By Bill Hawk

Toho, 1952, B&W, 143 mins.- Criterion DVD

Takashi Shimura: "How truly beautiful. In the last 30 years, I'd all but forgotten about sunsets."

When you're facing your own personal sunset, you start to notice the little things. You might even wake up to the fact that you've been trudging through life like a zombie for so long that you're in one seriously deep rut. For Shimura, a government functionary whose job consists of rubber-stamping reams of meaningless paperwork, the news of a fatal illness prompts a painful re-examination of his life. Alienated from his family and disgusted by his work,

he starts looking for something that will allow him- in the literal translation of the film's title- "To live." Ultimately, he finds fulfillment by making a difference in peoples' lives, championing a stalled civic improvement project. In a display of physical and spiritual strength, even as his very life ebbs away, he confronts politicians and gangsters and the labyrinthine bureaucracy to achieve his goal. Later, at his wake, his coworkers- with the aid of plenty of sake- come to a full realization of what he's done, and vow to keep his crusading spirit alive. But that is easier said than done.

Regarded as one of director Akira Kurosawa's finest works, this meditation on life and death balances an optimism about individual effort against a pessimism about society as a whole. The story's conclusions aren't especially profound and it does run on a bit, but the artistry involved is undeniable, and the film does have a cumulative power- the final image of Shimura is not something that you will soon forget. Extras on this two-disc set include audio commentary and documentaries. Recommended for serious film buffs.


Fox, 1974, Color, 106 mins.- Fox Spec. Ed. DVD

Gene Wilder: "From what was once an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I now present a cultured, sophisticated man-about-town."

Yup, it's a "Hand-made" Frankenstein job as you've never seen one before, doing a song-and-dance number with his creator. It's all part of a presentation by the latest Dr. F. to introduce the re-animated chap, played by Peter Boyle, to polite scientific society- and of course, it all ends in a very impolite manner. Successful surgeon Wilder was once embarrassed by his notorious ancestor, but when he discovers that he has inherited the family castle, he can't resist a trip to Transylvania to look the place over. Joined by pop-eyed hunchback sidekick Marty Feldman and dishy lab assistant Teri Garr, Wilder penetrates the secrets of the old homestead, and treads in his forebear's footsteps. And you know what that means- soon, there's a hulking, ugly, maladjusted fellow stomping around and dredging up all sorts of unpleasant memories for the local villagers. Once again, something has gone wrong with the experiment, and Wilder must set things right- whatever the cost.

This affectionate parody, cowritten by Wilder and director Mel Brooks, mines the rich vein of classic Universal Frankenstein pictures and delivers countless nuggets of humor......and if you think that sentence is corny, wait until you see some of the gags in this picture. Subtlety is not its strong suit, and that's a good thing- even if you're not very familiar with the films that inspired this story, you'll still find plenty to laugh at. Disc extras include audio commentary by Brooks, a documentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, and stills- all of which confirm that the people involved had a blast making this thing.


Universal, 1942, B&W, 108 mins.- Universal DVD

Teresa Wright: "I know you. I know that you don't tell people a lot of things. I don't either. I have a feeling that inside you somewhere there's something nobody knows about."

Small-town girl Wright looks to her beloved big-city uncle, Joseph Cotten, for a little excitement- and boy does she get it. For Cotten's visit to quiet Santa Rosa, California is occasioned less by a desire to see his relatives than a desire to elude the police, who suspect him of being the notorious "Merry Widow Murderer." Cotten settles into the town like a wolf slipping into a flock of sheep, charming everybody- but Wright, with whom he shares a sort of telepathic connection, starts to see his bad side. Pursuing her suspicions forces Wright not only to confront Cotten, but to confront the darkness within herself- and it's a struggle that she might not survive......

Another top-notch item from Alfred Hitchcock, this little Good Versus Evil tale is enhanced by the contributions of playwright Thornton Wilder, who creates a sinister variation on his classic "Our Town." Wright's family and the other locals are good, honest folk- with a few quirks, like father Henry Travers and his pal Hume Cronyn's enthusiasm for tales and methods of murder. Cotten's interest in murder is not so academic, and when his pleasant mask slips, he reveals a rather nasty view of the world. But he is not entirely unsympathetic, which makes his conflict with Wright all the more interesting. If you're a suspense fan, this is a must-see. Extras on the disc include a documentary and photos.



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© Melt Magazine 2004