Saturday, May 21, 2016

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (MGM 1955) Warner Home Video

Reality is rarely clear cut, often depressing and…well…ordinary. Movies function much better when they deviate into plausible interpretations and/or simplifications of its more complex truths. Occasionally, however, reality gives fiction a genuine run for its money. Case in point: Charles Vidor’s Love Me Or Leave Me (1955); a relatively faithful bio-pic of torch singer, Ruth Etting's sordid life, her meteoric rise from dime-a-dozen taxi dancer to one of the most sought after vocal stylists of her generation; two thirds the stuff dreams could be made of, if only the realities of living a nightmare did not so swiftly intrude. In this case, Ruth Etting (Doris Day) has sold her soul to the devil’s disciple; Marty ‘the Gimp’ Snyder (James Cagney).  Yet, Vidor’s musical avoids giving us the clichéd villain and the proverbial damsel in distress; Cagney, doing an intriguing revamp of the brutish gangland mug he trademarked in countless Warner Bros. fare throughout the thirties and forties, and Day, quite simply a revelation, as she sheds practically every last vestige of virginal wholesomeness to play this creature whose wants supersede the good sense God gave a lemon. Again, under the rubric of ‘life is imperfect’, movies (at least of a certain vintage) used to be prototypes of our aspirations. However, Love Me Or Leave Me gets more curious with each repeat viewing because the villain here marries, berates and terrorizes our heroine. And Etting is hardly blameless or the shrinking violet in need of being rescued. In fact, she creates a good deal of her own misery and comes to pay for it in the end. These are not beautiful people and certainly not the stock characterizations we are used to seeing in a movie musical – of any vintage – much less one produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the Cartier of studios.
That the real Ruth Etting ultimately conquered her worst fears, escaped from under Snyder’s oppressiveness and managed to live a pseudo-‘happily ever after’ with someone else, bodes well for the trappings of the conventional Hollywood musical. But until this denouement, there is absolutely nothing straight forward about this picture; a challenge to make, a breakthrough and far grittier vision than we were used to seeing, and ultimately, a real game-changer for the genre. If anything, Love Me Or Leave Me is a cautionary tale wrapped in the enigma of the proverbial ‘feel good’. Even so, there is very little joyousness to behold in this textbook example about fledgling ambition knowing no master. The plot is deceptively wafer-thin, but it never falls back on the clichéd ‘boy sings song and gets girl’ principle that has remained a main staple ever since the genre began. That Love Me Or Leave Me was made at all is a minor miracle, considering the stringency of the Production Code: guidelines that absolutely forbade such overt sinfulness. That MGM producer, Joseph Pasternak – known for his light and frothy confections - even deigned to consider Etting’s life worthy of the musical lore is even more of a stretch; the screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart an astonishing departure from anything Metro had yet done in the genre, and arguably, would never again dare to duplicate.
There is an insidious bite to these characterizations that has nothing to do with the usual tongue-in-cheek sass of stock characters inhabiting a traditional Hollywood musical. The level of venom exuded by this warring couple reaches its fevered pitch in a moment when Snyder, disgusted by his lack of progress in Hollywood, rhetorically spits, “Don’t they know who I am?”, to which Etting coolly shoots back, “Who are you Marty?”. The implication here is that apart from his Chicagoan ties to organized crime, Marty Snyder is just a little fish in a very big pond; a rather sanctimonious irony, since Tinsel Town and the Mafia were, for a good many decades, uncomfortably aligned as very strange bedfellows with kickbacks aplenty and at least one very high profile murder involving movie-land’s then reining sexpot, Lana Turner. But back to Day’s Etting and her steely-eyed and tart-mouthed defiance, met with, “Well, whoever I am, baby, I’m what makes you tick!” And in this regard, Marty Snyder is absolutely right. Etting’s success came about largely because of his bulldozing influence. However, as Etting quickly proved, she was no slouch in the singing department; the puppet pulling her own strings and thus, creating deep-seeded friction in their subsequent marriage. “You don’t have to sell me on anything,” the cinematic Etting cruelly tells Marty the day after their honeymoon, “I’m sold” – the sudden realization she has prostituted herself for a chance at the big time, tainted with thick phlegmy regret, enough to stick in both their craws.    
Except for one superbly staged production number, ‘Shakin’ The Blues Away’ – done in a grand manner L.B. Mayer himself might have generously approved (Etting, in a luminously shimmering sequin and feather, robin-egg blue gown, hoisted atop a revolving platform by a small entourage of top hat and tuxedoed young men) – the musical offerings on tap elsewhere are isolated rehearsals for more polished performances we never get to see; Day, utterly magnetic and holding her own in a tiny corner of the vast Cinemascope canvass, accompanied by little more than a piano or quartet. The numbers are staged primarily to satisfy the dramatic arc instead of the other way around. And it is saying much of both Day’s performance and the end result, that Love Me Or Leave Me steadily evolves into exactly the sort of musical cocktail one might hope to ingest, while getting under the froth and the foam for a more richly inebriating experience. The picture is superbly acted; given substance and style by Day’s inflected, though never melodramatic vocalizations. Of course, her act is not a solo; the other ball of fire belonging to an old campaigner – James Cagney, menacing, if pint-sized and a little on the portly side. Compellingly, Cagney affords ‘the gimp’ a soul, something the enterprising ‘Ruthie’, in all her blind-sided, social-climbing ambition, arguably lacks. Day and Cagney are oddly mated but never mismatched, which is precisely the point. We can suspiciously buy into their relationship because neither is represented herein as the innocent. We can even empathize with Marty after he foregoes bullying and thereafter is repeatedly wounded in his amorous affections by the more calculating Ruth. Poor Marty…he really is a fool in love.    
Better still, Vidor’s predilection for remaining true to the seedy twenty’s milieu has resulted in a veritable cavalcade of Etting’s own songs given a new lease on life. Percy Faith’s arrangements and Day’s unsentimental, yet velvety smooth delivery add girth and pathos, particularly to the bluesy temptation, ‘Ten Cents a Dance’ and, melodic ‘It All Depends on You.’ Two new songs especially composed for the film would also emerge as instant hits; ‘Never Look Back’ – a rather haunting ballad written by Chilton Price, and the more sad-eyed and intimate, ‘I'll Never Stop Loving You’ by Nicholas Brodzsky and Sammy Cahn. Many of the contradictions that dogged Etting’s personal life are exemplified in this repertoire; Etting’s plucky early resolve to achieve fame as a singer, offset by her disastrous miscalculation to cut corners, allowing Marty to have his way with both her and her career. At one point, pianist/arranger, Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) implores ‘Ruthie’ to reconsider her indentured servitude to Marty, explaining, “They’ll want you because you’re good, not because they’re being forced to like you.” Alas, this difference is moot to Etting, itching for her big break now – something Marty can deliver with the wave of his hand, but Alderman cannot even promise at some affixed point in the future.
