Blu-Ray Review: Carnival of Souls – Criterion Collection

Director: Herk Harvey
Screenplay: John Clifford
Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt
Country: USA
Running Time: 78 min
Year: 1962
BBFC Certificate: 12


Once in a while, a film that was initially deemed a failure finds a new lease of life several years later, becoming what is often referred to as a cult classic. One such film was the 1962 horror Carnival of Souls, which was originally released as a double bill with The Devil’s Messenger, to little fanfare. Over time the film found its fanbase though, leading to a re-release in 1989 which helped cement its cult-status. What’s particularly sad about this very long road to recognition though was that the director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford never made any other feature films, as they were retired by the time people’s love for Carnival of Souls finally appeared (and they have since passed away). The pair worked for Centron Corporation, an industrial film company that made corporate and public information films. They made Carnival of Souls in their holidays, then went back to their day jobs at Centron, which is a real shame as it’s a fantastic film and I’d have loved to have seen what else they could do.

Carnival of Souls opens with a car full of young women, including Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), getting into a road race with a car full of young men. What starts as a bit of fun ends in tragedy when the girls’ car careens off the side of a bridge into the river below. The car can’t be found, but hours later Mary appears from the river, dazed but physically healthy. She’s so traumatized by the event, she feels she has to leave town to escape the memory of what happened. So she heads off to Utah to be a church organist. On the way, she drives past a strange abandoned pavilion on the Great Salt Lake and finds herself strangely drawn to it. It triggers visions of a strange, pale-faced man though who keeps appearing and drawing ever closer. As no one else seems to see him, she begins to question her sanity. Being a strong-willed woman, she feels the need to face the problem head on.

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Blu-Ray Review: Le Plaisir

Director: Max Ophüls
Screenplay: Jacques Natanson, Max Ophüls
Based on Stories by: Guy de Maupassant
Starring: Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Simone Simon
Country: France
Running Time: 97min
Year: 1952
BBFC Certificate: PG


Max Ophüls is a hugely respected director, but his work isn’t often seen or spoken about these days. I must admit, I’d never watched any of his films before now either. I guess his penchant for what look like grand romantic melodramas didn’t appeal to me, nor to the modern cinephile who tends to lean towards darker, grittier fare. My tastes are broader these days though, so I was keen to take the Ophüls plunge when a screener for Le Plaisir, one of the director’s last few films before his death in 1957.

Le Plaisir translates to ‘the pleasure’, and the film is made up of three stories that each examine different aspects of the sensation. The first sees a masked man burst his way into a dance hall and stiffly, but exuberantly dance around the room, before collapsing. A doctor (Claude Dauphin), on removing his mask, realises he’s actually quite an old man and takes him home to recover, where he finds out about his past through the man’s wife (Gaby Morlay). The second is the longest story of the three, and sees brothel-madam Julie (Madeleine Renaud) take all of her girls on a trip to the country to attend the first communion of her niece. The final short tale sees a painter (Daniel Gélin) fall deeply in love with his model (Simone Simon), then endlessly argue after they move in together. The painter leaves her, but they end up married in the end through tragic circumstances.

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Blu-Ray Review: Kiss of Death

Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Based on a story by: Eleazar Lipsky
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark, Coleen Gray, Taylor Holmes, Karl Malden
Country: USA
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1947
BBFC Certificate: 12


I hit another of Signal One’s film noir re-releases this week with Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. Hathaway is a director with quite a few classic titles to his name (True Grit, How the West Was Won, Niagara), but he’s hardly a household name. Looking through his filmography, his work is largely in typically ‘macho’ genres like westerns, war movies and film noirs. Kiss of Death falls into the latter category and came close to the end of a string of noirs he’d directed, including acclaimed titles like 13 Rue Madeleine, The Dark Corner and Call Northside 777.

