Criterion Blu-ray Reviews: ‘The Killers’, ‘Black Stallion’, and ‘Limelight’

     August 11, 2015


Some of the latest Criterion releases include a late stage Charlie Chaplin film (arguably his last great one), a double feature of noir and a children’s classic. It’s an interesting mix of films that shows the diversity of the label.

Both versions of The Killers have been in the collection before, and there’s nothing new here, but it’s nice to see both films upgraded to Blu-ray. In the 1946 version Burt Lancaster stars as Ole “Swede” Anderson, who begins the film when two hitman come to kill him. When warned by neighbors of the assassins, he waves the warning off. Why would a man be so complicit in his own demise? That’s what insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) wants to know. And in finding out the truth he comes to see that Anderson was a boxer who lost a critical fight and ended up working with criminal Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and fell in love with Colfax’s woman Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). As is often the case in noir, it’s his love that leads to his undoing.

the-killers-criterion-coverThe 1964 version changes up the plot a little. The film starts with two hitmen finding and gunning down former racecar driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes), but it turns out to be the hitmen who want to know why North took getting gunned down so easy. They’re played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, and they find that North was involved with a criminal mastermind (Ronald Reagan) and his girl (Angie Dickenson).

Robert Siodmak directed the 1946 version, and on a technical level, it’s the better film. The black and white photography is amazing, and it’s a stylish and deeply satisfying piece. The 1964 version comes from Don Siegel and was initially meant to be a TV movie. And that’s why it’s a little less satisfying visually as Siegel uses a lot of rear projection, and doesn’t get to have as much fun – Siegel was an ace director and he knew how to use a camera, so it’s doubly disappointing because the changes to the narrative are brilliant. In the original version the outsider gets to put the pieces together, and the results of his success is that he gets to have a lovely weekend. In the 1964 version, much like a lot of later film noir, Marvin pays the price for his curiosity, and there are no winners. It could be argued that – like a lot of the 1970s noir – the idea is that the brightness of the color scheme and the artifice is on purpose, that it’s meant to act as a counter to the film’s narrative darkness.

Both films come on the same disc, and what’s most surprising about the release is that though both films look handsome in 1080, these didn’t get painstaking restorations as wear on the 1946 film is visible throughout, with scratches readily visible. It’s not distracting, but it’s also not as perfectly preserved as some of the collection’s previous releases. Both films are presented in their correct aspect ratios (1.33:1) and in DTS-HD 1.0 monaural sound.


Image via Criterion

Complementing the 1946 version is an interview with Stuart Kaminsky (18 min.), where he talks about the origins of the first filmed version, which expanded an Ernest Hemmingway short story into a feature length narrative, and looks at both versions of the film in a very smart analysis of both films. It’s followed by a section called “Source and Adaptations.” It offers a Stacy Keach reading of the short story (18 min.), the 1948 Screen Directors’ Playhouse radio adaptation (30 min.) starring Lancaster and Shelley Winters, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian version of the short story, which he made in film school (21 min.). It’s very faithful to the original short story, down to its liberal use of the n-word (as it is Russia, the cook character is played by someone in blackface). Rounding out the supplements for this version are trailers for five Siodmak films: Son of Dracula, Cobra Woman, The Killers, Cry of the City and Criss Cross.

The 1964 section of extras is a little lighter. It kicks with an interview with Clu Gulager (19 min.), who says that the film is no classic, but praises Lee Marvin, and talks about the making of the film, and the greatness of Don Siegel. There’s an excerpt on the film from Don Siegel’s autobiography as read by screenwriter Hampton Fancher (20 min.), which notes that Siegel almost directed the original (as does Kaminsky). Rounding out the supplements is a trailer for the film.

the-black-stallion-blu-rayThe Black Stallion is directed by Carrol Ballard, and was produced by Francis Ford Coppola during his heyday, which may explain why this “kids movie” is now in the Criterion Collection. It’s an odd film, and as the director mentions – somewhat dismissively – that it was a fluke film in that it wasn’t expected to be a huge hit (it was and generated a sequel). Kelly Reno stars as Alec Ramsay, who is travelling on an ocean liner with his father (Hoyt Axton). There he meets a tempestuous Stallion, and he tries to become friends with it by offering the horse some sugar cubes. The ship goes down, and as the boat sinks Alec gets tied up to the horse. Both end up on an island together, where they bond and become friends, and then both come back to America where Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) ends up training Black to be a racehorse.