Love Me Or Leave Me closely mirrors the harshness of Etting’s struggle to be famous while occasionally hinting, or simply omitting the nastier details. A few caveats are worth noting. The real Etting, a natural talent who modeled her singing style on Marion Harris, first caught the eye of Chicagoan hood, Martin ‘Moe The Gimp’ Snyder after she was asked to perform as a last minute substitute for a male vocalist taken ill. The film would have us believe Ruthie’s green girl was turned after a somewhat unprepossessing stint as a taxi dancer who wallops a patron for getting fresh; fired from the establishment, but quickly catching Marty’s eye. Cagney’s Marty promises Ruthie the world and gives every indication he can deliver it without delay, but thereafter increasingly has trouble making good on his promises. On the flipside, the real Marty Snyder was very much ‘well-connected’; something Cagney’s movie incarnation is not. Cagney plays Marty as a two-bit hood and hustler, his own worst enemy, employing thug tactics to run his modest laundry racket into the ground. But the real Marty had actually made inroads in the nightclub circuit after working as a bodyguard in his youth for singer, Al Jolson. Etting would later describe her whirlwind success under Marty’s Svengali-like tutelage, and their subsequent marriage as anything but a Cinderella story. The film omits the fact Snyder was already married at the time he began to tempt his protégée with furs and diamonds.
“I married him nine-tenths out of fear and one-tenth out of pity,” Etting would later suggest. She virtually surrendered all managerial decisions to Marty. Superficially, this afforded Etting a shortcut to her goals; an uninterrupted streak of live bookings, radio appearances and an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records – not bad for a virtual unknown from Nebraska.  Snyder’s pressure tactics also helped Etting land her big Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. This would be Etting’s watershed moment; for although she could sell a song with gusto, she utterly lacked the terpsichorean grace or acting chops to move beyond and become a valued and versatile ‘star’. Increasingly, she found herself being relegated to on-stage cameos or, on film, left to short subjects affording her little more than the opportunity to sing one or two hit songs. Radio work filled in these gaps and paid the bills. But Etting’s ambition, coupled with Snyder’s mounting intolerances, eventually created an impossible rift. Wise in money matters, squirreling a little away from each paycheck to invest in California real estate, and living frugally (it is rumored Etting even sewed her own clothes); by 1935, Ruth Etting announced she was preparing for retirement. Her reasons in remaining active an additional two years have never been entirely disclosed, though likely, it had more to do with her desire to build a tidy little nest egg to sustain her after the marriage completely imploded. Paying Snyder $50,000 to settle old gambling debts – a king’s ransom then – Etting divorced her one-time mentor to publicly pursue pianist, Myrl Alderman (rechristened as Johnny in the film). The fictional account of Etting’s romance treats this relationship as platonic; established early on with Marty’s complicity and steadily blossoming into genuine – if mostly unrequited love. But in reality, Myrl and Etting had been carrying on since 1938, despite the fact each was – and would remain – married to their respective spouses for several more years.
Eventually, Snyder’s ego boiled over. Taking Alderman hostage from a local radio station, Snyder threatened to prove himself at the point of a pistol.  At trial, it was suggested Snyder’s motive had been jealousy; attorneys arguing he neither intended to kill Alderman nor his own family, but merely to pump a bullet in a delicate area so that the question of whether or not an affair could continue would be answered to his satisfaction. Whatever the truth in it, Snyder shot Alderman – a non-fatal wound. He was eventually charged, convicted and served a scant eighteen months in prison for his ‘crime of passion’.  To some extent, this was quite enough to satisfy MGM’s prerequisite for a ‘happy ending’. The truth, however, was somewhat more disconcerting; the couple’s young daughter, Edith, racing to the bedroom to retrieve Etting’s gun, bought for her protection, pointing it at her own father as he wrestled with Etting after shooting Alderman; her misfire hitting the floor just footsteps away. Three days later, Alderman’s second wife, Alma, had a bombshell of her own to detonate; an alienation of affection lawsuit that created ripples in a career-altering scandal for all concerned. Indeed, Alma would find herself on the other side as ‘the other woman’ when Alderman’s first wife, Helen, suggested to the court Alma had spirited Myrl away from her; a case of bad karma or kismet to be sure. While attorneys ironed out the wrinkles of this countersuit, reporting the Mexican marriage between Myrl and Alma was not legal, the court cleared Etting of all charges associated with the alienation of affection lawsuit.  In the end, Etting and Myrl did not run off together into the sunset, so much as they slinked away with the sting and pall of notorious tittle-tattle dangling over their little farm like the sword of Damocles: America’s singing sweetheart no more.
Love Me Or Leave Me opens with Etting getting fired from her ‘ten cents a dance’ gig; the episode witnessed by Marty and his right-hand, Georgie (Harry Bellaver). Marty offers to help Ruth get her first real ‘big break’. Having just been groped like a tart, Ruth is understandably skeptical of Marty’s motives. Actually, she has him pegged pretty well – just a mug interested in getting in her drawers, except Marty pretends to be more magnanimous than that; walking away after handing out his card and telling Etting to take it to a nearby club as her calling card. “You know what you’re problem is, girlie,” he suggests, “You ain’t got no faith in human nature.” But Etting does possess an acute sixth sense for sniffing out both rubes and an opportunity. Greedily, she wants the latter more, and thus, is willing to make sacrifices along the way. In short order she becomes a rather unsuccessful chorine in a bawdy all-girl revue; her clumsiness witnessed with mild amusement by piano accompanist, Johnny Alderman. Learning of Ruth’s aspirations to become a great chanteuse, Alderman offers to work with her. But before their fledgling alliance can get off the ground, Marty returns. He is expecting an awful lot for his two-bit plug; ordering Ruth to pack her bags and fly with him and Georgie to Florida. Etting, however, is no fool. Nor will she be bullied. After a loaded exchange in which Marty threatens to dump her right back on the streets where he found her, Ruth beats him to the punch by walking out on the opportunity he has provided. Sheepishly, Marty reassesses she is quite serious. Okay, so Ruth Etting isn’t just some dumb dame he can bounce on his knee for an hour or two. So what? So, he will need a different angle to win this game.
So, Marty gets Etting’s boss, Frobisher (Tom Tully), to give her an even bigger break singing the intro for the star of his show, Eddie Fulton (Claude Stroud). He also hires Johnny at twice his usual going rate to be Ruth’s coach. This creates a mild friction between Johnny – who doesn’t much care to be bought by the gimp – and Marty; also, between Ruth and Johnny, and, Ruth and Marty. “What does the public know?” Marty reasons, “You tell the public they’re singers and they’re singers!”  As yet not having heard Etting perform, Marty reasons thug muscle alone is enough to put her over. Marty is, of course, merely placating her ambitions. He has no idea of the genie he has just managed to uncork from its bottle.  Ruth plays her cards close to her vest. She suggests to Marty that Fulton might miss a show. It could happen. After all, Fulton is a terrible gambler up to his eyeballs in debt to the mob. So, Marty arranges it and Ruth gets her big break, against Frobisher’s strenuous objections and defying Johnny’s appeal to rid herself of Marty’s influence while she still can. “I’ve tried it without help,” Ruth explains, “I didn’t mind it being hard. I minded that it didn’t work.”
