Critics' Picks: New Dvds

`Third Man,' `Sansho' -- two magnificent movies

May 20, 2007|By Michael Sragow

THE THIRD MAN -- The Criterion Collection / $39.95.

SANSHO THE BAILIFF --The Criterion Collection / $39.95.

Definitive is a word that critics should delete from their vocabulary. But on Tuesday the Criterion Collection releases two great films in DVD editions that must be called definitive for their luster, excitement and completeness.

And the movies are magnificent.

Filmed on location in the partitioned Vienna of 1949, Carol Reed's The Third Man (with a script by Graham Greene) tells a thrillingly complex and volatile story of the pain and humor involved in the getting of wisdom, especially in the explosive middle of the 20th century. Joseph Cotten plays pulp writer Holly Martins, who starts out believing in the black-and-white morality of Wild West paperback novels; Orson Welles plays Martins' presumed-dead buddy Harry Lime, who fills Vienna's postwar power vacuum with his own brand of fascist criminality.

Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954) examines an 11th-century Japanese regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to death. The hero's statesman father, exiled because he shielded his peasants from a military draft, taught his son that "without mercy, a man is like a beast." When kidnappers separate the boy and his sister from their mother -- the children are sold into a slave camp, the mother into prostitution -- the boy can't hold onto his father's ideals.

Reed and Mizoguchi never descend to satirical potshots or to preachiness: They insist on the inviolacy of even fictional individuals. Because they do, movies that unfold in Viennese sewers and a Japanese slave camp never cease to open up new spaces in your heart and mind.

Special features

Each edition features interviews, documentaries and essays that illuminate the directors' literary intelligence and the balance of ingenuity and exacting virtuosity in their filmmaking. Mizoguchi, intent on physical as well as tragic authenticity, needed to know precisely what everything from a period vase to a slave-run estate looked like. Reed guided three separate units on real locations around the clock, and along the way invented such oft-imitated tricks as wetting down the Viennese streets at night so they'd give off a melancholy glow in the movie-lights.


VENUS --Miramax / $29.99

Venus is a bracingly unsentimental comedy about the persistence of desire, and how it vitalizes anyone who opens up to it or even just enters its orbit. The director, Roger Michell, and the screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi, pour an insatiable love for a surly, provincial young thing (Jodie Whittaker) into the vessel of an aging Don Juan and minor London stage star named Maurice Russell (Peter O'Toole). O'Toole is so marvelous -- quick-witted and lyrical -- that the film becomes a tribute to the British brotherhood of acting.

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