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December tends to be a rather quiet time for Criterion, as they use the the month to tie up whatever loose ends remain after the massive glut of major holiday titles they drop into our laps just before Black Friday. For the second year in a row, Criterion’s December slate features only one new title -- last year it was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, this year it’s Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living, which is pretty much the same film, when you think about it (and even more so when you don’t) -- but the roster is rounded out with a trio of blissful Blu-ray upgrades, three delirious entertainments that offer a little something for everyone. I mean, there’s no one out there who doesn’t like either Margaret Lockwood or nihilistic, bloat-faced, sex-crazed ... right? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Prepare for battles without honor or humanity!
#592 DESIGN FOR LIVING (dir. Ernst Lubitsch) 1933
THE FILM: The “Lubitsch Touch” doesn’t always rub me the right way, but it sure is nice to feel every once in a while. Puns! It’s no Trouble in Paradise, but Design for Living is a delightful pre-Code ditty, a light little love-triangle that proves that filmmakers have always been far more sophisticated than their industry.
Adapted from a hyper-fluent Noel Coward play of the same name (this is just the beginning of Criterion’s onslaught of Coward, which will crest in March of 2012 with the David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set), Design for Living relies on a premise as timeless as it is simple: Two men, roommates and best friends, fall in love with the same woman. The woman is Gilda (a droll and daffy Miriam Hopkins), and the men are Tom and George (Fredric March and Gary Cooper, respectively). The place is Paris, the time is The Great Depression, and the sex is often (if often in the subtext). Gilda comes to visit the two men, and though she feels affection for them both, she can’t commit to either. But then, the perfect solution occurs to her: She’ll move in with them! And they all live happily ever after, like a jokey Jules and Jim. The end.
Okay, so that’s not quite how it goes. Gilda moves in with Tom and George so long as they obey her rule that she’ll serve as a muse and a friend but never a lover, lest it complicate or fracture the group dynamic. But rules are made to have sex with. As a frank consideration of sexual politics in the first world, Design for Living is a refreshingly honest portrait from an epoch so ruthlessly denied the sexual vibrancy of its cinema’s characters. Moreover, the candor with which Gilda’s complex libido is expressed accomplishes for a woman’s body what the 1920s could only do for their clothes. She is a living, breathing, woman, the kind that contemporary cinema still struggles to represent (it’s so much easier to just hire Katherine Heigl). Gilda may be stymied by her desire for both Tom and George -- an artist and a painter, neither man offers enough to her in and of themselves -- but she owns the gaze of Lubitsch’s camera with an assertive ease more common to the films of Naruse or Mizoguchi, from the opening scene she consciously commandeers to the final moments, where she yells at the sap who think’s he’s bought her: “I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan!”
With such a feather-light progressive streak, it’s a shame that Design for Living’s plot can’t maintain the same momentum of its politics. The first act is a joy, but as the film meanders on and the characters succumb to their natures, the Lubitsch Touch is increasingly numb. Gilda’s sexual agency is diluted by the weakness of her resistance -- she deserves to go after what she wants, but the second act finds her falling into the arms of whichever artist is in the room with her at a given time. The point, of course, is that she wants them both and isn’t forced to sit on the sidelines as they decide her fate between themselves (“It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman”), but her sexual yearning seems to overwhelm her sense, and her desire to mitigate the former evokes problematic echoes of hysteria from which the men have to rescue her. Ultimately, Design for Living is the Lubitsch we need, but maybe not the Lubitsch we love.
THE TRANSFER: Design for Living was never going to look that good, and frankly it’s a bit of a surprise to even see it look this good. Presented in the film’s original Academy aspect ratio, this is one of those instances in which Criterion was clearly fighting an uphill battle. It’s not tragic and, once your eyes adjust for standards the transfer here is not unpleasant in the least, but the image is certainly softer and more tattered with inherited flaws than Criterion customers have come to expect. Even so, the clarity of the picture triumphs over the sporadic damage to the source materials.
THE EXTRAS: Design for Living comes packaged with a nice little bouquet of supplements, the meat of which (what, bouquets don’t have meat?) has to be selected scene-commentary by film scholar William Paul. Running about 35 minutes, the erudite academic leads us through the film’s context on both macro and micro levels (often referring to Trouble in Paradise), and if he’s a bit too infatuated with Lubitsch’s flair for visual motifs and metaphors, his segment is a great way to kickstart one’s deeper consideration of the film. An interview with Joseph McBride on the film’s script is at its best when waxing poetic on legendary scribe Ben Hecht, but is a touch lugubrious. Also included is Lubitsch’s teeny tiny short “The Clerk,” which stars Charles Laughton and would have gone viral back in the day.
THE BEST BIT: A British television production of Noel Coward’s play, introduced by the man himself in a 4-minute oratory that amounts to compulsory viewing for fans of diction, British wit, and sad tufts of hair. The play itself, presented here in clear but distractingly hyper-real video, is a great testament to the movie.
