Judex (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) – Georges Franju’s 1963 dreamy remaking / reimagining of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 pulp crime fantasy serial of crime and retribution almost defies the definition of remake. On the one hand it is oddly faithful to the bizarre plot of Feuillade’s original, about a masked vigilante (played with an impassive, blank quality by American magician Channing Pollock) who makes it his personal mission to punish a cruel titan of industry who callously destroys lives in his grasp for power, while compressing the five-hour-plus story to 90 minutes. He keeps the wicked femme fatale (played by Francine Bergé with a delicious wickedness), the innocent maiden (Edith Scob), the goofy detective and his scamp of a boy sidekick, even the 1916 setting, as well as the surreal atmosphere and poetic logic, but the parallels end there. As Franju himself admitted, he wasn’t interested in the spirit of the original Judex as much as the form, and he trades rollercoaster pacing and cliffhanger adventure for a kind of dream ballet of Feuillade’s elegant thriller. Franju’s audience had no access to Feuillade’s films in 1963 – and for the most part still didn’t until a decade or so ago – and Franju compounded the surreal quality by abstracting the conflict even more: there’s no motivation for Judex’s actions, no personality behind the mask, no reason for any of this. It simply is, and it is strange.
This is the kind of film I should love and it’s beyond me why I don’t respond more favorably to Franju’s Judex. I adore the original and I find Franju’s Eyes Without a Face haunting and entrancing. There are moments here as original as anything you’ll find in the French nouvelle vague films of the same era – Judex striding through a costume ball wearing the fierce, feathered mask of an eagle and performing sleight of hand tricks that release pigeons into the ballroom – but it all seems to drift above the story, disconnected to any sense of justice or vengeance or emotion of any kind. It’s a matter of formal beauty and pulp conventions as modern fairy tale, with superhero antics turned into a kind of ritualized dance. Maurice Jarre’s score is delicate and dreamy, suggesting not menace but tragedy and a wistful sense of loss, and the crisp, creamy cinematography of Marcel Fradetal gives it an unreal quality in the rarified reality. Franju really wanted to remake Feuillade’s more sinister Fantomas, with its criminal underworld and large-than-life villains constantly eluding the hero, and I can feel his disappointment in settling for this. His imagery is superb but the stakes are too abstract in invest in.
In French with English subtitles. As usual, Criterion presents a stunning disc, mastered from the original camera negative and nearly pristine after digital clean-up (there are the ghosts of ancient damage in a few shots, a reminder that this is over 50 year old), and includes two rare Franju documentary shorts: Hôtel des Invalides (1951), a tour of the war museum narrated by Michel Simon, and Le grand Méliès (1952), a half-hour portrait of the life and career of the pioneering director. Also features the 1998 TV documentary Franju le visionnaire and interviews with co-writer Jacques Champreux (from 2007) and actor Francine Bergé (from 2012). The accompanying booklet features an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien (which seems rather conflicted in his affection for the film) and excerpts from interviews with Franju.
The Wind and the Lion (Warner, Blu-ray), the sophomore feature of director John Milius, is a small-scale version of the kind of grand historical epic that blossomed in the 1960s. Set in 1904 Morocco and loosely based on a true historical incident, the 1972 historical adventure stars Sean Connery as Berber chieftain and rebel leader Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli and Candice Bergen as American widow Eden Pedecaris who, along with her two young children, is kidnapped for ransom. Brian Keith is well cast as American President Theodore Roosevelt, who uses the incident as a platform in his election campaign — “Pedecaris alive or Raisuli dead!” — and sends American troops into Morocco to rescue the Americans, an action that could ignite war in Europe.
There is plenty of action with swords and military weapons and men in robes charging across the desert on horseback, all of it directed by Milius with a sweep that belies its budget. But the film is just as much about the battle of wills between the charming but fierce Raisuli and the strong-willed Eden Pedecaris, who develop respect and affection for one another during the ordeal, and the long-distance game of international chess between Raisuli and Roosevelt. “Sometimes your enemies are a lot more admirable than your friends,” observes Roosevelt. Milius has a rather romantic take on revolution and the honor of war that is out of step with the more complicated sensibilities of American movies in the seventies, but he creates such grand characters and colorful collisions of cultures and countries that it works. It received two Academy Award nominations, including Best Music for Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping dramatic score. It debuts on Blu-ray in a gorgeous edition with commentary by John Milius and a featurette. It’s available through the Warner Archive collection but it is a pressed disc, not manufacture-on-demand like the Archive’s DVD releases.
