Home video boutique Twilight Time announced their forthcoming closure and going-out-of-business sale on May 10, marking the end of a nine-year run releasing limited edition Blu-rays of overlooked Hollywood and genre classics—films which had theretofore slipped through the cracks of similar labels more concerned with the stalwarts of the canon or other adventurous restorations. According to a press release, the closure is due to “a changing market, rising costs of title acquisitions and the passing of longtime partner and company spokesperson Nick Redman,” who ran Twilight Time with Brian Jamieson. Since 2011, Twilight Time has released 380 discs, each one packaged as a sort of cult item limited to 3,000 copies per title, designed with the degree of care befitting a customer base of physical media enthusiasts. Within days of the announcement, much of the online selection had already been picked over.
The catalogue was expansive, a home for the unitalicized titles of Andrew Sarris’s Pantheon directors, and a deep well of the rest: Fuller, Preminger, Dwan, Mankiewicz, to list but a few; the names go on and on. Which is not to say their collection began and ended with The American Cinema—they also released underseen classics, such as Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, as well as a host of genre films, oddities and works from some of the most noteworthy filmmakers of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Twilight Time’s online store is open through July 1st, but at this point, frankly, there is nothing to recommend in the way of purchasing. The shelves have been rightfully raided. (Perhaps they’re still worth checking; you very well might enjoy the scraps that remain.) Regardless, they made several great films readily accessible, most of which would otherwise have been impossible to find in any sort of respectable quality, and that is no small feat. There is not exactly a line out the door to release handsomely restored films of this ilk on home video in this day and age.
The best I can do under present circumstances is bring to the fore some of their releases I’ve recently enjoyed. The following three films are currently accessible for home viewing in varying degrees, but they are, all the same, ones I recommend tracking down in whatever fashion you fancy. I do not mean to suggest that these are the label’s three very best releases; rather, they are three very good ones, among a vast trove of spoils, which I recently encountered and wished to further consider—viewings I owe to the efforts of Twilight Time’s employees.
Director: Carl Franklin
Stars: Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Terry Kinney, Tom Sizemore, Don Cheadle
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Runtime: 101 minutes
A smoky, 1940s-set noir in which down-on-his-luck Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) stumbles into the hidden controversies of the Los Angeles mayoral race, Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress is the sort of sultry, confident film the world could use a little more of these days. A transplant from Houston, Easy sets out on a vague PI quest to track down Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), wearer of the titular gown and runaway sweetheart of mayoral candidate Todd Carter (Terry Kinney). DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore, with a pencil-thin mustache) would go searching himself, but Daphne frequents all-Black night clubs, and he needs someone who knows where to look. Eventually, Easy finds himself helplessly pulled into the cloaked machinations of the white political establishment and witnesses firsthand its callous disregard for human life.
Franklin and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto assure us we’re in good hands from the first frame: Opening credits roll as the camera drifts among the various interactions of Archibald Motley’s vibrant street-life painting “Bronzeville at Night” (1949). Motley was part of the Chicago Black Renaissance of the early-to-mid 20th century, and his paintings, spiritual siblings to the concurrent jazz boom, depicted largely Black communal spaces with musical vivacity. This one in particular, paired with T-Bone Walker’s bluesy “Westside Baby,” shows a neighborhood scene abuzz with the multifarious happenings of a busy nighttime corner: crosswalks with hurried passersby and lollygaggers; a backgrounded fist fight; a blinds-up window revealing a naked woman in the lit apartment above a diner. Franklin then brings up the live-action bustle of an LA street—the painting come to life. Its jazz-infused character informs and blends into the rest of the film.
Once into the real world, the demarcation of white and Black spaces could not be clearer from the jump. Easy, home from World War II, lives in an idyllic all-Black neighborhood, where his only worry is the local landscaper cutting down his trees without permission. That, of course, stands in stark contrast to when, waiting for DeWitt, he attempts to tactfully avoid a pier-side conversation with a young white woman as her jilted date lingers not far behind.