THE ART: The cover art is simple and serviceable, but doesn’t deny the film its fun. The curved typeface is a nice response to the smiles of the three lead actors, and the modest purple font does a nice job of capturing the frivolity within. Handsome and glitzy without showing off, Design for Living looks as honest as it plays.
THE VERDICT: 76 / 100
#3 THE LADY VANISHES (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 1938
THE FILM: The Lady Vanishes is pretty much a one-stop shop for everything that I love about Alfred Hitchcock: It’s got a crackling mystery, a masterful sense of suspense, an impish ear fur humor, and -- most importantly -- a luminous brunette (Margaret Lockwood). It was the last film Hitchcock made before he packed up and left England for Hollywood, and to my mind it was also the best.
For the first thirty minutes of The Lady Vanishes, the film’s tone is the only mystery in sight, and it’s not a particularly urgent one, at that. We begin in the backwater country of Bandrika, a fictional European nation that seems to be aligning itself with some sinister forces (the word “Nazi” is never spoken). An avalanche has stranded a train’s worth of passengers in a little mountain inn, and Hitchcock guides us through a fun and frivolous evening with this motley crew of clashing personalities. There’s a brash young musician named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a lovely lady en route to meet her sod of a fiancée (Lockwood), two bantering gentleman who care only for critic, and an elderly woman named Miss Froy who we could all swear that we saw. The dialogue is sharp and unexpectedly dirty, and Hitchcock breezes between the rooms with the same false sense of happenstance that Renoir would later patent in The Rules of the Game. The whole set-piece is such a fluid delight that by the time someone gets strangled to death, it almost feels like part of the fun. When Miss Froy disappears from the train the next day and the other passengers all tell Lockwood that she was never onboard in the first place, the mystery is afoot, and the slap-happy opening act is revealed to be a harbinger of grave things to come.
Chugging along on the strength of Hitchcock’s most devilish Macguffin that side of North by Northwest, The Lady Vanishes isn’t just a tart little mystery or a masterclass in suspense (although it most certainly both of those things -- the fogged window enduring as one of the cinema’s most deviously designed bits of snack-sized dramatic irony), it’s also a massively entertaining portrait of a world in transition (evoking People on Sunday, in some way). When that train pulls out of Bandrika it rolls away from a more innocent time, fixed on a one-way course towards a darker place where evil isn’t a fever-dream but a very real presence. Hitchcock has no sense for cynicism, but The Lady Vanishes rolls towards a reluctant realism, ultimately promising an extraordinary number of murders to come -- murders about which the only mystery will be how people didn’t see them coming. It’s no wonder Hitchcock got out of there.
THE TRANSFER: Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Lady Vanishes might actually look a little too good. I mean, it’s one thing to know that Hitchcock is pulling a fake model car through the fake cobbled streets of a fake European country, but in 1080p the illusion is utterly pulverized and the film begins on a needless note of kitsch, as a result. That being said, the transfer’s unrivaled quality begins paying massive dividends shortly thereafter, offering viewers a remarkably clear and consistent image that should play like mana from heaven for Hitchcock purists. And is it just me, or is Margaret Lockwood actually glowing?
THE VERDICT: The deluxe DVD edition that Criterion released in 2007 is still a top-notch product and those who own it shouldn’t feel compelled to upgrade unless their completely understandable love of the film beckons them to do so. Folks looking to add this film to their library for the first time should pull the trigger and never look back.
#38 BRANDED TO KILL (dir. Seijun Suzuki) 1967
THE FILM: Branded to Kill may not be the best Seijun Suzuki film (although, between you and me, it so totally is), but it’s certainly the most Seijun Suzuki film, a rabid bit of yakuza pulp that doesn’t deconstruct the genre so much as it fills it with bullets and leaves it for dead. For Nikkatsu, it was just supposed to be another assembly line B-movie about cold gangsters and hot women -- for the director, it was a golden opportunity to air his grievances with the industry that stymied his talents by denying him access to more interesting scripts. On paper, the story was simple and familiar: The third-ranked assassin of the Tokyo underworld (“Chipmunk” Joe Shishido as Goro) botches a hit, becoming a target of the criminals he served and prey for the mysterious Number One. On the screen, it’s an unhinged blast of noir nihilism, a giddy rage of sex and death that willfully perverts its own twisted beauty and laughs at the funeral of the studio it killed.
Branded to Kill begins ordinarily enough (well, if you discount the errant gunshots and disembodied snatches of dialogue that overlap on the opening credits), following our puffy-cheeked hero as he meets with his yakuza boss contractor. And then, well, your disc isn’t skipping (I mean it could be, but Suzuki just isn’t interested in those pesky shots that unify filmic spaces). Goro’s first gig is edited like a half-finished game of Jenga, pieces, a shootout beneath a rural highway held together by dislocating jump-cuts that isolate the violence from its context, creating a (beautiful) montage of meaningless death. It only makes sense that Branded to Kill was made the same year as Bonnie and Clyde. To Goro, only the hitman rankings make sense, an idea Suzuki underscores by allowing those scenes to unfold with a conventional flow.
