The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)
Transferred from a print struck from the original camera negative, Kino’s recent two-disc presentation of The General looks shockingly new, as if Keaton had shot the thing last summer, with the heightened effect — one of the film’s enduring phenomena — that it also looks like Keaton shot the thing 140+ years ago during the Civil War. And forget the whole “it looks like a Mathew Brady photograph” business that commentators like to give it; Brady, hampered by the era’s slow-as-molasses film emulsions, mostly photographed corpses — they don’t move — and generals, who were told not to move.
But Keaton’s characters and objects do nothing but move. Once he parks his locomotive at the beginning of the picture, Johnny Gray (Keaton) becomes a locomotive himself, chugging down wooden sidewalks, pulling two little boys along like a tender and a caboose, while his girlfriend, Annabel Lee (Marion Mack), follows in order to surprise him at his destination, her own front door. A perfect preamble for a most perfect film.
News of Fort Sumter cocks the trigger of the plot, sending Johnny to the recruitment office, which promptly rejects him without saying why (he’s more valuable to the Confederacy as a railroad engineer). Ostracized by Annabel and her family, who mistake him for a coward, Johnny feels ineffectual and emasculated until the daring daytime theft of his engine by Union infiltrators provides his eventual redemption.
In the ensuing chase, utilizing several vintage locomotives, one of which he destroys, Keaton pushes basic slapstick shtick into a realm of kinetic grandeur, where a small man not only struggles with the forces of gravity, inertia, and all the other dilemmas presented by physics, but, triumphantly, takes charge of them to win the day. Having been given the chance to prove mastery over the physical world, Johnny’s victory over the enemies of the Confederacy and a total exoneration in the eyes of his beloved Annabel almost seems an afterthought.
So it’s true: the best film ever made about the most horrific, tragic chapter in American history is a comedy. In the midst of the picture, an epic visual gag has Johnny obliviously steaming into Union-held territory, busily managing his supply of wood in the tender, as, moving in the opposite direction precisely parallel to him, toward a confrontation with the rebels, swarms an entire Yankee army. It’s a very funny sight, but unaccountably moving, too. When the armies do converge, Keaton stages a train disaster not equaled until David Lean blew up that bridge on the river Kwai in 1957.
Keaton made this supremely beautiful film by first carefully selecting his location: a rural area in Oregon providing him with the necessary narrow-gauge tracks for the old trains and a dusty small town that I’m sure needed very little alteration to send it back to the 1860s. The lowly mise-en-scene and lived-in costumes are unassumingly authentic, as is the goldenrod that flourishes alongside the railroad tracks, all of it lovingly photographed by his duo of cinematographers, Bert Haines and Dev Jennings. But with Kino’s gorgeous transfer, The General has nothing of the nostalgic about it; we are in a timeless present that is only tangentially 1926 and then somehow more robustly 1864, a remarkable time-shifting achievement by Keaton.
Kino offers three musical accompaniments, and they’re all beauties. Carl Davis’ time-honored, full orchestral score is the default, and one seems to prefer it right away, but then a surprise comes when you try out Lee Erwin’s delicately attuned theater organ track, which underscores the film where Davis’ often overlays and becomes too much of a good thing. As lovely — and richly recorded — as the Davis score is, Erwin’s had me more focused on the rhythms and visual nuances of the film. Robert Israel, leading a small string ensemble, offers a delicacy that enhances your experience, too. All three composer/arrangers clearly love the film, and it’s a privilege to have their efforts all on one edition.
Arrayed on the second disc, the special features includes a video tour of the actual locomotive, The General, while giving a summary of what happened during and after the real Great Locomotive Chase. Separately, John Bengtson leads a tour of the filming locations. Finally, we have a Gloria Swanson introduction from the circa-1960 TV show Silents Please (a summer replacement for The Ernie Kovacs Show) and also one from Orson Welles, from a later TV omnibus on silents.
