Irma in March

irmaHere’s some good news to start the New Year- Billy Wilder’s romantic-comedy Irma La Douce is coming to Blu-ray here in the UK courtesy of Eureka, currently scheduled for a release on March 18th. I have a copy of the film on DVD but am really looking forward to getting the film in HD- a 4K restoration was released on Blu-ray over in the States last June but it was region-locked, which annoyed me no end, but hey-ho, all good things come to he who waits (although I’m still waiting for Days of Heaven on Blu-ray over here). While not widely regarded as one of Billy Wilder’s best films, nonetheless Irma La Douce is a really nice film with a lovely score (I have the expanded score on CD and its wonderful). Stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine return after their earlier Wilder classic, The Apartment- it’s hardly fair to compare the two films, as The Apartment is one of the very best films ever made, but a new disc featuring Jack Lemmon is always something for me to get excited about.

The DVD I have is bare-bones but this edition will feature two commentaries (ported from the US release), a new video interview and the usual booklet with essay. At this stage of how things regards physical and streaming is going, any HD physical release of a film I like is something to savour and this is certainly going to be part of the 2019 Selection- yes its pre-ordered!

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

witnessOh, this was a sheer joy; a ‘new’ Billy Wilder film (well, one I hadn’t seen before) is like an early Christmas present. What a genuine pleasure this film was- the sparkling dialogue, the great cast, the perfect character beats, the effortless, consummate direction. As entertainments go, while this could be argued to be a ‘lesser’ Billy Wilder film, if only because some of his best were genuine classics, this film is nonetheless an absolute riot and is a prime case for the argument that they simply don’t make ’em like they used to.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Eureka, this edition boasts a very strong HD image and a raft of very interesting extras, but I’m sure even on fuzzy VHS this film would be great.

Based on an Agatha Christie play, the film demonstrates the advantages of stagecraft; the tight plotting, clearly defined characters and the drama generated by those characters (although Wilder actually made a few changes, they improved the on the play and made the film superior, by all accounts). Its a tense thriller/courtroom about an innocent man being tried for murder in a case that seems hopeless for the defence, and yet its also very funny and it has twists you genuinely don’t see coming. I mean, really, how do they do that- tense drama and yet so very funny? Brilliant acting that feels natural and effortless?

Really, it’s the sophistication of it that took my breath away- it looks so simple but you know such a lot of work must have gone into it, starting with the script. You see this so often with Billy Wilder films, the precision of the screenplay and getting it absolutely right before going to the shoot. Like a Hitchcock film, I suppose, the secret seems to be the preparation, and of course the casting is no small part of that. Charles Laughton chews up the scenery and proves the heart and soul of the film, a thoroughly entertaining performance of considerable merit, but the magic of the film is the whole ensemble.

The mystery of it all, as usual, is how it took so long for me to finally see this film- indeed, until this Blu-ray was released I didn’t even know the film existed- I must have seen the title on Billy Wilder’s filmography but it couldn’t have really registered. Like The Lost Weekend, this was a discovery I only made thanks to its Blu-ray release and thinking it worth a punt on the strength of Wilder’s involvement. Well, another very welcome surprise, anyway. I’m certainly hoping there’s plenty left ahead of me.



Ridley’s Blade Runner Blues

Some interesting comments from Ridley Scott during recent interviews whilst doing the press for All the Money in the World (or ‘The One That Erased Spacey’).  Interviewed by New York magazine’s Vulture website the subject turned to the recent BR20149 and he seemed to blame the film’s box office failure on the film’s length:  [Whispers] “I have to be careful what I say. I have to be careful what I say. It was fucking way too long. Fuck me! And most of that script’s mine…  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.”

br2049It set me thinking. I mean, Ridley may have a point about the film’s length- its 163-minute running time clearly put off some viewers, but would it have made it a better film? To me, the pace of BR2049 is part of the film’s appeal- its leisurely pace is that of a tone poem, a sad study of what is human, what is real. And it must be remembered that a chief criticism of the original Blade Runner, even today, is its perceived slowness, something I consider one of its successes.

But Ridley’s words made me think just as much of his last few movies. I recall on one of the behind the scenes docs, he made a telling comment that one has to be careful in the editing room of rewatching a film too much, of losing objectivity. I can’t quote him exactly, but he said something along the lines of ‘even the best jokes wear thin once you’ve heard them too many times’, and that it is too easy to over-cut a film, and cut some good stuff out, not because it isn’t working but simply because of over-familiarity, of seeing it too much, and it can actually hurt a film, cutting too much.

