It’s one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man’s obsession with storytelling. It’s not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there’s a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the […]Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
Bitter Rice is a heck of a film. It’s the story of a couple of refugees from an American film noir who stumble into a grindhouse showing an Italian social-issues drama. The beautiful losers are Walter and Francesca (Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling), a pair of small-time crooks on the run following the heist of a lifetime. The social conscience is personified by a class of peasant women who have for hundreds of years traveled from all over the country to work hard days in the rice fields of northern Italy, and also by, to some degree, ethical, committed soldier Marco (Raf Vallone), who lingers in the rice fields after his discharge because he has come to care about the fate of the women there. And the sex appeal is provided, in spades, by Silvana Mangano, a bombshell and a half. When producer Dino de Laurentiis and director Giuseppe De Santis cast the 18-year-old in the role, she had already appeared in a few films and had been the teenaged girlfriend of young Marcello Mastroianni. But her performance in Bitter Rice–a role that had her shaking her tits, swinging her hips, and hiking her skirt up to here–made her an overnight sensation.
Though it shares some characteristics with noir, Bitter Rice comes straight out of the original Italian post-WWII neorealist movement. It’s much pulpier than textbook neorealism, but it also feels earthier and more grounded than your typical noir. It’s definitely more fun than most neorealistic works, pitting its characters against each other as they jockey for power, shelter, and affection. A cadre of laboring mondine in short shorts or with their skirts hitched up above their thighs might not raise the body temperature of young cinephiles raised with access to Rihanna’s Instagram feed, but in 1949 it must have been quite a diversion. At any rate, according to Gregory D. Black’s book The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975, the film’s U.S. distributor didn’t even bother running it by the Production Code office for approval before booking it in theatres on both coasts. The code’s enforcer, “Mean” Joe Breen, was no doubt dismayed at reports that the picture’s wanton display of female flesh was at once “flagrant and purposeful.” If Bitter Rice annoyed the censors, it ran into similar trouble with left-wing critics who applauded the political aims of neorealist cinema and thus deplored the introduction of salaciousness and genre-film elements into such a film. “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” complained the Marxist critic Guido Aristarco. He had a point: As complete as Bitter Rice‘s commercial success was, its more sensational elements heralded the decline of neorealism, as Italian audiences grew impatient with hard-luck stories and filmmakers began taking more cues from Hollywood cinema, which dominated the local box-office.
I’m not saying De Santis was deliberately moving away from neorealist principles. In fact, he takes pains to balance the movie’s genre pleasures by underscoring the story’s roots in reality. The opening scene features a narrator speaking directly to the audience to bring context to what we’re about to see: a grandly-choreographed tableau of a station where hordes of female laborers are boarding trains bound for the Po Valley rice fields. As the camera pulls back, the fourth wall drops into place as the man assumes the persona of a broadcaster and declares, “This is Radio Turin,” before continuing to describe the scene, which De Santis pans across to establish the grand scale of his production–scores of women walking, a train chugging towards the station, trucks passing by–before the camera alights on a pair of undercover cops scanning the crowd. Another impressive tracking shot, this one moving sideways alongside one of the train cars (we see the passengers inside, framed through their little windows), stops to introduce Silvana (the character shares Mangano’s first name), dancing among a group of women in repose as, in the background of the scene, a line of workers carrying baskets moves purposefully, in counterpoint to her relative abandon.
It’s all the stage-setting the picture needs. Walter dances briefly with Silvana before he is spotted by police. He flees the scene and Francesca boards a train out of town, stolen loot in hand, blending in easily with the migrant workers. Meanwhile, the attentive Silvana quickly deduces that Francesca and Walter were behind a newsmaking jewelry theft. Thus a romantic triangle is created, and the necklace Francesca clutches in a perfumed handkerchief becomes a talisman of sorts that changes hands, rising and falling in significance, over the course of the feature. So that’s the pulpy, noirish storyline. It’s carefully interwoven with a salt-of-the-earth tale of Italian labor, as a group of uncontracted workers (including Francesca) faces off against unionized labor for a share of the rice fields. Bitter Rice shows the adversarial relationship turning to solidarity as a community develops among workers all sharing the same kind of hard-luck stories regardless of their status. And there are metaphors aplenty. Walter’s crass treatment of both Francesca and Silvana suggests the exploitation of the Italian poor by its formerly fascist government, and Silvana’s enthusiasm for tabloids and the boogie-woogie symbolizes the encroaching, hegemonic influence of the U.S., which may have given Jean-Luc Godard some ideas.
