We’ve been waiting for years for Warner Brothers to start licensing out some of their holdings in the Blu-ray era, and now that the purse strings have loosened — even if only a little — Criterion has given us some major releases, including The New World with all three cuts and the forthcoming McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People is another hugely welcome upgrade and (presumably? hopefully?) only the first in a series of upgrades of the films in Warner’s essential Val Lewton horror DVD box set.
Cat People was Lewton’s first horror production for RKO, and it’s a compact, stunning combination of spooky voodoo mumbo-jumbo and of potent interpersonal dread. Serbian immigrant Irena (Simone Simon) has sincere beliefs about the ancient curse she believes is afflicting her, but her concerns are equally rooted in her simultaneous longing for and fear of human connection. In Tourneur’s dramatically lit tableaux, domestic spaces are a haunt of shadows, and anxiety thrives in these dark places of the heart and mind.
Irena’s fear that she will turn into a vicious predatory cat if she has sex with a man (in this case, her new husband Oliver, played by Kent Smith) is treated with a light touch in DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay. There are examinations of its roots in Serbian mythology and Irena’s mental state, but the why is not belabored, despite an undeniably immense psychosexual subtext.
Instead, Tourneur and Lewton bring to the fore the throat-tightening, alienating feel of helpless terror with some of the most incredible black-and-white images every committed to celluloid. Cat People is renowned for its influential decision to keep its predator mostly off-screen, relying on the power of suggestion in a way studio horror films hadn’t done much to that point.
But the images that do make it on the screen are staggering, especially two key sequences: when Irena’s romantic rival Alice (Jane Randolph) goes for a swim, and the reflected rippling on the wall seems to be encroaching, and several scenes where Oliver and Alice work late in their office, the illuminated surfaces of their drafting tables looking like potential portals to another dimension.
With a film so dependent on the subtleties of light and shadow, a high-def upgrade is especially welcome, and Cat People looks phenomenal in Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration. Fine detail is abundant and grayscale separation is incredibly nuanced. Damage is almost completely nonexistent, with a few very minor dips in clarity seen here and there, but overall, the transfer represents a major visual upgrade. The uncompressed mono soundtrack has no obvious issues.
Although Cat People was released on laserdisc by Criterion back in the day, they haven’t carried over that edition’s most substantial supplement, an audio commentary by Bruce Eder, instead opting for the Gregory Mank track that was included on Warner’s DVD release. Excerpts from an archival interview with Simon are also on that track. Also carried over from Warner’s box set is Kent Jones’ feature-length doc Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. Alongside a 1979 interview with Tourneur, Criterion also provides a new interviewer with cinematographer John Bailey (who shot Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake), who discusses Nicholas Musuraca’s work and legacy. A trailer and an insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien are also included.
Criterion Collection / 1942 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 73 min / $39.95
The Holocaust film has become a subgenre so afflicted with questionable sentimentality and morally dubious motivations that it’s easy to forget that there are fiction films that find a way to meaningfully grapple with the worst atrocity of the last century. One of those films is Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on the High Street, better known in the US as The Shop on Main Street.
Unlike many of the popular Slovak films of the era, The Shop on the High Street is more rooted in a classical filmmaking style, which seems a likely factor in its Oscar win for best foreign language film. Obviously, classical doesn’t mean stodgy, and The Shop on the High Street remains a bracing experience, disarming viewers initially with its finely honed comic sensibility and low-key approach before revealing the way hatred works as a rapidly advancing poison and the easy complicity that soon arises.
At the film’s center are two remarkable performances, both working to make us intimate with the characters and their inner lives. Jozef Kroner stars as Tóno, an unambitious carpenter in a small Slovakian town who’s appointed “Aryan controller” of a modest shop. The shop’s owner is Rozália, a nearly senile and deaf Jewish widow who assumes Tóno is there to help her run the store, not take it and its profits over.
