Midnight Special is readily understood as a film about being a parent who loves a child so much — and of course there are plenty of movies about people who love their children, so a common objection is that this one is too humorless and withholds action and who needs that? But there’s something about the way this film depicts the way adults interact with the child in question — not so much a cute kid like you’d see in a Steven Spielberg movie, but a weird kid like you’d read about in a Stephen King novel — that’s as heartening as it is serious and sad. It works as a metaphor for raising an autistic child, or a physically ill child, or a prodigy, or some other young handful. The climactic visualization of the remove between young Alton and his surroundings isn’t tremendously satisfying as an action set piece, but it’s a solid science-fiction metaphor, and it makes better emotional sense here than the same gimmick did in Tomorrowland. But in its presentation of confidence and selflessness as imperatives for parents and parental surrogates, Midnight Special plays like a stoic, even-keeled answer film to the crisis of faith posed by The Babadook. Continue reading
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.
David Carradine wears a dress and nobody says a word about it for the duration of Sonny Boy, a low-budget thriller set in a timeless Panavision desert where the preferred modes of transportation are dirt bikes and dusty pickup trucks. It eschews mainstream cultural signifiers–the one glaring exception is the blonde with tousled music-video hair and ridiculous outfits straight out of Desperately Seeking Susan–and instead dedicates itself to world-building, making its arid small-town environment a microcosm for the cold world outside. So complete is Sonny Boy‘s conception of a cruel universe in miniature that it comes with a downbeat theme song written and performed, right there on screen, by Carradine himself. (A lyric from said song* is engraved, I kid you not, on Carradine’s tombstone.) Carradine is the big name, but the whole cast is better than it needs to be, and that makes a difference. They add a recognizably human element to an otherwise demented scenario and, even more importantly, they keep a film that sometimes feels almost like outsider art from amplifying its self-conscious idiosyncrasies to the point of out-and-out parody.
“Enough is never enough.” So goes a key advertising tagline featured in The Stuff, a bracingly contemptuous critique of consumer culture from Larry Cohen–a man who knows a thing or two about exploiting mainstream tastes. Well regarded among B-movie buffs as a master of high-concept screenwriting coupled with low-budget execution, Cohen was, in his 1970s and 1980s heyday, what auteurists call a smuggler: a writer-director who embeds subversive social commentary in otherwise innocuous genre storylines. The Stuff‘s science-fiction scenario offered some bare-bones corporate intrigue along with a few opportunities for the special make-up effects team, but it also lampooned the businessmen who hawk goods of dubious quality and the haplessly credulous populace that lines up to buy them. The film’s eponymous grocery product is a mysterious but plentiful and apparently tasty substance that burbles up, unbidden, from beneath the earth’s surface. Capitalism being what it is, the distinctive white gloop is quickly productized and monetized by a corporation that doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care) that The Stuff seems to move with a mind of its own.
Michael Moriarty plays ex-FBI agent Mo Rutherford, now a freelance industrial spy hired by Big Ice Cream to figure out what’s in The Stuff and how the company makes so much of it. One of Mo’s strategies for getting inside the factory is to woo marketing mastermind Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci) with phony promises of purchasing her agency. (Not only does she fall for his line, but she’s inviting herself back to his hotel room within minutes of meeting him–you’d think an ad exec would be savvier, but strong female characters have never been a Cohen forte.) Meanwhile, 12-year-old Jason (Scott Bloom) gets Mo’s attention by embarking on his own little suburban anti-Stuff crusade, demolishing in-store displays of the substance. Together, these three make up a surrogate family working to save the world. The supporting players include Garrett Morris as “Chocolate Chip” Charlie, a cookie mogul losing market share to The Stuff, Danny Aiello as a former FDA agent with a guilty conscience, and Paul Sorvino as an armed-militia leader who’s stirred to action when Rutherford reveals that The Stuff, not fluoride in the water, is the deadly contaminant threatening the American way of life.
In addition to the obvious, amorphous model of The Blob, one of the key forebears of The Stuff is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both versions, but especially the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake), with its burgeoning army of calmly persuasive pod people insisting that their anxious friends and neighbors should simply relax and go to sleep. This film calls them “Stuffies”–people who’ve eaten enough of The Stuff that it lives in their bodies and can control their minds. Sometimes it leaves their bodies, too, resulting in a handful of eye-popping if unconvincing gross-out scenes that add just enough shock-value to qualify the generally comic proceedings as a horror movie. (“I kinda like the sight of blood,” grumbles Sorvino’s Colonel Spear as he watches the white goo issue from various fissures in a fresh corpse, “but this is disgusting.”) As a matter of fact, The Stuff is hard to get a handle on — it’s part conspiracy thriller, part creature feature, and part outright farce.