US/1926/color tinted/78 min./full frame (1.33:1). Released on DVD by Kino International in 2008.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)
Half of Criterion’s recent two-disc release of this cold war-era film is taken up by a slew of special features that prove exemplary even by that company’s standards. The most vivid among them are two on-camera interviews, one each for Richard Burton and author John Le Carré, and a hefty documentary, produced by the BBC, focusing on Le Carré’s long-suppressed career as a spook himself.
Burton’s interview, conducted in 1967 by critic Kenneth Tynan, features a stream of surprisingly frank self-revelations from an actor at the height of his fame. Tynan points out the weak man, Mark Antony, Burton had played in Cleopatra (1963), wanting to connect that quality to the character of Alec Leamus, his role in Spy, but the actor beats him to it, saying, “one must always play defeated men.” Burton played a lot of them in his career, from Philip Ashley in My Cousin Rachel (1952) to George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), the latter of which followed the Martin Ritt film. And let’s not forget the actor’s on-stage stints as Hamlet, a smart and witty man always hampered by indecision and fear. Burton calls himself “naturally, a frightened man,” who is haunted by, describing the untranslatable meaning of a Welsh word, “ridiculous longing.”
It seems Burton carries these qualities on his face, and in that voice, into all his roles, but Alec Leamus seems perfect typecasting for him: an alcoholic, burnt-out, disgraced British agent formerly directing East German operatives from divided post-WWII Berlin. When his boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), wants him to play a disaffected Western agent ready to defect, the role is not a stretch for Leamus, or Burton.
But Le Carré, giving us plain talk in his 2008 interview, didn’t much like the Burton pick, preferring, if he’d had a say in it, Trevor Howard. The author’s chief complaint about Burton was his booming “thespian voice,” which Martin Ritt, Le Carré recalls, kept trying to dial down during filming, agreeing with Le Carré that Leamus, as a working class spook with “brown knees,” required less of the stage and more of the street to be believable. And Le Carré makes an intriguing point when he comments that Burton had “taken up the whole space of the character,” leaving no room for mystery or speculation — qualities, he says, an author likes to leave for the reader. He points out that Alec Guinness, as George Smiley in the two Le Carré BBC adaptations, was able to do exactly that.
Yet Le Carré is willing to admit that the actor managed to energize the entire film. Burton’s Alec Leamus is melancholy, bemused, distrustful, and smoldering with a nonspecific anger that, given the opportunity in the script, expresses itself in a coruscating delivery of sarcasm and wit. Behind it all, though, there’s a frightened quality, a “please rescue me from my self-involvement” plea around the eyes, qualities Burton assigns to himself in the Tynan interview.
Yanked from his former post and seething with resentment at the patronizing handling he receives from the upper-class Control, Leamus nonetheless accepts his assignment, goes underground to snag a grubby library job, drinks too much, and slugs a grocer during a binge (Burton plays a very authentic mean drunk). His burst of violence buys him a few weeks in the clink — and all this to impress Soviet agents that he’s ready to come over. Unfortunately, Leamus has fallen in love with his library co-worker, Nan (Claire Bloom), an idealistic communist who manages to get under his disillusioned skin to find a human being still surviving in there.
“I can’t play with girls,” Burton announces with faux gravitas in his interview, explaining he’s never been able to play a romantic lead convincingly — unless it’s with his wife, Elizabeth. “I can’t bear to be touched on stage or screen,” he elaborates. Even more central is the actor’s response to Tynan’s observation of Burton’s air of isolation on the stage. Speaking of theater directors and fellow actors on the boards, Burton says he’s felt like telling them, “don’t come near me, leave me alone.”
As Leamus and Nan become involved in the film, Burton projects this same emotional isolationism — don’t touch me, stay away — that makes his final acceptance of her love so touching and his gesture toward her at the end so unbearably necessary. Burton’s large presence and outsized personality inhabit a small man, and that disparity gives the film’s character a dimension Le Carré didn’t anticipate. Writing novels is a solitary business, but making movies is a messy, collaborative one, with the odds for success stacked against each production. But then any number of unforeseen catalyses may occur — like when the neurotic, grandiloquent Richard Burton noisily seizes control of the quietly desperate Alec Leamus. All novelists who take their lambs to the movie marketplace should be so lucky.
