The DVD format is never better than when it's giving a film a new lease on life. Don't get me wrong, I love my extended versions of The Lord of the Rings and my Dawn of the Dead collector's edition as much, if not more, than the next person. But at the same time, what gets me excited is the opportunity to rediscover films that I haven't seen in years, or, better still, discover a film for the first time. For a true lover of cinema, there's no great challenge in renting the latest blockbuster sitting on the New Release shelf. The real challenge is finding that film that you've never seen or heard of, that will have you telling all your friends, "You've really got to watch this."
Joan Micklin Silver's 1975 film Hester Street is one of those rare cinematic treats granted a new life on DVD. Set in New York City in the late 1800s, the film co-stars Steven Keats as Jake, a Jewish immigrant working at a garment factory, trying to carve out his version of the American Dream. A popular ladies man, Jake has his eyes set on Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), an ambitious, self sufficient woman with enough money to support herself. Problems arise for Jake, however, when Gitil (Carol Kane), his wife from back in the Old Country, arrives with their young son in tow. Gitil is an old fashioned Jewish woman who still believes in tradition, and, more important, does not fit into Jake's plans for his new life as an American Yankee. The tension begins to rise as Jake tries to balance his marriage with Gitil and his relationship with Mamie. Complicating matters is the unspoken attraction between Gitil and Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), a Jewish scholar who shares a tiny apartment with Jake and his family.
Filmed on location in New York for under $400,000, in black and white, with much of the dialog in Yiddish, Hester Street is the sort of film that could have failed on multiple levels. But rather than fall victim to what might be perceived as possible obstacles or shortcomings, the film succeeds every step of the way. Silver's simple direction and nuanced script rely upon subtlety to paint complex, layered characters that live and breath. There are times in the film where you actually get so caught up in what is going on, that you forget these are actors. The drama never goes over the top, the humor never degenerates into silliness, and the characters never become one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
Carol Kane gives the best performance of her career as a woman who comes to America looking to continue her old life, only to be forced into starting a new life. Kane received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Gitil, a role that allows her to transform herself in front of the camera. Keats, who is best remembered for his supporting character roles in films like Death Wish, also rises to the occasion, turning in a solid performance as a shallow man who fails to see what is front of his eyes. Playing a character as unlikable as Jake is a challenge, and many actors would simply portray him as a dimensionless villain, where Keats gives him dimension and soul.
Reminiscent of post-Annie Hall Woody Allen films like Manhattan, Hester Street is a wonderful film, filled with exquisite detail and character development. It is the sort of film that gives legitimacy to the DVD format in the face of an endless stream of releases that should have never been made, let alone put out in two-disc special editions.
Hester Street is presented black and white, 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9 televisions. The disc features as a new digital transfer that looks good most of the time. A word of warning: There are parts of certain scenes that look as if the original film source has sustained some damage. It's nothing major, and is barely noticeable, but it is there.
Hester Street is presented in mono, in English and Yiddish with English subtitles.
Hester Street includes recent interviews with Carol Kane, co-star Doris Roberts, director Joan Micklin Silver, and producer Raphael Silver. Raphael's interview is especially interesting, as he talks about everything from dealing with the teamsters while tying to make Hester Street, to the way the film was distributed, to Kane's Oscar nomination. There is also an audio commentary track with the Silvers, but it is fairly light on commentary. At times there is prolonged silence, and it's almost as if the Silvers are so mesmerized by their own film, they can't think of anything to say. Considering the interesting information and stories they share during their separate interviews, the commentary comes across all the more disappointing.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]