Thursday, June 14, 2012

New from Criterion: THE GOLD RUSH (1925), SHALLOW GRAVE (1995)

(US, 1925)

Charles Chaplin's 1925 masterpiece THE GOLD RUSH is treated to an expectedly exhaustive, extras-packed Criterion package, complete with two HD restorations:  the original (or as close to it as possible) 1925 silent version, and Chaplin's 1942 re-edit, with added descriptive narration and Chaplin reciting the characters' dialogue.  Chaplin wanted to revamp the film for the sound era and considered the 1942 cut the definitive edition.  At 72 minutes, the 1942 cut runs 17 minutes shorter than the 1925 version, due to some cuts, subplot alterations, the removal of the intertitles, alternate camera angles or different takes, and the fact that it's running at the standard sound speed instead of silent.  The 1925 version fell into the public domain in 1953 after Chaplin, then preoccupied with immigration battles with J. Edgar Hoover, resulting in a permanent move back to his native England, neglected to renew the copyright.  The 1925 version of THE GOLD RUSH has been available in various forms over the decades, in prints, VHS, and DVD editions ranging from OK to completely unwatchable, but the complete, original version, as it was released in 1925, became an essentially lost film.  That is, until enough surviving elements were found--largely from a private collector who had a print of it in his collection--and restoration gurus Kevin Brownlow and David Gill painstakingly restored it in 1993 to something very close to its original version.  That restoration is given an HD upgrade here.  It utilizes different sources and has numerous instances of skipped or missing frames and jumpy editing, but for a 88-year-old film long ago abandoned, it looks very good. 

As good as the 1925 cut looks, the 1942 version looks even better, with darker blacks and greater textural detail.  Call me a purist, but despite the 1942 cut being Chaplin's preferred version and it being the better of the two transfers here, I think it's the 1925 cut that holds up better.  I don't recall ever seeing the 1942 cut before now, though it has appeared on TCM.  When I saw THE GOLD RUSH in college, it was on VHS and I'm almost certain it was a pretty beat-up and incomplete print of the 1925 version.  While the 1942 cut was a concession to sound audiences at the time (the first sound films appeared in 1927 and had become the standard by early 1930, when only a few stray silents wandered into theaters before vanishing completely; Chaplin was the last silent holdout and didn't make an all-sound feature until 1940's THE GREAT DICTATOR, by which time he'd finally embraced the talkies), today it seems superfluous and pandering.  Silent comedy spoke for itself, and the comedy of THE GOLD RUSH is timeless:  the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe with spaghetti laces; the dance of the dinner rolls; the cabin dangling off the mountain; the complicated timing and choreography of the Lone Prospector (Chaplin), Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), and escaped fugitive Black Larson (Tom Murray) trying to close the doors of the cabin during a blizzard.  THE GOLD RUSH doesn't need Chaplin narrating and reciting dialogue synched to the characters' lip movements.  Just playing devil's advocate here, but is it possible that as the years went on, Chaplin preferred the 1942 cut simply because, due to the copyright lapse, it was the only version from which he and his family could profit?   Yes, he was an artist, but who doesn't like money?  Watching them back-to-back, the 1925 cut is clearly the superior version. Both were included on Warner's 2005 DVD, but this new Criterion set, on DVD and Blu-ray, must be considered the definitive home video edition, with numerous documentary featurettes, four trailers, a booklet with an essay by critic Luc Sante and a reprint of Andrew Sarris' Time review of the 1942 release, plus a commentary on the 1925 version by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. (Unrated, 1925 version: 89 mins/1942 version: 72 mins)

(UK, 1995)

I remember working at Blockbuster in the mid '90s and SHALLOW GRAVE being one of those offbeat gems that everyone on the staff loved.  Danny Boyle's debut feature also marked his first collaboration with producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge.  This team would go on to worldwide fame with 1996's TRAINSPOTTING, would work in together in various combinations on other projects, though the three haven't teamed since 2000's ill-fated THE BEACH.  It's probably been at least a decade since I last watched SHALLOW GRAVE, and it's held up quite well.  Memorable images and bits of quotable dialogue hit me like I just saw the film last week.  Boyle, already nearly 40 at the time, had done a lot of TV directing and shows a remarkable sense of style throughout.  The way the camera fluidly snakes through the large, spacious Edinburgh flat is almost hypnotic. Equal parts Hitchcock and BLOOD SIMPLE, with dashes of giallo and Dario Argento thrown in, the unrepentantly mean-spirited SHALLOW GRAVE is the twisted, dark-humored story of three thoroughly unlikable flatmates--doctor Juliet (Kerry Fox), accountant David (Christopher Eccleston), and tabloid hack Alex (Ewan McGregor, in his second film)--looking for a fourth roommate.  Cruelly dismissing everyone not up to their standards (most memorably Colin McCredie's much-abused Cameron), they finally settle on mysterious Hugo (Keith Allen), who claims to be a novelist and flashes huge wad of cash.  The next day, they find Hugo naked and dead from a drug overdose.  Under his bed is a suitcase full of cash.  Deciding to leave the cops out of it, they dismember Hugo's body and bury it in the titular spot in the woods.  Almost immediately, paranoia sets in among the three friends.  With the money in the equation, they no longer trust one another.  David stops going to work and moves to the attic, drilling holes in its floor so he can keep constant watch on his roommates, and two thugs (Peter Mullan, Leonard O'Malley) come looking for Hugo and the money, followed closely by the cops.  Terrific performances not just from the three leads, but even down to the smallest supporting roles, with the standouts being McCredie as the hapless Cameron, and Ken Stott's dry and subtly hilarious performance as the utterly incredulous Inspector McCall, who doesn't for one moment buy what these three smug roomies are trying to sell him.

SHALLOW GRAVE, made for the US equivalent of $2.5 million, looks absolutely brilliant on this Criterion Blu-ray edition.  Beautiful colors, crystal clarity, perfectly-defined imagery--this film has never looked as good as it does here.  As usual, it's filled with extensive supplementals:  two commentaries (one with Boyle, taken from a 2009 UK DVD release, and a new 2012 track with Macdonald and Hodge); new interviews with Fox, Eccleston, and McGregor (on his character: "He's a wanker, really");  a 1993 behind-the-scenes doc directed by Macdonald's brother Kevin, who went on to make THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND;  a 1992 video diary of the team trying to sell the script at the Edinburgh Film Festival; and an essay by film historian Philip Kemp.  In short, as is customary with the Criterion Collection, this is pretty much the last word on SHALLOW GRAVE, and the ultimate edition for fans of this smart, dazzlingly-shot thriller from the heyday of the 1990s indie explosion that's held on to become one of the top cult films of its era. (R, 93 mins)

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