USA/1965/B&W/112 minutes/1.85:1 aspect ratio. Released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2008.
Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer: His Picture in the Papers(1916) (1966); Mystery of the Leaping Fish(1916); Flirting with Fate (1916); The Matrimaniac (1916); Wild and Woolly (1917); Reaching for the Moon (1917); A Modern Musketeer (1917); When the Clouds Roll By (1919); The Mollycoddle(1920); The Mark of Zorro (1920); The Nut (1921)
“We get a kick out of flowers, maybe they get a kick out of us. Who knows?”
The line quoted above, from an intertitle, of course, comes courtesy of the last film included in Flicker Alley’s joyous new five-disc Fairbanks set, and, although no one will ever say that Douglas Fairbanks shot to fame by means of talk, I found it funny anyway. Playing the title character in The Nut (1921), the actor tosses the line off to his girlfriend in the picture, the blithely named Estrell Wynn (Marguerite de la Motte), to make her laugh, which she does. We do too, even though the picture itself, released a year after The Mark of Zorro (1920), is slim stuff.
By this time, though, if you’ve watched the ten films behind it in chronological order — even though no one from Flicker Alley advises you to experience them in this way — you realize this Fairbanks fellow was the life of the party that we call Silent Film. Forget the silent clowns — Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon — they went for the tears behind the laughter. This guy here — “Doug” to both intimates and the public — plugs us into pure adrenalin-fueled hilarity, with no other agenda in sight.
Watching him fly out of the gate in 1916’s His Picture in the Papers, I thought, well, D. W. Griffith, who at that time was overseeing Fairbanks’ Triangle productions, had a point when he declared that Doug’s got “a head like a cantaloupe and can’t act.” Fairbanks was no doubt and still is considered handsome, but at times, sans swashbuckling mustache, he can come close to resembling Al Jolson, and, in the earliest features, it ain’t acting he’s doing, it’s grinning, laughing, and climbing the facades of three-story buildings.
None of this changed much in the films of the next five years, but it was and is quite more than enough to cause a stupendous amount of entertainment. To this, all I can say is, I had no idea. What makes Fairbanks such a phenomenon is probably what alienated Griffith, who was not one to surround himself with alpha-male star performers with enormous physical presences. The actor’s athleticism very nearly defines him, but he’s no jock, and his gymnastic feats come not from a competitive or power-driven ethos, but from an oddly attractive drive to be, in some pure-blooded American way, decent, and, above all else, funny.
The plots of these films are transparently contrived vehicles for Doug, whose mission in all of them is to save women from unwholesome and humorless men. Some of his adversaries are of course dangerous, even would-be rapists, like the best villain of this set, Wallace Beery in The Mollycoddle (1920, right). Here Fairbanks plays Richard Marshall, the son of an Arizona frontiersman who, brought up in England, enters society as a monocled fop — hence a mollycoddle, a term coined by Teddy Roosevelt to describe an over-pampered, effete male. In the course of the show, which is unabashedly delightful, Marshall must lose the monocle and gradually regain his father’s heritage of rugged Western manhood while on complexly plotted adventures in his dad’s home state.
Most of Fairbanks’ early characters are doofuses, obsessive types, or deranged rich boys leading split-level lives as both cheerful misfits and remarkably agile and gravity-defying athletes who can evade or chase anything, including love itself, by jumping through windows, climbing up drain pipes, and leaping over any object in their path, usually when none of this is remotely necessary.
