Barry Forshaw’s DVD Choice

Barry Forshaw’s pick of the latest DVDs on offer


Wolf Rilla, director/Renown

Given that the auteur theory (with its primacy of director over screenwriter, actors, etc.) has being undergoing some revisionist attention in recent years, an affirmation of the creed may frequently be found within the neglected byways of the British B Film, in which a director of imagination and distinction can utilise precisely those elements available to his less talented colleagues (shopworn screenplay, efficient (if familiar) actors and the standard studio facilities available to all his peers) and produce work of a far more idiosyncratic quality. The director Wolf Rilla, though born in Germany, produced much accomplished work in the British film industry, with an unquestionable career apogee in his adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (as Village of the Damned) in 1960, which demonstrated that a fierce intelligence and a mastery of the orchestration of film tension. If these qualities are more fitfully evident in his film Piccadilly Third Stop (made in the same year), a comparison with other films made by similar production companies instantly demonstrates the quantum leap in the quality achieved over product from other studio. The writer and journalist Leigh Vance had worked with Piccadilly Third Stop’s producer Norman Williams on films set in the criminal world of Soho, The Shakedown (once again, made in the year 1960), which has its virtues - not least in the attempts to deal honestly with the milieu and denizens of this world. However, that film’s director, John Lemont, was (at best) a journeyman technician, unlike Wolf Rilla, who was hired to work on another Vance/Williams project, and Piccadilly Third Stop was to be by far the more memorable piece of work, despite its obvious limitations.

While the thick-ear gangster types of Soho in the 1950s are represented here, director and screenwriter are far more interested in the scrabbling for money by a picture of decayed upper-class figures living on their wits and sporting an easy amorality predicated on their unquestioned sense of superiority and contempt, both for those lower down the social scale - and for the easy pickings to be found in their own class. The charming if morally bankrupt protagonist here is Dominic, alternating between an enjoyment of the sybaritic lifestyle involving a succession of sexually available women, all of whom are treated in a casually misogynist fashion, and used for whatever they can provide for Dominic’s crooked schemes - such as the casually utilised lover (played by Mai Zetterling, moving from Ingmar Bergman films to the sleazier world of the British “B” picture), married to a violent and unstable smuggler, and the naive Chinese girl played by Yoko Charlie who provides entrance - after a heartless seduction (‘You won’t respect me!’) - to the safe of her father’s embassy.

More than many British films, Wolf Rilla and screenwriter Vance are prepared to present a character who has virtually no redeeming features - the audience scrutinises Dominic for one action will redeem his strictly utilitarian view of other human beings, but Rilla is simply not interested in providing such banal excuses. However, it is not just Terence Morgan’s ruthless performance as Domini that fascinates, but the always excellent Dennis Price as the owner of a roulette club who is also an upper-class fence, and who takes the Dominic character’s uppercrust contempt for those he is taking to the cleaners to even more rarefied levels. If Morgan is granted at least a certain self-contempt for his unedifying lifestyle, the character played by Price, is completely at ease with the venal lifestyle he enjoys. The services he provides for his equally well-heeled colleagues, is in the nature of a gentleman’s agreement, but the protocol is clear: however criminal the enterprise, the officer-class gloss is maintained by the threat of strong-arm thuggery from his thuggish enforcer.

The film builds towards a tensely-staged robbery of an embassy that demonstrates Rilla had been looking at a variety of American models, but his is as crisply directed and edited as the equally pulse-accelerating climax of Village of the Damned. What follows the robbery, however, is one of the bleakest endings in British crime film (circumventing the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” resolution we have been led to expect) - the days when Old Testament morality was shaken loose from the crime film were some years in the future but still carries a considerable force in its unsparingness. Rilla was given larger budget for his succeeding film, The World Ten Times Over, two years later, but did not produce work that was pleasing to either audience or critics, and his last few films in the exploitation vein were sad shadows of his accomplished earlier work. But on the strength of films such as Piccadilly Third Stop, Wolf Rilla deserves a place in the pantheon of the most adroit directors of British crime films.

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Barbet Schroeder, director/BFI Blu-ray

Barbet Schroeder (whose idiosyncratic films include Single White Female, the graphic Ma�tresse and The Valley) made his mark with this controversial and erotic debut feature which premiered in 1969 and quickly established cult status. Appearing on Blu-ray for the first time, More is available in one of the BFI’s handy Dual Format Edition (DVD and Blu-ray discs together), which also features a newly commissioned documentary on the genesis of the film. German student Stefan (Klaus Gr�nberg) decides to hitchhike across Europe seeking the southern sun. A Parisian encounter with the beguiling Estelle (Mimsy Farmer) has disturbing results. More is, of course, famous for its atmospheric Pink Floyd soundtrack, and looks pristine in this transfer.