There is much about the film that is moving — Tóno and Rozália’s relationship evolves to a place of sweet interdependence — and much that is devastating — the film’s penultimate sequence uses handheld camerawork in a way that is righteously confrontational, but it’s the aforementioned comedy that is such a key component to the film’s success.
By all accounts, Tóno is a man who just wants to live his life in peace, though the societal striving of his wife (Hana Slivková) and the political standing of his brother-in-law, the Nazi-affiliated town commander (František Zvarík) make that difficult. There are many minor notes of comic exasperation here that are exquisite.
That extends to Tóno’s first meeting with Rozália, not so much a failure of understanding on her part as a failure of communicating on his. The futility is funny, and then the film juxtaposes that futility with the march of tyranny that’s not monolithic, but is enabled by thousands of small choices. Suddenly, none of this is funny at all.
Second Run’s all-region Blu-ray release is the first in the world for The Shop on the High Street, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is a nice improvement over Criterion’s old DVD release, even if the film still looks a bit rough around the edges. The transfer is sourced from a high-def master prepared by the Czech National Film Archive, and the elements are afflicted with a fair amount of marks and scratches, particularly in exterior scenes. Interior scenes are mostly clean, and the image is largely detailed and stable. The 2.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack has some background noise and a couple minor drop-outs, but handles the dialogue and Zdenek Liska’s nerve-jangling score quite well.
The major extra is a very detailed appreciation from historian Michael Brooke, who packs a ton of information into his 40-minute piece, which discusses the real-life history, the film’s production and its themes, and the subsequent careers of the major players. Also on the disc are images from the US press book, accessible as a click-through feature. A booklet with an essay by Peter Hames rounds out the bonus material.
Second Run / 1965 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 125 min / £19.99
Second Run’s other August release is on the opposite end of the popularity spectrum (no, it did not win any Oscars), but it’s exactly the kind of title that makes Second Run such an invaluable label, ensuring exposure for films that aren’t obvious canonical entries. This one is on DVD only.
The debut feature from Hungarian filmmaker István Szőts, People of the Mountains did not find favor with the Hungarian government, and in the included essay by Hungarian cinema specialist John Cunningham, he details the thorny political context the film was released into, including the dispute between Hungary and Romania over the occupation of Transylvania.
Still, even without detailed knowledge of these countries’ histories, People of the Mountain is a fascinating formal document. Second Run’s copy makes comparisons to Jean Renoir and John Ford, and notes how Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini saw it as influential on their foundational Neorealist films. All of these things seem true while watching the film, which begins like a docudrama and makes forays into both the quasi-magical religiosity and the bleak realities of working as a woodcutter in the remote Transylvanian forests.
Szőts mostly worked with nonprofessional actors, though his lead, János Görbe, was a fairly accomplished performer. Görbe stars as Gergö, a man determined to preserve some of his family’s way of life when a logging operation takes over the small community he lives in.
Gergö is a man of modest ambitions, and he and his wife Anna (Alice Szellay) mainly seem intent on providing a better life for their young son, Little Gergö (Péterke Ferency). It’s an initially low-stakes scenario that escalates to matters of life and death as a series of tragedies befall the family.
The story here is moving despite its simplicity, and a large part of that is due to the stunning camerawork of Ferenc Fekete, who uses diffused forest light in ways that highlight the family’s hopes for an idyllic future and the harsh truth of what actually lies ahead. Szellay and Görbe have deeply expressive faces, and Szőts wisely frames them in close-ups that give the film a full-blooded emotional force.
Second Run’s DVD is sourced from a new 2K restoration by the Hungarian Digital Archive and Film Institute, and even on DVD, the beautiful shadow gradations and delicate lighting look exceptional. Cunningham’s detailed essay is the only bonus feature.
Second Run / 1942 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 88 min / £12.99
Three foundational silent works from Fritz Lang get the Blu-ray upgrade from Kino, and though Dr. Mabuse already has an excellent Blu-ray from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema, Kino’s new editions of The Spiders and Destiny are English-friendly Blu-ray debuts.
