Color, 1970, 83m. / Directed by Simon Hesera / Starring Mark Burns, Beatrice Edney, Jack MacGowran, Peter Sellers, Fiona Lewis
Code Red (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.75:1) (16:9)

A film still almost completely unknown outside of die-hard film historians and avid fans of obscure '70s cinema, A Day at the Beach is usually referred to as a "lost" Roman Polanski film, in the sense that it was both physically lost for over two decades (due to mishandling by its distributor, Paramount) as well as the opportunity missed when Polanski wrote the script but had to bow out of directorial chores when his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family. Had timing or circumstances been different and Polanski had brought his words to the screen, it would have certainly fit in with the increasingly dark, despairing tone of his early '70s work like Macbeth and Chinatown.

The story is another riff on the journey of an Anglo-Saxon alcoholic lout, a convention that's out of fashion now but which fascinated Hollywood all the way from Day of Wine and Roses to Arthur to Leaving Las Vegas. Here our protagonist lush is Bernie (Burns), a boozer who takes his young, polio-stricken neice, Winnie (Edney), out for a drizzly day at the English beachside where they encounter a colorful array of characters. Winnie is all too aware of her uncle's weakness and tries to keep him grounded for the excursion, but as night falls and the bars begin to call, she isn't sure he'll make it till morning.

Featuring delicate, evocative photography by the great Gilbert Taylor (The Omen) and some surprising bit parts (most memorably Peter Sellers, billed as "A. Queen," and Graham Stark as a pair of flamboyant beach vendors), A Day at the Beach is a fascinating mood piece if ultimately a minor entry in the Polanski filmography. Director Simon Hesera didn't really do much outside of this, so it's especially easy to read into the writer's contribution here along with the presence of two cast members from Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, Jack MacGowran (The Exorcist) and the gorgeous Fiona Lewis (The Fury). Similarities to Polanski's Cul-de-sac, Knife in the Water and especially his short films like "Two Men and a Wardrobe" and "The Fat and the Lean" abound with the seaside doubling as a psychological force which drives the characters and threatens to consume some of them, with its changing rhythms during the day affecting the bustling crowd as well as the flow of the story.

Considering almost no one saw this film before a print was resuscitated in the 1990s, it's rather miraculous we have A Day at the Beach on DVD at all. Code Red's DVD is on par with many other Paramount catalog titles of the period; the film stock as that somewhat gritty look of the time with chilly fleshtones (think Don't Look Now or Let's Scare Jessica to Death), and the widescreen framing looks about right if a tad snug on the bottom during the opening titles. You don't get any extras here apart from the usual Code Red promos (for films like The Farmer and Choke Canyon), but that's understandable given the fact that the director's unreachable, the main actor's dead, and everyone knows why Polanski can't exactly be flown in for a commentary.

Color, 1976, 125m. / Directed by Roman Polanski / Starring Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani
Paramount (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The first of Roman Polanski's evocative Parisian thrillers, The Tenant was widely reviled upon its initial release for what many perceived as a far too drastic change of pace from the celebrated Chinatown. Of course, anyone who could connect the dots further back could see its progression from the similar "apartment living is hell" studies, Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion; furthermore, the film looks forward in striking ways all the way up to The Pianist, which virtually reprises this film in a more compact form during its middle act.

Polanski assumes the lead role of perpetually nervous Trelkovsky, a French citizen originally from Poland who rents a room in a gothic apartment building populated by a testy concierge (Shelly Winters), cantankerous landlord Monsiuer Zy (Melvyn Douglas), and a variety of other eccentrics. The previous tenant, Simone Choule, committed suicide by leaping from the balcony and suffering for days in the hospital, where Trelkovsky meets Simone's friend, Stella (Adjani), with whom he shares a drink and a memorable afternoon at the movies. As the neighbors become increasingly hostile to Trelkovsky by complaining about noise and bullying him for not signing a petition, the man's grip on reality begins to slip. Even worse, these bizarre neighbors (who often spend hours at night standing motionless in the communal toilet) may be conspiring to drive Trelkovsky to follow in Simone's doomed footsteps.

