Buñuel, Godard, Bresson...all in one set? Judge Dan Mancini's brain hurts.
Our reviews of Army Of Shadows (published May 15th, 2007), Army Of Shadows (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection (published January 11th, 2011), Au Hasard Balthazar: Criterion Collection (published June 14th, 2005), Billy Liar: Criterion Collection (published August 22nd, 2001), Mafioso: Criterion Collection (published March 18th, 2008), Rififi: Criterion Collection (published May 15th, 2001), Rififi (1955) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published February 17th, 2014), The Third Man: Criterion Collection (published May 22nd, 2007), The Third Man (Blu-Ray) (published September 14th, 2010), The Third Man: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray) (published December 16th, 2008), and Two Films By Jacques Becker: Criterion Collection (published February 21st, 2005) are also available.
Ten years. Ten films. Ten discs.
In 1997, New York's Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein decided that if he wanted something done right he would have to do it himself. He was disgusted by his difficulty in getting decent subtitled prints of classic foreign films for the Forum's programs. In response, he launched Rialto Pictures, a company on a mission to restore and exhibit important films that otherwise might succumb to the ravages of time or disappear into the black hole of careless licensing and distribution.
Over the past decade, Rialto has been responsible for rescuing major classics ranging from Godard's Contempt to Mike Nichols' The Graduate. Rialto handled its first first-run picture with 2002's Murderous Maids by Jean-Pierre Denis. The company was also responsible for the first ever American exhibition of the original Japanese cut of Godzilla in celebration of the film's 50th anniversary in 2004.
Home theater fans will know Rialto less for their work in the art house and festival circuits than for their partnership with The Criterion Collection. Rialto is the source of many of Criterion's top releases, including The Battle of Algiers, Bob Le Flambeur, Grand Illusion, and Umberto D.
Facts of the Case
Ten Years of Rialto Pictures is a ten-disc set containing 10 films previously released by The Criterion Collection or its one-time parent label, Home Vision Entertainment. It's an interesting collection of titles, eschewing obvious choices like Juliet of the Spirits or Grand Illusion in favor of a fine blend of heavyweight classics, nearly forgotten films, and one recent production (Murderous Maids).
Here's what you'll find:
Army of Shadows
Like most of Melville's films, Army of Shadows favors meticulous scripting and carefully nurtured suspense over explosive action. The influence of Alfred Hitchcock is readily apparent. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect Army of Shadows is one of the most accurate depictions of the French Resistance ever committed to film. Instead of grubby French fighters who smoke cigarettes, sport berets, and ponder existential philosophy, Gerbier and his team look boring—middle-aged and middle class. We're told at the beginning of the movie that Gerbier was a civil engineer prior to the Nazi occupation. This background is important because it establishes Gerbier as a man who knows his city intimately, knows how to organize men and projects, and who can make the leap into military engineering with relative ease. Indeed, Gerbier is a common (albeit bright and successful) man who works covertly to coordinate efforts against the Nazis, rather than openly fighting them. That Melville makes the movie absolutely compelling across its entire 145-minute running time is a tribute to his directorial greatness. Gerbier's adventures are about the organization of fine operational and logistical details. Through the explication of these minutiae, we're introduced to the sorts of sharp and resilient minds needed to defeat an enemy as fearsome as the Third Reich. Gerbier and his like aren't men whose heroism is defined by a single death-defying feat, but by a relentless series of small acts that are significant only because of their cumulative effect over the duration of the occupation.
Au Hasard Balthazar
Like all Bresson films, Au Hasard Balthazar's narrative is delicate and elliptical, but dense with meaning. He tosses us into a world of closely-observed detail and forces us to construct a kind of resonant emotional meaning from what we see—a meaning more poetic and expansive than in a typical story designed to be parsed intellectually. A devout Catholic, Bresson favored characters who seek (and often fail to find) spiritual transcendence in a cruel and unforgiving world. In Au Hasard Balthazar, Marie and her father doom themselves with stubborn pride. The father's inability to reconcile with a business partner who wronged him destroys his reputation and ruins him financially. Marie denies herself Jacques' love by deciding, against his protests, that she isn't worthy of him. Again and again, Bresson's human characters brush up against one another, soul to soul, yet find it impossible to shelter one another from life's cruelties. In the midst of this maelstrom of human relationships is the donkey Balthazar. Tranquil and patient, he suffers greatly but accepts life's hardships as a servant devoted to his masters, cruel or kind. Though void of personality, his presence in the film is so powerful that it doesn't seem a stretch in the least when Bresson has one of his human characters describe the long-suffering animal as a saint.
