Cable, DVD, and Blu-ray


Ugetsu

Nobody does ghost stories like the Japanese. Just ask someone who has seen the contemporary Japanese movies, Ringu and Kairo. Ugetsu isn’t just a ghost story, though it’s the images from the ghost portion of the film that tend to linger in the mind and haunt the viewer for years to come.

Ugetsu is generally acknowledged to be director Kenji Mizoguchi’s finest film. Tastes in movies can be subjective, but it’s fairly obvious to anyone who has seen it that Ugetsu belongs in the same league as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Set in a period of violent civil strife, a humble potter leaves his wife and young child to sell his wares in the city. He meets a mysterious woman there, who turns out to be much more than meets the eye.

One of the most beautifully photographed and fluid of the classic Japanese films, Ugetsu is given a first-class treatment by Criterion with a new high-definition digital transfer. The scenes on the water glimmer and sparkle as they did in the 35mm print, and the subtle lighting throughout is far more apparent than in the previous laserdisc release. As someone who treasured his laserdisc version of this film, I was very happy with the Criterion DVD transfer.

Eureka Entertainment offers a Blu-ray that is supposed to be very close to the theatrical experience, however that disc is Region B encoded. No word yet from Criterion on whether they plan to offer a Region A version for the U.S. market.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD set includes an informative 150-minute documentary on Mizoguchi and his films, titled Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director. It’s an excellent introduction to an under-appreciated director, who Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed as “quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.”

Ugetsu
(1953; directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Monday, October 30 at 4:15 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Psycho

No current horror movie would be quite the same if Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t chosen to scare the living daylights out of us in Psycho (1960). It isn’t just a movie that rises above its genre. Psycho has become a model for any type of film that attempts to creatively disorient the viewer. Similarly, Bernard Herrmann’s musical score is copied — almost note for note — by young composers hoping to set the right mood for a variety of genres, including horror, action, adventure, and science fiction.

This film is so well known you probably have seen it by now. If you haven’t watched it, please do. No director knows more about manipulating the audience than Hitchcock (and that’s meant as a compliment). This is his second best film, after Vertigo (1958). If you haven’t seen Psycho, don’t read the next paragraph or the block-quotes below that paragraph, for I’ll need to touch on a key plot element.

What would be Psycho’s most important innovation? You’re not allowed to identify with any of the characters for very long. Hitchcock explained this strategy in a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut:

You know that the public always likes to be one jump ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what’s coming next. So you deliberately play upon this fact to control their thoughts. . . You turn the viewer in one direction and then in another; you keep him as far as possible from what’s actually going to happen. . . I purposely killed the star so as to make the killing even more unexpected. As a matter of fact, that’s why I insisted that the audiences be kept out of the theaters once the picture had started, because the late-comers would have been waiting to see Janet Leigh after she had disappeared from the screen action.

While it has been widely available on DVD since the 1990s, an anamorphic widescreen version didn’t turn up on DVD until 2005. That format provides a higher resolution for compatible televisions. The anamorphic widescreen print is included in the current DVD and Blu-ray versions.

Psycho
(1960; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $29.98 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Friday, October 27 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Kwaidan

What’s better than a chilling ghost story? How about four ghost stories rolled into one? Kwaidan (1965) is based on a collection of Japanese ghost stories published in 1904. The author was Lafcadio Hearn, a folklorist of Greek-Irish ancestry, who based his stories on translations of old Japanese texts.

Sixty years later, Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi transformed four of those stories into one of the most beautiful ghost movies ever made. Highly stylized with lavish sets and lighting effects that resemble surreal paintings as much as realistic settings, the movie is less frightening than dreamlike, with images that seep deep into your consciousness. Speak with anyone who has seen it, and you’ll discover it makes a strong impression. It’s fair to say the recent renaissance in Japanese horror films — sometimes referred to J-horror — can be traced directly back to this movie (and, to a lesser extent, to Ugetsu).

