DVD Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

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The story of what happened when two giants of European cinema sat down to discuss their approaches to filmmaking.

In 2012 Sight & Sound published the British Film Institute’s Greatest Film poll. Conducted every ten years, critics, academics, and distributors are surveyed. Bicycle Thieves won the first poll in 1952. Since 1962 Citizen Kane sat in pole position and many thought it would reign supreme as the unbeatable champion. Although it came close to toppling Kane in 2002, news that Vertigo had finally taken the crown in 2012 was met with surprise.  That it had won the poll by a very wide margin suggests it will probably retain the title when the next poll is conducted in 2022.

Vertigo‘s achievement was surprising because it was not always held in such high esteem. Taken out of circulation after it failed to meet expectations at the box office, the only way to see the film until the mid-80s was via illicit screenings of bootleg 16mm prints. Since it’s mid-80s re-release the film and it’s director has undergone a complete critical reevaluation.

61fq3ayehul-_sl1000_Today regarded as one of Europe’s most significant directors, Hitchcock was not always held in such high esteem. Further proof of his continued cultural significance was offered by the BFI who ran a retrospective of his surviving works. In 2013 UNESCO added the nine existing Hitchcock silent films to its archive to represent the UK’s cinematic heritage. Hitchcock’s influence over modern cinema is undeniable and contemporary film fans are often surprised at learning that he was once regarded as a mere peddler of mass entertainment.

French critic and director, François Truffaut regularly visited the Cinémathèque Française as a teenager and was exposed to numerous Hollywood films. Befriending André Bazin  the co-founder of influential film publication Cahiers du cinéma, Truffaut joined the magazine’s writing team and developed the auteur theory which noted the recurrence of themes and techniques in the work of “great directors.” Emphasising the director as author of a film, his theory was initially controversial.

While in France filming To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock was interviewed by Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut for  Cahiers du cinéma. The magazine had published an issue celebrating the director’s work in 1953 and was planning another to be published in the summer of 1956. Challenging the then widely held view that Hitchcock was merely a director-for-hire churning out lurid schlock,  Truffaut and  Cahiers du cinéma helped define the modern sense of  Hitchcock as one cinema’s greatest artists.
American film critic Andrew Sarris applied Truffaut’s Auteur Theory to  an analysis of Hollywood cinema and declared “Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.”

025-francois-truffaut-tribe-theredlistFeeling that Hitchcock had been evasive in their first meeting, Truffaut wrote to the director and proposed a lengthy interview conducted over several days which would discuss the core elements of a Hitchcock film, approaches to filmmaking, and theories of storytelling. Hitchcock agreed and  Truffaut flew to Hollywood with translator Helen Scott. Eight days of discussion cemented Hitchcock’s critical rehabilitation. The recordings were transcribed and published in France. An English translation was issued in 1967.
Demystifying filmmaking, the book has for decades been regarded as one of the foremost texts of cinema appreciation and analysis. In recent years the authenticity of Hitchcock’s statements has been questioned due to his responses being translated into French and then translated back into English.

Kent Jones enlightening film tells the story of what happened when the Master of Suspense met La Nouvelle Vague’s shining light. Using extracts from the tape-recorded conversations we finally have an unambiguous record of what Hitchcock said over the course of those eight days.

A key moment in the history of film criticism,  Truffaut’s credentials as a director and intimate knowledge of Hitchcock’s work keep the veteran filmmaker on his toes and ensure the interview never descends into effusive gushing. Hard-core Hitchcock enthusiasts and newbies will be educated by this engrossing documentary.

hitchcock-truffaut-2015_t658Analysing key sequences from several Hitchcock films, most notably Vertigo and Psycho. The documentary also includes Hitchcock’s critical comments on a Truffaut’s shot by shot breakdown of a sequence from The 400 Blows.

Recorded when film criticism was still in its infancy, Truffaut’s encyclopaedic knowledge of thematic continuity in Hitchcock’s still stands up today as a superb work of scholarship. It’s easy to forget in the age of DVD and online streaming how hard it was to gain access to films for study purposes back then. Detecting a recurrent thread of Roman Catholic symbolism he verbally pins down Hitchcock until the veteran admits how his formative years are continually woven into his films.

Modern day perspectives from David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Martin Scorsese, Arnaud Desplechin, Wes Anderson, James Gray, and Richard Linklater highlight why Hitchcock’s fingerprints are all over contemporary cinema.

