Saturday, September 10, 2011


I was hunting around for an old piece on Breakfast at Tiffany's and I stumbled on a collection of capsule reviews I wrote for my defunct DVD column back in February, 2006. I will one day hopefully do something more extensive about La bệte humaine and Young Mr. Lincoln both, but in the meantime, here are my first reactions from the pair's initial release:

La bệte humaine: Jean Renoir made two films with Jean Gabin in 1938. The first was Grand Illusion and is an admitted classic; the second is La bệte humaine (The Human Beast), which sadly has been unavailable for quite some time. Based loosely on an Emile Zola novel, La bệte humaine is a precursor to film noir, with Gabin playing Jacques Lantier, a train conductor who gets cast as the replacement third point in a love triangle after his predecessor is murdered. Lantier is a man of machines, more in love with his locomotive than he’s ever been able to connect with a human. Part of it is that he has a congenital problem that makes him prone to madness and violent outbursts, something that doesn’t effect his interaction with his train. In fact, we see right from the opening shots that he is most free when riding the rails. La bệte humaine is perhaps Renoir’s most unabashed foray into genre filmmaking, a stylish thriller that could have just as easily been made by Hitchcock (though after likely punching up the humor and the threats). Like most Renoir, though, it’s a portrait of human foibles. He loves his characters for all their faults, and he shows them in exacting detail. Criterion has done a stellar restoration on this, as they have with all of their Renoir releases, and they’ve dug up a few vintage extras to round out the package. Most interesting is a television segment from the ’50s where Renoir is reunited with La bệte humaine’s femme fatale Simone Simon, and he gives a lesson on directing by remaking a scene from the film with her.

* * *

Young Mr. Lincoln The Criterion Collection offers a classic film from 1939, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford. It’s hard to nail down what I liked best about this fantastic and charming movie, as every aspect of it worked in tandem to achieve the best motion pictures have to offer. Fonda is exceptional as Honest Abe, who at the time of the story is merely an up-and-coming lawyer in Illinois. His easy way with words matches his ambling gate step for step, as Fonda completely transforms himself into the tall and gentle legend (he’s given a little help by an excellent make-up team, providing the actor with a fake nose that blends smoothly with his recognizable facial features). Ford matches Fonda with gorgeous photography. His stunning vistas would draw away from the actor if handled by a less capable director. Here, they work in conjunction with Fonda’s performance to show how in tune Lincoln was with the American landscape. Criterion has done another excellent job restoring an old film, delivering exceptional picture and sound. There are also some informative extras, including various programs about Ford and Fonda. The 1975 interview with Fonda, who was then in his '70s, shows how vivacious of a personality he really was, and it’s worth it just for the anecdote about him and Jimmy Stewart drunkenly plotting to dig an underground tunnel into Greta Garbo’s house.

The other films I covered that month were Elia Kazan's Pinky, Dave McKean's MirrorMask, the Keira Knightley-led Pride & Prejudice adaptation, and a Hollywood-based indie called The Young Unknowns.

And it turns out I either lost that Breakfast at Tiffany's review or I am nuts and never wrote it. I was working on a new piece, anyway, now that the movie is on Blu-Ray.

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