PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Seventh Seal (A)
Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Criterion
Antonius Block, a blond and handsome, idealistic and death-haunted knight (played by Max Von Sydow) and Jons, his cynical, tough, life-embracing squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) are back from the 14th-century Crusades -- returning after 10 bloody, battle-torn years, only to discover their homeland, Sweden, in the throes of the Black Plague, social disintegration and religious hysteria.
Disillusioned and weary, the two wend their way though villages rife with plague, outlawry and witch hunts, to Block's castle and to this Swedish Odysseus' Penelope equivalent, waiting wife Karin (Inga Landgre). And along the way they pick up a band of fellow pilgrims: a troupe of traveling players including the sweet and lively clowns Jof and Mia (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson), their lecherous theater director Skat (Erik Strandmark), the bearish and volatile smith Plog (Ake Fridell) and his sluttish wife Lisa (Inga Gill), and, trailing and harassing them all, Raval (Bertil Anderberg), a vicious and amoral fallen seminarian, now a rapist and thief, whose hypocritical and false preachments helped send Block and Jons to the Crusades.
One other follows: Death (Bengt Ekerot), a stern-looking, bald and inescapable phantom in a black monk's robe, cowl (and scowl), who informs Block, after the knight awakens by the ocean, that his hour has come -- and then is temporarily put off by Block's canny suggestion that the two of them play an often-interrupted game of chess, for Block's life. While picking up other lives along the way, the game-loving Death is happy to oblige -- because, after all, in this ghastly terrain of epidemic, superstition, and torture, he rules.
As Block, the knightly philosopher and searcher, plays his evasive game with mortality, the world around him goes on -- sometimes sweet (Jof and Mia's lyrical hillside feast of milk and wild strawberries), sometimes savage -- as when a deluded and beautiful young witch (Maud Hansson) is bound and burned at the stake, or when Raval succumbs horrifically to the plague.
This quintessential Ingmar Bergman film, which -- along with his other major 1956-57 festival prize-winners, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries -- made his huge initial international reputation while also creating a new audience in the U.S. for art house cinema, The Seventh Seal has sometimes been derided for alleged pretensions and ever-dolorous Scandinavian gloom. That's hardly fair. Bergman, as he proved over and over again, was no Nordic flash in the pan. Indeed, his long string of triumphs as Sweden's preeminent theater director and as a prolific movie writer-director of often extraordinary ambition and achievement, puts him easily on any sensible short list of the great 20th-century dramatic/cinematic masters.
The Seventh Seal, a real classic, is no depressing, artsy, phonily serious, bloodless bore, as its detractors like to claim. They probably haven't watched it lately. Bergman's powerful and eloquent film has a lusty comic vein and a lyrical romanticism that constantly counterbalance its philosophical darkness, doom and gloom, just as Jons' pragmatism balances the knight's morbid meditations. And its ambitious literary qualities, its hints of authors like Strindberg, Camus and Lagerkvist, shouldn't be held against it. Bergman's dual strengths as writer and director are a large part of what makes him great, what gave him an edge throughout his career over fellow genius contemporaries who weren't as literarily gifted and needed writing collaborators. There is no truer cinematic auteur in the history of movies than Ingmar Bergman, and it's foolish to deny it.
The Seventh Seal was a deserved art house and critical hit, but it's also a real movie. We should remember that cinephile Bergman was a huge admirer of John Ford (the man who made westerns), calling Ford in the '50s and '60s the greatest living film director. Though it's sometimes hard to find traces of Ford in Bergman's work, they're plentiful here: the warrior and quest theme (The Soul Searchers), the Stagecoach/Wagonmaster-like traveling communities (and the Wagonmaster-ish theatrical troupe), the rowdy ensemble and barroom scenes, the spectacular landscapes, and even many of the rustic-sublime deep focus compositions -- like the famous shot at the end of Death and his victims dancing in black silhouette against a brilliant Fordian skyline, while below, in their covered wagon, the sweet clowns Jof and Mia watch with their little baby son Mikael, Jof's face rapt at his final vision.
We'll forget the suggestion of "Joseph and Mary" in the actors' names. A great artist and entertainer can be forgiven a little religious/dramatic philosophizing. Even a little soul searching. (In Swedish, with English subtitles. Extras: Introduction by Bergman, commentary by Peter Cowie, "Bergman's Island" documentary, interview with Max Von Sydow, tribute by Woody Allen, "Bergman 101," a video filmography by Cowie, booklet with Gary Giddins essay.
At the Death House Door (A-)
U.S.; Steve James, Peter Gilbert, 2009, Facets
From directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert, two of the main trio behind the documentary classic Hoop Dreams (which James directed), comes this moving, provocative and deeply convincing portrait of the anti-capital punishment crusade of longtime prison chaplain Carroll Pickett, who brought religious solace to innumerable Death Row convicts, and decided eventually that capital punishment was wrong and anti-Christian. Here, Pickett, James and Gilbert tell us why -- using as their main text the apparently unjust and mistaken execution of Carlos de Luna for a Texas murder confessed to by another.