Backstage, Marty at last reveals the first ominous signs he will not back down from making Ruth beholding to him. His denied invitation to a weekend house party quickly boils over into a threat. Alas, like all men in love, he has made a miscalculation of just how far Ruth is unwilling to go to satisfy his needs. Instead, she strings him along, suggesting while she ‘likes’ him and is exceedingly grateful for the doors he has opened on her behalf, she is not ‘stuck’ on him as he professes to be on her: another bitter pill for Marty to swallow. But he does, endeavoring to hurry Ruth’s career to the next level – hoping against hope this will be paid out in big dividends of reciprocated love rather than pity or a mere sense of obligation.  Marty bullies Ruth into giving New York booking agent, Bernard V. Loomis (Robert Keith) the heave-hoe; branching into radio and landing Ruth her own show – a prime spot that continues her career upswing. But behind the scenes, things are getting more problematic. Johnny professes his love for Ruth. Regrettably, this is counterbalanced by his absolute disdain for Marty. Neither Ruth nor Johnny is willing to see things the other’s way. Johnny is mad for Ruth. But she denies his affections; also, hers for him. Meanwhile, Ruth’s radio stint is a smash. Alas, when her contract comes up for renewal, the station manager, Brelston (Robert Carson) is shocked to discover Marty has orchestrated an even more lucrative opportunity for Ruth to headline The Ziegfeld Follies. “What’s the use of having half of Chicago?” Marty reasons, “She’s going to have all of New York!”      
Tragically, Ruth’s debut for Ziegfeld marks the beginning of a slow, sad decline as Marty is given his first real glimpse into the realization that with her newfound success on Broadway Ruth Etting no longer needs him to manage her career. Everyone can see Marty is out of his depth and his element. Despite having gotten off to a bad start back in Chicago, Marty and Loomis now become best friends; Loomis’ – a gentle and understanding sort – the first to astutely surmise the toxicity in their relationship and empathize with Marty because he has affixed his desires to a gal who really only wants one thing…well, two – neither of them being Marty Snyder. Johnny stands up to Marty. He really despises him and is promptly fired. But Ruth takes pity on Marty. An altercation backstage leads to Ruth’s dismissal from the Follies. Even so, Marty is already moving them on to greener pastures. Orchestrating a deal for Ruth to make a picture in Hollywood, she recognizes – perhaps for the very first time – that her life and career are inextricably dependent on the one man whom she finds physically repugnant but marries anyway. From this moment forward, Ruth grows more jaded with drink, refusing to allow Marty even the remotest pleasure by acknowledging his contributions, affording them both the kind of lifestyle to which she has always aspired to and felt she was entitled; star-billing, a plush bungalow, adoring fans: a 24 kt. gold-plated cell.
In Hollywood, Ruth is delighted to learn her musical arranger will be none other than Johnny Alderman. In the interim away from Snyder’s influence, Johnny has managed to make his own way and establish a solid reputation in the biz. Snyder is not particularly pleased to be reunited with the man who continues to regard him as little more than a thug in a three-piece suit. But he is counseled by Loomis to let the studio’s agreement stand; both men quite unaware that between rehearsals Ruth and Johnny have begun to rekindle their passion for one another. Marty assigns Georgie to keep a close eye on their ‘professional’ relationship. For a while, Ruth and Johnny are very clever at keeping their affair a secret. Georgie has nothing to report back and Marty is satisfied it is all just business as usual. But very soon, Georgie learns Ruth is two-timing his boss. Thus, when she asks Marty for a divorce he is already prepared with a few reprisals of his own. Divorce? In a pig’s eye, and not unless Ruth wants to see her Hollywood contract evaporate, or at the very least, wrecked unless she also agrees to appear at the nightclub Marty is currently planning to open on the West Coast. Johnny encourages Ruth to stand her ground. Even Ruth can see the marriage has come to an impasse. But before she can effectively put her foot down, Marty tails the couple back to Ruth’s apartment, pumping a pair of bullets into Johnny’s back. Taken to jail for his crime of passion, Marty tells Ruth he is well rid of whatever magnetic hold she once had on him. Although Johnny survives this ordeal, Marty is nevertheless convicted and serves a term in prison. In his absence, Ruth sees to it that the plans he had for the new nightclub continue full-steam ahead. She even deigns to make the opening night premiere; a chance to pay Marty back – somewhat – by ensuring a sell-out engagement at his club. “Gotta give her credit,” Marty tells Loomis as the pair stand at the bar, “The girl can sing. About that, I never was wrong.”    
Love Me Or Leave Me is anything but conventional and much more a sub-genre or hybrid: the big-budget musical meets the gritty noir. While there have been far too many musical bio-pics to sugar-coat and/or grotesquely distort the real-life circumstances of their subject, Love Me Or Leave Me is a fairly ‘ruth’less affair (pun intended); Etting depicted rather intriguingly as both enterprising and semi-tragic. The real victim of the piece, however, is James Cagney’s ingeniously concocted reprobate; tyrannical on the surface, but otherwise just a poor slob, more cerebral than he is given credit for, and, hopelessly unable to rid himself of the pall of a physical attraction to the only woman who is monumentally unimpressed by the girth of his sphere of influence, though decidedly, not above exploiting it to get exactly what she wants. Only an old ham like Cagney could have pulled this one off – and does – with oodles of wounded sincerity. Owing a lot to the old cliché of ‘be careful what you wish for’, Love Me Or Leave Me emanates some fairly potent animosity throughout its 122 minutes. It also carries far more dramatic ballast than any musical of its vintage. There have been exceptionally few since to rival its streak of mean-spiritedness. The Lennart/Fuchs screenplay cleverly betrays one of the fundamental principles of the musical genre with its virtual absence of comedy. There are no light-hearted moments in this picture; no tender embraces either. And yet, even so, if works both as a musical entertainment and as a drama. While a good many critics have made the mistake of classifying Love Me Or Leave Me as caught in the crosshairs between musical and tragedy, in retrospect, it references a far more intense character study, elevating the art of verisimilitude with music on the side to an entirely new and decidedly more ambitious level.  Most musicals are contented with sandwiching meaningless dialogue between highlighted songs and dances, using both to string along the audience with a plot any six year old could appreciate. But Love Me Or Leave Me takes a very adult and substantive view, that the songs are meant to augment the drama, rather than be the whole show. In the last analysis, Love Me Or Leave Me is a monumental achievement because it refuses to follow the trajectory of a typical Hollywood musical. It never shies away from being grittier, darker, more unapologetic and sobering than even most dramas, expunging the warm and fuzzy 'feel good' for a sultrier (occasionally sleazier) patina to suggest - if unable to blatantly illustrate - the seedier sides to passion, avarice and pride.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is competently rendered. There are rumors this one is coming to Blu-ray via their Archive branch, and soon - but no actual confirmation as yet. So, we are momentarily contented to have this anamorphic widescreen transfer; yielding solid Eastman colors that are quite often bold. The shortcomings of Eastman stock are, alas, apparent; reds that lean toward pink or orange rather than that iconic fire-engine hue only Technicolor can provide and flesh tones that, on occasion, look a tad flat and pasty, but otherwise, generally satisfy. Fine details are nicely realized throughout. Blacks are a tad weaker than anticipated and contrast, while consistent, also tends to lack a strong defining characteristic. A few scene transitions, dissolves and fades suffer from a momentary lapse in image quality, exemplified by overly exaggerated grain – a flaw inherent in many early Cinemascope movies.  Overall, we cannot really complain about what’s here. It passes – while never attaining levels to truly impress. Edge enhancement is infrequently present but never distracts. The remastered 5.1 audio is rather extraordinary with an impressive sonic spread across all five channels that really make the orchestral arrangements come to life. Dialogue, however, is a tad strident sounding.  Bottom line: if you simply cannot wait for this one to come to Blu-ray, the DVD is adequate. Good but not great, which is what we’ll decidedly expect from the Warner Archive if and when this one makes the leap to hi-def.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Thursday, May 19, 2016

VICTOR/VICTORIA (MGM/UA 1982) Warner Home Video

Is she a woman pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman? Or is he a man, pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a man?