TO – 2001 NIGHTS

Fumihiko Sori, director/Manga Entertainment

Fumihiko Sori (of Ichi fame) directed the impressive CG animated feature Vexille, and here produces another striking (if leisurely) SF piece in a two-episode format. Adapted from two disparate stories from the nineteen tales that form the 2001 Nights manga written and illustrated by Yukinobu Hoshino, TO – 2001 Nights is a visually impressive (if at times static) tip of the hat to the classic tropes of literary and filmed science fiction.


Orson Welles, director/Eureka Blu-ray

This is the ultimate, deluxe edition of one of the masterpieces of dark crime cinema, stunning in the Blu-ray format. Three versions of Orson Welles’ classic film are featured here: the 1998 reconstruction (in both 1.37:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios); the 1958 preview version rediscovered in the mid-1970s (in 1.85:1); and the 1958 theatrical version (in both 1.37:1 and 1.85:1). There are English SDH subtitles on all versions. A slew of extras are included for the first time in the UK, along with an impressive 56-page illustrated book containing essay material by the director. Touch of Evil famously begins with one of the most astonishing sustained single takes (involving a bomb) in the history of cinema, and concludes with an equally stunning final scene. The film (as released in 1958) was tampered with by the studio, compromising Welles’ vision, but now we can see what one of film’s great maverick talents was attempting to do.


Martin Scorsese, director/Mr Bongo Films

Who better than Martin Scorsese, director of such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Gangs Of New York to helm this loving tribute to the Italian films that forged his cinematic consciousness? Scorsese gleaned much from the Italian films he watched as a boy, even fashioning the way he himself made movies. My Voyage To Italy is a nod to (among much else) the neo-realism of De Sica, the exuberance of Fellini and the cool, alienated work of Antonioni. If there’s a caveat with the film, it’s that Scorsese’s potted versions of great films (with his insightful commentary) often includes entire plots (with the endings), and the historical usefulness may be vitiated by what sometimes seems like Readers Digest-style condensations of Italian classics.


Various Directors/Second Sight

Second Sight Films have furnished three DVD premieres for a home horror trio: Isidro Ortiz’s Shiver, Frank Darabont’s Buried Alive and William Friedkin’s The Guardian. Shiver is a Spanish bloodchiller written and directed by Isidro Ortiz (Fausto 5.0), starring Julio Valverde. From Frank Darabont, the celebrated director of the Stephen King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and (the director’s best work) The Mist, comes the claustrophobic Buried Alive with Tim Matheson, while the director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, supplies the most controversial film of the package in The Guardian (which enjoyed a mixed response in its cinema incarnation). There are some impressive bonus features.


Humphrey Jennings, director/BFI Blu-ray

The BFI have collated all of Humphrey Jennings’ memorable films, including his wartime classics Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy. All have been newly remastered in High Definition and are to be released in three volumes. Each will be a Dual Format Edition (containing all films on both Blu-ray and DVD) and will include essential special features, including alternative versions and collaborative works. Jennings is celebrated as one of Britain’s greatest documentary filmmakers, and is revered for films which consider ordinary heroism in time of war and peace.


Roy Ward Baker, director/Optimum

Hammer Film’s third and final cinematic version of the classic Nigel Kneale science fiction epics (originally written for TV) is perhaps the best, although the previous two films in the series have considerable merits. Director Roy Ward Baker and his screenwriter T.E.B. Clark (responsible, of course, for some of the most cherished Ealing comedy screenplays) perform a creditable filleting job of the original scripts written by Kneale for the famous television adaptations which had unprecedented impact on their first showing. Baker and Clarke retain all the most crucial elements - delivered with understated panache (aided by the matchless - if economical - technical resources of the Hammer Studios). What will be piquant for modern viewers is the fact that the investigations by the dour scientist Quatermass (here played by Andrew Keir, in far more appropriate casting than the American Brian Donleavy in the earlier films) involve the fact that the bodies of long dead (but still dangerous) alien creatures are discovered when a new tube line is being built under the London; the plot, like so much else in Kneale’s work, has been ruthlessly plundered by other writers over the years -- not least by the creators of the revivified Doctor Who, a show which often comes across like a compendium of reheated ideas created by the earlier writer.


James Glickenhaus, director/Arrow Blu-ray

One of the most striking aspects of the Blu-Ray revolution is the chance viewers are given to see versions of films which approximate far more closely to the director’s original vision - both in the fact that they are now made available in crisp widescreen prints and -- more tellingly - they are less likely to suffer the censorship excisions of earlier days (particularly after the draconian Video Recordings Bill occasioned a positive orgy of scissors wielding). Here is a classic example of the new-look syndrome: the often maladroit but always lively exploitation movie The Exterminator caused a censorship furore even in its softened version in the VHS video era, but Arrow have presented us with the uncut widescreen print which does more justice to the director James Glickenhaus’s visceral version. Glickenhaus claims in the extras not to have been influenced by Michael Winner’s Death Wish, but viewers may be likely to take that assertion with a pinch of salt.


