10 Years of Rialto Pictures
Directed by Carol Reed et al
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/1.66:1/1.85:1/2.35:1
Running Time: various
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0; 2.0 stereo surround
MSRP: $ 149.95
Release Date: October 28, 2008
Review Date: October 26, 2008
Criterion has packaged together ten movie-only editions of some of the true classics in its collection for a box set called 10 Years of Rialto Pictures. All of the movies are classics of their kind, and as a primer of the greats of international cinema, this would be hard to top. Of course, true cinema connoisseurs have likely already purchased these films in one or more previous Criterion editions. But for those who want a no-trimmings set of movie milestones, 10 Years of Rialto Pictures is as good a place to start as any.
[Note on the review: During my twenty-one months as the Criterion reviewer at Home Theater Forum, I have logged reviews for three of these ten films in their standard Criterion releases. I have provided links to those complete reviews, even though this box contains only the movie transfers and almost none of the supplements.]
Mobster Max Le Menteur (Jean Gabin), a late middle aged gangster of the old school, is ready to retire. He and his longtime (but weaker and less reliable) partner Riton (René Dary) score a huge windfall stealing eight gold bricks worth fifty million francs, a haul that Max is eager to cash in and retire on. Realizing that other gangsters are covetous of this prize, Max arranges for him and Riton to fade from view for awhile until the heat is off, but Riton’s silly crush on a French showgirl (Jeanne Moreau) proves his undoing as he’s kidnapped by rival gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura). Now Max must decide if he wants to forfeit his comfortable retirement to save the partner he had long been disenchanted with.
Jacques Becker’s marvelous crime noir takes its time revving up the action. We spend a long portion of the running time getting to know the characters, particularly Max whose underlying loyalty and generosity mark him in an almost sentimental way, similar to the feeling we get when watching Don Corleone in The Godfather, both deadly killers with gentle, pleasant veneers. Becker stages the climactic action scenes on a deserted highway well, but even better are the succession of interesting angles he chooses during earlier chase scenes when the camera looks down a stairwell (some years before Hitchcock does it in Vertigo) and through doorways keeping the scenes interesting and unusual. Gabin and Ventura have the same kind of friendly animosity that Cagney and Bogart used to display in their 1930s gangster sagas, and Gabin, at this point at a low ebb in his film career, restored his fortunes with this award-winning turn as the benevolent Max.
For my complete review of Carol Reed’s magnificent film (including video and audio critiques), go here.
Four thieves (Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin) decide to “go for the gold” and rob the vault in the swank Parisian jewelry store Mappin & Webb using an elaborate scheme of breaking into the store from above. The heist goes as planned but as fate would have it, one of the thieves takes an extra gem whose recipient causes a rival gang to want the spoils of the protagonists for themselves. Thus, another caper follows on the heels of the first one.
Jules Dassin’s Rififi is the grandfather of all caper films and another of his expert films noir, his first after being blacklisted in America and immigrating to Europe. Famous for the heist sequence which lasts almost a half hour with not one word of spoken dialog and no music, the film’s clever construction is a miracle of exposition, procedure, and follow-through. And the film’s last twenty minutes involving a kidnapping and ransom is tremendously gripping leading to one of the most brilliantly directed and edited climaxes in all of cinema. The director (billed as Perlo Vita) plays a safecracker with a fatal eye for the ladies, but Jean Servais’ world-weary thief with a king’s ransom in his grasp is the film’s true tragic figure despite his brutal tactics toward those who have been disloyal.
Christine Papin (Sylvie Testud) is hired out by her mother to a succession of lavish homes as a housemaid. Despite despising her mother and her firm hold on her daughters, Christine accepts the assignments to get away from her unhappy life at home. As she matures, she becomes fixated on her younger sister Léa (Julia-Marie Parmentier), so much so that she wants her to work alongside her and wants her in bed beside her at night. When the outside world threatens to take her beloved sister from her, Christine takes matters into her own hands with the Lancelin family who are her most recent employers and who had expressed great admiration for her fine work and attention to detail.