A must-have DVD for anyone who wants to learn more about the Master of Suspense.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is available to order from Amazon

Blu-ray Review: The Blue Lamp

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Caught by the Fuzz: Sentimental police drama with a shocking twist.

Although Ealing Studios is synonymous with comedy it’s output was more diverse. Alongside genteel fun fare such as Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers, Whisky Galore, I’m Alright Jack, The Maggie, and The Man in the White Suit, it produced costume dramas, documentaries, war and crime films. Founded in 1902, the studio’s golden period began in 1938 when Michael Balcon took over as chief executive and steered the company away from escapism and embraced realism. During the 1950s Ealing Studios took inspiration from the British documentary movement and produced realistic depictions of post-war life, most notably Pool of London and The Blue Lamp.

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Seen from a twenty-first-century vantage point, The Blue Lamp offers a view of policing far removed from today’s impersonal and target-driven forms of crime enforcement. As “everyman” police officer George Dixon, Jack Warner created a role which would influence screen cop shows for decades. The character and his portrayal were etched into the hearts and minds of a generation and Warner was asked to reprise the role for a TV series (Dixon of Dock Green) which ran 21 years. At his funeral officers from the police station featured in the film acted as pallbearers.

Crime rose in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Police Constables were the first line of defence in the war against a new breed of criminality. Long-serving officer George Dixon takes new recruit Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) under his wing and tutors the youngster in what it takes to be an effective member of the force.

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Driving home the dangers officers face when they pound the beat, the shooting of George Dixon by a young hoodlum played by Dirk Bogarde still has the power to shock nearly seventy years after the scenes were filmed.

Filmed in a style which came close to approximating the then-current trends in documentary, The Blue Lamp may seem occasionally stagey to modern viewers but to its original audience it was thrilling stuff. Well paced and with a terrific performance from Bogarde this is top-flight stuff from the UK’s most famous studio.

The Blue Lamp is available to order from Amazon.

Blu-ray Review: The Small World of Sammy Lee

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Restored release of a forgotten film captures the charm and sleaze of 1960s Soho.

It’s a hard day’s night for low-rent hustler and strip show compere Sammy Lee. A habitual gambler who has somehow always managed to land on his feet. His luck runs out after he is dealt a losing hand in an all-night card game. Hard-nosed debt collectors are on his tail and Sammy has five hours to raise £300 or he will have to take a severe beating.

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Today largely known for inspiring David Bowie, Anthony Newley was an all round entertainer in an age when being multi-talented wasn’t frowned upon. A successful child actor, he played the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s adaptation of Oliver Twist. As an adult he simultaneously juggled several careers. Newley’s CV demonstrates that he was more than just the one-time Mr Joan Collins; pop singer, lyricist, stage, and screen actor. He experimented with electronic music ten years before David Bowie and Brian Eno decamped to Berlin. His groundbreaking series The Strange World of Gurney Slade redefined the possibilities of TV comedy several years before Monty Python picked up the gauntlet. He filmed The Small World of Sammy Lee while appearing in the West End production of Stop The World – I Want to Get Off.

Anthony Newley originally played the title role in writer-director Ken Hughes 1958 one-set BBC play. The feature-film moves beyond the confines of Sammy’s bedsit and takes the audience on a tour of a Soho and East End which was slowly rebuilding after suffering a battering during World War Two. London had yet to start swinging and gentrification was an alien word.
Sitting comfortably alongside Billy Liar, The Knack and Alfie, The Small World of Sammy Lee is an engaging example of British New Wave cinema which deserves to be better known.

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A melancholic noir, it offers one of the best available glimpses of early 1960s London. Newley’s pitch-perfect performance as the jaded compere on the fringes of showbusiness trying to save his skin and protect a naïve girlfriend (Julia Foster) is cynical and compassionate. The film is packed with a gallery of actors who would soon become household names; Warren Mitchell, Lynda Baron, Roy Kinnear, Wilfred Brambell, and Derek Nimmo.

StudioCanal’s welcome release of a restored edition should introduce a new generation to Anthony Newley’s work. The revival starts here.

The Small World of Sammy Lee is available to order from Amazon.

Blu-ray Review: The Maggie

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Inspired by Neil Munro’s Para Handy stories, The Maggie is a lesser known Ealing comedy that has the distinction of being the one of only two comedic films produced by Ealing Studios to be set in Scotland.

