The Criterion Six

criterion6I don’t really write much about disc purchases too often of late. Its true that I’ve even tried to limit those purchases, mainly because I’ve so many discs now, too many double-dips across so many formats over the years (even for a film-lover that can be wearing) and too many on the shelf still unwatched. There’s only one thing worse than spending too much money on films I only watch once, and that’s films I still haven’t gotten around to watching at all.

In any case, sometimes sales get the better of me, and in the past week or so a sale on Criterion discs across most vendors here in the UK has just proved too much to resist, especially as I’ve recently been turning my attention to older films that I’ve missed. So here is the Criterion Six- six films that I have bought in the past two weeks while the sale was running. I’m intending to make a point of both watching and reviewing these films to justify, well, buying them.

I tried to be a bit canny choosing the films- indeed I actually struggled to pick six (the offer was two films for £25 so I had to pick films in pairs) as some films in the offer I already owned and I wanted the ones I chose to be films I was really curious to watch, rather than films that might just end up on that shelf. Naturally another thing was to choose films I hadn’t seen before (although one slipped through that net) so that nixed the temptations of the Criterion Solaris and Stalker. So anyway, a few notes about the films I chose:

c6cranesThe Cranes Are Flying: This is a film/release that exemplifies what is so great about boutique labels like Criterion, Arrow etc: up until about a week ago, I didn’t even know this film existed. The beautiful cover art on the Criterion caught my eye first (so yeah, good graphic design still matters!), and then investigating it, the film became irresistible to me. A Russian film from 1957, its described as being beautifully shot and powerfully affecting, and someone online reckoned it was similar in theme and mood to Legends of the Fall, only better. That’s a hell of a bait to someone like me, and got to be worth what amounts to a £12.50 punt: blind buys can be exciting and so rewarding. Besides which I really don’t see enough World Cinema, so should be a welcome change of pace.

c6kissKiss Me Deadly: The first thing I looked for when going through the Criterion’s in the offer was film noir, because that’s what I’ve been settling into the past few weeks (blame Covid 19 I suppose) and a genre I’ve always found enjoyable: pretty much a safe bet for a blind buy. As usual I’ve avoided any details and dodged the trailers, but it looks pretty wild from what I’ve seen of it.

Anatomy of a Murder: This is the film that got me onto this Criterion deal in the first place, so has a lot to answer for. Bunny Lake is Missing and Laura brought me to this one, as its directed by Otto Preminger, and I seem to be going through his filmography at the moment. The fact that it starred one of my favourite actors, the great James Stewart sealed the deal and had me looking for another Criterion to go with it. I actually watched this last night and really enjoyed it, so review coming soon: I will just say that this film is so morally obtuse it should have been re-titled Fifty Shades of Grey.

Detour: Another film noir and one with quite a reputation by all accounts, and another one of those films that I had no idea even existed a few weeks ago. Its cheaply made on half a shoestring and perhaps as a consequence of that is very short (69 mins, crikey) and used to be available only in horrible prints, apparently, but this release followed an extensive restoration. Really curious about this one, but I have the feeling I need to wait for the right night to watch it (suspect its absolutely a late-night experience like most, if not all, film noir but maybe in this case especially so).

c6kluteKlute: I’ve heard about this one but never seen it. I’m a big fan of 1970s American Cinema and love the frequent sense of paranoia that infects so many films of that era (The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor etc). I’ve never really had much time for Jane Fonda in films, no doubt one of the reasons I’ve never seen this before, so I’d be pleasantly surprised if her turn here impresses me, but I am a fan of Donald Sutherland so hopefully worth the punt at the price being asked. I’m reminded however that I never bought Three Days of the Condor on Blu-ray, so if this reignites my penchant for 1970s American Cinema it could turn out be more expensive a purchase than initially thought.

c6failFail Safe: The one film of the six that I have seen before- once, and many years ago: late at night on BBC2 when it blew my mind. It used to be so great, watching late-night films, its something nobody seems to do anymore on the network channels. Anyway, I’m looking forward to watching this again after so many years in a much better presentation than all those years ago.

Laura

laua1Moving backwards in time from 1965’s Bunny Lake is Missing, my delve into the directing work of Otto Preminger now turns to 1944’s film noir Laura, a tale of romantic obsession. In some ways it seems an unlikely film noir: its high society setting of affluent people seems a strange milieu for a film noir, however, and I must confess that I think its a curious entry in that genre. Sure, we have the hard-boiled, world-weary detective and visually many staples of the genre in its expressionistic cinematography, some of the iconography of the film, etc. In some ways, though, the film straddles two, if not more,  genres- a mid-film twist that pulls the rug from film noir tradition and settles into romantic melodrama, if anything. Its a little unsettling and not entirely successful; a romance between detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and Laura (Gene Tierney) feels too sudden, too melodramatic- not so much McPherson’s fascination with the enigmatic subject of his murder investigation, but rather how Laura suddenly seems to fall head over heels for this cold man she finds in her apartment. Its something that doesn’t really work that feels something more of an idealistic romance picture than a dark foreboding noir. Its the weak element in an otherwise strong picture, for me, and whenever the swooning Laura calls him “Mark” I always felt like it was coming out of nowhere, something that isn’t earned. something almost absurd.

Indeed, part of the fascination of this film is the positioning of Laura as a rather unlikely, and quite unwitting, femme fatale. Usually in these noir, the central femme fatale is a  beautiful and seductive woman using her charms to ensnare her lovers, often leading male characters into a deadly doom or trap. In many ways Laura fits the bill, but she doesn’t seem to knowingly do this: she is the almost helpless subject of male fascination: Waldo Lydecker (an outstanding Clifton Webb) who has moulded Laura into his object of female perfection,  Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) a caddish lothario who is using Laura to climb the social ladder, and Detective Mark McPherson, who becomes far too intrigued by Laura’s portrait and recollections he is told of her. Laura doesn’t really engineer any of this, not in the traditional noir sense, and this makes the film perhaps more interesting think it might be. It reminded me greatly of Hitchcock’s later Vertigo, and perhaps it was an inspiration for Hitchcock. Laura seems rather submissive at times, easily moulded by Waldo, easily seduced by Shelby and suddenly helplessly attracted to Mark: odd ways for a femme fatale to behave in a noir: indeed, she seems more trapped than anyone in some ways.

laura2I suspect that the strange incongruities of logic within the film, may actually make the film more rewarding on subsequent viewings: indeed, I gather the film has become only more successful and highly-regarded over the decades. We are told the story of Laura through a number of different viewpoints, and perhaps all of them prove to be unreliable narrators. Certainly there seems obvious parallels between Laura Hunt and Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks, a wholesome cheerleader to some but someone quite different and darker to others, facets revealed over time as that tv series ran its course. Is the ‘real’ story, or truth of the film, something we discover for ourselves, or is it just the viewer managing the films shortcomings? Maybe I’ll have an opinion on this in a few years time.

I watched Laura on a very fine Blu-ray from Eureka, that comes with two audio commentaries that I really should have on my immediate ‘to-do’ list. Its a very good package and is currently quite cheap on Amazon: alas, my efforts to curtail my spending on discs appears to have been temporarily undone by Laura’s charms- oddly fitting, though, that, considering the subject of the film itself.