Barry Forshaw’s DVD Choice

Barry Forshaw’s pick of the latest DVDs


Cliff Owen, director/Odeon

While Cliff Owen’s lean and economical 1962 film A Prize of Arms is essentially a well-turned heist movie, it is also (inter alia) a multilayered picture of the workings of the British Army on all its levels -- a picture, what’s more, which takes into account hectoring, bull-necked sergeant majors, sardonic squaddies, chinless wonder officers and all the multifarious petty tyrannies of the service. But it is a vision which is not unaffectionate -- and celebrates the fact that for all the customary breakdowns of communication and obfuscatory lines of command, things in the army (eventually) get done. (This subtly worked pro-establishment line is all the more surprising given the presence of a young Nicholas Roeg among the writers -- his own subsequent career would hardly suggest a vestige of respect for such a monolithic organisation). In some ways, Cliff Owen’s film reflects certain strands of Basil Dearden and Bryan Forbes The League of Gentlemen, with its central notion of an embittered officer who feels the army is not providing sufficient recompense for the years he has given (although Stanley Baker’s tight-lipped leader of the ex-army squad has, in fact, been dishonourably discharged for black market activity; the once-honest Jack Hawkins, at least, had reason to feel more resentment at his consigning to the scrap heap). In fact, it is the presence of Stanley Baker which locates the film precisely in a more working-class ethos, a fact further emphasised by the presence of an actor from the (then) next generation, Liverpool-born Tom Bell, who carried much the same working class associations as the ever-reliable Baker (the presence of Helmut Schmid as the third member of the trio attempting an audacious payroll heist is somewhat confusing, given the fact of his pronounced German accent -- though the latter is built cleverly into the plot; for suspense purposes, it is important that Schmid is obliged to conceal his accent to fool the British soldiers he is deceiving). A Prize of Arms, as a film, has its foot on the pedal from virtually the first sequence, and Owens’ capable cutting for tension and suspense keeps things moving accelerando. The corollary of this kinetic quality, though, is that the characters have little chance to development beyond what we can be conveyed by their actions as they attempt to fool an entire army base with a series of complex double bluffs. But Baker, as ever, is able to delineate the resentment and sense of quiet desperation of his character with just a few terse sentences, delivered on the hoof.

What is perhaps most interesting about the film is not its ambiguous attitude to the army milieu within which it is set, but the almost geometrical precision of the plotting. The scenario here affords a particular, unfolding pleasure as the viewer realises that seemingly meaningless actions performed by the protagonists early in the film have a logic that will only become clear as the narrative unfolds, and elements of the planning of the robbery (involving flame throwers, stretchers, sabotaged fire alarms, even mysterious tracks deliberately made in grass by a car) fall into place.

Inevitably, any criticism of the military regime in A Prize of Arms has to seen in context: the individual effort and organisation demonstrated by the robbers has an inevitable conclusion -- a conclusion not the result of (for instance) the carefully-signalled short fuse of the Tom Bell character, but by the ineluctable, sometimes chaotic (but, as Owens seems to suggest) inevitably effective army machine. Needless to say, the precision with which the robbers execute the robbery – not to mention their improvisatory skills when things go wrong – bespeaks their military training.


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Gareth Edwards, director/Vertigo Films

The fact that this much-acclaimed SF epic was made on a shoestring is part of the reason for its cult success, as is its concentration on character as much as the striking, economically handled alien invasion plot.


Various directors/Acorn Media

This has to be one of the most cherishable sets to appear in the DVD medium, with Jack Rosenthal’s marvellous body of work offering all the insight and entertainment it did when originally shown. A word of warning: Rosenthal’s widow, Maureen Lipman, offers invaluable on-camera insights, but they are presented as introductions -- and they are most definitely afterwords, with spoilers galore! But it’s an unmissable set.


Various directors/Optimum

Clint Eastwood remains the key point of interest in this lively second series of the classic TV western, Rawhide. This 8-disc set, containing all 32 digitally re-mastered episodes, features Eastwood in his career-forging role as Rowdy Yates, the tough but naive cowhand, with the stolid, inexpressive Eric Fleming as Rowdy’s authoritarian trail boss, Gil Favor. Guest stars aplenty ratchet up the interest level.


