Each month, the Paste staff brings you a look at the best new selections from the Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, The Criterion Collection has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here. In the meantime, because chances are you may be looking for something to give the discerning (raises pinkie) cinephile this month, find all of our Criterion picks here, and check out some of our top titles in November:
The Philadelphia Story
Director: George Cukor
If The Philadelphia Story seems clichéd, it might be because it was part of a string of movies that defined the rom-com rulebook 80 years ago. The formula set by classics like this, It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby should be immediately recognizable even for the casual filmgoer. We all know how this goes: Well-to-do, wisecracking characters begin by hating each other, then they’re forced to spend time together, then an “opposites attract” romance gradually builds between them.
After 77 years of copycats, what makes this Story still shine is its ever-fresh, snappy writing care of Philip Barry—who wrote the play on which the film is based on (credited screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart basically admitted he copy-pasted the play into screenplay form)—and the (mostly solid) performances from the three leads. Cary Grant, as the embittered ex-husband of a spoiled but headstrong socialite (Katherine Hepburn), has always been a natural at playing pompous-but-likable pricks, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Hepburn, who leveraged this role to perform quite an impressive career comeback, was born to play Tracy Lord. Jimmy Stewart, though: As the plucky but sensual romantic, he seems weirdly miscast—an opinion with which Stewart apparently agreed. Still: As fun and breezy an experience The Philadelphia Story is, it’s tough to watch a film that continuously attempts to extract chuckles out of women being groped and beaten. Consider this your trigger warning, I guess
Criterion’s 1080p transfer is crisp and beautiful, finding a perfect balance between some healthy grain and taking full advantage of digital HD video. The edition’s extras, complete with two new documentaries about the making of the film, are bountiful, especially the highlight of its inclusion of two in-depth interviews with Hepburn from the 1970s. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam isn’t traditionally known as a gross-out filmmaker, and in the grand scheme of things, his first solo directorial effort isn’t especially gross. All the same, you may feel your stomach turn as you watch Jabberwocky on Criterion’s splendid 4K restoration, if not for its gore, its grime, and its garbage, then for its overwhelmingly dismal tone. Jabberwocky is every bit as wry and tongue-in-cheek as a Gilliam film should be, but his humor is buttressed by the depressing reality he constructs around his characters. Their world is a dark, filthy, despairing and altogether unpleasant thing to behold (which is meant purely as a compliment to Gilliam’s delightfully wretched aesthetic sense). This is a movie about the dregs under siege by both the fantastical and the grounded. Rubbing our faces in the muck makes us appreciate the appearance of the monster of the title all the more.
The experience that drives Jabberwocky is the experience of failure. No surprise, that: Many of Gilliam’s films are about fated defeat, focused on protagonists who, try as they might can’t escape the lives of hardship in which institutions and systems have trapped them. (For best results, perhaps pair Jabberwocky with Brazil.) On rare occasions, his heroes prevail over those systems (as in The Fisher King). Jabberwocky turns out to be the rarest of Gilliam stories, however: His leading man, a befuddled and inept cooper named Dennis (Michael Palin), succeeds in an accidental quest to kill the Jabberwock and achieves every goal most of us might dream of if we were in his position—and yet his victory is a fiasco. He doesn’t get what he wants. He gets what someone else wants. Jabberwocky is Gilliam’s madcap masochism at its finest: Even when you win, you still lose. —Andy Crump
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Alain Delon is exquisitely pretty—as is the film built around him. They feed off one another, sustained on coolness as Platonic ideal. Cool is the entelechy that courses through both, it’s their souls, which are joined by an immaculately unimpressive studio apartment, a canary in the middle of it and a haze of smoke that metastasizes the unease permeating everything. If Le Samouraï is about an androidal hitman named Jef (Delon) who discovers the limits of control, then director Jean-Pierre Melville’s concerns are far beyond the endurance of Jef’s quiet, calculated death drive. Melville’s film works intuitively—it’s meticulously composed, alive with symmetry and undeniable competence, hitting beat after beat a viewer’s pleasure centers, like witnessing a well-oiled machine hum along breathlessly, or calmly staring at a smartly organized bookshelf. Coolness, after all, doesn’t need to be exciting, but it does need to be professional. As Kenji Fujishima wrote about the director:
This kind of professionalism is certainly something Jean-Pierre Melville knew well, especially later in his career. After three early films—La Silence de la Mer (1947), Les Enfants Terribles (1950) and When You Read This Letter (1953)—in which he brought a distinctly lyrical sensibility to more typically dramatic subjects, his 1955 heist film Bob le Flambeur signaled a crucial turn in his body of work. With one exception (1961 drama Léon Morin, Priest), noir tropes—cops and robbers, loyalty and betrayal—became prominent in his films from then on. Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxièeme Souffle (1966), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), his swan song Un Flic (1972) and even his World War II noir Army of Shadows (1969) featured similarly poker-faced criminals treating their heists like professional jobs, their survival dependent on them keeping emotion as close to their vests as possible, their belief systems expressed almost entirely by their actions. Le Samouraï’s Jef Costello fits squarely in that tradition; if anything, he’s Melville’s most extreme iteration. At least the characters in his other movies had each other to lean on. Jef, by contrast, is the loneliest of his lonely protagonists.
Melville wants to romanticize the notion of someone being really good at their job; whereas another director who wants the same, Steven Spielberg, dramatizes the inner lives of those who work those jobs, using the motions of their work however mundane to speak for the passion of what they were doing, Melville is all surface. And Le Samouraï is both a celebration of and an inquisition into what those surfaces reveal, as equally as the boundless depths of emotion they so beautifully obscure. —Dom Sinacola