Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Criterion Dramas - David Blakeslee ""

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Favorite Underrated Criterion Dramas - David Blakeslee

Since 2009, David Blakeslee has been systematically blogging his way through the films released by the Criterion Collection. On January 1 of that year, he created a checklist of all the titles, arranged in order of original chronological release, beginning with 1922’s Nanook of the North, and he’s been watching and writing about them in sequence ever since, updating his list as needed as new releases occur. So far, he’s worked his way up to 1964, and you can follow along on his trek by visiting his Criterion Reflections blog. In 2010, he began writing for, which hosts his Journey Through the Eclipse Series column along with other reviews of various films released by Criterion, Kino Lorber and other publishers, as well as the occasional guest appearance on their podcast. David lives near Grand Rapids MI.
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Five Underrated Dramas (from the Criterion Collection)
To begin, I understand that labeling just about any film bearing the imprimatur of the Criterion Collection as “underrated” is a bit of an oxymoron. The company’s lofty reputation as experts at selecting “important classic and contemporary films” is well-established enough to inspire the adjective Criterion-worthy as many a cinephile’s convenient shorthand for expressing the impressive quality of a movie to their friends and associates. And since Criterion pretty much invented the high-end home video market with their early innovations dating back to the laserdisc era, they’ve established a solid track record of reliably selecting the very best from among the films they can get their hands on for licensing and distribution, including a remarkable percentage of the most highly rated films from a variety of authoritative sources, whether it be IMDb’s Top 250, the once-per-decade Sight and Sound poll or any number of other aggregators of cinema’s All Time Best.
But still, as the list of Criterion Collection spine numbers approaches 700, there are bound to be more than a few overlooked gems among the treasures they’ve gathered since moving into the DVD era back in 1998. That’s especially true nowadays as a lot of younger viewers who appreciate Criterion’s sensibility focus almost exclusively on the more recent blu-ray releases. The thought that older catalog titles are going unwatched just because they haven’t been upgraded to hi-def can drive me kinda nuts when I think about it too much, so here I am, trying to address the problem.
A lot of the films I’ve watched over the past 4 ½ years for my blog were accompanied by all manner of hyperbole, and more often than not, my high expectations were fulfilled. Occasionally, something I’ve never seen before or heard much about sneaks up on me, leading to a very pleasant surprise. Here are five Criterion offerings that don’t seem to generate much chatter in the social media spheres I inhabit, but are definitely worth seeking out, in my opinion.

1. Borderline (1930, directed by Kenneth Macpherson)
To anyone who thinks of Paul Robeson as mainly just a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement, a versatile forerunner of African-Americans who found a path forward in the entertainment industry, or just that deep-voiced dude who sings “Old Man River,” Borderline may come as a complete shocker. It turns out that, in addition to all those admirable attributes, Robeson was as avant-gardey as all get out, back in the experimental heyday of the late 20s/early 30s, when world class cinematic artistes like Jean Cocteau (Blood of a Poet) and Luis Bunuel (Un chien Andalou, L’age d’or) were carving out their own niche on the cutting edge of filmic experimentalism. A silent, swift-moving flurry of crazy-cut editing and boundary-pushing bohemianism, Borderline is hard to find, but worth the pursuit. The only place I know to watch it is on the Paul Robeson: Portrait of the Artist box that Criterion released back in 2007 - itself quite an overlooked set. Yes, the price tag is hefty, especially for what is almost certainly a blind buy for the vast majority of viewers, but it’s such a fascinating cross-section of American and movie history. Not all of the films are exactly what you’d call great, but they are all quite fascinating in their own way, and Robeson is never anything less than compelling whenever he’s on the screen. My review from 2009:

2. The Lower Depths (1934, directed by Jean Renoir)
Without question, Jean Renoir is the biggest name among the five directors whose films are referred to here, but among the films of his that Criterion released, this is probably the most neglected. That’s mainly because it’s buried in a 2-disc set behind the film of the same name that Akira Kurosawa directed some twenty years later, based on the same source material, a play by Russian author Maxim Gorky. Renoir took considerable liberties in adapting the story, transferring the setting to contemporary France in the pre-WWII Depression era and warming up Gorky’s bleak despair with the affable qu’est que c’est humanism common in all his films. Still, Renoir gave ample voice to the justifiable complaints that ordinary poor and working class citizens had against the regime currently in charge at the time. Though Renoir and lead actor Jean Gabin had not yet established themselves as the titans of French cinema that they would respectively become, their work in The Lower Depths represents significant progress on the path of greatness. My review from 2009:

3. Casque d’Or (1952, directed by Jacques Becker)
I can’t say whether or not it’s cheating to jump from Jean Renoir to one of his most famous disciples in making up this list, but Jacques Becker’s sublime, seductive early 50s melodrama didn’t seem all that intriguing to me when it came up in my blogging queue back in early 2010. I explain more about my diminished expectations in that review; for today’s purpose, I’ll just give an enthusiastic endorsement to the alluring performances of Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani, who bring the smoldering romantic embers nestled within the basic story into full flame as the film unfolds. Whether it’s mere acting, or if they really had a little something going on between them off camera, the intense desire they convey to the viewer as they pursue their doomed romance elevates this conventionally entangled love triangle to something that really sticks in my memory, and will doubtlessly evoke recollections of similar complications that many viewers have found themselves in over the years. A gorgeous evocation of the Parisian belle epoque, Casque d’or feels to me like one of those Criterion titles that’s just on the verge of going OOP... so snap up a copy while the price is still reasonable!

4. Tunes of Glory (1960, directed by Ronald Neame)
Among all the directors with three or more Criterion films to their credit, is there anyone more taken for granted than Ronald Neame? And if one includes titles that he worked on but didn’t direct, his CC filmography swells into double-digits. And yet, as far as I can tell, there’s little if any clamor to “get more Neame” into the Collection. I suppose that has as much to do with his eclectic, unassuming modesty as it is the fact that he never really bothered to establish himself as an auteur per se, just a reliable, dedicated craftsman who knew how to provide solid direction to a film project. After a decade or two studying under the tutelage of the much-celebrated (and highly egocentric) David Lean, Neame was entrusted to take the helm himself, and Tunes of Glory is my favorite among the other two (The Horse’s Mouth and Hopscotch) Criterion films that he directed. It stars Alec Guinness as a feisty unit officer in charge of a post-WWII Scottish battalion, whose authority over his highly loyal men is abruptly challenged when an emotionally constricted, by-the-books commanding officer is sent over from headquarters to maintain his repressive doctrine of order and discipline. The two men clash memorably in their struggle for top-dog dominance, creating incredible tension as two testosterone-charged male egos do battle within the confines of a highly formalized and disciplined military setting. It doesn’t end well for either of them. Guiness and his rival, played by John Mills, each epitomize two classic archetypes of mature manhood, making this a “guys’ film” that I think women can appreciate for the insights it provides to the masculine psyche. But if nothing else, it demonstrates the superb talent of Sir Alec Guinness, especially benefitting those who mainly just know him as the crafty old Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi from that popular science fiction film of the 1970s, the name of which escapes me for the moment. My review from 2011:

5. Hands Over the City (1963, directed by Francesco Rosi)
I wrap up this short list with a film I just watched and reviewed this past spring, a scathing expose that rips the lid off of the sordid backroom deals, the lowdown, dirty graft and corruption that permeated the Italian real estate business and urban zoning commissions of the early 1960s. If that synopsis strikes you as just a tad on the “irrelevant to my life” side of the equation, then you and I were in the same boat... until I actually sat down and watched this fascinating specimen of cinematic muckraking. Sure, the Neapolitan specifics of Hands Over the City anchor the story in a time and place that may seem distant to most English-speaking audiences, but the political and economic dynamics that drive the behavior of the swindlers and impotent politicos swarming over the conflict have not changed much if at all over the ensuing decades. Rosi’s film casts a revelatory and ultimately damning spotlight on the rich bastards who cut corners, inflict damage on innocent lives, preemptively ensure legislative immunity from the carnage they sponsored, and secure the profits from those activities for their own private pursuits, damn whatever consequences have to be suffered by the poor unfortunates caught at the bottom of the collapse. Besides all that, it’s a very well-made movie, one that will hold the interest of viewers who may not be so eager to get all that political about it... but who might just learn something in the process anyway.

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