Such is the disingenuousness proposed in Blake Edward's hilarious gender-bending musical farce, Victor/Victoria (1982), placing the transparently feminine Julie Andrews at the heart of the query. And it is saying a great deal of Ms. Andrews, that despite her instantly recognizable fresh-faced innocence she managed to summon something of the impersonator’s hauteur and more than an ounce of androgyny in her pantomime; enough, at least, to carry off this supremely wicked masquerade in spite of her soprano vocalizations of the deliciously dreamy Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score.  At a time when movie musicals were generally considered ‘box office poison’, Edwards proved that with the right vehicle and star at his disposal the results could still be magical and profit-making; dusting off an old, and all but forgotten 1933 German film, ‘Viktor und Viktoria’ while only ever so slightly tweaking the particulars of its hermaphroditic dilemma. There is a studio-bound elegance to this exercise; Edwards, contented never to leave the sound stages, enveloped by quaint cycloramas, and, save a few back lot facades, remaining deliberately ensconced in the artifice of making a classic – and very classy – old-time entertainment. While Julie Andrews has more epic musicals in her repertoire, Victor/Victoria shines like a gemstone from another era entirely; Edwards blending the leitmotifs, risqué naughtiness and pseudo-European sophistication of a pre-code dazzler a la Ernest Lubtisch with his own tongue-in-cheek tease from 1963’s The Pink Panther. Even in 1982, there was something quaint about Victor/Victoria, though in the very best sense, as well as the tradition for adapting great theater to the cinema screen. And the results have held up remarkably well in the thirty plus years since its debut; the picaresque quality of its cabaret-styled gay-liberation only becoming more seasoned and sassy with age.
It is to Edwards’ credit the film’s deliberately ‘camp’ elements, and Robert Preston’s breakout performance as the flamboyant Toddy, are tempered with equal dollops of style and substance as well as sexual titillation; Edwards, expertly avoiding the crass and witless didacticisms; too easily, the fallback to transform such lithe specimens into a tedious yawn. We must reconsider that in 1982 AIDS was yet to be misconstrued as interchangeable and synonymous with the gay lifestyle; the epidemic to follow its diagnosis and outbreak casting a pall on the already ‘closeted’ overview of homosexuality in general. Yet, Edwards is not particularly interested in taking the familiar approach in treating homo-erotica as either dangerous and/or counterculture; nor in making it obvious and spitefully silly for which a slew of 80’s comedies are guilty.  Instead, cribbing from Hans Hoemburg’s original concept, later fleshed out by Reinhold Schünzel in the original movie, Edwards’ screenplay is a mostly adult affair that runs the gamut from tender clichés of the ‘old queen’ to astutely empathic depictions of gays as people too; different, but equal and undeniably resilient as contributors to this artistic milieu.  In Victor/Victoria’s case, this unfamiliar territory is dotted with some sparkling slapstick. Largely green lit on Edwards’ reputation, a sort of pledge of good faith by the studio and nod to his hit-making track record, Victor/Victoria emerges as an escapist fantasia of sublime comedy, superbly photographed by cinematographer, Dick Bush (whose name alone is rife for blatant double entendre, sincerely abstain from, given the subject matter at hand. But draw your own conclusions…smile – and relax).
It was, in fact, a big year for cross-dressing at the cinema; Sidney Pollack doing as much for ‘straight’ comedy with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, released just a few months earlier. Like Pollack’s non-musical, Victor/Victoria is a tale of necessity as the mother of invention – literally. In this case, Victoria Grant, a young woman of great talent but virtually no opportunities – and worse, no money – is taken under the wing of an aging homosexual impresario and nightclub performer, thus remade into drag queen extraordinaire, Count Victor. As Victor, Victoria vamps the part of an erstwhile cabaret entertainer that catches the eye of a celebrated ‘butch John’ – played with magnanimous severity by James Gardner. Confusing, I know – but devilishly satisfying as an exercise in misappropriated gender traits and biases. Clever too, in Edwards’ own slick and stylish rewriting; shaking up the ensemble with the overt ‘girlie-girl’ (Leslie Ann Warren as the proverbial ‘dumb bitch’ in gold digger’s frilly lace panties), and, Alex Karras – playing against his own image as an ex-footballer/pro-wrestler cum actor; herein, the least likely man one might expect of harboring latent homosexual tendencies.
Edwards is, of course, cribbing from a rich – if slightly one-dimensional stereotype; that to appreciate musical/comedy one has either to be female or of the gay persuasion; hence, his emphasis on the gayness of the piece progressively evolves with a wink and a nudge. Critics in 1982 were rather unkind to condescending, carpet-hauling Edwards’ efforts as a deliberate and/or artificial miscalculation. In the wake of Edouard Molinaro’s more naturalistic approach in La Cage Aux Folles (1978), perhaps there was a point to be made – idiotically so – but made nonetheless. Besides, in Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 original, Renate Müller had cross-dressed her way to celebrity as a stand-in for a genuine female impersonator, Hermann Thimig, while London Lochinvar, Adolf Wohlbrück (having astutely found her out) indulged in a tortuous initiation to get Müller to confess the truth before professing his love for her. This situation is uproariously subverted in Victor/Victoria; the male stud of the piece, King Marchand (James Garner) made to suffer and question his sexuality; quite unable to reconcile his usual tom-catting with bubble-headed gun molls with an inexplicable attraction to someone who gives every indication of possessing the same anatomical bits as he. Naturally, this unusual attraction rootles deep into his masculine conceit and ego. Thus, King is determined to understand it by getting to know the Count better.
Edwards’ succès de scandale is capped off by an inspired ‘big reveal’: making the butchest bloke, Marchand’s rotund bodyguard, ‘Squash’ Bernstein (ex-footballer and future Webster co-star, Alex Karras) the real closeted queer, later to be satisfied with an invitation to Toddy’s bedroom. Still, the most outlandish of the lot in this sex-confused milieu is Lesley Ann Warren’s scene-stealing/disgustingly uncouth, Norma Cassidy; an overwrought buxom trophy, draped like the proverbial cheap suit across King’s arm. In a sort of Jean Harlow-esque homage, a la Marilyn Monroe, and, a little Mamie Van Doren mixed in, Warren’s sex-crazed viper is un-apologetically light-headed and giggly; an uber-erotic sex kittenish foil. While Julie Andrews’ central performance is chronically restrained – though never hampered – by the fact she must temper her desire to be a lady – except, of course, when her nightclub act permits the ‘illusion’ of as much – Warren’s brassy bombshell is estrogen-nutty shock therapy with no compunction to indulge in the froth and frilliness of being an undulating sexpot. And while in life there are undoubtedly female impersonators who practice their craft so flawlessly as to create the seamlessness of being ‘real women’, Victor/Victoria’s tour de force is in the art of knowing more than the characters do; Andrews making us buy into her drag queen nonsense while still knowing it’s all just an act. Herein, we really must tip our hats to Julie Andrews; clever enough to recognize her reputation as America’s favorite nun/nanny precedes her; sharp enough in her perceptions to tweak, mimic and occasionally convince us into at least enjoying the gender-bending conundrums that follow. Thus, the bright-eyed comedy comes from a rather buoyant contemplation on how absurd we are when we take sex too seriously.