Watching these films chronologically is like watching some of Lang’s fundamental filmmaking approaches click into his place — his bold, expressionistic use of light and shadow, his love of epic-scale setpieces, his capacity for generating suspense.
All of these films owe something to both the structure and the look of the serials of Louis Feuillade (Fantômas). Both Spiders and Mabuse are relentlessly episodic films, lengthy two-parters with a sprawling narrative approach. Destiny is a more compact fable, but it’s restless, using a nested story structure that allows Lang to retell the same tale in different ways.
The Spiders follows the exploits of adventurer Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) as he seeks out both lost Incan treasure and lost pirate treasure, while attempting to stay one step ahead of the nefarious titular crime ring, who leave behind arachnids as a calling card. Fairly turgid when it’s not featuring an active setpiece, The Spiders is still of interest.
Destiny represents a staggering step forward for Lang in terms of atmosphere, as he and Thea von Harbou (in one of her first collaborations with Lang) weave the tale of a town haunted by Death (Bernhard Goetzke), given access and power thanks to greed of local politicians.
When her fiancé dies, a young woman (Lil Dagover) is given the opportunity to reverse it by Death, who presents her with scenarios in three different time periods. Lang’s special-effects-laden, incredibly ornate versions of Persia, Italy and China are impressively detailed, but it’s the somber, ghostly images of a town blanketed by the specter of loss that really stick with you.
The first entry in what would become a trilogy directed by Lang (and a handful more from others), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is a more ambitious take on the serial, not only because of its length (a not-entirely-brisk 270 minutes) but because of its visually cohesive depiction of a societal menace that’s spread into every institution.
That menace is personified in Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a criminal mastermind with the powers of hypnosis and disguise at his disposal. His band of henchmen is ragtag —cocaine addicts and morons — but his powers are far-reaching.
Pursued by Chief-Inspector Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), Mabuse wins huge gambling pots thanks to hypnosis, crashes the stock market for his own gain and kills or abandons anyone who gets in his way. In Lang’s stark vision of Weimar-era Germany, opium dens, secret séances and hidden gambling halls are rendered vividly — underground worlds where it seems anything unnerving is possible.
The Spiders is granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer using the same apparent source as Kino’s 2012 DVD release. The elements aren’t in great shape, and the tinted images rarely have much depth, but it’s a solid presentation and a marginal upgrade over the previous DVD. Intertitles are in English. Audio is a nice Ben Model score in lossless 2.0 stereo. There are no extras.
Destiny’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer comes sourced from a 2K restoration by Anke Wilkening on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, and it’s mostly a strong one, with healthy levels of fine detail despite some pervasive softness to the images. The simulated color tinting looks good, and damage has been nicely attenuated. German intertitles are presented, with optional English subtitles. Audio is a lossless 2.0 stereo track of a newly-composed score by Cornelius Schwehr, performed by the Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra. Extras include a Tim Lucas audio commentary, a restoration demonstration and a trailer for the 2016 re-release.
Dr. Mabuse uses what appears to be the same restoration as the Eureka disc as the basis for its 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, and it’s an excellent one, presenting an image that is generally sharp, detailed and film-like, despite a variety of marks and lines that appear throughout. Blacks are often fairly rich, though contrast does sometimes seem a bit boosted. The film is split across two discs. German intertitles are presented, with optional English subtitles. Audio is a lossless 2.0 stereo track that features Alijoscha Zimmerman’s involving score. While it doesn’t have the David Kalat commentary that the Eureka disc offers (a big loss), the Kino is otherwise similar on the extras front, presenting a three-part featurette on the music, the novel by Norbert Jacques that was the basis for the film and Lang’s perspective.
The Spiders: Kino Lorber / 1919 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 173 min / $29.95
Destiny: Kino Lorber / 1921 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 98 min / $29.95
Dr. Mabuse: Kino Lorber / 1922 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 270 min / $39.95
The “all style, no substance” critique is one of my least favorite observations about a piece of art. Who’s to say style itself is not substantial?
