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With the release of Christ In Concrete, independent label All Day Entertainment has put together one of the company’s best DVD packages.

Releasing ‘movies that fell through the cracks’ is the company’s tagline and mandate, which translates as unearthing rare film treasures that may have remained forgotten and ignored, including B-movies by cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, and classics by such legendary filmmakers as Fritz Lang, and Luis Bunuel.

As you’ll discover from our interview with astute owner/producer/film historian and writer David Kalat, conducted in the fall of 2003, producing a DVD with Special Features content isn’t an easy chore, and can sometimes equal the work involved in securing and transferring the main feature elements for a DVD release.



Mark R. Hasan: How did Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete and some of the unique extras come to your attention?

David Kalat: This was an interesting situation where I was unfamiliar with the film, as I think most people were, because it received virtually no distribution in the United States. Books about films and articles about movies and all the resources that one reads to learn about film history tend to be written by people abut the things that they’ve seen – it makes obvious sense – so movies that aren’t widely available or in circulation don’t get written about; and then people don’t know that they exist.

Like most people I had no idea that this film had ever been made, and then the family of Pietro di Donato… who own the rights to the film contacted me, and said that they thought this was something appropriate for my DVD company, and I agreed with them instantly. Legend had been that the film didn’t really exist in any usable form – it had been shown theatrically a handful of times in the last twenty years, using a very poor-quality print. There are some school that have been teaching the film, and they were using that really awful looking print; so if you didn’t bother to look you’d think that was the only thing available. But it had been preserved by the British Film Institute, and they had in fact original nitrate elements dating back to the film’s original distribution, and those were the things that we used for the DVD.

MRH: Edward Dmytryk remains a fascinating and, I’m sure, still a controversial figure because of his connection with the House of Un-American Activities [HUAC], but his early films are classics; even his later work reveals solid craftsmanship.

DK: They had a retrospective of his stuff on Turner Classic Movies the other day, [and showed] a bunch of his films.

MH: He was very prolific. For someone who started off in the late Thirties/early Forties, he did manage to work all the way through to the Seventies.

DK: And that is part of the complication of his relationship to HUAC and the Blacklist era. It’s one thing for me, as someone who obviously did not live through that era and has no personal grudge to bear, to be able to look with a more reasoned eye on what happened. Norma Barzman isn’t the screenwriter of record of Christ in Concrete (1949) but in many ways she was as valuable a creative force behind the scenes as her husband, Ben Barzman, who’s the screenwriter credited with the film. [Both] were afraid of being subpoenaed by HUAC and had left the United States in order to escape, and emigrated to England.

Eventually [they] settled in France, and Christ in Concrete was the vehicle by which they were able to make that transition. But they had not expected to be exiled for so long, because when Dmytryk ultimately testified, he named them – his old friends. But Dmytryk had nothing else to rely upon. Screenwriters were able to keep working in reduced circumstances during the Blacklist era by using pseudonyms or in other ways concealing their contributions to films, but directors couldn’t; so if you couldn’t be hired openly, you basically couldn’t be hired.

He was no longer a member of the Communist party, and really didn’t think that it was worthwhile for him to be in jail and having his martyrdom being used as a cause celebre by the Soviets. Because he did not want that, and felt that he had bills to pay and had to get back to work, the only way he was going to be able to work was to reach an accommodation with Congress, so testifying was really the only way that he could ever have a career again… He did build himself back up again, and keep working for many decades thereafter.

MH: I recently finished reading David Caute’s biography on Joseph Losey, and there’s a significant chapter devoted to his efforts to establish or maintain a career in Europe during the Blacklist, and the lunacy involved in the credit swapping that went on, where for a while they were allowing his name to appear on films, and then other times they weren’t allowing it and substitute another name –

DK: Well that’s part of why Christ in Concrete vanished. There was this kind of naïve attitude that they could use the film to break the Blacklist by not hiding behind pseudonyms, and by being very ostentatious; Edward Dmytryk gets above-the-title credit – this was ‘Edward Dmytryk’s film- and they were really being very open about it.

