Isn't that great? Aren't you burning to see this 1936 gem now? You are? Tough.
It isn't on Region 1 DVD. The Siren had to get her copy, like samizdat, from a sympathetic blogger she won't name for fear of bringing some sort of corporate wrath on his head. He knows who he is, and he's a mensch. He probably won't mind if the Siren tells you the print is in so-so shape--murky in parts, with the occasional jump. But Monsieur Lange's nowhere near as bad off as Caught, which the Siren also got under-the-table from another, equally wonderful blogger. That Max Ophuls masterpiece, about love, social-climbing and obsession, looked as though it had been filmed through a Mafia widow's mourning veil.
The good news is that Monsieur Lange is now part of a Region 2 boxed set from the UK, and Caught will soon be available as a Region 2 DVD from BFI Films. The Siren's going to get her own copy of Caught, to go along with Le Plaisir, Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Reckless Moment. Gallingly, however, the last two films were made right here in the good old U.S. of A., as was Caught. Ophuls was as continental as they come, a true cosmopolitan. But it was the independent company of Joan Fontaine (bless her) that made Letter possible, and Universal that distributed it. It was our grand old country that provided the resources for Ophuls to make three phenomenal movies in a row (after letting him languish for six years, but better late than never). And it is our country, and the corporate drones who make the decisions about which movie gets a DVD release, that has failed to release these movies. In all fairness, perhaps it is the French who should have been on the case of Monsieur Lange. But we are also awaiting Diary of a Chambermaid, a superb Renoir film made during his American exile, as well as The Woman on the Beach.
Glenn Kenny performs a great service every Monday Morning with his "Foreign-Region DVD Report," letting us all know about movies available outside the U.S. Serious cinephiles do own region-free players. The Siren does. She has also resorted to VHS for those movies that made it to one format but not the other. But what does it say about us as a society when we concede some of the greatest American art to the tender care of other countries? What becomes of a great film if it is confined to highly expensive overseas orders, bootleg copies made by friends, a late-night Turner Classic Movies screening or the occasional festival screening? You might as well take the score for Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, stick it in a closet and bring it out once a decade. You're slowly killing the potential audience for the lesser-known movies, virtually guaranteeing that the broad taste for classics as something more than antique curios is fated to wither and die.
You want to see Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray's legendary 1956 study of a suburban father's descent into addiction and madness? So does the Siren. So she's picking up a copy next month. When she goes to FRANCE. And she's also getting a copy of Make Way for Tomorrow, which influenced Ozu's cowriter on Tokyo Story and which many critics rank with Citizen Kane as one of the great American films. The French found the money to put together a pretty good version of it. Paramount (a unit of Viacom, which posted $1.6 billion in 2007 profits) has not. The Siren wonders what Leo McCarey, a rock-ribbed patriotic conservative of the deepest dye, would have made of his own country's lack of interest in distributing his best film.
Well, the Siren says it's a disgrace. Don't talk to me about profit margins, complex rights and the cost of restoration. Last year NBC Universal cleared $923 million in profit. The company is owned by GE and Vivendi, both of which have also been known to make money. They could throw a little dough at Ophuls.
No, movie studios are not charities. But neither are they widget manufacturers. They are sitting on a major part of our historical and cultural heritage as Americans. And sitting, and sitting, and sitting, while the films' lifespan becomes ever more precarious. We accept that companies have a responsibility not to pollute or leave a mountain looking like a moonscape. (Well, most of us do. Hard-core Randians probably quit reading before this paragraph anyway.) Why are movie studios not held to a higher standard for this vital responsibility, that of preserving and disseminating the very things that make them special?
Criterion is a splendid company. We all love Criterion. They rock, and furthermore they just released an Ophuls set of The Earrings of Madame de..., La Ronde and Le Plaisir. (Pretty please, could we put some hustle in the Naruse stuff, guys?) But they're not all that big, and they can't do it all themselves. They can't even do it with other outfits like Kino also helping out. As a cinephile the Siren is not content to hang around and wait for Criterion every time someone says "oh, they're supposed to be doing a version." There are thousands of films, and only one Criterion.
[I saw] The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester's Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its history. Gish's clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders. The Swedish director Victor Seastrom (born Sjöström), in his direction, shared her art of escaping time and place. Seastrom and Gish were meant for each other. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask the curator of Eastman House, James Card, when and where it was made. He said that it had been made at MGM, in Hollywood, in 1927. 'In Hollywood, in 1927, at MGM?' I said. 'Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?'
--Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood
The past decade's pre-code discoveries have emphasized the fact that the film canon shifts constantly. Given a steady stream of classic movies, we look at old films with new eyes and wonder how past audiences missed their evident greatness. Those films in the vault--how do we know there isn't another Man's Castle, another Employee's Entrance in there? Film stock is finite. And The Wind, by the way, isn't on DVD.
The Siren has a waking nightmare that visits her sometimes as she tries to go to sleep, in which the only old movies to be found anywhere are on the AFI Top 100 list. She sees herself ten years from now, wanting to share One-Way Passage with her teenage twins. And she can't. It's off in a basement somewhere, turning to dust. Never mind, the special effects sucked. We can alway rent Casablanca again, right?