In each of the four stories, humans come face to face with the supernatural in the guise of materialized ghosts. How the humans react will determine whether they’ll be harmed by the experience. In the first story, “The Black Hair,” a man leaves his loving wife for a rich woman, realizes his mistake, and returns to find his wife, who is strangely unchanged. The second story, titled “The Woman of the Snow,” centers on a promise made by a woodcutter that he won’t reveal the phantom who saved his life with her icy breath. In the third story, “Hoichi, the Earless,” a blind musician tries to protect himself from the spirits of two warrior clans. His protection is to paint prayers all over his body. And in the last tale, titled “In a Cup of Tea,” a warrior sees the reflection of someone else when he gazes into his tea. Later, that same figure challenges him to a duel.

The DVD includes only the movie and theatrical trailer. Given that the film runs 161 minutes, I’m happy the available space on the disc is devoted mostly to the movie. Anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions, the transfer is a wonder to behold. Kwaidan leaves a lasting impression — but only if you’re able to see it in a richly detailed print.

Kwaidan
(1965; directed by Masaki Kobayashi; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Monday, October 23 at 3:45 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The General

In one of the finest books ever written about comedic film, The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr refers to Buster Keaton as the most silent of the silent film comedians:

The silence was related to another deeply rooted quality — that immobility, the sense of alert repose we have so often seen in him. Keaton could run like a jackrabbit, and, in almost every feature film, he did. He could stunt like Lloyd, as honestly and even more dangerously. His pictures are motion pictures. Yet, though there is a hurricane eternally raging about him, and though he is often fully caught up in it, Keaton’s constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane’s eye.

The two Keaton qualities of motion and immobility are perfectly contrasted in The General (1927). It isn’t Keaton’s funniest feature (that honor would go to Seven Chances) or his most inventive feature (that honor would go to Sherlock, Jr.). It is, however, his best blend of comedy and drama, and an ideal choice for anyone who assumes silent comedy is synonymous with empty-headed slapstick. The General has its share of laughs, gags, and pratfalls, but there’s so much more.

Here Kerr eloquently describes the climatic final scene:

As The General must be the most insistently moving picture ever made, so its climax is surely the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy, perhaps for a film of any kind. . . With all forces moving and the panorama embracing river, steep slopes, and endless forest, the train’s belly begins to droop through the burned gap in the bridge, the gap splinters wide, the understructure pulls away as the great beast seems to claw at it, and in a serpentine curve that is as beautiful as it is horrifying the train goes down to the water with its smokestack vomiting steam, a dragon breathing fire even in death. . . The awe of the moment is real: we are present in some kind of history, if only the history of four or five minutes on a day when an actual locomotive, a true burning bridge, masses of breathing men, a verifiable landscape, and a cameraman were present. Visitors to Cottage Grove, Oregon, where the shot was made, still drop by the ravine to look at the fallen locomotive; the evidence of an event remains, is still somewhat numbing.

This film has a nuanced playfulness you rarely see in comedies. One example, among many I could cite, is the famous scene when Keaton reaches out to strangle his girlfriend in frustration and then decides to kiss her instead. Is there a single moment in film or literature that better sums up the difficulty of maintaining a romantic relationship?

Another scene involves Keaton’s beloved train (The General) starting up and moving while he is sitting on the elbow-like rod that connects the engine to the wheel. Keaton is lost in thought and doesn’t realize he is moving up and down, as well as forward, until the train picks up considerable speed. We laugh because he doesn’t sense the movement right away. We also laugh (or should laugh) because this gag works strictly in a silent medium. In the real world (or in a sound film), we would wonder why he didn’t hear the engine. The in-joke for Keaton and his 1927 audience is that this is a jab at silent film conventions. If you think I’m stretching the point, you only have watch Sherlock, Jr. (1924) to see Keaton poke fun more openly at film logic and the very vocabulary of filmmaking. That’s the wonder of Keaton’s genius — his movies are satisfying on so many different levels.

