Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Tonight's Movie: Hester Street (1975) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

HESTER STREET (1975) has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and the Cohen Film Collection. It's part of the Cohen Film Collection "Classics of American Cinema" line.

HESTER STREET is a story of Jewish immigrants which was written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver; the script was based on a novella by Abraham Cahan. Silver, who died in 2020, was also the director of a charming story of modern-day Jews, CROSSING DELANCEY (1988).

HESTER STREET was shot in black and white by Kenneth Van Sickle, and it almost seems like a silent movie in its initial scene, set at a dance. The film's relatively old-fashioned look and "small," intimate story make it both unusual and appealing.

It's 1896 in New York, and Jake (Steven Keats) is a Jewish immigrant from Russia who prides himself on his American ways. He's quite taken with Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), who returns his interest, but it's soon revealed there's a bit of a roadblock to their developing romance: Jake is already married.

Jake hasn't seen his wife Gitl (Carol Kane) or young son (Paul Freedman) for several years, but they join him in America after the death of Jake's father.

Jake is very unhappy to have what he terms a "greeny" wife who doesn't understand the ways of her new country. Jakes wants Gitl to stop practicing Jewish orthodox traditions, such as covering her real hair with a wig or kerchief, but he's equally unhappy when Gitl makes changes to please him, because he really wants to be with Mamie.

In short, Jake is a jerk whose mind and heart are elsewhere, but Gitl is made of strong stuff -- and as she experiences the gradual disintegration of her marriage she also recognizes a quality man in their boarder, the scholar Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard).

HESTER STREET is an interesting 89 minutes thanks chiefly to the wide-eyed, thoughtful performance of Carol Kane as Gitl. Kane is better known as a zany comedienne, but she's excellent here in an Academy Award nominated performance as a woman struggling to adapt to a new country without the support of her husband.

Gitl may not say a great deal, but Kane conveys a world of emotion in her eyes as she's repeatedly rejected by the man who once loved her. Gitl is an observant and tenacious woman who almost instantly draws audience sympathy. When it becomes clear Gitl has no future with Jake, she quickly organizes a much happier future for herself and her little boy, and it's a wonderful thing to watch.

Alas, Keats as Jake is so annoying that I ended up fast-forwarding through a couple of his later scenes just to get back to Gitl. I don't think I felt an ounce of sympathy for Jake; his self-interest and lack of regard for his wife was just pathetic. Even if he no longer loved her after so many years apart, his inability to empathize with what she was experiencing in her new country was hard to watch. Jake was all about Jake.

Howard is spot-on as the quiet, more traditional man who falls for Gitl and her little boy; there's a lovely scene where Gitl observes him teaching her son.

Also excellent is Doris Roberts (REMINGTON STEELE) as a helpful neighbor. The scene where she tells off Jake made me want to cheer.

The Blu-ray is an excellent 4K restoration. There are a number of extras including archival interviews with the late director; additional archival interviews with filmmakers; an archival commentary track with Silver and her husband, producer Raphael Silver; the trailer; and outtakes and an alternate opening title sequence with commentary by Silver biographer Daniel Kremer.

As with another recent Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber and Cohen, LAST PASSENGER (2013), the main disc menu can only be reached after fast-forwarding through trailers. I love trailers, but I prefer mine under their own menu, not as a "must watch" feature which prevents immediate access to the movie's "play" button. That small issue is my only complaint regarding an excellent presentation.

Other than too many scenes with the annoying husband, I quite enjoyed HESTER STREET which was an enriching viewing experience. It would make a very interesting double bill with Silver's CROSSING DELANCEY, providing two portraits of Jewish life in New York just about a century apart.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Anonymous Barry Lane said...

Steven Keats had a decent run redefining the nature of a leading man. The industry, both domestic and international seemed to support this, but he never clicked with audiences. I thought his appearance strange and his characters take the same. He died young and by his own hand.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I didn't look into Keats' background -- looking at IMDb right now, I've seen him in some episodic TV over the years -- and had no idea of his early death. That's very sad. Thanks for sharing that additional insight.

As mentioned, I unfortunately found him really offputting -- it was an odd thing to so enjoy a movie yet have a big issue with one specific aspect of it, to the point I started fast-forwarding through his scenes.

Best wishes,

11:54 AM  

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