Kiss of Death sees Victor Mature play Nick Bianco, a criminal that goes to prison after a jewellery store heist goes sour. He gets an offer from Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to avoid jail time if he squeals on his accomplices that got away, but turns it down. When he finds out his wife has committed suicide after cheating on him with one of those accomplices, leaving his two young daughters in an orphanage, he has second thoughts about the offer though. D’Angelo talks Bianco into an elaborate ploy to put the psychopathic killer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in jail, which he accepts, getting him put on early parole and back with his kids and new wife Nettie (Coleen Gray). Unfortunately things don’t go quite to plan though and Bianco and his family’s lives are put in danger.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen, Volume One: 1955-1960

Indicator continue their Blu-Ray re-releases of the great Ray Harryhausen’s work with this volume containing three of the films he made between 1955 and 1960. It includes glorious HD prints of It Came From Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, curiously skipping Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (which has previously been made available on DVD in a set with the first two titles). In my earlier review of the Sinbad Trilogy, I professed my love for Harryhausen’s stop motion creations and how they played a key part in my cinematic upbringing, so I was thrilled to be offered another set of his films to review, particularly since I’d only seen one of them previously (It Came From Beneath the Sea). My thoughts on the three films are below:

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Blu-Ray Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett
Based on a Novel by: Jules Verne
Starring: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David, Peter Ronson
Country: USA
Running Time: 129 min
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: U


Some films, like some music, work best or sometimes only work when watched in certain situations. ‘Bad’ movies for instance, are only fun when watched with a group of like minded friends and helped by the consumption of alcohol. Horror movies, with few exceptions, need to be watched at night when it’s nice and dark and you feel isolated and vulnerable. Comedies are best in a packed cinema or at home with a group of people willing to laugh along at the jokes. These are fairly obvious examples, but another genre (if you can call it that) I’d add to the list are old family-friendly adventure movies. Maybe it’s just me, but lightly enjoyable romps made back in the 40s or 50s work so much better when watched on a lazy, preferably rainy Sunday afternoon when you’ve got nothing better to do. The looser pace and dated elements don’t trouble you like they might when watched before bed on a weekday, when the troubles of the day are still on your mind and you need a bit more excitement or food for thought to keep you awake. Journey to the Center of the Earth (the 1959 version) is such a film and I watched it under near perfect circumstances. Last Saturday, my youngest daughter was a bit under the weather, my wife was at work, my dad was looking after my eldest daughter, and it was chucking it down. So I settled down on the sofa that afternoon, put out some toys for the little ‘un and took a charming journey through Jules Verne’s imagination without a care in the world (other than taking notes for this review).

The title to Journey to the Center of the Earth makes its plot pretty clear, although there are further details I can describe here, many of which were added by the screenwriters Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett to add some more contemporary excitement to the original story.

Respected professor Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (James Mason) is given the gift of an unusual piece of volcanic rock from a student, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone), to celebrate his being knighted. Finding some unusual properties to the rock, he runs some tests on it and discovers it contains a message from an Icelandic scientist named Arne Saknussemm, who went missing on a quest to reach the centre of the Earth. The rock is proof that Saknussemm had discovered something close to it, so Lindenbrook becomes obsessed with picking up where Saknussemm left off. When he treks up to Iceland to do so however, he finds himself in a race for the prize against two other scientists, the Swedish Professor Göteborg (Ivan Triesault) and Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a descendant of the scientist who wants the glory for himself. When the Count kills off Göteborg, the Swede’s wife Carla (Arlene Dahl) joins Lindenbrook, McEwan, a giant local Icelander called Hans (Pétur Ronson), and his pet duck Gertrud, on the titular trip down a rather convenient passage to the city of Atlantis, near the Earth’s core.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Big Knife

Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: James Poe
Based on a Play by: Clifford Odets
Starring: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Rod Steiger, Jean Hagen, Everett Sloane
Country: USA
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1955
BBFC Certificate: PG


Robert Aldrich is a director I’ve admired a great deal in the handful of his films I’ve seen (although the less said about The Frisco Kid, the better – http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2015/09/gates_of_video_hell_frisco_kid/). So I was keen to check out Arrow’s re-release of The Big Knife, a film I must admit I’d never heard of until now.