Fair enough, the film would be nothing at all without Julie Andrews’ at the top of her form, belting out a great Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score. But equally as integral to this highly stylized exultation of Paris is the character of Toddy, the self-professed ‘old queen’, quizzically reflecting on a failed relationship with sycophant lover, Richard DiNardo (Malcolm Jamieson), before investing in Victoria’s sham. This puts a new ‘oo-la-la’ in his step. And Robert Preston, who initially had misgivings about accepting the role, proves a sheer delight on par with Andrews; whether philosophically contemplating his flawed life’s pursuits, buoyantly embracing/promoting the reputation of his slickly packaged Polish cross-dressing Count, or, in the exuberantly raw ‘Shady Lady from Seville’; unconvincingly masquerading as Victoria herself, begrudgingly turning on his sabotaging male chorus with clenched teeth - “You bitches!”, Preston’s performance as the old campaigner is ripe with endearing recollections of the elegant bon vivant – a sort of gay Maurice Chevalier who knows all the tricks and is decidedly unafraid to use every last one in his great stab at immortality.
Ultra-sophistication is the order of the day. Director, Edwards is cribbing from a long line of ersatz European escapisms a la Ernest Lubitsch, herein ever so delicately folded into a mélange of sly innuendoes a la Billy Wilder: quite the cinematic soufflé.  And let us not overlook production designer, Rodger Maus’ glittery and transparently theatrical sets, a veritable potpourri of très gay Bohemian chic, circa 1934. Plot wise: Andrews is Victoria Grant – a failed chanteuse auditioning for Labisse (Peter Arne) the proprietor of Chez Lui – an artsy Parisian nightclub. From the corner of the café, Carroll ‘Toddy’ Todd quietly admires. Alas, he has no say in the matter and Labisse shows zero interest in advancing the girl’s career. She is classically trained. But he needs a torch singer with sex appeal. Hungry and desperate, Victoria is cornered by her wily middle-age hotel manager (Michael Robbins) who would consider working off the rent in her boudoir. Too bad Victoria is a woman of principles…well, sort of. After rejecting his advances and being cast into the street, she decides to perpetrate a fraud; treating herself to a fabulous meal – or rather, ‘meals’ inside a fashionable restaurant, quite aware she cannot pay for any of it, and thus, resigned to go to jail afterward. In the meantime, Toddy has just been given the old heave-ho by his lover, Richard. Let us be fair, though honest, when assessing Richard’s motives in latching onto Toddy. It was never grand amour. 
Traversing the streets alone and forlorn, Toddy spies Victoria indulging in her feast. The two comfort one another in their sorrow – each confessing they are penniless and slightly depressed. Victoria explains her plan; to release a cockroach held captive in her purse into her salad, thereby declaring the restaurant unsanitary and refusing to pay for the meal. It might have worked, except the head waiter (Graham Stark) is no stranger to this careworn moocher’s trick. And, the trick itself is spoiled when the cockroach, having prematurely escaped Victoria’s bag, winds up in the salad of a nearby patron, who wastes no time becoming hysterical at its discovery. Her panicky cries incite a riot in the restaurant. In the ensuing chaos, Toddy and Victoria manage their bungled escape, Toddy taking Victoria back to his apartment to commiserate. Since Victoria’s eviction has left her without an immediate change of wardrobe, Toddy offers her the run of his closet, encouraging her to try on some of Richard’s clothes.  When Richard arrives to collect his things, he discovers Victoria hiding in the closet wearing in his trousers and shirt. Believing he will harm Toddy, Victoria attacks Richard, punching him in the eye and literally kicking him out of the apartment down a flight of stairs into a waiting car of his fair-weather friends. Richly amused by Victoria’s uncanny masculine predisposition, moreover tantalized by the fact Richard has fallen for it too, Toddy proposes an ‘angle’ to salvage Victoria’s career; why not pretend to be Europe’s greatest female impersonator? It seems too fantastic to work…at first. But what has Victoria to lose? Answer: absolutely nothing. And so, a new twist on the old Pygmalion transformation begins to take shape under Toddy’s expert tutelage. Victoria is given a new name, ‘Count Victor’ and pitched with aplomb by Toddy to nightclub impresario, Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies).
Cassell implicitly accepts Victoria as the gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski, Toddy assuming a dual role as the Count’s agent/boyfriend. After a few weeks’ rehearsals, Cassell lines up an impressive opening night. All the glitterati attend; among them, King Marchand, an enterprising American gangster whose chain of upscale speakeasies are the envy of Chicago, thanks to backing from the mob. King’s appendage du jour is the rapacious, Norma Cassidy (Lesley Ann Warren), a dim-witted floozy King has managed to elevate to queen of the burlesque back home. King is also flanked by his devoted bodyguard, Squash Bernstein. Victoria’s sexual orientation is kept a mystery until the end of her opening number, ‘Le Jazz Hot’, whereupon she strips off her elaborately beaded headdress to reveal a mannish crop of reddish hair underneath. The crowd is completely fooled and elated. However, King, who felt an immediate sexual attraction when he had correctly assumed Victoria to be a woman, is now wildly befuddled to outright wounded he could so easily be fooled.
From this moment forward the ‘love affair’ to blossom between Victor and King will increasingly suffer more rascally roadblocks. Victoria must not reveal who she really is, lest her cover be blown and she and Toddy both face going to prison for fraud. On the other hand, Victoria is attracted to King. Unable to put these variables together, Norma is incensed when King endeavors to unravel the truth, quietly assuming King has begun to harbor legitimately gay tendencies toward Count Victor.  The thing is – King is not yet entirely convinced Victoria is a woman. Thus, his early sexual frustration boils over – culminating in a failed launch to reassert his manhood by consummating his dwindling romance with Norma. Unable to perform in bed, King sends Norma packing to America while he fastidiously commits himself to discovering Victor’s true identity. Sneaking into Victoria and Toddy’s suite, King observes her disrobing to take a bath. Satisfied there is nothing doubtful about his own sexual proclivities, King decided to keep Victoria’s secret for the time being, inviting her, Toddy and Cassell to Chez Lui. Labisse coaxes Victoria and Toddy into an impromptu performance of ‘You and Me’. In the audience are Richard and his friends. Toddy uses the number to goad Richard and make him jealous. At the end of the song, a brawl ensues and Labisse is forced to summon the police. Squash and Toddy are arrested. But King’s quick thinking ensures both he and Victoria escape the deluge. This is exactly what he has been waiting for; a moment alone to profess his love. Pretending he does not care about Victoria’s gender – when, in fact he already knows the truth – King seduces her. Newly released from jail, Squash catches the couple in bed. While King tries to explain the particulars to Squash, he receives the shocker of his life when Squash explains he too is gay.    
