Judge Joel Pearce says you can't beat the surreal thing, but watch out for Luis Bunuel's version of New Coke.
The legendary master of surrealist cinema.
Luis Bunuel is an important filmmaker, influential since 1929 when he delivered Un Chien Andalou onto an unsuspecting world. He released many other classics over the years, as well as many that are not as well-known. This collection features Gran Casino, a film Bunuel was pressured to make in Mexican exile, and The Young One, one of his two English-language films.
Facts of the Case
Created in 1947, Gran Casino tells the story of two escaped exiles, Gerardo Ramirez (Jorge Negrete, Dos Tipos de Cuidado) and Demetrio Garcia (Julio Villareal). They head into the Mexican oil fields, hoping to find their fortune. They arrive to a small oil field operated by Jose Enrique (Francisco Jambrina), who refuses to sell out to the large corporation. They get him up and running again, but he soon disappears under mysterious circumstances. Jose Enrique's sister Mercedes (Libertad Lamarque) arrives from Argentina to learn what has happened. She suspects Gerardo and Demetrio of the kidnapping, which puts them all in danger.
The other film in the collection is The Young One, released in 1960. In it, a black jazz musician named Traver (Bernie Hamilton, Bucktown) is falsely accused of rape and escapes to a remote island. There aren't many permanent inhabitants of the island, but a cruel racist game warden named Miller (Zachary Scott, Natchez Trace) is in charge. Also present is an orphaned teenager named Evvie (Key Meersman). She has lived a very sheltered life, but is starting to blossom nicely, which hasn't escaped Miller's attention. When she takes notice of Traver, though, it begins a cycle of vicious conflict between the men.
As with so many multi-film sets, this one contains one great film, and one total dud. In this case, the dud is Gran Casino, which gives Bunuel little opportunity to show off his cinematic talents. It's a simplistic melodrama, tossed together with far more consideration to the out-of-place music numbers than it does to narrative consistency. Even the climax of the film is interrupted by a musical number, destroying any small amount of tension that has built up.
There are a few hints of Bunuel's style here, but the audience has to go searching for it. It is interested in social justice and the rights of the lower class. Gerardo and Demetrio are common heroes, starting out wrongfully imprisoned and ending up in a conflict between the wealthy. The bad guys are from outside Mexico, setting them up as postcolonial heroes against the colonial perpetrators. Unfortunately, the studio was simply interested in musical numbers sung by popular singers, cheap melodrama, and generic plot devices. It's reported that Bunuel was bored by the story, and he doesn't do much to try to hide it.
Sometimes, even the greatest artists get trapped in situations beyond their control, and just need to do some work to get a paycheck and a Mexican citizenship. This is Bunuel's paycheck film, and it's hard to blame him too much. He got the job and made the film, shot it competently, and lived to make better films. Perhaps that's all Gran Casino was ever meant to be. Still, it's certainly not worth hunting down now.
Much better is The Young One, which shows the social criticism and daring filmmaking that Bunuel is famous for. It's the kind of film that would have been made by few American directors in 1960, as the country was knee deep in the civil rights movement. It confronts racism head-on, using the conflict between Traver and Miller as a microcosm for the larger social conflict of the time. Though neither of these men is heroic, we quickly discover that Miller is more reprehensible than we could imagine, and that Traver is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation.
What makes The Young One so different from the countless other cat-and-mouse films that have been made is the character of Evvie. She is young and completely innocent, far too young to be living on an island with a man like Miller. Both men are shocked to see how free and immodest she is. Miller sees this as an opportunity; Traver sees it as a problem. It's an obvious plug to show that Miller is far more dangerous to the girl than accused rapist Traver is, and Bunuel takes that story to places that I didn't expect to see in a film from 1960. The performances here are better also, even though Traver's '50s jazz-flavored slang doesn't seem quite as hip as it was then. It also has more racial slurs than the average rap album as well, but that's just a reflection of the time as well. Because Bunuel cares about the telling of this story, it's also much more impressively filmed. It's shot with an unconventional eye, using grainy black-and-white to create contrasts and set up ideas.
If Gran Casino is the lost Bunuel film that should stay lost forever, The Young One is the unconventional one that needs to be recovered. I can only imagine how edgy it felt when it was released 45 years ago, and it still feels surprisingly contemporary now. Overall, this collection is a study in contrasts. It's fascinating to see how different two films from the same director can be. We also see how quickly popular films can become aged and cheesy, and how edgy, daring film can feel fresh for decades. If for that reason only, I suppose it's good that Gran Casino was released as well.
Lionsgate has done an excellent job with the discs. Gran Casino looks excellent for its age, and the sound is quite clear. It has a somewhat restrained commentary track by film historian Philip Kemp, who knows full well that he's discussing a master's thoroughly inferior work. The Young One is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The picture is fantastic, and the sound is also sharp and clean. There is a commentary track here, as well, with Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolalla. Because there are two of them, it is less sparse than the other commentary.
For you Netflix folk out there, you need to be aware that the two discs in this set are mislabeled. If you order The Young One, which I do recommend, you may end up with Gran Casino, which I can't recommend in good conscience. For fans of Bunuel or classic films in general, this set is an interesting exploration of a master's lesser-known work.
The Young One is free to go, but Gran Casino is guilty of all charges. That's not totally Bunuel's fault, so I'm going to give him a pass on this one.
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Scales of Justice, Gran Casino
Perp Profile, Gran Casino
Distinguishing Marks, Gran Casino
• Commentary by Film Historian Philip Kemp
Scales of Justice, The Young One
Perp Profile, The Young One
Distinguishing Marks, The Young One
• Commentary with Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolalla
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