A rich and multi-layered film, The Tenant is as pure a distillation of Polanski's technique as one could hope for. The repetition of themes and images can cause chills after countless viewings, though often the shudders overlap with skillfully handled black comedy. (Often it's difficult to tell the difference between the two.) The film remains even more relevant now in its study of urbanized human beings as commodities unable to relate to each other on any meaningful level; Trelkovsky and Stella's nervous dates include a few furtive gropes but end with cold farewells or both parties in a drunken stupor. In this world, everyone is identified solely by their outward appearances and how well they conform to expectations; you are the coffee you drink, you are the cigarettes you smoke. The enigmatic Simone Choule is identified as a writer on Egyptology, and indeed her apartment for Trelkovsky becomes a smothering tomb filled with remnants of the dead: make-up, a sole black dress, with the bathroom across the way adorned with heiroglyphics. Choule herself in the hospital is only seen mummified in tight bandages, inarticulate and screaming in horror. This utter disconnect is reinforced by her grieving friend, Georges (Jeunut and Caro regular Rufus), whose raw declaration of love on a postcard of King Tut turns out to be something else entirely. In a world like this it's small wonder an outsider would be driven mad, and even a pure soul like Stella winds up wounded in this storm of insanity.

As eerie and thematically bewitching as The Tenant is, the film is boosted further by highly inventive casting. Adjani is wonderful as always, while Americans Winters, Douglas, and a chilling Jo Van Fleet (as the nasty Madame Dioz) all perform their supporting parts with expert aplomb. Opening with a startling Louma crane credits shot that probably influenced Dario Argento's Tenebrae, cinematographer Sven Nykvist (best known for his work on Ingmar Bergman films) performs some of his finest work; there's never a wasted bit of screen space for the entire running time. The film also marked the first of three collaborations between Polanski and composer Philippe Sarde (Tess, Pirates), a fruitful union destined to end badly. Be warned, the eerie glass harmonica main theme will stick in your mind long afterward.

Paramount's highly satisfying DVD offers a sterling visual presentation with robust colors and exceptional black levels, essential to appreciating the disturbing final third of the film. Previous transfers were often washed out, but this disc corrects those years of video abuse. Compared to past editions, the DVD adds some information to the sides of the image while losing a bit of extraneous headroom from the top; compositions look accurate throughout. The audio has always sounded rather muffled, which unfortunately is the case here as well; prepare to turn up the volume far more than normal. In the English language version, only Polanski, Winters, Douglas and Van Fleet spoke their own performances; everyone else was dubbed afterwards and can be seen speaking a mixture of English and French. The alternate French audio on the disc (which can be viewed with optional English subtitles) is in many ways a more effective and satisfying presentation, as supporting characters which were brash and sloppily dubbed in English come off as far more naturalistic in French. The French track offers the only opportunity to hear Adjani's real voice, while Polanski did dubbing duties for himself as well. Newcomers may want to stick with the English version first, but the alternate audio makes for a rewarding experience as well. And yes, that troublesome Enter the Dragon clip with Bruce Lee, which caused more than a few legal headaches and even had to be trimmed out of some UK versions, is here in all its glory. The sole extra is the creepy US trailer, which utilizes original footage of Polanski standing in a doorway.

Color, 1971, 140 mins.
Directed by Roman Polanski / Starring Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Nicholas Selby
Sony (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Best known for traumatizing generations of teenage literature students, Roman Polanski's savage adaptation of Macbeth was his first studio project after the death of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson family. Not surprisingly, an already grim and disturbing play was turned into a hellish nightmare on film, reeking of corruption, greed, and needless bloodshed. Fortunately it's also one of the director's most brilliant films. Experimenting with scope photography for only the second time, he paints an unforgettable portrait of medieval Scotland as a damp, brooding place in which man's nobler instincts are invariably forced to confront a recurring cycle of evil brought on by politics and financial gain. Even the Christian institution of marriage is portrayed as a breeding ground for insanity and death, as ambitious battle hero Macbeth (Jon Finch) and his wife (Francesca Annis) arrange the gruesome assassination of King Duncan (Nicholas Selby) to speed the young lord's ascent to the throne. Of course, one murder quickly leads to another as Macbeth's reign of terror drags him into paranoia and madness. Spurred on by the prophecy of three witches who foretell his rising power and ultimate downfall, Macbeth struggles to maintain his lofty position while those around him plot a violent revolt.

