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.

Book Review: The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (Trans by Mike Mitchell)

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Labyrinthine expressionist horror novel.

A contemporary of Kafka, Gustav Meyrink was the illegitimate son of a minister of state and a Bavarian actress. Before the publication of his best-known work, he spent 20 years as the director of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank in Prague. Clinically depressed he suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. In 1891 Meyrink stood in his apartment with a revolver in his hand fully prepared to end his life when he was distracted by a scratching sound. Crossing the room he noticed that someone has slipped a pamphlet under his door. The leaflet saved him from attempting suicide again. Promoting an occultist group the pamphlet inspired an interest in mystical teachings that would become a recurrent theme in his writings.

Meyrink’s best-known work was originally published as a serial. German director Paul Wegener helmed three cinematic adaptations. The first two of Wegener’s trilogy are now considered to be lost. Wegener’s 1920 film The Golem: How He Came into the World is a classic example of German expressionism. A restored version was released in 2011 featuring a new score by alt.rock band Pixies frontman Black Francis.

An omnibus edition of The Golem was published after the release of the first film in Wegener’s trilogy. Its initial print run is reported to have sold 200,000 copies.

Frequently compared to Frankenstein, Meyrink’s novel was inspired by Jewish literature and Prague legends of a mythical creature said to have been created in the seventeenth century by Rabbi Judah Loew. A disturbing and occasionally bewildering work which at times reads like the outpourings of a troubled mind seeking acceptance and understanding. Meyrink’s obsessions and life experiences are written into the unsettling narrative of a strange creature who visits Prague’s Jewish ghetto every 33 years and strikes terror into the hearts of its inhabitants.

Meyrink’s reputation was destroyed and career left in tatters when he was accused of financial impropriety. Maintaining his innocence he was sent to prison. His time in custody is dramatised in the novel.

Robert Irwin’s introduction draws the reader’s attention to similarities with Kafka’s work. Both authors wrote about trials, castles and Prague and were acquainted with Max Brod. Meyrink’s writing is infused with Cabalistic mysticism and is more explicitly horrific than Kafka’s work.

Meshing classic horror themes with Jewish mythology and offering a nightmarish vision of the now vanished ghetto, The Golem is a classic novel from the author regarded as Czechoslovakia’s Edgar Allan Poe.

The Golem is published by Daedalus Books.

DVD Review: Maigret

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Sacré bleu, ITV’s over hyped adaptation of Simenon’s Maigret novels is très boring.

Ranking alongside Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe as one of the world’s best-known fictional detectives, Jules Maigret was created by the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. First appearing in 1929’s Pietr the Latvian,75 novels featuring the pipe-smoking detective were published between 1931 and 1972.

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Staking a claim to inventing the police procedural, Simenon’s innovations also included an emphasis on the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of criminality. Transforming the genre, Simenon used its conventions to show what could push a person over the edge. Illustrating the authors belief in man’s fundamental irresponsibility the crimes featured in the Maigret novels are a response to a moment of crisis.

With Maigret Simenon didn’t just invent a new type of hero, he also created a distinct sub-genre. Standing apart from any fictional detective published up to that point, Maigret’s methods and raison d’être established the character as unlike anything published before. Equal parts secular priest and psychologist, biographers have suggested that the detective represents the person Simenon would like to have been while the criminal elements are literary representations of who he might have become had his life taken a very different turn.

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One of the novels many innovations was its rejection of tired tropes exhausted by the puzzle school of crime fiction which focused on unmasking the killer and made little attempt to dramatise his emotional backstory. Written from a humanistic perspective, the Maigret novels seem less concerned with apprehending the assailant than discovering what had tipped an ordinary person over the edge and led to them committing horrific criminal acts. Emphasising his difference from other literary detectives Maigret’s compassionate approach to policing involved offering the perpetrators one last chance of redemption before the judicial process took over.

Famously written over several days, each of the novels is an economically told stark exploration of society’s disenfranchised and dispossessed. Deliberately using a restricted vocabulary, Simenon’s atmospheric descriptions bring alive a now vanished France. Widely read, according to the UNESCO Translation Index Simenon is the seventeenth most translated author.

A number of accomplished actors have played the pipe-smoking detective on screen and radio. For a generation, the Rupert Davies starring series is the definitive version. More recently Michael Gambon and Bruno Cremer have introduced successive generations of TV viewers to Simenon’s work.

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Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, Rowan Atkinson is the latest actor to play Maigret in a series which promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver. Simenon’s work seemed to be bullet-proof and was able to withstand a mercifully now forgotten production starring Richard Harris who seemed to be under the misapprehension he was playing the then Labour leader Michael Foot. This latest heavily promoted series reaches the screen as Penguin books is issuing newly translated editions of the books.

