‘All Curly, All the Time’: Reviews of 97 Three Stooges Shorts


In March 1934, Moe Howard, Larry Fine and the brilliant Curly Howard made their mark on popular culture when they entered the realm of the Columbia Short Subjects Department (headed by producer Jules White). A year after their Columbia debut, the Three Stooges were hitting their stride in the two-reel comedy field — thanks to the slapstick mastery of director Del Lord.

My introduction to the Stooges was in September 1969 on Kansas City station KMBC. I was 5 years old and the film was We Want Our Mummy — a total delight from beginning to end. Watching Moe, Larry and Curly for the first time was truly magical and I couldn’t get enough of them. The Flintstones, which followed the Stooges on weekday afternoons, paled by comparison to these live-action cartoons (with sight gags and sound effects galore). A continued success on movie and television screens, the two-reel format proved ideal for the team. The Stooges’ unique brand of physical humor thrived in short spurts.

From a childhood perspective, it was “All Curly, All the Time” no matter where I moved and regardless of what TV station aired the two-reelers. (I didn’t encounter Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita until the mid-1970s and those TV viewings were relatively brief. Though the show went on after Curly’s debilitating stroke in May 1946, it wasn’t the same.) As I grew older, my tastes in film comedy shifted to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers while the Stooges faded into the background.

The advent of home video in the early 1980s revived my interest in Moe, Larry and Curly and made them even more accessible — particularly since they had not been shown on my local TV station for several years. Jump ‘n the Saddle Band’s 1983 hit “The Curly Shuffle” (which peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100) coincided with the home-video Stooge resurrection. By 1996, Columbia had released all the Curly two-reelers on VHS, including several titles that eluded me during childhood. Today, the entire 1934-1959 output is available on DVD and streaming.

Five decades after my first Stooge sighting, I have revisited the mostly glorious Curly era with brief reviews (including a four-star rating system) of all 97 shorts. Much has been written about the team over the years, but I hope this journey will provide some new insights while bringing back fond memories. Without further ado, let the Golden Age of Stoogery begin!

Woman Haters (May 5, 1934)

A rather inauspicious Columbia debut featuring Larry as the atypical lead and tiresome rhyming dialogue. Nevertheless, this pre-Code musical novelty has its pleasures — notably Marjorie White (who works well with the boys) and the memorable “My Love, My Life, My All.” Polished cinematography by the great Joseph August. Not the worst short by any means, but the next two-reeler will mark a tremendous leap forward.  **½


Punch Drunks (July 13, 1934)

“Pop Goes the Weasel” was not the theme to Punch Drunks, but it should have been. The first Stooge classic delivers a comic knockout, with the team’s immortal characterizations (Moe the arrogant leader, Larry the agreeable middleman, and Curly the childlike force of nature) firmly in place. Originally titled A Symphony of Punches, this 17-minute gem makes Woman Haters look like a glorified audition film. Nice to see Arthur Housman sober for a change.

In 2002, Punch Drunks was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry — the only Stooge short to receive that honor.  ****

Men in Black (September 28, 1934)

“Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard!”

Faster-paced than Punch Drunks yet a bit too frenetic for its own good. The Stooges’ only Oscar-nominated two-reeler (losing to the Technicolor snoozefest La Cucaracha) serves as a warm-up for greater triumphs such as Dizzy Doctors and Calling All Curs. Plenty of laughs, but Moe, Larry and Curly appear somewhat restrained. Though an enjoyable short with its fair share of signature moments, Men in Black does not feature the Stooges at full comic throttle.  ***  

Three Little Pigskins (December 8, 1934)

The first two-thirds of this Depression-era comedy represent vintage Stooges. However, the much-anticipated football climax delivers surprisingly few laughs (No Census, No Feeling did a better job in that department). Though Lucille Ball, Gertie Green and Phyllis Crane receive billing, it’s hard to believe Columbia didn’t give comic heavy Walter Long screen credit in his only Stooge appearance.  *** 

Horses’ Collars (January 10, 1935)

Curly breaks loose in this fifth Columbia short and the results are hysterical. Horses’ Collars has one or two slow spots, yet the overall laugh content surpasses the boys’ previous efforts. Casting “B-western” heavy Fred Kohler as Double Deal Decker was a nice touch. Though alcoholism ended Clyde Bruckman’s directorial career (his last credit was W.C. Fields’ The Man on the Flying Trapeze), he did a fine job on his only Stooge two-reeler.  ***½

Restless Knights (February 20, 1935)

Utilizing the sets from Boris Karloff’s The Black Room gives this medieval spoof a big-budget feel, but the pacing is surprisingly sluggish while the inconclusive ending falls flat. Despite some funny moments (notably Moe and Curly’s wrestling match and the welcome presence of Walter Brennan), one wishes Restless Knights had turned out better. The Stooge debuts of actor Stanley Blystone and director Charles Lamont.  **½

Pop Goes the Easel (March 29, 1935)

Del Lord rules! More than any Columbia director, Lord expanded upon the trio’s slapstick style while making the fastest two-reelers known to man. In terms of pacing, Pop Goes the Easel makes Restless Knights look like it was filmed in slow-motion. A memorable start for the Mack Sennett veteran, but Del and the Stooges were just getting warmed up. Perhaps the only clay fight in cinema history.  ***½


Uncivil Warriors (April 26, 1935)

Curly:  “I was lost! All by myself!”

A Stooge classic with one of my all-time favorite opening scenes. Felix Adler’s gag-filled script matches Del Lord’s razor-sharp direction. Though Curly is pure genius, the Civil War farce provides an equally good showcase for Moe and Larry. Special kudos to the great Bud Jamison as Colonel Buttz. The last film in which the Stooges were billed as “Howard, Fine and Howard” for studio publicity.  ****

Pardon My Scotch (August 1, 1935)

Moe, Larry and Curly have the right stuff for whiskey distribution, but high society remains another matter. The Del Lord winning streak continues in this beautifully constructed two-reeler. Curly’s dinner-time interpretation of “The Dance of the Rolls” — followed by Moe’s eye-poking use of breadsticks — is one of many highlights. Though a familiar supporting player in the Stooges stock company, James C. Morton only received screen credit for this short.  ****

Hoi Polloi (August 29, 1935)

Professor Richmond:  “I reiterate that environment is the keynote of social distinction.”

Professor Nichols:  “Nonsense! Heredity is the backbone of social life.”

For those who have seen the Dan Aykroyd-Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places (1983), this Stooge foray into social satire will undoubtedly be familiar. One of the team’s great two-reelers — miles ahead of the well-intentioned but historically melancholic Half-Wits Holiday. Hilarious moments galore (including a frenzied dance lesson with Geneva Mitchell that was later recycled in 1941′s In the Sweet Pie and Pie) plus some rare underscoring for a Del Lord short.  ****


Three Little Beers (November 18, 1935)

In the annals of comedy shorts, Three Little Beers remains as iconic as Easy Street, Cops and The Music Box. Moe, Larry and Curly hit a comic hole-in-one with a series of wild physical and verbal gags — topped by a destructive climax similar to Buster Keaton’s What! No Beer? (1933). The result is a mini-masterpiece. After four outstanding two-reelers in a row, the Stooges and Del Lord have found their slapstick niche.  ****

Ants in the Pantry (February 6, 1936)

A good start for Jules White’s older brother Jack (better known by his pseudonym Preston Black), who became an inspired yet regrettably short-lived director at Columbia. The Stooges make their debut as “pest men” in a chaotic return to high society. Unfortunately, the tacked-on “fox hunt” goes nowhere — the film should have ended at the 16:27 mark. Termites of 1938 is a definite improvement with a more satisfying conclusion.  ***

Movie Maniacs (February 20, 1936)

Moe:  “There’s a couple of thousand people in pictures who know nothing about it. Three more won’t make any difference.

Del Lord returns to the director’s chair as the boys enter the gates of “Carnation Pictures” and all hell breaks loose. Movie Maniacs has everything but a strong finish — a recurring problem throughout the Curly era. Evocative use of the Columbia backlot in this irreverent look at vintage Hollywood. Character actor Harry Semels has one of his best roles as frustrated director Cecil Z. Swinehardt.  ***½

Half Shot Shooters (April 30, 1936)

A rare misfire from director Preston Black/Jack White and my least favorite Stanley Blystone performance (due to the way his role was written). Clyde Bruckman’s ludicrous storyline is contrived even by Stooge standards. Unlike the boys’ other military shorts, most of the violence is painfully sadistic rather than funny. Legendary comic foil Vernon Dent makes his Stooge debut (he will remain an integral supporting player until his retirement in 1954). Best moment: Curly’s brief vocal interlude while loading the cannon.  **


Disorder in the Court (May 30, 1936)

Moe’s response to Larry’s jungle yell (followed by the proverbial slap): “You’re in a court, not in the woods, Tarzan.”

The quintessential Stooge two-reeler, Disorder in the Court has everything going for it. Moe, Larry and Curly shine in equal measure — complemented by a memorable supporting cast. Preston Black/Jack White’s best directorial effort and the only Curly short that unfolds in real time (no dissolves or wipes necessary).  After decades of variable public domain dupes, the print quality on the Volume One: 1934-1936 DVD is truly impressive. My personal favorite.  ****

A Pain in the Pullman (June 27, 1936)

Or Stooges on a Train. Another Preston Black/Jack White gem, which makes it a shame he stopped directing since he had a wonderfully anarchic style. A Pain in the Pullman is mostly great fun and one of the few times the boys added a pet monkey to the slapstick milieu. More proof that Bud Jamison and James C. Morton were essential members of the Stooges stock company.  ***½

False Alarms (August 16, 1936)

Del Lord’s best 1936 short. Though it lacks an iconic set piece, False Alarms delivers more than enough laughs to compensate for the lack of a proper ending (in John Grey’s original screenplay, the firefighting Stooges attempt to repair captain Stanley Blystone’s car). Blystone has a much better role this time around — especially when compared to his sadistic sergeant in Half Shot Shooters. Only Del could film a frenzied car chase through the streets of Los Angeles. False Alarms also serves as a shining example of why Moe and Larry are a great comedy team in their scenes without Curly. In retrospect, “The Two Stooges” wouldn’t have been a bad idea after Shemp’s death in 1955. (No Besser, no problem.)  ***½

Whoops, I’m an Indian! (September 11, 1936)

Whenever the Stooges venture into the great outdoors, the results are hilarious. Curly’s fishing scene is a highlight and the always-reliable Bud Jamison shines as Pierre (one of his finest roles). If the abrupt ending wasn’t such a letdown, I would rank this as a Stooge classic. In terms of print quality, Whoops, I’m an Indian! lacks the sharpness of the other Columbia two-reelers due to a lost or decomposed negative. There’s always hope that a pristine 35mm print will turn up.  ***

Slippery Silks (December 27, 1936)

Preston Black/Jack White returns with plenty of high-society slapstick. I initially found Slippery Silks rather uneven, but the overall short improves with repeated viewings. The cream-puff battle makes it all worthwhile — even better than In the Sweet Pie and Pie. Vernon Dent and Symona Boniface enjoy their first significant roles in the Stooges stock company.  ***½

Grips, Grunts and Groans (January 15, 1937)

Curly:  “If I’m gonna get beat up, I wanna get paid for it!”

This partial reworking of Punch Drunks has plenty of comic vitality along with some nice interaction between Curly and Larry. The wrestling climax is hysterical — one of the great Stooge endings. Grips, Grunts and Groans may lack the stature of Punch Drunks, but it’s damn funny and moves at a faster pace.  ***½


Dizzy Doctors (March 19, 1937)

Moe, Larry and Curly are “three of the best salesmen that ever saled” in one of the Top 10 Stooge classics. Del Lord made some of the speediest two-reelers in cinema history and Dizzy Doctors moves at warp speed. Charles Nelson’s editing is spot-on (he won an Academy Award for Picnic in 1956) with nary a wasted frame.  If there’s a faster-paced comedy short, I haven’t seen it.  ****

3 Dumb Clucks (April 17, 1937)

Del Lord’s weakest 1937 effort, but still worthwhile — second-tier Stooges are better than none. Curly excels in his only dual role and there’s hardly a dull moment. However, it’s a shame Del didn’t have a bigger budget for the climax, which needed a lavish sight gag (the flagpole climb falls flat). One of those rare shorts in which Curly’s stunt double has a full head of hair.  ***

Back to the Woods (May 14, 1937)

Preston Black/Jack White was an excellent director for the Stooges and it’s a shame Back to the Woods turned out to be his last effort. Slightly overlong, but the laughs keep coming. The recycled ending from Whoops, I’m an Indian! works surprisingly well. Another underrated two-reeler that gets better with age. Ideal viewing for Thanksgiving.  ***

Goofs and Saddles (July 2, 1937)

When it comes to a deck of cards, there is only one “Curly shuffle.” My favorite Stooge western — another two-reel triumph from Del Lord. Solid production values, hilarious support from Stanley Blystone and a surprisingly low slap quotient. Along with Dizzy Doctors, the trio’s best 1937 short.  ****


Cash and Carry (September 3, 1937)

“Gee, Mr. President, you’re a swell guy!”

