The Disc-less is a column exploring films not available on DVD in North America. While physical media is becoming less and less relevant with the advent of online streaming, the best quality for films outside of a theater are still DVDs and Blu-Rays. The release of major and minor cinematic works on physical media has lead to reevaluation of cinematic history. The Disc-less hopes to point cinephiles to films still not available, as well as possible ways one can see them.
With “Hitchcock” now in theaters giving us a (not very accurate) portrait of the Master of Suspense, one of history’s greatest directors is once again in the conversation. Additionally, the National Film Preservation is currently streaming a partial copy of “The White Shadow,” a 1924 silent by Graham Cutts, one of Hitchcock’s early mentors and collaborators. In honor of Cutts and Hitchcock, this week’s column highlights our neighbors across the Atlantic, with five great classics of British cinema that have yet to grace us with discs of their own here.
The Movie: “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (Terrence Davies, 1988)
What’s Going On: Based on Terrence Davies’ own life, a tone poem focusing on the births, deaths, and marriages of a family led by a stern patriarch (Pete Postlethwaite) in 1940s Liverpool.
Why You Need To See It: Davies’ films have been few and far between during the last two decades, though he gave us a hauntingly emotional work with “The Deep Blue Sea” this year. But his debut feature remains his best—flowing through memory between its two halves with provocative beauty but never romantic nostalgia. The repeated gestures of pub visits, familial celebrations, and occasional violence marks a distant era of a post-war Manchester that speaks volumes about the world we can and can’t live without.
Why You Can’t Get a Disc: It’s unclear who exactly owns the rights to ‘Distant Voices.’ IFC seems to own the TV rights, as it played earlier this year at the not-so-convenient time of 6 AM. The Film Desk owns the rights to Davies’ second feature, “The Long Day Closes,” which is also in need of a proper DVD release. Perhaps they can work something out?
How You Can See It: Thankfully, Davies is a national treasure in his home country, and the BFI has a decent R2 DVD release. It is also available on VHS.
The Movie: “Life is Sweet” (Mike Leigh, 1991)
What’s Going On: Another portrait of a dysfunctional family, this one made up of a quirky dad (Jim Broadbent), a sentimental mother (Alison Steadman), and their twin 22-year-old daughters, one an over achiever (Claire Skinner) and the other a social pariah (Jane Horrocks).
Why You Need To See It: What is happiness? This is probably the overarching question of Mike Leigh’s career. “Life is Sweet” is of course an ironic title for a film that is certainly a comedy, but has a lot of emotion buried underneath as these four characters struggle through the hardships of life, notably Horrocks’s character and her attempts to define herself in a family she can’t exactly fit into. This is certainly one of Leigh’s funniest films in many ways, and the dialogue is certainly catchy, but Leigh leaves you in a state of melancholy hope as each character slowly reveals their desperate interiors.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: Technically you can order a disc from the Film4 Library, but the transfer is questionable at best (almost a sub-standard VHS transfer). A film that is so essential in Leigh’s career—especially because of its mix of broad comedy and pathos—deserves a release of Criterion standards.
How You Can See It: Film4 has a sub-standard DVD release, but they have a wonderful UK Blu-Ray worth checking out if you can.
The Movie: “Seven Days To Noon” (John and Roy Boulting, 1950)
What’s Going On: A nuclear scientist alarmed by the rising stockpile of atomic weapons plans to unleash a suitcase bomb in the middle of London in one week.
Why You Need To See It: Before “Kiss Me Deadly” made the nuclear suitcase a popular trope with its “great whatzit,” the British noir directing brothers John and Roy Boulting did it first with this crackerjack film. Quickly plotted and never too stringent on its moral lessons about atomic culture (which are quite self-apparent), “Seven Days to Noon” is a tightly-paced thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat as the days creep closer and closer to the big moment.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: Despite being one of the most prolific directing duos in the post-war UK, the Boulting Brothers have never really gotten their proper due in North America. Like many of these other releases, it’s difficult to say who owns the rights here, but it’d be wonderful if Criterion did an Eclipse set of some of their most popular films.
How You Can See It: There are a number of illegally made R1 DVDs flowing through the Internet, as well as a couple of decent UK releases.
The Movie: “The Devils” (Ken Russell, 1971)
What’s Going On: A sexually repressed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) accuses a priest (Oliver Reed) of witchcraft during 17th century France.
Why You Need To See It: Originally rated X for its explicit sexual content and not-so-friendly portrayal of the Catholic Church, Ken Russell’s psychedelic period piece is a scathing assault on authority. It was savaged when it opened, and was banned and edited down in many releases, but has remained a cult classic. But beyond its explicit imagery is a film quite similar to its American counterparts of the era, which were knee deep in the paranoia of modern politics in the 1970s.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: For years, people have attempted to put together a complete version of the film, which has been difficult because so many editions of the film cut certain elements here and there. Warner Bros. has often hinted at DVD releases, and at one point had the film available for rent on iTunes, but has never released the film properly.
How You Can See It: Earlier this year, the BFI put out a DVD of the original UK theatrical release, though it is missing some footage from the purported “near-complete” recreation made in 2004. That version can be found in many illegal DVD markets as well as on torrent sites.
The Movie: “The Pleasure Garden” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926)
What’s Going On: A dancer comes to London and gets a job as a chorus girl, but has trouble staying faithful to her fiancé when he’s abroad.
Why You Need To See It: So much of the appreciation of Hitchcock is relegated to his classic American works, when he had a fascinating career in the UK, and especially in the silent era. While not his first film, “The Pleasure Garden” is the only one existent in archives today (though one hopes that like The White Shadow, they may eventually surface in the hollows of the archive). While not a thriller like other Hitchcock works such as “The Lodger,” the film has plenty of moments that Hitchcock cinephiles will note will appear in many of his later films.
Why You Can’t Get A Disc: Popularity for Hitchcock’s UK work, much less his silent work, has always been limited, so it seems that no company in the US has even searched out the rights for this essential early work.
How You Can See It: There are a pair of UK releases on DVD, and like most silent films, is also available on YouTube (since there are no longer copyrights).