If The Stuff seems awfully simplistic at times, it’s hard not to admire its grace notes. For instance, Cohen shot phony TV commercials for The Stuff (one of them stars Abe Vigoda and “Where’s the Beef?” pitchwoman Clara Peller), and they add some tongue-in-cheek flavour. And when Cohen has Sorvino’s Jack D. Ripper/Rambo hybrid leading a raid on The Stuff factory, there’s the hint of a joke somewhere about the irony of an inveterate right-winger going Marxist by taking control of the means of production, although it doesn’t really cohere. So let’s not give Cohen too much credit simply for exhibiting a social conscience. John Carpenter sent a similar message a few years later in They Live, but his critique explicitly and satisfyingly targeted Reagan-era policies, implicating consumerism on a greater scale and with more working-class conviction than Cohen could muster.
One of Cohen’s talents is his instinct for casting, and The Stuff got him working again with Moriarty, whose idiosyncratic performance had elevated the earlier Q: The Winged Serpent. Moriarty plays Rutherford as a crafty and competent hustler who’s arrogant and fearless. In his first scene, he greets his new cadre of old, white bosses with a passive-aggressively hilarious “Hello, sweaty palms!” He has beady eyes and a poker face and delivers his lines hesitantly, like he’s thinking them up as he goes. (Moriarty is indeed a fan of the ad lib.) His ersatz southern accent is less impressive; just assume he’s from the same county where Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards character supposedly grew up. No wonder Cohen went on to make a total of five films with Moriarty: the guy energizes the director’s work in a way that other actors can’t quite manage. There is one more truly fine performance in this film, and it’s by Robert Frank Telfer, playing Jason’s father. Though Jason’s parents are clearly addicted, it’s his dad who takes it upon himself to convince the boy to stop worrying and love The Stuff. He does this in weird, affectless speeches delivered directly to the camera with a chillingly insincere “hey, slugger” smile on his face. I don’t know if Telfer is a great actor, per se, but those scenes are very effective and he’s great in them.
Ultimately, what really lets the movie down are the creature effects. I’m not talking about the serviceable miniatures work or even the make-up effects, which are transparently phony but deliver a gross-out in spite of their cheapness because of the lovingly sick imagination that went into their imperfect crafting. (One of the latex heads appears to have a bad case of acne on the inside of its mouth, which is top-notch squickiness in my book.) And some of the optical composites are clever and nearly seamless. Yet most of the shots involving The Stuff in motion are unconvincing. That would be fine were they unconvincing in awesome ways (like the ridiculous but endearing bird monster of Q), but instead they’re unconvincing in boring ways. Even busting out the old “rotating room” gag — as seen in Royal Wedding and A Nightmare on Elm Street — so that The Stuff can puddle up on the wall and ceiling doesn’t do the trick. Obvious time and budget constraints aside, it doesn’t help that The Stuff just isn’t a very compelling monster. Its soft, vaguely sticky white form suggests yogurt and ice cream gave birth to a marshmallow. And despite his considerable skills, Cohen doesn’t have quite the directorial chops required to make a marshmallow scary.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of The Stuff is, in a word, gorgeous. From the opening scene, an almost monochromatic chiaroscuro composition with strong diagonal lines (it was shot in an actual snowstorm), it’s clear that Arrow’s 1.85:1, 1080p transfer, sourced from a 2K scan of the original camera negative, is on the money. The picture has an exceptionally film-like texture and a tremendous sense of depth; it’s breathtaking. A very fine, organic layer of grain has been touched ever-so-lightly, if at all, by dust-busting algorithms, and the average video bitrate is a generous 35 Mbps. As a result, the image has a vibrancy and liveliness that’s rarely matched by transfers of indie genre pics, let alone big-studio Blu-ray titles, and the grain structure holds up, even when scrutinized on a frame-by-frame basis. Audio is only a centre-channel monaural track, reproduced here as uncompressed LPCM audio, but it’s crisp and clean and free of noticeable distortion, although the overall dynamic range is obviously limited. This is a model release.