It tells the story of Charles Castle (Jack Palance), a popular movie star who’s grown unhappy with his position. He’s stuck in a rut of making low rate Hollywood trash, when he longs to make something more meaningful. Unfortunately, he’s held firmly under the thumb of tough studio head Hoff (Rod Steiger), who is pressuring Castle to stay there, using a potentially scandalous incident as leverage against him. Adding to Castle’s troubles is a crumbling relationship with his wife Marion (Ida Lupino), who is fed up of her husband’s inability to stand up against Hoff. The only chance Castle has of saving his marriage is to refuse to sign Hoff’s latest contract, but the boss’ blackmailing tactics prove too strong. Hoff’s later insistence that Castle helps with some darker studio ‘business’ is the last straw though and events reach boiling point in a powerhouse of a final act.

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Blu-Ray Review: Le Trou

Director: Jacques Becker
Screenplay: Jacques Becker, José Giovanni, Jean Aurel
Based on a Novel by: José Giovanni
Starring: André Bervil, Jean Keraudy, Michel Constantin, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel
Country: France, Italy
Running Time: 132 min
Year: 1960
BBFC Certificate: 12


Jacques Becker is a director whose name seems to have passed me by, until I received a press release about the forthcoming re-release of a handful of his films. I almost forwarded the press release straight on to the rest of the site’s writers, but I had a quick look on IMDb and realised how well received his work has been, particularly the four Studiocanal are putting out on Blu-Ray and DVD – Edward and Caroline, Casque D’Or, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi and Le Trou. So I picked one to review that sounded most my cup of tea, (Le Trou – a.k.a. The Night Watch) and let some of my associates handle the rest.

Le Trou is based on the true account of a prison break from La Santé Prison in France in 1947 and adapted from a novel (called ‘The Break’) about the incident written by an inmate of the prison, José Giovanni. Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) is transferred to a new cell in the prison, joining four other men, Jo Cassine (Michel Constantin), Roland Darban (Jean Keraudy), Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy), Vossellin/Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier). They seem a little hesitant about Gaspard’s appearance at first, but once they warm to him, they decide to tell him about their intended jail break and get him involved in it. From then on, we observe the work done by the inmates to dig their way out of the prison, whilst trying to keep it a secret from the guards. There are also some worries about how trustworthy Gaspard is, as some unexpected twists arrive later on.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Saga of Anatahan

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg
Based on a Novel by: Younghill Kang, Michiro Maruyama
Starring: Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, Kisaburo Sawamura, Shôji Nakayama
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: 15


The Saga of Anatahan is a bit of a curiosity. It was written and directed by Josef von Sternberg, who was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, particularly after the success of his German feature, The Blue Angel. The Saga of Anatahan was his penultimate film and saw the well-travelled director head to Japan to produce a film based on a true story that happened in the country after WWII.

It tells of a group of Japanese seamen who are shipwrecked on the remote island of Anatahan, during the war. There they come across what they assume are man and wife, Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma) and Keiko (Akemi Negishi). Being the only woman on the island, the men soon lust after her and over the course of the seven years the group live on the island, they fight and eventually kill for her affections. During this time, they also receive messages stating that the war is over, the Japanese have lost and an American ship will come to pick them up. The proud seamen refuse to believe this though, dismissing it as enemy propaganda, and decide to stay put.

The story isn’t so unusual then as other accounts have been made of people trapped on desert islands and the like. What makes this a curiosity is partly why Sternberg decided to make this film in Japan in the first place (it’s shot on a studio, so he could have done it in his home of California), but more so in the fact that he decided to have all the cast speak their native Japanese, without subtitles. To keep the film from getting confusing, Sternberg narrates the film himself, making for a very strange and unique experience.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Director: Ermanno Olmi
Screenplay: Ermanno Olmi
Starring: Luigi Ornaghi, Francesca Moriggi, Omar Brignoli
Country: Italy
Running Time: 187 min
Year: 1978
BBFC Certificate: 12


The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a film often described as plotless, running a little over three hours and following the lives of peasants in Italy during the end of the 19th Century, doesn’t sound particularly appealing on the surface. I must admit I had second thoughts about requesting a screener due to this, but strong reviews talked me into it and I’m glad they did, as The Tree of Wooden Clogs proved to be a wonderful film that I enjoyed watching far more than I expected.

