From the Director Of…

Noteworthy introductions and curious follow-up projects from some of the movie world’s best.

Success as a director can be just as fickle as that of an actor. Once someone has found success in some capacity behind the camera, garnering fame, acclaim, or both, the sky may seem to be the limit at first. Long-gestating passion projects may now have a chance to see the light of day, but they are greeted by the weight of expectations brought about by a filmmaker’s previous triumph. Still, this rarely dissuades the kind of artist willing to venture behind the camera from telling his story in their own way, regardless of what legendary Brian DePalma described as “being criticized by the fashion of the day.” While longtime screenwriters and producers spend ages building up a reputation only to be presented with the chance of directing their own feature film, some of their fellow contemporaries find themselves trying to top their last efforts through films which promise a stronger connection with both critics and audiences.

Over the last few months, a collection of such titles from directors as diverse as Paul Schrader and Ivan Reitman have made their blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino Lorber, who continue their commitment to preserving an eclectic library of movies for home video. Although the four films here have little in common when it comes to style, theme or plot, each one was made with passion and vigor by a director at the cusp of a great career ahead.


Room at the Top

Jack Clayton may not be a household name as far as directors go, but he certainly deserves to be. As the only filmmaker to craft what many feel to be the definitive screen adaptations of the works of Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ray Bradbury, the director’s limited resume is filled with the most stellar of work. But it’s Clayton’s first outing behind the camera which signaled a fresh filmmaking talent. After spending years making a name for himself as a producer, Clayton began his directing career with 1959’s Room at the Top; the story of a man (Laurence Harvey) whose social climb to the top is threatened when he falls for the French wife (Simone Signoret) of a powerful businessman (Allan Cuthbertson). Considered scandalous for its day, Room at the Top didn’t exploit its themes of adultery and suicide, but rather looked at the people at the film’s center. Clayton does a marvelous job of showcasing a recovering Britain as the perfect backdrop and motivation for his young protagonists ambitions, which grows more ruthless and desperate as the film progresses. As good as Harvey is in his tricky role, Signoret is even better as the lovestruck cheating wife, proving the actress’s Oscar-win was well-deserved. Social climbing is a theme for sure; but the heart of Room at the Top is the love affair between two individuals, made all but invisible by the rest of the world, discovering each other.

Blue Collar

Paul Schrader came to prominence with the wild success of Taxi Driver, which earned him enough cache to direct his own movie. The result was this tale straight out of late-70s America. Co-written by the director and his brother Leonard, Blue Collar told the story of three friends (Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto) who work at the same auto factory and decide to blackmail both their union reps and higher ups as a way of exposing the unfair quality of work. The movie is worlds apart from the striking power of Schrader’s screenplay work, but Blue Collar carries with it an honest mix of humor, tension and strife in its portrait of the American working class and what happens when trying to go against the powers that be. Quite simply it’s the perfect and most accurate snapshot of a country weary from the likes of Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation and three men’s reaction to it all. The shoot was reportedly trouble-filled thanks to Pryor’s heavy drug usage during that time, which resulted in physical confrontations between Keitel and Schrader. Because of this, the director continues to cite Blue Collar as one of his unhappiest experiences behind the camera to this very day. Nevertheless, Schrader’s first film is a strong one which remains both completely involving, beautifully made and, sadly, still relevant.


Legal Eagles

After the surprise success of 1984’s Ghostbusters, director Ivan Reitman’s clout afforded him the chance to direct this pricey studio rom-com with a pair of A-list leads. Legal Eagles tells the story of a DA (Robert Redford) who is pressured by a defense attorney (Debra Winger) into fast-tracking the case of her latest client (Daryl Hannah); a performance artist whose accused of stealing a priceless painting made by her deceased artist father. Legal Eagles is as commercial as can be and comes complete with elaborate sets, drawn-out sequences and plenty of close-ups of its photogenic leads. But Reitman’s playfulness as a director shines on here through some fun banter and his commitment to the story’s various twists and turns. The director tries to make an updated Tracy/Hepburn flick, which works for the most part as its stars have never been more appealing than they are here. But Legal Eagles is never better than when it focuses on the mystery at hand, which throws enough turns to keep things interesting. Dependable support from Brian Dennehy, Terrence Stamp and Christine Baranski move things along and while the whole affair isn’t anywhere as satisfying as Ghostbusters, it’s romance, comedy and solid mystery makes Legal Eagles a follow-up Reitman can definitely be proud of.

Heartbreak Hotel

Adventures in Babysitting was a surprise teen comedy which audiences lapped up in 1987, so much so that director Chris Columbus seemed to have little-to-no trouble getting his sophomore effort off the ground. Set in the early 1970s, Heartbreak Hotel tells the story of an ordinary high-school teen Johnny (Charlie Schlatter) who is trying to hold his family together with little help from his aimless, divorced mother Marie (Tuesday Weld), who spends a lot of time fantasizing about Elvis Presley and the effect he’s had on her life. Knowing that Elvis (Brian Keith) is playing a concert in a nearby town, Johnny and his friends go to the show and end up kidnapping the king himself, bringing him back to their sleepy town and home to meet Marie. There’s a lot wrong with Heartbreak Hotel, specifically the fact that its theme is stronger than its execution. It feels as if Columbus’s enthusiasm for the whimsy and heart which comprises Heartbreak Hotel has cost the movie much of its potential as a well-crafted piece of cinema. The movie never really knows how to straddle the line between groundedness and imagination, despite some successful moments. Still, as an idea, (and for some its scattered scenes) Heartbreak Hotel is a winner, especially when looked at as a romantic fable where the most fantastic of heroes exist and the most far-fetched of dreams can come true.

Each of the directors who helmed the above titles never wanted for success following these works. Clayton’s versions of The Innocents and The Great Gatsby are considered quintessential in the eyes of many fans. Schrader has become a directing master by exploring the dark side of human nature in films as diverse as American Gigolo, Cat People and 2018’s First Reformed. Reitman’s continuing theme of mainstream comedies made for adults have garnered more hits than misses thanks to Twins, Ghostbusters 2 and Dave. Finally, despite a few “grown-up” efforts, Columbus has proudly honed a successful knack for making family entertainment as the likes of Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone and Harry Potter have shown. Any person who can carve out a career behind the camera does so not by accident. Sure, a lot of the filmmaking world depends on connections as well as timing. But as these filmmakers have shows, it also takes a cinematic language that’s totally one’s own.

Room at the Top, Blue Collar, Legal Eagles and Heartbreak Hotel are all available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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