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Five Great Criterion Releases

Updated on March 10, 2017
Al Greenbaum profile image

Al loves films that a bit "edgy". He likes extras on Blu-rays that have been chosen carefully and are not just "stocking fillers".

More Films by Louis Malle

Film
Rating
Lacombe Lucien (1974)
****
Atlantic City (1980)
*****
My Dinner With Andre (1981)
*****
Damage (1992)
***
Vanya On 42nd Street (1994)
***

How do you tell your story if you are a film director? If you are Alfred Hitchcock, you want your film to be heavily stylised, with the accent on the visual rather than the spoken. If you are Ken Loach you would want your movie to be “real” with a naturalistic approach. Famous actors would not have the main parts if at all. It is the latter approach that Louis Malle opted for when he made “Au Revoir Les Enfants”, (1987).

The main parts are taken by newcomers, Gaspard Manesse and Raphael Fetjo. There are no sequences heightened by dramatic music or fast cutting. The film takes us into the daily life of a boarding school with boys eating the dreadful school meals and trying to keep warm in the freezing classrooms. Into this Spartan lifestyle comes, Jean Bonnet (Fetjo), joining the school late and copping quite a bit of abuse from the other boys as he tries to settle in.

It is during a treasure hunt that Quentin, (Manesse) and Bonnet join forces and form a strong bond. From being enemies, they become good friends. But there is something about Bonnet that his friend cannot fathom. One day, chancing upon his friend’s things, he finds out the truth. But that doesn’t change anything. They remain pals.

But a kitchen worker, Joseph, who has a lucrative black market system with a group of boys at the school has his exploits ended and is fired, unfairly – according to him. He exacts terrible revenge and Bonnet’s real identity is revealed to the Nazis.

The film’s muted colours and sparse soundtrack make this delicate tale of revenge and accidental betrayal affecting. Free of sentimentality, it still packs an emotional punch, especially when those denounced by Joseph are led away by the Gestapo.

The final shot of Quentin looking on as his friend is taken away stays in the memory for a long time.

Au Revoir Les Enfants: Final Scene

Films Starring Charles Laughton

("Night of The Hunter" was Laughton's only film as director)
Year of Release
Rating
Spartacus
1960
***
Witness For The Prosecution
1957
****
Hobson's Choice
1954
****
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
1939
****
Ruggles Of Red Gap
1935
***

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton

Who would you get to play a crooked preacher who preys on vulnerable women to make a living? At first, it was going to be the film’s director, Charles Laughton, then, of all people, Laurence Olivier, finally it went to Robert Mitchum and what a good job he does as the menacing psycho-minister.

The film is a hybrid of genres; part fairy story, part chase-thriller and part morality tale. Held together with a strong plot and brilliant cinematography from Stanley Cortez, the film has that unusual quality of being, to some extent, mainstream but equally admired for its creativity and stylish production.

Harry Powell, (Mitchum), locked up with the bank robber, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) tries to get him to say where he hid the proceeds from his last crime. Harper gives information only bout his town and family but it is enough for Powell to go about his business of exploiting defenceless women.

Charming the local townsfolk and Harper’s wife, Willa, (Shelley Winters), Powell is soon at the centre of town life. He marries Willa and soon begins trying to find the location of the stolen loot. But not everybody in the town is taken in by Powell. Harper’s son, John, is suspicious of Mitchum and is careful not to say anything to help the preacher.

Willa is murdered by the dastardly reverend – putting her body at the bottom of the nearby river. Powell explains his wife’s disappearance by saying she has left him for a life of sin. His lies are accepted by the locals but there is no time to rest. The money needs to be found. Sensing danger, John Harper runs away with his little sister, Pearl, only to be pursued to the home of a kindly old lady, Rachel, (Lillian Gish). The scene between Gish, sitting in the half-light, shotgun in hand, with Mitchum, menacing, predatory outside, singing “Leaning on The Everlasting Arm”, is a classical portrayal of the battle between good and evil.

There is a wealth of supplementary material spread over two discs. The best is “Charles Laughton Directs” a two and a- half-hour documentary with outtakes and archival footage from the film. The making of documentary is much better than many of the “fillers” we see on some discs.

More Films By Gillo Pontecorvo

Film
Year
Rating
Kapo
1960
****
Return To Algier (TV)
1992
***
Another World Is Possible
2001
***

The Battle of Algiers (1966) Gillo Pontecorvo

Gillo Pontecorvo’s Marxist masterpiece is revered as a ground-breaking work of its type. Shot in documentary style, the film tells the story of the Algerian fight for independence. In tune with the director’s principal of searching for the truth in film-making, the cast contains only one professional actor.

At times, the use of handheld camera, particularly in the crowd scenes is breath-taking. Expert editing in non-Hollywood style means the action unfolds at a cracking pace.

The music, by Ennio Morricone and Pontecorvo, is totally aligned with the events on screen – not least when the effects of the French sabotage and Algerian bombings are shown.