A genuine anomaly, Cash and Carry emerges as a fascinating blend of slapstick, uncharacteristic sentimentality and New Deal optimism. With Del Lord at the helm, it all works. The first of seven Stooge outings photographed by the great Lucien Ballard. Though I enjoy the film’s offbeat quality, I’m glad the boys didn’t make another two-reeler in this vein. Author Rob King discusses Cash and Carry at length in his essential 2017 book Hokum!: The Early Sound Slapstick Short and Depression-Era Mass Culture.  ***½

Playing the Ponies (October 15, 1937)

A nice change of pace for the Stooges (Larry has a bigger role than usual) with a well-deserved happy ending and a great closing shot. Unlike the Marx Brothers’ incredibly overlong A Day at the Races, you don’t have to sit through bad musical numbers. Director Charles Lamont’s second (and last) Stooge effort — a definite improvement over the lackluster Restless Knights***

The Sitter Downers (November 26, 1937)

Once in a while, a potentially great Stooge comedy ends up being too short. This partial reworking of Buster Keaton’s housebuilding One Week could have used a few extra minutes to deliver a more satisfying wrap-up. Lacking the spectacular finish of Buster’s 1920  classic, the film abruptly ends at the 15-minute mark. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy and the supporting cast is wonderful.  ***½


Termites of 1938 (January 7, 1938)

Though directed by Del Lord, Termites of 1938 has the imprint of co-producer Charley Chase (the underrated comic genius just started work at Columbia after a 15-year career at Hal Roach Studios) — particularly in terms of underscoring. With exterminators Moe, Larry and Curly mistakenly hired as escorts, the results are impossible to dislike. Memorable support from Bess Flowers in her Stooge debut. The closing gag with the gopher bomb makes for an inspired finale.  ***½

Wee Wee Monsieur (February 18, 1938)

One of the first Stooge two-reelers I remember seeing (who could forget that title?)  and it still holds up. Worth the price of admission for the enduring image of Moe, Larry and Curly as the Three Santas. Placing the trio in the French Foreign Legion makes Wee Wee Monsieur stand out among other Stooge comedies. Great fun in the Del Lord tradition.  ****

Tassels in the Air (April 1, 1938)

The lighthearted rapport between director Charley Chase and the Three Stooges is evident in the first of five Chase-directed shorts. Instead of cheese and perfume, Curly goes wild over tassels. Meanwhile, the boys are mistakenly hired as interior decorators for the nouveau riche (Bess Flowers and Bud Jamison). A Stooge favorite marred by another inconclusive ending, with a sloppy jumpcut in the closing shot. The first Stooge credit for longtime producer Hugh McCollum.  ***½

Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb (May 20, 1938)

A set-bound Stooge romp that never feels claustrophobic thanks to Del Lord’s brisk direction and a steady stream of laughs. The only problem is the jarringly abrupt finish. Time constraints weren’t an issue, since Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb runs a mere 16 minutes. I’m not a big fan of A Missed Fortune (1952), but at least the Shemp remake had a more satisfying conclusion.  ***


Violent is the Word for Curly (July 2, 1938)

What would make the Stooges more out of place than entering the world of academia? The high-water mark of the Charley Chase era — justly famous for Moe, Larry and Curly’s immortal rendition of “Swingin’ the Alphabet.” Plenty of laughs and super service along the way. Columbia used the same gas-station set in Chapter Four of its classic 1938 serial The Spider’s Web . . . except it was called “Dennis Service Station” instead of “Acme.”   ****

Three Missing Links (July 29, 1938)

A lively Stooge debut for director Jules White, with a shout-out to Monte Collins in one of his best supporting roles. No one would rank Three Missing Links among the finest Stooge entries, but the jungle mayhem improves with repeated viewings. Curly is a comedic dynamo, even in a gorilla suit.  ***

Mutts to You (October 14, 1938)

Or Three Stooges and a Baby. A childhood favorite (the inventive dog-washing machine was unforgettable) and a refreshingly offbeat short from director Charley Chase. One of the least violent Curly two-reelers, with a rare happy ending. The only Stooge comedy in which Bess Flowers (“Queen of the Hollywood Extras”) receives screen credit.  ***½

Flat Foot Stooges (December 5, 1938)

After three enjoyable shorts, Charley Chase really drops the ball on this one. Flat Foot Stooges is all over the map . . . and not in a good way. A few standout moments (the gunpowder-eating duck is an admirably bizarre touch) but Chase’s only Stooge screenplay proves an awkward fit. And what the hell happened to the ending? Quite a comedown from the firefighting antics of False Alarms**

Three Little Sew and Sews (January 6, 1939)

Curly:  “Gasoline don’t taste so good since Prohibition. They ain’t so careful like when they use it for makin’ gin.”

Del Lord returns with another Stooge gem. Joining the Navy as tailors, the boys get mixed up with spies and a top-secret submarine. Curly’s pantomime is comparable to Chaplin while the “black” ending is right out of a Warner Bros. cartoon. Three Little Sew and Sews marks the beginning of a remarkable three-year run with the Stooges at their creative peak.  ***½


We Want Our Mummy (February 24, 1939)

One of the greats. The Stooges’ first horror spoof finds Moe, Larry and Curly taking a taxi to Cairo in search of the missing King Rutentuten. Everyone is firing on all cylinders, thanks to an engaging script by Searle Kramer and Elwood Ellman. And, yes, that is Moe’s voice on the taxi radio. James C. Morton’s final Stooge appearance (he died in 1942).  ****

A Ducking They Did Go (April 7, 1939)

Del Lord’s follow-up to We Want Our Mummy doesn’t fare quite as well.  Nevertheless, A Ducking They Did Go is spirited fun — abetted by the Stooges stock company and Lucien Ballard’s glistening cinematography in the pond scenes. The look of infectious joy on Curly’s face after harmonizing with Bud Jamison remains among my favorite Stooge moments. A shame about the recycled footage from A Pain in the Pullman, which makes for a disappointing finish.

Extra Trivia: The Stooges’ last celluloid rendition of “You’ll Never Know Just What Tears Are.”  ***

Yes, We Have No Bonanza (May 19, 1939)

The best Stooge western after Goofs and Saddles (a pity that Shemp and director Edward Bernds never enjoyed the production values of early Del Lord). Curly has one helluva throw when he nails Moe with that rock during the prospecting scene — it never fails to crack me up.  The obvious stunt double for Curly in the climactic chase was regrettable but not ruinous. Nice musical interlude with the Stooges as singing waiters.  ***½

Saved by the Belle (June 30, 1939)

No classic, but considerably better than Charley Chase’s disappointing Flat Foot Stooges. Though it lacks any standout visual gags, the director’s final Stooge two-reeler moves at a breezy pace. Carmen LaRoux and LeRoy Mason provide good support in their only Stooge roles. For the most part, I enjoyed the Chase-helmed shorts and appreciated his offbeat approach to Stooge madness. The comedian’s untimely death in 1940 robbed the team of a valuable filmmaker.  ***


Calling All Curs (August 25, 1939)

A turning point in Stooge history as producer Jules White becomes one of the team’s regular directors. For better and (during the budget-strapped 1950s) worse, he called the shots on more Stooge two-reelers than Del Lord — hanging on until the brutal end with the 1959 stock-footage jamboree of Sappy Bull Fighters.

Calling All Curs is a childhood favorite that showcases Curly at his energetic best (for once, he inflicts some retaliatory punishment on Moe). With the boys running a pet hospital and battling dognappers, it has all the integral elements of a Stooge two-reeler . . . and a Jules White two-reeler. The 1939-40 shorts from Calling All Curs to Rockin’ Thru the Rockies represent White’s best hot streak.  ***½

Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (October 6, 1939)

Growing up in the early 1970s, this Stooge classic was on a regular after-school rotation. Curly has a remarkable case of wish fulfillment as the boys help Widow Jenkins (Eva McKenzie) save her farm from swindlers. The scene in which Moe and Larry turn Curly into a “human cork” to stop an oil gusher remains among the great Stooge moments. Arguably director Jules White’s best short.  ****

Three Sappy People (December 1, 1939)

“The men you want are Doctors Ziller, Zeller and Zoller.”

Another gem from Jules White. Three Sappy People is a well-oiled slapstick machine with a terrific supporting cast (kudos to Lorna Gray, Don Beddoe and character actress Ann Doran in her only brush with Stoogery) and classy production values. Jules stages a pastry fight for the ages. A rare two-reeler in which Moe, Larry and Curly do not appear in the closing shot.  ***½

You Nazty Spy! (January 19, 1940)

Historically valuable as a political satire (predating Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by nine months) but not the Stooges at their absolute best. You Nazty Spy! gradually runs out of steam after Moe Hailstone’s famous balcony speech, with the laughs becoming more sporadic in the second half. Even at 18 minutes, the short feels a bit long by Stooge standards. I’ll Never Heil Again (the only sequel of the Curly era) is a definite improvement — funnier, better paced and, most importantly, Moe wears his Hitler mustache throughout.  ***

Rockin’ Thru the Rockies (March 8, 1940)

“Where are those three sun-baked hams?”

This routine but undeniably hilarious two-reeler has more laughs than some of the Stooges’ best-known efforts. Curly is flat-out brilliant while character actress Kathryn Sheldon makes a splendid Nell. A pity that Rockin’ Thru the Rockies was Sheldon’s only Stooge appearance. Though an easy short to overlook among the riches of 1940, there are a few classic set pieces (notably the ice-fishing sequence) and the pace never lets up.  ***½


A Plumbing We Will Go (April 19, 1940)

Another example of why Del Lord remains my favorite Stooge director. A Plumbing We Will Go has everything you could want from Moe, Larry and Curly, with the Columbia two-reel factory at its slapstick apex. As the unfortunate cook, Dudley Dickerson will never be forgotten. When it comes to the 1949 Vagabond Loafers remake, you cannot improve upon perfection.  ****

Nutty but Nice (June 14, 1940)

Director Jules White’s first Stooge misfire. The sentimentality doesn’t work and the “kidnapped father” premise never gels. Moe, Larry and Curly are in top form, but the Clyde Bruckman-Felix Adler script is decidedly lackluster. Easily the weakest 1940 short.  **½

How High is Up? (July 26, 1940)

“Well, it looks like good solid construction.”

The Stooges find work and hilarity on the 97th floor. A funny Del Lord outing as the boys surpass Harold Lloyd in terms of skyscraper heights (with a little help from rear projection). Riveting stuff, even though the sweater routine goes on a bit too long.  ***

From Nurse to Worse (August 23, 1940)

Jules White bounces back. The Stooges venture into the world of insurance fraud with dogs and hospital chases galore. It’s nice to hear Moe’s voice on the police scanner. Compared to later Curly shorts, Jules’ use of stock footage is skillfully integrated and relatively brief. Great fun from beginning to end.  ***½

No Census, No Feeling (October 4, 1940)

Curly:  “Are you married or are you happy?”

The boys do their bit for the U.S. government as census takers and embark on some wild detours. Vintage Stooges all the way, with a football climax superior to Three Little Pigskins. Symona Boniface makes a welcome return as the hostess of an alum-spiked bridge party. Another Del Lord gem that delivers the goods. One of several Stooge two-reelers I didn’t see until the mid-1980s.  ***½

Cookoo Cavaliers (November 15, 1940)

An underrated Jules White effort featuring some of Curly’s best pantomime. Though she appeared in only a half-dozen shorts, Dorothy Appleby was a memorable addition to the Stooges stock company. Except for Moe, Larry and Curly, I cannot think of any film comedian who garnered laughs from operating a beauty salon. However, the vanishing dog is a major continuity error.  ***


Boobs in Arms (December 27, 1940)

Jules White strikes again as the Stooges go to war with hysterically fatal results. This partial reworking of The Fixer Uppers (1935) reveals how the boys could take Laurel & Hardy material and make it their own. Richard Fiske found his signature Stooge role as the combative drill sergeant — it’s hard to believe he was only 24 at the time of filming.  ***½

So Long Mr. Chumps (February 7, 1941)

Our heroes wind up in prison as they search for an “honest man” known as Convict #41144 (played by Stooge regular Eddie Laughton). One of Jules White’s finest directorial efforts, with an inspired Clyde Bruckman-Felix Adler script to match. The interaction between Curly and Moe is nothing short of sublime. Curly’s rock pile “ad lib” remains among the great Stooge endings.  ****

Dutiful but Dumb (March 21, 1941)

“I’m positive about the negative, but a little negative about the positive.”

Photographers Click, Clack and Cluck are sent to Vulgaria where, unbeknownst to them, picture-taking is verboten. Dutiful but Dumb has so many hilarious scenes that the abrupt “What the hell?” ending doesn’t matter. One of Curly’s shining moments on celluloid (oyster stew, anyone?) and the same goes for Bud Jamison. The Three Stooges and Del Lord at the peak of their comedic powers.  ****

All the World’s a Stooge (May 16, 1941)

Despite an uneven John Grey script, All the World’s a Stooge finds the Stooges in splendid form. The dentist scenes fare better than the “child refugee” mayhem. Leiah Tyler emerges as a good sport, but I couldn’t warm up to Emory Parnell as Mr. Bullion (the role cried out for Vernon Dent). Another detriment is the incredibly lame finish — having Mr. Bullion chase the boys with an axe just doesn’t cut it. Flawed but enjoyable.  ***


I’ll Never Heil Again (July 11, 1941)

A minority opinion, but director Jules White’s sequel to You Nazty Spy! improves upon its predecessor. I’ll Never Heil Again moves at an assured pace, delivers more laughs and Moe Hailstone never loses his “personality” (aka Hitler mustache). The inspired closing shot was Stan Laurel’s original “black” ending for Block-Heads (1938), but producer Hal Roach nixed it.  ***½

An Ache in Every Stake (August 22, 1941)

No Stooge fan can disagree with the enduring status of this Curly Classic. Del Lord doesn’t waste a single frame as the Stooges put their own spin on Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box. Curly reaches a new level of comic brilliance when he “shaves” the ice for Vernon Dent’s birthday dinner. Along with Dent, the inspired supporting cast includes Bud Jamison, Gino Corrado, Symona Boniface and Bess Flowers (in her last significant Stooge role). Story and screenplay by Lloyd French, who directed Stan and Ollie’s Busy Bodies and Dirty Work in 1933.  ****

In the Sweet Pie and Pie (October 16, 1941)

I wish I could give In the Sweet Pie and Pie four stars, but it’s difficult to overlook  the clumsy stunt doubling for Curly in the bunk-bed sequence. Even worse, there was no need for the Hoi Polloi stock footage (the film was long enough already).