Band of Outsiders
A classic of the French New Wave, Band of Outsiders was meticulously restored by Rialto and re-released in art house theaters throughout Europe and America in 2001. As in most of his films, Godard goes out of his way to point out the artifice of film, twisting obvious genre conventions, subverting audience expectations, and having characters break the fourth wall and address the audience. That said, Band of Outsiders isn't as intellectually dense or theoretically rigorous as the director's most difficult work. In many ways it is most similar to his faux musical, A Woman is a Woman—detached and aggressively intellectual, but also precociously playful and easy to digest. It's not the equal of Breathless (with which it has much in common), but it's still one of the most entertaining of Godard's movies.
Based on Keith Waterhouse's successful West End play (which was, in turn, based on his own novel), Billy Liar fits most comfortably into the comedy genre, though its laughs are often uneasy. Though common and predictable to the point of cliché, Billy's longing for and fear of adulthood as represented by romantic cohesion, professional success, and independence from his parents is made fresh both by his fantasies (which are whimsical critiques of British postwar capitalism) and by the rich but naturalistic visual design of Schlesinger and cinematographer Denys N. Coop. Shot in black at white and framed at 2.35:1, Billy's hometown is a rich landscape of ornate old churches and cemeteries, local storefronts, cottage houses, and towering, skeletal industrial centers. Coop's fine photography of lived-in locales gives Billy's humorous (yet pathetic) flights of fancy a needed dose of gritty realism.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
As with Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, it's often difficult to tell which parts of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are real and which are dreams. And as in Fellini's film, it doesn't really matter because the truth invades both realms. Buñuel's film is playful, precociously intelligent, and fiercely funny. Poking fun at bourgeois affectations is like shooting fish in a barrel, but Buñuel does it with such gleeful verve that it's a pleasure to watch him work. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a fine distillation of the director's trademark surrealism employed to expose the hypocrisies of polite society as well as figures of political and religious authority. It also provides a clinic in Buñuel's unostentatious visual style, characterized by long takes and copious use of master shots.
Mafioso is funny despite itself, its many laughs grounded in keenly-observed detail rather than broad stereotypes or silly gags. Lattuada's directorial achievement was in crafting a genuinely funny movie despite a tense and realistic storyline. The script is tightly formed and well-written. Most of the laughs come at the expense of Marta, who perpetually offends the sensibilities of her in-laws with her unknowing violations of their rigid and age-old customs. The polished sophisticate among a gaggle of rubes is an old gag, but one that is well-executed in Mafioso. More importantly, it lays the groundwork of familial and village duty that makes us believe Nino would feel compelled to cram himself into a wooden crate and be flown cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to New York in order to fulfill an obligation to a dangerous village bigwig.
The trial of the Papin sisters was a media circus in France, something akin to the (first) O.J. Simpson trial in the States. The mix of gory brutality (Lincelan and her daughter were savagely beaten to death), class resentment, and lesbian incest were a dream come true for newspapers and gossip mongers. Most film adaptations have either wallowed in the tawdry sexual aspects of the story or interpreted the events through a Marxist critique of the French bourgeoisie (as though the Lincelan women's class made them somehow deserving of their ugly fate). Denis is far more interested in Christine's psychology, specifically the sort of mental illness that may have caused the psychotic break that preceded the murders (the real-life Christine never recovered her wits during her four years of incarceration before her death). For Denis, the Le Mans murders are the result of a complex cocktail of an abusive childhood, mental illness, and class resentment.
Murderous Maids is restrained and elegant. The tension builds slowly and effectively across the movie's brief 93-minute running time, using viewers' knowledge of the killings to produce a smothering fatalism. The murders are shot with enough restraint to allow our imaginations to run wild. The bloody aftermath has a stomach-churning, documentary feel. Denis' assured direction results in a psycho-drama with the chilling punch of a grade-A horror movie.
Dassin was an American director distinguished for his fine work in noir crime films before the Hollywood blacklists of the of the late '40s and '50s forced him to shuffle off to France in order to save his career. Considering Dassin's American work included excellent crime films like The Naked City, Brute Force, and Thieves' Highway, his relocation was American's loss and France's gain. Rififi ranks easily alongside the director's best American efforts—if not higher. Its heist is one of the greatest set pieces ever committed to film. A masterpiece of direction and editing, it stretches to over 30 white-knuckle minutes without dialogue or music.
