Category Archives: Blu-ray

The Fisher King

The Fisher King was a huge departure for director Terry Gilliam, whose career had been generous with its whimsy, wild in its imagination, and resolute in its pessimism. This was his first Hollywood film, made after the widely-publicized debacle of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen pushed him into the arms of high-powered talent agency CAA. Gilliam has always maintained that the bad press created by all manner of fiscal shenanigans on Munchausen unfairly trashed his reputation, and he was determined to take his destiny into his own hands—even if it meant working for the first time as a director for hire, taking on another writer’s screenplay and ceding final cut to his bosses at the studio. It’s easy to see what drew Gilliam to the material. Richard LaGravenese had written a screenplay that presented as a buddy comedy with plenty of one-liners, but drew on Arthurian legend for its mythic underpinnings. It had been in development at Disney, which had sanded down the script’s rough edges. Gilliam veered in the opposite direction, instructing the screenwriter to restore material from earlier drafts and working on his own to deepen the fairytale qualities.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a radio shock jock who comes off as Howard Stern with a deeper existential crisis. He’s the subject of the film’s opening-credits sequence, consisting of a series of mechanical tracking shots from a camera prowling around high above a tiny, claustrophobia-inducing broadcast studio, the Caligari shadows on its walls suggesting the bars of a prison cell. Jack lives in one of those prestigious but airless New York apartments with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, pointy leather furniture, and a bland, bored-looking woman with a Jean Seberg haircut pouting her way around the place like an Ex Machina fembot. The scenes introducing him are among the least Gilliam-esque that Gilliam has ever directed, and Bridges acts the hell out of them, mugging for the camera with a charismatic smugness that makes his comparatively subdued comic performance later on seem all the more soulful.

Jack suffers a professional crisis of conscience when one of his listeners takes his lazy anti-yuppie screeds at face value and visits a trendy, neon-bedecked restaurant with shotgun in tow, killing seven people. We catch up with him three years later, the king having rejected his bleak tower and now living at ground level. Feelings of guilt and self-pity send him on an all-night bender; he ends up standing under a bridge and considering taking a long nap in the East River. Rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a traumatized college professor now dwelling among New York’s destitute (whom he organizes into rough gangs of peacekeepers and leads in rowdy choruses of “How About You?”), Jack soon learns that the jolly-vagrant shtick is Parry’s unconscious way of denying his former life and keeping memories of a violent event at bay. Parry believes that the Holy Grail is hidden, unnoticed, on a bookshelf uptown, and that he cannot recover it on his own because of the fierce, frightening red knight who blocks his path to treasure. Jack thinks Parry is crazy, but the two become friends, and Williams sends the picture into orbit with a guileless, spring-loaded performance full of physical energy and wide-eyed romanticism.

Yes, this sounds like it could be awful schlock, with its twin male-redemption arcs and magical-realist take on mental illness, but it works beautifully, thanks in large part to the casting. Williams has a cherubic face, the lines of which deepen for the camera when he smiles, and his trademark spontaneity—he has a knack for landing carefully-scripted lines like they’re another part of his manic, just-making-this-up-as-I-go-along routine—adds a tremendous warmth and humanity to the film. And yet there’s obviously darkness inside him; part of his breathtaking presence on screen is the sense he gives that he moves so quickly up there because the demons are chasing him down. Grounding both his co-star and his director somewhat is Bridges, who’s required to nail a more conventional leading-man role with atomic precision. He effectively modulates the comedy to a lower pitch. But while he can deliver the funny face like a pro, he doggedly and effectively registers Jack’s smugness, misanthropy, exasperation, embarrassment, and finally sheepishness, all in their turn and each in its proper place.

The Fisher King has splendid roles for women, too, even if it falls into the usual Hollywood trap of crafting female characters validated solely by the love of the men in their lives. Mercedes Ruehl is Anne, a tough gal who cares for Jack like a stray puppy dog (they run a video store together) but takes a back seat once he gets involved in Parry’s quest. Ruehl won an Oscar for her work here, thanks mainly to a performance that’s as emotionally naked, in its way, as the one Williams gives. She simultaneously expresses desperation, disbelief, and disgust as she feels Jack slipping away. Ruehl’s female counterpart is Amanda Plummer, who has always struck me as a big talent who never quite got the roles she deserved, despite showcases for her in this film and in Pulp Fiction. Though Plummer’s Lydia is a midtown cubicle-dweller who lives up to traditionally gender-coded descriptors thrown her way like mousy and plain (the screenplay doubles down with dowdy and waif-like), Plummer has an electric weirdness around her with unmistakable sex appeal, and she delivers the character from what could have been an easy caricature.

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Plummer has an especially tricky role, because it’s on her to deflect that Lydia is flat-out stalked by Parry, who knows where she works, what she eats for lunch, and what brand of trashy fiction she favours. He gets a pass for creepy behaviour, I suppose, since he’s a scruffy dude dressed in pyjamas and rags and doesn’t really have the option of saying hello. Gilliam dreams even bigger, though, pausing the narrative to turn Grand Central Terminal into a cavernous ballroom at rush hour as Lydia makes her way through the throngs with Parry following behind. One moment, commuters are hurrying towards destinations in the northern suburbs and the next they are pairing off and literally waltzing through the main concourse. It’s one of those breathtaking (and unscripted) flights of fancy that makes for a signature moment in Gilliam’s career; in context, it testifies in high style to Parry’s good intentions and enormous heart.

You might also reasonably complain that it goes a long way towards painting mental illness as cuddly, yet what makes The Fisher King palatable despite its occasional sugary-sweetness is Gilliam’s matter-of-fact embrace of the terrifying darkness at its heart. Parry has visions. Something unhappy and unquiet lives inside him. It takes the form of a shadowy horseman stalking the streets of New York in strange red regalia suggestive of blood spatter. It presents like a psychosis, but it turns out that Jack knows something about this delusion: Parry lost his wife in the same mass murder that cost Jack his career, an event that haunts his days and nights. And that’s why Jack eventually engineers a romantic double date with Anne, Parry, and Lydia–an improvised tour de force by all four actors set in a Chinese restaurant. Jack feels a responsibility to do what he can to restore something like happiness to Parry’s life.

Gilliam and LaGravenese confront the duo’s emerging bromance head-on with a scene near the picture’s midpoint where Parry drags Jack out into Central Park’s Sheep Meadow in the middle of the night. (In the aftermath of the Central Park Jogger sexual-assault case, it was widely considered foolhardy to visit the park after dark.) With amusing brashness, Parry quickly removes his clothes over Jack’s objections. Williams does appear on screen in all his hairy, bouncy, full-frontal glory—the sight of male genitalia still so uncommon on screen 25 years later that the scene has lost none of its original knockabout comic charge. There’s no homoerotic undercurrent, just the tension between Parry’s complete innocence and lack of self-consciousness and Jack’s paranoid mumblings–not only about the possibility of being murdered in the park, but also about the potential for hard-working tabloid headline writers to make hay out of his nude male body being found next to another nude male body. (Psychosis or no, the film’s working theory is that Jack’s disorders are as debilitating, in their way, as Parry’s.) It’s in this scene that Parry gets to the point, relating to Jack a variant on the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King. Long story short, this version features a wounded and ever-weakening king whose health is restored when a fool offers him water from a cup that, to each man’s surprise, turns out to be the Holy Grail. Spoiler: in this formulation Parry and Jack are both kings and they are both fools.

Gilliam’s typical low-angle photography plays up the mythic qualities of his stars throughout, except in those cases where high-angle shots emphasize their isolation. And Gilliam always knows where to place the camera. One of the finest scenes in the film is a musical number that sees a homeless man (the late, great Michael Jeter in drag) visit Lydia at work to deliver a singing telegram in the form of a bastardized version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Jeter has perfect pitch at high volume, and everything else is perfection, too—the shot of Jeter, stuffed into a tight dress, running through the office towards the backwards-tracking Steadicam to find Lydia’s cubicle; the edit between a pair of matching POV shots that eases the scene from his point of view to hers; the series of medium shots that moves the camera higher and higher into the air as his performance progresses, Lydia watching intently while shifting uneasily in her chair. The song reaches a climax that goes on for only a couple of bars before the camera switches abruptly from a close-up of Jeter singing to an overhead view of the scene that is extraordinary in how it celebrates the incongruity of the whole spectacle. It’s exquisitely timed. Of course, when you talk about Terry Gilliam, you have to mention his penchant for extreme wide-angle photography, derided in some corners as “nostrilcam” for its distorting effect on the human visage—but this was conceived as his un-Gilliam film, and his lens selections are relatively restrained. He does continue to favour short lenses that offer as wide a view of the carefully-built and elaborately-decorated sets as possible. (And, yes, they do introduce some interesting distortions, especially when Gilliam shoots from canted angles.) Jack, however, is introduced in part through extreme close-ups shot with a fairly long lens, and DP Roger Pratt breaks out telephoto glass for select exteriors, including shots of Williams racing down New York sidewalks, the Red Knight in pursuit.

The Red Knight is responsible for some of the most arresting images in the film. Astride an enormous horse galloping down Manhattan avenues, fire belching from his face, his appearance doesn’t make physical sense. He’s a ramshackle Gilliam creation—not just a living stop-motion animation but a genuinely otherworldly apparition. The Red Knight shows up whenever Parry rises up from his misery and makes too close an approach to happiness; the poor man tumbles screaming back to earth, like Icarus with his wings aflame. The knight’s appearances are terrifying. Gilliam pulled out all the stops in realizing the figure on screen, but it’s Williams’s reaction to his presence that makes the real impression. To an extent, Williams’s happy-go-lucky performance is too showy; he seems awfully comfortable in his own skin for a character who’s meant to be so troubled. But in the scenes he shares with his demonic nemesis, his pain is 100 percent convincing.

Gilliam, meanwhile, wasn’t satisfied to simply have Williams convey the intensity of his torment through performance. He journeys boldly into the underworld, dramatizing Parry’s trauma with an eyes-wide-open vigour that borders on poor taste. The flashback to Parry’s wife’s death comes precisely at the end of his wildly successful first date with Lydia. It begins with a long shot of Parry as seen through one of the windows in her front door, the bevel in its glass splitting his image in two. The ensuing sequence is vividly imagined and thoroughly brutalizing, both poetic and unsparing. It’s gory. Coming as a chaser to the single most humane passage in the entire film, it’s a spirit-busting comedown. It’s also heartening somehow. Gilliam shows that the world makes possible the joy of human kindness and romance, even though it is at once a delivery mechanism for abject, spirit-crushing tragedy. That’s the very subject of The Fisher King: the idea that the existence of love doesn’t cancel out the possibility of cruelty. Gilliam’s journey into the realm of madness is courageous, not nihilistic, because it proves that it’s possible to come out the other side.

