THE DVD SHELF: "Les Miserables," "Hands on a Hardbody," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Ministry of Fear" and More

By Steven Suskin
31 Mar 2013

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The Criterion Collection brings us two accomplished wartime films set in Great Britain. Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944) is a nifty Hollywood thriller filled with intrigue, based on a novel by Graham Greene. Guilt-ridden Ray Milland, released from an asylum where he has served a sentence for the mercy killing of his wife, stumbles into an espionage plot being carried out by a circle of undercover Nazis. Director Lang — who had escaped Germany in 1934 — pulls out all the directorial stops, filling the film with striking images, mysterious clues, and the like. An overbearing fortune teller; a mysterious cake filled with rationed eggs, which turns out to be for the birds; a blind beggar on a train who is — of course — not so blind; a spooky seance, with gunshots; a suspicious bookstore; a tell-tale, oversized pair of scissors; and a wildly surrealist dream sequence. "Ministry of Fear" is more or less on a level with two other recent Criterion Blu-rays, the original "Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Night Train to Munich." Milland is quite good here — he would take the Oscar the following year, for "The Lost Weekend" — and there is an especially creepy villain in Dan Duryea. So creepy that Lang used him as the heavy in his next two films, "The Woman in the Window" and "Scarlet Street."

The other Criterion offering is set in wartime — not only WWs II and I but the Boer War as well. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a chronicle of 40 years — 1902 through 1942 — seen through the life and career of British officer Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). Candy remains the same, as does his German cohort Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), but the world changes around them until they are little more than out-of-place dinosaurs. (Co-star Deborah Kerr accompanies them, playing three different-but-identical women over the course of time.) Director/writer/producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film is an acknowledged classic, although I must add that I appreciate it more than I like it. Perhaps it helps to be British as you watch the Empire fade away; or maybe you need to be of a certain age?

Along with the fine performances and sprightly score (by Allan Gray), the film is so color-filled that images positively leap off the screen. "Designed in Technicolor" reads Alfred Junge's credit, and we can understand how a film actually can be designed in Technicolor. This marks one of the many treats you can expect to find in "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp." The restoration by the Film Foundation — which is absolutely luscious in the Criterion Blu-ray — was spurred along by Martin Scorsese, who has dedicated a great part of his energies to film preservation. The special features on the Blu-ray include audio commentary with director Powell and Scorsese; a new video introduction by Scorsese; and a restoration demonstration from Scorsese.

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