Tag Archives: Fritz Lang

Union

The West of Fritz Lang

Return1

“I love westerns [because] they are based on a simple and essential ethical code,” Fritz Lang said in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”

Lang’s westerns are unique in cinema history.  The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952) offer rugged individualism that differs from the epic grandeur of John Ford and Howard Hawks, thereby paving the way for the 1950s psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  The Austrian-German director utilizes the genre to study the nature of revenge, corruption, redemption and loss — recurring themes throughout his 41-year career.

How did an influential filmmaker find a niche in westerns?  First of all, Lang was fascinated by the American West and understood its mythology. “The western is not only the history of this country, it is what the Saga of Nibelungen is for the European,” he explained in Peter Bogdanovich’s critical study Fritz Lang in America (1967). “The development of this country is unimaginable without the days of the Wild West.”

Lang also was intrigued by the American Indian culture and lived on a Navajo reservation for several weeks in 1935 while MGM kept him on hold and waited for his one-year contract with the studio to expire.  However, the director fought back and soon made Fury (1936), a disturbing study of mob rule and obsessive vengeance — social themes that would be explored in his westerns.

In 1940, Darryl Zanuck gave Lang the opportunity to make his first western for 20th Century-Fox, a sequel to director Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).  When asked why he allowed Lang to make a western, the producer responded, “Because he’ll see things we don’t.”

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Zanuck was correct in his assessment.  The Return of Frank James can be considered one of the first noir westerns. Lang’s attention to detail and atmosphere dominates this unusual tale of revenge.  The film has a look and feel unlike any western of the period as he elevates the genre to a higher visual and moral plane.

The Return of Frank James also marked a cinematic advance for Lang with its use of Technicolor and location photography, resulting in some magnificent shots of the High Sierras.  For a largely studio-bound filmmaker, this was literally a breath of fresh air.

Lang liked the Frank James script and had the freedom to make what few changes he deemed necessary.  However, due to the restrictive Production Code, the character of Frank James (reprised by Henry Fonda) was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and, in fact, did not kill a single individual.  Instead, the men who killed Jesse — Bob and Charlie Ford — die by other means.

At its core, The Return of Frank James examines the struggle of the individual (Frank) versus the system (the railroad company).  Lang opens his film with the last scene from Jesse James (an interesting parallel to the director’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga) as the traitorous Ford brothers shoot Jesse in the back.  After a noirish montage of newspaper headlines trumpeting Jesse’s death, Frank is found enjoying a farmer’s life of peace and anonymity.  He is a man reluctant to seek revenge.  “There ain’t gonna be no trouble,” he assures his youthful friend Clem (Jackie Cooper).

Frank (Henry Fonda) watches the re-enactment of his brother’s murder.

However, this relative calm proves short-lived when Frank learns that the governor of Missouri has pardoned the Fords.  Twisting the blade further, the brothers receive the reward money.  Since it was the railroad’s money that “put Jesse in his grave,” Frank (in a subtle form of revenge) decides to rob the company in order to finance his Ford expedition, which takes him to Denver.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Frank attends a theatrical production in which the “heroic” Ford brothers re-enact Jesse’s murder.  Sitting in a darkened balcony, Frank watches the melodrama unfold and rises to let his presence be known.  When the cowardly Fords see Frank, they run in terror.

What follows is a picturesque chase through the Sierras — a spectacular action sequence that reveals Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and his use of dead trees in the foreground. The chase ends in a gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), which results in Charlie falling to his death.  Lang’s omission of background music and dialogue strengthens the tension and excitement of this scene — nothing is heard but the sound of gunfire.

At the halfway mark, the story takes an unexpected turn when Frank abruptly ends his quest for Bob Ford (John Carradine) and returns to Liberty, Missouri, in order to save his servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) who was framed for murder by the railroad company.  The film unexpectedly evolves into a bitter and sometimes comical courtroom battle which ends in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers.  The Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense are startling; at one point, Frank’s attorney (who works as a newspaper editor) calls the railroad detective “Yankee scum.”

French poster.

French poster.

Once Frank is acquitted, he is free to track down Bob Ford.  However, an off-camera gunfight occurs in which Clem dies after shooting Ford.  What follows is the film’s most noirish scene as Frank confronts the mortally-wounded Ford in a darkened barn.  From a psychological perspective, Lang’s ominous and foreboding interior settings reveal Ford’s dying moments as those of a trapped animal.  When Frank finds Ford’s body, he has the satisfaction of seeing his brother avenged:  “That’s the other one, Jesse.”

The Return of Frank James ends optimistically with Frank returning to his Missouri farm, though Lang offers a provocative image in the final shot.  Riding out of town, Frank passes a tattered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind strips away the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades out.

Lang’s attention to historic and human details also play an integral role in Western Union — a fictitious account of the telegraph line’s evolution in the 1860s. Generally acknowledged as the first epic-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production is the most conventional of Lang’s Hollywood endeavors.  Regrettably, producer Zanuck decided that Lang should film Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay as written.  Had the director been allowed to make his proposed script changes, Western Union might have emerged as a darker, less formulaic western.

Despite the excessive comic relief and overemphasis on romance, Lang was able to incorporate some of his fatalistic vision into the proceedings, embodied by the character of Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) — a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company. Lang’s individual shadings add moments of realism to what could have been an overblown Cecil B. DeMille-type spectacle.

Robert Young, Fritz Lang and Randolph Scott during the filming of Western Union.

Fritz Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott.

Once again, Lang shot on location — utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon.  Compared to The Return of Frank James, the landscape of Western Union is more expansive with its canyon ranges and jagged desert rocks.  However, the interiors remain appropriately Langian.

Western Union is a standout among Lang’s westerns for its emphasis on technological progress and the coming of civilization.  In one scene, Shaw tells outlaw leader Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), “You can’t fight a thing as big and important as the Western Union.”  Symbolically, the telegraph’s arrival marks the beginning of the West’s demise.

Lang depicts Indian culture in a mostly sympathetic light.  Shaw takes a more pacifist approach towards the Indians than his romantic rival, Richard Blake (Robert Young), a naive Easterner who prefers killing the “savages.”  There is a great moment when Shaw knocks out Blake after the city slicker unnecessarily shoots an inebriated Indian.

Later in the film, Shaw and telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) receive the tribal chief’s permission to extend their wire through Indian territory. However, in Lang’s work, nothing is what it seems. After “Indians” attack the telegraph crew, it turns out they are members of Slade’s gang in disguise.  The outlaws call themselves “guerrillas for the Confederacy” — opportunists who exploit the Civil War by justifying their criminal acts.

