3 from Criterion: ‘TONI’, ‘BRUTE FORCE’ and ‘THE NAKED CITY’

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

The Criterion Collection is a boutique distributor that still gives life to physical media. Unlike major studios that are moving towards an all-digital landscape, Criterion and others like it, license properties so they can finally see the light of day on Blu-ray. 

As a subscriber to The Criterion Channel – which is basically TCM on cinephile steroids – and the owner of hundreds of physical releases on DVD and Blu-ray, I respect the work process that goes into curating and producing its collection — a declarative lead-in to discuss three new titles. 

One of them is a melodrama from a filmmaker before he would go on to cement his legacy with a pair of classics over the next four years. Plus, two of the film noir variety – one inside a prison, while the other takes to the streets of New York City. 

TONI (1935)

Not rated, 84 minutes.

Before Jean Renoir made the films GRAND ILLUSION and THE RULES OF THE GAME, he experimented with his skills for TONI. Renoir wanted to get away from the studio system’s confines and sound stages, so he ventured out of Paris and went down to southern France. Shooting on location and casting mostly untrained actors, the film begins and ends in the same fashion, with immigrants looking for work. 

The scenes (mirrored bookends of each other) are ones of hope and prosperity to come. That’s what Italian immigrant Antonio “Toni” Canova (Charles Blavette) thought when he came looking for work. Marie (Jenny Hélia) takes him in as a boarder, and he ends up working in a nearby quarry. Time passes, and we see the two have become lovers. Any compassion between them is all but gone; now it’s reflexive – something to pass the time. Toni’s doldrums changes in the presence of Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish steward that gives him a renewed sense of vitality. 

In a sensual scene where he plucks a wasp stinger from her back and sucks out the poison, the Adam & Eve inference is definitely felt. But before any matrimonial plans can occur, poor Josefa is raped by Albert (Max Dalban), Toni’s boss from the quarry. More complications as Josefa marries Albert and births his child. Eventually, it all leads to murder with Toni confessing to protect the one responsible.      

TONI is a love triangle melodrama with Toni, Marie and Josefa that becomes a more complicated affair with Albert’s intrusion. An immigrant’s life is complicated enough – navigating to whatever profession will keep his belly full – but add the entanglements of romance, greed, and murder, and an immigrant’s life becomes an occupational hazard. To Renoir’s credit, he allows his cast of mostly non-actors to be the fissures, breaking what would normally be a sentimental facade. The result is a precursor to Italian Neorealism filmmaking. And the inevitability of what occurs in the final minutes presents a bridge too far to cross to escape one’s fate.      

TONI’s Criterion release comes with a new 4K digital restoration done by Gaumont using the original 35mm camera negative and a 35mm fine-grain positive from the Cinémathèque française. 

Extras include a 2006 audio commentary with critics Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate and a booklet containing two written essays: “TONI and Classicism” from Jean Renoir, and Ginette Vincendeau’s “A True Story Told By Jean Renoir.” 

The disc also has three video supplements:

  1. A short introduction with Renoir (from 1961).
  2. A 28-minute video essay about the film’s production from scholar Christopher Faulkner.
  3. There is a full-length episode of “Cinéastes de notre temps” from 1967, featuring Jean Renoir and a conversation with TONI star, Charles Blavette. 

TONI Grade: B

BRUTE FORCE (1947)

Not rated, 98 minutes.

These next two titles from Jules Dassin go together like peas in a pod. BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY mark the filmmaker’s first forays down the noir alley. They arrived in 1947 and 1948, and are not what one thinks of when they think of film noir. The sun and surf and hills of California don’t provide the backdrop. There are no femme fatales or hard-boiled detectives. 

Both defy expectations as neither is enveloped by a gritty atmosphere. BRUTE FORCE presents life inside Westgate Prison, where overpopulation has inmates crammed four to six to a cell. Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) returns to cell R17 after a 10-day hold in solitary confinement. After learning his wife will not get a cancer operation unless he is present, Joe starts to plan an escape. Standing in his way is the warden’s security chief, Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn at his most sadistic, manipulative best). The one who foresees the prison being a tinderbox about to explode is the often drunk prison physician, Dr. Walters (Art Smith). He believes in rehabilitation, acknowledging that the current treatment methods send men back to society worse criminals than when they arrived.

While Warden Barnes is not opposed to rehabilitation, money talks. The prison owner wants to turn a profit, but work unions are becoming a deterrent in farming out the inmates as cheap labor. It is in an early conversation that sets up the inevitable threat of what will occur when Barnes vacates his position. 

With the subdued distinction that man becomes disregarded as human after the prison doors open, and he’s ushered across its soot-stained alter, BRUTE FORCE proposes the question on whose lives matter more – the prisoners or those in authority? 

It feels weird writing that considering our own 2020 powder keg of race relations, but Dassin and the film’s screenplay present the incarcerated men as guilty but by no means deplorable. That’s not the say there aren’t those worthy of life sentences or even death, just the ones here are kittens and alley cats compared to “the rat in the suit” (as Capt. Munsey is described in theatrical advertisements).         