Also from Warner Archive is Hit the Deck (Warner, Blu-ray), the glossy, lightweight sailors-on-leave musical from 1955 with Tony Martin, Vic Damone and Russ Tamblyn pairing off with Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Ann Miller. You know, colorful but silly, with choreogrpay by Hermes Pan, songs that never quite made the American songbook and a supporting cast that includes Walter Pidgeon, J. Carrol Naish and Jane Darwell. No supplements.
The Max Linder Collection (Kino, DVD) – Often called France’s answer to Charlie Chaplin, Max Linder created his boulevardier character, a dapper society gentleman in top hat and evening dress with an eye for the ladies and a sly sense of humor, long before Chaplin stepped in front of a camera and in fact was an inspiration for Chaplin’s famous Tramp. This collection from Kino Lorber presents all three feature comedies that Linder made in Hollywood after World War I (they run about an hour apiece) plus one of his early two-reel shorts. Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) features some masterful physical comedy from Linder, beginning with a superb mime mirror gag and culminating in an elaborate game of hide and seek from railroad conductors that involves crack sight gags and inventive costume changes. It’s considered by many to be Linder’s masterpiece. The Three Must-Get-Theres” (1922) is a burlesque of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling adventures with Linder as “Knockout Dart-in-Again,” the bumpkin swordsman who joins the Queens Guard, and for all the gags it is remarkably faithful to the novel’s central plot. Both films feature color tints. Be My Wife (1921) is a romantic farce as is the short Max Wants a Divorce (1917) from his earlier Hollywood period, both in black and white. Linder wrote and directed all four films and they feature music recorded for this release. Linder never had the American success of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd, but he was one of the great early silent comedy stars and this set features fine editions of the films mastered from prints restored by France’s Lobster Films.
The Black Book (Reign of Terror) (Film Chest, DVD) is the most unusual film noir of the classic era: pure American urban film noir sensibility dropped into the Terror of the French Revolution, with guys and dames in flouncy costumes and flamboyant hats talking like gangsters and street thugs. Robert Cumming is the double agent sent to Paris in the midst of the reign of terror and Arlene Dahl is the former lover who turns out to be his Paris contact, but the villains own the film. Arnold Moss’ mercenary Fouché is ready to sell out anyone and everyone for his own gain and Richard Basehart’s Robespierre is as icy a criminal mastermind as ever was. Anthony Mann creates a claustrophobic urban milieu of conniving characters, hard-boiled dialogue, shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles in the alleys and dungeons of 18th century Paris as suggested on backlot sets, brought to life by John Alton’s inky, expressionist photography on a Poverty Row budget. Film Chest’s restored edition is superior to many of the previous releases but, unfortunately, it simply isn’t up to the standard set by Sony Pictures Choice Collection in their 2012 release. Film Chest’s 35mm print is inferior to Sony’s source print, with significant wear and damage, especially in the opening credits and at the reel ends.
A Hard Day’s Night (Criterion, Blu-Ray+DVD Combo, DVD) gets the Criterion treatment and a Blu-ray debut on the film’s 50th Anniversary. It’s mastered from the new digital restoration and filled with supplements.
Also coming from Criterion are upgrades of two previously released discs getting a Blu-ray debut: Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) and the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo).
Invasion of the Scream Queens: 20th Anniversary Edition (Wild Eye, DVD) profiles B-movie actresses of the seventies and eighties from Martine Beswick and Mary Woronov to Michelle Bauer and Monique Gabrielle.
Cousin Jules (Cinema Guild, Blu-ray, DVD) is the 1972 documentary from French filmmaker Dominique Benicheti, a portrait of rural life in the French countryside. French with English subtitles.
Home Before Midnight (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD)
House of Mortal Sin (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Angela Mao Ying Collection (Shout Factory, DVD)
Black Beauty (Warner, Blu-ray)
March or Die (Hen’s Tooth, DVD)
Screamers (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
Son of Batman (Warner, DVD)