Yann Gozlan, director/Optimum

In an Eastern Europe ravaged by war, a young nurse saves valuable lives as part of a humanitarian aid group. Her job finished, it is time to return home. But what lies ahead is a grim, terrifying odyssey. As with Martyrs before it, Caged tests audience resilience in its exploration of extreme situations.


Fritz Lang, director/Eureka

Fritz Lang’s celebrated Indian epics look ravishing in this new Blu-ray incarnation. Lang returned to Germany in the 1960s to direct this striking penultimate work, a rethinking of the diptych form he essayed in such silent Lang classics as Dr. Mabuse and Die Nibelungen. Essentially a single 3-hour-plus film split in two, the film that has come to be referred to today as “the Indian epic” consists of Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal. With copious extras, essential viewing for Lang aficionados.


Tetsuya Nakashima, director/Third Window Films

The director of Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko delvers another stylish exercise in twisted psychology, adapted from the award-winning debut novel by Kanae Minato. The film was selected as Japan’s official entry in the best foreign film category of the 83rd annual academy awards and was the winner of the awards for best film, best screenplay and best director at the 34th Japanese academy awards earlier this year.


Tony Garnett, director/BFI DVD

Now released uncut (and it’s easy to see why this wasn’t possible before, even under the liberal regime of Stephen Murphy at the BBFC), this welcome release is mastered from original film materials. Garnett’s 1980 film about the lives of a group of Birmingham sex workers (largely pre-drug addiction) is dated but riveting – though Garnett’s tendentious conclusions are (perhaps deliberately) confusing.


John Brahm, director/Odeon

One of a slew of 1940s drams about dangerous, mentally disturbed women (here, Larraine Day), this one is finessed by director John Brahm’s delirious expressionist style – and if you need reminding, this is the film with the audacious multiple flashbacks within flashbacks. The great Robert Mitchum, as so often, is miscast as a neurotic artist.


Jan Kounen, director/Second Sight

Fasten your seat belts. Husband and wife team, tough Vincent Cassel and voluptuous Monica Bellucci, ensure that Jan Kounen’s stylish, violent action movie is always exhilarating – if, finally, exhausting.


Ermanno Olmi, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, directors/Mr Bongo Films

The invaluable (if bizarrely named) company Mr. Bongo Films has performed another admirable service in releasing films by three of Italy’s most accomplished directors. Released for the first time on DVD in the UK are Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Grim Reaper, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s moving Mamma Roma (with a larger-than-life Anna Magnani cutting down all before her) and Ermanno Olmi’s winning comedy drama Il Posto. All three are essential viewing for anyone with the slightest interest in Italian cinema.


Kim Jee-Woon, director/Optimum

The superscription by Nietzsche is now very familiar: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” And it is the narrative motor for this compulsive piece. Ju-yeon, daughter of a retired police chief, is the victim of serial killer Kyung-chul when her car breaks down. Her fianc� Soo-hyun, a secret agent, receives information on the police’s top four suspects, and then decides to track down the killer. Scarifying stuff, delivered with great panache.


Maria Saakyan, director/Second Run DVD

Saakyan’s award-winning debut is a striking Proustian essay in memory, with visuals of immense power. Memories of the cinema of Tarkovsky abound, notably in the immense pictorial beauty.


Nicholas Roeg, director/Optimum

Nic Roeg’s science-fiction classic The Man Who Fell To Earth has never looked better than in this revelatory Blu-ray edition, with David Bowie perfect in a part he was never able to top. This 35th Anniversary edition reminds us that Roeg’s brilliance was often matched by ill-focussed indulgence (notably in the interminable, unerotic sexual encounters), but it’s still a mesmerising film. Co-stars Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry remain as impressive as ever. The film was based on the cult novel by Walter Tevis.


Phil Morrison, director/Eureka

Phil Morrison’s utterly charming film makes a Blu-ray debut, with Amy Adams (shortly to be the latest Lois Lane in the new Superman film) utterly winning as the naive, neglected protagonist.


Joseph Losey, director/Odeon

Joseph Losey’s famous fable arrives on DVD, and (while dated) is still a fascinating curio – as well as being an essential film for admirers of the director.