Although the early Doug goofball/athlete dialectic is a satisfying and very funny one for romantic comedy, it threatens to become formulaic until Fairbanks happens upon the character of Zorro, who features this dualism all nicely combined into one swashbuckling ideal — masquerading hero with secret identity (another rich eccentric) — that now seems as inevitable as the chords of a late Beethoven piano sonata, or, more appropriately, the panels of a Batman comic. Now, with hindsight, it appears that all those wonderful comedies leading up to The Mark of Zorro had been astute preparation for this 1920 masterpiece, not to mention Fairbanks’ defining work thereafter as Robin Hood, the Black Pirate, and so on. It was also important that he grow that mustache.
In Zorro, Fairbanks has gained in acting chops, too. His portrayal of Zorro’s cover as the sleepy Don Diego Vera is more than comic shtick. The “gay blade” business may have begun here, but Fairbanks doesn’t overplay, that is, drive the character into a mincing, effeminate caricature. Moving about listlessly, his eyelids drooping with ennui, Diego is instead subversively sexless. As he performs underwhelming parlor tricks to whatever unappreciative audience, Diego’s total negation of a macho Latino stance frustrates his intended, Lolita (Marguerita de la Motte), puzzles his enemies, but endears him to the audience.
The film itself is a beauty, offered here in a pristine print that must not be too far from the original negative. There’s a remarkably intelligent script — from a story by Johnston McCulley — and within its well-structured plot, the set pieces — chases, sword fights, a prison escape — flow organically, although it must be said that Fred Niblo’s staid direction seems less to guide the action than to get out of the way of it. When the governor’s soldiers pursue Zorro throughout a sleepy California village, Fairbanks is superb at climbing adobe walls, hurtling over hay wagons, and sailing into mission windows, proof positive, if it isn’t out there already, that Doug was the godfather of parkour.
After finishing watching these discs, I couldn’t remember ever being more entertained. If Fairbanks has been forgotten these days, this is tantamount to film buffs of fifty years in the future forgetting about Cary Grant. Flicker Alley has done an immense service to the state of my wellbeing, anyway. Remember that scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters when the Allen character, relieved of his cancer scare, goes to a revival house to see Duck Soup, and realizes, well, aren’t the Marx Brothers what makes life worthwhile?
Nah, it’s Doug.
All the films in this set feature newly composed or arranged scores by a plethora of esteemed musicians, among them The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Philip Carli, and Robert Israel. An extensive essay on Fairbanks, by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, authors of a new biography of the star, appears in an accompanying booklet. My highest recommendation for this magnificent release.
All films: US/1916-1921/Silent/B&W and tinted/760 mins./OAR 1:33. Released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2008.
Fighters/Real Money (Ron Peck 1991/1995)
Like many of us, director Ron Peck has mythologized the sport of boxing not by sitting at ringside or even by watching televised matches but by inhaling images from the movies. Peck’s own private boxer is Robert Ryan in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949). As Stoker, Ryan is too old for the game but refuses to retire, even as his wife pleads with him to quit and his own manager places bets on him with the likelihood that he’ll take a dive in his upcoming match. Stoker is oblivious to such expectations and betrayals, and his hopeless courage in the face of a predatory, unforgiving environment provides the film its noirish irony.
Wise’s picture plays low and mean, but we revel in the stylized black-and-white lighting design, noir’s aesthetic geometry of despair. In Ron Peck’s Fighters, a documentary on boxing in London’s East Side, there are no velvet shadows or accompanying redemptive ironies.
Somehow ingratiating himself with a group of active and retired boxers — and their trainer, Jimmy Tibbs — Peck shot much of the film in a gym that’s neither old nor new and has nothing of the picturesque or the bygone quaint about it. Here it’s always a hard-edged, punishing present, reinforced by Peck’s choice of photographing with hand-held video throughout. Tight close-ups lend an intimacy to the workouts and the sparring, but for all the sweat-glistening flesh on display, Peck allows little of the sensual — it’s discipline and hard work in a brightly lit, functional place of constant routine; outside, the debased urban environs in which the fighters jog reject any bid to romanticize them.
