Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat May 05, 2018 8:07 pm

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THE HALF BREED (1916) 72m *** with THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916) 50m *** (Blu-ray released May 1, 2018)

Douglas Fairbanks isn't really thought of as a western star, though many of his films are set in the west—but he's kind of his own genre first; he made Doug films that happened to have western settings. (By the same token, he's not really a slapstick comedian, though many slapstick comedians owe him debts, especially Harold Lloyd.) The new Kino Lorber set of two 1916 westerns, both directed by Allan Dwan, shows two different attempts at doing familiar styles of westerns—one for the adults, one for the kids.

In The Half Breed he's the son of a dead Native American mother (a la Madame Butterfly) and an unknown father, who lives on the fringes of a western town which seems to exist mainly to depict all the hypocrisies of the white man; he's an outcast beneath them all, even as the local saloon shows whites, blacks and Chinese all indulging in vices together. Jewel Carmen is the preacher's flibbertigibbet daughter (amusingly described as educated to the point of "being ignorant in two languages"), who plays with all the boys' fires, heedless of where that might lead; meanwhile Alma Rubens is the fallen woman traveling with a patent medicine drummer, who, as it turns out, has a mean hand with a stiletto. And then there's Sam DeGrasse as the local sheriff, whose disdain for half-breeds has a little secret (actually it's no secret, a title immediately spills that he's Fairbanks' pop, unbeknownst to both).

In Tracey Goessel's telling, this was Fairbanks' attempt at a serious acting role that audiences rejected. To be honest, he's well down the list of most interesting characters in the movie; as happens sometimes when comedians turn serious, the result blurs the line between dramatic and merely depressed. The few Doug-ish moments (he leaps a fence, he uses a tree as a pole vault in an ingeniously reverse-printed shot) are a breath of fresh air.

So as a Doug movie it doesn't really work that well, but it has dramatic interest in its theme of white prejudice, and the supporting cast is unusually good—there are memorable character sketches from Carmen as the saucy, clueless Nellie, Rubens, quite affecting as the bedraggled but dangerous Teresa, and DeGrasse, who is a villain in both this and the companion feature and brings a sardonic intelligence to the part that lifts him well above the stock villain. (Why didn't he have a sound career in these Hedley Lamarr-ish parts? He retired in 1930 but lived more than 20 years after.)

There is fine pictorial cinematography by Victor Fleming in this movie almost entirely shot outdoors, and if not a completely logical and well-developed plot (at one point, my wife exclaimed, "They're all going to the forest, what is this, A Midsummer Night's Dream?") it's pretty sharp and incisively made for 1916, and shows Dwan's strong directorial skill at this time. The restoration comes from three main prints, including both an original version and a 1920s reissue with somewhat altered titles; 90% or more is very good and clear, with the occasional murkier, softer shot and a couple of brief scenes from a decayed Dawson City print. Donald Sosin's sprightly western-themed score is excellent.

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If The Half-Breed is aimed at adults with a 1916 social conscience, The Good Bad Man aims straight for the 12-year-old western fan, and it's unpretentious fun as a result. Fairbanks' idea of the Good Bad Man isn't a desperado who discovers his moral code, like William S. Hart's; he's just a Robin Hood who commits somewhat prankish crimes and turns out to have a soft spot for illegitimate young'uns, because he thinks he's one too. (It's interesting to wonder if Fairbanks knew of his own illegitimacy at this point.) Again Sam DeGrasse is the villain, who killed his real Pa, as well as being the leader of an unusually large gang (how many crimes do you have to commit to feed a gang that big?) and the romantic rival for Blanche Sweet, surpassingly lovely as the innocent daughter of the old crippled prospector who falls in love with Fairbanks more or less instantly.

