Masters of Cinema Monthly – La Poison, Fear and Desire, Frank Tashlin and News About Delays

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Welcome to Masters of Cinema Monthly.

February the 19th marked the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Frank Tashlin, who sadly passed away in 1972. Tashlin was an extraordinary director who was somewhat under-appreciated in his time. This has been corrected to some degree since, with the excellent Tashlinesque book by Ethan de Seife and with Home Entertainment releases opening his films up to a wider audience .

Tashlin is represented in the Masters of Cinema series with his 1957 film Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and if you’ve never watched any of his films this is an excellent starting point and a possibly one of the funniest films MoC have ever released.

To convince you further, here is the fourth-wall-breaking opening sequence from Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (which shares some similarities with another 1957 featured in this column).

Eureka Entertainment recently posted the following on their Facebook page,

Unfortunately there will be a small delay on the recently announced CHABROL titles. Both titles (LE BEAU SERGE & LES COUSINS) are now set to be released on 8 April 2013

Also, regarding the Sadao Yamanaka DVDs,

Unfortunately you’ll also have to wait a tad longer for the release of THE COMPLETE FILMS OF SADAO YAMANAKA. The DVD release date has also been put back until 20 May 2013.

And finally, The Murderer Lives at 21,

A bit of an update regarding the DVD & BD release of THE MURDERER LIVES AT 21 [L'ASSASSIN HABITE AU 21]. The release date has been put back until 20 May 2013. Sorry that you’ll have to wait that bit longer!

LA_POISON_BD_2D_packshot_72dpi_500pxLa Poison

One thing that Masters of Cinema can never be praised enough for is the way in which they raise the profile of certain filmmakers and films, often leading to many new fans and reappraisals of the work presented. Those films, such as the sublime Cœur fidèle released by Masters of Cinema in 2011, that could so easily be neglected by even the most enthusiastic cinephile.

La Poison feels very much like one of those special releases. Outside of the Sacha Guitry Criterion Eclipse set released in 2010 (this release also helped lead to renewed interest in the director) Guitry has not been well represented on DVD and Blu-ray outside of France and his name is actually probably not too well known amongst film fans.

The Eclipse set from Criterion included four films from Guitry’s pre-War period but this latest release from Masters of Cinema is a much later film from Guity and one that was made just six years before his death in 1957.

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The Russian born Guitry was a child of the stage, the son of the well regarded actor Lucien Guitry and in his early years he worked as both an actor and a playwright. After a few short works Guitry committed to cinema in 1935 and went on to release a number of films in a relatively short period.

Whilst he continued making films throughout the Second World War suspicions regarding his collusions with the German occupation led to a troubling period for Guitry. This difficult period undoubtedly left a mark on him and his reputation for many years and there also appear to be many echoes of his treatment that fed into La Poison.

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Originally released in 1955 La Poison came after Guitry’s difficulties with the law surrounding his alleged collusion – he was never actually brought to trial – and it is interesting to note the cynicism that the film is bathed in. The film is not at all heavy going though and the humour that runs throughout is all the better for the cynical edge that Guitry brings to it.

The story of a husband, Paul Braconnier (Michel Simon), murdering his wife should, one may think, be a rather dark and sinister piece but Guitry weaves the tale into a twisted comedy that is reminiscent of the more wicked side of Ealing comedies treated with the light touch of Lubitsch. Guitry’s script and the way in which, in his framing choices and editing around Braconnier, we are placed alongside Braconnier leads to a devilish sense that we are co-conspirators and the degree to which you find yourself wanting Braconnier to ‘win’ in the film’s final scenes is a testament to Guitry’s writing and Simon’s remarkable performance.

