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The Big Heat - Debby and Det. Sgt. Bannion
Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford in 1953’s The Big Heat.
Columbia Pictures

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The new Criterion Channel service shakes up the streaming competition

It’s great, but it’s no FilmStruck

I had a hard time deleting FilmStruck from my apps. When the streaming service ceased operation at the end of November, the victim of a reshuffling at WarnerMedia that found the service too “niche,” having the icon on my screen served as a comforting reminder of what once was: an almost too-good-to-be-true service launched by Turner Classic Movies that also served as the streaming home of the Criterion Collection, the beloved label known for the caring restoration and careful packaging of classic and art house films. Where other services neglected movies released before Harry Potter first looked for the Sorcerer’s Stone, or the canonical films of countries other than the United States, FilmStruck made them a forceful presence in the streaming world, an alternative to the here-this-week-gone-the-next world of the competition.

FilmStruck was great, and then it was gone — but hardly forgotten by the niche that embraced it. A sliver of hope remained in the form of a promised Criterion streaming service, announced to debut sometime in spring of 2019. That time came Monday with the launch of the Criterion Channel, a project announced not long after the news of FilmStruck’s demise that promised to offer a combination of Criterion’s 1,000-plus titles with “new thematic programming every night of the week,” a “constantly refreshed selection of Hollywood, international, art-house, and independent movies,” and the return of original recurring programs like “Art-House America” and “Observations on Film Art.” So how does it look?

Short answer: Great! Longer answer: Great, but it’s not FilmStruck, and those who liked certain aspects of that service, particularly its deep selection of classic Hollywood movies, will note their absence here. Even longer answer: All of the above, but with the additional note that the Criterion Channel clearly has ambitions to be more than just the Criterion selections from FilmStruck.

Criterion Channel homepage - Columbia Noir
The Criterion Channel homepage.
Image: Criterion Channel

That’s evident from the home page, which at launch spotlights a collection of 11 noir films from Columbia Pictures, an array of titles stretching from Joseph H. Lewis’ 1945 film My Name Is Julia Ross to Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror, his left-turn follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, released in 1962. These films aren’t part of the Criterion Collection. They’re part of the Criterion Channel’s attempt to broaden its offerings beyond its core titles by temporarily licensing and curating films from other sources, an arrangement that will include titles from major studios like Paramount and Warner Bros. and smaller distributors such as Oscilloscope and Kino Lorber.

Curation, in the form of films and supplemental features sorted into “collections,” appears key to Criterion’s strategy. Other launch-day options include a grouping of films written by Suso Cecchi d’Amico — the Italian screenwriter who scripted for key films directed by Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Michelangelo Antonioni — and “Happily Ever After,” a collection of fairy tales for grown-ups. They’re smartly chosen and arranged in ways that invite viewers to work through them one at a time, much like binge-watching a TV series (and the Criterion Channel borrows the autoplay trick from Netflix to encourage just this).

But the presentation could use a bit more of the Criterion touch to put it all in context. “Happily Ever After” includes an intro that’s less than two minutes long and consists only of clips from the films to come. The Columbia Noir intro runs just a few seconds longer, but it’s even more frustrating because it brings in smart commentators like Imogen Sara Smith and Farran Smith Nehme but barely gives them room to talk about the collected films, which are otherwise accompanied only by a short description.

Criterion Channel - Detour
The Criterion Channel page for 1945’s Detour, Criterion Collection spine No. 966.
Criterion Channel

The service could also use some user experience fixes. The Criterion Channel’s search function seems like a step back from FilmStruck’s, which had its own problems. There’s currently no option to browse its offerings alphabetically or by genre, and anyone landing on, say, Shoot the Piano Player can’t just click on François Truffaut’s name to see other films by the director. Instead, they’ll have to use the search function (and make sure not to type a “c” instead of a “ç”), then sort through results divided into “collections” (here used to designate individual films) and “videos” (which include special features, interviews, video essays, and anything else Truffaut-related).

The good news, and the news that really matters: Said Truffaut fan will have a lot to choose from, including canonical pillars like The 400 Blows and a bunch of movies like Two English Girls that Criterion has never released in physical form. Then there are all those extras from those physical releases, ported over and just a click away. It’s almost like being let loose in the Criterion office’s famed closet. The whole Criterion catalog isn’t here; to return to the Truffaut example, Day for Night, which received a nice Blu-ray release a few years back, is missing from the initial selections. But there’s no shortage of great movies to be found, many of them accompanied by commentary tracks, documentaries, and other features to deepen viewers’ appreciation of what they’ve just seen.

My Name Is Julia Ross - Julia in bed looking at a shadow of a hand on the sheets
Nina Foch in 1945’s My Name Is Julia Ross.
Columbia Pictures

That’s the other, intangible quality that sets the Criterion Channel apart. Netflix has minimal interest in classic films. There’s a surprising amount of great, or just odd and intriguing, old movies to be found on Amazon Prime, but using the service feels like visiting a video store filled with unsorted stacks of faded DVDs and VHS tapes.

An obvious love for movies, and an encouragement of cinephilia, pervades the Criterion Channel, from the care put into the programming to series like Adventures in Moviegoing (continued from the FilmStruck era), in which guests like Bill Hader and Julie Taymor discuss their evolving relationships with film. It’s easy to watch these short features one after the other while taking notes for suggested future viewings. Despite its sometimes less-than-intuitive interface, the service has clearly been designed to encourage those who love movies to watch more, and to expand their horizons.

And oh yeah, there’s also the experience of watching a movie on the Criterion Channel. To fully test out the service, I decided to watch the first title that caught my eye: the Columbia noir My Name Is Julia Ross. A film I knew only as an item in Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis’ filmography, it’s the dark, gripping story of a London woman played by Nina Foch who, after taking a job as a private secretary, awakes in Cornwall, trapped in a mansion and surrounded by people who insist she’s somebody else. It’s terrific, filled with echoes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and chilling reminders of how women’s fears can get dismissed as hysteria.

It’s also a movie I might not have come across were it not for the Criterion Channel, and one that immediately made me want to work through the films accompanying it. And then the films in other collections. And hey, I’ve read about John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry but never seen it, and that’s on there, too. And so are a bunch of Agnes Varda films. And In the Mood for Love — one of my all-time favorites. And so on. Suddenly the void left by FilmStruck, though it’s still much missed, doesn’t feel quite as cavernous anymore.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.