The General
(1927; directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $34.95 (Blu-ray), $24.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, October 4 at 6:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Greed and human nature — it’s a common theme in both movies and literature, but rarely has it been handled as expertly as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Following his service in World War II, director John Huston found the ideal project for his next film. It would be based on the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, written by the mysterious B. Traven. Even today, no one is quite sure who B. Traven was, though historians strongly suspected that Traven met with Huston under an assumed name during the film’s production in Mexico.

The movie is a carefully crafted moral tale about human frailty and the difficulties we might encounter when given the chance to accumulate massive wealth. The three main characters react differently, and it’s the difference in their reactions that keeps the tale from becoming too dark and cynical.

Huston wrote the screenplay, and he keeps a tight rein on the narrative as the story and characters progress to a satisfying conclusion.

Here are a few gems from the film’s dialogue:

Flophouse Bum: $5,000 is a lot of money.
Howard: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Gold Hat: We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.
Dobbs: If you’re the police, where are your badges?
Gold Hat: Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!

Howard: We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.
Curtin: You talk about that mountain like it was a real woman.
Dobbs: She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew. Keep your shirt on, old-timer. Sure, I’ll help ya.

Huston cast his father Walter Huston in the pivotal role of Howard, a seasoned old prospector who understands from experience what gold fever can do to an otherwise honest man.

Both father and son won Oscars for this film (Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay, for John Huston). It was the first time a father and son had received Academy Awards for the same movie.

The recently released Blu-ray version is a joy to behold, especially if you’re able to view it on a large screen. Watch for several uncredited cameos, including John Huston as the American who Dobbs keeps asking for a handout, Jack Holt (Tim Holt’s real-life actor father) as an flophouse bum, and a young Robert Blake as a Mexican boy who sells lottery tickets from the street.

Also on the Blu-ray disc are an informative 49-minute documentary on the making of the movie, a comprehensive 128-minute documentary on John Huston, and a selection of short subjects from 1948.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(1948; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray), $26.98 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Saturday, September 23 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ninotchka

In a letter to film historian Herman G. Weinberg, director Ernst Lubitsch cited Ninotchka (1939) as one of his three best films. Lubitsch wrote, “As to satire, I believe I probably was never sharper than in Ninotchka, and I feel that I succeeded in the very difficult task of blending a political satire with a romantic story.” The letter was written on July 10, 1947 — just months before Lubitsch’s death.

Greta Garbo plays the part of Ninotchka, a stern, no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to Paris to check up on three representatives of the Soviet Board of Trade. She believes they are unduly influenced by capitalistic luxuries. Melvyn Douglas plays the part of Leon, a sophisticated bachelor who seems to have little more to do than experience the sights and sounds of Paris.

This time around, Lubitsch teamed with writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch to adapt a story by Melchior Lengyel. As you might expect from the talent involved, the script is full of comic gems. Here are some examples:

Buljanoff: How are things in Moscow?
Ninotchka: Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

Iranoff: Can you imagine what the beds would be in a hotel like that?
Kopalski: They tell me when you ring once the valet comes in; when you ring twice you get the waiter; and do you know what happens when you ring three times? A maid comes in — a French maid
Iranoff (with a gleam in his eye): Comrades, if we ring nine times . . .

Ninotchka: I am interested only in the shortest distance between these two points. Must you flirt?
Leon: I don’t have to but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.
Leon: I’ll try.

MGM publicized the film with the tagline, “Garbo laughs,” ignoring the fact that Garbo had laughed in a previous MGM film, Queen Christina (1933). Ninotchka was a box office success and was later remade into the musical Silk Stockings (1957). After she retired from her film career, Garbo acknowledged that Lubitsch was the only truly great film director she had worked with.

Ninotchka
(1939; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Turner Classic Movies
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (DVD)

Monday, September 18 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood film, though it was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in the sense that it was the first true Hitchcock film made in Hollywood. Rebecca (1940) was as much David O. Selznick’s movie as it was Hitchcock’s, which may explain why Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Foreign Correspondent, on the other hand, is pure Hitchcock. It’s the story of an innocent bystander who becomes involved in an intrigue — a storyline exploited successfully in The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). It also blends suspense, comedy, and romance in a way that would later become synonymous with Hitchcock’s name.