This brings up an issue regarding producer-director Jules White’s penchant for recycled footage. It’s one thing for Jules to lift a scene from a short he directed, but unethical to lift an entire sequence from Del Lord and not give him credit. Another problem lies in the time span. When Jules utilized a Dizzy Doctors excerpt in From Nurse to Worse, the footage was only three years old and matched well. However, Hoi Polloi was filmed in 1935 and the six-year difference was painfully obvious. Happily, the prison scenes and legendary pie fight easily redeem these missteps.  ***

Some More of Samoa (December 4, 1941)

Curly:  “Beat me, Daddy, down to the floor!”

How can you go wrong with Moe, Larry and Curly as tree surgeons on the isle of Rhum Boogie? This politically incorrect Stooge adventure was never shown on my local TV station — I had to wait until its VHS debut in 1984. A wild romp thanks to its offbeat tropical setting, Some More of Samoa gets better with repeated viewings. Great stuff.  ***½

Loco Boy Makes Good (January 8, 1942)

In this admirable change of pace, the boys transform a nice old lady’s run-down hotel into a lavish nightclub to stave off foreclosure. The film’s second half becomes a Stooge variety show with the trio in splendid form. You can always count on Curly to liven up the dance floor. Jules White’s engaging, fast-paced direction stands in stark contrast to the sledgehammer approach of his later work.  ***½

We have reached the end of the Stooges’ three-year creative hot streak. The remainder of the Curly era will see reduced production values, fewer classics, plenty of good shorts and a fair share of misfires. Sadly, this gradual decline will become more evident in 1945 with the deteriorating health of Curly Howard.

Cactus Makes Perfect (February 26, 1942)

It’s hard to believe Del Lord directed this one. Cactus Makes Perfect starts off strong, then goes downhill. Monte Collins makes an inspired Stooge Mom in the opening scenes. However, once the boys leave home, the short becomes a tired rehash of earlier triumphs. The Stooges are willing, but the material is weak and the production quality below par (with terrible rear projection at the 5:23 mark).  **


What’s the Matador? (April 23, 1942)

The Stooges travel to Mexico in this second-tier effort — highlighted by Curly’s classic bullfight. A childhood favorite solely on the strength of that hilarious sequence. Final Stooge appearances of Suzanne Kaaren and Dorothy Appleby. (Except for Charley Chase’s The Old Raid Mule, all the Columbia shorts featuring Appleby were directed by Jules White.) The ever-reliable Eddie Laughton plays two roles.  ***

Matri-Phony (July 2, 1942)

A troubled production history (the shooting schedule stretched out to three weeks and required some uncredited help from Del Lord) explains the unevenness of Matri-Phony. Nevertheless, the Stooges and Vernon Dent garner some laughs, even though the crab scene is a pale shadow of Curly’s “oyster stew” routine in Dutiful but Dumb. Harry Edwards’ poorly staged ending may be the worst in Stooge history (you can briefly hear the director’s voice on the soundtrack, which would normally be deleted). When considering the comic potential of its Ancient Rome setting, one wishes Matri-Phony had turned out better.  **½

Three Smart Saps (July 30, 1942)

“The wedding bells will start to ring . . .”

With the exception of Loco Boy Makes Good, the best short of 1942. Curly’s rumba with Barbara Slater remains among the great Stooge moments. Larry also gets an opportunity to shine behind the curtain. In terms of plot structure, Three Smart Saps features an inspired cyclical ending — a rarity in Stooge history.  ***½

Even as IOU (September 18, 1942)

A real clunker from Del Lord. This Runyonesque short begins promisingly, then falls apart in a blaze of sickening sentimentality. One of the weakest Curly two-reelers. Watch the far superior Playing the Ponies instead. 


Sock-A-Bye Baby (November 13, 1942)

Or Three Stooges and a Baby, Part II. Always great to see Larry receive more screen time — he deserves it. One of those rare shorts in which Moe and Larry outshine Curly, who seems to lack his usual manic energy. The climactic chase partially compensates for the set-bound claustrophobia (they finally get out of the damn house at the 14-minute mark), which may account for Curly’s somewhat restrained performance. Preferable to sentimental misfires such as Nutty but Nice and Even as IOU***

They Stooge to Conga (January 1, 1943)

If you want Stooge ultra-violence, look no further than They Stooge to Conga. Everyone is at the top of their game in the trio’s best wartime comedy, which makes the *½ rating in The Three Stooges Scrapbook (1982) rather puzzling. The authors base their negative assessment on the infamous climbing-spike gag (which was cut from the TV print I watched on San Francisco station KBHK in the early 1970s). U-boat commander Frederick Giermann would later appear as Sig Ruman’s Nazi assistant in the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca. The last Curly Classic directed by Del Lord, whose remaining two-reelers cannot hold a candle to his earlier work.  ****

Dizzy Detectives (February 5, 1943)

Curly:  “I don’t wanna be dead! There’s no future in it!”

Was the dated Pardon My Scotch stock footage really necessary? Dizzy Detectives could have done without the Jules White padding. Nevertheless, it’s a high-energy short with the boys in splendid form. The only two-reeler from the Curly era in which the Stooges are recruited as police officers.  ***

Spook Louder (April 2, 1943)

Del Lord’s remake of his 1931 The Great Pie Mystery was the first Stooge comedy with a flashback structure. Spook Louder features character actor Charles Middleton in his only Stooge appearance as the butler. (Middleton also had a role in Columbia’s Batman serial around this time.) No classic, but plenty of creepy hijinks — not to mention flying pies.  ***


Back From the Front (May 28, 1943)

One of the few wartime shorts I remember seeing on television in the early 1970s and certainly among the best. Lots of great gags and wonderful support from Bud Jamison, Vernon Dent and Stanley Blystone. Moe’s final Hitler impersonation is a gem. Anyone notice that Curly leaves behind his Navy cap after the boys visit their girlfriends in the opening scene?  ***½

Three Little Twerps (July 9, 1943)

Director Harry Edwards’ second (and last) Stooge two-reeler is a slight improvement over the troubled production of Matri-Phony. The circus setting works better for the Stooges than the Marx Brothers, since I consider At the Circus one of their weakest films. Unfortunately, the short awkwardly begins while paperhangers Moe, Larry and Curly finish harmonizing. A pity their vocal interlude was cut, since the film only runs 15 minutes.  ***

Higher Than a Kite (July 30, 1943)

A lively wartime effort that I missed until its home-video debut in 1993. Larry enjoys some of the spotlight for a change . . . and we get to see Duke York sans monster makeup. Judging by the final shot, Del Lord made the most out of that European backlot street, which also shows up in Wee Wee Monsieur and Dutiful but Dumb. Another reason why 1943 was the last solid year of the Curly era.  ***½

I Can Hardly Wait (August 13, 1943)

No complaints about the first six minutes of I Can Hardly Wait. However, when Curly breaks his tooth, the proceedings become increasingly labored with the laughs fewer and farther between. I didn’t enjoy seeing my favorite Stooge in constant pain. Admittedly, the dream transition is rather imaginative on a visual level, but it’s not enough to salvage this Jules White misfire.  **

Dizzy Pilots (September 24, 1943)

Curly:  “Vice? I have no vice. I’m as pure as the driven snow.”

Set in the “Republic of Cannabeer,” the Stooges (known as the Wrong Brothers) attempt to make aviation history as Moe becomes the victim of some rubbery sight gags. The cartoonish Dizzy Pilots should have ended at the 14-minute mark. Unfortunately, Jules White’s tacked-on stock footage from Boobs in Arms diminishes a potentially great short.  ***

Phony Express (November 18, 1943)

The last Stooge western with Curly at full strength. Surprisingly disjointed for a Del Lord effort, but the laughs keep coming. Bud Jamison provides menacing support as outlaw Red Morgan. Silent-comedy veteran Snub Pollard appears unbilled as the town sheriff when the Stooges take over a traveling medicine show in their own inimitable fashion.  ***

A Gem of a Jam (December 30, 1943)

Ridiculously contrived yet consistently funny. When it comes to the Three Stooges, what more do you want? The boys turn Del Lord’s derivative script into something special. As much as I enjoy the Dudley Dickerson scenes, my favorite moment is Curly’s dance routine with an electrified Moe. Looking back, 1943 was a good year for the Stooges — certainly better than 1942.  ***


Crash Goes the Hash (February 5, 1944)

Director Jules White’s last Curly Classic and a fond farewell to longtime supporting player Bud Jamison (who died in September 1944). Our beloved slapstick icons portray undercover reporters at a swank dinner party where the gags come fast and furious. A welcome throwback to the team’s glory years, including a wild finish with Symona Boniface.  Thanks for the laughs, Bud.  ****

Busy Buddies (March 18, 1944)

Curly:  “Are you casting asparagus on my cooking?”

Though Busy Buddies is uneven, there’s much to enjoy in the first half when the Stooges run the Jive Cafe. Unfortunately, the cow-milking contest (a less-than-ideal comedic premise) simply fizzles. Try though he might, Del Lord’s screenwriting never approached the level of his directorial mastery.  **½

The Yoke’s On Me (May 26, 1944)

A painfully racist wartime outing, I didn’t see The Yoke’s On Me until its DVD debut in 2008. Curly’s fan dance stands out in this sluggish  anti-Japanese short. Moe, Larry and Curly lack their usual spark — weighed down by subpar scripting and direction. Perhaps the most cringeworthy ending of any Stooge two-reeler. 

Idle Roomers (July 16, 1944)

Duke York delivers a hair-raising performance as Lupe the Wolf Man in this horror comedy — one of Del Lord’s more successful efforts as writer-director. Worth the price of admission for the mirror scene between Curly and York. Glamorously talented Christine McIntyre joins the Stooges stock company (she will appear in six Curly-era shorts and emerge as a tremendous asset during the Shemp years). It’s too bad Columbia didn’t pony up the dough for the ending, which is astonishingly weak by Stooge standards.  ***


Gents Without Cents (September 22, 1944)

When I think about Niagara Falls, this short immediately comes to mind. Gents Without Cents was a childhood favorite and I always enjoyed the offbeat musical-comedy approach. A few lulls but generally entertaining, with a strong assist from acrobatic dancers Lindsay, Laverne, and Betty.  ***

No Dough Boys (November 24, 1944)

Compared to The Yoke’s On Me, this politically incorrect two-reeler marks a huge advance. Felix Adler’s wartime script is contrived nonsense, but the Stooges’ high-energy acrobatics and Vernon Dent’s villainous presence make it worthwhile (clumsy stunt doubles notwithstanding). The last Jules White-directed short with Curly in top form.  ***

Three Pests in a Mess (January 19, 1945)

Del Lord’s schizophrenic effort shifts gears from crime noir to traditional scare comedy with yet another unsatisfying wrap-up. Notable for being the only Stooge two-reeler minus a fadeout — instead, we get a jumpcut to the closing logo. The hilarious scene between Curly and seductive Christine McIntyre justifies your viewing time.  **½

Booby Dupes (March 17, 1945)

A partial reworking of Laurel & Hardy’s Towed in a Hole (1932) as the fish-peddling trio “cut out the middle man” by catching their own fish. The last film to feature Curly at full strength and director Del Lord’s penultimate Stooge short (he will return once more for Shemp’s 1948 Shivering Sherlocks). Apart from a contrived beach subplot with Curly, Vernon Dent and beautiful Rebel Randall, Booby Dupes is great fun and criminally underrated. In retrospect, it feels like the end of an era.  ***

Idiots De Luxe (July 20, 1945)

The Stooges venture into the great outdoors (via the Columbia backlot) to calm Moe’s shattered nerves. Idiots De Luxe deserves a few points for its flashback structure and giving Moe the spotlight. However, the results are only sporadically amusing and repeat viewings haven’t made the set-bound hijinks any funnier. Curly is no longer in his prime (especially on a vocal level) but fares better than most of his remaining two-reelers. The car-driving bear gets some of the best laughs.  **½

If a Body Meets a Body (August 30, 1945)

Idiots De Luxe revealed a noticeable decline in Curly’s energy level. Sadly, it gets much worse as the iconic Stooge’s listless performance weighs down this atmospheric remake of The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930). The first time I saw If a Body Meets a Body was on KPLR Channel 11 during a 1985 visit to St. Louis. From the beginning, I noticed something was wrong with Curly (who had suffered the first in a series of minor strokes), which hindered my enjoyment. Even though Moe and Larry have some good moments, I find the “old dark house” antics difficult to revisit.  **


Micro-Phonies (November 15, 1945)

Edward Bernds makes the transition from Columbia sound engineer to writer-director with his first Stooge release (though his third in production order). I have a slight preference for Three Little Pirates, but Micro-Phonies remains a first-rate short. Bernds knocks this one out of the park. Despite his illness, Curly splendidly rises to the occasion when he impersonates Señorita Cucaracha, with an unforgettable vocal assist from Christine McIntyre. Larry and Moe acquit themselves admirably as Señors Mucho and Gusto. The last Stooge appearances of Gino Corrado, Lynton Brent (stock footage notwithstanding), Chester Conklin and Bess Flowers.  ***½

Beer Barrel Polecats (January 10, 1946)

Brewmasters Moe, Larry and Curly:  “We all put the yeast in!”

