Film and Television Features


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’re turning our attentions mostly to Hollywood, with two genre classics receiving a much deserved Blu-Ray upgrade. We also take a look at the recent resurgence of the work of experimental Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová, and the release of her barely seen 1998 film, Traps.

Man of the West (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

The radical French director Jean-Luc Godard once wrote of Anthony Mann’s 1959 western: “I have seen nothing so completely new since – why not? – Griffith…With Anthony Mann, one rediscovers the western, as one discovers arithmetic in an elementary maths class”. Examined at its simplest level, Man of the West’s solid but unremarkable genre plot would suggest little to support such accolades. Link (Gary Cooper), a classic example of the ‘reformed man with a shady past’ archetype, is a former criminal trying his best to build a brighter future in the unsubtly named community of ‘Good Hope’. While travelling across Texas, his train is attacked by outlaws and Link becomes stranded in the wilderness with two strangers. The small party seek shelter for the night in a nearby homestead, only to discover they’ve accidentally stumbled into the hideout of the train robbers. Here (somewhat improbably) Link comes face to face again with one of the greatest shadows of his past, his old mentor and partner in crime, Dock Tobin (Lee J Cobb). Approached without the flair that Anthony Mann brings here, this could easily play out as an unremarkable B-picture. Instead, Man of the West is a taut psychological tale sizzling with tension and menace.

One of the western genre’s great recurring themes has always been that of the ‘hero’ adrift halfway between the savagery of the wilderness and the peace of civilisation. For those few protagonists who are lucky enough to avoid a quick and pointless death or an ambiguous ride into the sunset, there’s always the hope of settling down and trying to repress their darker natures. However, the violent pasts of these men have a way of returning to haunt them, both literally and psychologically. In Man of the West, these psychological and literal themes are neatly combined as Link’s own inner demons seem to take form and taunt him in the form of the almost animalistic outlaws he encounters on his journey. There’s something eerie about the film’s criminals, as if they’re ghosts from Link’s past sent to remind him of the cracks in his new respectable persona. The film’s standout performance comes from Lee J. Cobb, who plays the gang’s leader Tobin. Cobb was one of the great supporting actors of his era, and in particular excelled at playing antagonists (12 Angry Men and On The Waterfront to name just two of the more famous examples). His depiction of Dock here is unpredictable, oozing with malice, and utterly hypnotic. Dock is a man who seems to be permanently simmering, only ever a second away from boiling over into a violent rage.

With so many dangerous, explosive characters packed into the confined space of the gang’s hideout, the potential for dramatic tension is high. This is in turn ratcheted up several stages further by Anthony Mann’s masterful direction. Unlike many westerns of its era, Man of the West largely holds off on the stunning vistas and scenic grandeur. Instead this is a film about dangerous people stuck together in cramped conditions, each trying to maneuver for a more advantageous position. In this ever-moving game of power plays and manipulation, Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller ensure the camera communicates just as clearly as the film’s script and performances. Exactly who, or in some cases what, is in the frame can speak volumes, especially when death always feels like it could be seconds away.

This release also presents a fantastic looking restoration of the film, which gives what could have otherwise been muted colour tones real vibrancy. The film is joined by some thorough analysis from experts and critics, including a discussion of the film’s place in the western genre by film historian Douglas Pye, and an audio commentary by film critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme. Man of the West is an unromantic and gripping psychological western that’s lost none of its potency since Jean-Luc Godard praised it so heavily nearly 60 years ago.

The Manchurian Candidate (Blu-Ray & DVD, Arrow)

To understand the combination of elements that have lead John Frankenheimer’s Cold War paranoia-fest The Manchurian Candidate to be long held up as a Hollywood classic, one only need look at its famous gardening club scene. In what appears to be a hotel lobby in New Jersey, a group of mild-mannered elderly women have gathered for a lecture on hydrangeas. Somewhat inexplicably, the lecturer appears to be sharing her stage with a unit of listless looking American soldiers, all currently engaged in the Korean war. In the first of the film’s many great directing flourishes, these mundane surroundings seem to slip away in a single lengthy take, and in their place leave something altogether stranger. Suddenly the Spring Lake Hotel gives way to the most ridiculous looking Communist military gathering you could imagine, and the American soldier’s surprising presence there begins to feel a lot more dangerous.

While the disorientated soldiers believe themselves to be attending a particularly dull discussion of gardening techniques, they’re in fact the subjects (and victims) of a demonstration of Communist brainwashing. As the scene skilfully weaves back and forth between mundane fantasy and nightmarish reality, one of the higher ranking Communist officials eventually calls for a more robust demonstration of their new sleeper agent’s submissiveness. As a few of the unit’s more sweet natured soldiers are murdered on stage by their helpless allies, the camera cuts to our main character Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who in his forcibly pacified state can barely stifle a yawn as he watches his friends murdered around him. It’s a remarkable scene; bizarre, deeply unsettling, and visually inventive. It’s also the perfect introduction to the shadowy world of The Manchurian Candidate where conspiracy, political intrigue and psychological horror collide in one of the greatest of all Cold War thrillers.