Dorothy Arzner, director/Odeon

An incandescent early performance by a very youthful Katharine Hepburn is the principal selling point of this curious but remarkably watchable drama (directed by Dorothy Arzner), which also gives viewers an opportunity to see the original Baron Frankenstein, Colin Clive, in a role which doesn’t involve him bringing the dead back to life. Odeon also has the charming Rene Clair comedy, It Happened Tomorrow (with Dick Powell), consolidating the company’s commitment to bringing back some of the most cherishable items of Hollywood’s golden era.


Wes Craven, director/Arrow

In the 1980s, when a lesser-known piece by the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street first appeared in this country, viewers were already alerted to the fact that Wes Craven was one of the most unusual and intelligent figures in the horror film genre. This well-made drama about the clash between young city women and a fiercely fundamentalist Hittite community (led by Ernest Borgnine at his most terrifyingly patriarchal) wears very well. There is also the added interest of seeing a young Sharon Stone in one of her earlier parts, and the widescreen print ensures that the ludicrous (and repeated sight) of the knickers worn by the heroine when being menaced in the bath is no longer visible. Widescreen, let’s face it, is always better.


Tom Clegg, director/Network

Tom Clegg’s original pilot Regan in 1974 marked the genesis of the caustic cop show The Sweeney, which appeared a year later. Originally transmitted as part of the then-highly successful Armchair Theatre, Regan was the brainchild of Ian Kennedy Martin (who had created Z-Cars), and acquainted audiences with a pre-Morse John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. It was shot on location in and around central London. In the gritty inaugural show, a cop is murdered by a gang of thugs, with Regan and Carter assigned to nail the killers, encountering non-cooperation from other members of the Flying Squad. The succeeding series, The Sweeney, was influential on many British television police series that followed with its unvarnished picture of British coppers lower down the social scale than the traditionally upper middle class officers previously seen in the cinema.


Takashi Miike, director/Artificial Eye Blu-ray

Everything you’ve heard about this amazingly kinetic and astonishingly choreographed Samurai piece is true – and while the lengthy battle with which the film ends has all the energy one might expect, the sustained build-up is equally riveting.


Dario Argento, director/Arrow Blu-ray

As new Blu-ray issues continue the welcome wash and rinse process on older films, major recipients of the treatment have been the all the major films of the brilliantly talented Dario Argento – who (however lacklustre his recent work) remains the ultimate giallo craftsman. Cat-o’-Nine-Tails is reminder of his remarkable visual skills, with the viewer put through the total experience of film rather than intellectual appreciation of a well-written script (Argento’s horror films are definitely not for those who demand carefully constructed, literate screenplays). This is by no means top-flight Argento, but affords considerable rewards.


Jerry Schatzberg, director/Second Sight

This disturbing and powerful drug drama features a career-defining early performance by Al Pacino, and remains as nervous, gritty and involving as when it first appeared in the early 1970s.


Jordo Gigo, director ArrowDrome

The medium Claire Grandier (played by Silvia Solar) is obsessed with the notion of vengeance. She has nothing but the most malign thoughts towards the Duke de Haussement (Jose Nieto), who she holds responsible for the death of her husband. Soon in the basement of the Duke’s Castle, she is conjuring a demonic zombie to bring about her bloody purposes. Eurohorror does not come in a more delirious form than this.


Various directors/Renown

A certain level of economy and expertise (rather than inspiration) was a sine qua non of British crime film from the 1940s to the 1960s, as may be discerned in Lance Comfort’s Pit of Darkness (1961) and – to a far lesser degree – in Norman Lee’s The Case of Charles Peace (1949). Although neither film ever really rises above the quotidian, there are certain retrospective pleasure to be had in the sheer professionalism involved in turning out this kind of product (though the Lee film is generally stultifying and workaday, conforming to all the low expectations that are now the cin�aste’s default verdict on most British ‘B’ films of this ilk -- making the discovery of movies demonstrating energy and imagination all the more cherishable). The former (and later) film, Pit of Darkness, is the livelier piece of work, with the reliable off-the-peg British actor William Franklyn as the amnesiac partner in a safe-making firm who is discovered unconscious on a Wapping bombsite (the film is a snapshot of the area, pre-expensive flats and gated hi-tech newspaper offices) with no recollection of his recent past. He finds out that his wife has hired a detective, and that this man has been murdered. What’s more, his own company has installed a safe in a large country house which has been scientifically burgled – and he is a logical suspect. What follows involves the working out of a complex (and unlikely) plot, handled with the kind of film making nous that was Lance Comfort’s stock-in-trade.

The Norman Lee film The Case of Charles Peace (also a Butchers Films production and made at Merton Park studios) is based on a true story concerning a miscarriage of justice. While fireworks are never lit by either film (and Lee is largely content to move his actors around while simply keeping them in shot), there are incidental pleasures (at least in the Lance Comfort film), including the casting which can draw on the large coterie of character actors that the British cinema has always been able to draw on – Pit of Darkness boasts the matchless character actor Nigel Green in a part that will have viewers wishing he had been given more to do here than standard red herring duties).