Cri Life: A monthly column about the Criterion Collection's UK releases
The Cranes Are Flying doesn’t get anything like the amount of love it deserves. Despite winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958 (no Soviet or Russian film has taken the festival's top prize since), it never seems to appear on those 'best of all-time' lists, even the ones limited to foreign-language cinema. Mikhail Kalatozov’s astonishing film is set during World War II and initially focusses on the giddy, endearing romance between Veronika and Boris (Tatiana Samoilova and Alexei Batalov are both superb in the roles). Sadly, their affair comes to a juddering halt as Boris is called up to fight for the Red Army, leaving Veronika to try and fend off the advances of his cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), a talented pianist who has avoided the draft.
What unfolds is searing, heart-breaking stuff, Cranes' visual virtuosity often providing welcome relief from the numerous moments of darkness that pepper Veronika's story and, by extension, that of millions of Soviet women whose partners went to war. I lost count of the number of times I paused the film to linger on a particular shot or rewatched a certain sequence (the magnificent, bittersweet ending especially). Its subject matter is frequently ugly, but Cranes is a gorgeous piece of work and Criterion's 2K digital restoration does it full justice.
The main draw of the extras is Hurricane Kalatozov, a feature-length documentary about the director, including analysis of a good chunk of his films (from 1930’s Salt For Svanetia to 1969’s The Red Tent, which starred Claudia Cardinale and Sean Connery), plus fascinating insights into his Georgian heritage, time working as a bureaucrat under Stalin, and the fertile creative partnership he nurtured with cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.
In his appreciation of Cranes (18 mins), film scholar Ian Christie doesn’t beat about the bush, describing it as “in many ways, the most important post-war Soviet film”, going on to explain how the country’s cinema changed following Stalin’s death in 1953, focussing more on personal stories than tales of glorious patriotism. There’s also an audio interview with Kalatozov from 1961, an excerpt from a documentary about Urusevsky, and a short piece featuring French filmmaker Claude Lelouch on how he discovered Cranes on a trip to Moscow and lobbied for it to be shown at Cannes.
If The Cranes Are Flying doesn’t scratch your itch for doomed romance, there is plenty more in They Live By Night, Nicholas Ray’s startlingly accomplished and highly influential debut feature from 1948. One of a new wave of film noirs that followed the war, it was the first screen adaptation of Edward Anderson’s depression-era novel Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman’s became the second in 1974).
A Romeo and Juliet meets Bonnie and Clyde-style affair, the film sees bank-robber Bowie (Farley Granger) and his wife Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) on the run from the police. But the pair – a caption tells us at the very beginning – were “never properly introduced to the world we live in” and it is that naivety which makes them so sympathetic and their romance so compelling. Ray specialised in films about outsiders – he went on to direct Rebel Without a Cause – and Bowie’s mix of toughness and vulnerability is something James Dean would mine to great effect as Jim Stark less than a decade later.
The extras boasts a commentary from 2007 featuring film noir historian Eddie Muller and Granger himself. Unfortunately, the actor (who died in 2011) was in his eighties when it was recorded, and his recollection of the film and shoot is understandably sketchy. I lost count of the times he replied “I don’t know” to one of Muller’s questions, although his anecdote about the first time he met Ray (“He just sat and drank and looked at me”) is so good he tells it twice.
More positively, author Imogen Sara Smith offers an excellent overview of post-war film noir and ‘lovers on the run’ movies in an interview that packs a huge amount into only 21 minutes, while the film’s legendary producer John Houseman reflects on his career in a short radio interview from 1956. At six minutes, The Twisted Road is too brief but features a variety of filmmakers and critics talking about They Live By Night, including Oliver Stone, who brilliantly describes Ray as “A loopy guy who makes loopy movies, and that’s why the French love him”.
This month's third serving of romantic angst is provided by The Prince of Tides, Barbra Streisand's occasionally gloopy, overly earnest, but nevertheless compelling adaptation of Pat Conroy's novel of the same name. When his sister attempts suicide, Tom (Nick Nolte) travels from his home in South Carolina to New York to be by her side. He meets her psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Streisand) and the two grow ever closer as he wrestles with a troubled marriage and a terrible secret from his family's past. At two-plus hours, with a voiceover and flashbacks, it's a rather unwieldy film (overripe dialogue and some broad performances don't help either), but Nolte and Streisand are hugely watchable and DP Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography (particularly those scenes shot in South Carolina) is gorgeous.
Streisand – who was producer on the film as well as its star and director – provides a fascinating commentary (originally recorded in 1991, this is an updated version with new material from last year). The double Oscar winner talks a lot about her process as a filmmaker, the challenges of adapting a novel that ran to nearly 600 pages, and how she brought her experience of being in therapy to the project.
Beyond the commentary, there is a ton of other material, split into three sections – preproduction, production and post-production – featuring all manner of rehearsal footage, alternative scenes and background on the novel and its author Conroy. Completing the treasure trove are a couple of interviews with Streisand – one from 1992 with the pompous Michael Aspel to promote The Prince of Tides and a shorter, better one from 2015, with Robert Rodriguez, in which Streisand talks about the sexism she faced on the film's set, including from Nolte. It's surprisingly forthright stuff.
In the US, Criterion have five new releases scheduled for July, but the one that really catches the eye is a five-film boxset dedicated to kung-fu superstar Bruce Lee. Over seven discs, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits will include 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972), and Game of Death (1978), plus two different versions of Enter the Dragon (1973) – both 2K digital restorations – and a truly dizzying number of extras. It’s difficult to see how such an exhaustive set could be improved upon, and I sincerely hope it gets a UK release in the very near future, as importing Greatest Hits from the States is likely to set you back an eye-watering £90.
I will return next month with my thoughts on Criterion UK’s latest batch of releases – Lola Montès (May 11th), Destry Rides Again (18th), and The Apu Trilogy (25th) – so please join me then.
The Cranes Are Flying – New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
They Live By Night – New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
The Prince of Tides – New 4K digital restoration, supervised by Barbra Streisand, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack.
They Live by Night (1948)
Dir: Nicholas Ray | Cast: Cathy O'Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen | Writers: Charles Schnee (screenplay), Edward Anderson (novel), Nicholas Ray (adaptation)