As independent movie theaters face an existential crisis brought on by streaming and the pandemic, it’s worth remembering that there still exists another avenue for adventurous film buffs. Yes, movies still get released on what we now call “physical media” (a retronym on the order of “snail mail”): DVDs and Blu-rays. (Sorry, laserdisc aficionados, those days are gone.)
Of course, any new movie getting released on disc will also be available online, either as part of a subscription-based service or for digital rental. But a few dogged companies continue to release a fascinating array of older titles, often with supplemental material like documentaries or audio commentary tracks. The Criterion Collection is by far the best-known of these, but outfits like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Arrow Video and others carry on the tradition of catering to those of us who see cinema as an art form with a rich and varied history that somehow never gets old.
The problem for the average viewer is getting hold of these products. Portlanders are lucky enough to have Movie Madness, one of the very last bastions of video store culture, but even their encyclopedic collection can’t carry everything. Public libraries are another source, but they can’t be comprehensive either. And some of these releases, especially those containing multiple films, can be prohibitively pricey for the casual fan. Nonetheless, I’m going to use this space for an occasional rundown of recent, noteworthy discs that are worth the effort to seek out:
Repeat Performance: This fascinating hybrid of film noir, backstage drama, and time-travel fantasy stars onetime Warner Brothers ingenue Joan Leslie as a Broadway actress who shoots her playwright husband on New Year’s Eve 1946, only to discover later that evening that she has been transported back in time one year. Will she be able to avoid her homicidal fate by making different decisions during her do-over year, or is destiny more powerful than that? Richard Basehart (He Walked by Night, TV’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) made his film debut as a queercoded poet who is our heroine’s friend and confidante. Among the many fascinating factoids in the disc’s commentary track by film historian Nora Fiore is that Basehart’s character was in fact explicitly genderfluid in the novel upon which the film was based. There’s also a ten-minute documentary on the career of Leslie, who, as a teenager, played the onscreen partners of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Fred Astaire, each of whom was at least twenty years older than her at the time. After suing Warner Brothers to get out of her contract, she was softly blacklisted until taking this role for the independent producers of Repeat Performance. The film was unavailable in any decent form prior to its restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation, and this combo DVD/Blu-ray edition is a sparkling presentation of a fascinating genre effort.
Privilege: British-born filmmaker Peter Watkins is the auteur behind decades of radical cinema that unapologetically incorporates utopian anarchist ideals and critiques of post-industrial mass media propaganda. This 1967 oddity was the only time he ever worked within the strictures of a studio system (and the commensurate budget), and it’s a movie that’s, 55 years later, more current than ever. Only a couple of years after John Lennon courted disaster by saying The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, Privilege follows rock star Steven Shorter (Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann), an iconic figure who’s drawn into a Christian Nationalist organization’s plot to bring fascism to Britain. His only hope may be the influence of the woman (ur-supermodel Jean Shrimpton) hired to paint his official portrait. Darkly funny and not at all subtle, it was of course a bomb upon its initial release, but in an age where celebrity politicians are suddenly commonplace, it still has the power to shock. An audio commentary track by filmmaker and historian Daniel Kremer explores the movie’s role in Watkins’ filmography as well as its status among other British pop-music films and other youth-rebellion films of the era.
Cinema of Discovery: Julien Duvivier in the 1920s: It would be an exaggeration to say that French director Duvivier was an iconic figure, but he was a prolific one, directing no fewer than 70 features between 1919 and 1967. He made Jean Gabin into a matinee idol with 1938’s Pepe le Moko before heading to Hollywood for the war, and his 1946 thriller Panique, a critical and commercial failure at the time, is now regarded as perhaps his finest work.
All of which is to say that this lovingly produced, five-disc, nine-film boxed set shines a well-deserved light on a lesser-known period in Duvivier’s career. It showcases him as both a skilled craftsman and a lyrical storyteller. Typical of the silent era, all nine films were made between 1926 and 1930, and each has been meticulously restored over the last fifteen years after having been, in some cases, considered lost for decades. They range in genre from romantic comedy (The Marriage of Mademoiselle Beulemans) to dark melodrama (Carrot Top) to espionage thriller (The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower). Duvivier made numerous religious-themed films, and two are included here. The most compellingly styled pictures are 1927’s Revelation, in which a blinded anarchist goes to live with his family in the Holy Land, and 1928’s The Maelstrom of Paris, about a hedonistic singer who abandons her family for the night life, only to regret her decision.
Each film is accompanied by an introduction from Lobster Films chairman Serge Bromberg, whose enthusiasm is infectious, and by brief comments from a pair of elderly critics and historians who exude Frenchness to an almost absurdly charming degree. Needless to say, none of these films are available through a streaming service.
The Great Moment: Writer-director Preston Sturges’ reputation as a cinematic genius rests on the seven consecutive classics he made in the first half of the 1940s, including Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve. Just after that run, he made perhaps the oddest title in his filmography. The Great Moment is a biography of William T.G. Morton (Joel McCrea), a 19th century Boston dentist who’s acknowledged as the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of ether as an anesthetic. While this was certainly a momentous occasion, its suitability for cinematic adaptation is questionable. Still, it’s a brisk, 80-minute tale that effectively uses flashbacks to tell its story. The film was taken from Sturges, re-edited by Paramount, and released two years after it was filmed. In addition to the curiosity value of the film itself, this disc includes a very entertaining 40-minute discussion between Sturges’ son and the late Peter Bogdanovich, who’s in fine, catty form discussing this minor effort from a major talent.