Foreboding darkness in epic-scale Technicolor.

In the film’s most impressive action scene, Slade and his gang ignite a devastating forest fire that encircles the company camp.  It is an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivals the flood in Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s use of color provides a brilliant fusion of flames and shadow, which makes for a terrifying sequence.

For all its epic grandeur, the narrative force of Western Union lies in Shaw’s moral struggle. Predictably, Shaw finds himself in the middle of the Slade/Western Union conflict and, because of his past, does not fully side with the telegraph company.  Only after Creighton fires Shaw does the reformed outlaw reveal that Slade is his brother, thereby leading to the obligatory showdown between Shaw and Slade — a Cain and Abel parallel that leads to Shaw’s death and redemption.

As in The Return of Frank James, Lang’s directorial touches lend a naturalistic quality to the Shaw/Slade shootout. “There is one scene in which [Shaw] — who has had his hands burned in a forest fire and has them bandaged — goes to the traditional last fight,” Lang told Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America. “[Shaw] takes the bandages off his right hand, and stretches his fingers to see if they are usable for the draw. This is the kind of touch that makes people believe in things.”

Randolph Scott as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Randolph Scott’s breakthrough role as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Ironically, Western Union features the most expressionistic shot in Lang’s westerns.  In a stark composition, the viewer sees Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles standing sentinel in the background.  The inscription on the grave reveals that Shaw was buried as an employee of Western Union.  It is a tragic yet fitting conclusion.

Western Union was an influential film in its breakthrough casting of Randolph Scott.  As Vance Shaw, the actor revealed a darker edge that later would be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher.  Lang was the first filmmaker to recognize these brooding qualities in Scott (just as Alfred Hitchcock later would discover the same undertones in Cary Grant).

The commercial success of Western Union enabled Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that best suited him.  Another decade passed before he again directed a western — this time for RKO.  Rancho Notorious was Lang’s last western and, in many ways, his finest.  One of his bleakest works, the film also served as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, whose inimitable screen presence almost verged on self-parody.

Rancho Notorious is a perverse, stylized B-movie that distorts reality in its use of artificial backdrops and shadowy interiors.  Though largely a set-bound film, Lang reveals a painter’s eye in his moody, ominous shots of the sky and landscape.  (The exteriors may have been second-unit work, but the look is distinctively Langian.)  There also are expressionistic camera angles and grim close-ups that depict a claustrophobic, emotionally repressed environment.

A Langian dissolve.

Film scholar Jim Kitses observed in his influential 1969 book Horizons West that “strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry [into the genre] because they are somehow ‘not westerns.’  This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely . . . it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes.”

It is ironic that critical limitations were placed on the most expansive of film genres. With the exception of Western Union, none of Lang’s westerns are considered “traditional” works. Rancho Notorious defies rigid generalization and compares favorably to the artistry of director Anthony Mann. In Lang’s films, as well as those of Mann, fate deals the hero a nasty blow; however, with Lang, there is less emphasis on the hero’s struggle to resolve his own psychological malaise.

As in Mann’s work, there is a sense of loss that pervades Rancho Notorious, beginning with the murder of Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) fiancée and his endless, obsessive quest for her killers.  The film’s flashback sequence emphasizes Altar Keane’s (Dietrich) faded glamour and social standing, though her mystique remains intact.  Finally, there is outlaw Frenchy Fairmont’s (Mel Ferrer) loss when Altar takes the bullet meant for him.

The criminal hideout of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality that became more prevalent in 1950s westerns.  There is the symbolic inference of rape when Vern’s fiancée reluctantly opens the safe while Kinch menaces her; after her murder, the doctor tells Vern that “she wasn’t spared anything.”  During the flashback sequence, we see Altar and the other dance-hall girls participating in a “horse race” with the saloon customers.  Later in the film, Frenchy and Vern engage in a shooting competition that suggests phallic symbolism.   When Vern equates Altar’s bedroom to a morgue before the final gunfight, the sexual expressiveness is complete.

Lang also wreaks vengeance on Hollywood’s Production Code by making revenge an integral part of the story, even though Vern does not kill the men responsible for his fiancée’s murder. “The revenge theme was so dominant that it could not be diverted, and was allowable because virtually everybody wound up dead,” film historian William K. Everson wrote in his 1992 book The Hollywood Western. “It was surely no coincidence that a ballad sung during the credits concluded with the emphasized words ‘hate, murder and revenge’ just as the credit ‘Directed by Fritz Lang’ flashed on screen.”

Social status plays an ironic role in this film.  At one point, it is noted that Altar prefers cowpunchers to cattle barons.  In fact, she forms a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch not unlike the criminal organization in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series.  Along with her dominance and self-assurance, Altar speaks the film’s most philosophical line: “Time is stronger than a rope.”

Spanish herald.

Spanish herald.

There are two communities in Rancho Notorious: “Chuck-a-Luck” and the corrupt town of “Gunsight.”  Despite the town’s emphasis on upholding the law, the sheriff is in cahoots with the disgraced politicians (“Give me an outlaw to these thieves anytime,” Vern says) and later is voted out of office in the “Citizens vs. Law and Order” election.  Nevertheless, evil dominates, especially when the law is not carried out to its full extent.

What makes Rancho Notorious a pessimistic western is Lang’s belief that man remains a lost individual resigned to his own fate.  In the final analysis, the West of Fritz Lang represents an emotional wasteland as Vern and Frenchy ride off in mourning to face an uncertain future. “We all get taken sooner or later.”

cat-people

Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Jacques Tourneur & more!

cat-peopleCat People (1942)
The Criterion Collection

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

shopThe Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, 1965)
Second Run

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

mountainsPeople of the Mountains (Emberek a havason, 1942)
Second Run

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

SpidersThe Spiders (Die spinnen, 1919)
Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922)
Kino Lorber

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.

destinyDestiny 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, Business Accessories has the perfect guide for learn about casinos and how make money, 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.

mabuse

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 FitsThe Fits (2016)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

immortalThe Immortal Story (1968)
The Criterion Collection

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.

Hollywood-Sign-at-Night

Top 10 Movies I Saw For the First Time in 2014

captain-america-winter-soldier-retro-poster

An admission: I haven’t seen enough newly-released films this year to make a traditional Top 10 list (an admission I never would’ve needed to make a couple of decades ago). Instead, I’m offering a Top 10 list of movies I watched in 2014 that I’d never seen before. A couple of these films I saw in their theatrical first-runs (it will be obvious which two those are), but the rest I saw via https://best-putlocker.com/watch-last-added-online.  So here, in chronological order of when they were made, are my personal choices for the ten best films I was pleased to encounter in 2014.You can visit https://freecouchtuner.com/couchtuner to watch best movies and web series. For the best assassin movie go through the link.