Jean-Pierre Denis’ tale of obsessive and incestuous love is based on a true story, one of the most unusual studies of a deteriorating mind that the cinema has presented to us in the last decade. Sylvie Testud’s electric performance raises the bar for her fellow actors, most of whom don’t quite measure up to her brilliance. The spine-tingling final scenes inside a women’s prison will haunt one for days afterward even though the early portions of the film seem jumpy and a bit confusing for those not in-the-know about the real life events of these sisters.
For my complete review of Alberto’s Lattuada quirky comedy-drama (including video and audio critiques), go here.
Six people, two couples, a foreign ambassador, and the sister of one of the wives, attend a series of lunches and dinners and never get fed, instead falling victim to a series of ever more surreal interruptions covering everything from digs at religious conventions and courage under fire to enduring the actor’s nightmare of being on stage in a play you’ve never rehearsed and don’t know the lines for.
As a conventional narrative, Luis Buñuel’s satiric commentary on upper middle class mores (the snooty diners are cocaine smugglers after all) is rather hopeless with real life and dreamscapes running headlong into one another. But as a series of comic shifts of mood and tone, the film has a lot to offer. The continual interruptions to the various meals get rather trite in the end, and the comic inspiration loses momentum and winds down rather faster than the legendary director might have wanted. Still, for a good portion of the movie, it’s fast and fun and that feeling of anything goes is rather liberating.
Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) spends his days thinking of ways to get out of work. Instead, he lives an active fantasy life, balances two girl friends who are both under the impression he’s their fiancé, and has high hopes of landing a script writing job with a famous London comic.
John Schlesinger’s Walter Mitty-ish tale of fantasy and foolishness put himself, his star Tom Courtenay, and featured player Julie Christie on the map. The surreal sequences are handled brilliantly by the director, and Courtenay’s tour de force performance frustrates but doesn’t ever quite irritate the viewer. The superb supporting cast from Mona Washbourne as the doting mom to Ethel Griffies as his sickly grandmother on the edge of dementia give memorable performances. This was another key film that brought British filmmaking back to the forefront of the industry with its mod, eccentric take on lives heading nowhere.
Two genial hoods (Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey) use an innocent young girl (Anna Karina) to gain access to her mistress’ home where allegedly there is a fortune in francs waiting to be stolen. Things go from fun to fierce as the planned robbery hits a succession of snags and the young girl begins to get cold feet.
Jean-Luc Godard’s anarchical approach to traditional filmmaking isn’t quite as rule-breaking as his later Pierrot le Fou, but it’s certainly not your run-of-the-mill caper film/love story. Throughout there’s a fizzy nonchalance about the storytelling (the basic story could have been filmed as a short subject) which is what makes the last 10-15 minutes something of a shock as things turn incredibly ugly unthinkably fast. Still, Godard can surprise us with an off-the-cuff dance sequence (the three leads do the Madison in a café), one entire minute when he shuts off the soundtrack and the image is bathed in uncomfortable silence, and a chase sequence through the Louvre that’s like a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Resembling Truffaut’s masterful Jules et Jim without the depth of performance or resonance, Band of Outsiders is still an offbeat exercise in cinema that marked yet another step away from standard filmmaking for the New Wave director.
A saintly donkey spends its entire existence laboring under the often harsh hand of mankind, neatly symbolizing humanity’s frequent cruelty to those it considers weaker and less able to defend themselves.
Robert Bresson’s haunting allegory is alternately involving and off-putting, the slow, steady march toward death a downer without much hope or happiness. The film isn’t always arranged chronologically which leads to some confusion in places, and some of the actors are amateurs whose inexperience is painfully obvious. You’d have to have a heart of stone, however, not to get caught up in the ups and downs of the donkey Balthazar’s existence, and its few scenes of pleasure and comfort are certainly enjoyable even though they’re undoubtedly fleeting.