So lightweight, juvenile fun by comparison, but well mounted by Dwan with mostly outdoor settings, and with a lively score by Donald Sosin; again the surviving print comes from a 1920s reissue, but it's mostly good quality and apparently not much different from the original. Together with the recent release of Roscoe Arbuckle in The Round-Up, it's a good month for teens westerns, showing how popular stars partook of, and helped shape, that most durable of genres in its early days.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun May 13, 2018 9:55 pm

A while back I watched Criterion's set of Julien Duvivier films from the 1930s, then found some Pathe sets of region-free blu-ray-DVD combos of more Duvivier films, and promptly... didn't watch either one till last night. The subject matter then reminded me of another 1930s French film I had on Criterion, so here are two French films about a day in the country:

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LA BELLE EQUIPE (1936) 113m ***1/2 (Blu-ray released April 1, 2017/All Regions)

The name La Belle Equipe ("the great team," Google translate tells me) was in the news in 2015 in a terror attack on a cafe of that name near the Opera Bastille. The name, so far as I can tell, comes from this film, which has to do with a very different historical moment: the Depression-era thirties.

Jean Gabin, Charles Vanel and three others are roustabouts, on hard times, who went in on a landlord's lottery ticket; he wins big, they win enough to pool it and start a new life if they stick together. They settle on a crumbling property, with the idea of making a getaway in the country out of it (a guinguette, which would have been what Germans would have called a biergarten and Americans, a road house). They start fixing it up, all for one and one for all. But humans were perhaps not meant to live in paradise...

Not knowing even as much of the plot as I've told you, I started thinking first that it would be a Warners-style comedy-- imagine Cagney in Gabin's role, Wallace Ford in Vanel's, and assorted Frank McHughs and Alan Hales in the other roles; Ann Dvorak as the girl of one, Lilyan Tashman as the no-good runaway wife of another. And it seems to have very much the snappy urban humor of such a piece (it did get a US release under the title They Were Five). With the departure for the country, it seemed like something akin to Vidor's Our Daily Bread— can the workers make it work on their own, without bosses? (There's even a nice little Soviet-ish montage sequence, just before the guinguette opens.) But it's worth remembering that the same year, Gabin and Duvivier made Golgotha, with Gabin as Pontius Pilate. Duvivier is after bigger fish in the essential nature of man, not just the politics of the moment.

In any case this is a very fine film, a bittersweet, tragicomic piece, second only perhaps to Poil de Carotte among the Duvivier films in the Eclipse set (Robert Lynen, who was the boy in that film, turns up here as a teen kid brother). Gabin is magnetically handsome and charismatic, Vanel is exactly the earthbound dead weight to counterbalance him, and Viviane Romance is hardbitten perfection as the slutty, nothing-but-trouble Gina. This Pathe edition is from a L'Immagine Ritrovato 2K restoration, and it looks fantastic, the open-air photography of Jules Kruger and Marc Fossard (who also collaborated on Pepe le Moko, among others) served up as handsomely as could be. The Pathe edition includes easily-accessible English subtitles, though the one documentary supplement lacks them, as far as I can tell. In any case, the region free edition can easily be ordered and enjoyed by anyone worldwide.

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A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (1936) 40m ***1/2 (Blu-ray released February 10, 2015)

In 1895, a dairy's owner and his family take their milk cart to the countryside and find a picturesque inn. A pair of young men spy them and set out, more than a little cynically, on a plan to seduce both the mother and the daughter while the fat, sleepy husband and his equally dullish protege (set to marry the daughter) fish and snooze. The plan progresses—but this simple day in the country will haunt some of them...

The legend of Un Partie de Campagne is that Renoir filmed the bookends of a story, the middle had to be abandoned in part due to rain constantly interfering with the tale of a sunny day in nature, and it was released as a short. But apparently he always planned it as a short, with the idea that other films could be shown with it, and it's merely shorter than intended. I think it's a film to which you can bring your own theories. Is it better off with only beginning and end? Perhaps. Was a satisfying middle impossible, and that's why Renoir left it to us to fill in what comes between? Maybe. Was this his attempt to film the sort of setting his father painted, and that's why constructing a narrative from it seems wrong compared to leaving it open-ended? Probablement. Is this neorealism, or the complete rejection of it because it is so inwardly focused, so much about psychology and so little about the class struggle? Porquoi pas? Is the inn of 1895 the ruin that the great team discovers in La Belle Equipe, made the same year? C'est fantastique!