The Third Man
A fine script by literary great Graham Greene (based on his own story) and crackerjack performances by Cotten, Welles, and Howard ensure The Third Man's classic status. The gorgeous chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker's (El Cid) Oscar-winning cinematography puts the movie on par with any of the noir greats—no small feat considering The Third Man is a British picture. Seen through the lens of Krasker's camera, Vienna becomes an essential part of the movie's texture and charm, an additional character in the story. A third act chase through the city's elaborate underground sewer system is particularly memorable for its visual aplomb.
Touchez pas au Grisbi
Touchez pas au Grisbi marked a return to form for the great French actor Jean Gabin, whose career was fading before the film's release. It's a brilliant little thriller that, unlike Rififi, skips the minutiae of the heist in favor of offering a close study of the relationships between criminals—their psyches' constant war between distrust and dependence. Like countless movie gangsters, Max wants to go legit. The problem is that he requires the help of men he doesn't necessarily trust in order to make the leap out of crime. The paradox is simple but psychologically rich, and Becker plays it for everything it is worth.
Though released in conjunction with the Criterion Collection, Ten Years of Rialto Pictures is not a repackaging of that production house's prior releases. Reflecting Rialto's raison d'etre, it is essentially a film festival in a box. There are no directors' audio commentaries, no video interviews of casts and crews, no scholarly essays. Inside the cardboard slipcover, there are 10 slimline DVD cases with Rialto's re-release posters (usually based on the original release posters) used as cover art. Inside the slimline cases are four page booklets with cast and crew information and brief excerpts from Rialto's original program notes. The discs for Army of Shadows, Band of Outsiders, Mafioso, and Murderous Maids also contain the re-release trailers for their respective pictures. There are no other supplements. This isn't a release about extras; it's about the films themselves.
So far as I can tell, the transfers are identical to those released by the Criterion Collection (in the case of The Third Man, which has been released twice by Criterion, the image matches the quality of the later remastered edition). The transfers vary in overall quality given the disparate ages of the films and the degrees to which they were cared for and preserved over the years but, all things considered, each films looks marvelous. Detail is strong across the board. The black-and-white movies sport delicate contrast and excellent shadow detail. The color films are accurate across the entire spectrum. As you'd expect from a Criterion master, each transfer has a pleasant and appropriate patina of film grain. Digital artifacts are nearly non-existent. Original theatrical aspect ratios are maintained throughout, meaning you'll find everything from full frame, to both European and American flat ratios, to scope. All widescreen presentations are enhanced for 16:9 displays.
The bottom line is that Ten Years of Rialto Pictures is a slim and stylish set perfect for the budget-conscious cinephile. Its contents are an artful and cosmopolitan mix of films by great directors, great movies by journeyman directors, and once-neglected pictures nearly lost to us forever. Taken as a whole, the set's blend of comedy, drama, tragedy, and intrigue, delivered by an artistically potent collection of French, British, American expatriate, and Italian filmmakers (as well as one Spanish/Mexican/French filmmaker) make it a satisfying ride from beginning to end. The crime elements in each picture create a cohesive through-line for the set, making Ten Years of Rialto Pictures a carefully assembled film festival for the home theater.
Those wanting a clinic on the making of each film in Ten Years of Rialto Pictures will need to take a pass on this box and shell out the big bucks for the individual Criterion releases. Those primarily interested in the films themselves, and willing to forego a heap of supplemental materials, will find the box a great foreign/art house starter set at a bargain basement price. Even at the $150 list price, that works out to only $15 per movie—a steal, considering the incredible quality of the movies inside.
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Scales of Justice, The Third Man
Perp Profile, The Third Man
Distinguishing Marks, The Third Man
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
Perp Profile, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
Distinguishing Marks, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Rififi
Perp Profile, Rififi
Distinguishing Marks, Rififi
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Mafioso
Perp Profile, Mafioso
Distinguishing Marks, Mafioso
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Billy Liar
Perp Profile, Billy Liar
Distinguishing Marks, Billy Liar
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Band Of Outsiders
Perp Profile, Band Of Outsiders
Distinguishing Marks, Band Of Outsiders
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Army Of Shadows
Perp Profile, Army Of Shadows
Distinguishing Marks, Army Of Shadows
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Au Hasard Balthazar
Perp Profile, Au Hasard Balthazar
Distinguishing Marks, Au Hasard Balthazar
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie
Perp Profile, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie
Distinguishing Marks, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie
• Press Book Notes
Scales of Justice, Murderous Maids
Perp Profile, Murderous Maids
Distinguishing Marks, Murderous Maids
• Press Book Notes
• IMDb: Army of Shadows
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