All the actors seem perfectly cast, yet Hitchcock didn’t get his first choice for the title role. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he ended up with Joel McCrea:

In Europe, you see, the thriller, the adventure story is not looked down upon. As a matter of fact, that form of writing is highly respected in England, whereas in America it’s definitely regarded as second-rate literature; the approach to the mystery genre is entirely different. When I had completed the script of Foreign Correspondent, I went to Gary Cooper with it, but because it was a thriller, he turned it down. This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best — in this instance, with Joel McCrea. Many years later Gary Cooper said to me, ‘That was a mistake. I should have done it.’

Most moviegoers wouldn’t consider Hitchcock to be a trailblazer with special effects, though he certainly was. Take a look at the perspective-distorting zoom or the psychological application of color in Vertigo (1958). Or check out the use of electronic sounds as bird noises or advanced optical printing techniques to simulate large flocks in The Birds (1963).

Foreign Correspondent includes a spectacular shot near the end of the film where a plane is diving into the ocean. You see the water appearing closer, as viewed through the cockpit windshield. When the plane hits the ocean, the water suddenly rushes into the cockpit. All this is contained within a single shot with no apparent edits or special effects, so how was it done? This is Hitchcock’s explanation from the Truffaut interview:

I had a transparency screen made of paper, and behind that screen, a water tank. The plane dived, and as soon as the water got close to it, I pressed the button and the water burst through, tearing the screen away. The volume was so great that you never saw the screen.

Here’s an odd bit of trivia for you. In his article “The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, Part Three,” Raymond Durgnat writes that “Dr. Goebbels loved watching Foreign Correspondent.” Goebbels predicted it would make “an impression upon wide broad masses in the enemy countries.” Hitchcock later speculated that a print was probably brought in through Switzerland. Was this a case of an unscrupulous political manipulator recognizing the skills of a more benign artistic manipulator?

Foreign Correspondent
(1940; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray-DVD combo)

Wednesday, August 30 at 4:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Many people are surprised that James Cagney’s only Oscar was for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). One reason is that the Academy doesn’t tend to reward performances in genre films, such as gangster, adventure, or science fiction films. It also doesn’t tend to reward performances in musicals, though Yankee Doodle Dandy was an exception.

If you think of Cagney’s roles in the gangster movies, it was his confidence that won you over. Only 5 feet 6 inches tall (short by Hollywood standards), Cagney could stare down anyone in the room. It’s just that kind of brash confidence that made him the perfect choice to portray George M. Cohan, who was just as cocky and full-of-himself in real life as Cagney was onscreen. Cagney also had the background needed to play the part. He started in Hollywood as a song-and-dance man, but was sidetracked into gangster movies when asked to switch parts at the last minute.

Cagney did get a chance to return to his song-and-dance roots with his role in Footlight Parade (1933). There, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he doesn’t come off as a polished singer or dancer. It’s his enthusiasm that wins you over. He becomes a terrific dancer almost be sheer will alone. If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it,” you’ll find all the proof you need in Cagney’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Of course, it takes more than a single strong performance to make a great film — particularly if that film happens to be a musical. Cohan’s deeply patriotic songs are real crowd pleasers, not just for their sentiment, but also because they’re the kind of songs that linger in the mind long after you first hear them. Though written for World War I era audiences, they were equally appropriate in 1942 when this movie was released — just months after Pearl Harbor. Even from our perspective, the songs and sentiment still ring true. Odds are you already know many of the songs from the film, which include “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (a.k.a. Yankee Doodle Dandy), “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”

A heartfelt movie biography could easily fall on its face without a strong script. Credit here goes to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, who adapted the screenplay from Buckner’s story. Director Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca was released the same year, keeps the pace brisk with plenty of humor to take off the edge. Here are some snippets of dialogue:

Critic #1: I call it a hit. What’ll your review say?
Critic #2: I like it too, so I guess I’ll pan it.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

Newspaperman: He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants!