Renoir had an astonishing crew on this—his assistants included Jacques Becker (Casque d'Or), Luchino Visconti, and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, while one of the lads, Jacques Brunius, was Bunuel's assistant on L'Age d'Or—and producer Pierre Braunberger stitched it together for release with their help in 1946. The very fact of its open-endedness, its reverie over nature that doesn't answer plot questions or character motivations simply, seems to have inspired others, from Satyajit Ray (Days and Nights in the Forest) to Visconti's White Nights, I feel sure, and who knows what else—Terence Malick, without question, and for some reason Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express sprang to mind while I was watching it. Its urban-Asian vision of romantic obsession seems like it could hardly be farther apart from this film and yet there's something in it that rhymes with this film, from so far away.

40 minutes may seem short for the main feature of a blu-ray, but you can't argue with Criterion filling it out as much as possible, several documentaries telling its story (the introduction by Renoir himself is delightful) and one supplement consisting of 89 minutes of outtakes, enough to make two more Days in the Country. The quality of the transfer seems impeccable, though next to the crisp outdoor photography of La Belle Equipe the film itself seems a little soft, impressionistic one might almost say—I wish contrast had been dialed up a little. But it probably looks like it was meant to look, this cryptic, unfinished ghost of a film.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon May 14, 2018 2:39 am

Is your La Belle Équipe from the Coffret Duvivier Edition Spéciale Collection below or do you have the individual BDs? I am wondering if the collection is worth the investment, and I'm finding it difficult to resist since the quality of the restorations looks truly impeccable.

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon May 14, 2018 7:43 am

I bought this and La Fin du Jour separately; I don't think the box set existed at that point, or at least I didn't see it available. Voici les Temps des Assassins was available but I was more interested in the 30s titles. The restorations of the two I have are outstanding, so if the other titles interest you, you might as well, I don't think you can go wrong.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostFri Jun 08, 2018 10:53 pm

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SPOTLIGHT ON A MURDERER (1961) 92m ** (Blu-ray released May 30, 2017/All Regions)

Having enjoyed a playful H.G. Clouzot thriller unknown to me, The Murderer Lives at 21 (reviewed above), when I saw that there was a similarly unknown film from Georges Franju, made between Eyes Without a Face and Judex, and written by Boileau and Narcejac (Vertigo, Les Diaboliques), well, how could I resist it? When I saw it on Amazon's UK site, how could I not order it right there, not even checking to see if the same label (Arrow) had put it out on in the US? And so I find myself, a bit needlessly, with a blu-ray from England that I could have bought in America... and, well, there's a reason this one isn't very well known. (My version claims it's region B, but it seems to be all-region.)

It's kind of an old house thing—the Duke of Kerloguen hides his own body before he dies, leaving his heirs forced to wait out the five years before they can declare him dead and inherit his medieval chateau—but they have to pay to keep the place up, so they plan a tourist show based on a legend about the place along the lines of Fairport Convention's song Matty Groves, in which the cheating wife responds to hubby killing her lover by flinging herself from the tour.

And then there were none... you know where this is going. But it isn't very interesting getting there. The characters aren't really formed very well—so the suspense over who the killer is is academic more than real—and the obvious setpieces that the sound and light show and the intercom system for talking to tourists offer, aren't really exploited with the panache they might be. It feels like Franju filmed the treatment, not the full script. (Writing on the film suggests it's a sendup, but I think that's wishful thinking about a thriller that doesn't work well but has a few droll moments.) Filmed mostly in an actual chateau (Château de Goulaine, in Brittany), it's somewhat nice to look at, as is the attractive French cast, but this film got the ultimate thumbs-down review— we were cracking jokes, MST3K-style, by the end. An Amazon reviewer says it's in the wrong aspect ratio but I never noticed the framing seeming off.

Arrow, an interesting label which releases a lot of foreign genre films (I've very much enjoyed the Battles Without Honor or Humanity gangster series from Japan), apparently released this because it anticipates the more lurid Italian giallo horror films of the later 60s, but if it does, it's a wan anticipation. The one thing I thought it resembled in a few details is the 1973 British The Legend of Hell House, a tawdrier but not unentertaining riff on The Haunting, which has both a hidden dead owner and a PA system.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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