The Criterion Collection have added three thrillers to their impressive collection, with Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse, Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin all offering different thrills for those who love movies.
Robert Montgomery is an actor whose appeal and importance has faded. Though well respected in his time, the closest he has to a signature role would be in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was later remade by both Warren Beatty (as Heaven Can Wait) and Chris Rock (Down to Earth). He never won an Oscar and stopped making movies by 1950, when he turned to television. But with two of his directing efforts, there is a sense that we didn’t get the best of the performer, that he might have had a masterpiece in him. He directed two films in 1947, the first being Lady in the Lake, which is told all in first person camera work. Montgomery plays Phillip Marlowe, though he’s rarely on camera as it is all told from his perspective. It’s a gimmick film that doesn’t quite work, but this approach is striking and it’s a fascinating curio. The second film he made in 1947 has long been one of my favorite unknown film noirs. Never officially released on home video previous to its inclusion in the Criterion Collection, Ride the Pink Horse may now suffer a little from their imprimatur, but it’s a worthy inclusion nonetheless.
Montgomery stars as Gagin, a drifter who’s come to a small border town with a very important thing. We know this because the film opens with a continuous take as he makes efforts to put something in a locker and hide the key. He’s there to see Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) with plans to blackmail the man. The only problem is that the last person to try it was killed (and was also Gagin’s friend). In town he meets Pancho (Thomas Gomez) who runs a merry-go-round (hence the very suggestive title), and a young girl named Pita (Wanda Hendrix) who follows him around like a guardian angel. He also meets FBI Agent Bill Retz (Art Smith) who would rather get the blackmail information from Gagin and use it to convict Frank, but this FBI man wants to be friendly about it.
There are a number of twists and turns that follow as Gagin, who’s smart but maybe not smart enough, tries to outmaneuver Frank and his goons. The film has an odd parallel to another 1947 film Odd Man Out (which will soon be a Criterion title) in that it follows a half-dead character as he stumbles about town for nearly half the movie. Montgomery knows how to use a camera, and with a script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, he’s got strong material. When the film was unknown it was a revelation, now that it’s been canonized it’s harder to call it a classic when it was better to be viewed as a great curio. Montgomery directed again, but never with as much passion or craft. It’s hard to know what happened, but perhaps it’s best to view his career as a whole as someone who had a lot of promise, but never truly achieved greatness. Still, this is a wonderful noir.
The Criterion Collection release presents the film in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in LPCM 1.0 mono. For a film that hasn’t been seen on home video before, the transfer is excellent, and there’s not a lot of wear or markings, while the black and white photography shines in this new 2K restoration. Extras include a commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, which is very thoughtful and puts the film of noir, and as an adaptation. Also included is the radio dramatization, which features Montgomery, Hendrix and Gomez, and “In Lonely Places” (20 min.) where film scholar Imogen Sara Smith speaks about the film in context of genre, and of the bordertown noir subgenre.
Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a masterpiece of dread. The film opens as John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) work while their children play. John has a vision as he’s working as red spills over a slide he’s looking at and it seems to portend the death of his daughter. He runs outside only to find that’s she fallen into a lake and has drowned. Though he and his wife try to move on with their lives, they’re both haunted by her passing. He goes to work in Vienna, and it’s there that they meet two old women, sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather is blind but says that she can see Laura’s daughter nearby and that the daughter is happy. This is the first time since her daughter’s passing that Laura is able to be happy, and it leads to one of the most famous sex scenes in cinema history. The two have achieved some peace, though there is dread all around them, with a serial killer working nearby and John’s job restoring a church puts him in a perilous position when he tries to get up some rickety scaffolding, while Laura wants to spend more time with the sisters. John may be a little psychic, the two women may be frauds, and John’s visions of his wife and his daughter lead him to chase perhaps real ghosts around the dangerous canals of Venice.
