One of the most interesting books on filmmakers from the 1960s was
released the year that I graduated from college. It became my
indispensable desk reference for quick research about the production
output of American directors and precisely where the writer placed
them in his ranking system.
36 years later Andrew Sarris' tome, The
American Cinema - Directors and Directions - 1929 - 1968
still rings true; the author's judgment still accurate, although I
still differ with his judgment of David Lean.
I thought of Mr. Sarris' work recently when Paramount announced
that they were about to release two DVDs - one a new release of a
new production, the other an example of the filmmaker's early work.
I was thrilled by the announcement.
To use Mr. Sarris' verbiage, the filmmaker in question fits firmly
within what I would consider the 2004 version of his Pantheon
In 1968 the list was as follows:
Charles Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard
Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch,
F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Josef von Sternberg and Orson
Welles. While I would have added David Lean to this list, I can't
quibble with the others present.
Any list of this sort if obviously a personal thing, based upon how
one relates to the various films as one sees them.
That said, my current list of American Pantheon filmmakers would be
a short one.
In alphabetical order:
Short and sweet.
But while everyone on the planet at all attuned to film is aware of
three of these gentleman, the fourth may come as a surprise.
Philip Kaufman, at 67, has directed twelve films. As a writer he
was responsible for several more inclusive of The
Outlaw Josey Wales*, the story for a Steven Spielberg
film, Raiders of the Lost Ark*
as well as the creator of the characters for Indiana
Jones and the Lost Crusade*.
As a director he gave us The Great
Northfield, Minnesota Raid, The
White Dawn* (just released by Paramount), the re-make of
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers*,
The Wanderers, The
Right Stuff*, The Unbearable
Lightness of Being*, Henry &
June*, Rising Sun*,
Quills* and Twisted*.
His production of The Right Stuff*
placed him firmly in my Pantheon. I was lucky enough to catch The
Right Stuff* in a 70mm 6 track stereo print, beautifully
projected at the Plitt in Century City. His name was held there by
Unbearable Lightness* and Henry
His latest, Twisted*, the
other new DVD from Paramount, is a terrific thriller that enabled
him to work on his home turf, San Francisco. It's a fine film made
by someone with a feel and passion for the city.
I hadn't seen The White Dawn*
in decades, and had actually mis-remembered much of it. The film is
an interesting cross between Flaherty's Nanook
of the North, Endurance
and Robert Gardiner's ethnographic documentary, Dead
Birds. It tells the story of a small group of whalers who
are separated from their ship, and saved from a frigid death by a
tribe of Eskimos.
No car chases; no special effects; just a wonderful film,
beautifully photographed and produced under less than studio
conditions. It would be unfair to discuss it further, but I'll
simply place it in my highly recommended category, along with Twisted*.
Those of you who may be unfamiliar with Mr. Kaufman's work have
some catching up to do. With the exception of his earliest work and
The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid,
all are available on DVD.
And if anyone is unfamiliar with The
Right Stuff*, get a copy, turn up your volume and enjoy
one of the great films of the second half of the twentieth century.
Fox Studio Classics
Fox has released the 22ndc and 23rd (or 24th if one counts Sunrise)
DVD in their continuing superb Studio Classics series.
A 1938 production, Alexander's Ragtime
Band*, was one of the earlier Fox musicals to have a
historical background. It featured a 23 year old Alice Faye, already
a Fox staple, and Tyrone Power, two years her senior, as Alexander.
While Ms. Faye chose to leave the screen after a casting dispute in
1945, she had chalked up a string of 31 appearances in only 11
years. She returned to the screen in 1962 with a role in State
Fair, and made several appearances thereafter.
Mr. Power, who began as a child actor billed as Tyrone Power, Jr.,
worked his way into more mature roles by the mid-1930s and stayed
popular as a leading man until his premature death in 1958 at the
age of 45, during the production of Solomon
and Sheba. He was replaced in that film by Yul Brunner.