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The only area in which La Poison possibly stumbles is in the first few minutes, in which Guitry introduces the audience to the key actors from the film and the crew from behind the scenes. It’s an interesting moment in breaking the fourth wall but it surely would have been better placed at the end of the film rather than the beginning. As a result of its placement at beginning of the film the early scenes of the story take a moment to acclimatise to as you cast aside the actors you’ve been introduced to and begin to become invested in the characters. It is a minor misstep, a mismatch between the opening and the approach of the main text, in an otherwise wonderful black comedy.

The new Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema, which utilises a recent digital restoration from Gaumont, is a superb release and features an excellent transfer, which retains a fine layer of grain. The source materials used were clearly damaged and some detailed work has been done to restore the film without losing anything in the process. There were a couple of moments that lead me to wonder if some work had been done to clean the image and then re-lay digital grain over the top, although if this is the case it is certainly not particularly obvious and I suspect that I could well be imagining it simply because I’m looking to hard for something.

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The disc comes with a single special feature but thankfully it’s a rather excellent one. On Life On-Screen: Miseries and Splendour of a Monarch is a sixty-one minute documentary that accompanies the film and it covers the La Poison, Guitry and Michel Simon in a reasonable amount of detail. The documentary provides a great introduction to Guitry but is also informative enough and entertaining that even those already familiar with his work will undoubtedly find it interesting. The disc also comes with a booklet that includes a short excerpt from a essay by François Truffaut.

La Poison is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

Fear and Desire CoverFear and Desire

When viewing the early works of a notable and highly respected filmmaker it is very difficult to not simply see the roots of their later work an think merely in terms of what would come afterwards. And so watching Stanley Kubrick‘s début feature Fear and Desire, and the accompanying shorts included on this disc, I found it near impossible to ignore the ‘baggage’ of Kubrick extraordinary filmography.

A further element which also distracts one from attempting to formulate any kind of objective view of the film is the history of Fear and Desire and Kubrick’s feelings towards it. Kubrick made many efforts to effectively bury the film and its release now would almost certainly not have occurred if Kubrick were still alive today. This also leads to rather conflicting feelings about even watching the film, but it does seem somewhat acceptable if one considers it to be of interest from a historical point of view.

It’s relatively easy to see why Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist, felt so negatively about Fear and Desire as its flaws are obvious from the outset. Whilst it is far from a perfect film it is also far from a bad film though, and it is almost certainly a good thing that it will now be seen on Blu-ray, not on Youtube or on a dodgy third generation VHS.

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Taking in place in an unspecified location and at an unspecified time the Howard Sackler scripted Fear and Desire is a film that one finds oneself wrestling with from the outset. Occasionally beautifully composed shots sit alongside poorly framed and very poorly blocked shots, interesting juxtapositions slam up against amateurish edits and highly engaging ideas are marred by Sackler and Kubrick’s reliance on voiceover.

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The existential musings delivered in voiceover are particularly problematic as they state things that could be shown visually and at times express things that actually have already been visually communicated. They often sap any drama out of the film too, leaving you feeling more like you are stuck in a dusty lecture theatre than in a tense situation in the middle of a war.

Kubrick would of course go on to further explore these ideas about war and man’s very nature in Paths and Glory and Full Metal Jacket with far greater success but Fear and Desire is nonetheless an interesting which if not eclipsed by Kubrick’s later work would still have many call to be considered something of fascinating if flawed little gem.

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Using the same source material as the recent Kino Lorber release, a 35mm print restored by the Library of Congress, this transfer from MoC is superb, if a little raw. Whilst there are clear signs of damage it is pleasing to see that there has been nothing done to obscure detail or leave behind unsightly digital artifacts.

Those in the UK, or those who are wisely region free, will be pleased to discover that the MoC disc trumps the Kino release with regards to special features. Both discs include the Kubrick short The Seafarers but MoC also add the Kubrick shorts Day of the Fight and Flying Padre, an interview with Bill Krohn and a booklet. The shorts are, perhaps unsurprisingly, mostly interesting from a biographical point-of view but they are very welcome inclusions here.

Fear and Desire is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.