Love is a Racket (1932)loveisaracket6Lee Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ann Dvorak

William Wellman was on something of a roll at Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era. The year before, he’d directed the iconic gangster picture The Public Enemy (which put James Cagney on the map) and the even more brutal thriller Night Nurse (with a young Barbara Stanwyck at her gutsiest and Clark Gable at his scariest). Love is a Racket is a wickedly funny comedy-thriller starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Jimmy Russell, a New York gossip columnist (patterned after Walter Winchell) who hobnobs with all strata of Manhattan society, from the upper crust to the underworld. Jimmy has become so smitten with a would-be actress (Frances Dee) that he’s willing to put everything on the line (including covering up a murder) to rescue her from a slimy mobster (Lyle Talbot) who’s trying to blackmail her into letting him, well, shall we say, have his way with her. The picture’s scene-stealing honors go to Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak as Jimmy’s best buds. You can visit Lorraine Music to check more awesome movies.

Northern Pursuit (1943)Errol-Flynn-Helmut-Dantine-Northern-PursuitErrol Flynn, Helmut Dantine

One of the most endearing things about Warner Brothers was that the box office hit hadn’t been made that they couldn’t copy and often improve upon. (Maybe you’ve seen their knock-off of Algiers, a little film called Casablanca?) Northern Pursuit, the fourth collaboration between director Raoul Walsh and star Errol Flynn, was Warners’ answer to British filmmaker Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, an anti-Nazi propaganda action-adventure set in Canada. Flynn’s plays a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pretends to be a German sympathizer to infiltrate a group of Nazis who were delivered via submarine to carry out a sabotage mission at the Canadian-American border. As with Walsh and Flynn’s previous World War II adventure Desperate Journey, the action moves at a lightning-fast pace. And speaking of anti-Nazi propaganda…

Cloak and Dagger (1946)cloak-and-daggerGary Cooper, Lilli Palmer

When, in 1933, the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels offered pioneering filmmaker Fritz Lang an opportunity to make pictures for the Third Reich, Lang did what any sensible Jew in that time and place would do; he hopped the next ocean liner out of Germany. Lang’s hatred for the Nazis resulted in a quartet of anti-Nazi espionage melodramas, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and arguably the best of the bunch Cloak and Dagger. Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as a nuclear scientist who offers to go to behind enemy lines to rescue a colleague before the Gestapo obtains the info necessary to build an atomic bomb. (Despite the predictable criticisms about miscasting, college educated Cooper is absolutely credible as a nuclear scientist.)  The film’s most justifiably celebrated sequence is the hand-to-hand mano a mano between Cooper and Marc Lawrence (as an Italian Nazi agent), a brutal fight to the death involving real pain and sadism (i.e., fighting dirty) rather than Hollywood’s usual exchange of roundhouse punches. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which Cooper expresses misgivings about any world power having the bomb, undoubtedly contributed to the movie’s screenwriters, Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., being persecuted by HUAC.

Crime Wave (1954)dt.main.ce.Stream.clsGene Evans, Phyllis Kirk, Sterling Hayden

Filmed by director Andre De Toth with a meager budget almost entirely on actual Los Angeles locations in just 13 days, Crime Wave is everything a film noir should be and more, swift, nasty, and hard-hitting. (This is the type of crime picture where characters literally burst through doors.) Song-and-dance man Gene Evans is cast against type as an ex-con newlywed whose attempts to go straight with the help his wife (Phyllis Kirk) are endangered by a gang of former partners-in-crime, two of whom have just escaped from prison. (You can’t ask for better noir villains than Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson, and Timothy Carey.) Sterling Hayden owns the picture as an obsessive hardass of a homicide cop who plays Javert to Evens’ Jean Valjean.

The Lone Ranger (1956)07_1956 Lone_Ranger_and_TontoJay Silverheels, Clayton Moore

In the last 33 years, there have been two misguided attempts to bring the Lone Ranger, that iconic western hero of radio and television, to the big screen, the laughable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the even more disastrous Disney travesty The Lone Ranger (2013). Unlike those mega-budget turkeys, this more modestly-budgeted 1956 cinematic spin-off of the television series, with the definitive Lone Ranger and Tonto (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels), got it right. Well-directed by Stuart Heisler, from a script by Herb Meadow, and with gorgeous Warnercolor cinematography by Edwin DuPar and a rousing music score by David Buttolph, The Lone Ranger is the perfect  Saturday matinee feature for “kids of all ages,” as the old advertising cliché goes. In her last screen appearance, former child and teenage star Bonita Granville (wife of the movie’s producer Jack Wrather) plays the wife of the picture’s head bad guy Lyle Bettger. (The equally loathsome “dog villain,” as in “a guy who’s so evil that he’ll kick a dog,” is played by Robert Wilke.) Both Moore and Silverheels are given opportunities to take center stage; on his own, Tonto narrowly escapes a lynch mob, and periodically the Lone Ranger goes undercover as a grizzled old geezer. (It’s obvious that Moore was having a ball playing this comic relief persona.)

The Hanged Man (1964)origNorman Fell, Robert Culp

Directed by Don Siegel for Universal, this remake of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) became the first made-for-TV movie by default after NBC rejected Siegel’s previous film The Killers (1964), which was also a remake of a 40s Universal picture intended for television, for being too violent and was released by the studio theatrically instead. (The fact that the Kennedy assassination took place before The Killers was finished didn’t help its chances of premiering on national television.) Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel Ride the Pink Horse, The Hanged Man stars Robert Culp as a burned-out gunman seeking revenge for the murder of a friend by blackmailing his former employer (Edmund O’Brien), who’s currently under congressional investigation on racketeering charges. With a supporting cast that includes J. Carroll Naish, Norman Fell, and Vera Miles (as the obligatory noir femme fetale), The Hanged Man is a testimony to Siegel’s expertise at coping with extraordinary challenges on a tiny budget. Universal decided that the remake should be set in New Orleans during Marti Gras, a requirement that Siegel achieved without any location shooting by using just one street on Universal’s backlot and lots of stock footage. The film’s also a must-see for jazz aficionados, with a score by Benny Carter and on-screen appearances by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto.