Lines of division exist as much internally as externally: Easy uncovers that Daphne skipped town after a rival candidate threatened to out her to the public as half-Creole, and in turn she’s attempted to silence her blackmailer into a détente with some blackmailing of her own, securing pictures that prove this rival’s pedophilia. That these two facts would somehow suggest an even scale is a damning depiction of the self-corrupting cowardice of whiteness as a construct. In a turn that recalls the ultimate expression of this sort of malignant self-delusion—the Sutpen family in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—Todd reveals he can’t face the public with a mixed-race woman as the city’s first lady, even if she appears to pass as white, thus denying himself love and family and confirming a vile deep-seated hatred within. As he breaks Daphne’s heart in front of Easy, he tries to assure Easy their romance is a victim of circumstance and he does in fact love her. A hollow statement in which nothing but a kernel of shame rattles around.
The film is full of such heartbreak and longing, of thousand-yard stares and cigarette smoke curling before beautiful faces. In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Franklin noted he and Fujimoto modeled the look and feel after Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). The film rings with its classical noir inspiration, but also boasts a pre-code brashness and boozy, lustful nocturnal haze, alive with the spirit of Motley’s painting. When first looking for Daphne, Easy prolongs a whiskey-fueled night out by having sex with his friend’s lover in the couple’s apartment; said buddy, drunk and asleep in the next room, snores in blissful ignorance. This brashness is most apparent with the mid-film arrival of the trigger-happy Mouse (Don Cheadle, in his star-turning role), Easy’s visiting friend from Texas, who quickly racks up a carefree body count and leaves Easy wondering if you can keep friends “who do real bad things.” To that, a churchgoing elder responds, “All you’ve got is your friends.”
Franklin, who started his career under the tutelage of Roger Corman, directed Washington again in the agreeable cop thriller Out of Time (2003) but has since stuck primarily to television, helming episodes of just about every major series from the last 10 years. His lone feature since then, Bless Me, Ultima (2013), an adaptation of its namesake novel by Rudolfo Ananya, passed by largely without a stir. We can, of course, only hope for more original work to come, but until then there is always Devil in a Blue Dress: bluesy and sexy, lonely and full of secrets.
Director: John Gilling
Stars: Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Kerwin Matthews, Andrew Keir
Genre: Action & Adventure
Runtime: 97 minutes
John Gilling’s The Pirates of Blood River is a work without self-seriousness, able to successfully straddle the expectations of two sorts of genre films without meeting the defining characteristics of either. It’s neither a typical Hammer horror film, as noted in the Blu ray’s liner notes by Julie Kirgo, nor a sophisticated Curtiz-esque swashbuckling grand adventure (the shoestring budget did not even allow for a ship). A product of British studio Hammer Film Productions, best known for the campy, richly-colored horror films it produced from the 1950s through the ’70s, The Pirates of Blood River retains several key players from studio cash cows The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (or, Horror of Dracula)—namely Dracula himself, Christopher Lee. Here Lee is Captain LaRoche, a pirate of flamboyant taste and ever-shifting principles, who has his sights set on the gold of a remote Huguenot-settled island, the Isle of Devon. Devon’s once-favorite son, Jonathan (Kerwin Mathews), is sent by the corrupted religious order to a labor camp on a nearby island for the sin of adultery, where he escapes and falls in with LaRoche’s company. Unaware of the gold’s existence, he promises to lead LaRoche to Devon if he can help him restore just rule.
Its Hammer chops are not to be entirely dismissed. The opening scene, in which Jonathan is spotted in his affair with a married woman, leads to a chase worthy of the studio’s horror-house label. Running from angry villagers, the two head through the woods to the bay’s shore; the woman plunges in to escape her captors and meets a demise via chirping, flesh-eating fish, while chalky red blood swirls around her. As for piracy, neither LaRoche nor Jonathan are of Fairbanks/Flynn stock—LaRoche thankfully more sinister, and Jonathan for the most part less acrobatic. The air of concealed aristocratic excellence from the likes of The Black Pirate (1926) and Captain Blood (1935) is absent here, though its heroes do not hesitate to over-explicate every symbol in sight.
Such Flynn-like hubris, though reasonably tied to those swashbucklers’ sense of adventure, is not missed in this context. Instead, The Pirates of Blood River relies on an enjoyably silly sort of malevolence, a campy bluntness that plays itself out in patient scenes which frankly reveal more understanding of space and tension than those of many more-polished piratical classics—none better than one depicting pirate infighting over the rights to Jonathan’s unwilling sister. Feasting in the commandeered church, two pirates, one of whom is played by a young and brutish Oliver Reed, agree to a ritualistic battle to settle the score. Donning blindfolds, they are spun in circles and left to hack away at each other in blindness. As they slowly stalk around the room, feeling out for each other and savagely swinging at tables and beams, the interplay of space, sensory alteration and physical force produces an exhilarating effect.
