- WOMEN IN LOVE, Ken Russell, director /BFI Blu-ray It’s hard to remember in the 21st-century just what a seismic impact Ken Russell’s film of DH Lawrence’s scandalous classic had in 1969. Apart from its quartet of then-hot young players bringing Lawrence’s characters to life (Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden), Russell’s frank treatment of sex was groundbreaking. Until recently, the film has only been available in a substandard MGM release which – being non-anamorphic – did no justice whatever to the exquisite cinematography. But the BFI are to be applauded for this beautiful restoration of what is probably Ken Russell’s best film for the cinema, looking more eye-popping than it has ever done before. Lawrence’s theme, of course, was always the clash of the intellect and the erotic impulse, and the iconoclastic Russell was just the director to tackle that. But interpretations of the erotic can easily slip into being prosaic descriptions of the mechanics of the act — or move into more rarefied poetic realms which transcend the merely physical. The most conspicuous exemplar of the latter approach was (it goes without saying) DH Lawrence, and the accounts of sexual activity in such novels as The Rainbow and Women in Love (both filmed by Russell at various intervals) so melded and intermingled the physical with the poetic that it was difficult for the reader to figure out precisely what was happening between the lovers. Was that an orgasm we’d just encountered? Or a metaphysical merging of psyches? But Lawrence was at least trying to articulate what was previously terra incognita, and more complex and subtle attitudes to the erotic were a concern for various writers and filmmakers.
- WH Auden was obliged to pseudonymously publish his one-poem pamphlet ‘The Platonic Blow’ in 1965 with its description of a sexual encounter between two men — two years before such sexual activity was legal. Women in Love also dealt with the taboo. With Alan Bates and Oliver Reed sporting facial hair (and nothing else) in their celebrated nude wrestling scene, cinema was subtly changed in a sequence shot with chiaroscuro candle-lit effects (and to the sensuous sound of Georges Delerue’s sweeping orchestral score). It was this scene, more than those involving the actresses in the film, which was much discussed; Jennie Linden’s dress being pulled up by Bates, and Glenda Jackson’s naked breasts kissed by Oliver Reed had the requisite effect on audiences, but they had seen similar things before — the homoerotic wrestling was something new. Russell had made his name with TV biographies of such classical composers as Delius, Elgar and Debussy, and was well aware that yoking in the other arts would enhance the effect of his feature films; a most serviceable element in this strategy, he knew, was music, although the swelling strings traditionally used in Hollywood love-making scenes had become the hoariest of clichés. Accordingly, Russell encouraged a more unusual score from Georges Delerue. Ken Russell’s Women in Love has been newly restored in 2K by the BFI National Archive and is released with a host of special features.
THE BORDER, Various Directors/Arrow Blu-ray If you are feeling the slightest surfeit of Scandinavian crime dramas (after all, let’s face it not every one of them is of the order of The Bridge or The Killing), you might find it worthwhile investigating the gritty Polish crime drama The Border which is a very different kettle of fish from most of the product issued by Nordic Noir & Beyond (although the company has always been happy to issue the best crime dramas from other European countries). This is tough, uncompromising fare which addresses the currently topical issue of people trafficking by focusing on an uncompromising, no-nonsense border patrol, whose members we see being put together during the first episode. Performances and direction are pared down to solid effect (though the washed-up hero struggling back from alcoholism is a cliché), and this is very much a series worth investigating. The first episode of the series premiered on Channel 4. At the extreme Polish-Ukrainian border. Captain Rebrow’s unit, which specialises in human-trafficking, becomes the target of a disastrous bomb attack leaving only Rebrow as the sole survivor. When Rebrow becomes the main suspect in the bombing, he is determined to prove his innocence and embarks on a dangerous investigation uncovering a dark political conspiracy.
CRY OF THE CITY, Robert Siodmak, director/BFI Blu-ray The series of films which come under the ‘film noir’ heading includes some truly memorable piece of cinema, often directed by European émigrés such as Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak. The latter director, one of the most talented filmmakers to travel to Hollywood from Germany, is responsible for Cry of the City, one of the most celebrated films of the genre here receiving a striking wash and rinse courtesy of the BFI. Every element here — writing, direction and cinematography — is perfectly tuned to deliver a diamond-hard product with the inventiveness and inspiration which is the hallmark of the director. The film, made in 1948, features bad guy Martin Rome (Richard Conte) escaping Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature), a tenacious cop and onetime friend. The two men clash in a tense game of cat and mouse, leading to a dramatic showdown on the streets of New York. As gripping as it is influential; Scorsese is a fan.