The film is set in 1898 and follows the lives of five peasant families living together in one farmstead in the Bergamo region of northern Italy. They work hard tending the land for their landlord who owns most of what they have. Using non-actors from the region, writer/director Ermanno Olmi creates a detailed and naturalistic observation of the lives of these people. I wouldn’t call the film entirely plotless though as some have suggested. In observing life on the farmstead, we are presented with several family dramas that play out during the course of the film. One important thread which is introduced in the film’s opening and plays a part in the climactic scenes, sees the young son of one family accepted into school due to a perceived high level of intelligence. Going to school was rare for peasant families in these days and the boy’s parents don’t seem keen on the idea due to the expense and what the neighbours would think. However, their local priest recommends it, so they send him 6km every weekday to the nearest school house. This has consequences further down the line that I won’t spoil here.

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Blu-Ray Review: Der müde Tod (a.k.a. Destiny)

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Starring: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Max Adalbert
Country: Germany
Running Time: 98 min
Year: 1921
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘ve been slowly working my way through Fritz Lang’s filmography and I’ve yet to be disappointed by his work. He crafted some of cinema’s most thrilling, inventive and forward thinking films during his 41 years behind the camera in both Germany and the US (where he moved in the mid-30s due to his anti-Nazi beliefs). So when Eureka announced they were releasing one of the director’s early successes, Der müde Tod (translated as The Weary Death, but otherwise known as Destiny), as part of their Masters of Cinema collection, I was keen to see how it stood up against his later, more famous films.

Der müde Tod sees Death (Bernhard Goetzke) come to make his home in a small German town. As well as building a great wall with no windows or doors around his property by the graveyard, he seems to follow a young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) who are engaged to be married. As you might suspect, he’s there to collect a soul and the young man soon disappears. The woman, distraught, seeks out Death and pleads with him to spare her fiancée. Weary of his tough job, the shadowy figure offers the woman a deal. If she can prevent the deaths of just one of three nearly spent lives he presents to her (all part of tragic romances), she can have her wish.

In dealing with three separate stories, on top of the main framing narrative, Der müde Tod works like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, made a few years prior, telling a few similarly themed tales to make a universal message (this time about fate). Here they’re not intercut though, the ‘extra’ stories merely play out back to back in the middle of the film.

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Blu-Ray Review: Westfront 1918 & Kameradschaft

War films are a genre I’m always a little wary of. On one hand, some of the best examples rank among my favourite films of all time (I’d put Apocalypse Now in my top 5 for instance). On the other hand, they’re a type of film that can really bother me if they’re flawed. I tend to think I’m a generally positive critic. I rarely give very low scores or write venomous reviews, but when I do, it’s often for a war film that’s rubbed me up the wrong way. I think this is because they’re usually based on actual events, so when a hackneyed genre cliché, insensitive patriotism, or some hammy acting crops up, it stands out as feeling ‘fake’, glossing over some complex, important and/or often horrific events. I feel the same about biopics and any other ‘based on a true story’ films too. When I’m reminded I’m watching a film merely ‘based’ on reality, it takes me out of the experience and can feel disrespectful to those involved in what’s being portrayed. In films I know are pure fiction I can turn a blind eye to cinematic cliches more easily.

So I’ve always got my guard up when watching war films or anything based on reality, but I decided to take a chance with this double set of GW Pabst films, the war movie Westfront 1918 and the film he made a year later, based around a mining disaster, Kameradschaft. Pabst is a director whose work I hadn’t delved into yet and Eureka’s Master of Cinema label never releases anything not worth watching, so I left my reservations at the door and took two journeys into the past.

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