Daily Archives: September 15, 2020

Black Widow (1954) on Blu-Ray

I’ve never thought that Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954), a New York whodunit in 2.55:1 CinemaScope, was a masterpiece, either at the age of 11 when I saw it in first-run or tonight, when I saw it on Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray, even if it held my interest both times, and even moved me at times (especially Reginald Gardiner’s character and performance). But I have to admit that the single thing I found most memorable about it in 1954 — the brassy yet awkward sort of intermission grinding the story to a halt in the eleventh hour in order to dare or challenge the audience to solve the mystery before the movie itself does — is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray.

Is this because 20th Century-Fox decided to delete this intertitle at some later date, or because Twilight Time decided it was too corny to keep? I hope it’s the former, because this label is usually pretty scrupulous about history and sticking to original versions, and indeed, part of what makes this movie watchable now (if not then) is how outlandishly dated it all is — its embarrassment about an unmarried woman’s pregnancy (which oddly places her boyfriend of roughly the same age completely beyond suspicion when she winds up murdered), its totally implausible bitch-goddess mythology (which Peggy Ann Garner can’t be blamed for, given the lines that writer-director Johnson handed her), its equally overdone diva misogyny (which Ginger Rogers arguably makes even worse than it has to be), the bored indifference of both script and direction shown towards Gene Tierney as the dutiful spouse, the goody two-shoes rectitude of Van Heflin playing Van Heflin, and the sheer palatial breadth of its Manhattan apartments (cf.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD (2nd column)

From Cinema Scope No. 15 (Summer 2003). Needless to say, a good deal of this is dated now, and I’ve mainly left this in its original form for historical purposes, apart from deleting a few errors. (At least most of the links still work.) — J.R.

It was a tip from filmmaker Françoise Romand that led me to search out Agnès Varda’s “DVD store” on Paris’s Rue Daguerre early last February, with Australian film critic Adrian Martin along for the adventure. Not knowing quite what to expect, we found ourselves at Varda’s storefront editing studio, with an ad in the window for the video and DVD of her wonderful 2000 documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse  (The Gleaners and I) and a note on the door to ring the doorbell across the street if no one was around. Feeling as if we were in a small town rather than on a street in Montparnasse, we were greeted by Varda at the front door of her house, and a moment later led back across the street by her, where she proceeded to demonstrate the special features of her DVD.

gleaners

I hasten to add that both The Gleaners and I and its amiable hour-long 2002 sequel Deux ans après (Two Years Later) are readily available from Zeitgeist in North America, but without the extra features —- mainly, I suspect, because Zeitgeist hasn’t access to the sort of state funding that has made Varda’s deluxe edition possible.Read more »

The Distinguished Gentleman

From the November 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J. R.

Query: How do you make a satire about contemporary corruption in the U.S. Congress, much of it based on real-life abuses, with a former speechwriter for Walter Mondale (executive producer Marty Kaplan) as cowriter, and somehow ensure that it never intersects with reality? Answer: Cast Eddie Murphy in the lead. Murphy plays a con artist who scams his way into the Senate, then (you guessed it) belatedly develops a conscience; the filmmakers treat all the characters, not to mention the audience, as sitcom puppets. Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) directed, and the costars are Lane Smith, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Joe Don Baker, Victoria Rowell, Grant Shaud, Kevin McCarthy, and Charles Dutton (1992). (JR)

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Chaplin

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992), though this version of the capsule is corrected and slightly tweaked from the original. 2013 postscript: Last year, while preparing to teach a brief course about Chaplin in Brazil, I wound up reading the first good Chaplin biography I’ve encountered so far (as well as one of the shortest), published fairly recently — Stephen M. Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life (2008). Even though it’s written by a psychiatrist, which made me suspicious at first, Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine liked it enough to write an Introduction, and it’s easy to see why. I highly recommend it. — J.R.

Given the decision to cram as much as possible of Charlie Chaplin’s 88 years into one Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Cry Freedom) blockbuster, it’s no surprise that this packaged tour through the great man’s career is unenlightening and obfuscating, despite an adept lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. Hard put to explain how the world’s most beloved individual could have been hounded out of this country and barred from re-entry, the movie can only invent a personal grudge on the part of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), letting everyone else off the hook; it also omits Monsieur Verdoux (perhaps Chaplin’s greatest achievement) entirely from its chronology.… Read more »