Hitchcock loved trains and he makes us fall in love with this one, too.
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Lady Vanishes (A)
U.K.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1938, Criterion Collection
A congenial old lady named Miss Froy (played by the irresistible Dame May Whitty) disappears from a train in central Europe, and when her pretty young friend Margaret Lockwood tries to find her, everyone who saw Miss Froy suddenly denies she ever existed. Only Michael Redgrave as an amorous young musicologist pursuing Lockwood believes her -- and he may have impurely romantic motives.
Even so, the couple sexily put their two nimble wits together, and, as love and melody bloom, the vanished lady remains mysteriously elusive, the train's odd-lot passengers -- including a suave helpful doctor (Paul Lukas), a philandering politico (Cecil Parker) a nun in high heels (Catherine Lacey) and those ineffable cricket fans Caldecott and Charters (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) -- keep denying Miss Froy was ever there, and things get progressively stranger and more dangerous.
But we know all along Miss Froy was real. Something has gone dreadfully wrong on this vacation excursion turned nightmare -- but perfectly right with this great Alfred Hitchcock romantic suspense comedy, one of the most entertaining movies Hitchcock (or anyone) ever made. The script is by the crackerjack team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (The Rakes Progress), the cast is unimprovable, the technique is perfect. Hitchcock loved trains and he makes us fall in love with this one, too.
German; F.W. Murnau, 1922, Kino
One of the creepiest and most poetically sinister horror films ever, Murnau's uncredited (and court-challenged) adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula is also one of the great silents. And it has one of the great horrific film monsters: Max Schreck as Count Orlok (Dracula) who looks (and acts) like a walking corpse, dry as dust and famished for blood.
Murnau, one of the great visionary silent filmmakers, shot this classic on both palatial, cavernous sets and in the actual Carpathian mountains, and it's the film's signal achievement that it makes vampires seem real, German expressionism seem naturalistic, and death seem close and seductive. This is a deluxe restored version and a cinephile's must.
Rescue Dawn (B+)
U.S.-German; Werner Herzog, MGM
Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) told a fantastic real-life story of warfare, plane-craziness and escape with German World War II-era youth turned Vietnam pilot Dieter Dengler crashing in Thailand, falling into the hands of the Pathet Lao and their prisons and then trying to escape through the jungles to freedom. This dramatization, also by Herzog, with Christian Bale as Dieter and Steve Zahn as his fellow escapee Duane, is riveting, exciting and often feels just as real as the documentary.
You wouldn't have expected the auteur of Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Even Dwarfs Started Small to excel at a Hollywood war movie, but Rescue Dawn reveals again that Herzog's real-surreal method -- punishingly exact and naturalistic -- can take us to the very heart and soul of adventure.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Film Noir: Five Classics from the Studio Vaults (B+)
U.S.-U.K.; Various directors, 1940-53, Kino
Film noir has become such a tiger in the old movie market that it's no surprise to see Kino gathering these single-release classics together, all from the truest noir period (the '40s and '50s), mostly all from major noir directors -- and one of them an inarguable, absolute masterpiece, Fritz Lang's incredible Scarlet Street in the best print I've seen. Not many extras, but a dark, luscious top-of-the-noir set anyway.
U.K.; Michael Powell, 1940
A Hitchcockian comedy spy thriller, laced with the edgy humor and style of the Powell-Pressburger team; it felicitously reunites Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, the unlikely but sparky romantic team from Powell's 1939 The Spy in Black.
Scarlet Street (A)
U.S.; Fritz Lang, 1945
Adapted from Jean Renoir's great 1931 crime movie La Chienne, this one has Joan Bennett as a classically slutty femme fatale, Dan Duryea as her pricelessly sleazy pimp-lover and Edward G. Robinson solid as a volcano in Michel Simon's old role of the henpecked husband painter who stumbles, out of love and lust, onto the dark side. Scripted by Dudley Nichols.
Strange Impersonation (B-)
U.S.; Anthony Mann, 1946
A woman's melodrama about a beautiful chemist (Brenda Marshall) whose anesthesia experiment goes awry, ruining her face and her life, with Hillary Brooke as her despicable friend. Early, improbable, ultra-cheap Mann, but it grips you.
They Made Me a Fugitive (B)
U.K.; Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947
A hardcore Brit Noir from a master of realism, with a corrosive performance as the dark side hero on the run, by Trevor Howard.
The Hitch-Hiker (B+)
U.S.; Ida Lupino, 1953
Lupino's best movie, with William Talman as the psycho hitchhikers who bedevils Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O'Brien. Not many ladies on screen here, but it's a real femme noir all the same.