On paper, this series should have been a sure-fire winner. Expectations were high for the lavishly budgeted production. Initial optimism soon faded when critics realised ITV had delivered a misjudged adaptation which transforms two of the twentieth century’s most notable crime writer’s novels into a tortuous yawnfest.

Rowan Atkinson reportedly devoured the novels prior to playing the part. Physically he bears very little resemblance to the stocky detective in Simenon’s novels. Previously known as a comic actor his performance is too rigid and downplays the books’ humour. Lacking the passion of Bruno Cremer’s interpretation, Atkinson’s understated portrayal occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Expanded for the small screen, Simenon’s tightly-plotted novels rich with social detail have been transformed into ponderous and unfocused period police dramas devoid of anything resembling atmosphere.

A diversion to kill a few hours, even if the slow pace will make them feel like forever, Maigret is a misguided adaptation which does a great disservice to Simenon and his most famous fictional creation. Filled with a supporting cast unsure if they should play it straight or parody the material, it is an uneven series. Bland cinematography adds to the show’s many deficiencies. Avoid and buy the books instead.

Maigret is available to buy from Amazon.

Baltic View – Putting Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Cinema on the Map

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New online portal showcasing the best of Baltic filmmaking.

Waving the flag for Baltic cinema, a new digital hub is a place to watch and celebrate a selection of contemporary feature-length films, classics, short films, animation, and documentaries.

Officially launching in January with a selection of award-winning films from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. A selection of short films is available to view now for free. If you want to see the short films send an email to hello@balticview.online to register your interest.

Live screenings and events are planned for 2017.

Follow @baltic_view on Twitter.

A Facebook page has the latest information on screenings.

DVD Review: Three Wishes for Cinderella

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Enchanting reinvention of a classic fairy tale

A yuletide TV tradition in several European countries, Václav Vorlíček’s adaptation of Božena Němcová’s fairy tale is a radical alternative to the better-known Brothers Grimm and Disney versions.

Aside from a solitary screening on BBC 2 in the 1980s, the film has been unavailable in the UK until now. Relatively unknown outside of mainland Europe, in several countries it is a firm fixture in the festive TV schedules. Since 1975 one million Norwegians gather round their TVs each year on Christmas Eve to watch the film.

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A Czechoslovakian-East German co-production, the film is one of the most significant examples of Czech fairy tale films. Credited with reviving the genre and ensuring its longevity Three Wishes for Cinderella is a classic for all ages.

Variants of the Cinderella fairy-tale have appeared in several countries. Folk historians have traced versions dating back to 7BC. Charles Perrault’s tale is the best-known version in Western Europe. Introducing the magic pumpkin, fairy godmother, and glass slippers, it has inspired countless screen adaptations and stage pantomimes. The Brothers Grimm tale is the most widely-known version in Germanic countries. In this version, instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella is aided by a gift-giving hazel tree. Božena Němcová’s tale is the best-known version in Czechoslovakia. A Czech equivalent of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christan Anderson, Němcová recorded fairy tales for future posterity. Read by Franz Kafka, her image has been used on Czechoslovakian stamps and currency. Němcová’s version of the Cinderella fairy tale also dispenses with the fairy godmother and has the heroine receive a gift from a farmhand of a magical twig with three hazelnuts.

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Made with a budget far exceeding the amount normally allotted to fairy tale films, Three Wishes for Cinderella was produced for two markets. The film features Czech and German actors. During shooting dialogue was recorded in the actors native tongues. The completed film was dubbed into German and Czech before releasing prints to specific territories.

Regarded by critics as a proto-feminist reinterpretation, the film is set in eighteenth-century Czechoslovakia. The realistic setting is a stark contrast to other films based on Cinderella that have accentuated the fairy tale’s magical elements. A last minute decision to shoot the film in winter instead of Spring proved to be a shrewd move, the shots of snow covered forests adds to the film’s intrinsically captivating qualities.

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Stronger than most other screen Cinderellas, Libuše Šafránková’s title character is a defiant downtrodden stepdaughter who has been defrauded and is forced to endure routine abuse. Adored by the estate workers and her animals she is a sympathetic young adult with a strong appreciation of nature.

When news breaks that the king and his son are to visit the area, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother plots to ensure the bachelor prince picks her daughter as his bride.

Posing as a male hunter Cinderella wins a hunting contest and tames the prince’s horse. The prince and Cinderella are free spirits trapped by circumstance. In Three Wishes for Cinderella the title character does not see the prospect of marriage as an opportunity to escape from a life of humiliation and servitude. Subverting the traditional fairy-tale, it is the prince who must win over Cinderella’s heart and prove he is a worthy suitor.

Charming and delightful, the film has been extensively restored by the Czech National Film Archive in Prague and the National Library of Norway. The definitive Czech Christmas DVD.

Three Wishes For Cinderella is available to order from Amazon.