Cri Life: A monthly column about the Criterion Collection's UK releases
Made in 1957, the racy and ambitious Lola Montès was butchered in the editing room by producers nervous about its box-office prospects. It then took more than 50 years for director Max Ophüls’ original vision to be digitally restored and released, and it is that definitive version which gets a welcome release here. And what a film it is.
Based on the life of a 19th Century dancer and courtesan, Lola Montès tells the story of how her torrid affairs with the likes of Franz Liszt and the King of Bavaria scandalised Europe. Peter Ustinov is ringmaster at the circus where Lola (Martine Carol) has ended up; sad and sickly, she re-enacts scenes from her scandalous past to a packed house every night (pictured above), while we see her actual rise and fall in flashback. Originally filmed in CinemaScope, the HD restoration must be an absolute joy to experience on the big screen, but this release does full justice to the riot of colour and movement in the film’s most extravagant scenes (and there are a good few). You spend an awful lot of time just gazing slack-jawed at the spectacle – trying to take in the costumes, the sets, the cast of thousands, and the sheer chutzpah of Ophüls' visual imagination. Detractors point to Carol’s low-key performance as the film’s main weakness, but Lola is clearly meant to be enigmatic. I suspect we're supposed to admire her tireless appetite for life and love, as well as her instinct for survival, more than Ophüls wants us to like or even fully understand her. Besides, as discomfiting meditations on fading glamour and fleeting fame go, there are few films to match it.
Film scholar Susan White’s scripted, detail-heavy commentary covers every beat of the movie, referencing plenty of Ophüls’ previous work (including La Ronde and Madame De…) along the way. I was particularly interested in her discussion of the sections that had originally been hacked out and how those changes negatively impacted the film, as well as the tricky restoration process. There’s also an episode of a French TV show from 1965 (54 mins) which looks back at Ophüls’ life and career, and features contributions from a host of his friends and collaborators. Max By Marcel (32 mins) covers some of the same ground but is more personal because the Marcel of the title is Ophüls’ son, an assistant director on Lola Montès and a much-lauded filmmaker in his own right (see 1969's The Sorrow and the Pity). A trailer for the 2008 re-release, plus a wonderful bit of behind-the-scenes footage in which Carol models different hairstyles used in the movie, round out the supplements.
The role of femme fatale Lola Montès is one you could have easily imagined Marlene Dietrich playing in her early days in Hollywood. By the time comic western Destry Rides Again rolled around (1939), though, Dietrich had had to reinvent herself after a series of box office flops. As well as providing the actress with her big comeback, Destry was James Stewart’s first western (the likes of The Naked Spur and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would follow later), and offered a rather more enlightened attitude to violence than you’d expect to find in a traditionally macho genre full of quicksilver gunslingers and fist-swinging cowpokes.
It’s Stewart and Dietrich’s yin/yang chemistry that does most of the heavy lifting here; he as the titular mild-mannered deputy sheriff trying to clean up a riotous wild-west town; she as Frenchy, a devious saloon singer and girlfriend of the local villain (Brian Donlevy). There is a terrific scene where Dietrich has a full-on bar brawl with the wife of a local eccentric, whose trousers she has won in a game of poker, then goes after Destry when he breaks it up by throwing water on the pair. This looser, lighter, more knockabout version of Dietrich (pictured above) is a million miles from The Scarlet Empress or The Devil is a Woman and nearly as compelling.
There isn’t a ton of supplementary material but, in mitigation, what’s here is fascinating. Author Imogen Sara Smith (17 minutes) describes Destry as “probably the greatest comic western of all time”, but that’s the only bit of hyperbole you’ll find in her typically learned discussion of the film’s origin and themes, including its playful subversion of gender roles and pacifistic attitude to violence. Destry’s director George Marshall (19 mins) talks warmly about his formative years in Hollywood working on silent movies, initially as an extra before moving behind the camera, while Stewart biographer Donald Dewey takes just 20 minutes to serve up a potted history of the actor’s life and career. It’s all rounded off with a typically breathless Lux Radio Theatre version of the film (54 mins) starring Stewart and Joan Blondell in Dietrich’s role.
On any list of the all-time great film trilogies, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) – collectively known as The Apu Trilogy (1955–59) – would be somewhere near the very top. The films (pristinely restored here in a handsome boxset) chronicle the life of Apu, a young Bangladeshi, during three different periods. We first see him as a boy living in grinding poverty in a rural village with his family, then as an adolescent (played by Smaran Ghosal, above) going through school and university, and finally as a wannabe writer and married man. Ray – initially inspired by Italian neorealists such as Vittorio De Sica – finds poetry and beauty in the everyday, although tragedy and heartache rarely stray far from Apu's door. Ravi Shankar's vibrant score across all three films is just the cherry on top of what remain, more than 60 years on, life-affirming hits of pure cinema.
There's around four hours of supplementary material spread across the three discs, including all sorts of interviews with cast and crew, as well as critical analysis of the trilogy (Andrew Robinson's video essay is especially recommended) and a wealth of stuff about Ray himself. If you don't know the story of the director's struggles to get Pather Panchali off the ground or these films' huge impact on Indian and Bangladeshi culture, you will be an expert by the end of it all.
The highlight for me, though, is a short film of only 12 minutes about how the trilogy had to be rescued and restored after its original camera negatives were almost destroyed in a London fire. The eight months of painstaking restorative work that took place – a good deal of it at Bologna's L’Immagine Ritrovata – is like something out of a hospital drama as the stricken patient (in bad shape even before getting half-melted) is slowly but surely put back together by a crack team of what could easily be described as "miracle workers" but are, in reality, just experts at the top of their game. Additionally, there's a 46-page booklet featuring Ray's gorgeous ink-and-water storyboards which he used to drum up finance for Pather Panchali.
Talk of impressive boxsets brings us neatly to The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, which Criterion is releasing in the US on August 11. As its title implies, this 15-disc set contains all 39 of the late French filmmaker’s features, documentaries, shorts and multi-media works. The obvious stuff – Faces, Places (2017, pictured above), Vagabond (1985), Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) – is all present and accounted for, as are less well-known entries in the Varda canon – The Creatures (1966), Jacquot (1991), From Here to There (the 2011 series she made for French TV) – which make their home video debuts. Expect a ton of extras, too, as well as a 200-page book in a set that looks pretty much definitive and a big step up even from Artificial Eye's excellent Varda collection from 2017.
The good news is that Criterion is making the release region-free. Less positively, Amazon US is currently charging over £200 for it and that’s before you even get to shipping the thing over to the UK. Between this and July’s Bruce Lee boxset, I shall probably be living on Pot Noodles and tap water until Christmas.
Join me back here next month when I will be discussing Criterion UK’s June releases: Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (Arzner was one of a small collective of pioneering women directors who helped build the Hollywood studio system); Husbands (directed by John Cassavetes), and Scorsese Shorts (a collection of five of Martin Scorsese’s early short films).
Lola Montès – High-definition digital restoration, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Destry Rides Again – New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
The Apu Trilogy – New 4K digital restorations of all three films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks.
Lola Montès (1955)
Dir: Max Ophuls | Cast: Anton Walbrook, Henri Guisol, Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov | Writers: Annette Wademant (adaptation), Jacques Laurent (based on the novel by: "La vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès"), Jacques Natanson (dialogue), Max Ophüls (adaptation), Max Ophüls (scenario)
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Dir: George Marshall | Cast: Charles Winninger, James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Mischa Auer | Writers: Felix Jackson (original story), Felix Jackson (screen play), Gertrude Purcell (screen play), Henry Myers (screen play), Max Brand (suggested by novel "Destry Rides Again")