(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today Brad Cook naturally lights the new Criterion Blu-Ray release of Stanley Kubrick’s newly rediscovered and newly revered Barry Lyndon. )
Barry Lyndon is a bit of an oddity, coming on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange and preceding The Shining. I’d imagine that many casual film watchers don’t even know it exists, or would be surprised to find out it was a Kubrick work.
However, it is all Kubrick, through and through, from his use of special lenses that allowed him to shoot by candlelight to his main character, a ne’er-do-well who bullshits his way into the upper echelon of mid-18th century society, only to fall from his perch in the end. And like his other films, it’s full of beautifully-composed shots – in fact, Barry Lyndon may look better than many of his other films by virtue of the fact that he was inspired by some of the greatest pieces of realistic painting in history.
If you’re aware of this film, I imagine you already have a copy of this new Criterion two-disc Blu-ray set in your hands. If you’re not, but you’re a fan of Kubrick, or just a fan of great moviemaking, Barry Lyndon is worth a blind purchase. Despite its three-hour running time, it hold up to multiple viewings.
Here’s a quick version of the plot: We’re introduced to Redmond Barry, played by Ryan O’Neil, in the aftermath of his father’s death in a duel in Ireland. A narrator voiced by Michael Hordern introduces us to the protagonist; it’s worth keeping in mind the possibility that he may be what’s known as an unreliable narrator, one whose words are not always truthful.
Like anyone who loses a parent at a young age, Barry begins acting out, expressing his feelings toward his older cousin, who prefers a well-off British Army captain. Barry’s schemings end with him fleeing town and embarking on the life of a grafter. He fights for the British in the Seven Years’ War and deserts only to end up joining the Prussian Army and getting a special commendation from Frederick the Great.
He remains with the Prussians and becomes an undercover agent, only to end up turning to gambling to make ends meet. Somehow, he ends up marrying the wealthy Countess of Lyndon, from whom he gets his new last name, and begins enjoying using her money in the pursuit of various schemes. Eventually, of course, his manipulations catch up with him, but we can’t help but admire his roguish ways. He’s a scoundrel, but he’s also taken advantage of people who could probably use being knocked down a peg or two.
This new Criterion release features a fresh 4K digital restoration of the movie. Barry Lyndon hasn’t received a full-blown Special Edition treatment before, so Criterion decided to go all-out with these new supplements:
- Making Barry Lyndon (38 minutes): This features executive producer Jan Harlan, first assistant director Brian Cook, location scout Katharina Kubrick, and actors Dominic Savage and Leon Vitali looking back on the making of the movie. Kubrick’s well-known perfectionism is addressed, and he appears in the form of audio from a 1976 interview.
- Achieving Perfection (16 minutes): An examination of the lengths Kubrick went to as he sought to achieve a very specific period look that wasn’t typically seen in movies set during that era. Gaffer Lou Bogue and focus puller Douglas Milsome discuss the subject and cinematographer John Alcott joins in via audio from a 1980 interview.
- Timing and Tension (14 minutes): Editor Tony Lawson discusses his work on the movie, which was intensive given the amount of footage Kubrick typically shot. Side-by-side comparisons of various takes help bring the point home.
- Drama in Detail (14 minutes): Author Christopher Frayling and production designer Ken Adam, who was the subject of one of Frayling’s books, discuss the movie’s Oscar-winning production design. Adam also talks about his career.
- Balancing Every Sound (10 minutes): Vitali appears again to talk about the movie’s original monaural sound mix, along with the 5.1 soundtrack whose creation he supervised in 2000. Vitali was Kubrick’s personal assistant, as well as being an actor in some of his films, so he knows of what he speaks. It would be great to see a lengthy interview with him some day.
- Passion and Reason (18 minutes): Film critic Michel Ciment talks about Kubrick, Barry Lyndon, and his own life. Ciment wrote Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, so he has plenty of good stuff to say.
- Cinematic Canvas (15 minutes): Remember how I mentioned Kubrick was inspired by some of the greatest artworks in history? Art curator Adam Eaker makes an appearance here to compare some of the movie’s shots with the paintings that inspired them.
The only archival bonus feature is On the Costumes (5 minutes), a clip from a 1976 French TV show featuring costume designer Ulla-Britt Soderlund.
The usual Criterion booklet is included too. This one features a new piece by Geoffrey O’Brien as well as two archival articles from the March 1976 issue of American Cinematographer. There will be a pop quiz when you’re done.
– Brad Cook (@BradCWriter)