Dir: Sidney Lumet | Wri: Morton S Fine | Cast: Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sanchez | US Thriller 116′
Director Sidney Lumet’s gritty New-York set Nazi survivalist movie made Rod Steiger a star with his unforgettable portrayal of a Holocaust survivor. Jewish refugee Sol Nazerman is a broken holocaust victim eking out an existence as a pawnbroker in Harlem’s squalid mean streets. His world-weary cynical approach to his customers is a study of indifference occasionally erupting in irritation – he’s too exhausted by misery and the memories of the wife he lost in the Death Camps to be angry or even sad any more, although at one point he’s reduced to tears of sheer emotional exhaustion by his tyrannical business partner, the gangsterish Rodriquez (Brock Peters).
Haunted by the lost and the misunderstood, The Pawnbroker is given a certain poignance with its louche jazz score from debut film composer Quincy Jones. Based on Edward Lewis Wallant’s cult novel – the film evocatively recreates a not so swinging Sixties America where life limps on in the shadows of the past. MT
THE PAWNBROKER IS OUT ON BFI BLURAY/DVD 16 August 2021
Dir: Roger Corman | Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee | Horror, US 89′
The Masque of the Red Death is the seventh in the series of Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe adaptations produced by AIP in the 1960s. These visually handsome films were praised for an integrity of tone, laced with dark humour; and a careful – though not over-reverential – respect for the period horror genre.
Atmospheric widescreen colour sets and costumes complimented intelligent scripts and sensitive direction. Of course, there were earlier Poe films yet it was only with the Corman features that we experience a remarkable grandeur faithful to the tone of Poe’s writings, which greatly appealed to critics and audiences.
For his ninety minute version of The Masque of the Red Death Corman takes a sparse storyline and makes it rich in atmosphere. Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell worked on a plausible treatment and also added material from Poe’s tale Hop-Frog. As with the earlier Corman film The Pit and the Pendulum (an even starker one prisoner/victim situation) further characters and sub-plots needed to be created.
Alongside the Masque’s hooded figure of the Red Death (often seen as a reference to Bergman’s death character in The Seventh Seal, those monks surfacing in Bunuel’s films and the callous Prince Prospero (malevolently performed by Vincent Price) we also have a selection of court people, dwarf actors and dancers. A rival villain is provided by Patrick Magee’s Alfredo, although Magee gets short shrift in this rather underwritten role, and would have fared better as Prospero, for he conveys much darker undercurrents of evil with his bitter cracked voice and cold stare.
It made sense to move out of the hermetic court and include some villagers. Those chosen are a virtuous peasant girl Francesca (Jane Asher, ideally pure but never sentimental), her lover and her father. The men are kept inside the dungeons while Francesca, against her will, has to join the company of the court. Francesca is probed by the Satan-worshiping Prospero. He sees her belief in Christianity as equalling his attachment to the powers of darkness. Like Prospero’s mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) the peasant girl is ideal for an apprenticeship with the Devil. A quasi-initiation scene, where Vincent Price leads Jane Asher through a series of highly-coloured rooms is fascinating. Like the doors in the legend of Bluebeard’s castle, a diabolic temptation is being presented to the curious, though resistant Francesca.
These new characters are perfectly serviceable although The Masque of the Red Death tends to make them secondary to the sheer beauty of the film. And although the cast do their best, the photography, set design and costumes create an even stronger note, adding to the visual allure of the picture. Of all the Corman/Poe outings Masque is the most opulent, containing some of the most magnificent colour photography to be found in the genre (perhaps only the colour filtering and lighting in the restored Mario Bava, Kill Baby, Kill achieves a Gothic intensity equal to The Masque of the Red Death).
Nicholas Roeg won a BAFTA for his terrific work. His seductive photography is not just skin deep, it offers brilliant texture that lights up the horrible cold decadence of Prospero’s rooms, divorced from reality, and the misty presence of the village – not forgetting the hill and tree where the ominous figure of death lays out his tarot cards. Dan Haller’s set design is remarkable (they are re-used and re-decorated sets left over from the film Beckett) and so are the costumes supervised by Laura Nightingale.