Normally I would have problems with the movie’s unambiguously upbeat denouement. Specifically, I think the dignity of Mercedes Ruehl’s character is surrendered in order to get there. In The Fisher King’s third act, as Jack’s career turns hot again, he dumps Anne rather coldly. This puts her through an enormous amount of pain as she all but pleads for Jack to love her, and he makes a very conscious decision to reject her. In the penultimate scene, after his redemption arc has finished, he shows up at her door with a mere handful of flowers and a sheepish look and is taken back enthusiastically. It feels like an awfully easy comeback from what amounted to a terrible betrayal, and the message is a bit chauvinistic: Why wouldn’t you dump your girlfriend on a whim if you were sure she’d still be sitting there, days or weeks later, as Anne is, yearning patiently for your return? I’d like to believe that Anne would at least be tough enough to tell him to cool his jets for a while as she figures out how she feels about his alleged emotional comeback. That may be unrealistic of me, though. The Fisher King has been a tough movie in some important ways, and Gilliam has earned his happy ending.

Indeed, somewhere in an alternate cinematic universe, there surely exists a version of The Fisher King with a PG-13 rating. It is less urban fantasy and more romcom. Perhaps Rob Reiner directed it. It has little swearing and features entirely sensible lens choices. Robin Williams’s penis does not appear. It definitely has a happy ending. And for sure there is no dream sequence where a woman, shot from behind during a dinner date, has her brains splattered across her husband’s face. The Fisher King is a horror movie disguised as a fairytale–it seeks catharsis in despair and finds solace in a happy ending. It snuggles up to you, clobbers you over the head, and then does its level best to reassure you that the world itself can be more than a shit show.

The Fisher King is basically a redemption story for Jack Lucas, but Gilliam knew there had to be more than that. Script gurus and studio execs who’ve read just enough Syd Field to be dangerous like to complain of flaccid scripts that the “stakes” aren’t high enough. Well, in another, more studio-friendly director’s hands, the stakes in The Fisher King would be nothing more than the sleepless nights suffered by a rotten asshole in Manhattan, as this refugee from the media elite figures out how to get with the common people. Gilliam and Williams, working together, understood something about the threat of madness and figured out how to dramatize that walk along the knife’s edge. There’s a lot to be said for the Hollywood budget: never before had Gilliam’s vision reached these phantasmal dimensions, and never again would it regain this intensity. Terry Gilliam is not a religious man, but The Fisher King is haunted by God and the Devil, entertaining visions of both Hell and Heaven. That’s because Gilliam moves as completely and effortlessly as any director ever has from the waking world into the architecture of a nightmare. The horseman’s hot breath roars like thunder. The woman’s warm blood is on your face. What’s at stake is the loss of the light. And the darkness is intolerable.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Fisher King joins the Criterion Collection in a solid but not exceptional transfer sourced from a 2K scan of a 35mm interpositive made by Sony Pictures Entertainment for a 2011 Blu-ray release. I have no idea what shape the camera negative of this film is in, so maybe that was a non-starter—but you’d hope that Sony, probably the biggest overall cheerleader for 4K technology, would have a 4K digital master of this movie in its library. The bottom line is the transfer looks very good, and entirely in keeping with a title of this vintage. Notably, Criterion has opened the picture up, with Gilliam’s blessing, to an HD-native 16×9 aspect ratio, which works well compositionally. I saw The Fisher King twice theatrically, and I remember the picture looking substantially darker than what’s presented here, but I’ll interpret that as an improvement–projection was notoriously dim in flyover country back then, and it’s nice to see more detail. Cinematographer Roger Pratt shot the early scenes featuring Jack Lucas in his element in cool, near-monochrome tones, then switched to a much warmer feel for scenes set in the video store and especially Anne’s apartment, and those colour decisions are well-represented in this transfer. The film element is pretty grainy, especially in darker scenes, so the video bitrate of 23.5 Mbps is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. Still, while compression artifacts are visible upon close, frame-by-frame scrutiny, everything looks good running at normal speed. It all sounds good, too, in a DTS-HD MA 24-bit/48 kHz 5.1 encode. The soundstage is mainly a left-centre-front affair, although George Fenton’s score gets some surround play throughout. The side speakers are employed for ambience in city exteriors, though they only truly get roaring in the film’s fantasy scenes, as Fenton’s music dominates the soundfield. The bad news is that nothing in the A/V department outshines a previous release from Image Entertainment that can be easily had for less than $10.

This edition’s special features, on the other hand, are substantial. Criterion has ported most (but not quite all) of the material from its 1993 LaserDisc, a mammoth set at the time. Back in print at last is Gilliam’s running audio commentary, an outstanding overview of the pre-production and production processes, including Gilliam’s thoughts on exactly how the film’s images and themes relate to the fairytales he had in mind during prep along with his detailed appreciations of the performances. (On Bridges: “He comes from a strong family and he’s always been a good boy.” On Williams: “He moves beyond acting. He is inside something so painful in himself that it’s kind of scary working with him.”) Gilliam is always relatively candid during these affairs, and this track remains—for my money, anyway—one of the best and most informative ever recorded. Also ported over from laserland are no fewer than six deleted scenes, totalling roughly 10 minutes in length, all of them SD transfers from a workprint (displaying a good deal of dirt and other schmutz) upscaled to 1080p for Blu-ray. While they were deleted for a good reason, I remain fond of the one where Jack’s girlfriend (Lara Harris, who had formerly modeled for 1980s New York art icon Robert Mapplethorpe) is seen nude in Jack’s massive bathroom, framed by Bridges’s legs as he straddles the camera. Other relics from the original Criterion LD: three minutes of costume tests (silent, set to “How About You?”), plus an assortment (10 minutes’ worth) of domestic and international trailers.

All of that would make a respectable, if slightly paltry, SE, but Criterion has beefed up this version admirably with new HD supplements. A pair of talking-heads shorts, running one hour in total, offer fresh details, with contributions from Gilliam, LaGravenese, Bridges, Ruehl, Plummer, and co-producer (with the late Debra Hill) Lynda Obst. “The Fool and the Wounded King” covers pre-production, giving everybody the chance to contribute their two cents on The Fisher King’s legend. LaGravenese probably gets the lion’s share of attention therein, detailing the writing process and elaborating on the changes Disney had him carry out before putting the script in turnaround and selling it to TriStar, where studio head Dawn Steel promptly swore (per Obst), ” “Over my dead body is Terry Gilliam going to do Fisher King or any movie for TriStar.” Next up, “The Real and the Fantastical” is more of the same, covering casting and production—starting with Peter Guber’s memo to Gilliam that Billy Crystal would be mahvelous opposite Williams. Costume designer Beatrix Pasztor gets serious props from the assembled commentariat, as does Williams, who is remembered for his generosity of spirit with everyone on set, from his fellow actors to the assembled extras in the Grand Central Terminal sequence.

“The Tale of the Red Knight” spends 23 minutes with Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds, the artists recruited to create the Red Knight, with all his “antennas, fishing poles, and silk” sticking out, for the film’s crucial nightmare sequences. It sounds like it should be a standard-issue Blu-ray featurette but in reality it’s exemplary of the form—it completely captures the surreal, seat-of-their-pants struggle these two went through to keep Gilliam (and, not incidentally, the studio) happy on a tight budget and tighter deadlines, and contains some fantastic behind-the-scenes footage I had never seen before. I found it enormously entertaining. Only slightly less worthwhile, to my mind, is “Jeff and Jack”, a 20-minute examination of Bridges’s quest to find Jack Lucas. Under the tutelage of acting coach (and former radio DJ) Stephen Bridgewater, Bridges first learned how to improvise in the manner of a talk-show host, then developed the character out of that style. Bridges describes the process for a little more than three minutes, and the balance of the short is raw footage from his exercises. It’s quite interesting to see the character start poking his head out of what’s essentially a workshop process, and this strikes me as very much not the sort of material that a big-time actor generally releases for public consumption. But Bridges was cooperating fully with Criterion, and contributes another 12-minute short, “Jeff’s Tale”, that showcases some fine black-and-white on-set photographs he took with his famous Widelux, an oddball panoramic camera.

Finally, Criterion pays tribute to Robin Williams with “Robin’s Tale”, a 19-minute interview with the late performer dated to 2006 and credited to Sony Pictures Entertainment. I don’t know what this material was originally intended to be used for, but the actor’s tone is quite serious overall, landing just a few jokes. Mainly, he discusses his memories of Terry Gilliam as a director. Discussing The Fisher King specifically, he talks about the reaction of the women on set to the mere presence of Jeff Bridges and remembers running into “really heavy attitude” during the shoot at Grand Central Terminal and on the Upper East Side, as well as from a single woman on Columbus Avenue who threw a bucket of water out her window in hopes of dousing the fearsome red knight below. As for the role of Parry, he characterizes it as a “homeless version of Don Quixote” and describes his approach to the part as “part method, part me” before repudiating the complaint that the film served to glorify “madness.” It’s an interesting and appropriate interview to close out this disc; stick around after the end titles for an additional glimpse of Williams on set. Critic Bilge Ebiri contributes a laudatory essay that’s printed on one side of the eight-panel fold-out insert. Sure, I’d prefer a booklet, but the really serious misstep Criterion makes is on the outside of the box, as the cover art is pretty unappealing. The design is contributed by LA2, a former friend and collaborator of Keith Haring’s, which makes some sense in a “New York in the 1980s” kind of way but doesn’t much work for the film.

Cries and Whispers

Harriet Andersson first appears on screen a little more than three minutes into Cries and Whispers. Sven Nykvist’s camera looks at her from across the room as her features twist and twitch in an extraordinary series of contortions. It’s a remarkable image because it so compassionately and clearly conveys the human condition–the spirit’s status as long-term resident of a fleshy domicile with its particular shortcomings and irreversible dilapidations. It’s also almost immediately identifiable as an Ingmar Bergman image. That’s not just because Andersson is a Bergman stalwart, or because the European aspect ratio and the vintage texture and film grain help identify the time and place of the picture’s making. No, you can feel in this shot the cameraman’s patience, the actor’s single-mindedness, and the director’s clinical interest in her character’s experience. And at this point in his career, a woman in distress and under the microscope was Bergman’s métier.

