Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – April 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 immerse ourselves in the immoral, midnight world of Sweet Smell of Success, as well as revisiting one of the great (but largely forgotten) WWI films, in Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses. We also take a look at The Offence, an unnerving 1972 collaboration between Sean Connery and director Sidney Lumet.

Sweet Smell of Success (Blu-Ray, Arrow)

The dark underbelly of Manhattan is a setting with a long and proud cinematic tradition. Few films though have captured the glitz and glamour of the city’s nightlife with quite as much cynicism as Sweet Smell of Success. Here New York is a lively nocturnal world, where blackmail and degradation are as powerful a form of currency as the dollar. Small-time press agent and ‘cookie full of arsenic’ Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a creature perfectly evolved to exist in this environment. Falco spends his nights weaving through the clubs and alleyways, seemingly working hard to promote the talents of his clients, but truthfully only really working to promote himself. He’s an opportunistic survivor who coldly moves his colleagues and ‘friends’ around like chess pieces, though unfortunately for him he’s only really a pawn himself.

Much higher up the pecking order is the imposing J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a highly influential newspaper columnist with the ability, and willingness, to destroy somebody with a just a few words spoken into a phone. Last time we reviewed Lancaster in this column it was his tough, physical performances in Brute Force and The Killers. It may come as a surprise to many then to see Lancaster giving a comparatively restrained performance here, though in many ways a vastly more intimidating one. In fact, both Lancaster and Curtis were playing against what was expected of them in Sweet Smell of Success, but the results, especially when they’re on screen together, are fantastic. The pair’s contrasting performances play off against each other like yin and yang, and form much of what makes the film so enthralling. When the action turns to the film’s secondary characters, such as Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve (Martin Milner), the results aren’t as inspiring, though you’ll rarely notice. Lesser films would be desperate for even just one scene of Lancaster and Curtis being this good together.

As strong as the performances are, the actors had a remarkable script to work with. Sweet Smell of Success has earned a reputation as one of the most quotable films of its era, thanks in part to the dialogue re-writes of playwright Clifford Odets. Lines like ‘the cats in the bag and the bags in the river’ and ‘you’re dead, son. Get yourself buried’ zip along at an aggressive pace, and even the smallest of characters in the film are gifted with some verbal ingenuity to play with. Another talent very much on display is cinematographer James Wong Howe (The Rose Tattoo, Hud, Seconds). Howe was among classic Hollywood’s finest, and his New York imagery here (some of it shot on real streets during rush hour) is some of the best of his career. Howe’s lighting of Hunsecker is particularly evocative; lighting him as if he’s some unpleasant aspect of human nature brought to life and carved out of shadow. Sweet Smell of Success has the kind of black and white photography that was always going to look sensational on high definition Blu-Ray, and this Arrow release delivers.

One of the curious things about Sweet Smell of Success is the appearance of the talented Alexander Mackendrick as its director. How did a director raised in Scotland and responsible at this stage primarily for a string of classic British comedies (The Ladykillers, Whisky Galore, The Man in the White Suit) end up documenting the dark underside of the American dream in New York? This is the question that one of this disc’s excellent special features, the hour long documentary ‘Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away’, sets out to answer. This is joined by some excellent contributions from film historian Philip Kemp, who provides a lengthy appreciation of the film and analysis of key scenes.


Wooden Crosses (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

When Wooden Crosses was released in 1932 it was hailed by the New York Times as “one of the great films in motion picture history”. As the years went by, such accolades became ever more infrequent, and the film itself was largely forgotten, save for dedicated film history enthusiasts. Eureka’s new Blu-Ray of the film then presents the perfect opportunity for Wooden Crosses to retake its place as one of the great anti-war films.

We join the story as Demachy (Pierre Blanchard), a naïve young law student, becomes the newest member of a French regiment in the trenches of WWI. The men he finds himself alongside aren’t professional soldiers, but instead represent a cross-section of ordinary people and professions. All of them have been left cynical by their wartime experiences, despite the warm-hearted camaraderie they still manage to muster. Remarkably, many of the soldiers in the film were played not by actors, but by real veterans of the conflict, which at this stage ended only 14 years earlier. This decision is in many ways reflective of director Raymond Bernard’s commitment to depict the war with truth and honesty. Wooden Crosses isn’t hugely interested in elaborate character arcs or intricate plotting, but is instead concerned with capturing and commiserating the experiences of this devastated generation.