Turning in a surprisingly versatile and accomplished performance, relative newcomer Finch (who appeared as a more modern antihero the next year in Hitchcock's Frenzy) heads a believable cast of characters who perfectly fit the period setting. The financing by Hugh Hefner's Playboy company dictated the injection of nudity and bloody violence, but Polanski turned the financier's expectations around by presenting human flesh as a matter of fact, non-exploitative sight, whether it's the undraped and unappealing coven of witches or Lady Macbeth's legendary nude sleepwalking scene. The level of violence was also astounding for the time and remains quite strong, particularly Duncan's murder and the stunning final death scene (which will remain vague here for the uninitiated). Several other British-based films from '71 also pushed the boundaries of sex and violence (most notably Straw Dogs, The Devils, and A Clockwork Orange), making for one of the more unusual years of big studio entertainment, but Macbeth was also remarkably visionary for its time. Watergate broke the following year, making Polanski's depicition of politics as a seemingly endless chain of cover ups and backstabbing more relevant than ever. Of course, its continued application to the political world today hardly requires any explanation at all.

Thanks to its relative failure at the box office, Macbeth has suffered for years from shoddy, murky pan and scan transfers on VHS and laserdisc which sapped away all of the original schemes and rendered the stylish compositions completely useless. No wonder many students hated to sit through it! Columbia's DVD is a hi-def upgrade of their letterboxed transfer which briefly aired on cable pay channels, often with artificial zooms to conceal frontal nudity. The DVD is completely uncut and uncensored, and apart from the ragged title sequence (which is filled with scratches and scuffs), the print looks magnificent. Colors are bold and nicely saturated, particularly when colors like red and orange suddenly intrude into the background or burst in from the sides of the frame. Detail is smooth and impressive, and the mono audio sounds free of distortion. Credit for the film's unnerving impact must also be given to the eerie score by the Third Ear Band, a mixture of medieval bagpipe music with a few dashes of prog rock sensibilities. Though it isn't usually labelled as a horror film, Macbeth certainly fits the bill in terms of both sight and sound. Columbia's DVD is packaged with the same inexplicable cover as their previous editions; too bad they refuse to go back to the excellent original poster art. Skimpy extras include optional English subtitles or subs in Spanish or Portuguese, as well as the theatrical trailer for this and - believe it or not - Sense and Sensibility. Apparently there's some connection between Shakespeare and Jane Austen over at the Columbia marketing department, though why they didn't include The Taming of the Shrew instead is anyone's guess.

Color, 1988, 120m.
Directed by Roman Polanski / Starring Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, Betty Buckley
Warner (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0/R1 NTSC, R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

The perverse opposite of its title, Frantic is Polanski's dreamy, stylish entry in the Hitchcockian suspense genre, and as usual he fills out the storyline with his usual delightful touches and eccentric characters. Anchored by a solid central performance by Harrison Ford as the sympathetic Yank lost in the haze of Paris, this thriller wisely focuses more on atmosphere and character development than gun battles and car chases. After arriving in Paris for a conference, an American doctor, Richard Walker (Ford), is horrified when his wife, Sondra (Betty Buckley), disappears without a trace from their hotel room. The local police prove to be of no help whatsoever, but soon Richard deduces that a tragic mix up has resulted in his wife being abducted by the Parisian gangster/drug underground. With the aid of a mysterious young waif named Michelle (Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), Richard decides to confront the evildoers on his own terms, but perhaps at the expense of several lives. In the first of her memorable appearances in her husband's films (also including Bitter Moon and The Ninth Gate), Seigner makes an indelible impression and gives Ford a run for his money. Critics have often taken shots at her acting ability, but there's no denying that she's beautiful to look at and fits her Polanski roles quite well. Ford looks appropriately dazed and vulnerable throughout, a surprising choice considering this film landed in the middle of his Indiana Jones heyday. Perhaps best of all, the legendary Ennio Morricone contributes a spectacular, vertigo-inducing score that lends an unearthly tone to even the most ordinary dialogue scenes.