I remember watching Ridley’s Kingdom of Heaven at the cinema and being thoroughly disappointed by it- it was empty-headed pretty nonsense, every bad habit of Ridley’s thrown into one vacuous historical epic. And yet his directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven, restoring really important footage, is simply brilliant, and is one of his best films (in fact, I’d rate it right up there behind Blade Runner and Alien, and like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment or Hitchcock’s Psycho,may be remembered as Ridleys last great movie).

The irony is, that theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven didn’t fare particularly well at the box office and got a general savaging from the critics, so what did that shorter cut achieve? There are numerous times when I have eulogised about how great the film is, to be scoffed at by others, and I have to ask them what version they saw. Its like there are two seperate movies with the same title and cast.

Thankfully, this is not true of BR2049; we got its directors cut and the critics loved it and I’m sure when people finally get around to seeing it on home video/streaming they will be pleasantly surprised by it or reconsider it on subsequent viewings. Sure, some will rally against it pace and length, as its more a ‘seventies movie than a present-day movie in some of its sensibilities.

God knows I’m a huge fan of Ridley’s work and have defended him so many times- I can always find something worthwhile in most of his movies, indeed even The Counsellor, which is widely pilloried, is a pretty good film to me, particularly in its extended cut.  I do find it annoying these days though, how how a film is perceived can often depend on which version one saw. In the old days, there was only one version of Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, West Side Story or Casablanca (barring regional censorship). We didn’t need two or three seperate versions to tell a story.

Moreover, I do wonder if some of Ridleys comments stem from his ire at BR2049 being perceived by some as being actually superior to his original. Maybe he has been stung by such views, or the lavish critical praise for it in the wake of less-favourable reviews of his last few movies. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Ridley’s book….  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.



Tell the truth: Ace In The Hole (1951)

aceWell, unlike The Lost Weekend, a blu-ray that languished on a shelf here for well over a year, this disc I watched pretty much as soon as it arrived. I’d been looking forward to it since it came up for pre-order months back. I recall first watching this film many years ago on a late-night showing on BBC2. Not knowing what I was in for, I remember it seemed quite shocking. Back then I think I believed all Billy Wilder films (thanks to having seen The Apartment, Some Like It Hot etc),  were comedies- the joke was on me in this case. The only humour in Ace In The Hole is in its very grim and dark ironies- it is a brutal, cynical film set in a broken America and as far removed from Wilder’s later comedies as one can imagine.

When does news become entertainment, when does it become its own mad circus? While it is true that the world of Ace In The Hole is history now, the importance and dominance of printed newspapers fading away,  its core message is as important as ever- indeed perhaps even more relevant now in this world of 24-hour news channels competing for exclusives and advertising revenue than it was back when it was made. Its hard to believe that Ace In The Hole was released in 1951- it seems quite prophetic and concerned with our own present-day.

ace2Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a world-weary big-city reporter  whose career is in tatters, finds himself stuck in lonely middle-of-nowhere Albuquerque, where he finds work for a local newspaper. Tatum scoff’s at the embroidered legend ‘Tell the truth‘ on the office wall. Tatum is convinced it is only a matter of time until he finds a big story that can resurrect his career and get him back into the big-leagues again.

A year passes, and the increasingly frustrated Tatum finally stumbles on his big story. A local man has been been trapped in a cave-in while scavenging Indian relics. Tatum works up a scheme to keep the man trapped  longer than truly needed in order heighten the drama and newsworthiness of the rescue attempt. The corrupt local sheriff  assists Tatum’s plot in return for Tatum writing him up as a selfless hero in order to help his winning an upcoming election. Even the man’s wife agrees to help Tatum, as she sees the resultant publicity and money as her way out of her marriage while she plays the dutiful tearful wife of the trapped man.