Sergeant on parade: What’s the matter, old timer? Don’t you remember this song?
George M. Cohan: Seems to me I do.
Sergeant on parade: Well, I don’t hear anything.

Michael Curtiz was perhaps Hollywood’s hardest working director in the 1930s and 1940s. He turned out an impressive 44 features for Warner Bros. from 1930 through 1939. Curtiz had an extraordinary range across a diverse group of genres. In addition to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, he directed Black Fury (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), and The Breaking Point (1950).

The new Blu-ray disc released on October 14 looks great — and it’s a big improvement over the previous DVD versions. The generous selection of extras is essentially the same as on the two-disc special edition DVD. Unfortunately, the extras are ported directly over in the same standard-definition video (480i). The exception is the 1943 Looney Tunes cartoon short Yankee Doodle Daffy. Like the movie, it has been upgraded to a very nice 1080p video. This Blu-ray is an excellent way to experience this top-notch musical drama.

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.99 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Saturday, August 26 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

His Girl Friday

Want to see the true genius of Howard Hawks? You only have to look as far as His Girl Friday (1940). As good as Ben Hecht’s play The Front Page was, it took Hawks (with Hecht’s assistance) to take it to the next level. Hawks talked about the origin of the film in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I was going to prove to somebody one night that The Front Page had the finest modern dialogue that had been written, and I asked a girl to read Hildy’s part and I read the editor and I stopped and I said, ‘Hell, it’s better between a girl and a man than between two men,’ and I called Ben Hecht and I said, ‘What would you think of changing it so that Hildy is a girl?’ And he said, I think it’s a great idea,’ and he came out and we did it.

Much has been written about the Hawksian woman, who can hold her own against a group of rowdy and insular males, but is no less feminine for being able to do so. For Hawks to convert a best-friend role to a best-gal role was almost second nature. Hawks did more than just change the gender of one of the characters. He kept most of the drama involving Earl Williams, the convicted murdered, but he also built up what would become the main concerns of the film — will Hildy walk out on Walter Burns, quit the Morning Post, and marry her fiancée? If the film has a flaw, it’s the wide swings between its dramatic and comedic threads. Fortunately, Hawks and Hecht interweave the two at such a frantic pace, we barely have time to consider the incongruities.

In a 1956 interview with Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Françoise Truffaut, Hawks spoke about the benefits of a fast pace:

I generally work with a faster than usual tempo than that of most of my colleagues. It seems more natural to me, less forced. I personally speak slowly, but people generally talk, talk, talk without even waiting for other people to finish. Also, if a scene is a bit weak, the more rapidly you shoot it, the better it will be on the screen. Moreover, if the tempo is fast you can emphasize a point by slowing the rhythm.

This film is often praised for its overlapping dialogue. Delivered in rapid-fire fashion — yet never seeming unnatural or forced — the script is a textbook example of how to engage the viewer with wit and style. The one-liners, causal asides, and occasional in-jokes make the first twenty minutes about as good as it gets. Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and a fine supporting cast round out the talent for one of the finest comedies ever.

His Girl Friday
(1952; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $49.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Friday, August 18 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Stagecoach

Greatest Western of all time? Most influential Western? Archetypal Western? Stagecoach (1939) may be all three, depending on your point of view. John Ford hadn’t made a Western since 3 Bad Men (1926) and was eager to make another. Stagecoach was originally slated to be shot in Technicolor with David O. Selznick as the producer. Selznick wanted Gary Cooper to play the part of the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich to play the part of Dallas. Ford disagreed, broke with Selznick, and teamed instead with producer Walter Wanger. Ford had already planned to cast John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. He cast Claire Trevor as Dallas.

