Oedipus West: The Man From Laramie (1955)

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The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.

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Rough, Raw & Randy: UP THE JUNCTION (1968)

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Peter Collinson’s effective slice-of-life drama UP THE JUNCTION (1968) makes its DVD and Blu-ray debut in the U.S. this week thanks to Olive Films. Today the film is often fondly remembered by fans of sixties cinema for its South London setting, colorful mod fashions, beehive hairdos, boastful bikers and jazzy psychedelic pop score by Manfred Mann. But UP THE JUNCTION has more to offer viewers besides an abundance of great style and an unforgettable soundtrack.

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Feeling Blu: Joseph Losey’s Stranger On the Prowl (1952)

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With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has  fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.

This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.

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Fear and Self-Loathing in Mexico: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

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The story of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is told through the fabric of Warren Oates’ white polyester suit. It’s a flamboyant object covering up a quivering, self-loathing mass of flesh. And soon it gets covered in enough blood to match his insides. Director Sam Peckinpah dove right into production on Alfredo Garcia after the scorched earth war that was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid shoot, on which he battled MGM head James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey over final cut and lost. Thanks to producer Martin Baum, he had complete freedom on  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and what he produced is a bloody burlesque of his own delusions of masculine grandeur. Now out in a limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), which faithfully reproduces the rotting browns of Peckinpah’s Mexico City, the movie remains one of the grimmest self-portraits in movie history. Or, as Howard Hampton memorably put it, “the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.”

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Battle Lines: Zulu (1964)

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted – on 70mm VistaVision. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in somethings approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.

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Of Time and the Family: The Long Day Closes (1992)

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My memories are all knotted up with the movies. At times I fear I remember films more than reality. My first date with my future wife is nothing now but place names (Blue Ribbon Bakery, Film Forum) and an atmosphere of skittish anticipation. None of the words I spoke to her remain in my gray matter, though I recall the college fight song John Barrymore belted out in the B-Musical Hold That Co-Ed, the film which capped our evening. That tune imprinted itself, though not as much as that transformative parting kiss. No film captures the poetic arbitrariness of memory than Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, released last week in a sumptuous Blu-Ray transfer from Criterion. Davies weaves together impressions from his mid-1950s Liverpool childhood in suggestive flashes, from the play of light upon a carpet to the audio of some of his favorite moviehouse memories (The Magnificent Ambersons and Meet Me in St. Louis feature prominently).  Davies claimed it was the happiest period in his life, set in the years after his father’s death, and before the crippling doubts of adolescence. The Long Day Closes is a rapturous experience, capturing the ebb and flow of sense memory in rich, tactile images, all underscored with the knowledge of their passing. These moments are gone and they will last forever.

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Transparency of Style: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

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Martial Fine Artists: Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-Ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

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Favorite Home Video Releases of 2013

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Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

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Siege Mentality: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.

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