Year: Jean Renoir
Stars: Walter Brennan, Anne Baxter, Walter Huston, Dana Andrews
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Runtime: 88 minutes
One of Twilight Time’s first 15 releases, Renoir’s follow-up to his masterpiece The Rules of the Game (1939) was mired in issues of creative control, and by all accounts is equally the spawn of producer Daryl F. Zanuck, who vigilantly oversaw the script and production and edited the film himself. The dire straits in which Renoir found himself, caught with flapping sales between the combative gusts of his own artistic vision and studio meddling, are not unique to Swamp Water—one year later Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons would be famously butchered—but, like Ambersons, its voice persists through interference.
Swamp Water, set in and around Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, follows the unlikely alliance of modest country boy fur-trapper Ben (Dana Andrews) and wrongfully convicted fugitive Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), who has found sanctuary in the deep, uncharted marshes of the swamp, resigned to a life of exile and isolation having been framed for murder. The two start a trapping enterprise, which sees Ben give Keefer’s secret share back home to his flustered, frizzy-haired daughter, Julie (Anne Baxter), with whom Ben eventually falls in love.
Notable for its depiction of the beautiful moss-drooped, cottonmouth-infested Okefenokee, the film found an advocate in none other than Jean-Luc Godard, who believed that its on-location shooting of the Georgia swamps without a soundstage “revolutionized Hollywood”—a claim of questionable veracity, as the only cast member to make the trip down South with Renoir was Andrews, according to a 1982 story from The Georgia Review by Alexander Sesonske. The few on-location shots consist of exteriors and images of Andrews polling a raft through the water, while the rest was filmed in studio. Its on-location swamp shooting can, however, find precedence in King Vidor’s 1924 silent film Wild Oranges: Set in coastal Georgia and filmed in Northern Florida, it takes place among the swamplands that surround the ruins of a Southern mansion, manned by a senile Confederate veteran, his lonely daughter and a murderous brute holding the two hostage. Still, Godard is not entirely wrong in noting the especial qualities of Renoir’s location shooting: The only film I’ve seen that matches the beauty of its sun-dappled, black-and-white shimmer of swamp water cinematography is Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story.
Regardless of its “revolutionary” methods, Godard defended the film on its own merits, too. As quoted in Nicholas Macdonald’s In Search of La Grande Illusion, Godard said, “If The Rules of the Game was not understood in its time, it was because it burned, destroyed, The Crime of M. Lange. And Swamp Water because it consumed in its turn The Rules of the Game.” Perhaps this comment is more reflective of Godard’s propensity to stir the pot than anything else, but it is true that Swamp Water marked a new course for Renoir. With the abrasive response to The Rules of the Game and the culmination of unrest in Europe in his rearview, much of his work in the US sought to show “countryfolk in an excellent light,” as detailed in The Georgia Review. In a letter to French painter Albert André, Renoir writes, with occasionally indelicate verbiage, of his scouting trip to Georgia:
“I have just come back from Georgia. It is on the other side of America and in the South… It is an old country, very primitive with peasants who remind me of the inhabitants of very isolated corners in Brittany. …A land where nature is at the same time soft and hostile. …Down there, in Georgia, the families have no idea of leaving their wooden farmhouses. The tree which shades the porch has been planted by some ancestor. There are peaceful conversations while swaying on the swing hung by ropes from the beams of the flat roof. …Certain areas swarm with Blacks. There are wonderful songs, and I hope to return there to attend some religious ceremonies, quite remarkable it seems, from a musical point of view.”
Dudley Nichols’s script for Swamp Water did not quite call for such an idealized paean to the molasses life of rural Georgia homesteaders and the Black church. Instead, it contained much of the bitterness and tenderness which flip so easily in the South, though race is a conspicuously absent factor here. Renoir would later explore countrified idealism in his Texas-set The Southerner (1945), a more fully realized film with greater authenticity and specificity, its Southern dialect honed by the pen of William Faulkner and its results championed by James Agee. Swamp Water seems to be the forgotten cousin, and it is certainly the nastier, messier and more violent of the two—ironically more Faulknerian. Its relationship to nature in the rural South suggests something more wild, corruptive and all-consuming than The Southerner’s depiction of the battle between a farmer’s mastery of his land and the whims of God’s fury upon his crop.
