Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – January 2015

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month we wrap up last year with a few films we didn’t get chance to feature in previous columns, including a look at one of the greats of fantasy cinema, an often overlooked gem from Poland, and a film noir based on the writing of Ernest Hemingway.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924 version) (Blu-Ray & DVD, Masters of Cinema)
Even in cinema’s earliest days, a divide began to form between those who wanted to use its photographic qualities to reflect the world around them, and those who wanted to use it to breathe life into impossible worlds. The Thief of Bagdad is one of the great early peaks of this second tradition, and still stands as one of the very finest fantasy films ever made. The film is a myth come to life; utterly larger than life in both its story and execution. Douglas Fairbanks plays Ahmed, a street thief who lives a simple but unfulfilling existence according to the creed: “What I want, I take”. On one of his late night escapades he falls in love with the princess of the city (Julanne Johnston), though his lowly status won’t allow the two of them to be together. This forces Ahmed to set off on a magical quest that takes in mythical beasts, hidden treasures and fantastical landscapes.

The film’s plot may be uncomplicated, but it presents the perfect excuse for a parade of visual spectacles, which is where the film’s greatest strengths lie. The filmmakers reportedly had access to 3000 extras a day, who are clad in a dazzling array of beautifully designed costumes. Even more impressive are the film’s sets, which are genuinely spectacular in their scale and artistry. Rather than attempt to create a believable Bagdad, the city we spend our time in is an occasionally surreal and deliberately oversized one that dwarves its inhabitants. This isn’t a world to believe in, as in the more realistic aesthetic of contemporary fantasy sagas such as Lord of the Rings, but instead a truly mythic and impossible world to be marvelled at. That the filmmakers managed to achieve so much is truly impressive, and there are plenty of sights here to impress even the most jaded and CGI-spoilt of audiences. What’s more, seemingly every elaborate image gives way to something equally elaborate in the next shot, especially in the film’s more magic-filled second half.

Most actors would have been swallowed by sets of this size or lost among the hordes of spectacularly attired extras. However, Douglas Fairbanks was an actor with more than enough dynamism to compete with the splendour around him. Fairbanks’ athletic, almost ridiculously kinetic performance in the film ensures he is always at the centre of our attentions, no matter what is happening around him. As with the film’s oversized sets, it’s not a performance that possesses any kind of subtlety, and Fairbanks seems to spend much of the film using every gesture as an excuse for another dynamic pose. In another film this could irritate, but it’s a perfect fit for the fantastical storytelling being attempted here. Fairbanks also produced the film, and indeed despite the visual spectacles on offer behind him, the film functions equally as a star vehicle for his talents. For this reason, Fairbanks is the focus of much of this release’s supplementary materials, which include a commentary from Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance and a 40 page booklet. These offer some intriguing insights into the production of the film, and in particular how some of the visuals were achieved without the aid of today’s digital manipulation. Undiminished by any comparison to the rapidly improving visual effects that have followed it in the 90 years since, The Thief of Bagdad still represents one of the most perfectly realised expressions of cinema’s ability to depict the fantastical.

The Promised Land (DVD, Second Run)
The Promised Land is reportedly a film much respected among Polish cineastes, and was once voted the ‘best film in the history of the Polish cinema’. Outside of Poland however it’s been largely forgotten from the world cinema canon and subsequently rarely seen. The ‘promised land’ of the title is 19th century Łódź, a city earning the attentions of greedy capitalists and desperate workers alike, all keen to make a living in the brutal and rapidly expanding textile industry. The old order of ‘gentlemen’ business owners are rapidly eroding, and giving way to a new breed defined by treachery and ruthless ambition. This is characterised by the film’s utterly detestable main character Karol (Daniel Olbrychski), a Polish factory engineer, who teams up with two of his friends to try and set up a new textile business. In this world, the workers are no longer seen as people, but rather replaceable cogs in an unstoppable machine. When Karol oversees the maimed body of one of his workers after a horrifying industrial accident, his concerns are only for the fabrics now ruined with bloodstains. The Promised Land is never subtle in its themes, but this remains a first rate film about capitalism nonetheless.