Watching this scene and others in the film you also begin to notice something else that lies at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate’s brilliance. Even when we’re in the apparent ‘reality’ of the Communist base there’s something distinctly absurd about the oversized images of Mao and Stalin that fill the room here. Subtly surreal props and settings pervade the film, drawing upon the original novel’s more satirical and sensational tone. Though many audiences at the time took The Manchurian Candidate’s tale of political infiltration seriously, the film contains plenty of elements of sly black comedy. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, yet the film manages to succeed brilliantly as an engrossing and unnerving political thriller, while simultaneously subtly drawing attention to its own ridiculousness.

That The Manchurian Candidate works so well owes a great deal to the strength of its cast, who manage to make even the film’s more ridiculous premises play out like a chilling tragedy. Frank Sinatra gives one of the finest performances of his acting career here as a broken veteran trying desperately to come to terms with a trauma he can’t fully understand. Also very strong is Laurence Harvey’s portrayal of Raymond Shaw, a loathsome and emotionally detached figure who his soldiers mysteriously and sinisterly regard as ‘the kindest, bravest and most wonderful human being I know’. Strongest of all however is Angela Lansbury portrayal of Mrs Iselin, who has frequently been counted among the greatest Hollywood villains of all time. Lansbury’s Mrs Iselin dominates the film as much as she does the other characters around her. If you only know Angela Lansbury from Murder, She Wrote, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock.

Even by Arrow’s usually strong standards, this release is impressively packed full of features. As well as an excellent looking HD copy of the film, you can also see an extensive range of interviews with the film’s performers, producer, and director. The film’s director John Frankenheimer in particular gets singled out for plenty of analysis, and the disc includes both an hour long documentary about his work, a director’s commentary, and an appreciation by fellow director William Friedkin. The Manchurian Candidate is a thriller fully deserving of a lavish Blu-Ray package, and this is most definitely it.


Traps (DVD, Second Run)

When the Czech director Věra Chytilová passed away in 2014 there were a heartening number of tributes online, especially given she is still considered a relatively obscure filmmaker. What was curious about these tributes though was how few of them discussed any of her work in any significant depth beyond her audacious debut feature, Daisies. In many ways this is understandable. Daisies is one of the great films of 1960’s art cinema; an explosive, kaleidoscopic funhouse of a film packed with boundless creativity and joy. However, there’s plenty more to Chytilová’s career than her early efforts, even if being effectively banned from filmmaking for nearly a decade resulted in a noticeable dent in her output. Her films have long been difficult to see, but thankfully there seems to be a change in the air. As is often the case when it comes to underappreciated filmmakers, Second Run seem to be leading the way.

As is immediately apparent from the film’s opening images of distressed pigs being castrated, sex and power lie at the heart of Trap’s narrative. Our primary figures of power in the film are loathsome advertising executive Petr (Tomas Hanak) and environmental minister Dohnal (Miroslav Donutil). While out driving together, Petr and Dohnal stumble upon country vet Lenka (Zuzana Stivinova) in need of assistance after her car has broken down. Their intentions are not what they initially seem however, and they instead drive her out to a secluded forest and rape her. Lenka realises that men of such power and influence (or even men of any influence) are unlikely to face proper justice in the country’s judicial system, and so instead decides to find her own justice. Lenka is a vet specialising in the castration of farmyard animals, and when Dohnal and Petr awaken from a drug-induced sleep they discover that they too have been operated on.

What’s really interesting about the film though is how it unfolds beyond this point. Whereas many rape-revenge films would revel in the violent retribution the victim enacts against her attackers as if this offered some kind of consolation, the attitude Traps holds is much more cynical and world weary. Lenka’s act of revenge (understandably) offers her no real respite from the trauma of what occurred to her. Worse still are the reactions of those around her. Lenka’s boyfriend summons all of his courage to tell his girlfriend that he ‘forgives her’ for what was done to her, very much reflecting the victim-blaming attitudes that so pervade society.

What makes Traps such an unusual film though is its treatment of this heavy subject matter, which is surprising in a number of ways. Those who have only seen Daisies will firstly be surprised at how formally restrained the film is, coming as it does from the less experimental latter half of Chytilová’s career. This certainly isn’t to say that Traps isn’t still an inventive film however. Ridiculous costumes in eye-popping colours appear throughout, as do often creative verbal and visual allusions to castration and genitalia. What’s really surprising though is the film’s often comedic tone. Chytilová’s messages about society’s inadequate response to rape remain deadly serious, yet despite this much of the film plays out like an unsettling black comedy. This is particularly the case in the aftermath of the castration when Dohnal and Petr are left hobbling around the streets with their testicles in a metal jar. Their fate only becomes more ridiculous and unfortunate from here on in. Chytilová was always a bold filmmaker, and here it’s the unusual juxtaposition of content and style that stands out as particularly daring.

Second Run’s release of Traps is accompanied by a booklet that provides some useful context on Chytilová and her career. The best news however is that the film will also be joined next month by another of Chytilová’s works, Fruit of Paradise, also released by Second Run. This also coincides with a recent BFI retrospective of Chytilová’s work, which in itself would have seemed an incredibly unlikely prospect just a few years ago. We seem to be seeing the beginning of a critical reappraisal of Věra Chytilová’s works and career, though it’s a shame it’s all unfolding slightly too late for her to see it.