What really distinguishes Bitter Rice is De Santis’s commitment to formal dynamics in ways that marry the social drama to the crime drama. The first real indication that De Santis is flirting with something akin to magic realism comes when the farmhands distribute wide-brimmed hats to the women for protection from the sun; the ensuing scene plays out with a plethora of hats spinning endlessly through the air in the background of shots, eternally aloft, as a chorus of women sing in unison about their work in the rice fields. The image has an unreal, almost storybook quality that threatens to sentimentalize hard labor. A scene in the film’s midsection where Walter dances with Silvana a second time, leading to a violent confrontation with Marco, is a master-level study in cinematic choreography, as the camera and the characters together make precisely-executed movements and the editorial rhythm builds to a fevered pace. As the mondine band together to protect themselves by going to work despite heavy rain–missed days in the fields will keep them working longer, putting their harvest contracts back home at risk–Silvana instead sneaks off with Walter, leading to the strongest and most harrowing sequence in Bitter Rice: Silvana teases Walter by poking at him with a long, slender branch; he grabs it away and starts whipping her with it in a scene that descends into a violent rape.
The film cuts immediately to measured, evocative shots of the women working in the downpour, with Otello Martelli’s high-contrast cinematography lending their faces a stark, severe look. The blankets tented over their heads suggest religious drama; as one of their ranks falls ill, the others attend to her in way that, photographed from a crane looking down, resembles the petals of a flower closing gently around the ailing woman. There’s a tremendous sense of beauty and fellowship here that nonetheless alienates the traumatized and needy Silvana, who shows up only when the group is already rallying around one of its own. The sequence culminates in a tracking shot showing Francesca carrying the sick mondina, a group of weeping women falling in line behind her, as Silvana runs clumsily alongside them in parallel, stumbling and falling into a ditch, her isolation and despair complete. The last we see of her in this scene, she is alone in the frame, staggering away from the camera while Walter watches, unperturbed, from the safety of a reverse-shot edit.
The sexual politics are a touch dubious but not out of the ordinary for films of this era. It’s hard to shake the feeling that De Santis and his co-writer Carlo Lizzani are scolding Silvana for her regard for American culture as well as punishing her for licentiousness. Feminist readings center on Francesca, who is intelligent enough to eventually see through Walter’s manipulative, controlling routine–it’s the implication that she is a piece of property that is his to give away that drives her finally to action at the climax. Yet if De Santis is more condescending to Silvana’s character, he is also strongly empathetic with her. The camera evokes sympathy for her even during her humiliation, tracking along with her as she moves through the rice fields, going in close as she begins to comprehend the mess she’s made during the film’s slaughterhouse showdown. Mangano’s performance isn’t technically accomplished, but it is stirring nonetheless; you can read the moral epiphany on her face, and you can see that it absolutely wrecks her. And there’s the key–beyond the sex, the guns, and the jewels, Bitter Rice is anchored by its fierce convictions about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Mangano’s downfall isn’t so much her sexuality as it is her selfishness and avarice. Walter’s real criminality is the scheme he hatches to steal the stored rice that’s meant for distribution to the mondine. And De Santis’s accomplishment isn’t the debasement of neorealism some regarded it as–it’s a combination of humanism, technical skill, and straight-up showmanship serving a timeless story of class- and gender-based exploitation. As a political tract,Bitter Rice lacked purity. As cinema, its head-spinning melange of social commentary, romantic melodrama, heist picture, and, yes, shimmying movie musical is crystalline.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Bitter Rice should go some way towards raising De Santis’s profile in the U.S. (where neorealism is generally taught along the Rossellini-De Sica axis), even though extra features are scanty and the HD transfer is solid but unspectacular. Criterion’s liner notes are unusually vague when it comes to the provenance of this master, averring only that a “new high-definition digital transfer” was created from the “original camera negative.” Criterion’s Lee Kline is credited as the transfer supervisor, though the grading was performed in Rome by the Digital Factory at Cinecittà Studios. The resulting 1.33:1, 1080p presentation is attractively silvery and low-contrast–maybe a mite too low-contrast, as there’s a flatness to some shots that threatens to smooth out details completely, particularly in the highlights. Even with the restricted dynamic range, the picture has a pleasantly filmlike quality and it may underscore an aesthetic distance between the neorealist tradition and the more contrasty films noir out of Hollywood. There are some minor image imperfections (scratches, mainly), and a handful of shots, like one at the end where some of the women sprinkle rice on a body on the ground, exhibit notably less detail than the bulk of the film. The LPCM monaural audio is similarly OK. It’s remastered from an optical track and was substantially cleaned up, although surface noise is still quite audible and there’s an unavoidable brittleness to the sound, especially at higher volumes.