Like Persona before it, Cries and Whispers was one of those films that seemed to throw Bergman’s vision into focus. In the intervening years, he had made a loose trilogy–featuring most notably Hour of the Wolf, his closest approach to an out-and-out horror movie–in which Max Von Sydow was a kind of surrogate for Bergman himself. He had just made an English-language film, The Touch, with Elliott Gould opposite Bibi Andersson, that he considered a failure. But Cries and Whispers revolves around four women, and there was something about Bergman’s women that opened up the psychological frontiers of his films. They highlighted the generosity of a man who loved women as well as the judgments of a man who seemed to consider them troublesome. That is to say, while Bergman was sympathetic to the roiling internal lives of the women he depicted, he was pessimistic about their ability to engage in genuinely affectionate, fulfilling relationships either among themselves or with the men in their lives.

Thus, the cast of characters inhabiting Cries and Whispers is a fundamentally unhappy bunch. Agnes (Andersson) is dying in an old lakeside manor. Her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), are in attendance at her deathbed along with Anna (Kari Sylwan), the family’s devoted servant. Men are relegated to the periphery: There’s David (Erland Josephson), the family doctor; Joakim (Henning Moritzen), Maria’s hapless, cuckolded spouse; Fredrik (Georg Årlin), Karin’s stiff husband; and Isak (Anders Ek), the skeptical local priest. Death, of course, is the linchpin of the story. The first faces we see are those of clocks, underscoring the passage of time in staccato increments and reminding the viewer that, even as you sit in a chair watching one of Bergman’s woman die, the moment of your own demise is drawing inexorably nearer. Agnes expires at almost exactly the picture’s halfway point. Arriving as it does, with sunlight falling gently across her face after long, painful-sounding passages of tortured gasping and retching, her death comes as a relief–that oft-promised release from earthly suffering.

The film’s tripartite structure pivots on Bergmanesque interludes depicting aspects of the inner lives of the women Agnes leaves behind. In a formal flourish designed to draw attention to itself, Bergman bookends each of these segments with two close-ups on the face of an actress, lighted in the first from one side and in the second from the other, gazing directly into the camera before the image dips to red. While their faces remain on screen, a faint whispering can be heard on the soundtrack, like ghostly echoes from years past, or conspiratorial murmurs from unseen spectators. These images signal passages akin to flashbacks or dream sequences, though they aren’t quite either of those. They’re more like visions, or psychic projections from the minds of their characters, and they are quite particular to the films of Bergman. In the first, Maria remembers her seduction of David and her hapless spouse’s pathetic suicide attempt the morning after. In the second, Karin expresses her loathing for her own husband and cuts up her genitals to ward off his sexual attentions. And in a third, Anna attends to the dead woman, who asks first to see Karin, then Maria. Each sister rejects Agnes in her own way, leaving her in the care of Anna, who undresses and holds Agnes across her lap in the film’s most famous image–not just a maternal idyll, but a softly-lit Pietà. (Early on, Agnes remembers her own mother as “gentle and beautiful and alive” yet sometimes “coolly dismissive or painfully cruel.”) From this moment of unbearable tenderness, Bergman segues coolly and pointedly to a scene of awful people being awful, as Maria and Karin and their respective husbands sit around the house, rating Agnes’s funeral “tolerable” and offering the newly-jobless Anna the smallest possible token of their consideration. Only Joakim, the sap among this group, appears to have any impulse towards decency.*

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To the world at large, Cries and Whispers represented the apotheosis of Bergman’s career up to that point. Many of his trademark concerns are foregrounded, from the presence of family and the absence of God to pettiness in human relations and the promise of death. Certainly Cries and Whispers was one of his showiest films. Nykvist created images so vivid–the red backgrounds like blood smearing the canvas, the black funereal garb like cancerous blotches on the frame–that they have a nearly physical effect. Then there’s the Gothic quality of the whole affair, an old-dark-house flavour of spookiness, that paradoxically lightens the mood by hinting at fantasy elements. Anna, for instance, is disturbed by the squalling of an infant. She wanders the house, bathed in soft moonlight, asking, “Can’t you hear it?” before finding Maria and Karin staring, immobile and mute. Bergman’s ease with this kind of staging–introducing straight-up supernatural elements to psychological drama–made me wonder if horror films of the era, specifically Polanski’s Repulsion and especially Rosemary’s Baby, had served as an influence. I was unsurprised to learn that he had attempted to cast Mia Farrow in the role of Anna.

Additionally, of the works Bergman called his “chamber films,” Cries and Whispers has the most famous chambers. It was his fourth colour film and the first to really leverage the impact of highly colour-coordinated images. Bergman said at the time that he had always imagined the interior of the soul to be red, and on screen, the uniformly crimson rooms provide a suspiciously sanguine, almost organic environment for the women who move through them in dresses of white and black. (One big exception: in the dinner scene where Liv Ullmann puts the moves on the doc, she is wearing a lacy red gown displaying a ridiculous amount of cleavage.) It’s worth noting, too, as film theorist Bruce Kawin does in his Bergman-focused tome Mindscreen, that red is the colour you see when you close your eyes against a bright light. Just as Stan Brakhage took cues from what he called “closed-eye vision,” Bergman’s images seem to allude to light, the eyes, and the body itself.

Yet in some ways the striking visuals, the elements of a ghost story, and the insistent religious intimations obscure the fact that, at its narrative heart, Cries and Whispers is just a story of people who are desperate for connection. Both Maria and Karin are in apparently loveless marriages, and their relationship as sisters is long frosted-over. After Agnes dies, Maria approaches Karen to break the ice. “It’s so strange how we never touch, how we only make small talk,” she says. “Why won’t you be my friend?” Karin flinches, insisting first, “I can’t stand to be touched,” and then, by extension, “I don’t want you to be kind to me.” A burst of rancour somehow leads to reconciliation, culminating in another scene in which Karin and Maria, framed against a blank, soul-red backdrop, embrace and coo at each other, caressing each other’s faces and gazing into each other’s eyes, almost like lovers. What they’re actually saying isn’t important–their lips move, but the soundtrack is a solo cello piece by Bach. It has the earmarks of a breakthrough, at least until we reach the film’s denouement, in which Maria’s behaviour is pointedly aloof. “You touched me,” insists Karin. “Don’t you remember that?” And Maria responds, with an impeccable chill, “I don’t recall every stupid thing I’ve done.” In that moment, Karin’s humiliation is complete; despite her imperiousness in the face of Maria’s ditzy-redhead routine, Maria retains the upper hand.

What of Anna and Agnes? They are each presented as simpler women–unmarried, religious, and content with their lot. Anna is a study in selflessness, praying to the God who took her daughter from her and left her to sleep every night near an empty crib before leaving her bedroom to attend affectionately to the dying Agnes. The two women’s shared faith manifests in tenderness; when Agnes is inconsolable, Anna climbs into bed with her and offers her breast. It’s an unconditional, maternal love, and so Bergman places it on a pedestal and wonders that such a thing could exist. Nor is Agnes’s faith in question. The priest who prays at her bedside following her death chooses words that betray ambivalence, urging her to advocate for those left behind before a possible God in a potential afterlife. “Her faith was stronger than mine,” he offers afterward by way of explanation and, perhaps, apology.

Bergman is lauded for his complex female characters, and it’s true that these women are layered and multidimensional in a way that makes possible the exceptional performances at the film’s core. The conniving adulteress is fundamentally a stereotype, though, as is the frigid wife. That both women rebel against their husbands lends the film a second-wave feminist frisson, but the charge is mitigated by Bergman’s fundamentally sexualized conception of that rebellion. Maria rebels by fucking a doctor; Karin rebels by making herself unfuckable. Bergman’s approval is reserved for Anna, who earns it by functioning selflessly, unconditionally, and chastely (unless you buy into the sometimes-mooted notion that she and Agnes are lovers) as not merely the loyal servant, but also the dedicated mother figure Agnes never had. Agnes, meanwhile, seems to have been an unassuming woman in life as well as death. Her own memories betray no hint of regret, yearning, or sexual life. Instead, she embraces the pleasure of a day spent with her sisters–that is, in the company of women she believes to be warm and loving whom Bergman has revealed to be anything but. Complicating the film’s status as portraiture is Bergman’s claim, recanted decades later as “a lie for the media,” that Cries and Whispers was actually about his mother. At any rate, for all that is laudable about the way Bergman writes women, the characters clearly represent a man’s vantage on womanhood, with all the privilege that suggests.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may take a man like Bergman to coax a performance like this from a woman like Ullmann, who comes across as sadistic and at the same time completely lost inside her own head. However mean is her Maria, there’s a helplessness to her sociopathy that obscures its nature; she would have made a hell of a femme fatale in somebody’s noir. Bergman leads up to the moment of Karin’s self-mutilation by having the camera watch from a comfortable distance, as she spends a full minute of screentime undressing, shedding layer upon layer of late 19th-century dignity and propriety–black funeral dress, petticoats, corset and corset cover, chemise, and finally shoes and stockings–before finally donning the nightgown that allows easier access to her nether regions. The scene plays as titillation, then provocation, and finally personal tragedy, with the viewer placed in the position of voyeur throughout. That’s Bergman’s critical instinct as a director: not only does he manage to make physical suffering feel real, he also concentrates emotional suffering on screen in a way that inspires real reflection and genuine, almost physical, discomfort in viewers. Only on repeated viewings do Agnes’s final, desperate cries take on their full weight and resonance in the Bergman corpus, waking Maria, Karin, and Anna from their silent, perfectly-composed tableau in death’s antechamber. Anna’s hands, thrusting up from the bottom of the frame, press helplessly at Agnes’s face and shoulders, and Agnes calls out, as Maria buries her face in her hands, “I can’t take it! Can’t anyone help me? I can’t take it! Help me!” Talk about horror–Cries and Whispers may not be Bergman’s best film, but it’s almost certainly his most visceral. The better you know its mysteries, the more power they seem to hold. You begin to wonder if it really is a haunted film; you feel its cruel pricks in the dark of your soul.