The Yakuza (1974)vlcsnap-9280052Ken Takakura, Robert Mitchum

As riveting as the young, feral Robert Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s was, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 70s and 80s was even more fascinating and nuanced. In The Yakuza, directed by Sydney Pollock from a script by Robert Towne and brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader, Mitchum gives what may well be the finest performance of his career as an ex-cop turned private investigator who returns to Japan for the first time since the aftermath of World War II at the request of an old friend (Brian Keith) whose daughter is being held captive by a crime family. Once there, Mitchum finds himself betrayed by those he trusts and discovers an unlikely ally in a former enemy (Ken Takakura making his American film debut and perfectly matching Mitchum as a commanding screen presence). According to World Cinema Paradise founder and long-time resident of Japan Stuart Galbraith IV, The Yakuza is “one of the best films in terms of a Hollywood-based production accurately depicting how Japan is and how the Japanese behave and react,” and still remains “highly regarded” in Japan.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)much-ado-about-nothing-nathan-fillion-600x315Tom Lenk, Nathan Fillion

Just like Alfred Hitchcock decided to follow his most expensive picture ever, North by Northwest (1959), with his lowest-budgeted American film, Psycho (1960), Joss Whedon followed his most expensive movie to date, The Avengers (2012), with this self-financed adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies. Shot in black & white on the grounds of his own manor in just 12 days during a brief vacation in between the principle photography and post-production of The Avengers, Whedon’s modern-day take on the Bard is a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Amy Acker and Alexis Deniof are wonderful as Beatrice and Benedict, Shakespeare’s urbane they-fight-so-much-that-they-must-be-in-love sophisticates, which became the archetypes for so many latter-day Hollywood screwball comedies. And sheer, out-loud belly laughs are provided by Nathan Fillion (as Dogberry) and Tom Lenk (as Varges), who manage to lampoon CSI-style TV cops shows while simultaneously channeling Laurel and Hardy’s physical schtick. (Fillion’s underplayed rendition of Dogberry’s “I am an ass” speech is the movie’s most sublime moment.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)captain-america-winter-soldier-sliceChris Evans, Anthony Mackie

This sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) proved that Marvel/Disney superhero movies could tackle serious issues without the overbearing pretentiousness and all-too-serious approach of DC/Warners’ equivalent pictures. In this case, the issue is America’s increasingly militarism in response to post-9/11 paranoia. As Cap (Chris Evans), the ultimate patriot, states about an elaborate preliminary-strike anti-terrorist weapons program advocated by a reactionary right-wing senator (an ironically cast Robert Redford), “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” (The film is a deliberate homage to the political thrillers of the post-Watergate era.) Of course, more than anything else, this is an adrenalin-pumping action-adventure flick, with Cap getting solid support from fellow superheroes the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), in his fight against the Hydra moles who have infiltrated both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the highest echelons of the US military and government. (Yeah, there’s some Manchurian Candidate in this flick, too.) Directors (and siblings) Anthony and Joe Russo keep the action moving at bullet-train speed, eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects (or, at least, until the finale, which is the standard CGI-fest).

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)new GOTG header 3-10Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (voice), Dave Bastista, Vin Diesel (voice)

This was the one that the critics who’d long had their knives out for the Marvel/Disney blockbusters predicted would be Marvel Films’ first box-office disaster, mainly because it was based on an obscure comic book series that only the most dedicated fans of the genre were even familiar with. In an example of poetic justice, Guardians of the Galaxy not only wasn’t a financial flop, it also became the highest-grossing film of 2014. The lion’s share of the credit for the success of Marvel’s first out-and-out comedy film belongs to director-writer James Gunn’s quirky sense of humor. (The story goes that Marvel Films creative overseer Joss Whedon, who obviously considered Gunn to be a kindred spirit, handed the first-draft script back to him, requesting “more James Gunn.”) The goofy collection of mismatched, self-appointed “guardians” (who are actually a gang of intergalactic crooks and scam artists) are played appropriately with tongues-in-cheek by an inspired ensemble consisting of Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill aka “Star-Lord”), Zoe Saldana (as Gamora), Dave Bautista (as Drax the Destroyer), Vin Diesel (as the voice of anthropomorphic tree Groot), and Bradley Cooper (as the voice of talking raccoon Rocket). Gunn establishes the movie’s off-beat tone during the opening credits sequence, as Pratt, on his way to a heist, dances around a desolate, rain-soaked planet to the tune of Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” a “Singin’ in the Rain” moment for the New Millennium.

assassin movie

Man Hunt Featured

Blu-ray Review Round-up: “Man Hunt,” “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and more!

Man Hunt (1941)

Man HuntIt’s doubtful there are many who would consider Man Hunt to be top-tier Fritz Lang, even if the parameters were narrowed to only his Hollywood films. Still, this noirish propaganda piece is bookended by a couple of harrowing sequences, and even in the saggy midsection, Lang’s expressive photography keeps the mood taut and tense. Isolating the pursued protagonist in shots that emphasize the impersonal blankness of urban and non-urban locales, Lang squeezes every last drop of intrigue out of a plot that only occasionally transcends its anti-Nazi polemic.

Walter Pidgeon stars as Alan Thorndike, a renowned British hunter on a German vacation just before the outset of World War II. He tracks down Adolf Hitler and has him in his rifle sight before being arrested by the Gestapo and placed in the custody of Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, doing a kind of Erich von Stroheim urbanely sadistic thing). Thorndike insists he had just drawn a “sporting bead” on Hitler and wasn’t actually going to kill him, but Quive-Smith doesn’t buy it and makes the first attempt of what will be many on Thorndike’s life.

Pursued by German forces back to his home country, Thorndike must rely on a variety of sources to evade detection, including a quick-thinking cabin boy, Vaner (Roddy McDowall), and an infatuated young woman, Jerry (Joan Bennett). There’s a high potential for hokey plotting here, but the actors help sell the questionable material, as McDowall is an unusually perceptive child actor and Bennett taps into a place of unvarnished emotion, despite sporting a risible Cockney accent.

The film’s opening sequence is intriguing, and a later cat-and-mouse game in the shadows of the Underground has the elemental brilliance of the pursuits in M (1931), and taken with the generally engaging rest of the film, that makes for one solid piece of agit-entertainment.

Twilight Time has received a strong 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer from Fox for this high-contrast, shadowy film. Fine detail is abundant, blacks don’t suffer from any apparent crush and contrast levels are stable. A little bit of visible grain looks natural in this film-like presentation, which only displays minimal damage to the elements. The lossless mono track is similarly clean and clear.

Aside from the customary isolated score presentation, all the extras are ported over from Fox’s DVD release, including a decent making-of featurette, an audio commentary from Lang historian Patrick McGilligan and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Man Hunt Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: 1/2

Extra Features Overall: **

Twilight Time / 1941 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 102 min / $29.95

 

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Ali: Fear Eats the SoulFollowing closely on the heels of its ecstatically beautiful Blu-ray upgrade of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), Criterion gives the upgrade treatment to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s surprisingly faithful remake/homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf).