Mr. Power had major or starring roles in almost fifty motion
pictures during his career which spanned 33 years.
I've seen Alexander's Ragtime Band
over the years, and have never seen it look as it does on this DVD,
which is up to the standards set by Fox for the series. The one
slight hiccup in the entire series has lyrics missing to the title
song in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie*.
Number 24 in the series is Nunnally Johnson's Three
Faces of Eve*, an important and beautiful black and white
CinemaScope production, photographed by Stanley Cortez, one of the
masters of black and white cinematography, responsible for The
A further examination of the credits reveals that the film was
edited by Marjorie Fowler, who was Nunnally Johnson's daughter. Ms.
Fowler was editor on productions such as Stopover
Tokyo, Separate Tables,
Elmer Gantry and the 70mm
production, Dr. Doolittle. She
was married to editor Gene Fowler, jr., who cut films such as The
Woman in the Window, Hangmen
Also Die and It's a Mad, Mad,
Mad, Mad World. Their late daughter Kim, carried on the
tradition as a Foley artist.
Another recent release of Fox is the new anamorphic special edition
of Predator*. To my eye (as a
proponent of film grain) Predator*
looks as it should and comes recommended.
New from Miramax & Disney
In my last column I questioned the quality of the latest Miramax
releases via Disney. Cold Mountain especially became the poster
child for the discussion.
A continuing on-line discussion at HTF
brought to light some additional interesting facts. We were joined
by a representative of the post house responsible for the work, who
seemed to join the group with an interest in finding the reasons
behind the problems, once they were acknowledged. I'm still hopeful
that he'll return with a report and an assessment of how to raise
the quality of future releases. Lately there has been only silence.
After the last column went up, I had a chance to view Disney's new
special edition of The Princess Diaries*,
a sweet, enjoyable film for all ages, and with a superior transfer
and release. This would seem to point to Disney not being the center
of the problems earlier discussed.
Most recently I sampled Disney's new DVD of Aladdin*,
to which HTF's David Boulet attached a glowing review.
I concur. The presentation of Aladdin*
is spectacular. The packaging is of interest as the folks at Disney
have even printed the cloud motif on the inside of the sleeve
containing the ultimate packaging which will be kept. A nice touch
which will probably never be noticed by the millions adding this
title to their libraries.
I have only one query in regard to the release.
Why, as the DVD packaging claims, would this film need to be "digitally
What is there to "restore?"
The original production was, as far as I know, digitally rendered.
Those digital files, which should still exist in some archived
state, were used to create an SE (sequential exposure) negative.
Whether a color negative or interpositive was also recorded out, I
But with these original elements still extant
A Tale of Two Aspect Ratios
Among a number of fine classics to come our way recently from
Paramount was a 1954 production, The
Based upon a play by Clifford Odets, this George Seaton directed
drama stars Bing Crosby, William Holden and Grace Kelly in a drama
of the interrelationships of an alcoholic actor (Crosby), hired for
what might be his comeback by director (Holden). All three give
performances more than worth the $10 price of admission.
The Country Girl* won Academy
Awards for both Best Actress (Kelly) and Best Screenwriting
(Seaton), in addition to other nominations.
What I found technically interesting about this film was that
1953-54 was the period during which projection of spherical 1.37:1
films were being projected at 1.66:1 or wider. I sampled a number of
scenes at 1.37, and then at 1.78.
With the exception of a single shot, the film played perfectly at
1.78:1, zoomed to fit the 16:9 monitor, with the image quality
holding well in spite of the enlargement.
For those who wonder how different aspect ratios might affect
productions of this era, here is your chance to experiment with a
superb film. Highly recommended.
New Noir from Warner
From Warner Bros. set of noir titles came Gun
Crazy*, aka Deadly is the
Female, a 1949 Joseph H. Lewis film released originally
via United Artists.
Beautifully rendered in black and white, Gun
Crazy* sets the stage for Bonnie
and Clyde*, which would follow two decades later.