Contrasts to the glare and grit come from Peck’s occasional insertions of scenes shot in a mock-up of Stoker’s hotel room in The Set-Up, a forties era version of a skid row dump that plays less to nihilism than to mythic angst. By having his boxers mime Robert Ryan’s movie despair within it, Peck wants to play a tonal disjoint off against his documentary realities. But it’s a gamble that only fitfully pays off.
His youthful fighters exhibit a surprising dignity, but generally they seem more interested in getting back to their workout than in talking to Peck. The main freight of the picture is a poignancy that comes from watching this group of dedicated athletes buck the socio-economic odds stacked against them. These guys seem like such a decent, honorable bunch that you welcome the off-kilter energy of Jimmy Flint, a retired lightweight probably in his early thirties who’s still pumped up with a barely restrained desire to do damage to people. Jabbing at the air, he explains that even as a child he wanted to smack people around. Clearly, he wants to look dangerous; it’s possible he really is.
In Fighters, Flint has basically one interview session with Peck, who might’ve minimized Flint’s screen time so he wouldn’t overwhelm the film’s less dynamic subjects, especially the featured Mark Kaylor, who’s returned from the U.S. to attempt a comeback; his struggle and ultimate failure in this quest somehow lacks drama. But this may be Peck’s point — that the future of most of his fighters may be inherently tragic, but tragic in a quiet, banal way, as each of them, outgrowing the sport, will turn to near poverty, or soul-numbing employment, or drugs and crime. The trainer, Jimmy Tibbs, looking like a forlorn John Cassavetes, likes to talk about his charges, but his face is lined with loss, knowing as he does what will happen to them when they pass thirty.
Flint, however, may have a future in the movies. So does the melancholy Tibbs if he wants one. Peck’s next work, on this set’s second disc, is Real Money, a narrative film suggested by his work with these boxers and created in collaboration with them. Here Flint plays a small-time hood, Frankie Chalmers, the kind of part reserved for Richard Widmark back in the day. Chalmers, luring down-in-their-luck boxers to careers in crime, bristles with a reptilian malevolence while Tibbs, playing basically himself as a trainer, recognizes a cancer when he sees one and seeks to wipe out Chalmers.
The film has a loose, improvisatory feel, and at the very least his cast of non-acting boxers perform with a natural ease. At its best, there are the memorable turns by Flint and Tibbs, around whom Peck has wisely built his plot, which, refusing to wrap up neatly, ends with a mother’s terror over her son’s future. A follow-up film to Real Money, called Gangster, was planned and rehearsed but, through lack of funding, never completed.
Second Run’s package includes a host of special features. Among them, Peck has contributed a newly filmed interview and the rehearsal tapes for the unfinished Gangster. A 63-minute documentary, Night of the Fight, details Mark Kaylor’s comeback match, and the inserted booklet contains a new essay by Peck and articles on both films by boxing writer Harry Mullen.
UK/1991;1995/Color and B&W/101 mins. (Fighters); 75 mins. (Real Money)/OAR: 1:33/PAL format. Released on DVD in 2008 by Second Run.
Lady with the Dog (Josfi Kheifits, 1960)
The Chekhov short story from which Kheifits’ film is taken is a paragon of economy, weighing in at fewer than seven thousand words in the Constance Garnett translation and offering a tale of transparent simplicity. Within a couple of pages, Dimitri Gurov, a bored, thirty-something bank official on vacation at Yalta away from his wife and children, has courted and seduced the lady of the title, Anna Sergeyevna (Iya Savvina), who, unhappily married to a provincial politico, also vacations solo, accompanied only by her small white dog.
Trapped in a loveless marriage, prearranged when he was a boy, Gurov (Aleksey Batalov) has become adept at managing brief transient affairs that barely ruffle the surface of a soul-deadening existence set on autopilot. But with Anna, he discovers, it’s different: they have both fallen in love in a way that disobeys the perimeters of a summer affair: “They loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends,” announces Chekhov. As both return to their married lives, the lovers find themselves meeting sporadically, in a discreet Moscow hotel, to share for a few hours at a time what demands to be shared over the space of two lifetimes.