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THE BLU-RAY DISC
Cries and Whispers was one of Bergman’s undeniable commercial successes, and it remains a cornerstone of his filmography–especially in the U.S., where its images of ticking clocks and sad women, handsomely photographed, fretting in period garb, became a recognized emblem of arthouse cinema. I first saw it “dubbed into English by the original cast under the direction of Ingmar Bergman” on an old Warner Home Video tape I bought in the early-1980s from an indie rental-store owner who I’m pretty sure was glad to get the thing off his shelf. I saw it again on LaserDisc, and DVD, and nothing compares to Criterion’s magnificent new Blu-ray. Suddenly I’m anxious to see it on 35mm.

Oh, sure, previous home video versions showed you what Bergman was getting at. But the real brilliance of the visuals shines in this 1.66:1, 1080p presentation, which finally offers the colour gamut to preserve the many shadings of red present in the frame, from the dried-blood quality of the dimmest scenes to the blazing, fully-saturated glare of brighter shots. Shadow detail is exceptional, a bare twinkle of film grain just visible in even the blackest sections of the filmed image. If I had to register a complaint, it’s that I noted some colour banding in some of the fades from dark red to black that a more consistently maxed-out data rate might’ve mitigated. I do wonder why the folks in charge of the Bergman archives bother to thread up camera negative on a machine that scans at 2K, not 4K, but the results are certainly compelling. Could the grain texture captured here be stronger still, and more organic? Probably. (Will Criterion have something new to sell us when UHD Blu-ray Discs finally hit the market? Maybe.) Still, it’s hard to imagine that a higher-resolution version could improve on this version in anything like the same way this version improves on the DVD. The picture is not simply more detailed–it has been timed to be brighter and warmer in a way that makes better emotional sense of the imagery. Of all Bergman’s films in the Criterion Collection, this is the one that benefits the most from a high-definition upgrade.

Transferred from the original mag track in uncompressed mono and lovingly remastered to eliminate a litany of clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum, the Swedish-language audio has been scrubbed remarkably clean and exhibits decent dynamic range without losing the audible hallmarks of a film of this vintage. Although the included lossy English dub is comparatively harsher and treblier in tone, I have to admit there’s something even more hair-raising about hearing Harriet Andersson’s pitiable wailing without the abstraction of a language barrier to soften the impact; this is one of those cases where a dubbed track may have genuine merit.

Extra features are compelling and fairly thorough but not overwhelming. First up is 34 minutes of behind-the-scenes material sourced from an HD-upscaled standard definition (probably PAL) video transfer that exhibits some interlacing artifacts. Footage from the location shoot, which took place at a manor 35 miles outside of Stockholm on the shore of Lake Mälaren, graces the piece along with some shots of the film’s official press conference. Though Cries and Whispers proper has no audio commentary track, film historian (and Criterion’s go-to Bergman expert) Peter Cowie does his level best to make up for it here with an informative yakker discussing specifics of the production.

Cowie additionally conducts a 20-minute HD interview with Harriet Andersson about her work in Cries and Whispers that touches on Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander as well. She reveals that she based Agnes’s wheezes and dry heaves on the death throes suffered by her father during a terminal illness in the 1950s. When Cowie asks her about a statement attributed to Bergman that the red walls of the manor where the movie takes place were meant as a metaphor for the womb, she smiles. “Yeah, he said so,” she agrees. “You know, he always says things. And the next day he didn’t mean it. There was another thing with him–he loved to lie. But he didn’t like it when other people lied. But really, he liked to make [up] small stories.” Her memories of Bergman are affectionate, if less than awestruck. For instance, she takes issue with the scene depicting Maria’s husband’s failed attempt at seppuku. “For me,” she says, “that is a little too funny.”

The meatiest supplement is a holdover from the DVD: a 52-minute Swedish television interview conducted circa 1999 featuring an 82-year-old Bergman and a 75-year-old Erland Josephson, who plays the film’s frisky doctor. Bergman chuckles aloud when challenged by journalist Malou von Sivers about his status as a negligent father and husband, but does own up to his poor behaviour. “I really was a rat and a cheat and a liar in many ways,” he admits. “I behaved like an absolute bastard.” He adds, somewhat cryptically, that he was able to rid himself of a guilty conscience: “I could never get rid of my feelings of guilt, but as I got rid of my guilty conscience I decided to become the foremost in the world at my profession.” While Bergman never came across as a humble man, he definitely knew how to give an interview. Other subjects include his devotion to his last wife, Ingrid, and his abiding love for his mother.

I’m of two minds on “On Solace,” a 13-minute video essay by Kogonada that is exquisitely assembled, using splitscreen effects to identify mirrored images and make other connections within Cries and Whispers itself. The monotone, nearly robotic voiceover is a distraction, however, verging on self-parody. Also on board is Criterion’s usual “Introduction by director Ingmar Bergman,” drawn from a series of short interviews with Bergman Island director Marie Nyreröd conducted in 2001, as well as a two-minute theatrical trailer narrated by Bergman in English. (Of note to pedants and copy editors: he translates the title, correctly, as Whispers and Cries.) In the accompanying booklet essay, “Love and Death,” University of Cambridge Professor Emma Wilson starts from the beginning–Ingmar Bergman’s widely-quoted, erotically-charged childhood memory of being locked inside a hospital morgue with a nude female corpse whom he noticed breathing–and from there develops ideas about “themes of mortality and maternal eroticism” in Cries and Whispers, bolstering her argument by quoting Bergman’s own descriptions of the film and its characters. As far as I can tell, this is Wilson’s first contribution to the Criterion Collection, and it shouldn’t be her last.

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*The NEW YORK TIMES ran a review of Cries and Whispers by Ronald Friedland that advances probably the most twisted misreading of a film I’ve come across since Stephen Hunter claimed Starship Troopers was a Nazi fantasy. Under the headline “If We Understood Bergman, We’d Stone Him,” Friedland describes Agnes as “sentimental, self-deceiving” and “parasitic,” while condemning Anna’s “exploitation” of her death. “Anna wants Agnes dead,” he writes. “She wills it.” Leave it to the paper of record to gaze upon a family this fucked-up and be inspired to libel the hired help. return

The Night Porter

The Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the “little girl” (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn’t Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. This was Italian director Liliana Cavani’s first English-language feature, and Bogarde and Rampling were English-language stars. In order to recoup, The Night Porter would need to be provocative. Cavani delivered on that score. European critics are said to have taken the movie’s sociopolitical context seriously, but upon arrival in New York its outré imagery generated a mix of critical scorn and mockery that, ironically, helped earn it big returns at the box office. (Vincent Canby’s pan deriding it as “romantic pornography” was highlighted in the advertising.) If you know nothing else about the film, you probably know its signature image–Rampling, wearing black leather gloves and an SS officer’s cap, her bare breasts framed by the suspenders holding up a pair of baggy pinstriped trousers, tossing a Mona Lisa smile at the camera. That key art has kept The Night Porter  in demand for more than forty years now, from arthouses and VHS tapes to DVD and now Blu-ray releases under the Criterion imprimatur.

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The Vanishing

What scares you the most? If you chew on that question for a while, then imagine a narrative that gets you to that terrible place, your story might be a little like the one in The Vanishing. Completed in 1988, this downbeat thriller didn’t make it to the U.S. until a couple of years later, when it coincidentally landed in New York within weeks of The Silence of the Lambs. The Vanishing isn’t, strictly speaking, a serial-killer movie like Silence, but it shares that film’s deep interest in the psychopathology of its villain. Like a good (and by “good,” I mean “lurid”) true crime book, its interest is similarly piqued by the painful, quotidian details of an abhorrent crime.

The Vanishing begins with a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, on vacation in France. As they drive, they play word games, they bicker about whether the tank needs to be filled, and they talk about dreams. They stop at a gas station for rest and refreshments and then — after a bare 15 minutes of screen time — she’s gone. Gone as in vanished, as if into thin air, after stepping inside to buy some soft drinks. Just when you think the film has little to do but settle comfortably into a kind of detective story, with Rex gathering clues that put him on the trail of Saskia’s abductor, it switches gears completely and reveals the perpetrator as comfortable family man Raymond Lemorne. In an extended flashback, Raymond hatches and rehearses his plan for kidnapping a woman, tracking the expected traveling time for a comfortably choloroformed victim, measuring his pulse rate under stress, and trying out incapacitating moves on his own daughter. After a sudden, multi-year flash-forward, the film spends the balance of its running time moving back and forth between parallel nonlinear narratives, from Rex to Raymond and back again, before bringing them together for a perverse, low-key pas de deux that moves the film toward its inexorable conclusion.

The Vanishing subverts the expected narrative mode of the whodunit by turning its attention to Saskia’s abductor before said abduction even takes place. Raymond is introduced as a serious-looking but anonymous fellow driving a late-model family car and affixing a fake cast to his right arm — a small thing, but clearly nefarious in context. More details are filled in. Raymond teaches chemistry. He once dove into cold water to save a little girl from drowning. He has a wife and two children and a country chateau far enough from the neighbors that he’s sure they can’t hear the screaming. Is he sympathetic? No — well, nobody looks at his professorial demeanor, calculating mindset, and overgrown shrub of chin hair and thinks: psycho killer, c’est moi. But he’s credible. His life is quiet and comfortable enough that you can imagine his bourgeois lifestyle generating a kind of privileged ennui that gives wings to his demons. The film goes to great lengths (maybe too great) to posit the kind of pretzel logic that could lead a demented but thoughtful man to commit heinous crimes.

In a clever reversal, Rex is clearly the more unhinged of the two. Obsessed with Saskia’s disappearance, he is still plastering the city of Nîmes with “Have you seen this woman?” posters years later. He has a new girlfriend, who seems lovely, but she’s alienated by his behavior, insisting at one point that she has no interest in being part of a menage a trois. (On a repeat viewing it becomes clear the third party is Raymond, not poor Saskia.) He has ample reason to feel guilty. On the day Saskia disappeared, the car had run out of gasoline on his watch, and he had abandoned her at a dangerous spot in a dark tunnel, ignoring her cries for his return. It’s a failure of character that he never recovers from. His betrayal revealed his great egotism, and it’s not grief that drives him later as much as an desire for knowledge that overrides his concern for his own safety. He must know, he declares, what happened to Saskia Wagter. And, from a safe distance, Raymond Lemorne is watching him.

Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu invests Lemorne with just the right amount of awkwardness — his demeanor is generally confident and charismatic, but his facial expressions are often pinched and there is sometimes a bit of tightness around the shoulders and a stuffy, reserved posture that hints at his creepy inner world. (Check out the film’s final shot, in which he musters an glaring intensity to rival the closing images of Psycho and Taxi Driver.) Raven-haired Gene Bervoets is less convincing as the dickish young loverboy of the film’s first act than he is as the smoldering bag of emotional wreckage of its latter half, when he makes a perfect id to Raymond’s ego. Bervoets’ somewhat off-putting screen presence helps Johanna ter Steege steal the show with a bright, naturalistic performance that adds resonance to the tragedy. Georges Sluizer directs it all with classical precision, framing shots in the best way to propel the narrative and showcase performance, never venturing a style that could draw attention to itself. When telling Rex’s story, he stays close to the character, favoring tracking shots that move alongside him and especially Dardennes-style follow shots that that emphasize his subjective experience in relation to the vast, empty and unfriendly environments he faces. Raymond is more likely to be seen from a medium distance, in compositions with a bit of a surveillance quality to them; you feel that the camera is keeping its distance from a dangerous man, and the wider vantage is best for revealing body language as he plans, rehearses and executes his crime.

Still, despite being perhaps the best-known Dutch film export not directed by Paul Verhoeven, The Vanishing is utterly ordinary in appearance. Anything but a stylist, Sluizer is the definition of a cinematic one-hit wonder; the only other film of his to stir up much interest was his own Hollywood remake, which starred Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock and was ridiculed as a disaster. (It gained nothing from a rewritten ending, nor did it benefit from its star power.) But Sluizer was an accomplished documentarian in the 1960s and 1970s, having gotten his start making industrial films for Shell, and it’s his methodical, journalistic approach to novelist Tim Krabbé’s scenario that makes The Vanishing such a compelling investigation. It’s disturbing in part because its lack of affect reflects the emotionless remove of its antagonist. But that banality-of-evil stuff only gets you so far. What’s really distressing about The Vanishing is the film’s climax, with the emotional voyeurism it invites. It induces a genuine, shivery thrill at the prospect of a horrific event imagined three times over — the hero’s appreciation of his predicament is eclipsed only by his horror at his lover’s ordeal, and both of those theoretical atrocities are overshadowed in the mind of the viewer, who is surely imagining how it would feel to actually live through what’s depicted on screen. The spectre expands in the mind as if reflected in a pair of facing mirrors. And there’s something unsavory about simply being a viewer who makes it all the way to the end-credit scroll, having consumed so much abject horror as an evening’s entertainment. (Somewhere, Michael Haneke was taking notes.) The experience shames the viewer as much as it fascinates. And, in that tension, The Vanishing reaches full flower.

Criterion certainly seems a little bashful about the film, releasing it in a handsome but unusually slender new Blu-ray edition. According to the liner notes, this transfer was sourced from a 4K film scan that took place in Italy, with color dialed in by Criterion’s technical mastermind, Lee Kline, in New York. The results are a big step up from the company’s previous DVD release and look to have wrangled every last bit of visible detail from the camera negative. The picture is generally grain-free in brightly lit exteriors, though the grain structure of the film stock is apparent in darker scenes. Shadow detail is good, and colors are richly saturated, even in scenes late in the film where the color palette is deliberately subdued. The picture is mostly (but not entirely) clean of dust, dirt and scratches, which Criterion says were removed using a combination of manual and automatic or semi-automatic tools. The transfer has been generously budgeted at an average video bit rate of just over 35 Mbps, which ensures that any digital artifacts are indiscernible. But the biggest qualitative difference from the earlier version, I think, is the color timing, which now tends toward the warm side of the spectrum during scenes featuring Rex and turns a bit chilly whenever Raymond is on screen. The included uncompressed PCM monaural audio track is similarly exemplary, presenting an exceptionally clean and clear representation of the film’s 35mm magnetic audio track. Criterion reports that imperfections were manually removed during a 24-bit remastering process.

There was plenty of room for picture and sound on the dual-layer disc because extras are sparse by Criterion standards. Still, the 19-minute interview with George Sluizer recorded earlier this year is an especially precious thing since the director died in September, just weeks before this title hit the streets. He discusses adapting the source material, which apparently involved butting heads with novelist Krabbé over Sluizer’s preferred cinematic approach, as well as the casting process, including bringing a difficult Donnadieu to heel. He also remembers speaking at length with Stanley Kubrick, who he says was the film’s biggest fan, and reveals that the English-language title was in part a homage to The Shining. In a new 14-minute interview, ter Steege herself remembers auditioning for The Vanishing as a third-year theater student and describes the challenge of crafting a performance that only gets about 11 minutes of screen time. She also recalls her problems with Donnadieu, who didn’t trust her performance and treated her poorly because of it until Sluizer intervened. (No one else associated with the film is represented here; an interview with Krabbé would have been especially welcome.) An essay by Scott Foundas takes up one half of a four-panel insert, with another take on the jacket art plus three pages of liner notes occupying the opposite side.

F for Fake

In 1971, Pauline Kael did her best to kill Orson Welles. In “Raising Kane,” an essay originally published in The New Yorker and later used as a lengthy introduction to the published screenplay, she argued that Welles had unfairly taken authorial credit for a film whose real creative force was Welles’ credited co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Kael’s piece was persuasive but hardly comprehensive, cherry-picking evidence in an effort to make a liar of Welles. (In his definitive 1978 book on the film, The Making of Citizen Kane, Robert Carringer described Kael’s charge that Welles did not contribute to the script as “a flagrant misrepresentation,” though he did allow that Welles may have hoped not to credit Mankiewicz.) Making the case against Kane was an opportunity for Kael to escalate her ongoing crusade against the auteur theory; it doesn’t seem that she held any personal grudge against Welles, especially given her loving notice for his Chimes at Midnight, made just a few years earlier. But for the aging Welles, by that time a subject of mockery in Hollywood who struggled to finance even the most bargain-basement film projects, the apparently unprovoked attack must have stung. F for Fake is his elegant response—a good-natured but deeply felt riposte, executed with his considerable showmanship and meant to humble artist and critic alike.

F for Fake begins with Welles’ mysterioso intonation: “For my next experiment, ladies and gentlemen …” Here, on a railway platform, Welles is in one of his favorite roles—the magician—and as he proceeds to turn a key proffered by a child into a coin and back again in front of the camera, he warns his audience to “watch out for the slightest hint of hanky panky.” Gauntlet thrown, his film gets up to all kinds of shenanigans. Welles’ magic schtick was perhaps his most accessible public persona, and you can read his decision to narrate F for Fake in illusionist mode as an attempt to ingratiate himself with an audience. However, his use of the term “experiment” in the very first line suggests the unusual nature of his endeavor, as does the aggressive editing style — there are 17 separate shots in the film’s first 60 seconds alone, and it gets faster still from there. Sure, the early 1970s were a go-go era for film editors, but this was unusual even by those standards. This editorial style is the cinematic equivalent of sleight of hand; it allows Welles to get away with all kinds of tomfoolery, despite presenting documentary evidence right before your unblinking eyes. F for Fake is a documentary, yes. But it is also an essay film, a candid-camera lark, an autobiography, and a straight-up master class in narrative filmmaking on a shoestring.

The bulk of F for Fake is footage originated by documentarian Francois Reichenbach, who was making a film about notorious painter and art forger Elmyr de Hory. Welles was working nearby at the time and Reichenbach screened the material for him. One thing led to another, and Welles — intrigued, apparently, by the opportunity Elmyr’s story offered for him to expound on the notion of authorship and authenticity — ended up taking over the whole production. What happened next was extraordinary: Elmyr’s biographer, Clifford Irving, whom Reichenbach had interviewed, was exposed as a fraud. Irving had written a biography of Howard Hughes that he said was based on exclusive access to the man himself. It was to be published by McGraw-Hill, which paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances. And it was a complete hoax. Irving had never spoken to Hughes, had in fact forged Hughes’ signature on key documents attesting to the book’s authenticity. If anything, Irving’s challenge to Hughes — I dare you to come out of hiding and denounce this book deal, went the unspoken message to the notorious recluse — was more brazen than Elmyr’s forgeries. The irony of a journalist turned fabulist was delicious. And thus Welles found the territory being mapped in his documentary to be shifting, seismically, under his feet.

The other major player in F for Fake is Oja Kodar, who had been Welles’ companion since the early 1960s. (“That’s her real name, you know,” he assures us.) She is featured early on, in what Welles describes as “a sequence on the fine outdoor sport of girl-watching.” The camera focuses on her swishing hips as she walks the streets of Rome, intercutting purported reaction shots of men gaping in her wake. The sequence is a digression at best — Kodar says it was her idea, but just part of a longer, feminist work she envisioned — but Welles justifies its inclusion here by positioning it as an act of “larceny,” stealing performances from the civilians whose desire it immortalizes. And Kodar reappears near the end of the film, where she is a crucial player in a long anecdote having to do with her Hungarian grandfather, Pablo Picasso, and a cache of unseen Picasso nudes. You could argue that Kodar’s presence on screen is the height of gratuity. That is, in a film that’s ostensibly about art, forgery and authorship, isn’t it remarkable that Welles came up with an excuse to have his girlfriend run down the street, nude under a diaphanous blue veil? And yet somehow he makes it fit.

The sequences with Kodar bookend a long segment of the film that deals directly with Elmyr and Irving. “This is a film about trickery and fraud—about lies,” he says, addressing the camera. Using complex editorial techniques and almost nonstop narration to turn cinema vérité footage of Elmyr and Irving on its head, Welles expresses not disapproval of their chicanery but rather admiration of their chutzpah. Welles playfully positions himself on the side of the devils, describing himself as a “charlatan.” He refers explicitly to his own work on the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Citizen Kane, and draws attention to the deviousness shared by artists and con men, declaring, “a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician.” He saves his opprobrium for experts. “Experts are the new oracles,” he declares. “They speak to us with the absolute authority of the computer, and we bow down before them.” Those experts, Irving tells us, have been helpless to distinguish authentic Modiglianis from Elmyr’s fakes, and it’s the same experts, Welles reminds us, who determine the value of a piece of art by vouching for its authenticity. “A faker like Elmyr makes fools of the experts, so who’s the expert?,” he asks us. “Who’s the faker?”