Ace4Soon the developing story engineered by Tatum becomes a huge National event, people from all over the country arrive to witness it first-hand, radio crews set-up to broadcast regular bulletins and the attention of the big national newspapers falls at last onto Tatum so he can strike his big deal. Unaware that its mostly all a lie, everyone wants the story and cynically there are plenty willing to somehow profit from it. The once remote, dead-end town transforms into a literal carnival. Special trains are put on to get the public there, a music band sells sheets of music describing the poor man’s plight, a circus arrives to entertain the tourists while they await the outcome of the rescue attempt. All the while Tatum is the centre of attention. But the happy ending Tatum is planning (a big job back in New York after the trapped man is rescued) starts to go awry as events start to spiral out of his control.

Douglas has never been better than he is here, possibly the performance of his career. His Chuck Tatum is horribly realistic and convincing whilst utterly repulsive and deplorable. He dominates the film and every scene he is in, his amoral character corrupting everyone around him in order to perpetuate the story he is selling. The film is clearly just as much a film-noir as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity. The script is as sharp as you would expect from a Wilder film, with some mouth-watering dialogue and the editing is superb, ratcheting up the tension admirably.  The conclusion is as inevitable as it is perfect, the final shot a classic moment.

Its likely one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, which is certainly saying something considering the company it keeps. But it was without doubt a film before its time. Too cynical? Too dark and negative about the broken American Dream? Whatever the reason,  it simply didn’t find its audience, proving something of a damaging flop for Paramount at the time (so much so that profits from Wilder’s subsequent film, Stalag 17, had to be used to balance the books for Ace In The Hole). But over the years its reputation has deservedly improved. Its a fascinating and endlessly rewarding film.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

lostweekendI feel I’m endlessly repeating myself here, I’ve surely stated it so many times on this blog, but I love Billy Wilder’s films. They have an art and craft that seems sadly lacking in modern Hollywood. Sure, they are often incredibly entertaining, dramatic and/or funny, but there is an artistry to them too, a depth of  honesty and craft, so even the most superficial of them (say, his late-in-career Jack Lemmon romantic comedy Avanti) has something special that rewards repeated viewings. Maybe its the casting, the performances, the music, the gags, the drama… maybe they just all contain a little bit of Billy Wilder’s soul. They don’t feel like ‘product’.

The scripts though; those are the real thing, so finely polished they put so many current films to shame; like so many of Hitchcock’s  films, Billy Wilder’s films had such magnificent scripts. So much care and attention evidently lavished on them, only when finally, absolutely ready were they taken into production. I wish all modern scripts were given such attention- so many films these days are being shot whilst screenplays are still being written. Look at what happened to Prometheus– all the work seemed to be on the design and the film’s mash-up of two authors work failed to gel into a cohesive whole; it is clearly two different films. And sure, James Cameron may have spent years writing his future  Avatar sequels but they undoubtedly will be clumsy behemoths with cringe-worthy dialogue and littered with plotholes. Its almost a given of any current blockbuster. Scripts don’t need to be so well thought-out as they used to be, there will be plenty of noise and CGI spectacle to distract audiences.

So its always a pleasure to watch a real piece of craft and art, and usually Billy Wilder’s films fit the bill nicely (well, I haven’t seen a bad one yet, anyway).

The Lost Weekend  has, incredibly, languished unwatched on the shelf here for nearly two years, a shocking and shameful statistic.  What have I been doing? In my only defence is the stark fact that, as Wilder’s films are a finite number, the joy of discovering one for the first time will regrettably always be a rarer and rarer pleasure. But anyway, I finally got around to it.

The film is a dramatic work concerning alcoholism and its effect on a life as it spirals out of control. There is an unflinching honesty to the proceedings that is both stark and surprising considering the film dates back to 1945.  Its dark, its depressing, but there is certainly a truth to it. I have seen what effect alcoholism can have on people and their lives and could recognise some of that in this film. Of course being set in 1945 much of what we see here is the stuff of history and rather dated- very often with films as old as this, one can feel its almost a science fiction film, as distant from the present as a film set in the far future, but this is certainly clearly as relevant today as it was back then. Its a great film.

On its original release The Lost Weekend  rightfully garnered rave reviews and success, finally wining four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Yes, this was clearly the age when Oscars went to deserving films. I must say Ray Milland here was a revelation to me, I had no idea, of all the films I have seen him in, that he had this in him- what an amazing performance. Sad to reflect he would later end up as a bad-guy in the Battlestar Galactica tv pilot in the late ‘seventies, but hey, that’s Hollywood careers for you, no respect for whatever awards are on the mantle case .