The DVD Report #679

The Cameraman was both Buster Keaton’s next-to-last silent film and his last overall great film.

Keaton reached the height of his popularity with 1924’s Sherlock, Jr., 1926’s The General, and 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., which were produced independently with the help of his brother-in-law, powerful producer Joseph M. Schenk, who sold Keaton’s contract to MGM in late 1927. Keaton, who devised all his stunts but never took credit for his films’ direction, was under the impression that with big studio MGM behind him, he would continue to have the creative freedom he always did with more money to spend. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

MGM insisted on a script but allowed Keaton to improvise within the boundaries of the script so long as expenses were kept under control. He was able to expound on his ideas even when they varied drastically form the script, but he had to fight for every one of them. In the end, the finished product about a short, clumsy man who trades in his tintype operation for a movie camera to become a successful newsreel photographer proved to be another Keaton masterpiece.

Criterion’s 4K restoration of the film is, as was to be expected, outstanding. Also included in the Blu-ray release is a 2K restoration of Keaton’s second for MGM, and his last talkie, Spite Marriage, which also looks fantastic.

Keaton had wanted to make Spite Marriage, in which his hopeless character’s marriage to a popular actress is a sham to make her former lover jealous, as a talkie, but MGM wouldn’t allow it. They wanted to keep Keaton silent. This time they also insisted that Keaton stick to the script. He and co-star Dorothy Sebastian managed to improvise within their scripted scenes, but he wasn’t allowed to go off on tangents the way he did in The Cameraman. The result was a good, but not great film.

Keaton made a series of talkies for MGM between 1930 and 1933, each one worse than the one before. By then drinking heavily and obviously drunk on camera, Keaton was fired by Louis B. Mayer. He made his way back behind the cameras creating stunts for such later stars as The Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, and Abbott and Costello, eventually appearing on camera in small parts. He returned to MGM in a supporting role in 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime. Constantly working throughout his life, his last role was as Erronius in 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, released nine months after his death.

Extras include various perspectives on Keaton and his career.

Also new from Criterion are the Blu-ray releases of An Unmarried Woman and Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

An Unmarried Woman, Mike Mazursky’s 1978 film, was one of the best reviewed films of its day. It landed on more critics’ top-ten lists than any other film that year and was nominated for 3 Oscars including Best Picture, Actress (Jill Clayburgh), and Original Screenplay (Mazursky). Mazursky was the only director of a Best Picture nominee not nominated for his direction that year. Woody Allen (Interiors), took his place alongside Hal Ashby (Coming Home), Warren Beatty and Buck Henry (Heaven Can Wait), Alan Parker (Midnight Express), and winner Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter).

Seen today, Clayburgh’s performance holds up as the middle-aged woman whose husband dumps her for a younger woman. Alan Bates as her latest lover, Michael Murphy as her hissable ex-husband, and Lisa Lucas as her teenage daughter also still look good after all these years. The problem with the film is Mazursky’s script, which seemed so smart and rich at the time. Now it just seems smug. Clayburgh’s sex chats over lunch and/or drinks with friends Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller, and Pat Quinn, innovative at the time, now play like the clichés such scenes have become.

The film, with all those 1970s New York locations intact, looks good in its 4K restoration. Extras include new on-camera interviews with Murphy and Lucas.

2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a highly praised, award-winning French film that is gorgeous too look at, if a bit tedious to sit through. Noémie Merlant and Adele Haenel star as a late 18th Century portrait painter and her subject, a soon-to-be bride, whose portrait she is hired to paint that must be done in secret to surprise her with. Soon, the cat is out of the bag and the subject poses while the women fall in love and have a brief, discreetly filmed, affair.

Extras include an interview with director Céline Sciamma in English.

If you’re looking for a foreign language film with a bit more substance, look no further than Poland’s Corpus Christi. Nominated for Best International Film at the 2019 Oscars, Jan Komasa’s film stars Bartosz Bielenia as reformed juvenile offender who pretends to be a priest in a small Polish town after he is denied seminary study because of his criminal record. Bielenia won numerous awards for his performance. The Chicago Film Festival noted: “The jury found impressive force and unanticipated choices in his performance; he charmingly builds Daniel, a character whose embrace of dishonesty becomes a kind of integrity.”

Corpus Christi, which lost the Best International Film Oscar to Parasite, was released in the U.S. in early 2020 and is eligible for awards consideration by most U.S. critics’ groups this year.

Kino Lorber had released 1979’s Murder by Decree on Blu-ray. Bob Clark’s film, starring Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, was the second major film in which the fictional detectives were involved in the hunt for the real-life serial killer Jack the Ripper who terrorized 1890s London. It’s a visually stunning work with strong performances, especially by Mason, but dramatically it’s not as good as James Hill’s 1965 film, A Study in Terror, starring John Neville and Donald Houston as Holmes and Watson, which was previously released on Blu-ray by Mill Creek.

Warner Archive has released 1940’s Strike Up the Band on Blu-ray. Directed by Busby Berkeley (The Gang’s All Here), this was the second let’s-put-on-a-show musical Berkeley directed for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland after the success of 1939’s Babes in Arms. Babes on Broadway and Girl Crazy would follow. It’s a pleasant time killer with Larry Nunn, as the 13-year-old who has a crush on Garland, stealing the show.

This week’s new releases include Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and the Olive Signature Edition of Hair.

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