This had been a best-selling book in the United States just ten years previously. The film itself had been a very handsomely mounted production – it had won all these awards in Europe – and they honestly thought that when it came to the United States that it would be warmly received, that it would be a successful and critically acclaimed film, and that it would prove that audiences were not objecting to seeing movies made by people in this politically hellish situation.

Of course the exact opposite happened: there were protests. The film was withdrawn precisely for the very reasons the Blacklist had been created, which was fear of audience reaction, so it got orphaned. But it’s funny when you look at some of the changes they were making precisely to accommodate the American censors. Why do that if you weren’t expecting the film to be distributed in the U.S.?

MH: The disc itself has one of the largest collections of supplemental features among your releases, and I wonder if you might go into some detail as to whether they were supplied to you, or as part of the discovery process that led to a rare LP recording of Eli Wallach, reading passages from the book, in addition to the archival interviews.

DK: Well, stuff comes from different directions. I’ve always been attracted to the DVD format precisely for its ability to give you that extra context for movies, and if you’re dealing with a big blockbuster film that received a lot of publicity and was really popular on its release, you don’t need that much, but with a lot of these marginal films, specialty films, and niche market sort of things, sometimes they are obscure because they’re weird, and they’re kind of hard to read; so giving a little bit of background about where they come from and about why they are the way they are helps viewers access them.

That’s one thing I always like to do with films that really need it, and Christ in Concrete I felt really needed that context to help explain so many different levels of context. I mean, there’s a real historical period that’s being represented; then there’s a true story even more specific than that about the real Geremio di Donato; and then the whole literary history of the book, and the Blacklist period. All these different levels at which the film can be approached. So I felt that using the supplemental materials for the DVD was the ideal way of getting that information across.

In the case of the LP recording of Eli Wallach doing the mono-drama, we lucked into that. I have a lot of fans on the Internet who send me emails through the web site, and someone saw a listing for Christ in Concrete… and let me know that he had this recording, and we borrowed it from him – one of our customers, actually.

[In addition to] the audio commentary and the featurettes that were produced for the DVD, I got this huge stack of documents, both from the di Donato family and also from film historian Bill Wasserzieher, that were useful research material in putting the commentary track together, but I felt that some of the stuff was so interesting that it needed to be just left alone, and that’s why we did the DVD-ROM section.

MH: And in the case of Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, one of the things that I guess is kind of unique about B-movies is that they had a specific function, so to speak, and unless they made their way to TV or home video, they sort of disappeared. When you were going through some of the Ulmer titles, did you find that a lot of them were in very rough shape, because major Hollywood studio generally kept their materials in their own vaults and some master elements in a kind of safely storage.

DK: The stuff that Ulmer was doing at PRC in the Forties fell into three different packages for television distribution, and ironically, of those packages, it was the one that included his best-known and most popular things – Detour (1945), Bluebeard (1944) and that kind of stuff – that was the one that ended up falling into the public domain. His much less well-known films, the ones that are much harder to sell to today’s market, ironically are the ones that got much better preserved because their copyrights were maintained.

There were companies that actually had a vested interest in keeping the stuff in good condition, but in the case of something like Bluebeard, as with any film, it is expensive to preserve and store film. Film takes up a lot of space, especially if you’re going to preserve lots of different elements of films. It’s really a challenge, and unless there’s some reason for you to do so, some reason that you think you’re going to make that investment back, you’re just not going to do it. So in the case if Bluebeard, as far as I know, there are no 35mm elements left in the United States; certainly none that have ever shown up for access to preservationists or archivists. But in France, the French distributors did maintain local copyright control, so there was much better preservation of some of Ulmer’s B-films than there was here. So the elements that we used for Bluebeard as well as for Strange Woman and for some of the other Ulmer titles we were actually getting from France.

MH: Does the existence of a prior TV or international distribution run improve the chances of finding extant film prints?

DK: If it weren’t for the expectations of the DVD market that the releases be of studio master quality, it would be a lot easier. It’s not a case where prints aren’t available; it’s just that prints that are so much harder to find, and there are a couple of titles that I passed on over the last couple of years because, although they were good movies and I had access to elements, they didn’t have access to elements that I thought were worth using. It’s one of the great ironies of the DVD market.