Still reeling from the damage inflicted by the nightclub brawl, Labisse hires private investigator, Charles Bovin (Herb ‘Sherloque’ Tanney) to unearth the truth about Count Victor. Labisse is already quite certain there is something suspiciously familiar about the Count. In the meantime, the strain of pretending to be involved with a female impersonator eventually gets the better of King. He breaks off their relationship for his own vanity’s sake. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Norma spreads the rumor King is pinch-hitting for the other side. Naturally, this revelation does not sit well with King’s Mafia contact, Sal Andretti (Norman Chancer), who promptly flies to France, ordering King to divest himself of their partnership. Squash intercedes, explaining to Victoria, King will be publicly humiliated and financially wiped out if the deal goes through. Having already decided she would rather be with King than remain the toast of Paris, Victoria interrupts their rendezvous and reveals herself to all as a woman. Norma is outraged and ultimately the one who is humiliated and carted back to America. Alas, later that evening Cassell informs Toddy and Victoria, Labisse has filed a formal complaint against ‘Victor’ for perpetrating a fraud. Last minute quick thinking narrowly prevents everyone’s incarceration. Toddy pretends to be Victor, inviting the police inspector (Geoffrey Beevers) into Victor’s dressing room where he illustrates – unequivocally – he is a man. As the nightclub’s Master of Ceremony’s cues up the performance, it is Toddy who appears on stage in Victoria’s place, badly mangling her signature number, ‘The Shady Lady from Seville’. Amused by this debacle and quite aware of the bait and switch, the gay male chorus deliberately sabotages the act; causing Toddy to repeatedly trip and fall. The audience, many never having seen the act before, finds this bumbling campiness enchanting. At the end of his performance, Toddy announces his retirement from the stage. From their seats in the nightclub, King, Cassell and Victoria – at last, allowed to appear as she is – rise to their feet in unanimous applause. 
Victor/Victoria is a delicious charade; director, Blake Edwards taking the magical romantic chemistry so eloquently evoked in such classic outings as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Pink Panther (1963) to their lithe extreme of champagne cocktail effervescence. In a decade buffeted by cynicism and crass sex comedies, Victor/Victoria harks back to another vintage in regal elegance. It’s still an ‘80’s ‘sex comedy’ per say, and undoubtedly one of the first to frankly treat homosexuality and homosexuals with respect, not merely as subtext, backdrop or figures of fun.  And Edwards – apart from parlaying the premise of the 1933 German movie into a financially successful remake/reboot/update for the then beleaguered MGM/UA, has also managed a minor artistic coup; making it a musical at a time when musicals were sincerely dreaded. In hindsight, one might ask how such an enterprise could fail with Julie Andrews and Robert Preston at the helm. Yet, this is a last hurrah for both these talents – tragically so for Andrews, whose supposedly routine throat surgeries have since deprived us of her miraculous vocal gifts. The Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score has its moments; particularly ‘Le Jazz Hot’ – a sizzler with Andrews seemingly effortlessly popping out ascending and descending octaves.  Andrews also acquits herself of the sad-eyed and oddly dreamy, ‘Crazy World’; a luscious ballad. She and Robert Preston are the epitome of mirth, locked at the elbow as they warble, ‘You and Me’, while Preston gives us the very Cole Porter-esque ‘Gay Paree’ with all the debonair grace of a classy showman.
Robert Preston had not appeared in a big and splashy Hollywood musical since 1974’s disastrous and costly, Mame. Certainly, he had not known success in the genre after his Oscar-winning turn in 1962, reprising his stage role as everyone’s favorite con, Prof. Harold Hill in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Herein, Preston is having an indubitably ‘good time’; his caricature never mean-spirited or over the top. His is a genuine, if very ‘hot’ Toddy indeed; a twinkle of petty larceny caught in his eye, supremely satisfying as he gesticulates with arms spread wide; a vivacious ‘old queen’. And Preston and Andrews have that illusive, infectious and curiously bromantic spark of onscreen chemistry. Whether they’re embracing the implied subtleties of ‘gay Paree’ or simply exchanging loaded barbs from Edward’s brilliantly nuanced screenplay, together they crackle with airy wit and smart sophistication; a pair of hams sufficiently cured to carry the premise off without a hitch. Less successful is Leslie Ann Warren’s grating gun moll. At times, she seems to be channeling Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), albeit, with far less charm than silliness. Her one solo number, ‘Chicago, Illinois’ is a garish display of sex appeal turned rancid and antagonistic; the sly stripping down of Norma to her unmentionables becoming an intolerable striptease that neither teases nor titillates, but rather makes one sincerely wish she would simply get dressed and get off the stage. Yes, it is meant to be ‘camp’ and it is. But there is decidedly a difference between good ‘camp’ and bad. Perhaps, the number’s biggest flaw is its transparent hetero-arousing counterpoint to all the homoerotic badinage going on everywhere else. Victor/Victoria could have easily done with this moment.  There is no subterfuge to it. In hindsight, the song adds very little – if anything – to the movie, except run time; a genuine shame too, because when Warren reels in her culture-clashing homage to Harlow and Monroe she occasionally becomes a devilishly obtuse and smashing sexpot. Ultimately, it’s the heavy-handed nature of her performance that adds clunk to the clamor in her taps and submarines its success. 
Warner Archive has announced Victor/Victoria is coming to Blu-ray. Frankly, we cannot wait and even more frankly – it’s about time! Mercifully, the DVD is rather spectacular so one can only anticipate what a treasure we are in store for when the hi-def Blu-ray hits the streets. Colors herein are warm, rich and vibrant. A few very brief scenes appear softly focused, but overall the image is solid and sharp without appearing digitally harsh. There’s no untoward edge enhancement either.  Contrast levels are bang on deep and solid. When the Blu-ray arrives, we’ll expect to see more natural film grain. The DVD looks rather artificially smooth; and of course, lots more fine detail in clothes, fabric, skin, etc. et al. The mastered 5.1 Dolby Digital thunders during the musical sequences and exhibits minor ambiance in its dialogue. Again, when the Blu-ray arrives the Mancini/Bricusse score is sure to tickle and tantalize as never before. Get ready – it’s coming. Herein, we get an audio commentary from Edwards and Andrews that is being carried over to the Blu-ray too. Alas, it’s fairly dull and rambling and gets very old very fast! Bottom line: recommended! But we just cannot wait for the Blu-ray. Soon, folks. Very soon!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, May 16, 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT: Blu-ray (Weinstein Company, 2015) E-One Home Video

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) squanders whatever potential it might have had to be a truly great western on a series of miscalculations that gradually devolve it into a bloody, race-baiting diatribe; full of the sort of mentally ill sensationalist muckraking that has fast become a cliché instead of trope in Tarantino’s cinematic style. Carrying over his infantile fascination with the word ‘nigger’ (and no, if Tarantino is unashamed to bandy it about ad nauseam some 60+ times in this movie, I certainly have no quam about marking it once for this review) – perhaps, the most loaded and incendiary word in the English language, and, thoroughly mined until there is literally no ‘shock value’ left in it in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), herein, Tarantino takes ‘that word’ to new lows of casualness; to what purpose…ah, now there is a point. Or is there? Throughout The Hateful Eight I found myself waiting for a more prolific movie to emerge; my level of expectation, too lofty for Tarantino to satisfy. In essence, The Hateful Eight is Reservoir Dogs (1992) all over again, tricked out in the frontier milieu with a sidestep into 70mm; that glorious, though tragically defunct widescreen format, yielding exceptional image clarity. Thanks to cinematographer, Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight has at least pictorial value to recommend it; the starkly surreal depictions of its snowy Coloradan landscapes (subbing in for Wyoming) with their epic natural splendor lending genuine scale and scope to this otherwise wafer-thin and unprepossessing showdown that owes more to the modern pulp crime actioner.