Extras are limited to a talking-head documentary and a movie trailer. We get the trailer (it’s in 1080p though darker and grimier than the feature proper) twice, once with pithy commentary by director Darren Bousman (Saws II through IV) courtesy Trailers from Hell. The documentary, Calum Waddell’s “Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff” (53 mins., HD), is pretty good as these things go, offering plenty of face time with director Larry Cohen, who shares the spotlight with producer Paul Kurta, actress Marcovicci, make-up effects guy Steve Neill, and genre-savvy film critic Kim Newman. Cohen talks at some length about the idea for The Stuff, at one point tracing it back to cigarette giveaways during World War II. “The cigarette companies killed more American boys,” he muses, “than the Japanese and the Germans combined.” Kurta remembers that Cohen taught him “not to get too hung up on little things–like the screenplay.” He remembers getting scripts, worrying about how the crew would pull off the elaborate scenes required, and being told, “Don’t worry about it — I’ll change it.” Although Moriarty is not on hand, we hear about his on-set methodology, including a penchant for making up dialogue as he went along. Marcovicci calls the production “a hellzapoppin’ crazy scene.” And quite a bit of time is spent explaining what, exactly, was in The Stuff when it appeared on screen. “When we had huge masses of it,” Cohen says, “it was the foam that the fire department uses to retard flames, and that stuff is made of ground-up fishbone. And you can imagine what it must smell like.” Cue Marcovicci: “It was wretched. It was unbelievably horrible.”
While this piece probably delivers just as much information as an audio commentary would have (and Anchor Bay is in fact sitting on one from a 16-year-old DVD release), one might have made a nice complement. Too, it would have been nice to see some of the original in-film advertisements in their entirety, though Cohen all but admits in one of his interview segments that they’re lost. Completing the retail package is a “collector’s booklet” with an essay by Joel Harley that wasn’t provided for review.
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.
Perpetual character actor Leland Orser (his credits include Se7en, Alien: Resurrection and the Taken series) gets a much-deserved lead role in this low-budget drama in which he plays Ansel, a cult deprogrammer and past-his-prime pop psychologist hired by a mother and father to rescue their little girl, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), from her willful immersion in a sketchy, pseudo-religious organization known as Faults. Director Riley Stearns sets a seriocomic tone right from the start, as Ansel tries to con his way into a free meal at a hotel restaurant with a voucher he fished out of the garbage. (When he’s called out by management, he starts shoveling forkfuls of ketchup into his face on the assumption that he won’t get ejected until he’s done eating.) Orser is fantastic in these bits, which establish the general desperateness of his situation. But the film soon gets quieter, and weirder, as he kidnaps Claire and holes up with her in a motel room while her anxious parents wait next door. Fortunately, the film is generally up to the challenge it sets itself; scenes where Ansel and Claire converse, one on one, as he tries to work her out of her delusions even as she evinces an unshakeable faith in her beliefs are plenty compelling for their unpretentious intensity. But the whole thing suffers from too-much-story syndrome, with a subplot about Ansel’s manager (Jon Gries) and his enforcer (the terrific Lance Reddick) looking to extract $20,000 from their near-destitute client feeling dropped in from another movie entirely. “Hey,” you might wonder, “where can this possibly be going that so much extraneous stuff needs to be happening?” It’s distracting and, worse, it’s dull. Still pretty good stuff in all.
And so two sequels were made—Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (hereafterSCII and SCIII)—that put transsexual serial killer Angela Baker back in action. In the original Sleepaway Camp, Angela was an orphan boy who had been forced to live as a girl, but in Gordon’s narrative, Angela is all woman, having undergone a sex-change operation in the interim. Pamela Springsteen (yes, the Boss’s sister) plays her as a cheerfully-extroverted prude with a mean streak working under an assumed surname as a camp counsellor who remedies moral transgressions by “sending campers home” in a variety of ways, many of them involving blunt-force trauma. Both films are populated by an assortment of 20-somethings playing teenagers, with fading stars—Walter Gotell (known for multiple appearances in James Bond films) in SCII and Michael J. Pollard (an Oscar nominee for Bonnie and Clyde) in SCIII—making what amount to extended cameo appearances as ineffectual adult supervision for the hormone-addled supporting characters.
While both movies are unimaginative no-budget crapfests, SCII is the better film by a good margin, simply because it looks like everyone involved had a pretty good time making it. The sense of fun is infectious, even if the execution is lousy. Angela clocks her first victim over the head just five minutes in, so there is no suspense about the identity of the killer. From there, SCII lurches along from scene to disconnected scene, sprewing clichés drawn from slasher movies and teen sex comedies, interspersing gore, comic skits, female nudity, and pretend sex, along with explicit homages to pop culture of the time—not just horror icons Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Leatherface, but also “Brat Pack” actors who have characters (Mare, Demi, Judd, Emilio, et al) named after them. The overarching aesthetic seems to be ‘1980s sitcom,’ including the equivalent of a clips show partway through: Angela has a bad dream that involves recapitulating earlier scenes in slo-mo, as the filmmakers struggled to fill their contractually demanded 80 minutes of screentime.