Along with Out of the Past*,
The Set-up*, Murder,
My Sweet* and The Asphalt
Jungle, this set of discs makes a wonderful initial dent
into the world of cinematic noir. Hopefully, there will be more to
Joseph Conrad wrote: " If you want to know the age of the
earth look upon the sea in a storm."
Those words, spoken by Jack Hawkins in Richard Brooks' beautiful
1965 production of Lord Jim*
serve as not only the introduction to the film, but as a reminder of
the lead character's mindset, as played by Peter O'Toole.
Photographed by Freddie Young in Super Panavision 70, Lord
Jim* was one of the most literate of the large format
road-show productions. Mr. Brooks was one of those filmmakers who
would never speak down to his audience. Think of his work on In
The film has been released in its original 154 minute version
inclusive of the stereo sound missing for many years. Another film
which comes highly recommended.
What is it about a David Mamet film which sets it apart from the
rest of the pack?
Is it the dialogue? It certainly has a unique feel and sound to it.
Is it the interweaving plot elements?
The control of actors?
The reality is that it's most likely a bit of all of these things.
But whatever it is, make no mistake.
A David Mamet film is a unique animal.
Spartan* is no different.
It's a film which keeps your mind going, never allowing you to get
ahead of the plot, or giving you all of the information that you
need to really understand what's going on at any particular time.
And then, like many other Mamet films, you find the rug pulled out
from under you. If you've made assumptions, you do so at your own
For those of you who haven't yet visited the slightly "off"
world of Mr. Mamet, I'll make several suggestions for getting your
Working from the earlier forward try House
of Games* (1987), The Spanish
Prisoner* (1998), State and
Main* (2000) and The Heist*
But please remember that you were warned before going in that
they'll be different from most other films you've experienced.
A year ago in my comments regarding the DVD release of Bowling
for Columbine*, I was less than complimentary about
Michael Moore's treatment of Charlton Heston, during an interview
for which Mr. Heston invited Moore to his home.
That said, it is undeniable that while the finest of our
documentaries are being created for television by the prolific
brothers Burns and the likes of Austin Hoyt for PBS, that the crown
for the propaganda school of filmmaking is clearly held by Mr.
He proves his mettle once again with not only the extremely
controversial Fahrenheit 9/11*,
released via Columbia, but also with The
Big One* from Miramax.
Everyone knows the subject matter of Fahrenheit*,
and without getting political, it comes extremely highly recommended
for what it is - a superb example of modern political propaganda
filmmaking, in the style of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph
of the Will* (Synapse) and any number of World War II
films in the mode of Frank Capra's brilliantly conceived Why
We Fight series.
The Big One*, which is also
recommended, concerns major corporate executives who "downsize"
(close) their American manufacturing facilities for strictly
economic reasons to move them overseas.
The Ken Burns America Collection
Seven PBS productions originally distributed via Warner Home Video
have now joined the Paramount fold and are being re-issued in a
seven DVD boxed set. This will be joined by the complete output of
the Burns company. The set contains a mélange of subjects
from The Congress, Huey
Long, Empire of the Air,
Thomas Hart Benton, Brooklyn
Bridge, The Shakers
and Statue of Liberty. Each
created in the signature Burns style, they represent some of the
finest examples of modern documentary filmmaking. The best price
that I've found on line is $78 for the set at Deep Discount. A
portion of the income goes to PBS for future production.
In an earlier column I spent some time on the works of Merchant /
Ivory. For both completists and fans of the duo, two of the missing
productions have now been released by Home Vision. Jane Austen in
Manhattan* and Roseland*
are two films from the "middle" period of American
production, and are representative of the feel, texture and quality
of the Merchant / Ivory works. The availability of these two films
almost gives total accessibility of their work to DVD lovers.
* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.
RAH Designates a film worth
of "blind" purchase on DVD.
Don't forget - you can
HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home
theater enthusiasts online right now at The
Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the
HTF's Ron Epstein for the
picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.