ANATAHAN (1953, Kino Lorber)
The final film by the legendary Josef von Sternberg, Anatahan tells the true story of 12 Japanese soldiers who are shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific in the waning days of WWII. Unaware that the war has ended, the men begin to fight a war of their own, torn apart and driven to near madness by their affection for the island's single female inhabitant, the lovely Keiko.
The men refer to her as the "Queen Bee," and to themselves as the "drones," but their devotion soon devolves into jealousy and murder, slowly stripping away the humanity of each of the island's inhabitants. The dialogue is completely in Japanese, without subtitles. The dialogue is interpreted by an unseen narrator, who is one of the castaway soldiers. The effect of the ever-present narrator is somewhat alienating, but it also cements Von Sternberg as a decidedly non-Japanese observer - an outsider looking in.
The film was originally released in censored form in 1953, before Von Sternberg's preferred director's cut finally saw the light of day in 1958. It contains a surprising amount of nudity for a film of the time (more of which is documented in outtakes available on the new Kino Blu-Ray), but it feels natural and even integral to the plot. One can easily see how the men, trapped on the island with only one woman, were driven to madness by their own toxic masculinity. The film itself is both hampered and helped by its omnipresent narration, almost as if we are looking at a great film through a window or a filter. This adds a thematic layer to its structure, but its almost Brechtian alienation effect is at times distracting. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating formal experience, and a deeply personal project for Von Sternberg.
Grade - ★★★ (out of four)
"I told him...that if I ever caught him I'd skin him alive; but he died before I finished... Damn him!"
There are few films from the silent era as startling or as darkly gruesome as Irving Willat's Behind the Door, a WWI revenge thriller released only one year after the Great War ended. The film follows Oscar Krug (the extraordinary Hobart Bosworth), an American taxidermist who has the misfortune of having German heritage just as the USA declares war on Germany. Attacked by the neighbors he once called friends, Oscar volunteers for the military, and is made captain of a ship. Distraught, his wife stows away on the ship in order to stay with him during the war. When his ship is torpedoed by a U-Boat, the two are cast adrift in a lifeboat, only to be rescued by an enemy vessel. Rather than save them both, the U-Boat captain takes Oscar's wife, and casts him back out to sea to drown, sending Oscar on a bloody quest for revenge.
Despite the fact that some of the film remains lost, Behind the Door is a harrowing experience. It may tame by today's standards, but it's hard to deny the visceral impact of its horrific climax. Willat pulls no punches when it comes to the horror that awaits the U-Boat captain at Oscar's vengeful hands. The film was something of a sensation at the time, quickly gaining an infamous reputation for its grim subject matter. Yet there is a tenderness underneath its bloody exterior. At its heart, Behind the Door is a love story, one that continues just as strongly after death. Willat stages action sequences with a true master's eye - the scene in which the townspeople attempt to kill Oscar for his German heritage is especially thrilling, illustrating the depth of the suspicion and bigotry that was directed at those of German descent (some things, it seems, never chance). The restoration on the new Flicker Alley Blu-Ray is simply stunning, utilizing illustrated placeholders to take the place of the missing scenes, helping the story continue almost seamlessly. Behind the Door is a forgotten treasure, a haunting tale of love and vengeance that stands as one of the most gruesome and disturbing films of the silent era.
Grade - ★★★½ (out of four)
Alan J. Pakula took an archetypal Western scenario and placed it in the latter days of World War II, as two warring land-owners are suddenly faced with a new threat when agents from a major oil company threaten to take their ranches for the natural riches underneath. At first, you almost don't notice that Comes a Horseman takes place in 1945 rather than the 1800's. The characters lead a simpler way of life, fighting over land rights for their cattle. Jane Fonda stars a Ella Connors, a rancher who teams up with a fellow landowner named Frank 'Buck' Athearn (James Caan) after his partner is gunned down by ruthless cattle baron, J.W. Ewing (Jason Robards). Ewing has been after Connors' property (not to mention her hand in marriage) for years, and is determined to live up to his legendary father's accomplishments, and is willing to stoop to any means to get his way. But when the oil company comes knocking, Ewing and Connors find themselves unlikely allies in a battle for their very way of life, even as Ewing seeks to make a deal with the devil.
Comes a Horseman is ultimately a tale of can-do American resilience, even in the face of soulless corporate expansion. While the story is a classic Western structure, Pakula doesn't give us typically defined heroes or villains. We first meet murderous cattle baron Ewing as he is burying his son, who was killed in action in WWII. It is a tender moment, later undercut by his reprehensible actions, yet Pakula is making a point that he is a human too, not some mustache-twirling visage of evil. All the characters are struggling to carve out a living on the American plains (breathtakingly photographed by the great Gordon Willis), and Pakula treats them with all with humanity. They are holdovers from a forgotten way of life, facing obsolescence through encroaching modernity. The film also features a fantastic, Oscar nominated turn by Richard Farnsworth, making the transition from stuntman to character actor, in a quietly towering performance.
The film itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It moves in fits and starts, and the ending, while a stark reminder of the resilience of the American west, comes out of left field. It's undeniably a solidly crafted drama, beautifully shot and acted, but it never quite seems to figure out where it wants to go or what it wants to be, reaching a violent climax that feels strangely unearned, even by the standards of the western archetypes it seeks to emulate.