American born Director Alexander Mackendrick remains a towering figure in the history of Scottish cinema. Making his début with Whisky Galore, he would go on to direct a succession of Ealing comedies including The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers. After the sale of Ealing Studios he moved to America and directed the classic film noir Sweet Smell of Success.

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Nominated for three BAFTA awards, The Maggie focuses on the misadventures of a crew aboard a decrepit puffer boat as they transport a wealthy American’s possessions to his holiday home. Released five years after Whisky Galore, the film offers a more satirical strain of Scottish humour that provides a commentary on post-war relations between Scotland, America, and England.

Overshadowed by the legacy of his other work for Ealing Studios, The Maggie is an exquisite comedy that has drifted into relative obscurity. A probable influence on William Forsyth’s Local Hero, it reprises themes from Mackendrick’s previous film, Whisky Galore, and may be his most personal cinematic moment.

Born to Scottish migrant workers in Boston, Massachusetts Mackendrick was sent to live in Glasgow after his father died of influenza. Raised by his grandparents, he never saw his mother again. Aspects of this traumatic upbringing are repeatedly woven into his films. Childhood, separation, and loss of innocence are recurrent themes.

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Affording Mackendrick the opportunity to explore his dual cultural heritage while critiquing the English, The Maggie is an emotionally complex film which satirises materialism, highlights the inflexibility of bureaucracy, and celebrates the plight of those who take a stand against a rigid authority.

A valentine to a way of life that was rapidly disappearing as the economy restructured in the years immediately after World War II, traditionalism is contrasted with then new forms of capitalism and an increased internationalisation. The crew of an obsolete ship are unwitting ambassadors for a sector of society that resisted transformation and cherished rituals.

Former school teacher Alex Mackenzie was 61 when he became an actor. In his first screen role he plays Captain MacTaggart, a wily veteran of the waves who desperately needs £300 to renew his shipping licence. An opportunity to raise the necessary funds arises when an official mistakenly agrees to allow a puffer boat to transport a wealthy American’s possessions to his holiday home.

After learning how his goods are being transported Calvin B. Marshall (Paul Douglas) sets out to reclaim the property. Failure to deliver the cargo will mean that the boat is decommissioned.

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More fulfilling than Whisky Galore, The Maggie has been unfairly overlooked for far too long. A deeply personal film from one of the Scottish film industry’s most significant figures. Expanding themes explored in his previous film, the director probes Scotland’s relationship with its transatlantic ally through the prism of his dual nationality. The naming of Paul Douglas’ character refers to Mackendrick’s Calvinist upbringing and the Marshall Plan.

Sentimental with a subversive undercurrent, The Maggie is one of Ealing Studio’s most rewarding comedies. Deserving of greater exposure, the superb restoration from the BFI and StudioCanal should see its reputation renewed.

The Maggie can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Maggie-Ealing-Digitally-Restored-DVD/dp/B00U3PW56E/ref=tmm_dvd_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1439847232&sr=8-2

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Maggie-Ealing-Digitally-Restored-Blu-ray/dp/B00U3PW5T6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1439847232&sr=8-2&keywords=the+maggie

DVD Review: Out of the Clouds

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 Lives of passengers and crew intertwine at London Airport when fog causes delays.

Offering a snapshot of an era when air travel was for many an unaffordable luxury and airports were glamorous places, Out of the Clouds is a portmanteau drama from Ealing Studios that follows the lives of people who visit and work in London (now Heathrow) Airport over a period of 24 hours.

A sedate adaptation of a novel by John Fores, the film interweaves several stories. Pilot Gus Randall (Anthony Steel) has a gambling addiction and gets involved with a smuggling ring. Duty officer Nick Milbourne (Robert Beatty) is waiting for the opportunity to become a pilot. Captain Brent (James Robertson Justice) suspects his plane has mechanical problems. Hostess Penny Henson (Eunice Gayson – Dr No, From Russia with Love) is the centre of a love triangle involving Nick and Gus.

Best known for co-directing the classic British horror film Dead of Night, Basil Dearden helmed this hymn to post-war aviation culture. Noteable for its recreation of an airport terminal on one of Ealing’s largest sound stages, to a 1950s cinema going public the setting was the film’s real star.

Fans of 1950s and ’60s British films will enjoy spotting familiar faces in roles very different from those for which they became best known. Carry On legend Sid James’ cameo  nearly steals the entire film.

Restored for its sixtieth anniversary this charming period piece evokes a forevermore vanished age when passengers received personal attention and airports didn’t employ security scanners.

