories of cinema and so forth. 10/10

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: Shane

Starring: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur
Director: George Stevens

shane 1This revered western tells a simple tale with monumental conviction. Despite the fact that they’re encumbered with one of the most children in movie history, humble homesteaders Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are befriended by a mysterious gunslinger, just in time to help them in their struggle with a rancher who is determined to drive them off their land by fair means or foul.

The irritating sprog aside, the result is a virtually flawless exercise in mythopoeia. Although the portrayal of the central baddie, Rufus Ryker, is actually surprisingly nuanced (passionately self-righteous, he sees himself as an innocent victim, only stooping to violence because his hand is forced), the film as a whole is elevated into a literally archetypal battle of good versus evil. The blond-haired Shane is like an angel in buckskins, and the scene where he and Heflin have a fist fight seems to echo the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Bible. Meanwhile, as played by Jack Palance, Ryker’s hired gun, Wilson, is like a dark, crumpled serpent which has crawled straight up from the depths of hell. The majority of the film was shot on location in the Teton Mountains, Wyoming, in bronzed, burnished halo-vision Technicolor cinematography. Throughout, there’s a feeling that something deep and permanent is being expressed, and that’s why the carefully crafted set-pieces have such a power to haunt the memory. 9/10

TRANSFER
A few touches of grain here and there, but generally a lovely transfer. The horse and rider moving across the landscape behind the opening titles looks pin-sharp, and the titles themselves glow with an almost 3D quality. A little later on, the grain on the famous tree-stump is beautifully clear and detailed. The prevailing cream and gilt colour palette is as lustrous as you could wish. Perhaps even more impressively, the darker scenes are also very crisp. The thundery, overcast sequence in which Wilson claims his first victim has a particularly life-like feeling of depth. 9/10

EXTRAS
22-min piece with academic Neil Sinyard talking informatively about George Stevens’ shane 2eclectic career, with its distinctive his pre- and post-war periods. ~ Audio com with the film’s associate producer and the director’s son, particularly nice because the latter reads out some of Stevens’ own very interesting script notes. We also learn that Alan Ladd was wearing a hairpiece. ~ As well as the 4:3 print of the film, we also get two versions in 1:66:1 aspect ration (i.e., with very thin vertical borders). These seem just a little softer than the 4:3 version, but the wider picture certainly suits the epic sweep of the landscape. The “revised framing” version corrects some of the problems with cropping caused by the blowing up the print. 10/10

Blu-ray review: The Quiet Man

Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen

quiet-man 1This bucolic tale has always been a popular favourite among John Ford’s movies, although less kindly regarded by the critics. John Wayne plays a “Yankee from Pittsburgh” who has come back to buy the cottage where he was born and set down roots. He quickly falls in love with and wants to marry a local girl (Maureen O’Hara), but her hulking, quarrelsome brother (Victor McLaglen) is a serious impediment to the nuptials.

Not for the first or last time in his career, Ford balances lyricism and sentimentality with rough knockabout comedy and generates a warm family feeling with his cast of regular supporting actors – burly Ward Bond as the fish-fancying parish priest, Barry Fitzgerald as the village’s drunken match-maker. Voices get raised and fists get clenched, but a singalong is never far away. The special added ingredient is Winton C. Hoch’s glorious Technicolor location cinematography, thanks to which the Emerald Isle has never looked more gem-like.

Granted, if you’re not in the mood, Ford’s mixture of humour and misty-eyed idealism can seem ponderous and cloying, but even so there’s an infectious charm and innocence to the film’s major set-pieces, such as the race meet on the sea shore, which can’t help but tug on the heartstrings. 7/10

TRANSFER
The occasional process shots and a few of the interiors retain some graininess, but the quiet-man 2scenes filmed on location are extremely sharp and lush. During that first sight of Maureen O’Hara, the scarlet of her skirt really pops, and the subsequent waist-up shot of the actress looks very real and present. Throughout, that particularly Irish palette of plump greens and soft, slatey greys is delicious to behold. 8/10