Grade - ★★½ (out of four)
The great William Wyler, never one to get stuck in any one particular genre, tried his hand at the caper film in 1966's How to Steal a Million, an effervescent romantic heist picture starring Peter O'Toole as a charming society burglar and Audrey Hepburn as the uptight daughter of an art forger. When Hepburn's father loans out one of his forged sculptures to a museum, he soon realizes that the museum plans to have it professionally inspected before it is insured, thereby putting not only his reputation as an art dealer, but his freedom in jeopardy. In order to save her fathers, Hepburn plans a daring heist with the help of O'Toole's charismatic rogue, whom she caught attempting to steal one of her father's forged Van Goghs from their living room.
The two stars a clearly having a grand old time, and the film gets great mileage out of their boundless charm. Wyler wisely allows O'Toole and Hepburn to command the screen, letting How to Steal a Million coast on their combined magnetism and elegance (buoyed along by a sprightly score by John Williams, here credited as "Johnny Williams"). Over the course of his long and storied career, Wyler proved himself a master chameleon, adept at almost any genre he touched. How to Steal Million is no different, a graceful and fleet-footed caper that is light, frothy, and oh-so-delicious.
Grade - ★★★ (out of four)
Gregory Peck stars as the legendary Captain Ahab in John Huston's solid 1956 adaptation of Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby Dick. Perhaps a more straight-foward approach to the story than Melville's more philosophical text, Huston does a remarkable job of capturing a sense of time and place, not to mention the existential dread at the heart of the work. Peck is in fine form as Ahab, while Friedrich von Ledebur is also excellent as the cannibal, Queequeg.
Yet the real star here is cinematographer Oswald Morris (Lolita), who shot the film with a washed-out color scheme that almost looks black and white, evoking paintings of the sea from the 1800's that inspired the overall visual style of the film. It's beautifully capture on Twilight Time's Blu-Ray release, which restores the film's unique color palate for the first time in decades. The film's visual effects also hold up surprisingly well. While the crew frequently struggled with the whale (not unlike the crew of Jaws would nearly two decades later), but the sparing use of the animatronic creature elevates his status as more of a mythic idea than an actual living being. While it ultimately loses some of its narrative drive in the middle section, Huston's take on the Great American Novel is surprisingly light on its feat - a thrilling portrait of single-minded obsession that still resonates today.
Grade - ★★★ (out of four)
The title of The Panic at Needle Park refers to a time when heroin supplies were running low in New York City's infamous "Needle Park," leading addicts and junkies to turn on one another in order to score their next fix. Al Pacino made his film debut in Jerry Schatzberg's harrowing film, as a heroin addict who introduces his new girlfriend to a dangerous world of drug addiction that threatens to destroy her life. It sounds a bit like an after-school special, with a "don't do drugs, kids" sense of moral propriety, but that's not what this film is at all. There's an almost documentary-like sense of realism at work here. It's raw, gritty, and most of all, painfully honest. It provides no easy answers for its characters, no trite moralizing or judgement. The film simply drops us into these characters' lives, then pulls us back out again without any real sense of resolution.
Of course, there is no real resolution for these characters. They feel completely authentic and the performances are uniformly excellent. It's easy to see why Al Pacino went on to become a major star - he's magnetic here, and totally believable. It's a tough sit, often feeling aimless, which is a result of its verite-like style. And while it sometimes seems to be spinning its wheels in 70's-era miserablism, it's hard to take your eyes of the central performances, and the truly alarming descent into the ugliness of addiction at its core. It feels like something out of a time capsule; a portrait of a specific place and time, capturing the lives of the people of Needle Park in the 1970's in a deeply human, and sometimes heartbreaking, way.
Grade - ★★★ (out of four)
"It's about time you learned that girls wanna do the same things as boys. And they have the right to know how."
Based on the controversial best-seller by Grace Metalious, Peyton Place would go on to become a long-running prime time soap opera. But not before being turned into a sumptuous, Oscar-nominated film, which captured all of the drama, romance, and sordid secrets of the small New England town of Peyton Place. Sure it's sudsy, but what delicious scandal it offers up, examining the lives of a small town in 1941, in the months leading up the outbreak of World War II.
The film doesn't have a single overarching story, choosing instead on focusing on various Peyton Place citizens and their individual stories, as they navigate life in a judgmental, conservative town. Girls fall in love with boys they can't have, a new progressive principal threatens to shake up the school, and gossip nearly ruins lives, as war looms in Europe, far away from their tiny problems. While toned down from the novel, the film explores topics that were pretty hot-button in 1957, from sexual education, to abortion, to rape. Yet despite its heavy subject matter (and 2.5+ hour running time), Peyton Place remains remarkably light on its feet, ingratiating the audience to small town life, and giving each character, no matter how small, a rich life of their own. It makes us feel a part of this charming but old-fashioned community, and it tweaks their close-mindedness in an ultimately warm and loving way. It's not the incisive social commentary of, say, Douglas Sirk, but there's something undeniably enchanting about the stories it tells. Once you fall in love with Peyton Place, you may never want to leave.
Grade - ★★★½ (out of four)