Welles’ voiceover sets the pace and holds the narrative together even as the images we see on screen jitter constantly forward and backward in time and from location to location. Many shots are pictures of the film itself, as seen in workprint form on the viewing screen of one of the production’s flatbed editing tables, sometimes with the director hunched over the machine. Welles even apologizes for the fast, nonlinear trajectory of the film at one point: “Sorry—I’ve been jumping around like this because that’s the way it was.” And those Moviolas do get a workout. F for Fake is full of freeze frames that function as visual punctuation or witticisms. The technique comes to a head when Welles uses cross-cutting to invent a kind of conversation between Irving and Elmyr that has Elmyr repeatedly insisting that he ever affixed another artist’s signature to one of his own forgeries — a key legal point. Welles intercuts snippets of interviews that were clearly conducted at different times and locations to give the impression of a slightly smug Elmyr denying the charge as a disapproving Irving rolls his eyes a bit and fidgets uncomfortably. After this goes on for nearly a minute, Irving is allowed to make the allegation: “Of course they were signed.”

By now, these techniques have been freely adopted by all kinds of filmmakers. You can see some roots of Chris Marker’s celebrated essay film Sans Soleil here, as well as a blueprint for Michael Moore’s personality-driven, I-can’t-believe-my-eyes approach to documentary, not to mention the tricks used by the editors of movie trailers to short-circuit film narrative and pack as much exposition as possible into a two-minute teaser. Of course, Welles drew on the formal innovations of the French New Wave before him, and Godard was probably the greater influence on the MTV era. The notion of influence isn’t one of the subjects tackled in detail by F for Fake, though it defines one of the tasks facing Welles’ maligned experts — figuring out which authors deserve credit for the innovations that drive development of the arts. All that points, in an oblique way, to the most celebrated segment of the film, an encomium to the Chartres Cathedral. Welles pays tribute to its anonymous architects by delivering a monologue elevating its place in the artistic corpus of humankind. You know the kind of speech I’m talking about: Welles speaks, basso profundo, each shaped breath a pensive sigh at odds with the enormity of what’s erected before him. Time stands still; the air leaves the screening room. “The premiere work of man, perhaps, in the whole western world,” Welles says, his voice shrinking to a murmur, “and it’s without a signature.” It’s a dead serious moment interrupting an otherwise playful inquiry into artistic crimes and misdemeanors. Like a great card trick or disappearing act, it’s perfectly timed and flawlessly executed, and it smoothly shifts the topic from ordinary con artistry by opening a window to the infinite. Calling it magic would be selling it short. In an art world spun by hoaxes, lies, and illusions, it’s nothing less than testimony.

Criterion packages F for Fake for Blu-ray with an exceptionally filmlike HD image that has been pillarboxed to 1.62:1. (Oddly, the picture is not centered in the frame; the left-hand pillar is about 20 pixels thicker than the one on the right.) This transfer won’t win any awards for consistency or reference quality; the source material varies widely in provenance; much of it has been blown up from 16mm to 35mm, amplifying the already apparent grain structure, and some of the shots seem to have been blown up even further during the original editing process. Film damage is plentiful, though Criterion has included the requisite liner note indicating that “thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches” have been removed from the digital scans, so you can only imagine what it must have looked like before Criterion scrubbed it down. There is some flicker throughout, along with other variations in picture density, but it wouldn’t occur to me to complain. It’s a sure bet that F for Fake has never looked any better than it does here. The audio, presented as a monaural PCM track, is quite clean, although the noise floor can be heard rising underneath lines of dialogue; the quality of the recordings varies wildly, sometimes within the same scene, but is generally adequate, and Criterion’s reproduction of the original monaural soundtrack seems to have been pretty scrupulous.

In his audio commentary here, which he shares with Oja Kodar, cinematographer Gary Graver can be heard marveling at the quality of Criterion’s print. Graver discusses a working relationship with Welles that began when he called the director up, on a whim, when Welles was staying in a bungalow at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Welles hired him the same day, explaining that the only other cinematographer who had approached him for a job was named Gregg Toland. Inducted into that heady company. He talks about what it was like to watch the film take shape, with the scope of the project seemingly growing by the day. “Orson loved to shoot, and he loved to edit, and he worked seven days a week—which I didn’t realize when I signed on,” he says. He also points out the moment in the film when a scene of Don Ameche playing Howard  Hughes was accidentally inserted in place of authentic Hughes footage. Graver alternates anecdotes with Kodar, who discusses her own contributions to the film—including her suggested title of F for Fake, which never actually appears on screen. “Because it was all magic, and it was all a lie … he felt he was going to pinpoint it down if he gives it a title,” she explains. “His film is kind of a visual essay and it is fluid. He was afraid he was going to put it into a frame.” I enjoyed this a lot, but I felt a more scholarly or critical contribution was warranted — an, ahem, expert commentary that might offer more perspective on Welles’ techniques and the film’s place in history. That task falls largely to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s booklet essay; a six-minute video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich is meant to orient viewers who aren’t aware of the film’s historical context, but as introductory viewing it includes what may well qualify as spoilers for anyone approaching the film for this first time; if you want to experience the film on its own terms, save it for later.

The most substantial of the video extras is the 88-minute 2005 documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which comprises largely English-language footage along with English-subtitled German voiceover. In collaboration with Kodar, filmmakers Vassili Silovic and Roland Zag mimic the style of F for Fake to create an impressionistic documentary about the unfinished projects that occupied the final portion of Welles’ professional life after his return to Hollywood, from his unfinished magic-show TV special to The Deep, his adaptation of the 1963 novel Dead Calm. It’s full of juicy footage for Welles scholars, including many clips from the projects being discussed (the film climaxes with a segment of film showing Oja Kodar performing in a curiously exhibitionistic sex scene from the legendary The Other Side of the Wind) and tapes of some of Welles’ television appearances from the period, as well as glimpses of some of Welles’ paintings, many of which Kodar kept as souvenirs of their life together. The film footage is fascinating, but it does tend to reveal the ultimate limitations of the one-man band approach.

A more purely entertaining tribute to late-period Orson Welles is the 44-minute episode of Tomorrow in which he sits down opposite Tom Snyder for a loose, revealing interview that covers the entirety of Welles’ career, from his days in radio to his life in exile in Hollywood. (He made more money as an anonymous radio announcer, he says.) He talks briefly about his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, his early friendship with Harry Houdini, his feelings about religion, and his pessimism on the future of humanity. He seems most pained when asked about his childhood. “I must have been intolerable as a child, I would think,” Welles says, wincing. “Yes, totally insufferable.”

In a classic good news/bad news situation, the original nine-minute trailer cut by Welles to promote the film’s release in the U.S is included here. That’s the good news. The bad news is that for some reason, this trailer is included in a version that looks like it was sourced from a black-and-white workprint. (It’s actually interlaced, if you can believe it.) A color version is definitely available—it made an appearance on the Masters of Cinema DVD release in the U.K. and is actually excerpted in Orson Welles: The One-Man Band—so it’s anyone’s guess why Criterion couldn’t lay hands on it.

For history buffs, Criterion has included the audio feed from the original teleconference between a roomful of reporters and Howard Hughes, when the tycoon finally agreed to take questions from journalists who wanted to know if Clifford Irving’s book was authorized. It’s fascinating as a historical document, though it doesn’t have much to do with F for Fake. Along the same lines is Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a po-faced, everything-you-need-to-know-about-Elmyr television documentary from 1997 with bland voiceover narration that employs some of the Reichenbach footage used in F for Fake. It’s more detailed and informative about Elmyr’s scams than F for Fake; at 52 long minutes, it’s also forbiddingly dull. What would have been really interesting is the original Reichenbach documentary Elmyr: The True Picture that originated much of the footage seen in F for Fake; this one is superfluous unless you believe that film buffs are picking up this disc out of a burning desire to know more about Elmyr. In the same category is a nine-minute segment from 60 Minutes in which interviewer Mike Wallace confronts Irving, who had lied to his face 27 years earlier. It’s undeniably intriguing if you want to know more about Irving as a fraudster, but, again, it sheds little light on the film itself. This is the rare Criterion special edition that feels, honestly, a little bloated.

All That Jazz

Celebrated as an incisive, self-lacerating backstage spectacle and razzed as an indulgent and pretentious passion project, genius director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is one of the most ambitious American films of the 1970s. At this point in his career, Fosse had nothing to prove to the show-business establishment — in 1973, he won the Oscar, the Tony, and the Emmy, all for directing — but a 1974 brush with death (exhaustion, heart attack, life-saving surgery) put him in an introspective mood, and the results were spectacular. Not content with reaching a dazzling apotheosis in the on-screen presentation of song and dance, Fosse wove singing and dancing into a semi-autobiographical narrative chronicling the final days in the life of Joe Gideon, a genius director-choreographer whose nonstop work regimen is making him physically ill. Underscoring the threat, the film opens with a line attributed to the high-wire artist  Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death during a performance in 1978: “To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting,” Joe’s work is his life, and the irony is that his work — along with the pills and the smokes that keep him going — is what kills him.

All That Jazz is a master class in narcissism. As Joe Gideon, Roy Scheider is decked out in devilish facial hair and tight black clothes that deliberately mimic Fosse’s own look. As the film begins, Gideon is auditioning dancers for a new stage musical with his assistant (Kathryn Doby, essentially playing herself), then dashing across Broadway to cut his film The Standup, about an acerbic comic, with his editor, Eddie (Alan Heim, essentially playing himself). Fosse had gone through the same process in real life, finishing his Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny even as rehearsals began on his musical Chicago. Gideon, like Fosse, suffered multiple show-stopping heart attacks from the strain. (In the film, one of them is triggered by a scathing review.) But while Gideon is self-destructive, he has a magnetic personality that inspires loyalty from his collaborators—including his girlfriend Kate (Anne Reinking, essentially playing herself), who sticks with him even after finding him in bed with a chorus girl. As he’s wheeled into surgery on his cheatin’ heart, Gideon hallucinates that Kate and his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer) are with him. “If I die, I’m sorry for all the bad things I did to you,” he tells Audrey, before turning to Kate and delivering the punchline with a tiny chuckle. “And if I live, I‘m sorry for all the bad things I’m gonna do to you.” Yes, parts of the film take on the tone of an apology—he’s so hard on himself!, Fosse’s defenders say—but memorializing your infidelities in 35mm seems like a funny way to express regret.