Springsteen is OK in the central role, though no one who saw these films could be surprised to hear they vaulted her into a successful career in a completely different field. (She’s known these days as a photographer.) But the MVP of SCII is Valerie Hartman, a blonde with ’80s hair and a sexually-assertive attitude who seems to be alone among the cast members in understanding exactly what sort of movie she’s appearing in. As Ally, Hartman has three nude scenes, two of them full-on sex scenes—a challenge she embraced without self-consciousness, despite the fact that her partner seems to spend one of those scenes vigorously licking her navel. Unfortunately, her character’s exhibitionism codes her as a slut, which leads to the requisite mean-spirited scene in which Angela shoves her face into a latrine full of, yes, shit and leeches, which are lovingly depicted in her death. (“This is a good example,” opines Gordon on the accompanying audio commentary track, “of a girl getting what she deserves.”) At that point the film is barely halfway over, and none of the surviving characters is half as lively as Ally was.
Still, the perfunctory Sleepaway Camp II is a white-knuckle thrill ride compared to the lethargic Sleepaway Camp III. Everyone was tired by the time they shot this sequel—Gordon wrote the script during the two weeks the previous film was shooting—and it shows on screen. The picture opens with a bizarrely out-of-place pre-credits vignette in which Angela runs down a victim on the streets of Atlanta by chasing her into an alley with a Mack truck. The encounter is ridiculously off-message for a Sleepaway Camp movie. Sure, it explains how the by-now-notorious serial killer sneaks into yet another summer camp (identity theft!), but the last thing these movies need is more backstory—not to mention what must have been by Sleepaway Camp standards an insanely expensive siphoning of money away from everything else in the production.
Once the film actually arrives at Camp New Horizon, it introduces two separate groups of campers: the good kids and the delinquents, named after characters from The Brady Bunch and West Side Story, respectively. Among the key players are Riff, a black kid who likes hip hop and movies filled with “tits and blood,” and Cindy, a Southern-fried racist who calls him “a dirty nigger.” Unpleasant, yes, but it’s an excuse for Angela, later on, to hoist Cindy up to the top of a flagpole, then drop her 20-something feet so that she lands on her head, hard. (That’s how this movie thinks.) Also on hand, for some reason, is the father of one of Angela’s previous victims, as well as mild-mannered redhead Marcia (Tracy Griffith, half-sister of Melanie), who becomes the Final Girl in time to join a limp catfight with Angela at the climax.
Like the previous film, SCIII features gore effects by Bill “Splat” Johnson, but when the movie got tagged with an X rating by the MPAA, most of his work hit the cutting-room floor. That’s a genuine shame, because the vim and vigor of a movie like this is found in its gruesome punctuation. The most graphic scene that remains in the R-rated version is probably the one where Angela shoves a lit firecracker up a sleeping camper’s nose and blows his face off. Most of the death scenes have been trimmed to get a rating, and violent grace notes, such as a woman’s head getting shredded in the blades of a lawnmower and a boy’s arms getting torn from his torso by a pickup truck, are missing entirely.
Outside of those kinds of so-so gore effects, the Sleepaway Camp series remains of interest, barely, due to its protagonist’s outsider status. It’s a shame that Gordon and Simpson didn’t have the wherewithal back in 1988 to do something really interesting with the franchise, like cast an actual transgender actress or at least attempt to explore Angela’s internal life in some emotionally credible way. Instead, they mostly paint her as an overly chipper sex- and fun-loathing scold with a special contempt for women. At one point in SCIII, the filmmakers see fit to strip one of their young actresses to the waist and have her roll around in a tent with Herman (Pollard), a counsellor easily twice her age. Although the predatory Herman is clubbed to death with nary a word to shame him, Angela can’t help berating the girl’s semi-nude corpse: “It’s a good thing you’re dead, because in a couple of years your breasts would have been sagging something horrible.” That’s not my idea of a good time, but at least these movies get something right: they accurately capture the feeling of being stranded for a few hours with terrible, terrible assholes.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Though Scream Factory’s Blu-ray editions of Sleepaway Camp IIand III aren’t quite stellar, they’re plenty good enough for these films, offering generally clean 1.85:1, 1080p transfers from elements in good condition. Print damage, both positive and negative, is visible but not distracting, and the films have a grainy look appropriate to their era and the conditions of their making. Bitrates are similarly generous, set to an identical 36 Mbps for the pair. If anything, Sleepaway Camp III looks a little better than II; it features a lot of daylight exteriors that are vividly presented, with deep autumnal colours providing a rich backdrop. The color overall seems more saturated, too, especially in interior shots, where Sleepaway Camp II can be a bit drab. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono tracks are adequate but nothing to write home about; the movies’ mixes are not especially demanding, though some of the dialogue recording has a somewhat hollow-sounding midrange that had me pressing the subtitle key once or twice. The heavy-metal songs that play under the credits sound OK.
