New This Week
Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, was long disavowed by the director as “not a Hitchcock film”. That was because of his many disagreements with producer David O. Selznick, fresh from making Gone with the Wind. Time, though, sees it differently.
Although Selznick overruled Hitchcock’s many ideas to deviate from Daphne DuMaurier’s best-selling novel, the director nevertheless provided his trademark heart-in-the-throat suspense to both scenes taken directly from the novel and those imposed by the censors. His one key win over Selznick was in the casting of the film’s unnamed leading lady. Selznick wanted Nova Pilbeam, the star of Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, but Hitchcock wanted an American actress who would be an outsider in the otherwise mostly British cast. Many actresses were given screen tests, with the decision coming down to Margaret Sullavan and Anne Baxter, but Sullavan was vetoed as being too confident and Baxter for being difficult to photograph. Joan Fontaine, born of English parents in Japan but raised in the U.S., was a compromise candidate that almost no one was happy with. Her insecurity, perfect for the role, was undermined by Hitchcock who made her re-shoot scenes to the point of exhaustion and still had her re-record much of her dialogue. At one point, she complained that she was as English as anyone in the film, that her grandmother was the first lady of Guernsey, to which Hitchcock replied that that was like saying she was the first lady of Catalina.
Laurence Olivier, equally unforgettable as Maxim De Winter, was not the first choice for his role either. That was Ronald Colman, who balked at being in a film with a woman’s name in the title, which he felt would suggest that he was playing a secondary character. Judith Anderson had to compete with Flora Robson for the enigmatic role of the evil housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Robson who had already made Fire Over England and Wuthering Heights with Olivier, and Anderson would both be named dames of the British Empire on January 1, 1960, which was ironically the same day as the film’s would-be star, Margaret Sullavan’s suicide.
Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration features the extras from the 1990s laser disc, and is superior to the previous MGM Blu-ray release.
The year after his film of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View became a worldwide phenomenon, James Ivory elected to film Forster’s lesser known semi-autobiographical Maurice, written in 1914, but not published until a year after his death in 1971. A critical and box-office success in the U.S., Italy, France, and most of the film-going world, it was snootily reviewed by the major British critics who thumbed their noses at the idea that the gentlemanly title character would end up with someone from the lower classes.
The film was first shown at the 1987 Venice Film Festival where it won awards for Best Actor (James Wilby and Hugh Grant), Best Director, and Best Score. It would later be nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design.
The film is at its best when following the love life of Wilby’s character from first romance with Grant to true love with Grant’s gamekeeper, Rupert Graves. There are, however, three scenes that don’t work, all involving the near caricature performances of Simon Callow, Denholm Elliott, and Ben Kingsley as bastions of British propriety. Billie Whitelaw and Judy Parfitt fare better in the principal female roles of Wilby and Grant’s mothers.
The 4K restoration by Cohen Media Group is nearly as impressive as their state-of-the-art restoration of Ivory’s 1992 film of Forster’s Howards End. Among the many extras is a forty-minute on-camera interview of 89-year-old Ivory by director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight).
Desperation and despair rear their ugly heads in Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, newly released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Director, Actress (Jane Fonda), Supporting Actor (winner Gig Young), and Supporting Actress (Susannah York), but not astonishingly for Best Picture. The film, about the dance marathon craze of the 1930s had been in the works for twenty years or more by the time it was made, and was later in limbo due to distribution ownership for even longer when it was released on laser disc in the mid-1990s. All the extras on the Blu-ray, including Pollack’s commentary and an alternate commentary track by Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, and others, are from that release. Sarrazin, famously, relinquished the role in Midnight Cowboy that went to Jon Voight so that he could make this film. It was the first critically acclaimed work of Fonda’s career.
James Poe, who wrote the original screenplay for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and was originally scheduled to direct as well, also wrote the screenplay for the film version of Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife, newly restored in 2K by Arrow Films. The film, however, sadly, was hardly worth the bother. Robert Aldrich’s film is a poison pill to Hollywood with Jack Palance miscast as a matinee idol, Ida Lupino at the end of her starring career as his estranged wife, Shelley Winters and Jean Hagen as bad girls, Wendell Corey as a Hollywood fixer, and Rod Steiger as a yelling and screaming Harry Cohn type studio head.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s debut film as a director, Megan Leavey, is a well-meaning but rather dull film about a courageous female marine (Kate Mara) and the dog she handles through her tour in Iraq. After she and the dog are injured, she retires, but a mean veterinarian puts the kibosh on the dog’s retirement. It all ends as you expect it will, even if you’re not aware of the highly publicized real-life events. It’s available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The Emmy-nominated miniseries, Big Little Lies, filmed on location in 4K in gorgeous Monterey, California, has been released on both Blu-ray and standard DVD by HBO. All five Emmy-nominated actors, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Alexander Skarsgard, are terrific and Iain Armitage who plays Woodley’s young son is even better. Look for Arimitage, the son of Tony-nominated actor/singer Euan Morton (Taboo, Hamilton), blogger, and star of the forthcoming CBS series, Young Sheldon, a prequel to The Big Bang Theory, to secure a few future nominations of his own in the not-too-distant future.
The story, however, is rather routine with the denouement easy to figure out several episodes in.
Also newly released on Blu-ray and standard DVD, Britain’s Endeavour: Season 4 is just as good as the previous releases of this brilliantly conceived prequel to the legendary Inspector Morse series starring Shaun Evans. It’s a must-have for mystery lovers.
This week’s new releases include Beatriz at Dinner and the Blu-ray release of Seven Beauties.