Director Andrzej Wajda and his team were lucky enough to discover many of Łódź’s factory locations had changed little since their 19th century origins, and as such they were able to create an utterly believable world for the film. The Łódź of The Promised Land feels like somewhere you could actually wander around and explore, and very much like a character in its own right. The story focuses primarily on the upper classes of this era, who live a shallow and opulent life that is a sharp contrast to the workers toiling below to make their existence possible. The poor of the film rarely receive as much attention, though some of the scenes in which they do count among the story’s most poignant. Most notably, the family torn apart when its young daughter becomes the most recent target of a lecherous factory owner. The Promised Land delivers a rich and evocative world, filled with atmosphere and attention to detail. It’s a remarkable achievement, though in a manner almost completely at odds with The Thief of Bagdad.

Also particularly impressive is the film’s almost constantly mobile camerawork, which feels as chaotic and turbulent as the era itself. This is a city overwhelmed by rapid technological change, and it’s a nice touch that the film’s cinematography reflects this urgency and momentum. As with other Second Run releases, the film is only available in DVD format. However, this is a fantastic looking disc, that does great service to the film’s cinematography and shows how good DVD releases can look when care is taken. The release comes with an informative essay on the film and a half hour interview with director Andrzej Wajda, which offers his response to the criticisms which met the film on its first release. The Promised Land is a fantastically realised story about the devastation wreaked by greed and industrial capitalism, which carries plenty of relevance today.

The Killers (Blu-Ray, Arrow)
The 1946 version of The Killers must surely possess one of the finest opening acts in the film noir canon, perhaps even in crime cinema in general. The opening, which closely mirrors the Hemingway short story on which it is based, depicts one of Classic Hollywood’s favourite themes – small town suburbia under threat from sinister outside forces. In this case its two dangerously explosive hitmen who threaten to disturb the peace. The diner scene in which we are introduced to them is a perfect study in gradual tension, which will feel immediately familiar to anybody who has seen more than one Tarantino film. When these killers reach their target, a man known as The Swede (Burt Lancaster), it seems as though he’s already given up on existence anyway. ‘There’s nothing I can do about it’ comes The Swede’s weary response to learning his life is about to end, before he sinks back into his bed and awaits his fate. What could have left The Swede so accepting of his death? What did he do to deserve his fate? These are the mysteries that the rest of The Killers sets out to answer, which thanks to a variety of intriguing storytelling devices, quickly develops into an outstanding crime film.

One of the more interesting features of The Killers is its structure, which takes the form of an almost Citizen Kane-like exploration of the deceased’s life. Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) is a life insurance investigator tasked with tracing the steps that led to The Swede’s extermination, and what follows is a sort of biography of his life in reverse. It’s a complex and ambitious way to tell a story, with each of the flashbacks feeling like a puzzle piece to a gradually clearer whole. The investigation also unveils a checklist of noir staples, and we’re shown everything from daring robberies, to tense card games in grimy backrooms, to boxing careers stumbling through their final days. Though The Killers is rarely listed among the classic introductions to film noir, like say Double Indemnity, you’d struggle to find a noir that successfully delivers so many staples of the style in one film.

It’d be all too easy for a film so immersed in noir tropes to quickly end up feeling generic, but thankfully The Killers is also filled with little artistic flourishes that help it to stand out from the hordes of similar shadowy crime dramas of its day. There’s the heist scene all shot at a distance in one long swooping camera movement. There’s the clever use of music during the climax, which sees the sinister horn sections of the film’s soundtrack mingling with the piano playing from within the scene. Also impressive are the film’s performances, which boast the debut role of Burt Lancaster and the breakthrough role of Ava Gardener. Lancaster in particular imbues his doomed protagonist with a mix of toughness and vulnerability, like a wounded animal. There’s something boyish and desperate about his performance, which shines through despite the macho posturing on the surface.

The original Hemingway short story, which this 1946 version used as its starting point, offered very little in the way of actual answers, which has allowed filmmakers since to use it as the inspiration for some extremely different films. This forms the basis for this release’s ‘Heroic Fatalism’ special feature, which explores the original story and its three cinematic interpretations (which oddly enough included a version by art-cinema legend Andrei Tarkovsky). This is joined by an extensive and informative hour long analysis of the film by noir expert Frank Krutnik. The depth of these excellent special features grant The Killers the attention it rightly deserves, and celebrate the film for what it is - an exceptional noir packed with creativity and ambition.