Throughout this the ‘enemy’ is shown relatively little, which has the effect of making the war itself feel like some manner of irrational and unstoppable force, randomly snatching away the lives of our characters on a daily basis. The film also does an effective job of capturing the emotional experience of existing in such an environment, from the mixed feelings a visit back home can bring, to the way the regiment handles the loss of one of their oldest veterans. It’s perhaps when the fighting does start though that the technical mastery of Wooden Crosses is most apparent. The film’s ‘Ten Days’ scene condenses ten days of continuous fighting into a lengthy assault on the senses. It’s a relentless and chaotic sequence that feels genuinely exhausting once you’ve reached the other end, thanks in large part to the thunderous sound design.

Though Wooden Crosses strives to depict the conflict realistically, the film also boasts some wonderful stylistic sequences. The wooden crosses of the film’s title appear in some particularly powerful scenes, some of which could be counted among the most haunting cinematic imagery of the first World War ever created. In one scene, lines and lines of young soldiers poised and ready to fight fade away to reveal instead seemingly endless rows of wooden crosses, each representing a life lost. We see similar imagery again after the battlefield has fallen quiet, and all that remains is a ghostly procession of soldiers, each carrying their own wooden cross through a silent wasteland of shattered trees.

Wooden Crosses is an important picture, and as such you get the sense that Eureka have put plenty of care and attention into assembling this release. The fantastic restoration, which looks great on Blu-Ray, is the subject of a documentary feature on the disc, alongside a feature on the film’s use of sound. Meanwhile, there’s also a 30-minute appreciation of the film by historian Marc Ferro and film historian Laurent Veray, which does much to highlight its importance. Eureka have also dug up some archival interviews with the film’s director and Roland Dorgelès, who wrote the novel the film was based on. Cinema has provided many powerful depictions of WWI, from the silent dramas that followed relatively shortly after the conflict such as The Big Parade and J’accuse, to the great films of the sound era, such as La Grande Illusion, All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths of Glory. Wooden Crosses deserves to be counted among these once again.


The Offence (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

I’ve long been a fan of director Sidney Lumet, who has always felt to me like a director deserving of greater appreciation. One of the striking things about delving into his (admittedly inconsistent) filmography is the quantity of intriguing films that lie beyond the recognised ‘greats’. Films like 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Serpico are all rightly celebrated of course, but there’s a wealth of powerful dramas and character studies for those willing to venture a little further. Lumet’s work was often defined by his recurrent interest in justice, subtle yet elegant camerawork, and perhaps most of all, his reputation for getting outstanding performances out of his actors. All of these are qualities that can be clearly seen in 1972’s The Offence.

As one of his terms for returning to play Bond again in Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery was allowed to select and work on two low budget films that would stretch his acting talents. It’s clear to see why he selected The Offence’s main character Detective Sergeant Johnson as one of these roles. Detective Johnson is a police officer who has been transformed by the emotional and psychological toll of his profession, or perhaps rather the misery he immerses himself in has helped to expose the already present monstrous aspects of his own character. The film’s main focus is on Johnson’s rapidly deteriorating psyche, and Connery does an excellent job of depicting him as a man who is equally tortured and terrifying. This comes to the fore when an emotionally frayed Detective Johnson interrogates a suspect in a child rape case, and sees more of himself in the suspect than he’d like. The Offence’s disorientating opening sequence leads us through corridors of panicking policemen until we eventually come to a dazed Detective Johnson standing over the bloodied corpse of the suspect, having apparently just beaten him to death. The remainder of the film’s fractured story structure then explores the build up to this violent act in a series of flashbacks. The ‘dangerous police officer on the edge’ and ‘emotional toll of the job’ are well-worn story tropes of the police procedural genre, but rarely have they been taken down to such unsettling depths as here. The Offence is a gritty British crime drama unravelling to reveal a psychological horror film underneath.

In much the same way as the job has taken its toll on its characters, The Offence is a film where it feels like even the story’s environments have been mutated by the events they’ve witnessed. Damp, dismal housing estates, sparse yet claustrophobic rooms, and a drained colour palette define the look of the film. It’s a masterfully atmospheric experience, helped a great deal by Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s oppressive, horror-tinged score. Sidney Lumet proved in numerous films that he could do great things with a small numbers of actors simply talking in a room, and this talent shines in The Offence. In particular, a lengthy, confessional exchange between Johnson and his wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant) stands out as perhaps the film’s highlight, though many may be drawn instead to the film’s more theatrical climax between Johnson and the rape suspect. Lumet’s direction of the film’s various offences are also highly effective, typically relying on suggestion and subjectivity, rather than explicit depiction. When Lumet films the young girl’s final moments before her disappearance he does so in an eerie long take, as we watch her disappear into the darkness of a distant tunnel. We don’t know her fate, but most importantly, we feel utterly powerless to stop it. The Offence is, as you might imagine, a unnerving and uncomfortable viewing experience. However, it’s also a crime film of unusual intensity that can easily stand among Lumet's strongest work.