A monthly guide to what’s essential in the world of streaming, Blu-ray, and DVD.
Straw Dogs (Criterion)
Sam Peckinpah picked up the habit of playing with fire. After The Wild Bunch in 1969 — a Western that at once took down a lot of myths about the American West while investing with a doomed romantic spirt — Peckinpah kept pushing the limits, sometimes past the point where even those who’ve championed his work felt comfortable following him. Pauline Kael famously called Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs a “fascist classic” and it’s been a tough label to shake. Even taking out a deeply disturbing rape scene whose ambiguous undertones have been a subject of debate for decades, the film works toward some grim conclusions about humanity and violence, the need for the latter being hardwired into the existence of the former, and the necessity of the strong to assert themselves over the weak. It’s a tough, unpleasant movie. But it’s also a formidable one made with a skill and conviction that deserves to be seen and wrestled with. Art isn’t always meant to be cozy.
Dustin Hoffman stars as David, a meek, American mathematician who travels to his wife Amy’s (Susan George) rural in Cornwall to get some work done. Once there he finds he not only doesn’t fit in but he’s openly mocked by the locals, in particular a group of men he’s hired to work on the home, a bunch that includes Amy’s ex-boyfriend. From that tense set-up, the matter degenerates until David finds some of his fundamental assumptions about his character challenged.
It’s a horrific, compelling, and singular version well served by this new Blu-ray edition, which ports over a lot of features from Criterion’s long out of print DVD version while adding a few new ones, including a conversation about the controversies it’s stirred over the years.
A less controversial, but traumatic in its own way, classic also returned from the out-of-print wilderness this month. First released in 1942, Bambi became Walt Disney’s fifth animated feature, and it’s as radical in its own way as Fantasia, which Disney developed alongside it. It’s filled with cute animals, sure, but also grounded in the natural world and animal physiology thanks to Disney’s insistence on verisimilitude. (Animators’ prep work included the study and dissection of a deer carcass.) It’s a beautiful film, but also an unsparing one, both for the famous scene in which Bambi witnesses his mother death but also for the way it depicts the cycles of nature by way of one deer’s coming of age and loss of innocence.
The Lodger (Criterion)
If Alfred Hitchcock had never made another movie after The Lodger, his third feature, in 1927, he would still have made a remarkable contribution to the silent era. Beautifully restored a few years back, The Lodger shows a director still figuring out what he could do with film while trying to push his skills to the limit. It’s also a remarkable document of obsessions in the making, with its focus on imperiled blonde women and a man suspected of a crime he may not have committed. Ivor Novello plays that man, the eponymous lodger whose landlords suspect he might be a serial killer terrorizing London. That doesn’t stop their daughter for falling for him, however, and it inspires her policeman boyfriend to keep an eye on him. Hitchcock plays with the ambiguity of the situation, sometimes for laughs, and sometimes for terror, and he brings a skill and control remarkable for a director of any age, much less one just getting started on the business of redefining how we look at movies. Bonus features include Downhill, another Hitchcock-directed feature starring Novello.
They Live By Night (Criterion)
The Savage Innocents (Olive Films)
Speaking of early work by directors who had greatness ahead of them, Nicholas Ray made an auspicious debut with They Live By Night, a romantic tragedy unfolding in the criminal underworld of the American heartland. Based on the same novel later turned into Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, it’s the story of a young man (Farley Granger) who finds love with a gas station owner’s daughter (Cathy O’Donnell) after falling into a life of crime. They’re misunderstood kids up against a corrupt system and the film’s as sad and romantic in its own way as Ray’s later Rebel Without A Cause. Also out this month: Ray’s 1960 effort The Savage Innocents. Starring Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo, it would later inspire Bob Dylan to pen “Quinn The Eskimo.”
One of the great movies, full stop. Kenji Mizoguchi’s supernatural-tinged 1953 tale of villagers who grave fame and fortune is set in feudal Japan but shot through with the sadness of a creator who’s seen the worst that war and ambition can inspire has become determined to offer a warning to a world he knows won’t listen.