A troubled production, but for reasons unrelated to Curly’s failing health. Scripted by former Hal Roach writer Gilbert W. Pratt, Beer Barrel Polecats was a reworking of the Laurel & Hardy prison comedy Pardon Us (1931). Shortly before filming, Harold Lloyd gave Columbia the heads-up on his copyright infringement lawsuit against the studio and screenwriter Clyde Bruckman. A one-time Lloyd collaborator, Bruckman recycled the magician’s coat routine from 1932′s Movie Crazy for the climax of Loco Boy Makes Good. As a result of Lloyd’s planned legal action, the scripted prison sequences lifted directly from Pardon Us were deleted and replaced with footage from So Long Mr. Chumps and In the Sweet Pie and Pie. Columbia later settled the suit out of court. (Special thanks to for this information.)

Knowing the actual circumstances behind the tacked-on stock footage, it’s a shame that producer-director Jules White inserted the 1941 prison scenes without coherent thought, re-editing or redubbing. Nevertheless, I would rather revisit Beer Barrel Polecats than sit through Jules’ mostly dispiriting 1946 output. The boys’ unique approach to brewing is a Stooge highlight, with a few brief flashes of the old Curly in the new footage.  **½

A Bird in the Head (February 28, 1946)

Edward Bernds’ directorial debut (released after Micro-Phonies) was this underrated foray into the mad scientist genre. A Bird in the Head might have been a first-rate short if Curly was at the top of his game. However, the relationship between the legendary Stooge and Erik the gorilla works surprisingly well. Curly does his best under the circumstances (he’s more effective at pantomime than dialogue), with Moe, Larry and Vernon Dent picking up the slack.  ***

Uncivil War Birds (March 29, 1946)

When you’re saddled with remaking one of Buster Keaton’s worst Columbia shorts (1939′s Mooching Through Georgia), you know you’re in trouble. Not even Curly in his prime could have redeemed this slow-paced Civil War clunker. Enjoy the opening proposal scene because it’s one of the last times you will see outdoor filming in the Curly era. 

The Three Troubledoers (April 25, 1946)

“Coney Island Curly” becomes sheriff of Dead Man’s Gulch in director Edward Bernds’ uneven sagebrush satire. Christine McIntyre stands out as the damsel in distress, but a woefully underused Larry gets the short end of Jack White’s script. Curly has a few bright moments impersonating the justice of the peace. I’m surprised Bernds didn’t come up with a more satisfying closing shot — after an explosion, the boys run down the street inexplicably unscathed. The last and least of the Curly westerns.  **½


Monkey Businessmen (June 20, 1946)

My favorite 1946 short after Three Little Pirates. Curly was reportedly in terrible shape during the filming of Monkey Businessmen yet he fares better than expected on screen. Writer-director Bernds keeps the proceedings moving at a good clip as Moe, Larry and Curly look forward to “a nice long rest” at Dr. Mallard’s crooked sanatorium. Kenneth MacDonald and Jean Willes make their Stooge debuts, with a memorable assist from veterans Fred Kelsey, Snub Pollard and Cy Schindell. An unappreciated gem.  ***

Three Loan Wolves (July 4, 1946)

Or Three Stooges and a Baby, Part III. The worst two-reeler of the Curly era is devoid of laughs and production value. Three Loan Wolves takes set-bound claustrophobia to painful depths — made even more unbearable by the irritating presence of a child actor who shall remain nameless. Jules White’s heavy-handed direction only emphasizes the deficiencies in Felix Adler’s uninspired screenplay. It’s nice to see Larry as the lead Stooge (poor Curly has little to do) but he deserved a much better film.  *

G.I. Wanna Home (September 5, 1946)

An improvement over Three Loan Wolves, this Stooge exploration of the postwar housing shortage never reaches its full potential — further hindered by a lame bunk-bed climax. Curly displays a little more energy compared to his final Jules White-directed outings. The last Curly short to utilize outdoor locations (evident in the first three minutes at the Columbia Ranch).  **

Rhythm and Weep (October 3, 1946)

Filmed after Three Little Pirates, Curly’s final complete performance includes one more “woo-woo-woo-woo” for the road. Despite a lackluster ending and an erratic Curly (his dialogue delivery is painful to hear), this rare musical-comedy remains director Jules White’s best 1946 release. Gloria Patrice, Ruth Godfrey and Nita Bieber provide the dancing this time around. Inferior to Gents Without Cents, but a welcome change of pace.  **½


Three Little Pirates (December 5, 1946)

Curly’s last hurrah — fondly remembered for the timeless “Maha-Aha” routine and equally memorable knife-throwing sequence. Thanks to Edward Bernds’ assured direction and a lively Clyde Bruckman script, the immortal Stooge rallies back for his best performance since Micro-Phonies. Moe, Larry and a fine supporting cast also shine in this 17th century romp. If the Curly era had ended with Three Little Pirates, it would have been a spirited finale to an impressive body of work.

Extra Trivia: The “Red Hot” pinball machine (complete with “Ye Olde Tilt”) was made by J.H. Keeney and Company in 1940.  ***½

Half-Wits Holiday (January 9, 1947)

As a child, I grew up loving this two-reeler . . . especially the climactic pie fight. However, recent viewings of Half-Wits Holiday have been less enjoyable. Not until the early 1980s did I learn that this reworking of Hoi Polloi was Curly Howard’s swan song as the third Stooge (a massive stroke on the last day of shooting prevented him from taking part in the pie-throwing melee). Except for a few inspired moments during the etiquette and party scenes, Curly’s performance is sad to watch — casting a pall over the entire short.

Given his penchant for stock footage, it’s surprising that director Jules White did not insert a few shots of Curly from In the Sweet Pie and Pie to make the comedian’s absence less conspicuous. By shifting the action to Moe and Larry, the pie fight relies on a few too many edits and awkwardly fades out with Moe washing his hair in the punch bowl — a disheartening finish to the Curly era. On a more positive note, Half-Wits Holiday introduced another longtime member of the Stooges stock company: character actor Emil Sitka. And there’s the classic “Sword of Damocles” encounter between Moe and Symona Boniface.  **


“When we lost Curly, we took a hit,” Larry Fine admitted in a 1973 interview. Jules White went further: “Curly was a great artist,” he said in Ted Okuda and Edward Watz’s The Columbia Comedy Shorts (1986). “Don’t get me wrong, I loved working with Shemp and thought he was a naturally funny guy, but when Curly left, the Stooge comedies were never the same.”

Curly’s early retirement created a void that could not be filled by his gifted older brother Shemp (originally replaced by Curly in 1932 when the trio got slapped around by vaudevillian Ted Healy), a miscast Besser and the serviceable DeRita. Even with Moe and Larry as a constant presence, each replacement made the Stooges feel like a different comedy team.

Beginning with Shemp’s return in Fright Night (1947) and continuing through the final bow of Moe, Larry and Curly Joe in Kook’s Tour (1970), the Three Stooges could still garner laughs. However, they were unable to recapture the surreal inventiveness that Curly brought to their films. “Try to imagine the Marx Brothers without Harpo,” Leonard Maltin wrote in his revised 1985 edition of Movie Comedy Teams. Everyone’s favorite Stooge was sadly missed.

Happily, Curly Howard left us with a more satisfying farewell than Half-Wits Holiday. In January 1947 (five years before his death at age 48), he felt well enough to film a surprise cameo in Hold That Lion: the Stooges’ 100th Columbia short and the only screen appearance of all three Howard brothers. Noticeably thinner and sporting a full head of hair, Curly plays the snoring train passenger discovered by Moe, Larry and Shemp. Lasting 30 seconds with nary a word of dialogue, the signature Curly mannerisms are unmistakable — one last glimpse of the old magic.

Grateful thanks to the Moronika website and the Curly Years discussion forum that helped inspire this article.


William Greaves on Blu-ray: Reviews of Nationtime and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm

NationtimeThough he directed more than 100 documentaries and helped pioneer cinema vérité in the late 1950s with his work for the National Film Board of Canada, William Greaves remains largely obscure, outside of his 1968 meta-movie Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, first released by Criterion in 2006 and now out in a surprising Blu-ray upgrade. That release comes in close proximity to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Greaves 1972 documentary Nationtime, recently rescued with a 4K restoration. Given Greaves’ prolific career, there’s no way these two releases sum up the man’s work, but taken together, they start to piece together a picture of the breadth of his interests and styles.

Nationtime, originally released in a truncated version as Nationtime – Gary, takes an intensely focused look at the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Organized by poet, author and activist Amiri Baraka, the event attracted 10,000 people and a who’s who of influential Black Americans in an attempt to unify on a national political platform.

Four years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Black political voices were largely divided between nationalists, like Baraka, and moderates, like members of the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus. Both sides were well represented at the event.

Greaves’ film, shot guerrilla-style from the convention floor, the camera peering around corners and craning its neck upward from sharp angles, doesn’t belabor or even overtly acknowledge this split, though the differences are evident in the message of Baraka and elected officials like Rep. Charles Diggs and Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher. Widows of the two men most emblematic of these diverging viewpoints, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, are both in attendance. There’s a sense that an amalgam might be possible in Jesse Jackson’s stirring speech, which Greaves includes seemingly in its entirety, the camera unable to cut away from Jackson’s charisma and passion.

Though Nationtime is largely focused on the onstage events at the convention, the film becomes looser as it goes on, assembling a portrait of a diverse collection of people and offering tantalizing glimpses of the wealth of artistic talent on display, from the avant-garde jazz of Phil Cohran and his band — Cohran also contributes the film’s score — to Dick Gregory’s trenchant comedy. Richard Roundtree and Isaac Hayes appear briefly to bask in the crowd’s admiration, while Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier add in intermittent bits of narration. The film functions both as an incredible historical document and an assertion of the essential cultural and political influence of Black Americans on this country.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of the original camera negative. It’s apparent that both the condition of the elements and the film’s shooting conditions contribute to an uneven presentation, with the film’s color scheme ping-ponging from reasonably vibrant to completely washed out. Image detail and stability are more consistent, and the transfer looks acceptably film-like. Damage has been mitigated nicely, with a generally clean presentation overall. The film has been appended with an onscreen introduction and what appear to be newly added chyrons identifying the film’s major players. The uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack is about what one would expect for a film shot in a gymnasium, but there are no obvious issues otherwise.

Extras include an audio interview with Greaves’ widow, Louise Greaves, and a video interview with his son, David Greaves, who worked as a cinematographer on the film. David Greaves also contributes an audio commentary. A booklet includes an essay with historical context from Leonard N. Moore and restoration notes from Sandra Schulberg. Those notes identify what is an odd omission from the extras: a black-and-white version that was created to mitigate the color version’s inconsistencies. This version was “strongly preferred” by Louise Greaves and was the version screened at the restoration’s premiere at MoMA. Given the color version was the cut that received the wider release when Kino picked up the film, it makes sense to give it priority, but the black-and-white cut would have been a welcome supplement.

symbioSymbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the hidden gems of the Criterion catalog, a not-quite-fiction, not-quite-documentary film that chronicles Greaves’ ostensible attempts to shoot a melodrama in Central Park. While different sets of actors performing a break-up scene over and over, Greaves loosely orchestrates, but bystanders wandering onto the set and Greaves’ own pontifications to the making-of crew about the kind of film they’re making both threaten to prevent anything from cohering. Meanwhile, the crew considers a mutiny of sorts.

Self-reflexive and formally playful movies about moviemaking aren’t all that rare, but Greaves’ film is one of the few that’s convincing as a genuinely found object — a film that somehow sprung into being despite itself. Key to this ruse is Greaves’ own performance as a charming but dubiously competent director. The Criterion set also includes the long-promised sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, which returns to Central Park nearly 40 years later to film a follow-up with original actors Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker. Though the seams are way more visible this time around, the way the film plays with the thin membrane between performance and real life is certainly worthwhile, and Greaves remains as winning a screen presence as ever.

Criterion’s Blu-ray presents both films in 1080p, with a 1.33:1 transfer for Take One and a 1.78:1 transfer for Take 2 ½. This is one of those upgrades whose primary value comes in hopefully introducing more viewers to the films, as the technical improvements are quite modest. The Blu-ray release uses the same high-definition transfers as the DVD, and though the 16mm photography of Take One benefits from the added resolution, the on-the-fly shooting style limits how much can be done. Take 2 ½ is mostly shot on standard-def digital, and the new 1080p presentation obviously does nothing for the rampant artifacting and fuzziness. Uncompressed 1.0 mono soundtracks are adequate though obviously limited by the source material. Even Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” sounds a bit flat.

Extras are identical to the DVD release: 2006 doc Discovering William Greaves, an interview with Steve Buscemi, who helped make the sequel happen and who appears in it as himself, and a booklet with an essay by Amy Taubin and Greaves’ production notes for Take One.


Blu-ray Review: ‘The GoodTimesKid’ and ‘Momma’s Man,’ two early films from Azazel Jacobs

GoodTimesKidThough his early films appeared contemporaneously with the rise of mumblecore, Azazel Jacobs doesn’t really fit into that admittedly tenuously defined scene. Like many of those filmmakers, Jacobs has waded in increasingly mainstream waters as his career has advanced, with his latest, Michelle Pfeiffer-starring French Exit, closing the New York Film Festival this year. That’s reason enough for surprising but welcome Blu-ray upgrades of Jacobs’ second and third features, from Kino Lorber.

