MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: The Seventh Seal, At the Death House Door, Gary Cooper and more…

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

The Seventh Seal (Two discs) (Four Stars)
Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1957 (Criterion)

Antonius Block, a dazzlingly blonde and handsome, idealistic, death-haunted knight (played by Max Von Sydow) and Jons, his cynical, tough, life-embracing squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand), are back from the 14th century Crusades — returned after ten bloody, battle-torn years, only to discover their homeland, Sweden, in the throes of the Black Plague, social disintegration and religious hysteria.

Disillusioned and weary, the two wend their way though villages rife with plague, drunkenness, outlawry, and witch hunts, to Block‘s castle and to this Swedish Odysseus’ Penelope-equivalent: waiting wife Karin (Inga Landgre). And along the way they pick up a band of fellow pilgrims: a troupe of traveling players including the sweet and lively clowns Jof and Mia (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson), their lecherous director Skat (Erik Strandmark), the bearish and volatile smith Plog (Ake Fridell) and his sluttish wife Lisa (Inga Gill) — and, trailing and harassing them, Raval (Bertil Anderberg), a vicious and amoral fallen seminarian, now a rapist and thief, whose false preachments helped send Block and Jons to the Crusades.

One other follows: Death (Bengt Ekerot). He is a stern-looking, bald and inescapable phantom in a black monks robe and cowl (and scowl), who informs Block, after the knight awakens by the ocean, that his hour has come — and then is temporarily put off by Block‘s canny suggestion that the two of them play an often-interrupted game of chess, for Block’s life. Even as he picks up other lives along the way, the game-loving Death is happy to oblige — because, after all, in this ghastly terrain of epidemic, superstition, and torture, he rules.

As Block, the knightly philosopher and searcher, plays his evasive game with mortality, the world around him goes on — sometimes lovely (Jof and Mia’s lyrical hillside feast of milk and wild strawberries), sometimes savage (as when a deluded and beautiful young witch, played by Maud Hansson, is bound and burned at the stake, or when Raval succumbs horrifically to the plague).

This quintessential Ingmar Bergman film, is the one which — along with his other major 1956-7 festival prize winners, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries — made his huge initial international reputation, while creating a new audience in the U. S. for art house cinema. It has sometimes been derided by revisionists for alleged pretensions, depressions and ever-dolorous Scandinavian gloom. That‘s hardly fair. In fact, it’s smerja (Swedish for bullshit). Bergman, as he proved over and over again, was no Nordic flash in the pan. His long string of triumphs as Sweden’s preeminent theatre director and as a prolific movie writer-director, of often extraordinary ambition and achievement, puts him easily on any sensible short list of great twentieth century dramatic/cinematic masters.

The Seventh Seal, which takes its name from the Book of Revelation, is a real classic — no depressing, artsy, phony-serious, bloodless bore, as its detractors like to claim. They probably haven’t watched it lately. Bergman’s powerful and eloquent masterpiece has a lusty comic vein and a lyrical romanticism that constantly counterbalance its philosophical darkness, doom and gloom, just as Jons’ pragmatism balances the knight’s morbid meditations.

The movie’s ambitious literary qualities, its hints of authors like Strindberg, Camus, Shakespeare and Lagerkvist, shouldn’t be held against it. Bergman’s dual strengths as writer and director are a large part of what makes him great, and what gave him an edge throughout his career over fellow genius contemporaries who weren’t as literarily gifted and needed writing collaborators. There is no truer cinematic auteur in the history of movies than Ingmar Bergman, and it’s foolish to deny it.

The Seventh Seal was a deserved art house and critical hit throughout the world in 1957-8. But it’s also a real movie. We should remember that cinephile Bergman was a huge admirer of John Ford (the man who made westerns), calling Ford, in the ‘50s and 60s, the greatest living film director. And though it’s sometimes hard to find traces of Ford in Bergman’s work, they‘re plentiful here: the warrior and quest theme (The Soul Searchers?), the Stagecoach/Wagonmaster like traveling communities (and the Wagonmaster-ish theatrical troupe), the rowdy ensemble and barroom scenes, the horses on the hills, the spectacular landscapes, and even many of the rustic-sublime deep focus compositions — like the famous shot at the end of “Seventh Seal,” of Death and his victims, dancing in black silhouette against a brilliant Fordian skyline, while below, in their covered wagon, the sweet clowns Jof and Mia watch with their little baby son Mikael, Jof’s face rapt at his final vision.