By now most everyone has either heard about or read of ‘the guitar incident’ – Tarantino derailing virtually all future relations between the Martin Guitar Museum and any film production company hoping to feature their product; allowing his star, Kurt Russell to destroy an 1870’s antique on loan out in good faith, smashed to bits against a wooden pillar for a pivotal scene. Evidently, Russell was unaware the guitar he was dismembering was not a prop; while co-star, Jennifer Jason-Leigh became utterly horrified in the moment; Tarantino pleased to have achieved ‘the reaction’ preserved for posterity on celluloid, even if it alienated professional relations with the museum for good; Martin Guitar’s Director, Dick Boak understandably revoking all usage of any of their prized possessions after the maimed remnants of this instrument were returned to him with an insurance claim remunerating the full value for this antique. Alas, no dollar amount can effectively compensate for the willful ruination of cultural heritage; something for which Tarantino seems to possess an almost maniacal resolve and relish to dismantle.
In only 8 films, it now becomes rather apparent Tarantino’s sole purpose for making movies is to satisfy his own inarticulate grey matter, hell-bent, all-consuming and, as it turns out, predicated on a measly and self-devouring, gauche and gargantuan ego masquerading as ‘style’. Even the briefest TripTik through his work illustrates how niggardly and transparent his modus operendi has become, unremarkably distilled into a litany of foul-mouthed vituperations, spewing forth from the mouths of virtually every character populating his skewed perspective on mankind in general. There are no heroes in a Tarantino movie; arguably, no ‘normal’ people either. Add to this about 40 quarts of red dye number two, indiscriminately splashed about until virtually every set dressing in its path is bathed and dripping in simulated blood and guts, and, Tarantino’s overweening sadism is gratified – even championed – as ‘art’; a very sad state of affairs.  Personally, and apart from his one shining moment of true inspiration – Pulp Fiction (1994) – I do not consider Quentin Tarantino a great film-maker. I keep returning to his films in the hopes he will come around to possessing such inventiveness again. But I have marked him previously, and will do so again herein, as a ‘one hit wonder’ merely making, and then re-making, the same damn movie over and over again.
The innate value of a true artisan becomes self-evident when his body of work is compiled to be forever thereafter studied and re-evaluated both on the merit of its individual achievements and the collective maturation of his filmmaker’s technique. This latter appreciation can only be surmised with the passage of time. But even with the narrowest of timelines from 1992’s Reservoir Dogs to The Hateful Eight, it has become increasingly transparent Tarantino’s goal is neither to excite nor entertain; merely to startle, repulse and disgust his audience. It really is a dead end pursuit; a race to the bottom with varying degrees of immediate popularity afforded him in the present, but with everlasting detriment done to the longevity of his reputation. With each subsequent movie, Tarantino, in absence of genuine originality, has deduced that any old debasement of history, steeped in appalling levels or sexism and racism, will suffice to sell tickets. And, in this regard, Tarantino has not been wrong. His movies are generally ‘well received’, make money, and have acquired a following that teeters on branding him an auteur. Even as I make mention of this I can sense the likes of Hitchcock, Cukor, Ford, Wyler, Wilder, Minnelli, and others, collectively rolling over in their graves.
The Hateful Eight is a ravenous beast of a movie, its motley crew of disreputable and blood-soaked hags and homicidal brutes sub-par for the course. Tarantino cleverly masks his perversions by getting together an all-star cast to peddle his putrefied wares. Star power aside, The Hateful Eight has very little going for it apart from its gimmick to stage a sixties styled roadshow, complete with overture, intermission and entr’acte. Over the course of Tarantino’s ascendancy in Hollywood he has proven both a passion and contempt for golden age Hollywood; The Hateful Eight, his latest ‘homage’ and/or sacrifice on his altar. Let us be fair in reassessing Reservoir Dogs as not so much a revisionist’s take on the classic ‘caper/heist’ gone hopelessly awry (a la the likes of The Italian Job 1969); or Jackie Brown (1997) as a bloodletting revamp of the Blaxploitation cycle that performed a rather tasteless phallatio on the American cinema of the mid to late 70s (Cotton Comes to Harlem, (1970), Foxy Brown (1974), and Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2; cheaply disguised erotica, using the patina of that same decade’s affinity for the kung-fu/karate flicks. Inglourious Basterds (2009) was Tarantino’s historical revision of WWII, reconstituted as a Nazi-fied anti-Semitic harangue, making Jews the blood-thirstier of its perpetrators; and finally Django: Unchained – watering down the severity of radical racism with its’ over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek exchange in loaded insults.
And now, drum roll, please – The Hateful Eight; a sort of compendium of all of Tarantino’s derisory venom, consolidated under the roof of one expansive trading outpost in the middle of a snowy nowhere. No one gets out of this one alive and Tarantino wouldn’t have it any other way – his theater of death completely imploded in the final reel. I will venture a guess there is not much he can do as a director except to go in a completely opposite direction from this point onward. I mean, Tarantino has given us just about all of the exploding heads, blasted out innards, blood-disgorging, castrating, ball-bashing, ultra-sadistic dismemberment of not only human bodies but equally distorted perceptions on the human condition – that which supposedly makes us ‘humane’ and ‘superior’ beings in the food chain. But Tarantino has devalued just about every principle that ought to make life worth living, his screen violence gone so far beyond what we used to consider as ‘permissible’ to now appear as though he were smearing feces across our movie screens with mocking insolence, as with the degenerate immunity of a mad creator, drunk on his own misguided sense of genius, though tragically suffering from some inbred, nipple-sucking melancholia. Even the most basic primates have more aptitude and intuition than this.