The discs recycle the 2002 DVD releases’ audio commentary with director Michael A. Simpson, screenwriter Fritz Gordon, and superfan John Klyza, who runs the officially-recognized fansite for the Sleepaway Camp franchise and is almost as interested in breasts as he is in the films themselves. These yakkers are about as informative as you could hope, without a lot of dead air, and give the movies some replay value for fans as the filmmakers talk about how clever they thought they were being with an attempted takedown of slasher clichés. (“Fritz’s scripts gave us permission to laugh,” says Klyza, whose main critical theory is that these Sleepaway sequels inspired the Scream films.) Most notably, they reveal some of the their thoughts when it came to Angela’s character, whom they tried to portray as sexually confused by suggesting her latent attraction to women. I didn’t really catch it but, sure, that’s possible. More to the point, Gordon explains—with a bit too much satisfaction—that “every Sleepaway Camp has a slut that gets it toward the end.”
Special features are generous, with the new 54-minute HD documentary “A Tale of Two Sequels” presented as a two-parter split across the discs. It covers much of the same ground as the commentaries but with additional voices in the mix. Along with Simpson, participants include the films’ very articulate DP, Bill Mills, and editor, John David Allen, along with a few actors from either sequel. (Many of them seem to have faded back into obscurity in their native Georgia environs.) Springsteen, unfortunately, is nowhere to be seen. The most interesting part is probably the stretch towards the end where SCIII‘s run-in with the MPAA ratings board is discussed, and Allen laments his lack of foresight in failing to save the original film elements for the cut scenes so that they could be presented in something resembling mint condition rather than as grainy outtakes from a VHS copy of the workprint.
That’s a good segue to the very best supplement found on either of these discs: Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland includes that VHS-quality workprint in its entirety. I would actually recommend, with a straight face, that newcomers to these films watch this X-rated version of SCIII in abominable quality instead of the more pristine HD transfer. Not only are the unedited gore scenes outrageous enough to earn the movie probably an entire extra half-star, but the junky image quality is more flattering to the flick’s shitty-TV-show aesthetic. And, face it: if you’re going to spend 80 minutes watching Sleepaway Camp III, you may as well see the whole thing, even if it doesn’t look so pretty.
Other features on the Sleepaway Camp II platter: “Abandoned: The Filming Locations of Sleepaway Camp II & III“, a 15-minute tour of the now-overgrown YMCA camp where the films were shot; 13 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage (with commentary by Simpson) mainly covering make-up FX, save for some glimpses of the costume department and craft services at work; an amateurish “short film” (really, about 30 seconds’ worth of fan footage) titled “What Happened to Molly?” that belongs on YouTube, not here; a two-minute promo (up-res’d from SD to 1080i) aimed at getting video stores to stock the cassette version; and a seven-minute gallery of production photos, promotional stills, and other ephemera.
Filling out the Sleepaway Camp III disc are a whopping eight minutes of behind-the-scenes footage covering the garbage-truck sequence, again with commentary by Simpson; 19 minutes of deleted scenes (basically, this is all of the kill sequences from the workprint strung together at their full length, and thus duplicates material that appears elsewhere); another three-minute VHS promo, this one basically one-liners from the film playing over heavy-metal music; a four-minute stills gallery; and another one-minute fan-service short, this time with actor Mark Oliver appearing as his character Tony from the film in the present day.
Finally, these BDs come in packages with reversible cover imagery, the florid new art by Nathan Thomas Milliner commissioned specially by Scream Factory backed with cheesy promo images from the original releases, which had very little to do with the films they were promoting but have fairly high nostalgia value for anyone who spent a lot of time perusing rental shelves in the late 1980s.