Movies Till Dawn: Siren Calls

The Letter” (1940, Warner Archives Collection) That Bette Davis, the wife of a rubber plantation owner in British Malaya, was justified in shooting the man who attempted to assault her, is accepted without question by the area’s white/wealthy community, and vigorously defended by Davis and her lawyer (James Stephenson) – but then there is the letter, which tells a different story about that night, and which may ruin Davis and anyone connected to her. Gorgeously photographed noir/melodrama and which reunited Davis with director William Wyler, who had helped to earn her a second Oscar with 1938’s “Jezebel.” She was nominated again for her work here, which requires her to be sympathetic, alluring and icy-veined, often within the same scene, and she’s well supported by Stephenson, Herbert Marshall (her husband), and Gale Sondergaard (in yellowface) as the letter’s owner. Overtones of racial and social divide and adultery in the source material – Somerset Maugham’s play – were removed or replaced by the Production Code, but the film remains exceptionally dark and doomstruck, both thematically and visually, thanks to Wyler and Tony Gaudio‘s camerawork (especially the long, sinuous opening shot, which tells you everything you need to know about the film). Warner’s remastered Blu-ray includes an alternate ending and two radio adaptations with Davis and Marshall reprising their roles.

Thanks to Warner Archives Collection for providing this Blu-ray for review gratis.

Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different” (2017, MVD Visual) A different but no less compelling Ms. Davis is at the heart of this documentary, which details in elliptical terms the brief but ferocious and influential career of the eponymous singer-songwriter. Betty Davis released just four albums and a handful of singles, none of which had much impact on the charts, but earned a devoted following among musicians, crate diggers and ’70s soul-funk devotees for her boldly sexual stage persona and close relationships with major African-American musicians of the period, most notably Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and her one-time husband, Miles Davis, whose move to funkier waters in the early ’70s has been credited largely to Davis. Those connections weren’t enough to keep her music career afloat beyond 1979, and Davis essentially faded into obscurity until director Philip Cox tracked her down in Philadelphia. He apparently earned enough of her trust to garner partial participation – Davis is only glimpsed from the back, and her words are partially narrated by an actor – so the majority of her story is told through archival footage and photos and testimony from collaborators and admirers. These include Family Stone bandmates Greg Errico and Larry Graham, critics like Oliver Wang and many others, and the impression one gets from these talking head moments is that Davis’s free-thinker status resulted in great music but also robbed her of the chance for mainstream success. “Different” is far too brief (under an hour) to make a significant impact, but if it turns a few viewers onto Davis’s music, Cox has done some good. MVD’s DVD includes a brief interview with Davis and a slightly longer one with Cox.

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” (1978, Cohen Media Group) Desperate to pull his wife (Carole Laure) out of her depression, Gerard Depardieu believes that the solution is to find her a lover, and enlists both acquaintances (neighbor Michel Serrault) and strangers (Patrick Dewaere) for the job they lose out to a socially awkward 13-year-old (Riton). Oscar-winning feature by Bertrand Blier – who made stars of Depardieu and Dewaere with 1974’s “Going Places” – is a curious mix of broad, racy comedy and more fine-grained parody of masculine identity in the face of female desire; the tonal balancing act is handled with deftness, but the relationship between Laure and Riton has not aged well, and may undo Blier’s soufflé for many viewers. Cohen’s Blu-ray includes a brief intro by film programmer Richard Pena and a re-release trailer.

Viy” (1967, Severin Films) Pressed into praying over a deceased young woman (Natalya Varley), a hapless seminary student (Leonid Kuravlyov) discovers that she is not only alive but an evil (and energetic) witch, and must rely on his shaky faith to ward off a host of monsters and spirits she calls up over three consecutive nights. A rare example of horror from Soviet-era Russia, “Viy” initially takes a comic approach to its source material (a story by Nikolai Gogol), especially in scenes involving the student and an amorous crone; the remainder, however, hovers somewhere between Ray Harryhausen‘s visual effects showcases and the full-on demonic assault in “Evil Dead 2,” as an increasingly nightmarish supernatural parade culminates in the troll-like Viy (pronounced “vee”). As pure surreal spectacle, it’s hard to beat, even if the special effects (supervised by pioneering Russian fantasy filmmaker Aleksandr Ptushko) may seem primitive by today’s standards to CGI-saturated viewers. Severin’s Blu-ray includes three short, silent-era Russian films with supernatural themes, a video essay on Soviet fantasy and a spirited argument for “Viy” as a vampire story by filmmaker Richard Stanley.

The Siren” (2019, Dark Sky Films) Two men – one mute (Evan Dumouchel) and adrift after distancing himself from his religious family, the other (MacLeod Andrews) seeking revenge for his murdered husband – are drawn to a remote lake, where a troubled young woman (Margaret Ying Drake) who never seems to leave the water is also pulled to both of them, albeit for very different and disquieting needs. Writer/director/DP Perry Blackshear‘s minimalist approach, which employs little dialogue and contemplative (or ominous) takes, proves more effective in generating an unsettling atmosphere fueled by fathomless longing and loneliness that most blood-fueled, bigger-budgeted genre efforts. Blackshear is featured on multiple extras on Dark Sky’s disc, including commentaries with his cast and a festival interview.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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