In a seven-minute interview originally recorded in 2002, De Santis’s co-writer Carlo Lizzani remembers the making of Bitter Rice, tracing its genesis to the director’s encounter with a large group of mondine departing for the rice fields at a train station in Turin on his way to Paris. Among other topics, Lizzani describes the film’s reliance on co-writers like Carrado Alvado to maintain the scenario’s working-class authenticity; the discovery and casting of journalist and former soccer player Vallone (who he calls “our Virgil”); and the decision to make Silvana Mangano’s role more prominent than originally planned.
Beefier scholarship can be found in “Giuseppi De Santis”, Lizzani’s 53-minute documentary on the filmmaker from 2008. Like the previous featurette, the image quality is strictly standard definition although it has been upscaled to 1080i, with some of the archival footage–including excerpts from interviews with De Santis himself–cropped on the top and bottom to 16×9. Generally, the program frames the director’s career in the context of Italian neorealism. It discusses neorealism’s political roots in the Italian resistance, the rarity of three-dimensional female characters in Italian cinema of the period, and De Santis’s status as “the Hollywood soul of Italian cinema,” as writer Steve Della Casa puts it in a talking head. De Santis’s childhood in the central Italian city of Fondi is considered, as is the critical re-evaluation he underwent following a neorealist conference/retrospective at the 1974 Pesaro Film Festival and the politically-motivated ostracization from the film industry he faced in the last 20 years of his life. It turns out that De Santis wouldn’t make anything he didn’t believe in–and that’s why he’s seen here on screen, insisting that his unproduced projects should be considered alongside his finished work as crucial elements of his biography.
Before Krzysztof Kieslowski became the standard-bearer for the latter-day European art film with ravishing portraits of unspeakably beautiful women living their lives under unutterably mysterious circumstances, he was a gruff but adventurous chronicler, in both documentary and narrative films, of lives lived in the rather more drab surroundings of communist Poland. Well, money changes everything. It was the arrival of funding from Western sources that bestowed the gift of abstraction: Beginning with the internationally-celebrated The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, it made Kieslowski’s expressions of ennui beautiful. But in the 1980s, Kieslowski had less time for beauty. Continue reading
Richard Widmark is hungry. There’s no better way to describe it. As Night and the City opens, he’s scampering, lean and lithe, through darkened London, avoiding a barely-seen pursuer like a cat trying to make it home with dinner jammed between its jaws. I’m not sure anyone in movie history runs as well as Widmark runs in this film, pulling Donald O’Connor-esque twists and turns that send his limbs flailing about in silhouette, and then ducking around a corner and pressing himself flat against the wall, as though wishing he could disappear into the bricks themselves. He’s got beady eyes that suggest venality and a face that stretches taut over high cheekbones, light and shadow throwing the contours of his skull into sharp relief. As Harry Fabian, an overconfident con artist with a small-time hustle who’s always imagining angles on a big score, Widmark is worse than a loser–he’s a dead man walking. You’d be a fool to trust a man like that, and yet someone always does.