The film has been criticised as a training film for would-be terrorists but I think it is a film with much nobler intentions. It is anti-colonial, without doubt, but both sides in the armed struggle have their point of view expressed.

There are many heart-stopping moments in the film but the most memorable is when the Arab women cut their hair and dress like western women so they may evade detection at the checkpoints. They continue to a rendezvous with the explosives expert who wires up their handbags with bombs. The simultaneous explosions that follow are incredibly real. No green or blue screen in evidence here. I doubt that you could film explosions with such realism now.



Supplements

The supplementary features that accompany the film are enlightening and comprehensive.

“Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth”, a documentary narrated by literary critic Edward Said.

A fascinating insight into the life and work of Pontecorvo. One time playboy, one time WW2 resistance leader, one time photographer, his evolution into one of the most influential directors of all time is well-told with lots of anecdotes about the film-making process concentrating on “The Battle of Algiers” and “Burn” (1969).

Marxist Poetry: The Making of “The Battle of Algiers,”.

With some “Making of “documentaries, it doesn’t take long to realise that the participants are there for some contractual reason and they don’t really care what they say or how they say it. This film is not like that at all. Pontecorvo, (DP) Marcello Gatti, composer Morricone and others provide essential background to the production of this acclaimed movie.

Five Directors.

Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone, comment on the effect the film had on them and the way it influenced their own films.

Also, included

Remembering History and “États d’armes,”. Historical Background to the Algerian war.

The Battle of Algiers”: A Case Study. An examination of the political effects of the film by counterterrorism experts.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers. The director returns to Algiers thirty years after independence.

One of the best Criterion discs. Put together the outstanding film and the comprehensive, relevant supplementary material and you have a package that few other Criterion releases could better.

More Films By Vittorio De Sicca

Film
Year
Rating
The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis
1970
****
Umberto D
1952
****
Shoeshine
1946
***

Bicycle Thieves (1948) Vittorio De Sicca

A poor man finds a job putting up cinema ads. But he needs a bicycle. Ok, no problem, he sells some things and gets his own out of pawn. The next day he is distracted and somebody steals his bike. No bike, no job, no food, no life. So, what can he do? He looks all over for the bike and the thief. Even when he finds the guy who stole the bicycle, what can he do if he has no proof?.

Could you make a great film out of a simple story like that? Well, yes, you can. By paying great attention to the human element in the story we live the agony of being able only to survive in a cruel world in which the poor live at the edge of the city in dank, dark tenements with no running water.

Director, Vittorio di Sicca, of the Italian neo-realist school, uses locations extensively to add realism to this tale of hope and hardship. Set just after the second world war, we see Rome as a city barely able to come to terms with its past and unable to provide for its future.

Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio, the anguished father with no future, is a haunting figure, trying his best to provide for his family in the bleak outskirts of Rome where so many people must get by but never flourish. His son, Bruno, (Enzo Staiola), adores his father and tries to support his every move but luck is in short supply and the movie ends with the hunter becoming the hunted and the humiliation being complete.

Shot in high contrast black and white the city and the harsh landscape of the poor at the edge of the city contrasting the relative wealth of those in the wealthier districts, the tone of the film is both downbeat and inspiring.

Supplements

“Working with De Sica”, “Life As It Is” and documentary on De Sica collaborator, Cesare Zavattini

All three programmes are informative and well-presented. The best is academic, Mark Shiel’s presentation on the history and development of the neo-realism movement in Italy. Tracing it back to the fascist history of the country, if it hadn’t been for the Cinecitta studios being bombed during the second world war, we may not have had neo-realism – it was much cheaper to film on location than in the studio.

More Films By Henri-Georges Clouzot

Film
Year
Rating
The Murderer Lives At Number 21
1942
***
The Wages Of Fear
1953
****
 
 
 

Diabolique (1955 ) Henri-Georges Clouzot

Did you ever wonder where Hitchcock got some of his ideas for films from? The mysterious figure at a window? The climactic final scene where you think you know the ending but you have been lead up the wrong road? A detective who takes all the huff and puff out of the main characters? I can tell you, he might have got some inspiration from this film by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

The wife and ex-lover of the owner of a down at heel private French school, Monsieur Delassalle, (Paul Meurisse) commiserate with each other about the dreadful treatment they have received from him. They vow to murder him and end their woes. But can all be trusted? Will all go to plan? Of course, not.

Simone Signoret as the ex-mistress and Vera Clouzot as Delassalle’s wife make an interesting duo as the double-crossing teacher and the bitter spouse. Signoret is the worldy-wise one who keeps up the momentum of the murder plot while Clouzot is the sick, weak, one who cannot adapt to the ramifications of her actions.

Just like Hitchcock, the dramatic tension is measured carefully to ensure maximum effect. There are even humorous sequences but these are all distractions to deliver us to the final, chilling, scene with the double bluff of what really happened.

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