Unlike many American indies from the same era, Jacobs’ films are both much less dependent on dialogue and more prescriptive in their writing. Though handheld camera work can give the appearance of loose, improvisational filmmaking, these two films are constructed carefully, with Jacobs teasing out bits of visual humor with his compositions and establishing mood with stray flourishes of dialogue.

In The GoodTimesKid (2005), Jacobs crafts a love triangle built on coincidence, as two men named Rodolfo Cano (Jacobs himself and Gerardo Naranjo) find their lives intermingling when an Army enlistment notice accidentally goes to the wrong one. Rodolfo 1, played by Jacobs, is in the midst of blowing up his life by enlisting without informing his girlfriend, Diaz (Sara Diaz). On the night of his birthday party, he’s nowhere to be found, just as Rodolfo 2 finds his way to their house.

It says something about Rodolfo 2’s emotional state that Diaz labels him “Depresso,” even as her relationship is crumbling. Naranjo’s performance lands just shy of shell-shocked, and there are clues to recent romantic distress. One, involving a long note written on his houseboat, shows Jacobs’ facility for creating slowly unfolding visual gags. There are more explosive punchlines too, like a sudden commiseration via fridge-punching that bonds Diaz and Rodolfo 2.

The film’s tone can be aggressively deadpan, but there’s an undercurrent of helpless rage here too. George W. Bush flickers on a television, and later, an increasingly incensed Rodolfo 1 literally wraps himself in an American flag before attacking a group of strangers. Jacobs may not be a political filmmaker like his father, Ken Jacobs, whose mammoth Star Spangled to Death is an experimental landmark, but he can be pointed. The banality-of-evil levels in the film’s Army office scene are off the charts.

MommasManWith Momma’s Man (2008), Jacobs burrows into something like autobiography, though as he mentions on the disc’s new audio commentary, the project didn’t start that way. Still, there’s no way around that analysis when the end result is a film starring your parents (Flo Jacobs and Ken Jacobs) playing versions of their artist selves, shot almost exclusively in the walk-up apartment you grew up in.

Matt Boren stars as Mikey, whose brief visit to see his parents in New York turns into an extended stay when he just can’t bring himself to get back on the plane to California, where his wife and infant daughter await. Each passing day, Mikey seems to become more and more cocooned in his parents’ place, which is stuffed to the ceiling with bric-a-brac, plenty of it ephemera from his childhood.

One on hand, the film’s themes are apparent almost instantly, with Boren’s opaque performance quickly sketching in Mikey’s arrested development and declining to go much further. But again, Jacobs has a knack for teasing out small details that suddenly arrest your attention, and he can make his parents’ apartment feel both enveloping and suffocating, at turns.

And casting his parents is a brilliant move, with Flo’s open-hearted performance becoming almost painful in its extreme empathy, while Ken’s sidelong glances lend just enough annoyance to leaven the proceedings. The film justifies its entire existence with a sequence where Flo takes Mikey into her lap at the kitchen table, and a cut transports us to his childhood via one of Ken’s films, with Azazel asleep at the same table as a boy. In that moment, the mysterious hold our memories can exert becomes remarkably present.

Kino’s Blu-ray upgrades reveal subtle but noticeable improvements over previous DVD releases. The GoodTimesKid has a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, while Momma’s Man features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. Both now feature a more supported grain structure, with fine detail that doesn’t get lost in noise, and the typical improved clarity and color reproduction that comes with high-def. 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are clean.

The slates of extras don’t quite supersede the DVDs, unfortunately. For Momma’s Man, everything from Kino’s DVD is carried over, except Ken Jacobs’ 2006 short Capitalism: Child Labor. (Could be rights issues. Could be concern over the film’s aggressive strobe visuals.) Alongside the ported-over making-of, conversation between Azazel and his parents, some deleted scenes, and Rain Building Music (Azazel’s first short film) we get a brand new audio commentary from Azazel.

The GoodTimesKid has more gaps. Kino’s disc has a new Azazel audio commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and a stills gallery. Missing from the previously released DVD from short-lived boutique label Benten Films: a different audio commentary featuring all three leads, Ken Jacobs’ short The Whirled, Azazel Jacobs’ short Let’s Get Started, and a booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny.


Blu-ray Review: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3, from the Criterion Collection

WCP3Long live The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Martin Scorsese’s passion project that has restored more than 40 oft-neglected films from around the world. Same sentiment applies to the Criterion Collection’s steady stream of home video releases of the project’s restorations, including stellar standalone editions of films like Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl or Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and box sets of some of the more obscure titles. There’s no doubt Criterion’s line has trended toward a more mainstream approach over the last five years or so as the big studios have become much more open about licensing, but the company’s continued commitment to releasing these films on Blu-ray is heartening.

Like the first two sets, Criterion has released Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 as a dual-format collection, with each film getting its own DVD and two films sharing each Blu-ray. This review will focus on the Blu-rays, but the content is identical on the DVD copies. The films are:


Lucía (1968)
Directed by Humberto Solás

An ambitious triptych, Lucía is fashioned as an epic, but its structure relies on cumulative thematic rhyming more than large-scale storytelling. Recounting the tales of three major inflection points in Cuban history, each segment features a woman named Lucía, though each is played by a different actress. Solás adopts a different genre packaging for each part, but there’s a distinct through-line of how the political becomes personal; history is writ small in these societal microcosms.

Part one, which is set in 1895 during Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, is the strongest. Lucía (Raquel Revuelta) is an aristocratic Cuban woman who falls for Rafael (Eduardo Moore), a man who claims to have both Cuban and Spanish heritage. With a blitheness that’s exclusively reserved for the upper class, he assures her that he has no interest in politics.

Solás films the posh life with a blinding gleam, pushing the whites to near-overexposure in scenes of society women mingling. But the horrors of war lurk just outside, and Lucía soon discovers she can’t stay aloof. As the segment progresses, Solás pushes the visual degradation further and further, adding jagged, grainy blacks to the increasingly blown-out whites. By the end, this section has morphed into a full-on horror film, with many of its queasy images reminding me of another 1968 release, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

The film’s middle part, an achingly melancholy melodrama set in 1932, concerns a middle-class Lucía (Eslinda Núñez) who abandons her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle to take up with Aldo (Ramón Brito), a freedom fighter against the Gerardo Machado regime. Though the change in lifestyle lends some excitement to her life, Lucía never seems to be able to shake the feeling of being an outsider, and her doomed romance is mirrored in a revolution that doesn’t quite take.

The film’s third segment, set in the Castro 1960s, opts for rowdy, acrid comedy in its story of newlyweds Lucía (Adela Legrá) and Tomas (Adolfo Llauradó) clashing over gender roles. As in the first two sections, this Lucía is deeply in love with a man, but in a shift, she has no interest in him determining the trajectory of her life. Tomas’s revolutionary ideals apparently stop at the doorway to his house, and he bristles at Lucía’s interest in learning to read (particularly given that the state-sponsored tutor is a handsome young man) and remaining in the workforce. After the charged romantic doom of the first two parts, this finale can feel a bit flippant in comparison, but its honest vision of an imperfect revolution fits right in. Though Solás clearly posits the 1960s revolution was a giant leap forward for Cuba, he’s clear-eyed about the challenges that remain.

The restoration work that the WCP performs on many of the films they encounter is heroic, and the efforts pay dividends on this set, which is by and large, stunning. Lucía sports a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer on the Blu-ray, restored in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and several duplicate positives to replace sections of the neg that were severely damaged. This is a beautiful transfer, from the high-contrast graininess of the first section to the sunny naturalism of the third. Clarity and detail are strong throughout, and any shifts between materials are not obvious (particularly given the shifting visual style of the first part). Uncompressed mono audio is solid.

Like all the films in the set, Scorsese offers a brief filmed introduction, talking both about what makes the film notable and any restoration challenges. Also included is a 2020 documentary short featuring interviews with Solás and other members of the cast and crew.

AfterTheCurfewAfter the Curfew (Lewat djam malam, 1954)
Directed by Usmar Ismail

There are some easy criticisms to make of Indonesian filmmaker Usmar Ismail’s study of postwar malaise, most obviously its somewhat manufactured ending, telegraphed pointedly by both the film’s opening sequence and its title. But despite the film’s blunt storytelling, there’s a lot to admire about its moody treatment of a man who can’t find a place to fit in after fighting as a revolutionary in Indonesia’s war of independence from the Netherlands.

Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff) is seemingly set up perfectly after being discharged from the army. He has a caring fiancée, Norma (Netty Herawaty), and a father-in-law who’s arranged a job for him at the governor’s office. But Iskandar can’t settle in, haunted by PTSD for his actions during the war and disillusioned by a society that he sees as riddled with corruption. None of this feels pro forma as performed by Alcaff, who possesses a Cassavetes-like rueful intensity.

The film’s best scenes contrast the joy of a welcome-home party Norma throws for Iskandar and the doleful domestic life of a prostitute, Laila (Dhalia), whose pimp is a former squadron-mate of Iskandar’s. The happiness is hollow for Iskandar at the party, and he finds some solace spending time with Laila, who dreamily admires consumer goods in catalogs. The smallness — and yet obvious futility — of her desires seems to resonate with Iskandar, and it’s a small island of delusional but comforting hope in an environment where hope is in short supply.

The disc’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of a variety of elements, and it’s easily the set’s most problematic transfer, with frequent occurrences of celluloid degradation that swallow up large parts of the image. Still, this is incredibly impressive restoration work, with mold damage largely mitigated and consistent image stability that belies the huge amount of work done. Clarity and detail are quite nice outside of the damaged portions and segments that use a lesser source. Uncompressed mono audio is also cobbled together from multiple sources, and it has its share of harshness and variable fidelity.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with journalist J.B. Kristanto.

PixotePixote (1980)
Directed by Héctor Babenco

Probably the most well-known film in the set, Pixote is a landmark in Brazilian cinema, and an early triumph for Argentinian director Héctor Babenco, who would go on to a brief detour in Hollywood. Pixote is an achingly beautiful piece of work, sidestepping poverty porn and miserablism pitfalls to tell a harrowing but emotionally sensitive story about children trying to survive in a society where they’re not valued.

Taking on the mantle of Neorealism, Babenco cast mostly nonprofessional youths, including 13-year-old Fernando Ramos da Silva as Pixote, part of a group of young people rounded up by the corrupt police department and sentenced to a juvenile detention center masquerading as a reform school. Da Silva delivers what is surely one of the most astonishing child performances ever, suffusing Pixote with easy charisma and heart-wrenching vulnerability.

Part of what makes Pixote so effective is it’s no tale of corrupted innocence. In one of the film’s early scenes, Pixote shows he’s savvy enough to keep quiet after witnessing a brutal gang rape in the living quarters. Any innocence was long gone before the film began. Babenco’s frank depiction of the disposition kids must adopt in this environment allows us to experience Pixote as a person, not a cautionary tale. The picaresque film involves Pixote and his makeshift family of other kids descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime, but Babenco is laser-focused on his characters’ humanity, and the film’s brief grace notes are like a gulp of fresh air.

The film’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, with a first-generation internegative subbing in for some missing frames. This is a gorgeous transfer, handling the film’s heavy grain beautifully, with no apparent dip in quality during a switch in elements used. The image is clear, with great depth of detail. There is a slight yellowish/greenish tint to the color grading, which tends to be the kind of thing that’s more distracting when seen in a single frame than when watching the film in motion. It does lend a slightly sickly look to some scenes, but I can’t say it bothered me much at all, especially considering the strengths of the transfer otherwise. Uncompressed mono audio sounds superb.

Extras include the Scorsese intro, where he relates the terribly tragic fate of da Silva — a stark reminder that the events of the film are only nominally fictional. A filmed introduction by Babenco that opened the US cut of the film has him explaining the real-life inspiration for Pixote: the Brazilian law that made children vulnerable to exploitation because they couldn’t be prosecuted for crimes. Excerpts from a 2016 interview with the late Babenco are also included.

DosMonjesDos Monjes (1934)
Directed by Juan Bustillo Oro

Early sound films can be thrilling and awkward in equal measures, propelling filmmakers to new experimentation but providing as many opportunities for clunky missteps. Mexican director Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos Monjes has both elements in about equal measure, with a stolid narrative undercutting some of the film’s structural inventiveness and German Expressionism-inspired visual style.

After a monk, Javier (Carlos Villatoro), suddenly flies into a rage and tries to murder Juan (Víctor Urruchúa), another monk who’s newly joined his monastery, the other clergy members are left with the task of puzzling out why. Bustillo Oro’s bifurcated film is a proto-Rashomon, first recounting Javier’s side of the story, and then Juan’s.

Visually, this strategy pays dividends, with differences ranging from subtle changes in costume to the bold flourishes of obviously divergent camera setups to distinguish the two sides. Unfortunately, the love triangle with a woman named Ana (Magda Haller) that constitutes the pair’s disagreement is rather dull. And though the film predates Rashomon by nearly two decades, it’s more a case of one character being deliberately left in the dark about certain facts than an examination of the murky nature of perspective and truth.

More interesting than the flashbacks are the bookends set in an imposing Gothic monastery, where prolific cinematographer Agustín Jiménez shoots the stark shadows of spookily barren rooms to great effect. And any narrative shortcomings are quickly forgotten when the film tips over into all-out surrealism in a finale that splits open Javier’s tortured psyche.

The film’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the 35mm duplicate negative and a 35mm positive print. Damage in the way of fine vertical lines is persistent, but has been mitigated well, with the underlying image displaying impressive clarity. The image is slightly soft throughout, but detail remains decent. There are a number of dropouts from missing frames. Uncompressed mono audio is pretty flat, but clean enough.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.