So is he boasting? Very well, he’s boasting. As swagger goes Fellini has nothing on this guy. (Fosse even snagged Fellini’s old cameraman, Giuseppe Rotunno, to shoot All That Jazz, no doubt anticipating the inevitable comparisons to Fellini’s .) Based on the evidence here assembled, Fosse was the biggest swinging dick on Broadway throughout the 1970s. But be fair—if he was bragging, he had earned it through development of his extraordinary, hard-won talent. It’s rare enough that a dance choreographer should succeed as a filmmaker, let alone a director who so successfully manipulates time and space on screen. Heim’s fearless, impressionistic editing presents All That Jazz as a mere moment in time, a story told by a man on the brink of the afterlife. The film opens with a fragment of conversation between Gideon and Angelique (Jessica Lange), a mysterious woman clad in white, sitting between twin spotlights on an apparently disused theater stage cluttered with costumes, debris, and neon. The ensuing, and much-celebrated, opening sequence depicting a cattle-call audition for dancers is shot and edited in a documentary style, running for six largely dialogue-free minutes and underscored by George Benson’s jazzy, scat-riddled 1978 cover of “On Broadway.” From that tour de force, we return briefly to Joe’s heart-to-heart with Angelique, who comments on his addiction to smoking, speed, and sex, and then back to the audition, where Gideon is hiring a pretty young thing who can neither sing nor dance, annoying the producers watching from the orchestra seats.

At this point, All That Jazz is already a story within a story, but Fosse and Heim build in more narrative layers. There’s the film-within-the-film that Gideon frets over relentlessly, editing and re-editing. There are the gestating musical numbers for the show Gideon’s working on, most notably the corny “Take Off with Us,” which he reworks into the kind of self-consciously erotic spectacle that would give Zalman King a boner. And finally there are the “hospital hallucinations,” depicted on screen as elaborately produced set pieces in which the women in Gideon’s life — Kate, Audrey, daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi)—dance in quintessential Fosse style amid hospital-inspired set decorations. They belt out the lyrics to jazz and pop standards that become morbid double-entendres as he faces open-heart surgery. (And, in an insert that’s both chilling and soothing, Angelique caresses his face.) All That Jazz takes place at the very frontier of death, the film’s consciousness moving freely between real life and illusion, capping Gideon’s remembrance of hard-won experience with riotous, imaginary climaxes to his life. Fosse never forgot the lessons he learned as a kid performing in burlesque clubs, and at his best his cretaive vision is a startling mix of the sublime and the vulgar. It all comes to a head when Ben Vereen performs a lurid and nearly interminable version of “Bye Bye Love,” shockingly and hilariously twisted by Fosse into “Bye Bye Life.” It’s in exceptionally poor taste — Gideon and Vereen are flanked on stage by two dancers (Ann Reinking and Kathryn Doby) in sexy white tights covered in red and blue veins as Gideon and Vereen sing out, backed by a rock band decked out in silver and white, for an audience of Gideon’s friends, lovers, and rivals. Beginning with Vereen’s spoken introduction, this number goes on for 10 unbelievable minutes. Some reviewers complain about this, but length is part of the intended effect. It’s riotously, jaw-droppingly over-the-top. (“This must have cost a fortune!” someone exclaims, approvingly.)

“Bye Bye Life” also includes one of my favorite images from the entire film. As Gideon and Fosse sing, they raise their left hands, palms spread wide, in a common Fosse gesture. Fosse cuts to a shot looking down at Scheider, past his open hand, as he sings with a little smile on his face. A few edits later, Fosse cuts to a similar but lower angle on Vereen, whose hand is held out so that his wide eyes can just be seen peering past his splayed fingers as he advances toward the camera. Vereen’s unctuous master of ceremonies routine is already a little unsettling in its smarmy enthusiasm and in this moment it becomes downright menacing. His character’s phony obsequiousness is a hallmark of show-business insincerity and his stage show a gateway to the underworld. I’ll always read Vereen in this scene as an avatar of death, if not the devil himself, collecting the prize offered up to him by Angelique, the phenomenally beautiful vision who finally seduces Joe into going gentle into the good night.

All That Jazz is at least as impressive formally as it is thematically. The editing, in particular, is sophisticated and expressive, trusting the audience to keep up as it short-circuits unnecessary exposition, or slips effortlessly, when needed, into flashback mode. Alan Heim’s Oscar was well deserved, but Fosse, too, had by this time learned a lot about what happens when you cut two pieces of film together. A look at the screenplay he wrote with Robert Alan Aurthur reveals that the film’s tricky structure had been worked out pretty carefully before it landed in the cutting room. The script was written in a way that gave Fosse room to improvise his shots on set — storyboards were not part of the equation — but the film was structurally sound before shooting began. Repetition, for instance, is a storytelling strategy that shows Gideon’s attitude changing over time. We see his morning routine of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, Visine and Vivaldi repeatedly, followed by the peppy declaration, “It’s showtime, folks.” He looks more ragged each time he revisits the schtick, and the declaration eventually becomes sarcastic. Occasionally the trick gets heavy-handed; we hear The Standup’s riff on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying looping through hospital halls, obviously freighted with added meaning the second time around. It makes some sense — after working so long cutting those scenes, the sound waveforms of every gag in that film must be tattooed on Gideon’s ear canals — but the lines start to land like cudgels. Still, the approach is consistent. The first half of the film is cut in a way that showcases the winning confidence that puts Joe at the top of his game; later, the style emphasizes Joe’s anxiety at his worsening physical predicament and his despair at the flawed legacy he leaves behind.

Here’s another example, from the film’s first reel: “You finished, or you want to run it again?” comes the voice from the projection booth overlooking the little theater where The Standup is being screened. “No, I do not want to run it again, thank you very much,” answers Gideon from his seat in row two. “We are finished.” Much later, on the cusp of the film’s final reel, we hear the projectionist’s innocent question again as a non-diegetic audio insertion — another one of Gideon’s hallucinations. This time, his response is different, and much weaker: “Yes, I’d like to run it again. I’d like to run the whole thing again.” By now Gideon, who has fled his sickbed and is staggering through random hospital corridors, has had some time to think it over. His arms are raised to a ceiling light fixture; his hands are seen in silhouette as though pressed against an out-of-focus movie screen. (Fosse, who would hire cinematographer Sven Nykvist to shoot his next film, Star 80, was almost certainly paying homage in this moment to Ingmar Bergman and the famous opening images of Persona.) That figurative blank slate represents another movie inside this movie: the biopic Gideon longs to make, the one with the likable protagonist. He’d prefer that to the one he’s already made for himself — the one that he’s stuck inside. In this way, death has become attractive. It is, at least, an escape.

An even more singular achievement is his cinematic approach to the musical numbers, which are never cut to the beat, but are instead cut to highlight performance and story. That is, they showcase the dance — with moves, not edits, placed in sensitive counterpoint to the music — and with dancing and dancers like these, that’s of primary importance. Fosse went a crucial step further, first staging his routines for the proscenium and then reworking them with the idea that the camera is not just recording, but is participating in the action — it’s choreography for camera, and it makes a huge difference. Fosse understood that film editing would allow him to achieve a degree of precision in choreography on screen that was impossible on the stage. “Dancers’ bones broke, but celluloid did not protest,” writes biographer Sam Wasson in his book Fosse.

For the “Take Off with Us” centerpiece that occupies a full eight minutes near the middle of the film, Fosse used two approaches. For the first section of the number, which is an engaging but fairly standard example of Broadway choreography, the camera hops freely from position to position and Heim’s cutting often mickey-mouses against the audio, with edits falling in rhythmic time with the music. As the lights go down and the by-now-sweaty dancers strip for the second, more scandalous “Airotica” section of the number — the one that Gideon springs on his uncomfortable producers without warning — the takes get longer and Heim once again begins cutting based on the performance on screen rather than matching beats and bars. Where the camera previously tracked sideways across the front of the rehearsal studio, taking in the chorus line, now it sits mainly on tripods, the stationary frame highlighting the ways the dancers have partnered up in erotic pantomime. (“Now Sinatra will never record it,” the songwriter mutters, head in hands.) Quick inserts of the band juice up the kinetic action, as do lead dancer Sandahl Bergman’s frenzied gyrations. The primary effect — the depiction of an artistic provocation and its immediate aftermath — is so satisfying that David Fincher and Paula Abdul stole it wholesale for a music video released two years after Fosse’s death in 1987. But their recreation sidesteps the real point of the number, which is about the emptiness of casual sex—of Joe Gideon’s favorite kind of sex. Gideon reads aloud from the script to spell it out, but his voice is nearly drowned in the mix: “Not once during any of our flights have we had the crash of any real human contact or the bumpiness of any real human communication. Our motto is, ‘We take you everywhere but get you nowhere.’”

And it’s moments like that that undercut Fosse’s outward boastfulness with punishing autocritique. All That Jazz is a complex film, not least with regard to Fosse’s intentions in making it. For one thing, he knew that he was getting older. I don’t know how much he worried about the possibility that he could be dead within 10 years but, given his heart problems, that idea had to have crossed his mind. He knew for certain, based on his experience with the failure of Sweet Charity, that if he didn’t have a hit it could become very hard for him to make another movie. As he embarked on All That Jazz, he must have had his own legacy in mind. And there’s the thing about boastfulness. It’s considered bad form, sure, but it’s not necessarily rooted in egotism. It can also grow from insecurity, as a defense against vulnerability, real or imagined. It can be a form of play-acting that keeps the shadows at bay.

You could accurately describe All That Jazz as a musical comedy about death, which is completely accurate, but that shortchanges the visceral sense of fear at the film’s raw and bloody heart — fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of oblivion. I first saw it at the age of 12, and already it held me rapt, dazzled and frightened by the adult world it seemed to reveal. I’ve always experienced it as a horror movie where the monster is mortality. It’s exhilarating but  terrifying. It pushes the bounds of film narrative to create an unsentimental tableau that incorporates grotesque and even cruel fantasy elements. All That Jazz is a remarkable, genuinely epochal achievement, and sometimes I despair that there may never be another one like it. Thirty-five years on, it retains its status as the last great American movie musical.