Corman reportedly gave his cameraman a lighting “theme” and said that ‘Nic lit everything really very beautifully.’ So where does that leave Corman’s direction in this intense artefact? Well he directs with a fluid and elegant touch that glides you through the film. None of the performances seem obviously grand guignol. They’re very natural. And given Vincent Price’s tendency to sometimes be hammy, his Prince Prospero is as restrained as his Mathew Hopkins in Witchfinder General.
There’s a sense that Corman trusted his actors to deliver. However The Masque of the Red Death’s danse macabre scene slightly disappoints and is somewhat underwhelming. There’s a feeling of it not being adequately choreographed. Roger Corman has said he thought this sequence was a failure and he’d wished he’d had more filming time. It lacks a sense of pain and ritual, a dress rehearsal for everybody’s dreadful fate rather than the real thing.
This new blu ray comes uncut – so the flesh branding scene and Julia’s satanic hallucinations are intact. And the quality of this restoration does justice to its production values. My personal best of the Poe films still remains The Tomb of Ligiea but The Masque of the Red Death and The Fall of the House of Usherare not far behind.
EliaKazan‘s first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn shows that the filmmaker’s great empathy for his characters was already quite evident at this early juncture, and this endures as one of the most moving Hollywood dramas of the 1940s. Based on Betty Smith‘s novel – a bestseller in the U.S. but also one of the most popular books among American soldiers overseas in WWII – Kazan’s debut is a sensitive, masterful adaptation.
Set among Brooklyn tenements circa 1912, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a portrait of the Nolans, an Irish-American family living in financially challenging circumstances, often made worse by father Johnny’s drinking and employment problems. But matriarch Katie keeps the family together, caring for son Neeley and daughter Francie, as well as Katie’s outspoken, oft-married sister Sissy. But just as Francie’s gift for writing opens up new avenues, more tragic developments test the family’s resolve.
Winning Academy Awards for actors James Dunn (as Johnny) and Peggy Ann Garner (as Francie), and featuring splendid work by Dorothy McGuire and Joan Blondell, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a heartfelt testament to the strength of family, and offers an early indication of Kazan’s unrivalled proficiency with actors. COURTESY OF EUREKA
Dir.: Anatole Litvak; Cast: Peter O’Toole, Oma Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Donald Pleasence, Philip Noiret, Charles Gray, Joanna Pettet, Christopher Plummer; France/UK 1967, 148 Min.
Based on the novel by popular West German author Hans Hellmuth Kirst and adapted by resistance authors Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn, Anatole Litvak’s penultimate feature is a monumental historical portrait of WWII and the aftermath, stretching from 1942 to the mid 1950s. Litvak poured his own experiences into the action thriller, having left the Soviet Union for Berlin in the 1920s, before escaping from the Nazis via France to Hollywood in the following decade.
Paris under German occupation in 1942: A sex-worker is brutally murdered, and a frightened witness tells German MP Major Grau (Sharif) that he has seen a man wearing the uniform of a German General leaving the house of the crime. Grau is keen to know the alibis of three suspects: General Tanz (O’Toole), a vicious SS commander, General Kahlenberg (Pleasance), who will be one of the supporters of the 20th July 1944 plot against Hitler, and the careerist Von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), who hedges his bets when it comes to resisting Hitler. Whilst his investigation in Paris is unsuccessful, Grau meets all suspects in Warsaw, finally being able to interview them. Tanz is destroying parts of Warsaw single-handed with his tanks, but the other two are not too keen to help Grau. The action returns to Paris in July 1944, just before the plot. Grau works with the French inspector Morand (Noiret), who is also a member of the resistance. He warns Grau to be aware of Tanz, but Grau corners the SS General, who shoots him in cold blood on the 20th of July, claiming that Grau is one of the conspirators.
More than a decade later, Morand visits Germany to take up the case. Tanz has just been released from prison for war crimes. Meanwhile the other two generals are making a good living as civilians, particularly Von Seydltz-Gabler, who is writing his memoirs. But his daughter Ulrike (Pettet) and her husband, ex-corporal Hartmann (Courtnenay) (who started their affair in Paris when Hartmann was an adjutant of Tanz) are the key witnesses for Morand.