While Warner has issued Frantic on DVD in both the United States and England, the two versions are quite different. The American edition, part of their bargain budget line, is a grainy rehash of their old VHS/laserdisc transfer. The image quality is colourful but annoyingly grainy; even worse, the hard-matted image has been cropped on the sides and has even lost some information on the top and bottom! This claustrophobic edition may be cheap, but it does little justice to the film's visual artistry. (To add insult to injury, the closing credits are perfectly letterboxed and look beautiful.) The Region 2 release in Great Britain looks much better, with accurate 1.85:1 anamorphic letterboxing and a merciful decrease in the amount of grain. The surround soundtrack is comparable on both versions, and neither disc contains any bonus material of note. Viewers with HD channels may also note that a hi-def transfer from Warner has also made the rounds on television and surpasses both versions, so hopefully a Blu-Ray version will appear somewhere down the road.

Color, 1999, 133m.
Directed by Roman Polanski / Starring Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner
Lionsgate (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Artisan (US R1 NTSC), Vision (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

Roman Polanski's misleadingly marketed The Ninth Gate was sold as a fiery, action-filled demonic epic for the goth crowd, and audiences and critics both reacted with confusion. The hostility which greeted the film, particularly its final shot which - horror of horrors - actually requires the viewer to think, is especially disheartening considering the indifferent shrugs which greeted the wretched End of Days and Stigmata. Hopefully as time passes, expectations surrounding this film have changed somewhat and viewers can finally appreciate The Ninth Gate for what it actually is, an eccentric and intelligent black comedy laced with hearty gothic horror. Adapted from Arturo Perez-Reverte's El Club Dumas, the plot feels on the surface like a glossy literary twist on Alan Parker's Angel Heart. Likeable but unscrupulous "book detective" Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is hired by the elegant, slimy Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to track down two of the three existing copies of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, a text co-written by Lucifer himself in 1666. Balkan possesses the third copy and believes that only one of the three is genuine. Hopping from New York (or at least a CGI replica of it) to Portugal to Paris, Corso encounters a number of eccentric personalities including a wine-sipping book collector (warmly played by Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor!) and a beguiling, obviously supernatural nymphet (Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), who's prone to popping up in odd places with some very funny reading material.

Filled with the disorienting malaise which characterized such films as The Tenant and Frantic, this elliptical tale is crammed with intriguing symbols (count the use of "9" throughout) and characters whose motivations only become clear as the layers of the story begin to peel off during the final half hour. The horrific set pieces are as grimly amusing as they are creepy, with the fate of wheelchair-bound baroness Barbara Jefford a particular standout. The flawless, breathtaking cinematography by current wunderkind Darius Khondji and Depp's amusing, compelling lead performance, a noticeable step up from Sleepy Hollow and The Astronaut's Wife, are all strong assets, but the real coup is easily Wojciech Kilar's beautiful score, one of the finest composed for a horror film in this or any other decade. Fans of European horror in particular will have fun comparing this film to some of its similar cinematic predecessors. Dario Argento's Inferno, also concerned with unholy texts, houses of the damned, and creepy young girls popping up out of nowhere, makes for a good point of comparison, as does the Polish masterpiece The Saragossa Manuscript. The latter film revolves around a series of interlocking narratives sprung from a demonic manuscript, and Polanski amusingly quotes directly from it during the effective, beautiful, and thankfully ambiguous final scene. Oddly enough, all three films are based on literary sources, some more loosely than others...

Artisan and Vision's fully loaded DVDs make for quite a bewitching experience even apart from the film, with beautiful menu designs replicating the woodcut illustrations and passing smoothly from one feature to the next. The discs include the standard first theatrical trailer as well as the more widely seen, ineffectual heavy metal promos which turned up after the release date was pushed back several months. An interesting storyboard comparison and a much less interesting promotional featurette are also included, but the highlight is undeniably the feature length commentary by Polanski himself, his first for DVD. While newcomers may find his accent difficult at first, he offers some nice observations about the casting, special effects, and adaptation process without going very deeply into the secrets of the film itself. He makes for a good tour guide, and his apologies at the end ("I hope I haven't been too boring") are quite unnecessary. Despite his unfortunate legal troubles with Artisan over this film's financing, he will hopefully continue to be with us for decades to come and create even more cinematic gems, as underrated as they may often be.

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