The Criterion Blu-ray release does not disappoint. The transfer was made from a new 4K master created under the auspices of Twentieth Century Fox’s film library guru, Schawn Belston, and it’s one of those discs that almost perfectly evokes the time and place of its creation. The image has been dust-busted to near perfection without damage to the grain structure and the colors have been timed to be rich but not gaudy (a and there’s an earthiness to the color palette—lots of green, yellow and brown—that somehow conjures New York City in the late 1970s. The image is fairly high contrast, which looks good; if I were to question any aspect of the picture, I’d wonder if a little more shadow detail couldn’t have been retained in some shots where the blacks look a little crushed. (A fairly recent print timed under the supervision of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno was used as reference for this version of the film, and the DP reportedly insisted that the picture be made “much darker,” at least in shots from the “On Broadway” opening number.)

Audio quality is likewise excellent; like the video, it shows its age in the best ways. Bass is tight and only aggressive during the musical numbers, where it adds welcome presence to the track. The stereo mix is three discrete channels up front — left, center, right — with no surround info and includes relatively little in the way of directional effects or stereo separation. In fact, the musical numbers sound more or less monaural, even “On Broadway” and “Take Off With Us,” until Gideon’s hallucinations kick in, when the soundstage opens up. The mix sounds fairly conservative by contemporary standards until you turn it up. Blaring at full tilt, “Bye Bye Love” is glorious — crisp and detailed and distortion-free.

Let’s go deep on the sound mix, shall we? I was unclear on the provenance of this three-channel track. Some sources claim that All That Jazz was blown up to 70mm with magnetic stereo sound tracks, but it doesn’t appear on the generally comprehensive lists posted at in70mm.com. I thought it was just possible that All That Jazz was an early Dolby Stereo title, but wouldn’t that be a four-track mix by definition? By incredible coincidence, I found myself just two degrees of Facebook separation away from a fellow named Glenn Berger, who recorded and mixed the film’s music. I contacted him. He told me that Fosse was suspicious of Dolby Stereo, especially after Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz had used the technology and flopped. Instead, the plan was to play 70mm prints with Berger’s stereo mix on mag audio tracks at premiere engagements in New York and L.A. and then send 35mm prints with dynamic range and frequency range severely compressed for the then-standard mono optical audio format. For reasons Berger didn’t want to get into on our phone call, Fosse nixed the stereo version at the last minute. According to Berger, it was never released anywhere. “That was incredibly crushing for me, and I was convinced that nobody would ever get to hear the movie the way it was meant to be heard,” he told me.

It turns out that “On Broadway” and “Take Off With Us” weren’t mixed in mono, but both numbers were limited in their scope. The George Benson tune was delivered to the production as a finished master track that didn’t support any fiddling with the mix. And on “Take Off With Us” and “Airotica,” Fosse was adamant that no music sources could be added to the mix that didn’t appear on screen, limiting the instrumentation to two keyboards and a drum kit. “He wouldn’t even let us sweeten the track with a bass or anything else to give it some propulsion or oomph,” Berger remembers. “The reason those tracks sound kind of mono-ish is that it was just those three instruments.” In the film’s fantasy sequences, composer Ralph Burns was allowed to use more elaborate orchestrations that lend themselves to a bigger soundstage. He also notes that moviemaking technology of the time meant that he was limited to six tracks on the mixing stage, rather than the unlimited number of tracks that are available with today’s digital mixing consoles.

If you’re a fetishist for authorial intent, don’t fret about the legitimacy of this previously unreleased mix. A few years after the film’s original release, Berger says, it was being considered for a reissue, and Fosse screened a 70mm stereo print at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan. Berger says it was then that he received a letter from Fosse, who said he realized it was a mistake not to release the film in stereo.

The disc is loaded up with well over three hours of extra features, some of them created and curated for this release and others ported from previous Fox DVD releases in 2003 and 2007. If you’re looking to get the biggest return on your time investment, Criterion’s offerings will get you the furthest, fastest. An episode of Tomorrow (31:51; a high-def upconversion of the SD original) features Fosse in conversation with host Tom Snyder and legendary choreographer Agnes De Mille that originally aired on NBC in January 1980. It covers a lot of ground — Fosse talks about how he auditions dancers and what he looks for, Snyder prods both guests about eroticism in dance, and Fosse remembers how creating a TV commercial for Pippin saved that show from obscurity. At one point, Snyder noted that dancers might resent seeing a choreographer’s name above the title even though they’re the ones busting ass on stage every night, plus matinees. De Mille’s magisterial response: “So what?” I gasped out loud in my living room.

Criterion once again goes to the well of The South Bank Show, this time delivering a Fosse interview (27:01, another HD upconversion) that originally aired in March 1981. Fosse really turns on the charm as Melvyn Bragg gets him to open up about his life and times, including his earliest experiences in the world of “very low-class vaudeville” and how it influenced his adult work. Fosse then moves forward through his entire career, discusses his feelings about choreographing dance while taking the movie camera into account, and revealing that Hollywood accountants have determined that it takes him a full shooting day to get each minute of a musical number in the can. During the section that covers All That Jazz, Bragg confronts him with a quote from De Mille, who apparently snarked about Fosse’s work that it has “taken the eroticism out of sex.” Fosse thinks for a moment before landing a return blow, which I won’t spoil here. But, I swear, I gasped out loud again.

An interview with biographer Sam Wasson (20:43) might not sound enticing, but Wasson ably shoulders the burden of describing the greatness of All That Jazz. It’s a really good piece of criticism. Among other observations, he muses on “the conflict between sexy and scary at the same time” in Fosse’s work, connecting it to his early experiences working “really bad places really late at night” in the Midwest. Wasson ultimately posits as Fosse’s major theme “razzle-dazzle, which is the smile that the snake wears … putting a happy face on something that’s not so happy.” The New Yorker critic Hilton Als ably makes a more high-flown case for the film’s masterwork status in a booklet essay that offers a detailed reading of Fosse’s filmmaking style, but Wasson’s analysis really connects on the human level.

A 1986 interview with a verbally hyperactive Gene Shalit (26:14) covers a bit of new ground, with Fosse lamenting the aging process, musing on death and looking back on his love life. “We all know,” Shalit jokes, “the only reason you became a choreographer is: how else can you meet 1500 girls in five days under union auspices?” Near the end, Shalit asks Fosse (who was known for fixating on his bad reviews) if he’d prefer a world without critics. “That’s really a tough question,” Fosse says, considering it for half a moment before deciding, “I wouldn’t mind it.”

Editor Alan Heim is featured on the film’s full-length audio commentary from 2007, which is worth listening to in its entirety despite some stretches of dead air. It includes an anecdote describing how, after the film ballooned past its original $10 million budget at Columbia Pictures, Heim had to scramble to put together a rough assembly and messenger it to California in the hope of convincing another studio to pony up another $10 million so Fosse could shoot the rest of the picture, including the “Bye Bye Love” number and all of the scenes with Jessica Lange. (Alan Ladd Jr. loved the footage and Fox stepped in to put up the extra funds.) Criterion rounded Heim up again for a new HD video interview (15:19) that originated on the 2007 DVD. There’s some overlap with the yak track, but Heim does get to talk about his previous work with Fosse on Lenny, including how the editing of that film informed the script for All That Jazz. He also addresses the follow-up Dorothy Stratten biopic Star 80, remembering an unsuccessful group effort to get Fosse to soften that film’s violent ending. Heim calls it a masterpiece but acknowledges that audiences “really hated it.” Most interesting might be Heim’s recollection of how Fosse insisted, even in the cutting room, that Joe Gideon was not his alter-ego, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. “It was Fosse’s life,” Heim says. “And he just kept denying it.”

The last of the new-for-Blu features is a loose, far-reaching conversation (34:00, HD) between dancers Ann Reinking and Erszebet Foldi. It starts with Foldi’s memories of naively auditioning for Fosse as a ballet student (he liked her “innocence,” she says). They discuss their work together on the film at length, and also compare notes on Fosse’s “crooked look” and how it influences his choreography, with Reinking specifying that it’s Fosse’s background that gives those moves meaning. Subtext, she says, is what takes dance “out of the gymnasium.”

Held over from the 2003 Fox release is a partial audio commentary (34:40) recorded by Roy Scheider in 2001. Scheider talks in helpful, straightforward terms about his and Fosse’s working methods. For example, he says that during the “On Broadway” number he had an earpiece through which Fosse, watching from the balcony, directed him on his interactions with the dancers. After asking Fosse what it feels like to have a heart attack after bypass surgery, he had an assistant director kneel on his chest to get the right feeling for one of his close-ups. He also goes on the record about Richard Dreyfuss’s production-delaying departure from the film before he came on board, and his campaign to get Fosse to take him seriously as an actor. (I’m not clear on whether any footage of Dreyfuss as Joe Gideon was actually shot, much less whether any of it might survive, but that would sure be interesting to see.) We also get some vintage documentary footage of Fosse on set (7:58), which ably demonstrates his interest in finding exactly the right camera angles, as he peers up through a handheld viewfinder, scoping out his trademark low-angle shots from various corners of the set. Another clip from the set has a TV reporter trying to get appropriate sound bites out of Scheider for 3:54.

Does anybody read this far down in these reviews? The remainder of the Fox features amount to little more than barrel scrapings. We get to spend an engaging 3:36 with George Benson, who provides anecdotes about recording his version of “On Broadway” at The Roxy in Los Angeles, although his stories have tenuous relevance to the film itself. “Portrait of a Choreographer” (22:46)  is your typical studio puff piece with an array of screen and stage luminaries (singers, dancers, choreographers) paying tribute to the Great Man. More of the same is on tap in “The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards” (7:50), which has a talking-head gallery including Fosse’s Cabaret singer Liza Minnelli, “You Oughta Know” co-writer Glen Ballard, Devo co-founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” perpetrator Diane Warren and more gushing over the song score. These are accomplished people, yeah, but their assembly here feels very random, like someone held the Capitol Records building upside down, shook it hard, and asked everyone who fell out to talk about All That Jazz.

Rats: Night of Terror

By any rational measure, Hell of the Living Dead and Rats: Night of Terror are cheesy barrel scrapings, budget-starved and blandly offensive horror counterfeits. But by the standards of Mattei’s filmmaking ouevre—which also includes nunsploitation, Nazisploitation, women-in-prison flicks, and mondo-style “documentaries”—they are the cream that rises to the top of the milk.