In Night and the City, director Jules Dassin’s cynical meditation on the ruthlessness of capital and the hierarchy of scoundrels, Fabian is a guppy among sharks, aiming to turn his gig as a club tout into a position commanding power and respect. Ambition is no sin, even in film noir, but Fabian is rotten to the core. For one thing, he’s squandering the only real currency in film noir: the love of a good woman (Gene Tierney), whose attention he barely returns and from whom he steals petty cash. (“I just wanna be somebody,” he whines.) For another, he has no honour. When he hatches his plan to become a big-time wrestling promoter, he makes it happen by flat-out betraying everyone who agrees to help him. Eventually, of course, the jig is up, yet Widmark’s shameless series of double-crosses keeps him going long enough that it almost feels like he’s going to get away with it all. Instead, his world comes crashing down. “You’re a dead man,” his old club boss (Francis L. Sullivan) growls at him, with conviction, in the film’s most satisfyingly sinister moment.
Sullivan, who brings Silver Fox owner Philip Nosseross to life as a worldly Kasper Gutman type, is just one of a slate of supporting players to give Night and the City so much flavor. There are also outstanding turns by beefy Stanislaus Zbyszko as the proud old-school wrestler Gregorius, Mike Mazurki as his new-style rival The Strangler, and, maybe best of all, Herbert Lom as Kristo, the gangster who radiates an aura of untouchable ruthlessness. Lom is every bit as calm and magnetic in his unsavoury role as Widmark is desperate and ultimately repellent in his. (As a matter of fact, Fabian’s shenanigans make Kristo’s initial show of restraint in leaving him to his own devices seem all the more impressive as an expression of the character and maturity that Fabian lacks.) The grunting, bruising wrestling sequence that marks the second-act turning point–just Gregorius and The Strangler pushing and pulling at each other for more than four long minutes in a brawl they were hoodwinked into starting–is as effective a metaphor as any for the grappling that goes on among men trying to make money outside the law. As The Strangler’s deliciously-monikered manager, Micky Beer, puts it: “The only way to stop ’em now is to shoot ’em like mad bulls.”
And then there’s the city of London itself. Dassin is sometimes thought of as European thanks in large part to his famous French-language heist picture Rififi, but in reality he’s an American through and through — born in Connecticut and raised in Harlem and the Bronx — who ended up working in France after being blacklisted in his homeland. In fact, Night and the City was born from the blacklist; Dassin says the book was pressed into his hands by Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who hustled him off to shoot the film with a warning that it would likely be the last one he would be allowed to make for a studio. Dassin directed his heart out, imbuing the piece with a heady sense of time and place — The New York Times reported during production that 10 out of 12 weeks of shooting took place on location. The result is a handsome but desolate portrait of a city at ground level, from the crowds of Trafalgar Square to the rubble left over from attacks by German bombs. As Fabian runs, distinct London skylines tower above him, and the city takes on dismal, labyrinthine qualities that convey loneliness, corruption, and a certain rot in the soul.
What’s lacking, noir-wise, is a femme fatale. The girlfriend character, Mary (Tierney), is pretty hapless through and through, and Fabian’s sketchy business relationship with Nosseross’s wife, Helen (Googie Withers), is not just utterly sexless but thoroughly depraved, too–he hangs her out to dry without missing a beat. That’s what Widmark’s performance gets so right about the doomed man at the centre of the film. He lacks reflection and self-awareness. He has no sense of shame. He just keeps pushing forward, beat by beat, scheme after scheme, without stopping to take a deep breath or a word of advice, or consider the downward spiral he’s slipping into. Only when he realizes that he is well and truly wrecked is he allowed a moment of redemption, angling to let Mary collect the bounty on his head. The keepers of the Production Code must have been pleased. But Fabian’s comeuppance is a departure from the noir norm. Law enforcement doesn’t catch up with him, nor is he betrayed by the low morals of a lustful woman. Rather, he is executed, by men who are likely even worse than he, but with more power, cooler heads, and a better sense of style. Fabian is brought down not through his personal failings, numerous and significant though they may be, but by his status. He is, for all his effort, at the bottom of the food chain. Dassin understood quite well that in any pecking order, on either side of the law, the small fry is the one that gets screwed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion updates its already impressive and feature-rich 2005 DVD for Blu-ray with a new 4K transfer created (per the liner notes) from a wet-gate scan of the camera negative. The 1.33:1, 1080p image is pretty fantastic, with very fine film grain and a silvery quality that is more suggestive of those first-generation elements than previous, higher-contrast releases, which more closely resembled dupey prints. Though DP Max Greene isn’t well-known these days as a noir cinematographer, his pedigree dated to the German silent era and his work here encompasses generally low-key lighting with occasional strong highlights and expressive chiaroscuro (which is what most people talk about when they talk about noir). Criterion has ably captured his work for further study. The soundtrack, presented as uncompressed PCM mono, is robust for its age and boasts impressive dynamic range. There’s a surprising amount of bass in the mix, and Franz Waxman’s musical score roars over the top in full-throated Hollywood fashion.