Much has been written about Sirk’s subversive criticism of bourgeoisie values rippling beneath his melodramatic surfaces, but there’s a bit of an opposite dichotomy seen in Fassbinder’s take. He shoots the unlikely romance between a 30-some Moroccan immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem) and a 60-some German widow (Brigitte Mira) with a characteristic aloofness, his camera at a distance, peering at the action through narrow doorways and winding bannisters.

And yet, the melodrama creeps through, both through Fassbinder’s expressive use of color (those gorgeous yellows!) and his empathetic, lingering shots of his actors’ faces. Fassbinder and Salem were romantically involved at the time, which may have contributed to the film’s deeply felt looks of longing. Either way, this is one of the cinema’s most exquisite and most honest love stories.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer couldn’t be any better. Sourced from a new 4K digital restoration and supervised by DP Jürgen Jürges, the transfer features exceptional clarity and astounding levels of detail. Fassbinder’s somber color palette, punctuated with flashes of brightness, looks natural and stable, while film grain is rendered beautifully. The uncompressed monaural German audio sounds superb, free of any distractions or imperfections of any kind.

Extras are all carryovers from the 2003 DVD release, including an introduction from fellow Sirk-ophile Todd Haynes, interviews with Mira and editor Thea Eymèsz, a 1976 BBC program on the New German Cinema, a scene from Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short Angst isst Seele auf, which has a prominent connection to Fassbinder’s film. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1974 / Color / 1.37:1 / 93 min / $39.95

 

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk StoriesOn the included interview in Carlotta Films’ Blu-ray release of Sidewalk Stories, director and star Charles Lane plays down the obvious affinities between his film and Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), insisting instead that his film was primarily inspired by J. Lee Thompson’s low-budget thriller Tiger Bay (1959).

It’s probably to the film’s benefit to get away from the Chaplin comparison, despite the obvious narrative similarities between the films. For one thing, Lane is a reasonably expressive actor, but he doesn’t nearly possess the remarkable communicative abilities of a Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, not to mention his relative lack of physical comedic chops.

For another thing, Sidewalk Stories is certainly a more faithful homage to the silent film than The Artist, but much of the time, this feels like a film that just happens not to have a synced soundtrack — it’s more of a polished version of cinema verité than anything.

Nonetheless, Sidewalk Stories is often very charming in its tale of a street artist (Lane) who begrudgingly adopts a little girl (Nicole Alysia) after her father is murdered in an alley. Living in an abandoned building, the artist barely has enough resources for himself, but he finds a way to provide for the child with the help of a young woman (Sandye Wilson) who falls for the mismatched pair.

The film’s silent-style comic sequences — a skirmish with a fellow, much larger artist over a customer and a playground squabble are both great moments — are a little too infrequent. Lane has an eye for capturing interesting perspectives on marginalized individuals, but the docu-style elements of this hybrid tend to become a little repetitive, especially considering the film’s obvious finale, in which Lane breaks the sound barrier to no great effect.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, it’s a treat to have it presented this beautifully by Carlotta Films, the French company who have recently expanded into the US, with Kino Lorber distributing their discs here. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, is a clean, detailed snapshot of the past that feels like it was preserved perfectly intact. Black and white levels are stable and consistent, with a film-like appearance to the image that is highly pleasing. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack presents a nice showcase for Marc Marder’s eclectic score, which combines traditional piano plinking, bluesy riffs and ambient droning.

Extras include a new interview with Lane and Marder, as well as a commentary track from the pair. A nice inclusion is Lane’s 1977 short A Place in Time, which serves as a kind of prototype for Sidewalk Stories. A trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Sidewalk Stories Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Carlotta Films US / 1989 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $29.95

 

Iguana (1988)

IguanaNo surprise, Monte Hellman delivers another fascinating genre subversion with Iguana, as idiosyncratic a take on the monster movie as Hellman’s versions of the road movie — Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) — and the western — The Shooting (1966), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966).

Iguana stars Everett McGill as Oberlus, a disfigured harpooner whose reptilian facial features has made him the object of ridicule among his fellow sailors on a 19th Century whaling ship. When he escapes the horrific conditions, he sets up his own empire on a remote island, paying back the cruelty done to him tenfold to anyone who dares step foot on land.

Hellman’s atmospheric, disorienting film interrogates both traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, in Oberlus’s absurdly grandiose proclamations and in the character of Maru Valdivielso’s Carmen, a woman whose free sexuality terrifies the men around her. Oberlus takes Carmen as his lover by force, leading to a tragic ending that simply underlines the horror that Hellman allows to unfold over the course of the film.

Raro Video’s Blu-ray release restores several minutes that were cut from the long out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD release, but that’s about the only nice thing to be said about this disappointing disc. While the Blu-ray boasts approval and new color correction from cinematographer Josep M. Civit and Hellman, it’s clear that something went very, very wrong in Raro’s transfer, which is riddled with obvious noise reduction, resulting in frozen grain and disturbingly smooth surfaces. This is an especially bad fit with the dim, raw look of the film, as blacks are frequently crushed and riddled with artifacts. Though I suspect they would look OK in a properly presented transfer, the colors just look sickly here. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack isn’t great itself, but its slightly muddled sound is nothing compared to the onscreen travesty.

Extras include a new interview with Hellman, a trailer and a booklet with a brief essay and a Q&A with Hellman.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Films’ Iguana Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: *

Audio: **

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Raro Video / 1988 / Color / 1.85:1 / 100 min / $29.95

 

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.

Hollow featured

DVD Review: “Hollow Triumph” (1948)

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In a 2013 Los Angeles Times article on ‘B’ movies, film historian Alan K. Rode was quoted as saying, “These ‘B’ features were shorter in time, lower in budget. To me, a ‘B’ movie is something that is fast, it moves, and is entertaining first and foremost.” Another aspect of ‘B’ movies that contributed to their quality is that often they were the result of an ideal convergence of veteran and fresh talent, some on their way up the ladder and, sad to say, some on the way down. One such ‘B’ film that reflects this kind of cinematic “perfect storm” is the 1948 film noir Hollow Triumph, which has just been released by Film Chest on DVD remastered in HD from the original 35mm film elements.

Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar in the UK) was a product of the short-lived (1947-48) production division of Eagle-Lion Films, a company that was initially established by British producer J. Arthur Rank (of the famous “gong” logo) to distribute UK films in the US and then make low-budget movies, with Bryan Foy in charge of production (later an independent producer for the studio). Nobody knew how to make quality ‘B’s better than Foy, who established Warner Bros.’ low-budget programmer unit in the ’30s, where he was known as “the keeper of the ‘B’s.” Hollow Triumph’s star was Austria-Hungary-born actor Paul Henreid, who also made his name at Warners, most memorably in Casablanca. After leaving Warners to try freelancing, Henreid accepted Eagle-Lion’s offer to both act in and produce (his debut in that capacity) his own movie. (Unfortunately, soon afterward, Henreid’s acting career hit a roadblock in the form of the HUAC witch hunts and, except for occasional supporting roles, he mainly spent the last two decades of his Hollywood career behind the cameras as a director.)

Upon having Murray Forbes’ novel Hollow Triumph recommended to him by Hungarian director Steve Sekely, Henreid chose that as his source material and assigned Sekely to helm the picture. An experienced director who got his start making movies in Germany and Hungary, Sekely was an inspired choice for the film, along with screenwriter Daniel Fuchs and innovative cinematographer John Alton. Henreid’s co-star was Joan Bennett (cast after Harry Cohn refused to loan out Henreid’s first choice, Evelyn Keyes, from her Columbia Pictures contract). Bennett was a major romantic star in the 1930s who had reinvented herself in the 40s playing hard-boiled types, most notably her three roles for celebrated director Fritz Lang in his films Man Hunt, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street. Hollow Triumph also boasts some fine supporting performances from a Who’s Who of lesser-known character actors, including John Qualen, Henry Brandon, Herbert Rudley, Charles Trowbridge, George Chandler, Sid Tomack, Lucien Littlefield, Norma Varden, Benny Rubin, Thomas Browne Henry, Dick Wessel, and future TV and film auteur Jack Webb, making his movie debut as a dour hitman called Bullseye. (Rather ironic seeing as Webb would become early television’s most famous cop on Dragnet.)

Hollow 3

In Hollow Triumph, a cast-against-type Henreid plays con man John Muller, who, despite his criminal background, also holds a medical degree in psychology (which comes in very handy later in the story). In the opening scene, Muller is paroled from prison with a warning from a deputy (Trowbridge) to keep his nose clean. So, of course, the first thing he does on the outside is get in touch with his old gang. One of his men, Big Boy (Brandon), knows of an illegal gambling den that’s ripe for a knockover, but Marcy (Rudley), another member of the gang, has cold feet because the casino is owned by Rocky Stanwyck (Henry, also making his film debut), a ruthless mobster with a rep for having anyone who crosses him pursued relentlessly and rubbed out.

Taking their places inside and out of the gambling hole, a dingy basement storeroom (which, thanks to Alton’s lighting, looks like something out of a silent German Expressionist film), Muller and his crew set the robbery into motion. However, like so many of the movies’ “perfect heists,” everything that can possibly go wrong does. Although Muller and Marcy get away with the loot, the rest of the gang are captured and eliminated by Stanwyck and his goons, and the two fugitives are well aware that it’s only a matter of time until they’re next.

Marcy opts for fleeing to Mexico and Muller takes it on the lam to LA, hiding out by reluctantly taking the tedious office job the parole board set him up with. One afternoon, while running a work errand, Muller runs into a mild-mannered dentist (Qualen) who mistakes him for someone else. That someone else is Dr. Bartok (also Henreid), a psychiatrist who works in the same building as the dentist. Conveniently, Bartok is a virtual doppelganger for Muller, but with one noticeable difference: a small scar on his cheek. Stepping into Bartok’s office while the doctor’s out to lunch (a nice subjective shot), Muller meets Bartok’s secretary Evelyn Hahn (Bennett), a bitter, disillusioned woman carrying an unrequited torch for her employer.

Hollow 2

Ever the louse, Muller seduces Evelyn in order to pump her for info about Bartok as part of a newly-hatched scheme to eventually eliminate the doctor and take over his life. When he learns that Marcy has been bumped off in Mexico and that a couple of torpedoes (Webb and Wessel) are hot on his trail, Muller is forced to speed up his timetable. First, he gets a job working the graveyard shift at the all-night garage where Bartok keeps his car. The next part of Muller’s plot is to duplicate Bartok’s scar on his own face with the aide of a scalpel and some anesthetic. But, as luck would have it, just as the meticulously worked-out robbery unraveled, that act of self-mutilation turns out to be the first fatal misstep in a series of unanticipated events that inevitably doom Muller’s best laid plans.

Thanks to Sekely’s expert direction and Alton’s sharp-edged black-and-white photography, Hollow Triumph has enough visual style to belie its meager budget, which is typical of the ‘B’ movies supervised by Foy. Fuchs’ brittle, cynical dialogue is also a major asset. There are many situations and plot twists in Hollow Triumph that could be described as “Hitchcockian,” although in a manner more reminiscent of the Master of Suspense’s two television anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, than his movies. (Interestingly, Henreid directed several episodes of the former series and one of the latter.) In fact, Hollow Triumph’s “surprise ending” was not only echoed in more than one episode of the aforementioned television series, but it also turned up in an early episode of The Twilight Zone (albeit with a supernatural twist).

Don’t get me wrong; Hollow Triumph is no unsung masterpiece. But it is a tough, spare, expertly-made and well-acted little thriller that demonstrates the virtues of ‘B’ picture making. And thanks to well-done remastering, it looks better than it has in years on Film Chest’s DVD release.

Title: ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR, THE ¥ Pers: MacMURRAY, FRED ¥ Year: 1960 ¥ Dir: STEVENSON, ROBERT ¥ Ref: !AB001AF ¥ Credit: [ WALT DISNEY / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Other Flying Cars of Cinema

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a children’s film about a family that comes into possession of a magical flying car, was released on Blu-ray on January 21. This has inspired me to examine the history of flying cars in films.

Man has long dreamed of traveling in his very own personal flying conveyance. For traveling you need to check all the travel information, For more details visit to Absolute Back Packers website. During traveling you need a best hotel to stay, Hotel blog provide you the information about hotels food, refreshment and their similar service. Epic poems produced in India during the late Antiquity described flying chariots, also known as “sun chariots.” Folk tales depicted men riding magic horses into the sky. Samuel Brunt’s 1727 novel A Voyage to Cacklogallinia depicted a character ascending to the moon in a palanquin held aloft by human-sized birds.

A Voyage to Cacklogallinia (1727)

Still, without question, the most popular personal flying device was the flying carpet. The flying carpet were part of adventurous fairy tales that once delighted the inhabitants of the Parthian Empire. This conveyance was originally depicted as a weapon of war. A folk story from 130 BC involves a Parthian king, Phraates II, who rides a cloth or carpet to the Seleucid Empire to battle rival king Antiochus VII. Phraates promptly destroys Antiochus by raining fire and lightning down upon him. He celebrates his victory by riding the carpet over cheering crowds. A similar story appeared in 260 AD. This time, Persia’s King Shapur I uses a magic carpet to surprise Roman emperor Valerian. Shapur pulls Valerian onto the carpet and flies him to a Persian camp. Flying carpets figured into many other war stories. A Thirteenth Century folk tale spotlighted a squad of Toranian archers carried aloft by flying carpets to lay siege to an enemy castle.