Stagecoach was both a critical and financial success. Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols created a quintessential Western with easily understood moral distinctions that pit right against wrong and an underlying yearning for traditional open-sky freedoms. Yet it was also a subversive Western that turned the tables on many of the genre’s clichés. As Joseph McBride explains in his definitive Ford biography, Searching for John Ford, “Stagecoach literally was a political vehicle for Ford and Nichols, a way of looking at America’s past and present. This meta-Western can be read as a justification of American Manifest Destiny on the eve of World War II, a scathing critique of capitalistic corruption and Republican hypocrisy, and a celebration of the egalitarian values of the New Deal.”

McBride recounts the impish delight the pair displayed when they spoke with a New York journalist, just days before the opening:

“We’re particularly attached to this one,” said Nichols, “because it violates all the censorial canons.”

“There’s not a single respectable character in the cast,” declared Ford. “The leading man has killed three guys.”

“The leading woman is a prostitute,” Nichols added.

“There’s a banker in it who robs his own bank,” Ford noted.

“And don’t forget the pregnant woman who faints,” Nichols went on.

“Or the fellow who gets violently ill,” said Ford, referring to the drunken doctor.

From our perspective, Stagecoach looks and feels like a conventional Western expertly put together. There’s no fluff. Ford was famous for cutting out dialogue and expository scenes that weren’t absolutely necessary to the plot or the development of the characters. Even though his style was strikingly different from Ford’s, Orson Welles referred to Stagecoach as his “movie textbook.” Welles said he watched the film “over forty times” in order to learn how to make movies. While preparing to direct Citizen Kane (1941), he studied Stagecoach each night for more than a month, often accompanied by one or more of the technicians at RKO.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood movies from the 1930s and 1940s, don’t pass this one by. Even if you don’t care for Westerns, you’ll find this one rich in history with multi-dimensional characters real enough to walk out from the screen. That Ford was able to release both Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 was an incredible accomplishment, followed by The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home in 1940, and How Green Was My Valley in 1941. With these and many other outstanding movies to his credit, Ford would become the greatest director in the history of film.

Stagecoach
(1939; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Saturday, August 12 at 12:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, July 11 at 3:30 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, July 26 at 10:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps (1935) is one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished early films. It’s also the movie that caught the eye of Hollywood, and the rest — as they say — is history. On the surface, it’s a story about spies and vital information that can’t fall into the wrong hands. Dig deeper, and you’ll find a thrilling adventure of a man wrongly accused of a crime (a favorite Hitchcock theme), as well as a romantic comedy that’s centered on an unlikely couple.

Based on a famous novel by John Buchan, the author was initially upset with the changes Hitchcock made for the film. Years later, he acknowledged Hitchcock had improved the story. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained his approach to adapting the story:

I worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Given Hitchcock’s remarks, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t feel disjointed. Hitchcock was such a skilled director at this point in his career, he was able to hold the episodes together through the strength of the characters and thrill of the chase. As in many of Hitchcock’s films, the origins of the crime or espionage are unimportant. We don’t care what the 39 steps are, and neither does Hitchcock. He even has to insert a few lines at the end to remind us what all the hubbub was about.

The film is filled with deftly rendered vignettes, such as the sequence with the farmer and his wife. Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) encounters them as he flees the police. Based on just a few gestures and glances, we immediately understand the couple’s relationship. When a handcuffed Hannay evades detection by joining a Salvation Army parade, and then is mistaken for a political speaker (he’s hustled onto the platform to improvise an election speech), we willingly go along for the ride. And when those same handcuffs bind Hannay with a woman (played by Madeleine Carroll) who despises him, we savor the improbable circumstances that ultimately bring the two together together. The 39 Steps is only 81 minutes long, but it has more thrills, comedy, romance, and understated wit than the vast majority of films you’ll see. As Hitchcock explained to Truffaut in the interview, “You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

The two-disc-set DVD of The 39 Steps includes a bonus documentary titled The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock. It’s an excellent introduction to Hitchcock’s early British films, which include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

The 39 Steps
(1935; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Friday, July 7 at 11:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Black Narcissus

Some films are beautiful, and some films are strangely exotic. However, there are only a few films that are both beautiful and strangely exotic. Black Narcissus (1947) is one of those few. Quite simply, it’s one of the most beautiful films every made. It was once cited by the Technicolor company as the best example of what could be achieved with color in film.