So, we‘ll forget that obvious suggestion of “Joseph and Mary“ in the actors’ names. A great artist and entertainer can be forgiven a little religious/dramatic symbolism, even a little soul searching. As long as he can keep us entertained — by singing his songs, breaking open the seven seals, outwitting death (for a day or two) and playing the game. (In Swedish, with English subtitles.)

Extras: This excellent two disc re-release also contains many extras, including Bergman’s Island, the fine Bergman 2004-2006 documentary-interview with director Marie Nyrerod, in which he calls The Seventh Seal one of his only ten good films; introduction by Bergman, commentary by Peter Cowie, interview with Max Von Sydow, tribute by Woody Allen, Bergman 101, a video filmography by Cowie, booklet with Gary Giddins essay.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

At the Death House Door(Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Steve James, Peter Gilbert, 200- (Facets)

From directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert, two of the main trio behind the documentary classic, Hoop Dreams (which James directed), comes this moving, provocative and deeply convincing portrait of the anti-capital punishment crusade of longtime prison chaplain Carroll Pickett, who brought religious “solace” to innumerable Death Row convicts, and decided eventually that capital punishment was wrong and anti-Christian. Here, Pickett, James and Gilbert tell us why — using as their main text, the apparently unjust and mistaken execution of Carlos De Luna for a Texas murder confessed to by another.

Does one unjust public slaying invalidate capital punishment? Is it wrong, despite fervent advocacy by many social conservatives, who cite closure, and think anti-capital punishment liberals are softies and dupes?

Of course it’s wrong — and for one simple, obvious reason. (Never mind that hanging has proven a dubious deterrent ever since London’s pickpockets went on plying their trade while watching fellow pickpockets swing on the Newgate gallows.) If you execute a Death Row prisoner, even one who was convicted in a fair trail, there’s always the possibility, however small but genuine, that he or she was innocent, like Carlos DeLuna — and the injustice can then never be corrected. And, of course, scientific advances in DNA testing have proven that innocent people have been executed, and falsely remembered and execrated as murderers, a number of times in our criminal justice history.

It doesn’t matter how many or few they are, or whether other scientific means might or might not exonerate others today. There is no excuse for killing the possibly innocent, in cold blood, no matter how many genuine monsters simultaneously meet a seemingly deserved fate. “Thou shalt not kill” cuts both ways. As James, Gilbert and Pickett admirably argue, convincingly prove.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET

Gary Cooper Warner Archive Bundle (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1933-50 (Warner Archive)

Gary Cooper — the “Yup”-saying cowpoke of The Virginian, the pacifist WW1 hero/killer of Sergeant York and the beleaguered lawman facing an implacable deadline in High Noon — was a super-dooper looking, quiet, beguilingly modest-acting actor who virtually defines Hollywood super-stardom in the big studio Golden Age.

The kind of actor born for the movies, he was a believable hero, a dream factory legend and a subtle under-actor who knew exactly and expertly just how to play to the camera, Here, Warner Archive offers, as a “bundle,” without an actual box, six of Cooper’s lesser seen, neglected but often fascinating vehicles, including three made in the early ‘30s, and three released in the postwar period. The directors include Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, and the largely ignored, but very gifted, Richard Boleslawski.

Every one of these films is interesting, two are genuine rediscoveries (One Sunday Afternoon, Operator 13) and some of them (Today We Live, Saratoga Trunk, Bright Leaf) are seriously underrated. As was, for part of his career, Coop. (Warner Archive films are available online through warnerarchive.com.)