Litvak (1902-1974), worked in Soviet cinema before becoming assistant to GW Pabst for Freudlose Gasse (1925) in Berlin. He directed popular features such as Dolly Macht Karriere (1930) for the Ufa, and fled the III. Reich to direct his first French feature Maylering, before settling in Hollywood where he shot, among others, All this And Heaven Too and Snake Pit (1948), a feature about outdated psychiatric methods. In 1949 he returned to France, where he directed Aimez-vous Brahms, based on Françoise Sagan’s novel.
The Night of the Generals is innovatively photographed by Henri Decaë, midwife to the French Nouvelle Vague with features like Les Cousins (Chabrol), Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Malle), Bob Le Flambeur (Melville) and Les Quatre cents coups (Truffaut). The film is carried by Peter O’Toole’s manic psychopath Tanz, who is in love with violence and “entartete Kunst”; nearly fainting in Paris in front of Van Gogh’s self-portrait, whilst visiting an exhibition of paintings destined to be shipped to Germany for leading Nazis. O’Toole portrays Tanz as a member of the master race and is only able to express himself through violence, torn apart by the fascination of murder and suicide. AS
Eureka Entertainment to release THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS, a suspenseful WWII thriller starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and a star-studded cast, presented for the first time ever on Blu-ray in the UK, taken from a stunning 4K restoration, as part of the Eureka Classics range from 13 May 2019, featuring a Limited Edition Collector’s booklet [2000 copies ONLY].
Dir: Stanley Kubrick | Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford | Cast: Matthew Modine, R Lee Emey, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Baldwin, Dorian Harewood | US Action thriller 116′
The last film to be released during Kubrick’s lifetime is a bleak and violent look at the Vietnam war through the eyes of recruits moving from the brutal US Marine training bootcamp into the nightmare of active service overseas. Pessimism combined with dark cynicism gives us a flavour of what came before in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove.
The first half of the film is extremely loud and shouty, focusing on the recruits’ dehumanising and draconian training programme. Although it makes for grim viewing there’s a certain visual symmetry at work here echoing Leni Riefenstal’s Olympia (1938), although the dialogue is coarse and sweary, and full of racist bigotry as you might expect given the all-male environment where the men are toughened up and whipped into shape. There then follows a brutal and melodramatic baptism of fire before the men head to Vietnam, where top recruit and military journalist Pvt Joker (Modine) decides to try his hand in the front line: “a day without blood, is like a day without sunshine”. Kubrick maintains a cold-eyed distance throughout the mayhem and hard-edged horror. There is no attempt to bring out the humanity of these men who are now reduced to killing machines, murdering anything that moves as they fight for their own survival in the dog eat dog delirium. Kubrick’s message is clear: War is no place for decency. You come away not knowing or caring about any of the characters. Stunned and saddened by the senselessness of it all. No pity or poetry here. MT
Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise came hot on the heels of his early horror film Sisters. De Palma planned both films at the same time but the complex production design and sets forced Phantom into second place due to budgetary constraints. For those who foundSisters to be too much of a Hitchcock rip-off Phantom of the Paradise is a very different film and finds De Palma working with his most wicked sense of humour in this gothic masterpiece.
Phantom’s devoted fans not only claim this to be De Palma’s best film but also far superior to the Rocky Horror Picture Show for cult musical madness. Phantom of the Paradise also claims many celebrity fans including Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino.
Brian De Palma’s inspired rock ’n’ roll fusion of Faust, The Phantom of the Opera and The Picture of Dorian Gray boasts an Oscar-nominated score by Paul Williams, who also stars as an evil record producer who not only steals the work of composer/performer Winslow Leach (William Finley) but gets him locked up in Sing Sing – and that’s not the worst that happens to him along the way.
Few revenge scenarios have ever been so amply justified, but the film is also constantly aware of the satirical possibilities offered by the 1970s music industry, exemplified by Gerrit Graham’s hilariously camp glam-rock star. Jessica Harper (Suspiria) appears in her first major role as the naïve but ambitious singer, on whom Winslow secretly dotes.
Prodigiously inventive both musically and visually, this is one of De Palma’s most entertaining romps, not least because it was so clearly a labour of love.
The super-deluxe package, which is available both as a standard Blu-ray and as a limited edition Blu-ray SteelBook, is full of special features and bonus material.