Then there’s Annu Mari as Misako Nakajo, maybe the greatest femme fatale / taxidermist in cinema history. Here’s the entire conversation she shares with Goro the first time they meet:
Goro: Are you married?
Misako: I hate men.
Goro: Not much hope for the future, then.
Misako: My hope is to die.
Almost every scene is sufficiently imaginative to warrant its own close study. From the trio of hits that Goro commits for hire (one of which Jim Jarmusch directly quotes in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai), to the debased sex sequence that can only be summarized as “Beast needs beast,” and the severe chiaroscuro lighting that expresses the sense of all this solipsism, Branded to Kill is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Frustrated, furious, and edited within a single day, Suzuki’s warped masterpiece may have immediately gotten him fired for its abstractions, but few Nikkatsu films still make so much sense.
THE TRANSFER: Beautiful. Looking back at the Criterion DVD of Branded to Kill which has sat on my shelf for more than 10 years now, it’s like watching Suzuki’s masterpiece through a pair of muddied glasses. This Blu-ray is revelatory, shiny and shimmering like so many of Criterion’s best monochromatic HD transfers. The picture is clean and stable, the clarity matches the contrast, and the dark bits are never lost.
THE VERDICT: Still shockingly unhinged almost 50 years after Nikkatsu fired Suzuki for making it so, Branded to Kill remains one of the most meticulously warped films ever made. It’s never looked this good before and it’s hard to imagine it will ever look better. Oh, and while I don’t often comment on the artwork adorning Criterion’s re-issues, Eric Skillman’s design work on these twin Suzuki releases are utterly spectacular, capturing the beauty, verve, and violence of an iconic rebel filmmaker at the top of his game. Fans of the movie shouldn’t hesitate to upgrade, and those unfamiliar with it should consider this the last must-have Criterion of 2011.
#39 TOKYO DRIFTER (dir. Seijun Suzuki) 1966
THE FILM: Watching Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill in such short succession (as Criterion has always urged you to do), it’s hard not to read them as Suzuki’s wild attempts to illustrate his own marginalization. Branded to Kill systematically destroyed one of the era’s brightest screen idols by stripping his character of his own agency, whereas Tokyo Drifter -- which functions like some kind of acid-jazz appetizer -- stubs a feared yakuza thug right out of the business, turning the underworld inward against him until he has no choice but to hit the open road and embrace the wandering life of a journeyman.
Tetsuya Watari is Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Honda, a square-jawed and buzz-cut yakuza henchman whose place in the world is a bit unsure now that his boss has retired. A rival gang is interested in his services, an offer that Tetsu makes the potentially fatal mistake of refusing. Tetsu’s boss, spurred by ulterior motives, encourages Tetsu to head for the snow-covered hills for a while, but the violence hounds him wherever he goes. The first 30 minutes or so are bogged down by inelegant plotting, but as soon as Suzuki frees Tetsu from the burden of genre mechanics and sets him loose, it’s all gravy. Really bloody gravy.
Nikkatsu had hoped to force Suzuki into delivering a conventional gangster saga by slashing the film’s budget, but the move didn’t exactly have the desired effect. Tokyo Drifter, a film that was destined to become a cinephile’s fetish object from the moment it received its title, is a bat-shit blast of mad neon and bebop jazz -- favoring senses over sense, it’s an endlessly watchable film that’s only intermittently entertaining, its feverish aesthetic flourishes so hard to shake that they continue to inform filmmakers some 45 years later. Tokyo Drifter plays out like a musical that’s too busy disposing of yakuza to notice its own form, a rich vein of blustery jazz and wistful ballads the only things connecting the carnage. Between the songs and Suzuki’s wild use of color -- the film’s hues are so flashy and anarchic that Nikkatsu demanded Suzuki’s subsequent pictures be shot in black & white -- the whole thing feels kinda like a blood-soaked riff on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, mounted on mayhem and stopping only to inspire KIll Bill’s “House of Blue Leaves,” and who knows what else (if you squint you can see all the way to Mulholland Drive). Tokyo Drifter is so unhinged and pitched towards oblivion that it’s hard to believe Nikkatsu allowed Suzuki to even make another film, and while Branded to Kill is the more significant of these two pictures, Tokyo Drifter sure makes for some riotously retina-burning context.
THE TRANSFER: The HD transfer for Tokyo Drifter presented Criterion a very different challenge, but I’m pleased to report that, in its own right, the picture here is every bit as strong as that of Branded to Kill. Consistency is the thing with a film like this, and the Blu-ray gets it right in a big way, carving stable through-lines across the blasts of neon color with which Suzuki carves up this twisted yakuza bloodbath. And that blindingly blown-out opening sequence? It’s supposed to look like that -- I guess the film doesn’t open with 5 minutes of blank white light, after all.
THE VERDICT: I’m not as over the moon about Tokyo Drifter as I am Branded to Kill, but fans of the film will be delighted with what Criterion has done with it. If I owned a sweet little speakeasy, I’d just loop this disc on mute and project it against a wall in the back... you know what I mean? Gorgeous.