EXTRAS
Interesting 17-min piece discussing Ford’s attitude to the Irish, his simplified, fairy tale imagery and his depiction of real life as a form of theatre. ~ An old and slightly schalmtzy but very thorough 27-min “making of”, with contributions from Wayne’s family and a clip of the director and the Duke reminiscing in a ’50s TV show. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Seconds

Starring: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens
Director: John Frankenheimer

seconds 1Seconds views very much like a companion piece to The Manchurian Candidate. One offers a nightmare vision of American public life, the other paints a picture of the American psyche cracking up – Kafka meets Freud meets The Twilight Zone.

Based on a novel by David Ely, it tells of an ageing banker who avails himself of the services of a shadowy corporation offering a fake death, rejuvenating plastic surgery and a fresh identity. Emerging from the bandages as ruggedly handsome Rock Hudson, he starts a new life as a painter in Malibu, acquires a tea-leaf reading girlfriend and hangs out with proto-hippies in Santa Barbara (one of the film’s set-pieces is an orgiastic wine-pressing ceremony, complete with daring full frontal nudity). But he brings his old neuroses with him and is soon pickling his new body in alcohol.

As a gay man who made a living playing heterosexual heartthrobs, Hudson must have known a thing or two about false identities, and this shows in the intensity of his performance. Likewise, cinematographer James Wong Howe shoots the film like a man possessed, employing a myriad of eerie techniques such as mounting a camera on Hudson with a harness to give the impression that the world is moving giddily around him (an effect Scorsese was to borrow for Mean Streets).

The screenplay by Lewis John Carlino has nagging flaws – the opening section is disproportionately long, while Hudson’s fall seems a bit too precipitous – but Seconds is a fascinating film which tightens its grip on you the more you think about it. It’s packed with unforgettable images (that first glimpse of Hudson, his new face covered in stitches), the supporting cast are razor sharp (Murray Hamilton is blisteringly good in a brief cameo as another of the “reborns”), there are some decent twists in the home stretch and the ending is absolutely chilling. Don’t wait until your next life to pick up a copy. 8/10

TRANSFER
A very nice transfer, with a little grain (as you would expect) in some of the set-ups thatseconds 2 use available light, but otherwise very crisp, with detailed skin tones, dramatic high-key shots and a sparkling, windblown quality to the beach scenes. Upon its original release, the wine-pressing scene was shown only in a cut form, but here it is restored. 8/10

EXTRAS
Very lively, enjoyable 20 min interview with Kim Newman, who talks persuasively about the film’s merits and surprisingly widespread influence. ~ Excellent audio commentary with John Frankenheimer, crammed with info. He pays tribute to James Wong Howe’s contribution, describes shooting what was a real-life nudist wine festival (Frankenheimer ended up in the vat with his trunks round his ankles) and reveals that Hudson’s Malibu beach home in the movie was actually the director’s own house. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Dragon Inn

Starring: Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Lingfeng Shangguan
Director: King Hu

dragon-inn 1A highpoint of the wuxia martial arts genre, Dragon Inn is basically a western in eastern garb, but what garb it is. In Imperial China, a high-ranking minister’s death is plotted by the head of the secret service, Cao (Pai Ying), an asthmatic albino eunuch in a hairnet (how’s that for a villain?). But not content to leave it there, he dispatches his goons to murder the dead man’s fleeing children. Intending to ambush them, the baddies lay in wait at the remote inn of the title, only to find their plans foiled by a mysterious stranger (Shih Jun) who stops by for the lamb noodle soup. A cool customer who can catch a flying dagger in a pair of chopsticks, he’s soon joined on the side of righteousness by a couple of other colourful characters, including a sword-wielding female who’s about as gorgeously feisty as a girl can be while wearing a bee-keeper’s hat.