For my complete review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s tension-filled and quite moving tribute to the French Resistance, go here.
The film’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio is delivered faithfully in this DVD transfer. Though there is a white scratch early on and blacks seem to be rather milky and indistinct, things later smooth out all around with a wonderfully presented grayscale with solid blacks and excellent shadow detail. The white subtitles are bright and easy to read. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The 1.33:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in this transfer. The first half of the film looks sensational with deep, inky blacks and very pleasing contrast. The second half of the film is in rougher shape with light black scratches, quite a lot of white specks, and even some reel change markers. Subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 aspect ratio features slightly desaturated color, most likely to evoke the 1933 setting of the story as well as mirror the somber tone of the piece. Widescreen seems a little grand for such an intimate story, but there are no offensive artifacts to mar the viewing experience. Subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 15 chapters
Though the case says the aspect ratio is 1.66:1, the anamorphically enhanced frame seems to be closer to 1.85:1. The picture features mostly good color with very lifelike flesh tones. There are a few white specks to mar the visual quality occasionally, but the film overall is very pleasing to watch. The white subtitles are easy to read. The movie has been divided into 20 chapters.
The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is anamorphically enhanced and for the most part is quite striking. The grayscale doesn’t feature the deepest possible blacks (though the levels range from truly deep to dark gray), and there is some print damage in a couple of places. Most of the transfer, however, is sharp, clean, and perfect for the story being told. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the original theatrical release is retained here in a nice looking transfer. Though contrast is sometimes a little milky, most of the grayscale is nicely delivered with strong blacks and very good sharpness. A hair pops up midway through the presentation but is quickly gone. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a sharp, clear transfer. Though there are sporadic thin black scratches which turn up a couple of times during the movie, overall the grayscale is quite solid with excellent blacks and good shadow detail. Subtitles are printed in white and are large and easily read. The movie has been divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is strong for its age displaying none of the hiss, crackles, pops, and judder that can ruin audio tracks of this vintage.
A strong Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track occasionally has some distortion in its loudest moments, but on the whole, it’s a very worthwhile track and typical for its era.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround track begins with some very impressive and evocative sounds placed well around the entire soundfield. Later on, however, as the film delves more into talk and feelings, the soundfield shrinks almost entirely to the center channel effectively mirroring the closed-in existence of the two principal girls.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio track gets the job done but definitely has low fidelity. However, there are no age related artifacts to spoil the sound even though it has a hollow ring to it throughout.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack is lower in volume than it should be and is sometimes indistinct and a bit muffled. Otherwise, it’s an adequate track representing the sound design of its era.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track contains low level hiss that hangs around for the duration of the film’s running time. Otherwise, fidelity is rather low, and some of the Michel Legrand music (including his hit song “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg heard in the background) can sometimes sound distorted.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is free of artifacts that might spoil the mood of this unusual piece. The achingly sad Schubert melodies which grace the soundtrack give the atmosphere of the movie a true sense of forlorn resignation.
Each slimline case contains a glossy folded page that features a list of cast and credits, the chapter listings, and an essay on the film in question by Michael Jeck and/or Bruce Goldstein.
The theatrical trailer for Murderous Maids is presented in nonanamorphic letterbox and runs for 2 ¼ minutes.
The theatrical trailer for Mafioso is in anamorphic widescreen and lasts 2 minutes.
The theatrical trailer for Band of Outsiders is in the film’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio and runs 2 minutes.
The theatrical trailer for Army of Shadows is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 1 ¾ minutes.
While not every film contained in 10 Years of Rialto Pictures is a masterpiece, all ten films are well worth watching, all of them worthy actually of multiple viewings where many additional pleasures will be revealed. The cardboard box which contains the DVDs is of rather flimsy construction, but the slimline cases (many of which contain original poster art for their individual covers) could be added individually to collections with no trouble at all.