Media : Armchair Cinephile 

Night of the auteur

Squalor, self-pity, sexual tension. And, above all, sweat — welcome to the world of Tennessee Williams, the playwright and sometime screenwriter who provided some of the plummest roles for a generation of young actors and invented an image of the American South that the region has yet to live down.

The Tennessee Williams Film Collection (Warner), gathers the most famous films made from the author’s plays and novels, offering two previously released films (A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) in improved video transfers, alongside four less-famous titles that are being released on DVD for the first time. Of the newly released films, two — The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Sweet Bird of Youth — stand understandably in the shadow of their siblings; another, John Huston’s Night of the Hunter, has more than enough auteur and star power to ensure its celebrity.

Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll also seems ripe for rediscovery. A nasty and bitterly funny piece of work, it offers Karl Malden as a man who married a girl too young for him; having agreed to restrain his lust until she was “ready for marriage,” he allows Carroll Baker to stay in her own room — where she sleeps curled up in a baby’s crib, sucking her thumb like a toddler. Malden gets in trouble with a Sicilian played by Eli Wallach, and before you can say Cape Fear, the villain (or is he the hero?) is seducing Malden’s maiden bride. That’s the kind of stuff audiences got from Tennessee Williams. The perversity may have been diluted a bit on its way from stage to screen, but enough remained to keep things interesting.

Warner’s strategy of pairing a filmmaker’s classics with less-known work appeals to other studios as well. Often, it’s a way to sell titles that wouldn’t move otherwise: In Fox’s Robert Altman Collection, for instance, a trio of the director’s largely forgotten works ride the coattails of M*A*S*H. There are some real curiosities in there, though, like Paul Newman as an Ice Age gambler in the sci-fi (!) Quintet. Meanwhile, MGM really, really hopes that this focus on Altman will seep over to their release of his reviled O.C. and Stiggs.

In the best cases, tossing in unknown work yields very pleasant surprises. Happy is the casual Peckinpah fan, for instance, who bought Sam Peckinpah’s Legendary Western Collection (Warner) for The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, only to discover his early work, the elegiac Ride the High Country, in which aging cowboy icons Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea seem to be saying goodbye to an era of Westerns that is about to die, largely at their director’s hand. Near the other end of his career, Hen’s Tooth Video offers Peckinpah’s sole World War II film, Cross of Iron, in which Pat Garrett himself (James Coburn, that is) commands German soldiers on the Russian front.

Sometimes, devotion to an auteur requires not the collection of many different tales but of different looks at the same one. Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) exists in at least eight different forms, ranging from radio plays and a book to a released version of the film that has never satisfied Welles fans. As sometimes happens in Orson’s oeuvre, alternate edits floated around for decades, with some of the most dubious-looking video releases offering cuts that scholars think were closer to the director’s intent. The meticulous folk at Criterion have gathered it all together, presenting the existing material along with a new “comprehensive version” that aims to synthesize the best of it all. Welles (whose film, after all, is about an eccentric billionaire who hires someone to piece together his own life’s story) is surely chuckling in his grave in appreciation.

Finally, it’s not a box set or a fancy-pants collector’s edition, but connoisseurs of contemporary auteurs will jump for joy at the long-requested arrival of Delicatessen, the movie that brought Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet to Stateside fame in the early ’90s. A thoroughly charming tale about cannibalism, the movie wowed audiences with Jeunet’s now-signature visual style and obsession with unusual faces. It’s a high point in his short career — one that surely, in 30 years, will entice fans to buy a box set pairing Delicatessen with the justly forgotten Alien: Resurrection.


More by John DeFore

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