If Dragon Inn is obviously indebted to westerns for its iconography of glaring desert, lonely homesteads and gurning bandits, it’s also influenced in a less obvious way by mysteries such as The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo. Before hostilities properly break out, there is some entertaining intrigue as the opposing parties cohabit uneasily under the same roof and break bread together, culminating in a flurry enjoyable night-time shenanigans. But the film’s true raison d’etre is its action set-pieces, many of which involve one side or the other laying siege the inn  and then trying to hold it once taken. There are widescreen face-offs in the grand tradition, with some outstanding location cinematography of rocky plains and lush mountains; pleasing little touches, like the look of weary disgust on a goon’s face when he gets slyly stabbed through a door; and a memorably quirky boss fight to wrap things up.

True, some of its gambits and action choreography have grown a little creaky over the years, but the same passage of time has endowed Dragon Inn with a mellow vintage charm which makes it enormously likeable and engaging. And it has a real ace up its sleeve in the shape of Lingfeng Shangguan, one of the best action heroines the ’60s had to offer. Don’t expect the depths of a Kurosawa action movie – Dragon Inn was never intended to deliver them. It’s simply good swashbuckling fun. With a hairnet. 8/10

TRANSFER
The nature of the film stock means that the interiors don’t hold a whole lot of detail for dragon-inn 2the 4K transfer to bring out, but the exteriors are a different matter. All pale skies and yellow earth, the widescreen colour compositions have strong, burnished hues with a pleasing vintage tint. The colourful Imperial pageantry comes up well, as do minute details of the terrain. The shot of dawn breaking over the inn has particular depth and realism, and there’s also a vivid intensity to the scene where the hero has a tete-a-tete outdoors with one of the head goons, while the mountain backdrop to the final showdown is stunning. 8/10

EXTRAS
Sharp, humorous 15-min video essay by David Cairns, in which he comments on the film’s mixture of action and suspense, its camera techniques and its use of hidden trampolines for high-leaping swordplay. ~ Blurry 2-min reel of the film’s original opening in Taiwan. 6/10

Blu-ray review: The Man Who Could Cheat Death

Starring: Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee, Helen Court
Director: Terence Fisher

the-man-who-could-cheat-death 1A celebrated doctor, a brilliant sculptor – Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) might seem like an over-achiever, but then he does have a lot of time on his hands: he’s 106 years old and still going strong thanks to an artificial method of prolonging his youth! That said, he’s due for his 10-yearly organ replacement, and the bubbling green potion he has to keep swallowing in the meantime is making him seriously cranky…

With the studio’s old firm of director Terence Fisher, scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster and cinematographer Jack Asher all present and correct, it’s hard to see how The Man Who Could Cheat Death could be anything other than vintage Hammer. Sadly, it’s weighed down by a shortage of scares, a wordy script and a lead performance by Diffring that steers the film away from horror into the arena of mawkish, moonstruck melodrama. Still, there are a few good B-movie moments courtesy of Jack Asher and his lurid green gels, and the scenes of Bonnet’s old flame Janine (Hazel Court) posing for him (plus the resulting very naked-looking sculptures) add a welcome frisson of eroticism to proceedings.

One for Hammer completists, then, but it’s rarity makes it an attractive buy. 6/10

TRANSFER
The transfer is a little soft and grainy, and flesh tones look somewhat washed out. the-man-who-could-cheat-death 3However, the plush 1890’s Parisian set-dressing comes up nicely, as do the occasional weird-science lighting effects. And in case you’re wondering, no reappearance in this print of the mythical lost footage for European markets of Hazel Court going topless. 6/10

EXTRAS
Very nice interviews with two of the people you most want to hear from when it comes to Hammer. ~ Sitting on his usual sofa, Kim Newman talks for 17-mins about the film’s origins as a remake of the Paramount movie The Man in Half Moon Street and explains how Peter Cushing was due to play the lead but backed out. ~ 17-min interview with Jonathan Rigby, who makes a few wry comments about the film’s flaws as well as serving up info about the original source play and some of the real-life rejuvenating therapies that might have inspired the story. 7/10