SoleilOSoleil Ô (1970)
Directed by Med Hondo

Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s acerbic, ambitious and slyly funny debut feature Soleil Ô was completed in fits and starts over several years, whenever the director could afford film stock and carve out time for shooting. The film’s herky-jerkiness reflects its production history, but its discursive qualities are far more a feature than a bug.

This is a film that’s angry and ecstatic in almost equal measures, with a stylistic expansiveness that reveals a filmmaker bursting with ideas. Hondo rails against a viciously racist European society, where the through-line from the colonial era to late-’60s Paris couldn’t be neater, but every scene makes the point in a new way.

Robert Liensol stars as a West African immigrant who arrives in Paris with a cheery optimism about his future. He’s quickly disabused of that feeling, as he encounters a spectrum of racism, from the overt hatred of those who refuse to hire him to the fetishization of white women curious about the novelty of having sex with a Black man to the pompous intellectualization of a sociologist who politely dehumanizes African immigrants in a spiel about labor conditions. Hondo cuts back and forth between these and other events in an almost essay-like approach, smashing spittle-flecked animosity and high-minded prejudice against each other, revealing their fundamental sameness.

The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration that used the 16mm original reversal positive and 16mm and 35mm duplicate negatives. This might be the best-looking film in the set, featuring an exceptionally clean image and perfect handling of the heavy 16mm grain. Uncompressed mono audio offers a solid showcase for the film’s musical elements and its experimental soundtrack. Extras include the Scorsese intro and a 2018 interview with the late Hondo, who fortunately got to see his wonderful film restored and celebrated before his death.

DownpourDownpour (1972)
Directed by Bahram Beyzaie

The set closes out with another debut feature and an early entry in the burgeoning Iranian New Wave. Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour is both wistful and wry in its examination of a slow-blossoming romance and the many obstacles it faces. Parviz Fannizadeh stars as Mr. Hekmati, an urbane schoolteacher assigned to an insular community in a Tehran suburb. His arrival is full of portent — with a gaggle of curious schoolchildren observing, he attempts to unload his cart of belongings on a steep street, but disaster strikes. Hekmati finds himself in a similarly precarious situation trying to ingratiate himself among his new neighbors, and there are signs that he’s as hapless as that opening scene suggests.

But Hekmati dedicates himself to his new role and pushes past his outsider status. And he shows himself to be not entirely hapless in his pursuit of Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi), the older sister of one of his students. Their romance is beyond tentative, accompanied by the community’s prying eyes — a charming scene features a medium shot of the pair on a park bench that cuts to a wide shot of a bunch of schoolkids watching from the trees — and Atefeh’s begrudging commitment to Rahim (Manuchehr Farid), the town butcher who’s bullied her into betrothal with his financial support.

Beyzaie succeeds at building a world that feels real, even with an antagonist in Rahim who borders on the cartoonish. The longing between Hekmati and Atefeh grows quietly, building toward a catharsis that never really arrives, even as it appears to be right around the bend during the film’s climactic rainstorm sequence. There’s no sea change to be found in Downpour, but even as the film ends on a visual rhyme, it’s clear that some things won’t ever be the same.

The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of Beyzaie’s personal 35mm print, the only known surviving copy after the negative and other copies were destroyed after the Iranian Revolution. This is the most impressive restoration effort in the set, taking a print that was in rough shape and creating a digital transfer that looks nearly pristine, aside from a few stray marks. Blacks and whites are luminous and fine detail is abundant. The only real clue to the difficult circumstances surrounding the elements is the burned-in English subtitles. The subtitles have their share of issues, including frequent untranslated lines, poor delineation that can cause them to get swallowed up on white backgrounds and instability that has them bouncing around the bottom part of the frame. Still, this is a remarkable rescue job. Uncompressed mono audio is fairly flat and suffers from some distortion, but is fine overall.

Extras include the Scorsese intro and a newly filmed interview with Beyzaie, who’s lived in exile in the US since 2010.

Last not but least, the set is accompanied by a booklet with essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli, Dennis Lim, Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Stephanie Dennison, Elisa Lozano, Aboubakar Sanogo and Hamid Naficy, along with restoration notes. Bring on more volumes of this indispensable line forever, Criterion.


Blu-ray Review: Pedro Costa reaches new heights with ‘Vitalina Varela,’ out now from Second Run

VitalinaPedro Costa’s films have always been marked by a deep empathy for the humans they depict — characters does not seem like the right word to describe them — and that’s no different in his latest, Vitalina Varela. Among the film’s many virtues is its ability to transfer its heart-in-throat compassion for its subject almost instantaneously. Costa’s imagery has often been this mesmerizing, but never has he shot faces like this before; every close-up on Varela has a heart-wrenching effect.

Vitalina Varela feels like the apotheosis of Costa’s work since he switched to shooting digitally and began creating collaborative truth/fiction hybrids in Lisbon’s slums. Costa’s ability to coax unexplainable beauty from the defects of MiniDV digital video in In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth was astounding, but his work ascends to new heights in Vitalina Varela, hauntingly juxtaposing light and shadow in a seemingly unending series of striking tableaux. The tools may be enormously improved, but still, no one can make digital images look like Costa does.

Vitalina Varela expands on a moment from Costa’s previous film, Horse Money, in which a Cape Verdean woman tells the story of trying to visit her estranged husband in Portugal, but arriving three days after his funeral. Costa met the mourning Varela while shooting Horse Money and incorporated elements of her real story into the segment. By expanding it here, he gives a larger platform to the most penetrating performance he’s ever featured, in a film about grief, isolation and defiance in spite of disillusionment.

In a country that’s not her own, in the neighborhood where she knows no one, in the room where the husband who she barely knew after he left her decades ago lived, Varela turns her sadness into a steely determination to make a place for herself. Like all Costa films, there’s a tangible sense of space in Vitalina Varela, and the expressionistic lighting and tight camera set-ups communicate an almost suffocating heaviness. Scenes of Varela sitting alone are accompanied by a din of commotion, ambient sounds of conversation and activity teeming around her but not involving her. Interactions with her unfeeling new neighbors aren’t any less lonely.

Still, Varela perseveres, and she finds some commiseration with a priest who’s lost his congregation. Frequent collaborator and star of Horse Money and Colossal Youth Ventura plays the priest, in a departure from the version of himself he generally plays in Costa’s films. The priest is unable to restrain his despair like Varela, lamenting openly about the loss of his own faith.

For her part, Varela keeps her pain close to her chest, but the film externalizes this deeply internal feeling in a way few films ever have. There are two grace notes in Vitalina Varela in which she visualizes a glimpse of Cape Verde, the gleaming sun and natural beauty a stark contrast to every image surrounding them. Whether nostalgia for the past or a dream of a future with a husband that will never come to be, these moments only amplify Vitalina Varela’s grief. But maybe, just maybe, they’re a glimpse of a reality that could come to be.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with a 1080i transfer, which preserves the film’s 25fps format. The gulf between my original viewing of the film on streaming versus a re-watch on Blu-ray was wide, with Second Run’s impeccable transfer highlighting the hyper-reality of Costa’s images. The deep, rich black levels seen on this disc are essential to appreciating the film’s visual style, and a continued point in favor of discs over streaming, where black levels go to die a compressed, macroblocked death. Every other aspect of the transfer is just as impressive, from fine detail to clarity to sharpness. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is dynamic and immersive, creating a great sense of the dense neighborhood the film was shot in. A 2.0 LPCM stereo track is also included.

Extras include a brief introduction by critic Chris Fujiwara, an hour-plus interview with Costa from a March 2020 screening in London, and Companhia, a short film about Costa’s museum installation exhibit in Porto. The disc also includes a selection of trailers. Included in the package is a booklet with an essay by Daniel Kasman and another extensive interview with Costa, who never shies away from an opinion.


Blu-ray Review: Jean Renoir’s sublime ‘Toni,’ from the Criterion Collection

ToniToni (1935) represents a departure for Jean Renoir on multiple fronts. Shot largely on location in the south of France, the film looks unlike the filmmaker’s previous studio-bound work. There’s a whisper of similarity to his father’s en plein air method and the idyllic pastoral settings that result. Like A Day in the Country (1936) Renoir’s subsequent unfinished masterpiece, Toni quietly exults in its outdoor locales — a hedge-lined path or a shaded hillside — though the emotional lows in Toni hit an extreme that the melancholy-tinged A Day in the Country doesn’t approach.

Toni is also an outlier among Renoir’s work for its focus on the working class, as it’s based on a true story about migrant workers in Martigues. Renoir mentions in the introduction included on Criterion’s disc that he realized that class was a more prominent line of demarcation than nationality. Of course, it’s not such a neat delineation, as a wry early scene shows two men complaining about a fresh influx of immigrants to the town — before revealing they themselves are recent immigrants.

These frequent asides, mostly featuring nonprofessional actors, and the film’s documentary-like style — longer takes, few close-ups — place the film as a clear precursor to Neorealism, though the film’s social and political impulses are much less of a force than its commitment to melodrama.

The film’s narrative of a love triangle between Italian worker Toni (Charles Blavette) and Marie (Jenny Hélla) and Josefa (Celia Montalván) runs hot, but Renoir’s approach plays it down. Until the final act, the film’s shockwaves are more of a function of its elisions than anything. Toni’s faintly flirtatious meeting of Marie, owner of a boarding house, cuts almost immediately to him wearily waking up in her bed, the doldrums already set in on their relationship. And just as Toni is coming to terms with the fact that he can’t have Josefa, the film cuts like a gut punch to a wedding banquet after she’s married Albert (Max Dalban), the casually cruel boss at Toni’s quarry job.

The film’s textures of realism — a funeral procession, a quarry worker’s labor, a train coming into town, a band’s folk song — ground what eventually becomes a heightened tale of violence, where Renoir appropriately shifts to incongruous close-ups. But this verité-style background also sets off moments of poetic sublimity, both tender, like Josefa’s seduction of Toni via wasp sting (envisioned on Katherine Lam’s beautiful painted cover for Criterion’s edition), and mournful, like a character’s attempt at suicide, captured in a breathtaking long shot across a vast expanse of sea. In all of its modes, Toni is an ecstatically gorgeous film, and it comes to Blu-ray in a presentation that matches.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration, and the results are extremely pleasing. Images have beautiful depth to the grain texture, fine detail is strong and black and white levels are impressive. There are few dropped frames throughout the film, but damage is basically nonvisible elsewhere. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is also quite clean, with no major issues.

On the supplements front, Criterion ports over the Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate commentary track from the long out-of-print Masters of Cinema DVD release. Conversational, but dense with information, it’s a strong track from two heavy hitters.

Also included: the first part of Jacques Rivette’s three-part Cinéastes de notre temps series on Renoir, “Jean Renoir le patron: La recherche du relatif”. (Excerpts of part two are on Criterion’s Rules of the Game disc and part three is on La Chienne.) This first part examines many of Renoir’s early films, with just a brief section on Toni, but it’s well worth watching for Renoir’s self-effacing commentary and Rivette’s essay-like approach.

A new video essay by Christopher Faulkner examines the film’s production history, including its now-lost longer original cut and Renoir’s association with Marcel Pagnol, who had a studio in the region. And the aforementioned Renoir introduction from 1961 rounds out the disc. The package includes an insert with an essay by scholar Ginette Vincendau.


Hitchcock and Grant: Darkness Behind the Charm


Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant brought out each other’s best attributes in their four collaborations from 1941 to 1959. Hitchcock was the only director who exposed the dark, brooding side of Grant’s suave image, with a sexual tension that somehow evaded the censors. Grant’s presence, in turn, lent a sophistication and elegance rarely seen in Hitchcock’s other works.

Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959) explored Hitchcock’s themes of concealment, degradation and emotional manipulation. By expanding Grant’s acting range, Hitchcock revealed a dark romanticism behind the charm — screwball humor on the edge of a precipice.

Undoubtedly, both men benefited from their partnership. However, imagine if neither had made Notorious and North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s reputation would have endured regardless, but for Grant, those films were essential. In fact, it was Hitchcock who lured Grant from an early retirement to make To Catch a Thief and, in the process, helped revive the screen actor’s career.

Hitchcock and Grant shared a common bond that became more evident with each successive film. They were lonely, insecure men who came from lower middle-class English backgrounds. Furthermore, both were somewhat fearful of women, perfectionistic in their working methods, and enthusiastic about black humor. These character traits helped provide the foundation of their professional relationship.

The element of danger in Cary Grant first emerged in Suspicion. Cut from the same stylistic cloth as Rebecca, Hitchcock referred to Suspicion as the “second English picture I made in Hollywood.” However, Hitchcock began shooting with an unfinished script, resulting in a troubled production and an uncertain dramatic tone.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

In this disappointing adaptation of Francis Iles’ novel Before the Fact, Hitchcock cast Grant against type as Johnnie — a reckless, irresponsible playboy who later marries the shy Lina (played by an ineffectual Joan Fontaine, who somehow won an Academy Award for her performance). Only after their marriage does the naive Lina discover that Johnnie is a habitual liar and spendthrift with no money of his own. Because of mounting circumstantial evidence, Lina suspects that her husband is a murderer.

At this point, the film deteriorates into an endless charade as Lina’s belief in Johnnie fluctuates between guilt and innocence. Lina’s psychological tug of war becomes ludicrous once it is revealed that Johnnie never was a murderer — thereby negating everything that has come before.