Does one unjust public slaying invalidate capital punishment? Is it wrong, despite fervent advocacy by many social conservatives, who cite closure, and think anti-capital punishment liberals are softies and dupes?
Of course it's wrong -- and for one simple, obvious reason. (Never mind that hanging has proved a dubious deterrent ever since London's pickpockets went on plying their trade while watching fellow pickpockets swing on the Newgate gallows.) If you execute a Death Row prisoner, even one who was convicted in a fair trail, there's always the possibility, however small but genuine, that he or she was innocent, like Carlos de Luna -- and the injustice can then never be corrected. And, of course, scientific advances in DNA testing have proved that innocent people have been executed, and falsely remembered and execrated as murderers, a number of times in our criminal justice history.
It doesn't matter how many or few they are, or whether other scientific means might or might not exonerate others today. There is no excuse for killing the possibly innocent, in cold blood, no matter how many genuine monsters simultaneously meet a seemingly deserved fate. "Thou shalt not kill" cuts both ways, as James, Gilbert and Pickett admirably argue and prove.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Gary Cooper Warner Archive Bundle (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1933-50, Warner Archive
Gary Cooper -- the "Yup"-saying cowpoke of The Virginian, the pacifist World War I hero/killer of Sergeant York and the beleaguered lawman facing an implacable deadline in High Noon -- was a stunningly handsome, quiet, beguilingly modest-acting actor who virtually defines Hollywood super-stardom in the big-studio Golden Age.
The kind of actor born for the movies, he was a believable hero, a dream factory legend and a subtle under-actor who knew expertly just how to play to the camera. Here, Warner Archive offers, as a "bundle," without an actual box, six of Cooper's lesser seen, neglected but often fascinating vehicles, including three made in the early '30s, and three released in the postwar period. The directors include Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz and that largely ignored master of the "Method," Richard Boleslawski.
Every one of these films is interesting, two are genuine rediscoveries (One Sunday Afternoon, Operator 13) and some of them (Today We Live, Saratoga Trunk, Bright Leaf) are seriously underrated. As was, for much of his career, Coop. (Warner Archive films are available online through warnerarchive.com.)
Today We Live (A-)
U.S.; Howard Hawks, 1933
With Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Robert Young, Franchot Tone and Roscoe Karns. Co-written by William Faulkner, from his story Turnabout.
One Sunday Afternoon (B)
U.S.; Stephen Roberts, 1933
With Cooper, Fay Wray and Karns. Later remade by Raoul Walsh and Jimmy Cagney as Strawberry Blonde.
Operator 13 (A-)
U.S.; Richard Boleslawski, 1934
With Cooper, Marion Davies, Sidney Toler and the Mills Brothers.
Saratoga Trunk (A-)
U.S.; Sam Wood, 1946
With Ingrid Bergman, Flora Robson and Florence Bates.
Task Force (A-)
U.S.; Delmer Daves, 1949
With Cooper, Walter Brennan and Jane Wyatt.
Bright Leaf (A-)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1950
With Cooper, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Neal, Jack Carson and Donald Crisp.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Israel; Raphael Nadjari, 2007, Kino
A Jerusalem family is torn apart when the father disappears, a cataclysm that disrupts their lives and opens a chasm beneath their world. Subtle, mysterious and suggestive, this is another gem from the Israeli cinema's new generation. (In Hebrew, with English subtitles.)
The Hidden Fortress (A)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1958, Criterion
The great Akira Kurosawa action samurai epic, the movie whose storm-the-fortress plot helped inspire George Lucas' Star Wars and whose bickering peasants were morphed into C-3PO and R2-D2. One of the supreme adventure movies. With Toshiro Mifune as the gruff warrior (one of his best roles), Minoru Chiaki and Takashi Shimura. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Forbidden Games (A)
France; Rene Clement, 1951, Criterion
Clement's classic Oscar-winning (foreign language) anti-war film, set in World War II, about the two children (Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly), who create a private play graveyard, a world of their own that mirrors the horrors around them. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Ashes and Diamonds (A)
Poland; Andrzej Wajda, 1958, Criterion
The climax of Wajda's World War II trilogy, a dark and exciting portrayal of the Polish resistance, starring one of those legendary youth stars who died too young, Zbigniew Cybulski. (In Polish, with English subtitles.)
Richard III (A)
U.K.; Laurence Olivier, 1956, Criterion
Director-star Sir Laurence Olivier's delightfully hammy and overripe performance as the relentlessly evil and ambitious Richard III keys this vast, colorful epic adaptation of Shakespeare's play, a theatrical and film classic whose cast includes four knights. With Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Stanley Baker and Pamela Brown.