Includes: Today We Live (U.S.; Howard Hawks, 1933). Three-and-a-Half Stars. This WW1-set-romance/drama, about a stalwart American pilot (Gary Cooper) who falls in with a group of plucky Brit motor boatsmen (Robert Young, Franchot Tone), after falling in love with the girl of one of them (Joan Crawford), is usually knocked as bottom-grade Hawks: stiff, hokey and artificial, despite the stellar cast, the daredevil action scenes (some of the aerial dogfight scenes are borrowed from Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and the torpedo run is directed by Richard Rosson), and the fact that screenwriter and Hawks pal William Faulkner adapted his own short story Turnabout, and wrote the dialogue.

But Turnabout is a good story, and this is mostly a good movie, despite the Crawford scenes, which seem obvious studio-requested additions. (Indeed, the whole opening section in Crawford’s family‘s English manor, seem less like Hawks than Sidney Franklin on a good day.) But I like the rest, and the movie becomes pure Hawks as soon as Coop’s soused, wisecracking buddy, Roscoe Karns shows up. He’s a character for whom the famous Only Angels Have Wings tagline “Who’s Joe?” could have been invented.

One Sunday Afternoon (U.S.; Stephen Roberts, 1933). Three Stars. A real surprise. This rowdy, bittersweet turn-of-the-century romantic comedy — about a pugnacious dentist named Biff (Cooper), who loses the town beauty (Fay Wray) to a conniving pal (Neil Hamilton), while failing to recognize the truer charms of the gal who really loves him (Jean Parker) was later remade by Raoul Walsh, as Strawberry Blonde, with Jimmy Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson filling the four above roles. Strawberry Blonde is a neglected classic (Walsh’s favorite of all his movies, by the way). But this movie is good too, with Cooper shining in a dark, ambivalent, violent role that’s atypical but oddly suitable for him, niftily supported by Roscoe Karns as another wise-cracking buddy. Directed by the mostly unknown Stephen Roberts (The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo) an ex-WW1 pilot, who died fairly young.

Operator 13 (U. S.; Richard Boleslawski, 1934) Three Stars. With Cooper, Marion Davies, Sidney Toler and The Mills Brothers. Crazy and delightful. Davies is a Union spy, recruited to spy on the Confederacy by Toler (Charlie Chan to you). Cooper is a rebel, who rings her bell. (Vice Versa.) There are battle scenes and minstrel shows, and lovemaking amid the honeysuckle and magnolia — and the fact that Davies is at first disguised as a saucy octoroon maid is outweighed by multiple appearances by The Mills Brothers, in their singing prime. (Remember Paper Moon and Glowworm? These guys could sing parts!) Richard Boleslawski handles all these madly mismatched but highly diverting elements, with panache, considering the fact that he was a solid Moscow Art Theatre man, whose students included Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and other Method progenitors and Group Theater founders.

Saratoga Trunk (U.S.; Sam Wood, 1946). Three Stars. With Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Flora Robson and Florence Bates. Maybe this set caught me in a good mood, but I also really enjoyed this almost legendary flop, adapted from an Edna Ferber novel, with Cooper and Ingrid Bergman cast very off type as lusty, sneaky con artists, lying their way through New Orleans and Saratoga high society. (Maybe that atypical and unsympathetic casting is what turns people off, but both stars are very good. So are Florence Bates, as another, if higher pedigree, con artist, Flora Robson, who actually got an Oscar nomination as another octoroon maid, and the amazing dwarf actor Jerry Austin, a veteran of Tod Browning’s Freaks, as the unforgettable manservant Cupidon.) This one is almost as crazy and stylish as Operator 13, with director Wood (whom his Night at the Opera star, Groucho Marx called a racist) cribbing from Porgy and Bess in the new Orleans scenes, and Rebecca in the Saratoga one. But, if you‘re in the right “anything goes” mood, it’s quite enjoyable.

Task Force (U.S.; Delmer Daves, 1949). Three stars. Good, serviceable naval carrier drama, with Cooper as a pugnacious and irrepressible flier, gadfly and commander who ends up on top in WW2. Directed and co written by the almost insanely versatile Daves, whose filmography ranges somewhat sure-footedly through war movies, film noir, westerns, musicals, biblical epics and over-the-top romances. (He‘s like a non-comic version of Hawks.) This is the movie that crazy Cody Jarrett‘s ma (Margaret Wycherley), tells the police she was watching in White Heat. She said she liked it; it was exciting. Never argue with Cody’s ma. With Cooper, Walter Brennan, Jane Wyatt and Wayne Morris.

