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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Moonfleet" (Lang, 1955) and the end of an era

Fritz Lang's 1955 Moonfleet might seem the least Langian of his films, at least to judge by a synopsis of its scenario. A young orphaned boy seeks out "a friend," commended to him by his late mother, in the desolate seaside town (an English one, of course) of the title. Said friend turns out to be a dashing and somewhat crass smuggler, one who bears a grudge against the boy's family name, for reasons we can figure out within about ten seconds of the guy revealing said grudge. The boy and the smuggler embark on somewhat divergent adventures. This scenario is adapted from a late 19th-century adventure novel by J. Meade Falkner, and was much changed from Falkner's book, which its fans will tell you is pretty much right up there with Treasure Island.
No, Lang isn't the first name that strikes you when you think of boy's adventure tales. But the gorgeous visuals that hit you from the outset—the ghostly statue above, for instance—bring you back to the Lang of, say, Der Müde Tod. The reactions of the boy, played by John Whitely, may evoke fugitive echoes of German genre fiction meister Karl May, an ever-pertinent Lang influence.
Lang, or it might be better said, a character named "Fritz Lang," played by Lang, noted famously in Godard's Contempt that Cinemascope was a format best suited for shooting funerals and trains. (The irony of his saying this from a widescreen composition seems to be lost on some.) In any case, Lang and cinematographer Robert Planck knew what to do with the format, as we see from above. It is alleged that a 1.35 version of the film was shot concurrently, but that seems to have disappeared. Look at the eyes of the old woman in the shot—the same eyes, really, as that angel (of death?) statue. Lang was not phoning it in here.
Finally, a sort of cliffhanger shot that evokes not just the Lang of the past, but the Lang to come, the Lang of the pulpy, serial-esque late-50s "India" films, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.
Moonfleet was written off by American critics as just another swashbuckling studio production, but lauded by French critics who knew how to connect the Langian dots several years after its U.S. release. The DVD these screen grabs come from is a 2003 issue Region 2 disc from French Warner, a very good transfer containing some welcome extras concerning the film and its critical rep, including one by the great critic Bernard Eisenschitz, a bit from which is reproduced below.
For American cinephiles, this disc, and hundreds of other foreign-region DVDs, are likely to be obsolete—or at least sort of obsolete—very soon. A couple of weeks back, over on the Warner Brothers Store website (, something called The Warner Archive opened. Warner Home Video is going to be releasing hundreds, if not thousands, of titles from its vaults on burned-to-order Region 1 DVDs for 20 bucks a pop. Those vaults are packed not just with Warner Brothers productions, but RKO and MGM pictures as well, all now under Warner's provenance after a series of corporate machinations. I've already seen one RKO picture that I have on French DVD—H.C. Potter's gorgeously envisioned Mr. Lucky—offered on the site. Recently posted discussions with Warner execs on home theater websites don't make clear what the decision making process behind what gets marketed through the archive versus what warrants a full-fledged restoration and mass-market release subsists of. One wonders, for instance, what the ultimate fate of John Ford's great RKO production Wagon Master will be. But one does know that these presentations will be bare-boned. Thus, it's likely that a domestic Moonfleet from the Warner Archives won't have the intriguing Eisenschitz meditation.
I just got my first batch of Warner Archive titles, including a couple of Borzage pictures (Three Comrades and The Shining Hour) as well as Frankenheimer's All Fall Down and Jack Webb's The D.I. (Where's -30-, dammit?), and I'll be writing about them at more length over at Some Came Running, I hope, but on a cursory viewing I can say the presentations, while bare-boned, aren't careless. Which means that if Wagon Master does come out on a Warner Archive disc, it'll sure as hell look better than the abominable French version on the Editions Montparnasse label. I still think 20 bucks a pop for burned discs is about five bucks too many, but what can I tell you—this is a venture that knows its audience, and how many extra bucks it'll eat. It'll be amazing to have such an enormous and gem-filled library pretty much at one's fingertips, but it's also going to take some of the adventure out of shopping. Poring over the DVD shelves at the FNAC in Cannes, or the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees, looking at a DVD sleeve of Kirk Douglas and the words "Selection Raoul Walsh" and "Une Corde Pour Te Pendre" and putting together just which Raoul Walsh picture this was, anyway—that sort of thing was quite a bit of fun. (It's not nearly as much fun on the web, where you've got all your translation tools at the ready.) By the same token, I'm not sure when I'll next be able to go DVD shopping in France, so there's that.
“the eyes of the old woman in the shot”? That’s no old woman. That’s Skelton Knaggs in his early forties, poor man.

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