Cri Life: A monthly column about the Criterion Collection's UK releases

Cri Life: A monthly column about the Criterion Collection's UK releases

Anatomy of a Murder is one of the all-time great courtroom dramas – right up there with the likes of 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. For a film made in 1959, it also goes to some very dark places. In one of his career-defining performances, James Stewart is Paul Biegler, a small-town Michigan lawyer who spends most of his time not in court but fishing or listening to jazz (Duke Ellington provides a moody score and gets a cameo). Running low on cash, Biegler chooses to defend Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), a US army lieutenant accused of gunning down a local bar owner for raping his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Whether the soldier pulled the trigger isn't in doubt, it's whether Biegler can prove "temporary insanity" and get him off.

Based on a novel inspired by an actual murder case, there are enough shades of grey here to give E.L. James an aneurysm. The Manions are a fairly awful pair – he's violent and hot-headed, she's unsettlingly flirty and over-familiar (you even wonder if Biegler's taken the case just to spend time with her). They clearly have a tempestuous marriage and the notion of spousal abuse is raised more than once. And although you root for Biegler, you aren't sure if the killer he's defending deserves to get off scot-free. Amidst the secrets, lies and courtroom fireworks, it's the fact everything seems just a little bit murky – and that everyone is in someway compromised – that makes Otto Preminger's film so essential.

Three absorbing interviews form the spine of the disc's supplementary content. Foster Hirsch, who wrote a biography of Preminger in 2007, provides a neat summary of the director's life and career, while jazz critic Gary Giddins and author Pat Kirkham do likewise for – respectively – Ellington and Saul Bass, who created the film's typically inventive title sequence. There's also a newsreel featuring on-location rehearsal footage, excerpts of Preminger on TV discussing his battles with the censors, and a bevy of gorgeous, behind-the-scenes photographs taken by Gjon Mili. A typically learned essay from US critic Nick Pinkerton is the highlight of an accompanying booklet.

From one Hollywood legend to another. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) was Meryl Streep's next project after picking up her first Oscar – Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer. Unfortunately, Karel Reisz's film is a rather fussy, overblown piece of work in which even she fails to shine. Based on a 1969 novel by John Fowles and featuring a screenplay by Harold Pinter, Streep and Jeremy Irons are Anna and Mike, actors filming the Victorian drama of the title in Dorset and London. The film cuts back and forth from the fictional world – in which Irons' gentleman scientist falls for Streep's 'scarlet woman' – and the affair the pair are supposedly conducting in 'real life'. But Anna and Mike are a dreary couple about whom you care little, their dalliance pulling you out of the other, far more interesting story, every time it appears. Worse still, Streep's English accent in the Victorian scenes, a mash-up of Lady Di and Margaret Thatcher, is at first weirdly distracting, then just plain hilarious.

The film explores love's eternal ability to make fools of vain men and takes pot-shots at Victorian England's treatment of rebellious young women, but its post-modern blurring of fiction and reality is less successful. In fact, the most fun to be found here is spotting the veritable who's who of British character actors cast in minor roles – including Liz Smith, Leo McKern, Penelope Wilton, and Richard Griffiths – and luxuriating in the gorgeousness of its locations and costuming.

In a 20-minute interview in the extras, film scholar Ian Christie makes a strong case for reappraising The French Lieutenant's Woman and his warm words about both film and director Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) certainly gave me pause for thought. An episode of ITV's The South Bank Show from 1981 dedicated to the film is even better, presenter Melvyn Bragg interrogating Reisz, Pinter and Fowles about the challenges of adapting a novel considered unfilmable. It made me long for the days when this kind of show – not high-brow, exactly, but one that took the arts seriously – was a staple of the UK TV schedules. Elsewhere, there's a talking-heads documentary from 2015 featuring interviews with Irons and Streep, and a nice piece with Carl Davis who composed the film's score.

The name Antonio Gaudí may not be as instantly recognisable as Stewart or Streep, but you'll certainly be familiar with the Catalan architect's most famous work – La Sagrada Familia (pictured above), which so dominates Barcelona's skyline. I hesitate to call Hiroshi Teshigahara's film – also called Antonio Gaudí (1984) – a "documentary" because it doesn't conform to what you expect from one. Teshigahara makes little attempt to contextualise or explain Gaudí's works and there is hardly a word spoken during its 72-minute running time. Instead, the director uses his camera to explore every sensuous shape and craggy surface of the architect's buildings and interiors, then sets it all to suitably evocative music. At first it's disconcerting, but you soon become seduced by the majesty and eccentricity of the likes of the Casa Milà and the Church of Colònia Güell. Imposing a more traditional structure would perhaps distract from the joy of just experiencing the work itself. What you're left with is part visual poem, part artfully conceived advertisement for visiting Barcelona.

The required background on Gaudí (a devoutly religious man who passed away in 1926 at the age of 73) is provided in a set of impressive supplements. Chief among them is art critic Robert Hughes' God's Architect, an hour-long documentary from 2003 (it was part of a series shown on the BBC). Hughes is a compelling host, with a wonderful turn of phrase – "Barcelona without Gaudí is like a peacock with a bald backside" – and he concisely and entertainingly explores the profound influence of religion and nature (including Catalonia's "dripping" rock formations) on the architect's creations. There's no hagiography here either, as Hughes describes Gaudí's work as "endlessly interesting and endlessly annoying" in a segment about the divisive Sagrada Familia. You also get a 15-minute short film from Ken Russell made in 1963, and a variety of other shorts and interviews focusing on director Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes) and his artist father Sofu.

In the US, Criterion recently announced its June releases and among them are at least two must-haves. Soviet director Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985) is one of the most powerful and harrowing WWII films ever made. The new Criterion edition boasts a 2K digital restoration and comes packed with great extras, including a new interview with cinematographer Roger Deakins. Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019) was still in US and UK cinemas when the coronavirus crisis took hold, so its quick transfer to the collection is most welcome. An eighteenth-century romance from Girlhood director Céline Sciamma, that crackles with elegance and escalating passion, Portrait is an instant classic certain to top critics' lists at the end of the year (assuming civilisation makes it to the end of the year). It doesn't look like the film will get a UK release through Criterion, as Curzon Artificial Eye have their own version coming out here also in June (the same goes for Parasite, which I mentioned last month).

The ongoing lockdown doesn't seem to have put a dent in Criterion's UK release schedule, so I hope you'll join me for another column next month, when I'll be sharing my thoughts on The Cranes Are Flying (out on April 13th), They Live By Night (20th), and The Prince of Tides (27th). In the meantime, stay safe, stay inside, and happy viewing.

Anatomy Of A Murder – New digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. New alternate 5.1 soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio.
The French Lieutenant's Woman – New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
Antonio Gaudí – High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Dir: Otto Preminger | Cast: Arthur O'Connell, Ben Gazzara, James Stewart, Lee Remick | Writers: John D. Voelker (based on the novel by), Wendell Mayes (screenplay)

Antonio Gaudí (1984)
Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara | Cast: Antoni Gaudí, Isidro Puig Boada, Seiji Miyaguchi | Writer: N/A

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
Dir: Karel Reisz | Cast: Emily Morgan, Hilton McRae, Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep | Writers: Harold Pinter (screenplay), John Fowles (novel)

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