Renoir’s intended regional romanticism expresses itself in other ways, namely the supernatural role of the swamp, presented at once as an undisturbed Eden and a dense, uninhabitable bog of natural horrors. To enter alone is to confront certain death, a fact that establishes Keefer’s ability to survive as a function of his saintly character, as if under divine protection. In a biography of Brennan, Carl Rollyson notes the swamp acts as a “sacrosanct domain” that damns the wicked; similarly, it appears to protect the righteous. But, aside from the already-saved Keefer, characters cannot be sure of their celestial fate in this fallen world, and to enter the swamp is to invite The Almighty to take an early look at his ledger. Bewaring the existential risk, Ben’s father, played by Walter Huston, rages into fits of fury when Ben first makes known his intentions to journey solo through the Okefenokee in search of his lost dog, Trouble. In some ways this portrayal of the swamp seems to provide the link between the sharp fatalism of works like Toni (1935) and The Rules of the Game and the perseverance of human spirit found in The Southerner. Straddling these two modes, Swamp Water is full of anger, moral frustration and warped community values, but also loving cultural observation, such as a dancehall scene which shows both sides of that coin, enjoying a share of country frivolity before devolving into a mess of romantic squabbles and violence over Ben’s ex flame.
Renoir would never expound upon his fascination with Black life in the South. Though, again, his topical interest in the American experience aligned with Vidor’s. For a white perspective on Black religion and music in the region, there is Vidor’s 1929 Hallelujah, shot on location in Tennessee and Arkansas. One of the first Hollywood films with an all-Black cast, it is full of sincere and rousing human drama to do with the war between the needs of body and soul, yet it has also been criticized for the stereotypes it perpetuates.
Though peppered with indelible touches of his artistry, much of Renoir’s vision for Swamp Water never came to exact fruition. According to Sesonske, after coming to blows regarding the climax, Zanuck ignored Renoir’s idea for revision and brought the scene to another director with rewrites. The scene works well enough on a visceral level, but there is no telling how much better it could have looked with an unrestrained Renoir at the helm. Buoyed by strong performances from Andrews, Baxter, Brennan and Huston, the film was able to hold onto its down-home charm amid the messy production hierarchy. Andrews in particular plays well off moments of legitimate passion, whether responding to frazzled romance with Baxter or vulnerable reconciliation with Huston. That Renoir’s full expression is frequently blocked is unfortunate but far from a deal breaker—the location cinematography and elaborate shots that do remain, or the snippets of them, are remarkable, not to mention his work with the actors. Here it is fitting to borrow a line from Nick Pinkerton in his recent Film Comment essay on Vidor, in which he responds to an Andrew Sarris assessment on the abundance of great moments yet dearth of great films in Vidor’s career: “To those of us for whom the fragment is the quintessence of the medium, however, this is little demerit.” And what fragments Swamp Water contains.
Zanuck’s editing, serviceable and coherent as it is—with its elegant touch of a “Red River Valley” refrain—often diminishes the graceful fluidity of Renoir’s camera, but certain unobstructed moments light an inextinguishable flame, such as the lingering shot after Ben and Julie first kiss, when, just after Ben exits, Julie dances across the room. Likewise the film’s drifting opening image of a skull mounted upon a moss-draped cross is unforgettable, recalling the sort of mystical Southern Gothic imagery found in the photography of Clarence John Laughlin. These are fragments of lasting impact; they add weight to the ethereal moments of Nichols’s script, which otherwise might play flat—as when Keefer, by crackling campfire light, tells Ben, “I hear stars is other worlds too. Big rafts shining in the ocean of God’s night. …Livin’ in this swamp is just like livin’ on another star.” Swamp Water is a film realized in flourishes: the framework of a good film with flashes of a great one. Such flashes are interspersed like those stars against the black canvas of night, when an ordinary backwoods dressing is suddenly overcome with the sublime.
Daniel Christian is a writer and filmmaker based in Columbia, Missouri. In addition to Paste, he has written for Filmmaker Magazine and No Film School. You can follow him on Twitter.