Speaking of Waxman, this edition includes a real rarity: a contemporaneously-edited British version of Night and the City that runs five minutes longer than the U.S. one and features a completely different score, by Benjamin Frankel. By the time the film went into post, Dassin had been well and fully blacklisted and was unable to supervise the edit, though he later endorsed the U.S. release. The English version is inessential but fascinating as a glimpse into how a film’s payload can be substantially altered by a few different decisions in the cutting room. Specifically, this alternate cut presents Fabian as a somewhat more sympathetic character, finds time to further develop Mary and her friendly neighbour, Adam (Hugh Marlowe), and finally softens the harshness of the bleak ending. As well, Frankel’s score is considerably more sedate than Waxman’s bombastic orchestrations, making the film play more as a low-key crime drama than as the expressionistic nightmare movie buffs have come to know and love. The British variant’s image quality is lower, with thicker film grain and more visible damage, and Criterion has wisely opted to throw more bits at the U.S. version of the film, which gets an average video bitrate of 27.8 Mbps compared to 18.2 Mbps for the UK cut. Mind you, it still looks pretty good–it merely suffers in comparison.
Extras ported over from the earlier DVD include audio commentary provided by Glenn Erickson, known to readers of his DVDtalk.com column as DVD Savant. Erickson brings a wealth of research to bear on the subject — he refers to the original screenplay, the source novel, additional material from the English version, and reviews from the time of the film’s release — and drops in some of his own notes on the performances, direction, and cinematography. Also retained is Christopher Husted’s 24-minute comparison of the two musical scores, rendered somewhat redundant this time around (since both scores are available on the disc for anyone who cares to audit them), though it does offer additional context for interested listeners. The video has been upscaled to 1080i. Dassin speaks for himself in two supplements. The first is a 25-minute excerpt from a French television interview for “L’invité du dimanche” (in black and white, with a herringbone interference pattern, and upscaled to 1080i) in which the director (speaking in fluent, subtitled French) genially discusses the studio system, working with actors, shooting The Naked City on location in New York, and — as the room seems to get a little chilly — Elia Kazan and “the disease” of Hollywood McCarthyism. In an 18-minute interview conducted by Criterion in 2005 (also upscaled to 1080i), he talks a little bit more about the blacklist era, admitting that he was in such a hurry to get Night and the City underway in London that he never even read the source novel by Gerald Kersh — which was quite different from Jo Eisinger’s screenplay — until long after completing the film. He remembers the unfriendly reception the picture got in the British press, Zanuck’s intervention to have Tierney’s part written into the script at the last minute, and his feeling that Widmark would have been capable of playing Hamlet, given the opportunity. On the film’s status as a key work of noir, he seems both pleased and amused. “I didn’t know there was a ‘film noir’ until I learned the term in France,” he says. It’s a fine and timely piece of work on Criterion’s part, given Dassin’s death a few years later in 2008.
A pleasantly gimmicky movie trailer (presented in 1080p) closes out the video-based bonus material with the promise of “an intimate and intense picture of a city and the intruders in the night who live and love and hate under cover of its darkness,” while a printed essay by the late critic Paul Arthur puts the cherry on top, exhaustively cataloguing the film’s metaphorical and symbolic payloads. The insert unfolds to a poster with a painting depicting Harry Fabian, forever on the run, in London after dark.
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
*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 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.
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.