A lesser known Ealing film that should be regarded with the same esteem as Passport to Pimlico and The Tifield Thunderbolt.

Out of the Clouds can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Out-Clouds-Ealing-Digitally-Restored/dp/B00U3PW4V0/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1436837186&sr=8-2&keywords=out+of+the+clouds

Blu-ray Review: I’m All Right Jack

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The UK’s highest grossing film of 1959 arrives on Blu-ray.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s twin brothers John and Roy Boulting were one of the most consistently successful directing-producing partnerships in the British film industry.

The pair founded Charter Productions in 1937. After making several documentaries Roy directed and John produced the feature length thrillers The Landlady (1938), Consider your Verdict (1938), Inquest (1939) and Trunk Crime(1939).

During World War Two the brothers were given leave from service to make the anti-isolationist film Thunder Rock.

Politically active, John was an Ambulance driver for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Roy shared his brother’s left-leaning tendencies.

Their idealism and social engagement was threaded into a succession of celebrated films, most notably Brighton Rock, that reflected post-war pessimism.

Today the pair are best remembered for a series of satires that poured scorn on the British establishment. Private’s Progress, Lucky Jim, I’m All Right Jack, Carlton-Browne of the FO, and Heaven’s Above! provide a snapshot of 1950s culture and are filled with biting swipes at institutions.

Perhaps the Boulting Brother’s most significant post-war comedy, I’m All Right Jack takes aim at industrial relations, consumerism, and television.

Winner of BAFTA’s for Best British Screenplay and Best British Actor (Peter Sellers), the film struck a chord with a nation struggling to reconcile itself to new forms of manufacturing, emerging marketplaces, and union practices.

Adapted from a short story by Alan Hackney, I’m All Right Jack featured a stellar cast of comedic actors including Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael, Terry Thomas, Margaret Rutherford Irene Handl, and John Le Mesurier.

Reportedly, the Queen arranged a private screening for Prime Minister Harold Wilson when he visited Balmoral seeking permission to dissolve parliament and call a general election.

Sequel to the 1956 satire A Private’s Progress. Ian Carmichael plays Stanley Windrush, an inept over educated and under-experienced university graduate unable to find lasting employment. After a succession of interviews at factories proof fruitless his uncle offers a job at a missile factory with the vague promise of career advancement.

An unwitting patsy, Windrush does not suspect he has been placed in the factory to upset relations between management and the unions. A small scale dispute carefully orchestrated by the company’s directors to pad their pockets with tax free cash when a contract is reassigned becomes a national strike. With the country falling to pieces the press are eager to tell Stanley’s story.

Strikes had been outlawed during World War Two and in the brave new world of an increasingly technologised workplace the unions were increasingly militant. Keen to flex their collective muscle and resist attempts at getting employees to increase their workload without extra payments the threat of strike action was ever present in the 1950s.

Central to the film’s success is Peter Sellers portrayal of the union leader Fred Kite. A cross between Hitler and Charlie Chaplin, the Stalinist becomes a tragic figure when his unwillingness to compromise causes his wife and daughter to leave the family home. Sellers’ comic timing is offset with an ability to convey pathos with slight gestures.

Making a very welcome debut on Blu-ray, this rip-roaring comedy has not lost its bite. A laugh out loud classic.

I’m All Right Jack can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alright-Jack-Digitally-Restored-Blu-ray/dp/B00MUR3JTU/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1421665512&sr=1-2&keywords=i%27m+all+right+jack

DVD Review: Shadow of the Sword

After spending several years honing his craft in the advertising industry Swiss director Simon Aeby made his feature film début with the effective small scale film Three Below Zero. A European film shot on location in New York, it was, as most first features are, an economical production. Aeby’s script demonstrated that he had an instinctive understanding of how to put characters at the heart of drama and bring the audience .along for the journey. His second feature film, The Rebel, whilst visually bigger in scale retained the level of intimacy which had made his first movie an intriguing viewing experience. With his third film, Shadow of the Sword, Aeby presented audiences with his most expansive cinematic canvas to date whilst retaining a focus on well rounded characters with all too recognisable and identifiable desires and foibles.

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Released in 2006 Shadow of the Sword (also known in certain territories as The Headsman) is a story about friendship, love, betrayal, and religious extremism. Set in the 16th century, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Headhunters, Game of Thrones) and Peter McDonald (Moone Boy) play lifelong friends who must decide which side they are on in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Austrian state Tyrol.