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff pushed the envelope with color and shadow in this film, especially as it relates to placing the characters within or apart from their surroundings. Cardiff used outlines of color, often against contrasting hues, to strengthen the mood of the scene and to physically convey a sense of that character’s emotional state. You can see the influence of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh in many of his shots.

As you take in the sweeping vistas, keep in mind that not a single frame of the film was shot on location. Much of the credit here goes to the movie’s production designer Alfred Junge, as well as to Peter Ellenshaw, who painted the mattes that evoke the distant mountains and castle.

Co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were equally daring in their experimentation. In one 12-minute sequence near the end, where the action quickly moves toward an inevitable climax, there’s no dialogue. In the sequence, the directors matched the visuals to the music, rather than the other way around. And while there’s more than enough plot to interest the audience, much of the dramatic tension comes from a heightened sense of space and its influence on the characters.

The story revolves around a group of nuns who attempt to establish a dispensary and school in the Himalayan mountains. The isolation takes its toll on the Sisters — emotionally, religiously, and sexually. One flashback scene, in which Sister Clodagh (played by Deborah Kerr) remembers her past love life, was cut from the U.S. release of the film so as not to offend the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Powell would keep pushing the envelope creatively until Peeping Tom (1960). That’s when many in Britain thought he had pushed too far. In addition to Black Narcissus, his other great films include The Thief of Bagdad (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death [a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven] (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Small Back Room (1949). All are well worth watching.

Black Narcissus
(1947; directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, June 14 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Kid

You could go around in circles trying to decide who is better: Chaplin or Keaton? Setting aside personal preferences, they’re close enough to call it a tie. Chaplin taps directly into your emotions, while Keaton’s work is more cerebral. Two of Chaplin’s feature-length films tug at the heart strings more than the others. They are The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). City Lights is the superior film in almost every way, yet The Kid has a sincerity that makes it almost as powerful emotionally.

The Kid was the first feature produced and directed by Chaplin. By the 1920s, he could invest the time and resources needed to construct the film the way he wanted it. In his book Charlie Chaplin, Theodore Huff describes Chaplin’s creative process:

The scene in which Jackie makes pancakes and Chaplin rises from his bed in the suddenly improvised blanket-lounging robe, is said to have taken two weeks and fifty thousand feet of film to shoot. Even counting in the fact that two cameras were used (one negative was for Europe), this is exceptional footage for a scene scarcely a minute in length. But perfect timing and precision were desired and achieved.

Chaplin’s slow, methodical approach was confirmed by Jackie Coogan, who played the title role. In Brownlow and Kobal’s book Hollywood: The Pioneers, Coogan explained, “Sometimes we wouldn’t turn a camera for ten days while he got an idea.”

Coogan joined his parent’s vaudeville act when he was just two-years old, and Chaplin spotted Coogan when he was five. Chaplin knew right away he wanted to work with the young boy, but what kind of story would best show off his talents? The story Chaplin devised was close to his own childhood poverty. He modeled the Tramp’s dilapidated room after the room he had shared with his mother in the London slums.

Despite the grim surroundings and sentimental plot, there’s more than enough humor to tip the scales toward comedy. Highlights include Chaplin’s stationary running as he pretends to pursue the orphanage van, the Tramp’s dream of a heaven where everyone flies (including the dogs) with angelic wings, and the easy familiarity between Chaplin and Coogan.

The Criterion discs feature a new digital transfer using a print from the Chaplin family vault. Included are three scenes that Chaplin deleted from the film’s 1971 reissue. They further develop the background story of the boy’s mother.

The Kid
(1921; directed by Charles Chaplin; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Monday, June 5 at 7:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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