CONVERSATION PIECE (GRUPPO DI FAMIGLIA IN UN INTERNO, 1974), directed by Luchino Visconti/Eureka Entertainment Blu-Ray While the collaboration of director (Visconti) and star (Burt Lancaster) is successful in Conversation Piece, this is a much more restrained and less operatic work than The Leopard. A professor enjoys a quiet life surrounded by his collection of objets d’art in his Roman apartment. He is persuaded to rent a room to a countess (played by Silvana Mangano, so magnetic in earlier films for the director) and her Innamorato, Helmut Berger. The effect of all this on the professor, who is fighting his own homosexual impulses, is significant. Visconti had not been in the best of health when he made this film, and this may account for why the drama is to some extent undernourished. But the expressive performances pay off, although the ill-judged comedy (in which bourgeois sensibilities are lampooned) seems miscalculated. Visconti regulars on board include director of photography Pasqualino De Santis, editor Ruggero Mastroianni, costume designer Piero Tosi and production designer Mario Garbuglia, all as reliable as ever..
- HANGMEN ALSO DIE! Fritz Lang, director/Arrow Blu-ray The enforced move to Hollywood (away from Goebbels & Co.) by the great German director Fritz Lang produced some remarkable films (not least his US masterpiece The Big Heat), but the American sojourn of the playwright Berthold Brecht was a less happy experience — even working with his talented countryman Lang on this powerful piece about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the two men fell out – but then both were extremely prickly personalities, given to clashes with their colleagues. Brecht was right in complaining that the mostly very American casting of the film compromises it, but Hangmen Also Die! still remains a remarkable and bitter piece of work, particularly as seen in this restored full-length version. As versions of quasi-fascism resurface (not least in some theocratic societies), Lang & Brecht’s film is perhaps as timely as ever.
- INVASION: UFO, Various directors/Network Blu-ray All right, let’s face it, nobody took the TV series UFO seriously when it first appeared, did they? The general feeling was that Gerry Anderson’s live-action show was very much like his puppet shows such as Thunderbirds with the actors as stiff and one-dimensional as their wooden (or plastic) predecessors. Apart from that, it was deliberately (?), ludicrously kitsch — the skin-tight outfits alone worm by the team investigating a covert invasion from space are pretty hilarious, notably the women’s identical purple wigs and inch-long eyelashes. But the very things that rankled in the show’s heyday now supply quaint and enjoyable entertainment – particularly when viewed in the crisp widescreen Blu-ray re-do it receives here. If you’re in an indulgent frame of mind, this feature-length version could function both as nostalgia and camp entertainment. This disc precedes the release of UFO – The Complete Series later this year.
THE SHOP ON THE HIGH STREET, Jan Kadar & Elmar Klos, directors/Second Run Kenneth Tynan described this Czech classic as the most moving film about anti-Semitism ever made, and that judgement need no alteration with the passage of the years; a showing at the next Labour Party conference might be à propos. Winner of a variety of awards, this is a deeply affecting tale of loyalty, betrayal and heroism. In a world in which totalitarian regimes are still ten a penny, it remains as astringently persuasive as ever, though the print here is a little ill-defined.
- THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, Robert Aldrich, director/ Eureka Entertainment Blu-Ray When Vertigo was initially not as successful as Alfred Hitchcock expected it to be (even though Sight and Sound magazine recently described it as the best film of all time!), the director criticised his leading man, James Stewart , who he felt was too old for the part. Hitchcock was wrong – and we can particularly see that now, in an era when grey-haired leading man such as George Clooney and Richard Gere are familiar. In fact, Stewart’s age (and diminished box-office clout) may be one of the reasons Robert Aldrich’s now highly-thought-of drama about a desert plane crash was similarly under-regarded in its day – but in this case he was playing a veteran pilot. The casting is perfect (at least in dramatic terms). Aldrich, one of the most reliable and interesting directors in the history of American cinema, produced one of his most perfectly tuned vehicles here. The film was subsequently remade (indifferently), but this is the version to go for, particularly looking as good as it does in the Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray incarnation. The starry cast includes Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine and Hardy Krüger. A cargo plane carrying an assortment of oilmen and military personnel crashes in the Sahara Desert during a sandstorm. Realising they’re too far off course to be found and rescued before food and water runs out, their only hope is to attempt to rebuild the aircraft amidst the unforgiving environment.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT & VAULT OF HORROR Freddie Francis, director/Final Cut Blu-ray These two famous adaptations of the great EC horror comics of the 1950s have enjoyed a variety of outings on DVD; the second (and less accomplished) film, Vault of Horror. has been issued in a ludicrously cut version – particularly ridiculous given that, by today’s standards, the horror on offer here is relatively discreet. None of that nonsense in Final Cut’s splendid restored editions of the two films, and a particular pleasure is supplied with the extras, notably Jonathan Rigby’s informed and urbane commentary in the documentary. One just wishes there were more of it.
MICROWAVE MASSACRE, Wayne Berwick, director Arrow Blu-ray Still with horror, films which set out to be deliberately maladroit often trip over their own self-consciousness, and that’s fitfully the case with this mildly diverting piece of parodic horror cinema, whose excesses are designed to make us chuckle. It’s possibly a little odd that a film designed to look low rent looks as pristine as it does in this transfer, but let’s not complain about that.