Extras: Commentary on Scarlet Street.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Live Free or Die Hard (B-)
U.S.; Len Wiseman, 2007, 20th Century Fox
I liked the first Die Hard a lot, but its screaming, exploding successors tended to die on me. This fourth chapter is just as over-the-top, but still something of a return to form. Bruce Willis, as never-say-die everyman John McClane, is still steady as a rock amid the high tech carnage, and he has a likable sidekick (Justin Long as a brainy young hacker), smugly hate-worthy villains (Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q as computer terrorists ) and more high tech carnage than you can imagine. Exciting as all hell, even if its something of a guilty pleasure. (Extras: Theatrical and unrated versions; documentary; featurettes; Bruce Willis/Kevin Smith interview; music video; trailer; featurettes.)
U.S.; Adam Shankman, 2007, New Line
A pretty lively movie from the Broadway musical version of John Waters' antiracist pop rock comedy, with Waters in a cameo and John Travolta gutting it up in Divine's old role. (Extras: Documentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, sing along track.)
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (D+)
U.S.; Michael Lembeck, 2007, Walt Disney
Another series that has gone on too long; though, for me, it outstayed its welcome the first time out. Tim Allen returns as simple Santa, but not even Martin Short as Jack Frost can make it hip. (Extras: Commentary by Lembeck; alternate opening; featurettes; blooper reel.)
RFK Must Die (B)
U.S.-U.K.; Shane O'Sullivan, Dokument
The ending is a disappointment, but this investigation into the less-examined of the Kennedy assassinations is informative, exciting and sometimes quite convincing. It sold me on Sirhan as a patsy and on keeping the case open, until we get all the CIA files or find the real girl in the polka dot dress. (Extras: Audio interviews with Sirhan Sirhan; RFK campaign ads.)
France; Luc Besson, 2005, Sony
Lush black-and-white cinematography of an almost empty Paris can't quite rescue this bizarre romance between a punk Middle Eastern protagonist (Jamel Debbouze) and a tall, whorish angel (Rie Rassmussen from De Palma's Femme Fatale. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Documentary.)
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (A)
U.S.; Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, 1991, Paramount
The documentary record of one of the great mad film shoots of all time -- which also produced a great mad movie, Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (and the madder, greater Apocalypse Now Redux). Essential stuff for movie lovers. (Extras: Commentary by Francis and Eleanor Coppola; new documentary, Coda: Thirty Years Later.)
Killer of Sheep (A)
U.S.; Charles Burnett, 1977, New Yorker/Milestone
Burnett's wonderful blend of neorealism and American underground acting produced one of the great neglected U.S. films, a portrait of African American life deeper and truer than we almost always see. Under ordinary circumstances this would have been a pick of the week. (Extras: Commentary by Burnett and Richard Pena; two versions (festival and director's cut) of Burnett's 1984 feature My Brother's Wedding; Burnett shorts Several Friends (1969), The Horse (1973), When It Rains (1995), Quiet as Kept (2007); Killer reunion video; notes by Armond White.)
Walking Tall (B+)
U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1973, Paramount
Karlson, one of the top classic noir directors and a master of the "rotten city/true crime" subgenre, here had the biggest financial success of his career, with the first and best of the moves based on the no-quarter law enforcement tactics of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker), a real-life Deep South Dirty Harry. With Elizabeth Hartman and Gene Evans.
I Am Cuba (A)
U.S.S.R.-Cuba; Mikhail Kalatozov, 1966, New Yorker/Milestone
Incredible visual pyrotechnics from the peerless director-cinematographer team of Kalatozov and Sergei Urusevsky (The Cranes are Flying) grace this little-seen gem. A multi-episode portrait of Cuba from one of Russia's finest post-war filmmakers. Scripted by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko; the last sequence, the funeral celebration, is a mind-blower. Heavily political, but the moviemaking asthetics and passion trump everything. (Extras: Documentaries The Siberian Mammoth (Vincente Ferraz) and A Film About Mikhail Kalatozov; video interview with Martin Scorsese.)
Sawdust and Tinsel (The Naked Night) (A)
Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1953, Criterion Collection
A traveling circus becomes the lyrical arena for romantic masochism of several kinds. An early masterpiece by Bergman, heavily influenced by German expressionism, the beach scene with the clown and his faithless wife is one of Ingmar's top sequences. With Harriet Andersson, Ake Gronberg and Anders Ek. In Swedish, with English subtitles.
A Woman Without Love (C+)
Mexico; Luis Bunuel, 1952, Facets
One of Bunuel's Mexican potboilers; an improbable family melodrama about a mother who cheats and suffers, and two sons who don't know they have different fathers. With Rosario Granados. The weakest Bunuel I've seen, and it's still not bad.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Clive Cussler's The Sea Hunters (B-)
U.S.-U.K.; Various directors, 2007, Acorn Media
Best-selling adventure author Cussler and a team of marine scientists and divers examine old shipwrecks, most part of crucial World War II history. Much better than it sounds; the history alone makes it worthwhile.