Finding the right film to watch in a bustling marketplace can often be a stressful and time consuming business; akin to trying out several different pairs of new shoes in a busy shop. In those terms, the Criterion Collection is a little like a classy boutique where sir or madam can relax, perhaps enjoy a complimentary drink, and try on a number of items of high-end footwear until, at their own pace, satisfaction is reached.
When the Criterion Collection first began back in 1984, they launched with quiet confidence. Its core releases were Renoir’s La Grand Illusion, Kurowsawa’s Seven Samurai and Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes. These releases demonstrated a commitment to quality cinema that the Criterion Collection continues to pursue to the present day. The launch of the collection in this country finally allows UK film buffs a chance to enjoy the label’s lavishly packaged, extras-laden editions of classic and contemporary films, drawn from the collection’s existing catalogue of over 800 titles. To get things underway, they are releasing six titles that amply demonstrate the range and versatility of their inventory.
With Grey Gardens, David and Albert Maysles created a landmark documentary. A study of two former society luminaries, Edith Bouvier-Beale and her daughter Edie – distinguished by their nicknames Big Edie and Little Edie – who are relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
The Maysles found Big Edie and Little Edie living a kind of gothic tragedy in their dilapidated mansion, Grey Gardens, isolated from the world and entirely co-dependant.
There, they trade insults and recriminations while essentially performing for the Maysles: Big Edie belting out show tunes from the confines of her bed and Little Edie, demonstrating majorette routines from her college years.
This was the Maysles’ first film after Gimme Shelter, their document of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 American tour that climaxed with the band’s notorious free concert at the Altamont Speedway.
If Gimme Shelter captured the moment when the idealism of the Sixties died, so Grey Gardens chronicles the passing of another era and its attendant myths.
It Happened One Night
It Happened One Night is not just the greatest of Frank Capra’s comedies; it is arguably one of the greatest comedies of all time. Released the same year as Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century – 1934 – both Hawks and Capra’s films are pivotal moments in the birth of screwball comedy: the point where European drawing room farce met American silent movie slapstick. Capra cast Clark Gable – five years away from Gone With The Wind – as a hard-drinking newspaper reporter who meets Claudette Colbert’s Ellie Anders, a spoilt heiress on the run from her wealthy father.
The two fall in together and find themselves on the road, in the middle of the Great Depression. Capra easily captures the feisty chemistry between Gable and Colbert – while the screenplay by long-term collaborator Robert Riskin, moves at a formidable clip, stacking up the one-liners but never once at the expense of its innate charm.
The film was the first to win the top five Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adaptation (from a Cosmopolitan story, Night Bus, by Samuel Hopkins Adams).
Speedy was the final silent film made by Harold Lloyd, the prolific actor who began his career in movies in 1913.
In 1923, he created one of cinema’s most celebrated scenes, when he undertook the epic ascent of a skyscraper in Safety Last.
His unemployed New Yorker, nicknamed Speedy, sets out on a quest to save the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar route, run by the grandfather of Speedy’s sweetheart Jane (Ann Christy). Much of the film was shot on location in New York over 12 weeks, using hidden cameras.
As a result, it works not only as a tight, spirited comedy but also a fascinating visual record of New York in the 1920s.
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, emerged from a period of great upheaval for the filmmaker. On August 9, 1969 Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate was among the victims murdered in the director’s Beverly Hills home by members of the Charles Manson ‘family’.
Accordingly, Polanski’s version of Macbeth – released two years later – is steeped in violence and bloodshed: it is less an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play than a grisly exorcism of his own personal demons.
The film’s first scene finds a trio of witches burying a severed hand, a knife and a noose in a bloody hole in the ground; later, the brutal murder of one character’s wife and children seems to be an explicit evocation of Tate’s murder. Polanski’s Scotland is dark, muddy, rainy and cold; a perfect setting, perhaps, for a film of such wintry temperament.
Incidentally, the experimental score by Third Ear Band contributes much to the film’s unsettling atmosphere.
Only Angels Have Wings
Howard Hawks’ stirring 1939 drama Only Angels Have Wings was drawn from the director’s own experiences as a flyer – it was the inspiration, too, for The Dawn Patrol, CeilingZero and Air Force. Here, the director cast Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, the operations manager for a rackety airmail service that covers the Andes from a strip in a fictitious South American banana port.
The specifics are kind of incidental to this typically Hawksian study of male courage under duress and camaraderie. Hawks gives Grant a love interest – Jean Arthur, as a spirited showgirl – and there is staunch support from Richard Barthelmess as a fellow pilot whose wife (a young Rita Hayworth) is also Carter’s ex; there is also Thomas Mitchell as Carter’s doughty right hand man.
Only Angels Have Wings may not quite have the cachet of some of the other films released that year – Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights – yet it is quintessentially Hawks in its themes, while its mix of spectacular aerial scenes and fatalistic barroom stoicism is never short of gripping.
In 2015, Tootsie was voted the greatest film ever made by a group of actors polled by Time Out New York. It was an unlikely winner – beating established favourites including The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Annie Hall – but then Tootsie is very much an actors’ film.
Directed by Sydney Pollack, it starred Dustin Hoffman as a brilliant if uncompromising actor who no one wants to hire, so he dresses up as a woman in order to get a job on a daytime soap opera. A work of many hands – Hal Asby, Elaine May and Barry Levinson among them – nevertheless Tootsie is an effortless comedy, with a predictably excellent central performance from Hoffman as
both the cantankerous Michael Dorsey and the serene, self-assured Dorothy Michaels.
Around him orbit a supporting cast who deliver similarly high-end work, including Teri Garr as Dorsey’s girlfriend, Bill Murray as his best friend and Jessica Lange as a co-star on Southwest General, the soap on which Dorothy becomes a surprise hit.