The edge that makes BRUTE FORCE distinguishable as a noir picture is not its prison setting – though an oddity, for sure – but the darkness it represents. Michael Atkinson’s essay “Screws and Proles” (found as part of a hefty booklet inside the Blu-ray keepcase) lays out the film’s prison experience as a metaphor to that of a Nazi concentration camp. Cramped spaces and scenes of men in unsafe working conditions in a drain pipe add credence to this idea. Thusly, the noir became one of the first Hollywood films in post-war America to explore the war allegorically.

THE NAKED CITY (1948)

Not rated, 96 minutes.

Moving outside the confines of prison walls, the following year, Dassin, producer Mark Hellinger, and most of the production team (including cinematographer William H. Daniels and art director John DeCuir) left Hollywood to make THE NAKED CITY. Shot entirely on location inside offices and shops, apartments, and on New York streets, the film evolved noir by taking its influences and adding Italian Neorealism into the production. The combination of being away from sound stages, using non-professional actors as background characters, and focussing on working-class people and their jobs and stories was a striking approach. The result is a feature that would ultimately introduce the police procedural ushering cop shows like DRAGNET, HILL STREET BLUES, and LAW AND ORDER.  

The prologue with Hellinger as the voice of the ubiquitous narrator sets the stage. It opens with an aerial shot of the city, followed by a series of vignettes on city life at 1 a.m. – the day giving way to an empty bank, a late-night disc jockey spinning records to insomniacs or just his wife, and a cleaner in Grand Central Station. Everything slow and somewhat serene in the city that never sleeps. But for the majority that has called it a night, a murder will become the talk of the town. 

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” 

So the story goes…  

The most noirish aspects of THE NAKED CITY occur in the moments where a woman is murdered. The rest is how the murder becomes part of the daily milieu: for the detectives working the case, newspapers printing headline-grabbing stories about the crime, and a topic of conversation among the city’s residents. This is expressed in several more vignettes as Hellinger’s voice serves as thoughts of those riding the subway, sitting in a diner, or peering into a clothing boutique. Though somewhat of a deterrent to the point of distraction, the voice-over enlarges the murder and ventures’ scope as far as to include the men trying to close the case.         

Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) are our protagonists. The seasoned veteran and the young flatfoot no longer walking a beat with a bully club. Dassin gives us just enough texture in getting to know each, particularly Halloran’s home life, which could be its own standalone show – like if Donna Reed married a policeman instead of a pediatrician. 

Witnesses, friends of the victim, and suspects enter and exit as Dassin takes to Manhattan’s streets, venturing to a doctor’s office in Midtown, to a modeling agency in the Bowery, and the apartments of the Lower East Side. We see kids cooling off at an open fire hydrant, others jumping rope in unison and singing happily. During the day, the city brims with life, hustling, and bustling – a vast difference from the city at one in the morning.

THE NAKED CITY highlights the ordinary as being extraordinary, and how there’s a certain nobility when it comes to sameness. Muldoon and Halloran and the others in the police precinct working the case may just be cogs in a system, but as interchangeable, they may serve a function. Much like the cleaning lady or radio jockey, we see in the opening minutes.      

The film ends in expected fashion with the case solved and the city turning its attention to something else. Muldoon and Halloran will have another case, without doubt, and the newspapers will have something new to write about. The cycle continues. The public moves on, but we see in the waning moments how the murder – this one story in a city of eight million people – leaves a lasting impression. 

Sadly, this would be Jules Dassin’s next to the last film shot in the U.S. before fleeing the country. Under investigation by House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and persecuted for his political beliefs, he would go on to make what many consider the greatest heist film ever made, 1955’s RIFIFI.

Nevertheless, no expense has been spared in bringing BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY to Blu-ray. Both titles underwent exhaustive restoration by TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services in Berlin with approximately two million frames of film being scanned from different elements. 

Criterion originally released these two Dassin classics back in 2007, and these new, high-def discs retain all the original DVD extras. 

BRUTE FORCE includes a commentary track by film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini (authors of THE FILM NOIR ENCYCLOPEDIA). Paul Mason, a criminologist and someone with a keen interest in prison films, discusses the subgenre’s evolution, the humanization of the prisoners, and the violence the film depicts.

We also get:

  1. A stills gallery
  2. The original trailer
  3. An illustrated booklet featuring Michael Atkinson’s “Screws and Proles” essay, “The Softest Touch in Hollywood” by Pete Martin, “Mark Hellinger and Joseph Breen: An Exchange,” and information about the restoration.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a program that aired on the Criterion Channel about the different acting styles, as explained by film scholar David Bordwell. 

THE NAKED CITY includes an audio commentary from 1996 with screenwriter Malvin Wald, and two interviews: Dana Polan discussing the directness in the story and the social fabric of shooting in New York City; author James Sanders (CELLULOID SKYLINE) expands on the locations seen in the film, discussing how Dassin provided an authentic representation of New York in the 1940s.

We also have:

  1. Dassin’s appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in April 2004 after a screening of RIFIFI. (He talks about that film, the relationship he had with producer Mark Hellinger, and his experiences shooting THE NAKED CITY.)
  2. A stills gallery
  3. An illustrated booklet featuring the essay “New York Plays Itself” by Luc Sante and “Notes on a Chased Sequence – The Naked City” by Hellinger round out the supplemental package.

BRUTE FORCE Grade: B+

THE NAKED CITY Grade: B- 

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