Elevator to the Gallows
After working as a cameraman and co-director for underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, Louis Malle made his self-assured feature film directorial debut with the gripping 1957 romantic thriller Elevator to the Gallows (Criterion, $40). The French filmmaker was all of 24 when he co-wrote the screenplay and directed this tale about the illicit love affair between a married woman (Jeanne Moreau) and the handsome ex-paratrooper (Maurice Ronet) who works for her much older, wealthy husband. After Ronet's Julien murders the husband in his office, he gets trapped in the building's elevator. Henri Decak provided the innovative black-and-white cinematography, and the evocative jazz score was composed and performed by Miles Davis.
The two-disc set offers informative archival and newer interviews with Malle, Ronet and Moreau; rare footage of Davis scoring the film; discussion of the score by jazz critic Gary Giddins and musician Jon Faddis; and a surreal short film Malle made in film school in 1954.
Guys and Dolls
This is the only musical comedy made by Oscar-winning writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz of All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives renown. Lavishly produced in 1955 by Samuel Goldwyn, this adaptation of the Frank Loesser Broadway hit based on the stories of Damon Runyon has a lot going for it -- the music is memorable, Michael Kidd's choreography is energetic and the cast is game. But there's a certain spark missing that would have transformed it from good to great. Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine (from the Broadway production) star. The widescreen deluxe edition includes passable featurettes on the genesis of the Broadway play and the film's production.
The sparse, languidly paced films of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, including L'Avventura and Blowup, don't appeal to everyone's tastes. But his dense, demanding films are must-sees for any genuine cineaste. The recent theatrical re-release of his 1975 thriller The Passenger (Sony, $25) was met with even stronger reviews than in its initial engagement. Jack Nicholson stars as a burned-out reporter attempting to cover freedom fighters in a North African country who changes identities with a man he had met at his hotel -- after the man dies suddenly of a heart attack. Maria Schneider plays a mysterious young woman Nicholson meets. The DVD includes thought-provoking commentary from Nicholson as well as an audio track with journalist Aurora Irvine and screenwriter Mark Peploe.
This strained romantic comedy stars Heath Ledger as the infamous Italian womanizer and Sienna Miller as the object of his affection. The digital edition includes featurettes on the challenges of shooting a film in Venice and the elaborate costumes. Unfortunately, director Lasse Hallstrom is as dull as dishwater in his commentary.
Robert Altman Collection
This four-disc set is a mixed bag. It includes the previously released 1970 antiwar comedy MASH, which put the iconoclastic American director on the map, and one of his weakest films, Quintet. The dour 1979 post-apocalyptic thriller starring Paul Newman is set in a futuristic ice age wasteland where survivors play a board game in which the winner murders the losers. Rounding out the collection are the overlong but enjoyable 1978 ensemble comedy-drama A Wedding and the underrated 1979 comedy A Perfect Couple, starring Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin. The three new-to-DVD titles include interviews with Altman as well as his actors and creative team.
Actor-turned-Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) tried his hand at psychological horror with Magic, a 1978 adaptation of William Goldman's best-selling novel about a shy young magician (Anthony Hopkins) who becomes a sensation when he adds a foul-mouthed dummy named Fats to his act. However, Fats soon takes over the magician's psyche, which leads to madness and murder. Hopkins is quite good as the timid ventriloquist-magician, but the film suffers with the addition of an awkward subplot involving an unhappily married woman (Ann-Margret).
The DVD has a creepy documentary on ventriloquism, an interview with cinematographer Victor Kemper, vintage TV and audio interviews with Hopkins and Ann-Margret's camera test.
Rollicking, Emmy-nominated 1982 Masterpiece Theatre six-part series set in the silent movie era. Bob Hoskins stars as a Cockney hustler who wants to make "flickers." Frances de la Tour is a plain-Jane spinster who agrees to finance his films if he'll marry her.
American Dad, Vol. 1
Seth McFarland's irreverent Fox animated comedy series about an overly alert CIA operative, his wife, two children, an alcoholic space alien and a fish that talks in a German accent. The three-disc set features ribald commentary on 12 episodes from various writers and producers -- and comes with the warning that the commentary is geared for 18 and older.