Bright Leaf (U. S.; Michael Curtiz, 1950). Three-and-a-Half Stars. If, like R.W. Fassbinder, you consider Michael Curtiz one of the great (and underrated) Hollywood directors — and I do — this movie and his other 1950 entries The Breaking Point and Young Man with a Horn are all good evidence for the defense. (Casablanca alone though, should seal the deal.)

Set in American Southern tobacco country in the 1890s, it’s about sexy, ruthless Brant Royle (Cooper), an embittered ex-farm boy turned unscrupulous tobacco king, who topples the old unscrupulous tobacco king (Donald Crisp), by guessing right on factory-made cigarettes over hand-rolled cigars, while also stealing away the tycoon‘s unscrupulous daughter (Patricia Neal), and gradually letting down all his more scrupulous friends, Lauren Bacall, Jack Carson and Jeff Corey. Probably the most oddly politically incorrect of all tobacco movies, though it is foursquare against trusts and crooked businessmen and for well-run bordellos and mansion fire safety, this nicotine romance races along like all vintage Curtiz, especially the similarly-themed and similarly mooded Joan Crawford Southern film noir Flamingo Road — which Fassbinder ranked as his second favorite movie of all time. (After Visconti‘s The Damned).

Bright Leaf probably shouldn’t be smoked by children. But it is a fit closer for this neat little Cooper Warner Archive bundle. Lets hope they’re all this good. Yup. No extras.

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OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVDs

Tehilim (Three Stars)
Israel; Raphael Nadjari, 2007 (Kino)

A Jerusalem family is torn apart when the father disappears, ma cataclysm that disrupts their lives and opens a chasm beneath their world. Subtle, mysterious and suggestive, this is another gem from the Israeli cinema’s new generation. (In Hebrew, with English subtitles.)

Bergman Island (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Sweden; Marie Nyrerod, 2006 (Criterion)

The same documentary included in Criterion‘s new release of The Seventh Seal (see above), this time with a booklet including an essay by Nyrerod. Obviously, if you have the former, you don’t need the other, and I would call the new Seventh Seal a genuinely essential release. A suggestion: since Bergman’s Island was edited down from a longer three part Swedish TV series, why didn’t this separate release include the full original version? (In Swedish, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Bergman 101, a video filmography by Peter Cowie, booklet with Marie Nyrerod essay.

The Hidden Fortress (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1958 (Criterion)

The great Akira Kurosawa action samurai epic, the movie whose storm-the-fortress plot helped inspire George Lucas’s Star Wars and whose bickering peasants were morphed into C-3PO and R2-D2. One of the supreme adventure movies. With Toshiro Mifune as the gruff warrior (one of his best roles), Minoru Chiaki and Takashi Shimura. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.) Part of the Essential Arthouse series. No extras.

Forbidden Games (Four Stars)
France; Rene Clement, 1951 (Criterion)

Clement’s classic Oscar-winning (foreign language) anti-war film, set in WW2, about the two children (Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly), who create a private play graveyard, a world of their own that mirrors the horrors around them. (In French, with English subtitles.) No extras.

Ashes and Diamonds (Four Stars)
Poland; Andrzej Wajda, 1958 (Criterion)

The climax of Wajda”s WW2 trilogy, a dark and exciting portrayal pf the Polish resistance, starring one of those legendary youth stars who died too young, Zbigniew Cybulski. (In Polish, with English subtitles.) No extras.

Richard III (Four Stars)
U.K.; Laurence Olivier, 1956 (Criterion)

Director-star Sir Laurence Olivier’s delightfully hammy and overripe performance as the relentlessly evil and ambitious Richard III keys this vast, colorful epic adaptation of Shakespeare‘s play, a theatrical and film classic whose cast includes four knights. With Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Stanley Baker and Pamela Brown. Part of the Essential Arthouse series. No extras.

– Michael Wilmington
June 16, 2009

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Wilmington

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