If Hitchcock and Grant had their way, Suspicion would have evolved into a disturbing thriller rather than a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, RKO had other ideas and altered the framework of Suspicion with the same callous insensitivity that marred Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

When interviewed by François Truffaut in 1962, Hitchcock expressed dissatisfaction with Suspicion and revealed his original ending: “Cary Grant [was] to bring [Joan Fontaine] a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and [she] has just finished a letter: ‘Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer.’ Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops in the letter.”


The illuminated glass of milk.

Seen today, Suspicion is the weakest Hitchcock-Grant collaboration even without RKO’s interference. Grant’s portrayal lacks the polish and depth that would become evident in his remaining work with Hitchcock. Furthermore, there is an absence of sexual chemistry between the Grant and Fontaine characters. Hitchcock also sensed this lack of rapport and, in future films, made certain that Grant was paired with more romantically compatible costars.

The most intriguing development in Suspicion is Hitchcock’s expansion of Grant’s screen persona. During the film’s first half, Grant plays his scenes in a screwball-comedy manner that often is grating. However, in the second half, Hitchcock slows the tempo of Grant’s performance, thus revealing Johnnie’s sinister undertones. Johnnie emerges as a seductive and sociopathic menace not unlike Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt or Bruno in Strangers on a Train. If Grant (and the studios) had been more daring, he could have played the Joseph Cotten and Robert Walker roles.

Suspicion should be viewed as a blueprint for a more rewarding collaboration: Notorious. Apart from being one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, the film represents Grant’s strongest dramatic performance. His portrayal of Devlin remains so emotionally cold that it leaves no room for his traditional humor. Ben Hecht’s detailed screenplay also includes a self-revelatory comment by Devlin: “I’ve always been scared of women. I’ll get over it.”

Notorious: Grant's finest dramatic performance.

Notorious: Grant’s finest dramatic performance.

In Hitchcock’s cruelest and most disturbing romance, Devlin emerges as an unsympathetic sadist. The counterspy seduces and manipulates Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), an alcoholic nymphomaniac, into helping the U.S. government obtain secrets by marrying the Nazi spy Sebastian (Claude Rains), who actually loves her more than Devlin does.

With the casting of Bergman and Rains, the love triangle in Notorious is similar to Casablanca. However, in Hitchcock’s world, there is no stirring display of patriotism or sentimentality. One feels sorrow for Sebastian when Devlin cruelly locks the car door and drives off with Alicia, leaving Sebastian to face certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis. Ironically, the humanity of Sebastian makes him a far more sympathetic character than Devlin, who cares little about people, except for the secrets and sexual gratification he can extract from them.

Though Devlin saves Alicia from a poisonous fate, it doesn’t redeem his mean-spirited treatment of her. Even when Devlin tells Alicia that he was “a fat-headed guy full of pain,” it isn’t entirely convincing. Herein lies the brilliance of Hitchcock, who finally strips Grant of his protective charm.

A cruel romance.

A cruel romance.

Notorious should have been the start of a new dramatic phase in Grant’s career. Instead, he played it safe by starring in a succession of comedies from 1947 to 1953. With the exception of his intelligent performances in Richard Brooks’ Crisis and Joseph Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk, Grant avoided serious roles during that period. Much was lost in the process.

Hitchcock’s fortunes waned after the release of Notorious. The filmmaker would not have another major critical and commercial success until Strangers on a Train in 1951. By the time Hitchcock re-established his cinematic artistry, Grant had retired in 1953 after a string of box-office disappointments.

The retirement lasted two years. In the end, it was Hitchcock who convinced Cary Grant to return to filmmaking. The master of suspense gave the actor a script he couldn’t refuse . . . and some Hitchcockian words of encouragement: “There isn’t a thing wrong with you, old man, that a first-rate screenplay won’t cure.  You’d be perfectly splendid in the part. One last thing: Grace Kelly has agreed to play the girl and a good part of the picture will be shot on the Riviera.”

Grant signed on the dotted line and began work on To Catch a Thief (only his second Technicolor feature — the first being 1946′s Night and Day). Hitchcock considered the film a “lightweight story,” yet it remains an important work from one of his most prolific periods. The director’s renewed energy is evident in the vividness of Robert Burks’ cinematography and imaginative use of the newly developed VistaVision process.  Though not terribly suspenseful, To Catch a Thief ranks among Hitchcock’s most stylish and elegant achievements.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Of course, the film’s soufflé-like quality would have collapsed without Grant’s flawless performance. As retired cat burglar John Robie, Grant revitalizes his screen presence. He is not playing Robie so much as he is playing Cary Grant — a suave, debonair man who looks good and knows it. This relaxed self-confidence is exactly what Hitchcock wanted.

The Hitchcock-Grant films utilize sex as a form of seduction and manipulation. To Catch a Thief is notable for the bold eroticism of Francie (played by a stunningly cool Grace Kelly) and her aggressive carnal desire for Robie. The offbeat nature of their romance adds to the lasciviousness, especially when Francie suddenly kisses Robie in the hotel corridor — her libido churning away. As in Notorious, Hitchcock effectively films Grant from behind in this brief encounter, making him the center of attention by focusing on the magnetism the viewer cannot see. When Grant turns to the camera, the look of bemused satisfaction on his face remains priceless.

Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto credited To Catch a Thief for its “classic Freudian notion of sex as larcenous” — a theme the director further developed in Psycho and Marnie. Most apparent is Hitchcock’s equation of jewelry to women’s bosoms, especially during Robie’s foray at the gambling tables and the now-classic “fireworks” sequence. When Francie invites Robie to her hotel suite, he knows what she is after and vice versa: “Look — hold them. Diamonds! The only thing in the world you can’t resist.”

Sex as larceny in To Catch a Thief.

Sex as larceny.

For Hitchcock, the fireworks scene in To Catch a Thief represented the cinematic equivalent of sexual rapture. “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful,” he told Truffaut. “If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. Sex should not be advertised.”

Hitchcock’s fascination with the paradox between the inner fire and cool surface reached its apex in North by Northwest — his last collaboration with Grant.  In this legendary cross-country chase-thriller, both men were at their artistic zenith.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman crafted a story that he called “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” — incorporating various ideas and set pieces that Hitchcock never could fit into his previous films. Most important, the role of complacent ad executive Roger Thornhill was written specifically for Grant, who could combine fear and desperation with a light comedic touch. Without Grant, it’s unlikely Hitchcock would have made North by Northwest.

Once again, Hitchcock uses Grant’s charm in a dark and manipulative fashion. However, it is Thornhill who falls victim to a series of unpredictable, nasty surprises. North by Northwest emerges as Hitchcock’s belated revenge on the Grant persona.

The surreal Mount Rushmore climax.

Interestingly, the film has been described as an unofficial sequel to Notorious with its psychosexual relationships and espionage sacrifices. Unlike previous Hitchcock-Grant efforts, North by Northwest evolves into a travelogue of the absurd. Thornhill is mistaken for a man who doesn’t exist and spends most of the film trying to track down the elusive “George Kaplan.”

Nowhere is this surrealism more evident than during the Mount Rushmore climax, with its mind-boggling urgency leading to Thornhill’s moment of truth. The final seconds not only are a moral redemption for Thornhill in his rescue of double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) but also one of sexual fulfillment — emphasized in the suggestive closing shot. It is fitting that the final Hitchcock-Grant thriller ends happily.

With so much written about the Mount Rushmore and crop-duster chases, the auction sequence tends to get lost in the shuffle. This beautifully written set piece is tailor-made for Grant’s unique talents.

The auction scene works on several levels. First, there are elements of sexual blackmail and enslavement — another parallel to Notorious — emphasized in the tension between Thornhill, Eve and Van Damm (James Mason), with Eve emerging as the object of value. Also evident is the surprisingly mature love-hate relationship between Thornhill and Eve, who plays conflicting roles throughout the film. (Saint deserves recognition as Grant’s finest Hitchcockian costar — sophisticated and sensual, yet ice-cold and dangerous. Unlike Francie in To Catch a Thief, Eve is more subtle in her sexual desire.)

“I’ll bet you paid plenty for this little piece of sculpture. She’s worth every dollar.”

After Eve and Van Damm depart from the auction, Thornhill again must use his ingenuity and performing skills to extricate himself from yet another predicament (not unlike Robert Donat’s improvised political speech in The 39 Steps). When Thornhill begins his outlandish bidding, the scene turns into a rare display of “screwball suspense” — nonconformist humor with a menacing undercurrent that captures the essence of Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek thriller.

In retrospect, it was easy to see why North by Northwest became Cary Grant’s last film with Hitchcock. At 55, Grant managed to look younger than James Stewart in Vertigo, but knew his days as a leading man were coming to an end. By the time he made Stanley Donen’s pseudo-Hitchcock thriller Charade in 1963, Grant was unable to disguise his age — nearing 60, he looked too old as a romantic hero. When Grant turned down the lead in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, it was because he no longer could play “Cary Grant.” Unwilling to make the transition to character roles, Grant retired for good in 1966.

Though directors such as Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks helped unearth the full range of Grant’s comic talents, it was Hitchcock who discovered the darkness that lurked within the actor’s seemingly carefree and debonair persona. Only with Hitchcock could Grant afford to take risks. Hitchcock, in turn, transformed the elegant film star into a complex screen legend. From a director-actor standpoint, they were a perfect match.


The Vision of Buster Keaton


The inimitable Buster Keaton has been acknowledged by some cinema historians as the master of silent-film comedy — surpassing Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  When examining his creativity throughout the 1920s, Keaton was a groundbreaking filmmaker whose somber but determined vision produced an enduring body of work.

Keaton’s stoic persona defied mainstream cinema as he transcended silent comedy by venturing into more dramatic territory.  This progression is evident when viewing three Keaton-directed features in chronological order:  Seven Chances (1925), Battling Butler (1926) and The General (1926).  Each film is distinctive in its comedic tone and cinematic style, while showcasing Keaton’s evolution as an artist.

Seven Chances is an example of Keaton placing his own personal and stylistic imprint on material not specifically tailored for him.  In fact, the premise seems ideal for Harold Lloyd:  on a certain day, a stockbroker belatedly discovers he will inherit $7 million if he marries by 7 p.m. that evening, yet only has a few hours remaining.  Under Keaton’s direction, what could have been a traditional thrill comedy emerges as a surrealistic nightmare brought to life.  It also reveals the epic scope of his filmmaking.

Like many of his features, Seven Chances maintains a natural tempo that enhances the humor of its individual scenes, particularly during the various proposals and rejections that Keaton encounters on his way to the altar.  In the words of Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, the film begins “slower than other comedians and ends twice as fast.”

This deliberate, methodic pacing builds to one of the great climaxes in movie history, with hundreds of potential brides — and an avalanche of boulders — chasing Buster through the Southern California landscape.  Filmed entirely on location and utilizing expansive long shots, this 20-minute sequence is propelled by Keaton’s stunning athleticism and remarkable editing precision.

Ruthless romance in Seven Chances.

In a 1965 interview with British film critic John Gillett, Keaton described how he shot the spectacular chase: “When I’ve got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups.  So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling.  . . . Close-ups are too jarring on the screen and can stop an audience from laughing.”

Keaton seamlessly fuses his deadpan expressiveness with an expert command of the film medium.  In Seven Chances, he transforms a stage farce into a thought-provoking examination of ruthless romance in which deadly boulders are preferable to devouring women.  The film equates pain with redemption and reveals the seriousness of Keaton’s comic art.

The same can be said of Battling Butler, which was the closest Keaton ever came to making a dramatic film.  Though regarded by contemporary critics as one of his weaker efforts, Battling Butler was among Keaton’s personal favorites and made more money than any of his silent features.  The film also broke new ground in its directorial style and depth, thus paving the way for his masterpiece, The General.

Though a traditional Keaton comedy on the surface, Battling Butler has a subdued, gentle tone that eventually erupts into violent rage.  Buster plays foppish and pampered Alfred Butler, a millionaire’s son who falls in love with a country girl while camping in the mountains.  To gain acceptance from the girl’s family, he is willing to be mistaken for heavyweight boxer Battling Butler, who is training nearby.  The sadistic champ soon learns about the ruse and schemes to annihilate Alfred.

Rather than stage a humorous fight, director Keaton plays it straight with effective results.  Alfred receives a brutal beating in the champ’s dressing room as the girl watches.  The blows are painful.  Bloodied and humiliated, Alfred looks into the girl’s terrified eyes.  What follows is perhaps the most chilling of all Keaton transformations, as the weakling Alfred lashes out at the champ — knocking the boxer to the floor several times.  Alfred wins a personal victory and the girl’s love as he walks down the streets of New York wearing his top hat and boxing trunks.

A chilling Keaton transformation.

Despite the upbeat finish, Alfred’s abrupt change in personality lingers in the mind.  For the first time, Keaton “permitted comedy to give way to a greater urgency,” Walter Kerr observed in his 1975 critical study The Silent Clowns.  ”We have seen him be extraordinarily funny in a boxing ring earlier. Now, in the film’s closing reel, he suddenly seems no comedian at all.”

Keaton had the ability to step out of genre as an actor and filmmaker.  Battling Butler confirms this rare dramatic quality with its realistic fight sequence, which influenced Martin Scorsese when he directed Raging Bull (1980).  Like Keaton, Scorsese made certain his camera stayed in the ring. “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies was Buster Keaton,” he told biographer Marion Meade in 1995.

Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s co-writers, was so impressed by Battling Butler that he gave Keaton a copy of William Pittenger’s 1863 book The Great Locomotive Chase.  It became the inspiration for The General — Keaton’s greatest feature (with Bruckman credited as co-director) and a cinematic masterpiece.  More than 93 years since its initial release, the film endures as a truly unique work that continues to resonate through generations.