Based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier (whose stories were adapted repeatedly by Alfred Hitchcock), Roeg’s work on Don’t Look Now remains the high point of his career. Though he had played with it before, how he uses editing in this film, how he interlinks events and distorts time is breathtaking, and it shows a master playing with the medium. It’s this editing that helps to create that tone of gothic dread. As Steven Soderbergh says in the supplements, he’s spent his entire career stealing from Roeg, and it’s hard to watch this film and not see how there is a lot of truth to that, and it’s impossible to imagine the sex scene in Out of Sight as anything but an homage to the one in this film. The film may be less effective on multiple viewings in that part of what makes the film work is the shock and surprise elements of the story, the sense of being lost in a foreign city, the language and location disconnect that comes from being abroad, but it still packs a wallop. This is one of the few film that I can say has kept me from sleeping, and it’s because there’s a sense of inescapable fate to it. Few films are so masterful at doing what this film does, and in its way it’s one of the best Giallos that isn’t exactly one. But it seems fitting the film is set in Italy in the 1970’s. It’s of a piece with what Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci were doing at the time. It’s a masterpiece.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in LPCM 1.0 mono. Restored and given a 4K transfer, the film looks and sounds better than ever. The disc is loaded with supplements, though many come from previous international special editions. “Don’t Look Now, Looking Back” (10 min.) lets Roeg, cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond and editor Graeme Clifford discuss the making of the film, and it was made in 2002, while there’s a 2006 interview with composer Pino Donaggio that’s called “Death in Venice” (18 min.). Also recycled is the piece “Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film” (15 min.), which has Soderbergh and Danny Boyle talking about Roeg’s influence on their films, and Don’t Look Now in particular. Older, but new to supplements is the 2003 conversation with Roeg about the film titled “Nicolas Roeg at Cine Lumiere” (48 min.) and it’s a post screening Q&A. “Something Interesting” (30 min.) was seemingly specifically for the Criterion release and it gets Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, Richmond, and co-screenwriter Allan Scott to talk about the making of the film and about working with Roeg. Also new from CC is “Graeme Clifford and Bobbie O’Steen” (44 min.) which has film historian O’Steen going in depth with the film’s editor, Clifford. Considering how revelatory the editing of the film is, it’s a nice piece. Also included is the film’s trailer.
What’s fascinating about Truffaut’s The Soft Skin is how it approaches a very French story of adultery using the cinematic language of Alfred Hitchcock. Jean Desailly plays famous author Pierre Lachenay, who starts the film late for a flight. He makes it, and there he meets stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorleac). He runs into her at his hotel and finds out her room number and ends up asking her out. They spend an evening together where they talk all night, and this leads to an affair. But he is married to Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and the two have a kid together. He starts making excuses, but they only have a few places where they can spend time together alone, while an attempt at a vacation together blows up in their faces. Eventually Franca finds out.
The film shows how an affair can begin and how it can destroy a family, but Truffaut gives every character so much empathy that even though the main character is carrying on (understandable though it may be do to the woman being Dorleac), you feel for him. But that’s also part of why using the Hitchcockian language of cinema is so useful. There’s a couple sequences that put you in the shoes of Pierre, and you don’t want him to get caught or things to go bad. Perhaps it’s just that cinema makes you want people/criminals to get away with their crimes.
This was an early film from Truffaut, and though it came after a couple of masterpieces, it’s not treated with the same love and respect as some of those earlier films. It’s easy to see why: though well made and thoughtful, it doesn’t get to the next level. It’s not exactly an exercise, though perhaps formally Truffaut made the film to test if he could do something Hitchcockian. It’s a solid B sort of effort, where Truffaut made better versions of this later on, including Confidentially Yours, his final directing effort. Still, because it eschews histrionics, this may be one of the best films about infidelity ever made.
The Criterion collection presents the film in widescreen (1.66:1) and in uncompressed monaural audio. The disc touts a new high definition transfer, and the film is stunning and shows no damage. The film comes with a commentary (from 2000) featuring screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and Truffaut scholar Serge Toubiana (which is in French with optional English subtitles), it’s a solid track that talks to the artistry and the making of the picture. Kent Jones provides a visual essay with “The Complexity of Influence” (12 min.), which notes some of the ways the film is drawn from Hitchcock (among others), but also is its own beast. “Monsieur Truffaut meets Alfred Hitchcock” (30 min.) talks about the making of the book Hitchcock, while “Truffaut on The Soft Skin” (11 min.) interviews the director and gets what comes close to scene specific commentary on the film.