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In 2004, Pakistani author Azhar Abidi received acclaim for his mock scholarly essay The Secret History of the Flying Carpet, which alleged to feature quotes from recently unearthed ancient scrolls. He described a menacing warrior flying his carpet over an open-air marketplace. He wrote, “On a pleasant evening, when the suk was bustling with people, and the veiled ladies from Georgia had just disembarked from their litters and were being escorted to the silk merchant, a madman appeared from behind a dome and swooped down at them. The flier was a giant of a man with a magnificent black beard and long hair trailing in the wind behind him. He was wearing a loincloth, his eyes were a luminous green, an eagle was flying by his side, and he was laughing madly. The women saw this apparition heading towards them and froze with terror as he tore away his loincloth and started urinating in their upturned faces.” While soaring over Washington D.C. in his Flubbermobile, Fred MacMurray never tried to urinate on the National Science Foundation for denying him a research grant. But we’ll get back to him later.

The flying carpet became an international sensation when it was featured in the Middle Eastern folk tale “The Three Brothers,” which was included in the famous Arabian Nights book. The flying carpet is largely associated with another Arabian Nights tale, “Aladdin and The Magic Lamp,” but that story did not originally include a flying carpet. It did, however, include a flying bed. Aladdin is upset to learn that his beloved has married the son of the Grand Vizier. He commands his genie to “bring hither the bride and bridegroom.” The genie transports the newlyweds across the city atop their marital bed. That was somewhat risqué for a story that is now widely enjoyed by children.

Jules Verne was a flying car pioneer. In his 1870 novel All Around the Moon (1870), Verne described three men embarking on a journey to the moon in a flying car. He wrote, “The three travelers approached the mouth of the enormous cannon, seated themselves in the flying car, and once more took leave for the last time of the vast throng standing in silence around them. The windlass creaked, the car started, and the three daring men disappeared in the yawning gulf.”

Verne’s 1904 novel Master of the World features the Terror, an invention capable of many transformations. It could function as a boat, car or aircraft. This machine, which possessed wings that folded out from its sides, was able to “dart through space with a speed probably superior to that of the largest birds.” Verne, too, envisioned a flying car being solely produced for the purpose of war.

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Illustration of The Terror by Georges Roux

Filmmakers initially saw flying cars as something funny. The earliest film known to feature a flying car was a 1906 British comedy called The ‘?’ Motorist, in which a speed freak motorist escapes a police officer by driving up the side of a building and flying into outer space.

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The 1923 Mack Sennett comedy Skylarking featured a car that is lifted high into the sky by a hot air balloon.

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The inventor (Harry Gribbon) proudly stands alongside his hot air balloon car.

Of course, the intrepid stuntmen of early Hollywood did not need special effects to make a car take flight.

Tom Chatterton (movpic28chal_0120)

An establishing shot of a futuristic city is not complete without flying cars. This matter is well addressed by the following quote from the TV Tropes website: “Perhaps the earliest example in film would be the small personal airplanes seen flitting amongst the buildings in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis [1927]. They may not have looked like cars, but they seemed to fill the same function. This was probably also the Trope Maker for the whole ‘throw in some flying cars zipping between giant buildings to establish that we’re in The Future’ thing, and it remains popular to this day.”

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The Ub Iwerks cartoon Happy Days (1936) features a car that levitates high into the sky when its owner puts too much air in its tires. The cartoon can be found on YouTube.

The flying car became a long overdue sensation with The Absent Minded Professor (1961). Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray), the professor of the title, accidentally invents flying rubber, or “Flubber,” which he uses to make his Model T fly. This is a impressive juxtaposition of past technology and future technology. The film’s special effects supervisors, Robert A. Mattey and Eustace Lycett, were so masterful in their use of miniatures and screen matte effects that they were nominated for an Academy Award.

Title: ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR, THE ¥ Pers: MacMURRAY, FRED ¥ Year: 1960 ¥ Dir: STEVENSON, ROBERT ¥ Ref: !AB001AF ¥ Credit: [ WALT DISNEY / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

The Absent Minded Professor excited a flying car trend. Later that same year, moviegoers who bought an admission ticket to Invasion of Neptune Men (1961) saw a superhero known as Space Chief fly around in a rocket-propelled car to battle an invading army from outer space.  Soon, flying cars were abound on television.

The French film Fantômas se déchaîne (1965) climaxes with arch villain Fantomas escaping in a Citroën DS that uses retractable wings to convert into an airplane. This invention and others in the film were no doubt influenced by the popular gadgets featured in the James Bond films.

Fantômas se déchaîne 1965

Fantômas se déchaîne

The Citroën DS, which was known for its aerodynamic futuristic body design, lent itself well to this scene and is largely the reason that this flying car has remained an iconic movie prop for the last fifty years.

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The car was recently featured in a short comedy film in which Fantomas is shown in grease-stained red overalls struggling to repair his flying car.

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The flying car was a well-worn concept by the time that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came along. The car, which possessed the same abilities as The Terror vehicle, did not at first seem to offer the slightest novelty, but it was eventually revealed that the car was endowed with independent intelligence and was able to respond efficiently to threats with a variety of devices. That was, admittedly, a new twist.

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The car was designed by famous production designer Ken Adam, who is best known for his work on the early James Bond films and Dr. Strangelove (1964), and cartoonist and sculptor Frederick Rowland Emett. A clear effort was made to make this flying car more fanciful than MacMurray’s flying Model T. The designers took advantage of the fact that, while The Absent Minded Professor was a black-and-white film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was to be filmed in Technicolor. The car’s wheels and upholstery were made an eye-catching crimson red. Prominent were the car’s wavy-edged wings, across which were painted red and yellow stripes. Other trappings included flotation devices and propellers that were deployed as needed. Surprisingly, though, the car does not appear much in the film and the traveling matte effects are embarrassingly inferior to Mattey and Lycett’s effects in The Absent Minded Professor. This is a particular disappointment because the special effects were supervised by the well-respected John Stears, who had won an Academy Award for his work on Thunderball (1965) and later won his second Academy Award for his work on Star Wars (1977).

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John Burningham’s illustrations for Ian Fleming’s original novel depict a much plainer design for the car.