So I won’t say that about Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature The Fits, even though in its slim 72-minute running time, it doesn’t make much of a case for being more than a tightly controlled formal exercise. The good news: It’s a really impressive formal exercise, with a carefully distributed feeling of trepidation and an incredible kinetic physicality that nonetheless obeys the limits of the image’s frame.
Even more than signaling the arrival of a promising talent behind the camera, The Fits portends big things for Royalty Hightower, who plays 11-year-old Toni with a mix of steely determination and cautious naïveté.
In a sort of gender-reversed-Billy Elliot scenario, Toni becomes fixated on the dance troupe that practices at the same gym she boxes at with her brother. Every physical action here seems like it could have major consequences, from the thundering of fists onto a punching bag or the synchronized sounds of feet smacking the ground.
Shortly after joining the dance team, a series of puzzling fainting spells and seizures begin to afflict some of the older girls, and Holmer’s camera exploits these for maximum unsettledness. The Fits is not a horror film, but it wouldn’t take too many adjustments to make it one.
Ultimately, the film is in service to a metaphor that feels pretty thin, but even when it feels like a warm-up to something greater, The Fits is an enjoyable debut.
Oscilloscope’s Blu-ray release features a crystal clear 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that nicely highlights the film’s very active sound design. They’ve also assembled a healthy slate of bonus material, including an audio commentary with Holmer, producer and writer Lisa Kjerulff and editor and writer Saela Davis. An interview with Hightower, a making-of featurette, outtakes and a theatrical trailer are also included.
Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 2.35:1 / 72 min / $31.99
Based on a short story by Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dinesen), The Immortal Story is Orson Welles’ final completed fiction feature — though that designation does ignore the slippery nature of truth in Welles’ brilliant documentary F For Fake (1973). Maybe we should call The Immortal Story Welles’ last all-fiction film.
Unsurprisingly, the intersection of truth and fiction is a major theme running through The Immortal Story, as wealthy merchant Charles Clay (Welles, caked in an unholy amount of old-age makeup) attempts to transfer an old sailors’ tale from the realm of myth to reality by recruiting two people to reenact it.
The almost certainly apocryphal story is simple enough: A rich, impotent old man pays a young sailor to impregnate his wife. After learning of the tale from his only companion, his bookkeeper (Roger Coggio), Clay enlists him to find a man and a woman to act this out, with Clay himself filling in as the old man, of course. The eventual participants: Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), the daughter of a man Clay once drove to suicide, and Paul (Norman Eshley), a down-on-his-luck sailor who seems like he could have been plucked right out of the story itself.
Clay’s sudden obsession with the story reflects on his own loneliness, his ill health and his impending irrelevance, and making the tale true is envisioned as a sort of exorcism of these demons for Clay. Welles shoots interior spaces with a distinct emphasis on their emptiness, the moribund figure of Clay isolated in the frame, sometimes enveloped by the shadows.
The Immortal Story was Welles’ first color film — not his choice, but demanded by the French production company who premiered it on television. Of all of the fascinating things about this odd film — which runs under an hour but is far richer than one would expect given the length — it’s the dramatic, almost expressionistic use of color that might stand out the most.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is largely exceptional, and is sourced from a new 4K restoration of the film. The film-like transfer is thickly textured and film-like, with a stable grain structure. Colors range from garish and vibrant to more subtly shaded, and the transfer handles it all well. The uncompressed mono audio isn’t terribly dynamic — Welles opted for post-dubbed sound — but it’s a clean track.
The Immortal Story is a short film, but Criterion’s slate of extras isn’t, beginning with the alternate French-language version of the film, which is slightly shorter but not significantly different aside from the French-dubbed dialogue. The transfer is comparable to the English-language cut.
Other extras include a typically perceptive commentary track by Adrian Martin, taken from the Madman Entertainment DVD release, a 1968 French documentary on Welles, new interviews with Eshley and scholar François Thomas, and a 2004 interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant. The included insert features an essay from Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Criterion Collection / 1968 / Color / 1.66:1 / 58 min / $39.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.