I first started collecting movies when I was a kid, and the only medium in which you could do that was Super 8, where you’d spend $50 for a ten-minute cut-down version of a movie in black and white with subtitles. When you get to the 1970s and the 1980s when videotape was first coming out, Hollywood actually went to the Supreme Court trying to assert that individual, private ownership of copies of movies was a crime, and unconstitutional.

MH: Which is very bizarre, because when videotape first debuted in England, the studios offered movies through unbridled rental and sales agreements with incredibly virgin copyright laws, and it was only when they discovered the video stores were buying a few copies and renting them out that they realized, ‘Wait a second, we can actually make better revenue here,’ resulting in a rental-only pricing scheme that continues to this day with videotape.

DK: Yeah, it took a long time for Hollywood to come around to the idea that this was a market worth exploiting, and for most of the history of home video, it was a market they were exploiting in the cheapest, lowest quality possible… I mean, VHS won out over Beta (which was a superior format), and VHS was often EP [extended/slow play] speed or other really low quality copies on VHS that people were getting. Widescreen movies were panned & scanned. Foreign movies were dubbed. It took a really long time for the idea of watching movies in a collector format, with a serious eye towards appreciating them as art, to break through in the video industry.

So now, here we are with DVD, where you can actually go into a place like Best Buy with $20 in your pocket and walk out with something close to a studio quality master of a lot of films, filled out with all kinds of extra bonus material. And rather than think that that is a really miraculous turn of events, I think a lot of consumers have come merely to expect it; so instead of really appreciating it when it happens, they get really uppity when it doesn’t happen, and there are a lot of films, especially older films, that simply cannot look as good as the stuff that’s coming out today. It just will never happen.

For films that are more narrowly marketed [and have] a much smaller potential audience, the incentive to do work that is going to be required to make them look pristine often times isn’t there. So I think that there needs to be a little bit of a change among the DVD audience to be a little more receptive; maybe to paying more and expecting less when it comes to some older films, because there’s a lot of stuff I fear is getting orphaned because I just can’t compete.

MH: Two quick questions before we close: Was Daughter of Dr. Jekyll originally shot widescren?

DK: It was at a time when the distribution of those kind of films was scattershot. It was going to be at drive-ins, it was going to be at hard-top theatres, it was going to be on TV. So it was shot open-matte with the idea that you would put a widescren matte on the projector when showing it on a screen that was designed for widescreen, and you’d just take that matte off when showing on TV. Most of the times when people have seen video copies of Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, they’re seeing the open-matte version which has a lot more empty space around the top and bottom of the image, so we were hard matting the image and giving you less picture area in order to preserve what would have been the original theatrically distributed compositions

MH: And lastly, you also provide a commentary on your double feature disc The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1962)/The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Given some of the best commentary tracks involve the participant using well-prepared notes and research materials, was it a bit daunting that you decided to take the challenge yourself, because your Mabuse track is very consistent with a lot of good information.

DK: Well thank you very much, I appreciate the compliment. I had the advantage that I was in the process of writing a book [The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse] about the Dr. Mabuse films, so I was doing the research anyway. And to a certain extent, I was writing the stuff down in a way that was rather similar to what I was using on the commentary track, so it wasn’t as if I was coming to the project completely cold. That I think was an advantage that a lot of people siting down to do a DVD commentary might have, because you’re right, it is a lot of research; and terms of cohering that material into something that has a relationship to what you’re seeing on the screen, it’s a really time consuming process.

When I was hired by Image to do the commentary track for the silent Dr. Mabuse film [Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)] which runs about four and a half hours, I could probably talk for four and a half hours just about all of the stuff that is going on in the first 20 minutes. There’s so much social and historical and film historical and pop cultural references – all this stuff that’s packed into those twenty minutes.

But then the film kind of slows down, and there are sequences where there’s not a lot interest going on from a film historical standpoint. If you’re trying to be scene-specific, there’s a lot of stuff that you then can’t say, because it doesn’t fit into the time that you have and you can’t come back to it later. So it’s a real challenge of taking all of the stuff that you want to say, and somehow find the most appropriate time during the course of the movie where to fit it.

It is a lot of work, but as I said, with the Mabuses I had the advantage that a certain amount of the work was something I was doing anyways for the book.



© 2003 Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film:  Christ in Concrete (1949)


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