The flying car allowed another villain to escape capture in a James Bond spy adventure, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). This scene was as much about the future of marketing as it was about the future of travel. American Motors Corporation (AMC) furnished the production with 15 vehicles for the purpose of product placement. Inspired by an actual flying car prototype, special effects director Derek Meddings attached wings and a flight tail to a gold-colored AMC Matador coupe. Bond later learns that the flying car traveled 200 miles before landing, but the actual machine was only able to fly for 1,640 feet. John Stears had to build a remote-controlled scale model for the aerial scenes.

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The prototype that inspired this creation did not fare well. The inventor later crashed his flying car and died.

Star Wars (1977) and its sequels featured a variety of personal flying vehicles, including a flying car called an airspeeder.

The flying car was taken to the next level with the Spinners from Blade Runner (1982). The Spinner was agile. It could take off vertically, hover, and use jet propulsion to cruise through the sky. Syd Mead, an industrial designer who began his career at Ford Motor Company, came up with the design for the vehicle.

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The actual three-dimensional cars were built by automotive designer Gene Winfield. Winfield chose to build the Spinner on a Volkswagen chassis because the Volkswagen was designed with its engine in the rear and this allowed him to be extravagant in his arrangement of the vehicle’s front hood.

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Repo Man (1984) unveiled a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu that could fly.

Repo Man (1984)

In The Last Starfighter (1984), a teenage boy is befriended by an old man, who whisks him away from his home in a flying car. The “Star Car,” as this vehicle was called, was designed based on the DeLorean automobile.

Last-Starfighter

Elements of The Last Starfighter turned up the following year in Back to the Future (1985), in which an old man whisks a teenage boy away from his home in a flying car. The car in Back to the Future, which chiefly serves as a time machine, was also based on the DeLorean automobile. The car took its most remarkable innovation from the landing gear design of a plane. The car had the ability to drive normally on terrestrial byways, but it could fold its tires into its undercarriage once it took flight.

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Hidden out of view were the cranes and cables used to lift the car and create the illusion that it was flying.

Winfield, who designed and constructed the Star Car, was hired to build a flying DeLorean for Back to the Future Part II (1989). Winfield had worked for John DeLorean at one time and he admired the man for his design innovations. He made molds off a DeLorean, which he then used to construct a 700-pound fiberglass model.

Winfield brought in his past creations to dress the sets meant to represent the 2015 version of Hill Valley. These vehicles included the Star Car from The Last Starfighter, a Spinner from Blade Runner, 6000SUX from Robocop (1987), and Bubbletop from Sleeper (1973).

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Sitting in the driveway of a quiet suburban home was a Spinner that had been garishly repainted yellow and green.

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The Star Car makes a cameo appearance in the downtown area. The car can be clearly seen on the far left side of this screen capture.

A scene in which the car lands during a rain storm demonstrates a clear Blade Runner influence.

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Mel Brooks spoofed the flying car trend by introducing a flying Winnebago in Spaceballs (1987).

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Later that same year, the Doctor Who series presented a flying bus in the episode “Delta And The Bannermen.” This helped heavy load vehicles to take flight in legitimate science fiction films.

Doctor-Who-Bannermen Delta And The Bannermen (1987)

The Star Wars universe is currently filled with hovertrucks. The Fhloston Paradise, a 2,000-foot-long luxury cruise ship that sails above the Earth, was featured in The Fifth Element (1997).

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Still, a more memorable scene from The Fifth Element shows a squadron of flying cars tangled up in a police chase through a futuristic New York. The five-minute scene, which consisted of more than 70 shots, was a masterful blend of miniatures, CGI elements and digital matte paintings.

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Mark Stetson, visual effects supervisor, admitted that they replicated many elements of the Spinner cars from Blade Runner, but an effort was made to give the film a very different look than the earlier film. Stetson said, “The flying cars are a lot more whimsical, and the city is set in broad daylight. The film is rooted in a much more utopian vision of the future than Blade Runner, which virtually defined the post-apocalyptic look of futuristic films for more than a decade.” Effects cinematographer Bill Neil admitted that he was shocked when the director, Luc Besson, insisted that the sequence occur in broad daylight. Neil said, “Miniatures are often saved by the fact that you don’t see much of them, but this whole sequence took place late in the day, and it had to hold up to scrutiny.”

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This flying food truck reflected the filmmaker’s whimsical vision for The Fifth Element.

Children were never more thrilled when a flying car showed up in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

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The producers of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) partnered with the Chrysler Group for the big-screen debut of the comic book heroes’ flying car, The Fantasticar. The car was designed with a great deal of input from the Chrysler Group’s chief stylist, Trevor Creed. The vehicle was a big step up from The Terror, which could “dart through space with a speed probably superior to that of the largest birds.” It could travel at 550 miles per hour, ascend to 30,000 feet, soar across the globe on autopilot, and split into three independent sections. The car, which was built on top of a Dodge Charger, featured the Dodge logo on front and back.

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In 2009, Russian film company Bazelevs Productions had tremendous success with Black Lightning, a superhero film about a college student who fights crime with a flying car. Universal is currently developing an English-language remake.

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Government contractor Stark Industries displays a flying car prototype in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

Captain America The First Avenger

Chrysler returned to the flying car business after pouring a large amount of marketing dollars into Total Recall (2012). Patrick Tatopoulos, the film’s production designer, said that he had to consult with Chrysler every day on design matters. He admitted that they sometimes had an issue with their design choices and they needed to make changes to “make them happy.”

Total Recall (2012)

The film’s hover cars were mounted on a rig, which included a go cart attached to the bottom. The rigs carried the cars at high speeds beneath the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto and throughout an unused Canadian air base at Borden. Visual effects supervisor Adrian de Wet said, “We let rip with the cars. . . We drove the cars around at 40-50 miles an hour, allowing them to smash into each other. We wrote off a few cars, smashed a few cameras – all that kind of stuff.” Of course, the rigs were digitally removed in post-production.

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Total Recall  (1)

The flying cars keep coming with no end in sight.

flying cars - Russell T Davies’s 2012 show Wizards vs Aliens

Wizards vs. Aliens (2012)

You can no longer watch a movie about the future without seeing flying cars. But this isn’t presented as a cliché. Filmmakers see the mass-produced flying car as an inevitability and believe that leaving it out of a futuristic cityscape would be like leaving an refrigerator out of a scene set in a modern kitchen.

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This is a functioning flying car named the I-TEC Maverick.

I have less faith on the subject. So, for now, I will continue to consider the agile, swooping flying car as something that I can enjoy only by watching a good fantasy film.

You can read about flying cars on television by visiting my blog at http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/.

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