LA HABANERA (KINO VIDEO)

A SCANDAL IN PARIS (KINO VIDEO)

There are certain directors who, ignored during their lifetime, are regarded with deep and abiding reverence long after their demise. Every frame of film they ever shot is intensely scrutinized, analyzed, discussed ad nauseum, and worshipped by cinema buffs world-wide. And most of them I just don't get. I don't get Nicholas Ray or Samuel Fuller, who each made one near-great film apiece (IN A LONELY PLACE and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET respectively) and that's all, brother. And I certainly don't get Andre De Toth, all of whose films (with the exception of HOUSE OF WAX, which he had next to nothing to do with) deservedly sank without a trace. And I never could fathom the sky-high level of contemporary critical adulation and admiration for the Douglas Sirk's fifties Universal-International weepers, which always seemed to me to be handsomely produced and proficiently done programmers ground out to appeal to a not overly sophisticated feminine trade.

While Kino Video's recent release on dvd of two of Sirk's earlier works, LA HABANERA (1937) and A SCANDAL IN PARIS (1946) hasn't changed my mind about his later career output, I have to say, much to my astonishment, that both of these films are truly captivating revelations. 

While LA HABANERA's storyline (a woman, desperate to escape the "cold Swedish minds" of her homeland, falls under the enchanting spell of the Caribbean love serenade La Habenera and into the arms of a Puerto Rican land baron who isn't what he seems.) bears certain noticeable similarities to the florid plots of Sirk's later potboilers, it seems to me that, even though this film was shot during the increasingly restrictive early days of the Nazi hierachy, Sirk's direction is so much fresher and more vital and assured than it would become in his Universal years. I'm surprised that Universal didn't purchase the remake rights to LA HABANERA. I can see this as a glossy, Americanized (and vulgarized) fifties remake for the likes of, say, Rock Hudson, Lana Turner and Jeff Chandler, directed, of course, by Sirk. But no way would it be as fascinating as the one, the only, the original LA HABANERA.                                             

Kino Video has included a notation on the back of the dvd box which says the following: "Due to the condition of the surviving film elements, there is some pronounced grain and shakiness in the picture quality of this release." Don't let Kino's overly conscientious warning discourage you-- this is, in both picture and sound quality, a much better than average full screen black and white transfer, and the subtitles for this German lanquage film are clear and concise.

While A SCANDAL IN PARIS is one of Sirk's first films after emigrating to America, it bears a distinctively European sensibility, and is, unfortunately, quite unlike anything Sirk subsequently directed. Who would have thought that Sirk would be capable of handling this potentially heavy-handed and predictable story about the romantic and criminal pursuits of the debonair thief Francois Eugene Vidocq (George Sanders) with the lightness and cheeky naughtiness that one associates with the likes of the great Julien Duvivier, Rene Clair, or Max Ophuls? But the surprising fact is that Sirk is more than up to the job, aided by a polished production, exceedingly graceful photography, and fine work by a wise and witty cast, including the irreplaceable Sanders, Signe Hasso, Carole Landis, Akim Tamiroff and Gene Lockhart. 

Considering the fact that A SCANDAL IN PARIS has been a scandalously forgotten and rarely seen film, I'm virtually dumbfounded at the relatively excellent shape of this full screen black and white transfer which has a much better than average grey scale and a surprisingly crisp image. The mono sound has far less hiss and distortion than one would expect from a film of this age and comparative obscurity.                        

This is probably a controversial statement to make, but based on the excellence of both LA HABANERA and A SCANDAL IN PARIS, I now believe that the undeniably considerable directorial talent of Douglas Sirk was ultimately compromised, obscured, blunted, and in fact buried by the cookie-cutter dream factory that was Universal-International of the 50's. 

--DICK DINMAN

 

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