Ballard’s career parallels Robert Flaherty’s in the both seem obsessed with photographing nature, and both created great art in doing so. Stallion is made brilliant because of the sections on the beach (with Alec going through many of the same motions as Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away), which are mostly done wordlessly. In situations like this it’s hard to know how to credit the brilliance of the work, as the film was shot by Caleb Deschanel, while Alan Splet did the sound design – the ship sequence alone likely earned Splet his Oscar for the movie – and you want to say that so much of the greatness of the film is in its technical wizardry. That said, Ballard also does solid work in the third act where Black shows that he’s a champion racer, though as is evident from the flashbacks, almost everyone involved would be just as happy back on the beach.

The Criterion Collection presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS 2.0 surround as befits the original audio tracks. The film, which was remastered in 4K, looks amazing, and there’s no evident damage to the source material. It’s an immaculately shot film, and the Blu-ray highlights that.


Image via Criterion

The supplements are pretty great. Five short films by Ballard are included, all coming with introductions from the director. The first is “Pigs” (11 min.) and as Ballard says in the intro (1 min.) he did it for the money. “The Perils of Priscilla” (17 min.) was made for the Humane Society – as Ballard notes (2 min.) – and follows a cat that unintentionally runs away from its home. “Rodeo” (20 min.) surveys the life of the men who work at rodeos, and the Ballard intro (4 min.) notes that there’s some cheating in the shots simply because of the danger involved in being around the bulls. As intro’d by Ballard (2 min.) “Seems Like Only Yesterday” (47 min.) was born of a conversation with his grandfather about Los Angeles. Here he collects twelve people aged over a hundred to talk about what’s changed in LA. “Crystalization” (11 min.) also came about because Ballard was broke, as he says in the intro (1 min.), but it’s absolute gorgeous look at crystallization.

For more film-specific supplements there’s an interview with Ballard conducted by Scott Foundas (47 min.), which talks about how the film came together, the shooting process and how the film was received when it came out. There’s also an interview with Caleb Deschanel (21 min.) who talks about the shooting of the movie and what made it a singular experience. Mary Ellen Mark, who just recently passed away, was the on set photographer, and she shows off some of the pictures she took on set and offers an audio commentary (7 min.) for them in what is now a very valuable supplement. The extras are rounded out by the film’s theatrical trailer.

limelight-criterionLimelight is the film that is oft considered Charlie Chaplin’s last great film. Which the film underlines and puts in bold by having Chaplin play a faded star of vaudeville named Calvero. He’s a drunk, but his life changes when he meets Thereza (Claire Bloom) as he smells gas coming from her apartment. Thereza wants to die, but Calvero rescues her and nurses her back to health. Thereza is a dancer, but she’s given up on it due to psychosomatic illnesses that paralyze her. The two live together, and they fall in a form of love. But as he nurses her career back to health and gets her dancing again to great success, he is unable to find the same mojo for his career, and ends up performing in the streets. He seems happy, and is given one last chance in the spotlight during a benefit concert that was arranged by Thereza.

If I were to use one word to describe Limelight, it would be maudlin. Chaplin has always loved melodrama, and it’s fair to say that his previous films have embraced a cheesy, almost operatic level of pathos. But here Chaplin’s vaudeville bits aren’t all that funny even when he’s paired with Buster Keaton (albeit too briefly). This is an old man movie where a legend is contemplating his own mortality, and is asking to be loved one last time. Chaplin proves to be a strong actor with the material, and hits some lovely grace notes, but the whole package comes off as a deep tissue massage for the genius.

The Criterion edition presents the film in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in monaural sound. Coming from a 4K restoration, the film sparkles on Blu-ray in a radiant transfer, with the black and white photography showing little age. There are also a number of supplements here, kicking off with David Robinson’s piece on the film “Chaplin’s Limelight” (21 min.), which talks about the film’s prolonged pre-production process as Chaplin developed the story, the film’s relatively short shooting schedule, and how the film recreated Chaplin’s vaudeville past in London. This is followed by recent interviews with stars Claire Bloom (16 min.) and Norman Lloyd (15 min.). Bloom talks about how much of the film was drawn from Chaplin’s life, while Lloyd compares working with Chaplin to working with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.


Image via Criterion

“Chaplin Today: Limelight” (27 min.) is taken from the previous DVD release of the film and offers comments from Bloom co-star Sydney Chaplin and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, which covers the film’s production and focuses on Chaplin’s exodus from America. There’s an outtake (5 min.) from the film that shows Chaplin ‘s Calvero conversing with a former colleague who happens to be armless. That’s followed with audio excerpts of Chaplin reading from Footlights (2 min.), the novella he wrote that formed the basis of this film.

Also included are two of Chaplin’s short films, A Night in the Snow (25 min.), which has Chaplin playing two different rude theater patrons (and was is based on a play Chaplin performed previously), and the incomplete short The Professor (6 min.), which like the film has Chaplin performing with imaginary fleas (something Spielberg later put into Jurassic Park). Rounding out the set are two trailers for the film.

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