In the first half of 16th century Catholicism was the dominant ideological force in mainland western Europe. The new world had just been discovered, mass illiteracy was widespread across the continent, and spiritual salvation was only accorded to those who were rich enough to pay tithes. With an unshakeable belief in its self defined and imposed status as the only legitimate religious creed the Catholic church waged war against nation states that were governed by a different belief system and punished those who dared to openly express differing interpretations of the gospels.

Against a background of transformation Shadow of the Sword takes place three years after Martin Luther began the reformation movement with a letter to his bishop. Known as The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgence, the invention of the printing press enabled this letter to be copied and circulated. Recognising that widespread support for Luther’s teachings represented a threat to the Vatican’s supremacy and a loss of political power (and accompanying revenue) it authorised The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (popularly known as the Spanish Inquisition) to tyrannize the emerging protestant movement.

Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and George (Peter McDonald) are a pair of orphans who have grown up under the protection of the local monastery. As adults they have taken very different paths. Reuniting after several years, Martin is a soldier returning home after spending a tour of duty abroad fighting battles on behalf of the emperor and George is a prelate at the very same monastery in which they were both raised.

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In Martin’s absence the township has begun to feel the impact of Luther’s rebellion against the existing orthodoxy. Martin has come home to find a society living under a fragile peace. Anabaptists live within the vicinity preaching an alternative interpretation of the gospel. A radical and left leaning group, its adherents were deemed by the Catholic church to be guilty of heresy. George’s tolerance of this group places him in direct conflict with his superiors and invites the possibility that the Spanish Inquisition may descend upon the town at any moment to sterilise the area.

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Judicial process is overseen by an institutionally corrupt town council under the watchful eye of the church. The chief punishment metered out to miscreants suspected of being in league with Satan is public execution. As agent of faith and administers of retribution the incumbent executioner has a fractured relationship with the town’s citizens. Forced to live beyond the town’s boundaries, unwelcome in local hostelries and market places the executioner is a social pariah feared by the very same populace who congregate in large numbers to witness him decapitating whatever person who have been convicted of spurious charges by a dishonest legislative framework.

Martin falls in love with the executioner’s daughter, Anna (Anastasia Griffith), despite knowing that association with her will turn him into a persona non grata. His illustrious military career will carry no further weight amongst Tyrol’s townsfolk if he enters into marital union with Anna and for the rest of his days he will be robbed of all social standing.

Having resigned his army commission Martin’s subsequent marriage to Anna renderes him unemployable within Tyrol but at this point fate intervenes and he is presented him with an unexpected opportunity. The death of Anna’s creates a vacancy for the post of town executioner, Martin applies for the post and is successful. Skills acquired during several military campaigns are put to good use in his new position and he rapidly impresses the ever watchful eye of the region’s archbishop.

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Disapproving of his friend’s relationship, George refuses to bless the union and undeterred Martin asks an Anabaptist priest to perform the marriage ceremony. With the church’s resident executioner consorting with Anabaptists George is fearful that control is slipping in Tyrol and when word spreads that a rival religious group is gaining momentum everybody starts to expect an imminent visit from the Spanish Inquisition.

Director Simon Aeby was attracted to this project feeling that despite being a historical drama Shadow of the Sword’s core storyline had parallels with things happening in contemporary society, most notably the rise of religious fundamentalism and governmental attempts to restrict the access to information available on the internet. Aeby’s awareness of how to ensure that characters are central to the plot prevents the film from becoming a polemical piece. Shadow of the Sword is first and foremost a story about friendship, love, betrayal, corruption, greed, and courage in an age of religious intolerance and state sponsored oppression.

Believing the film’s subject matter to be universal and relevant to the modern age the producers shot the film in English knowing that this would increase opportunities for international distribution. The cast is filled with a number of very fine British character actors. Playing the Spanish Inquisition’s leader Steepen Berkoff (Octopussy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) comes very close to stealing the entire movie. Eddie Marson (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably grotesque as Fabio the executioner’s assistant who feels slighted at being passed over for the post and denied Anna’s hand in marriage

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Thought provoking, emotionally engaging, and viscerally exciting Shadow of the Sword is an arresting European film. The first rate acting and sympathetic cinematography are complemented by suitably authentic costuming and a visually impressive recreation of an entire medieval town.

 Shadow of the Sword is available to buy  from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B0072HTWQ2/ref=s9_simh_gw_p74_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0WG9R26YFA3FTH719B44&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=358549767&pf_rd_i=468294