Janus puts 50 classics in a box


You need only hear their last names -- Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa -- to know you're in the company of the giants of international cinema.

The pioneering distributor that has kept good company with these and other premier filmmakers is celebrating half a century of foreign classics with Tuesday's release of the mammoth DVD collection "Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films."

The set gathers 50 DVDs of films Janus has brought to U.S. audiences, among them Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" and "Wild Strawberries," Federico Fellini's "The White Sheik" and "La Strada," Francois Truffaut's "The Four Hundred Blows" and "Jules and Jim" and Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and "Seven Samurai."

The set comes with a 240-page book with background on the movies and Janus Films, including an essay of appreciation by Martin Scorsese.

"We wanted to put something up on the shelves to really get a sense of what that film heritage means," said Peter Becker, president of DVD label Criterion, the sister company of Janus. "It's so staggeringly impressive, the group of films that this company over the course of 50 years had the honor and responsibility of representing here in the U.S."

Other films in the set include Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" and "The Thirty-Nine Steps," Luis Bunuel's "Viridiana," Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game," Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky," Fritz Lang's "M," Yasujiro Ozu's "Floating Weeds" and Marcel Camus' "Black Orpheus."

The set is expensive, with a list price of $850, though it's available in the $600 to $650 range at various online retailers, including Janus' own Web site. Given the breadth of the package, it works out to a bargain price of $12 to $13 a film, said Becker and Jonathan Turell, managing director of Janus Films and chief executive officer of Criterion.

Most films in the set are available separately in Criterion editions. The "Essential Art House" versions are just the movies, though, without the audio commentaries, background documentaries and other extras in the elaborate Criterion releases.

"We didn't make it for the true Criterion fan. It wasn't our goal for the people who had 80 percent of the films to make them buy this to get the other 20 percent," Turell said.

Criterion will continue to release its own editions of films in the "Essential Art House" set, Turell said. The set was created for cinema lovers who want an instant collection of some of the world's greatest films, Turell and Becker said.

Janus was founded in 1956 by Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey, who had begun showing foreign films a few years earlier at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. They quickly established Janus as the top domestic distributor of overseas cinema, releasing films by Bergman, Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrzej Wajda.

Saul Turell and William Becker, fathers of Janus Films' current caretakers, bought the company in 1965, continuing to release new foreign films as well as acquiring classics from decades past for the Janus library.

"Essential Art House" features three documentaries made by Saul Turell, "The Great Chase," presenting classic pursuit sequences from silent films; "The Love Goddesses," examining sexy screen sirens; and the portrait "Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist."

Selections from the company's catalog have been playing in a Janus Films retrospective at New York's Lincoln Center. A Janus retrospective opens Wednesday at Cambridge's Brattle, with similar Janus film series touring through next year in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Toronto and other cities.

One of the hardest tasks in assembling the set was narrowing the film selection down from about 90 Janus titles initially considered for the package, Becker and Turell said.

"You never want to leave any of your children out, but it was easier since we weren't putting the children up for adoption. The films we didn't include were still in the library," Turell said. "I haven't lost any sleep thinking, oh my God, 'Lord of the Flies' isn't in here, 'Three Penny Opera' isn't in here.

"It's not that this list is the 50 greatest. It's a great introduction to some of the greatest movies of all time."