Historians and critics often overlook Keaton’s ambition as a filmmaker.  Though Chaplin shot most of The Gold Rush (1925) in the studio, 90 percent of The General was filmed on location in Oregon.  In his quest for perfection, Keaton told his crew, “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts.” The result, in many respects, is the definitive Civil War epic, with Dev Jennings and Bert Haines’ superb cinematography evoking the photographic naturalism of Mathew Brady.

An independent filmmaker during most of the 1920s, Keaton had all the Hollywood resources at his disposal to create a very personal work not unlike Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) — commercial considerations be damned.  In retrospect, The General reveals as much about Keaton as it does the historic subject matter.

Keaton’s masterpiece: The General.

Welles was a great admirer of Keaton and praised The General on the 1971 PBS series The Silent Years:  “I think it’s the Civil War movie. Nothing ever came near it, not only for beauty but for a feeling of authenticity. Yet this is a farce — a farce without Chaplinesque sentiment, but imbued with a real and very curious sort of dignity.  . . . It’s a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind.”

The General represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine, with the Civil War serving as a seriocomic backdrop in this larger-than-life escapade.  The film is an inventive chase through history while showcasing Keaton’s mastery of props and characterization.  “Think slow, act fast” was his modus operandi.

A recurring Keaton theme is the triumph of the outsider who relies on his own devices.  As engineer Johnnie Gray, Keaton overcomes elaborate obstacles in a world where the illogical appears logical.  He has the determination to fight terrible battles and prove his mettle to a society that initially rejects him.  Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, the emotionally detached Keaton has no time to feel sorry for himself — he must keep going.  Life has become an endless chase.

Inevitably, the chase must end.  The final scenes in The General represent those few opportunities where the Keaton persona stands still and reflects upon his accomplishments.  Johnnie Gray finds love, redemption and a military rank, but only after a grueling journey.  It seems that all Keaton characters must pay an emotional and physical price before they achieve success.

To realize his cinematic vision, Buster Keaton created an enigmatic and inventive universe that knew no bounds.  Through the tragicomic wisdom of Seven Chances, Battling Butler and The General, viewers may envision themselves in these surrealistic battles — running and fighting for their lives.  Such is the timeless poetry of Keaton, whose films move beyond the realm of slapstick comedy to reveal an expansive, darker portrait of American individualism.


Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Serge Gainsbourg, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Jarmusch & more!

GaudiAntonio Gaudí (1984)
The Criterion Collection

The buildings of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí don’t look constructed. They look evolved. Organically asymmetrical protrusions, supple curving lines, scaly exteriors — all challenging the notion that the human mind and human hands were involved at all in bringing these creations about.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s reverent documentary about Gaudí’s architecture knows its imagery is bracing enough to stand alone sans context or history, and it does for the most part. When Teshigahara does bring in a historian for some detail in the film’s final moments, the interruption of the mostly wordless reverie for this explication feels like the psychiatrist epilogue in Psycho.

Teshigahara’s camera, which alternates between regal wide shots and insatiably curious handheld work, drinks in the strange beauty of Gaudí’s work, whether in residential buildings or in his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família basilica, sitting unfinished in the midst of Barcelona like an alien being, its spires stretching above the urban landscape. The film’s narration mentions Gaudí knew his work would have to be completed by another architect. He may not have expected it wouldn’t be finished until 100 years after his death, as current estimates expect completion in 2026.

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of its 2008 DVD release is one of the more left-field choices in recent memory, and there’s no new restoration to explain it. The 1080p, 1.33:1 disc uses the same high-def transfer as the DVD release. Still, this is an enjoyable presentation, despite some density and color fluctuations due to the condition of the source materials. Teshigahara’s edits have a way of taking your breath away in this film, and this transfer helps accentuate that in sudden cuts to vibrant tile work — reds, blues and greens looking especially beautiful in this transfer. The uncompressed mono audio is a little thin, but presents a decent presentation of Tôru Takemitsu’s score and its sudden dips into the avant-garde.

All extras are carried over from the DVD. An interview features architect and friend of the director Arata Isozaki, 16mm footage from 1959 shows Teshigahara’s longstanding interest in Gaudí, and a 1963 short film by Teshigahara shows the sculptures of his artist father, Sofu. Further information on Gaudí is featured in the 2003 documentary God’s Architect: Antoni Gaudí and in Ken Russell’s 1961 BBC program, one of his many short documentaries. A trailer and an expansive booklet with an essay by Dore Ashton and thoughts from the filmmaker are also included.

Je t'aimeJe t’aime moi non plus (1976)
Kino Lorber

In the first of several films he directed, Serge Gainsbourg is quick to dispense with the notion that this is some dilettante-ish dabbling.

To be sure, Je t’aime moi non plus, which shares a name with the far more popular song he wrote and performed with Jane Birkin, isn’t on the surest stylistic footing. Its early moments contain some faintly Godardian smash cuts alongside some goofy camera stunts (an early scene where the camera loopily veers to match the wild driving of a group of miscreants gave me a sinking feeling). Eventually, the film settles into a more staid mode, with some elegant crane shots providing a veneer of respectability.

Dubious style aside, this is a singular film, as Gainsbourg is seemingly determined to create the most upsetting juxtapositions possible between the beauty of his stars and the ugliness of their situations.

Set in some godforsaken corner of France, the film features Warhol star Joe Dallesandro as gay garbage collector Krassky and Birkin as Johnny, the truckstop waitress who’s just androgynous enough for him to maybe fall for, much to the ire of Krassky’s boyfriend Padovan (Hugues Quester). Johnny explains she got that moniker because she has “no tits or ass,” and Krassky’s attention perks up.

The trash dump is among the more romantic places where their lopsided relationship blossoms. It’s not the diner, where her boss is constantly spewing invective. It’s not the local dancehall, where a cadre of leering men curdles the film’s sense of eroticism.

It’s certainly not the series of hotels the couple stays in, thrown out of each one because the proprietors assume rape when they hear Johnny’s cries of pain during anal sex. That Gainsbourg’s camera can so lovingly gaze at the otherworldly beauty of his two stars before cutting to that is jarring, to say the least. The film deploys its cruelty casually, particularly in its conclusion, and it can be difficult to reconcile that tone with the film’s more banal platitudes about love and its jaunty piano theme, also by Gainsbourg.

Kino’s Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. This is a beautiful transfer, showing off a rarely seen film in almost perfect form. Images are clean and detailed and colors rich and vibrant among the dusty landscapes. Damage is minimal and the presentation is quite film-like. 2.0 LPCM mono audio is also quite clean.

Extras include a new interview with the rakishly charming Dallesandro, who mentions he was disappointed the film didn’t receive a US release, so all his friends stateside would know he wasn’t dead. Dallesandro also shows up for a Q&A with Birkin, moderated by Dennis Lim after a Lincoln Center screening. A Samm Deighan audio commentary and the theatrical trailer are also included.

TrappedTrapped (1949)
Flicker Alley

Another welcome rescue job by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Trapped has the pedigree to get a deluxe home video release: long-thought-lost status, big-name director, early performances from a popular actor and a cult favorite actress. That the film ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts isn’t particularly surprising — a formulaic, stolid script like the one for Trapped is part of the B-noir model.

Still, there are many pleasures to be had. Director Richard Fleischer, who made plenty of noirs before becoming a big-budget studio helmer, gives the film a distinct sense of polish despite its obvious budgetary limitations. (An elegant camera-tilt-and-cut move to show our antiheroes being bugged by the Feds is just one of the smart flourishes he offers.) Lloyd Bridges, who stars as a counterfeiter freed from jail to help assist a sting operation, is an ideal avatar for the L.A. noir: sunny-looking, but vicious. Barbara Payton makes her sexpot girlfriend substantial with an undercurrent of knowing menace of her own as she seduces John Hoyt’s undercover cop.

The telegraphed double-crosses and the dearth of interesting supporting characters aren’t a dealbreaker by any means, but the film can’t help but fizzle when it sidelines Bridges for its climax, an otherwise reasonably exciting train yard chase. In the extras, noir expert Eddie Muller mentions that Bridges was rumored to have fallen ill near the end of production and speculates that producer Bryan Foy would’ve never waited around for him to finish the film. That shoestring approach can lend to a lot of charm of these B-noirs, but it’s a nearly fatal blow here.

Of course, Flicker Alley’s package will inevitably contribute to one’s appreciation for the film, and the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a private collector’s 35mm acetate print, is impressive in its consistency and a massive upgrade over whatever PD garbage was out there. Naturally, the image has inherent softness, but image stability and clarity is good. Damage is mostly limited to stray marks. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is pretty clean as well. The combo set also includes a DVD copy.

Extras include a featurette on the film’s history and of its stars, including Payton’s tragic life that was frequent tabloid fodder in those days. Also included: a piece on Fleischer’s career, featuring an interview with his son, Mark, and a commentary track with Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo. A booklet includes production and promotional art and notes by Muller.

Old JoyOld Joy (2006)
The Criterion Collection

I’ll take any chance to proclaim Kelly Reichardt as the greatest living American filmmaker, and here, in a review of her breakout film, the sentiment must be repeated.

More than a decade after her debut feature, River of Grass (1994), Reichardt followed it up with something you might be tempted to label as a template for her subsequent films, at least on the surface. All of Reichardt’s films from this point on have an ineffable quality; once you think you’ve gotten the parameters defined with a description, they’ve long since wriggled free, unconstrained by their seemingly simple particularities.

That’s especially the case with Old Joy, which like many of her other films, features the Pacific Northwest setting, the feelings of displacement and isolation, and the serenity/terror inherent in man’s relationship with nature. It’s a film that can be summed up in a sentence — two old friends reconnect on a spontaneous camping trip — and its 73 minutes elapse like a blip, dewdrops on morning grass that are suddenly gone. Once its over, the preciousness of every one of those minutes comes into striking view.

Based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story, Old Joy is about Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), now two opposites who at some point in their past, weren’t. Mark, played with the barest hint of permanent unease by London, has hit the ostensible milestones of accomplishment — wife, house, baby on the way — while Kurt, played by Oldham with a charisma you know is accompanied by pitfalls, has drifted back into Portland.

An impromptu invitation from Kurt sends them into the woods in search of hot springs, with Mark’s dog Lucy (Reichardt’s dog plays herself) in the back seat of the Volvo. It’s a road trip that’s alternately soothing and tension-filled, just like the contours of the friends’ relationship, at once comfortably informed by a long history and full of terrifying unknowns.

Old Joy thrives on these paradoxes, though none of them are obvious or overindulged. It’s a road movie defined by its stillness, a movie about friendship defined by its silences. It’s the first masterpiece in a career full of subsequent ones, and hopefully, many more to come.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration of a 35mm digital negative, is a gorgeous showcase for the film’s 16mm photography, with perfectly rendered grain, rich and natural colors (the film’s evergreens seem realer than real) and excellent clarity. This is an exceptionally film-like transfer, and a massive upgrade over the previous Kino DVD release. The lossless PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack reveals plenty of subtle natural sound, while Yo La Tengo’s judiciously applied score sounds great.

Extras are mostly of the interview variety, but all are worth a watch. Reichardt details her interest in the story and the small crew that made the production happen. Cinematographer Peter Sillen offers a more technically focused interview, while Raymond, who’s since gone on to co-write or write most of Reichardt’s films, offers thoughts on their collaboration. London and Oldham reunite for the first time in a while, and their conversation has some of the same hesitant but vulnerable energy that the film does.

Also included: a booklet with an essay by Ed Halter and Raymond’s short story.

LimitsThe Limits of Control (2009)
Arrow Academy

The back half of Jim Jarmusch’s career has seen him take on numerous genre deconstructions, from the western (Dead Man, 1995) to the vampire film (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) to the zombie apocalypse (last year’s unfairly dismissed The Dead Don’t Die). In molding the hit man thriller to his own peculiarities in The Limits of Control, Jarmusch offers perhaps his most sublimated take of his career, stripping the mood piece down to the genre’s barest essentials, and then stripping some more.

This is an opaque film, as an unnamed operative known as The Lone Man, played by Isaach De Bankolé, traverses Spain, meeting a series of contacts as he puts together the pieces of his assignment. Alex Descas gets the journey started. John Hurt and Gael García Bernal offer oblique guidance. Paz de la Huerta wonders why The Lone Man won’t fuck her. There will be no fucking or killing in this film. Not on screen anyway. Tilda Swinton shows up in a cowboy hat and exults about Tarkovsky in a scene that explains how to watch this film if you haven’t caught on yet.

With the droning guitars of Japanese band Boris as a guide, the film invites you into a trance. With its dramatic landscapes and persistent air of intrigue, the film suggests there’s an action movie in here somewhere — if only in your imagination. Like any individual plot point, trying to reach out and grasp it will only result in its disintegration.

Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was provided by Universal, and it’s a pleasing experience, if slightly flatter and less crisp than one might hope for. Color reproduction is excellent, fine detail is adequate and grain structure is well supported. It’s an easy upgrade over the previous DVD release. 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are provided, offering a strong showcase for the Boris score and clean dialogue throughout.

Arrow provides two new scholarly extras: Geoff Andrews’ interview and Amy Simmons video essay. Both look at Jarmusch’s career as a whole, and there are some interesting points, but both have a tendency to repeatedly note Jarmusch’s unconventionality without digging deeper. Carried over from the previous DVD are a lengthy making-of and a short featurette on the film’s locations. A trailer is also included.


The West of Fritz Lang


“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.”

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