“We’re like two migrating birds, caught and housed in separate cages,” says Anna in one of the film’s final scenes, “and they’re going to die of grief.”
Savvina, whose previous acting experience had been solely in college theater, was around twenty-two when cast in Lady, the precise age of her character as Chekov’s story opens in Yalta. Gurov finds the young, inexperienced provincial an easy target for seduction. One of the film’s most indelible images has Anna, her long blond hair undone after their first sexual encounter, weeping from intense remorse in front of a single lit candle while Gurov at a distance listlessly picks seeds from a watermelon slice.
“What do you want?” is all he can say to her outpouring of despair. As lit by the candle, Savvina looks even younger than her years and a hapless victim; Batalov, with close-cropped beard and arched eyebrows, is the bored roué, a predator. Yet before the week is out and Anna leaves Yalta for home, the two of them are passionate equals, adrift in the same boat far from the moorings of convention and morality. Implicit in their predicament is the impossibility of divorce.
Batalov, a handsome actor who was to give a memorable performance ten years later as a sadistic White Russian officer in the Soviet film The Flight, delivers an astonishingly nuanced portrayal of Gurov, who in the course of the film becomes increasingly sensitive and vulnerable to the emotional depths of his love, Anna. By film’s end the demands of his compartmentalized life seem to have made him frail and prematurely aged.
Savvina is radiant throughout. When she trains her translucent, light blue (we assume) eyes on Gurov, we understand why he can’t bear to hold them too long with his own: there’s simply too much unquestioning love streaming out from them. Savvina’s performance should be hailed as legendary; it’s her unaffected beauty, her precise, high-pitched diction, and ability to project a pure singularity of feeling that gives this film such an air of transcendence. Hers is a performance that seems more to be sung than merely acted.
Kheifits, his writers, art director, and photographer have endowed the film with a novelist’s attention to detail, some of which has been gleaned from Chekov and some added. Diegetic music proves important: dissonant to the blossoming romance, there are brass bands playing the promenade at Yalta, and, when Gurov surprises Anna at her small-town home base, it’s at the provincial opera house, which is staging an authentic period operetta, noted by Chekov, The Geisha (1896, Sidney Jones). It’s likely the pit band in the film plays from the actual score of this piece (it sounds like Offenbach), and their playing is less than stellar, capturing with precision Gurov’s impression of the orchestra in Chekov’s text as “wretched,” with “feeble” violins. When outside Anna’s house, Gurov paces along “the long gray fence studded with nails” described by Chekov, we hear piano music, and it’s a Chopin piece played well by Anna. Earlier, in Moscow, the film introduces us to Gurov’s piano playing; he attempts a lighter “album leaf” kind of parlor piece and is clearly not as gifted nor as musical as Anna. This discrepancy, alive to the state of each character’s inner life, is a nuance belonging to the film alone.
Lady with the Dog also carries a sublime orchestral underscore by Nadezhda Simonyan. Its main theme, a broad, Tchaikovskian cantilena, expresses the sweet bliss of their initial Yalta affair. As Gurov, back in Moscow, performs his parlor piece in front of family and friends, memories of Anna flood his consciousness and Simonyan’s tune overwhelms the piano music. But the tune also plays to the couples’ resigned grief. Sounding for the last time, it accompanies Gurov’s wave from the snow-covered street as Anna peers from the lit window several stories above him. The calm, gentle affection of his gesture (saying: I know you’re sad, so am I, but I’ll be back) combining with the heightened pathos of Simonyan’s melody is one of the great romantic moments in cinema.
Facets’ transfer, effectively nullifying the Ruscico effort available from Image, is nearly flawless, allowing the exquisite photography — especially the Yalta scenes — its full emotional grandeur. One of the most essential, gratifying discs of 2008.
USSR/1960/B&W/89 mins./In Russian with English subtitles. Released on DVD by Facets in 2008.