And yet I never ceased to be amazed by the warped and frustrated elements that surfaces to the top of Tarantino’s toilet bowl with the nagging resolve of that last piece of excrement refusing to get flushed from my consciousness after the houselights have come up. Tarantino suffers from an affliction that is by no means exclusive to him; that of the equally dumb and lucky fatalist who, having outfoxed and made money for the bean counters presently in charge of Hollywood’s dream factories – some might argue, by articulating a popular rage - now fancies himself as its jack of all trades, when time and again, he has simply proven to be the master of none. If Tarantino would only focus on one element of what he remarks to be his all-encompassing virtuosity, leave directing to the directors, or writing to the writers, and most definitely, acting to the actors, he might unearth a new precedent that could both delight and entertain without indoctrination. But his approach to storytelling is so sledgehammer-heavy and so densely packaged around the most contemptuous tone of an enraged middle-aged kid who never grew into his long pants - and thus isn’t quite sure if they fit - he holds the rest of us in the balance of his very tightly clenched fists, determined to pummel our sense of morality – so transparently casting judgment on it as idiotic and/or just plain wrong. If we are to be fair and tolerant in assessing The Hateful Eight on its merits as well as its misfires, it is high time Tarantino quit talking down to his audience and relinquish his mind-warping insolence to make the rest of us see the world with its inherent ugliness amplified all out of its natural proportion.    
Part of the problem I have with The Hateful Eight is that it perversely feeds upon the new American standard in degenerate race relations; Samuel Jackson, doing a variation on Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield as Major Marquis Warren. Jackson is a very fine actor – with enough cachet to exalt his rank to that of a ‘premiere’ among his contemporaries. It is Jackson’s superb delivery of the lines he has been given to regale us with a sordid flashback of abject humiliation (Chester Charles Smithers (Craig Stark), forced at gunpoint to trek across the frozen tundra naked, orally raped, then murdered by Warren as retaliation for his father, Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) cold-blooded execution of black union soldiers at the Battle of Baton Rouge) that carries the ballast of this scene’s dramatic tension. Alas, unable to resist showing us everything, we get momentary flashes of Warren’s beady-eyed elation, head cocked into the steely glint of winter’s light, as he savors the breaking down to bedrock of a man’s character and soul. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, Warren denying Chester the bodily warmth of a blanket earlier promised, then cruelly executing him in a manner to mimic his own father’s butchery.  And yet, for all its ruthlessness, this moment just seems very jejune at best; merely the axis on which all of the blood-laced carnage yet to follow will pivot.  
The Hateful Eight begins several years after the Civil War with some truly majestic landscapes to recommend it; Colorado (substituted for Wyoming), a stark, yet compellingly pristine backdrop draped in winter white on which Tarantino intends to let the rivers run red with the blood of virtually his entire cast. In nobler times, this would be considered a very Shakespearean pursuit. Alas, there are no noblemen in Tarantino’s entourage; no tragic voices of reason to be pitted and prematurely snuffed out in their prime and, thus, no character for the audience to relate to or truly haunt us with their epic sense of loss; the cornerstone of all iconic works of tragedy since Medea.  No, we are deprived such luxury and satisfaction, replaced by a den of repugnant and vicious bottom feeders, permitted the run of the play with their contracts written in blood. We meet Major Marquis Warren on this snowy path to Red Rock, Wyoming.  Warren, a bounty hunter transporting three corpses on which he intends to collect, is the subject of cruel fate; or is it divine comeuppance?; his horses half-frozen and dead, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere with an advancing blizzard licking at his boots.
The wagon master, O.B. Jackson (James Sparks) alerts Warren that his fare is not the obliging sort; and in short order Warren realizes as much when he is met with the point of a rifle. Inside the carriage is another of Tarantino’s uncouth brethren, bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) aptly nicknamed ‘the hangman’, transporting captured fugitive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, utterly wasted in a thankless part, the literal punching bag of the piece) to see her dangling from the end of a rope in Red Rock. While suspicious of Warren at first, the Major’s reputation has preceded him, as has Ruth’s with Warren; the two men regarding one another with edgy admiration. Ruth becomes enamored by Warren’s claim he has a personal letter from President Abraham Lincoln. As any man able to call himself a ‘friend’ of the President can likely be trusted. So Ruth allows Warren to accompany them on their journey. While Ruth takes the letter shown him by Warren at face value, Daisy spits on it as an obvious forgery; causing Warren to physically assault her. Not long thereafter, the stagecoach encounters another lost soul along these deserted parts; militiaman, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who reports to be on his way to Red Rock to assume duties as its new sheriff. Mannix, an unrepentant racist, and Warren, unwilling to back down, almost come to blows over each other’s controversial war records.
The stagecoach is threatened by the advancing storm; its passengers forced to take refuge inside Minnie's Haberdashery, a nearby trading outpost. Curiously, the proprietress, Minnie Mink (Dana Gourrier), a familiar face to Ruth, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, everyone is cautiously greeted by Bob (Demián Bichir); a Mexican who claims Minnie has departed to comfort her ailing mother, and thus, having left him in charge. Bob’s story does not ring true, his immediate refusal to allow Warren to tend to the stages’ horses inside the nearby barn, and later, the discovery of a wayward pink jellybean tucked between the floorboards, suggesting something of a violent nature has caused Minnie to disappear. Or has she already been picked off by Bob and the other lodgers; Oswaldo Mobray (the morbidly underused Tim Roth); a.k.a. ‘English Pete Hicox’ – a.k.a. ‘the little man’; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); a.k.a. Grouch Douglass – a.k.a. ‘the cow puncher’, who when pressed by Ruth, reports to be on his way to visit his own mother for Christmas, and finally, Sanford Smithers, a retired and very prickly Confederate General. Almost immediately, Ruth astutely recognizes the only way to trust these curious gatherers, is to disarm everyone except Warren. Ruth is well aware Daisy’s gang might be on the prowl and plotting her daring escape.
Inexplicably, the tone of this tension shifts from the strangers in their midst to Warren’s own credibility; Mannix surmising Warren’s Lincoln letter is a forgery, thus forcing Warren to admit as much, but, in his own defense, claiming it buys him leeway with otherwise racist whites. The old General is very much of this ilk – perverse in his hatred of blacks until Warren suggests he knew Smithers’ son, Chester, since found dead and buried in a wilderness grave nearby. Warren offers to regale the General with the particulars of Chester’s demise; a story that quickly reveals how Warren unabashedly delighted in the abject humiliation, oral rape and murder of Chester; considering his interpretation of frontier justice hearty recompense for Smithers’ execution of black soldiers at the Battle of Baton Rouge. Having left his unloaded pistol on the table nearest Smithers now, the old man’s eyes welling up with tears of disbelief, anger, sorrow and pain; Warren goads the General to attack him. Smithers takes this bait and is executed by Warren, who thereafter claims ‘self-defense’ and/or justifiable homicide as his only recourse.  In all the chaos no one, except Daisy, notices someone has poisoned the newly brewed coffee.
Again, Tarantino, ever the egotist than the clever filmmaker, cannot resist the urge to insert himself into this tall tale and show us how uber-clever he has been. The Hateful Eight is ridiculously divided into ‘Chapters’ like a novel; Tarantino pausing to pontificate in a recap of the previous scene’s highlights; as though to mock his audience for not ‘getting it’ the first time. A more effective reveal might have come from either better staging of the previous sequence (to let the audience figure this one out for themselves) or in the staging of a flashback (soon to be employed by Tarantino to even more obvious effect for yet another trick up his sleeve). But no; we get Tarantino’s voice-over instead, haughty and reveling in having pulled the wool over our eyes. Too late Ruth and O.B. realize they have been poisoned, spewing fountains of thick bloody vomit as they crumple in agony and collapse to the floor. The expiring Ruth attempts to strangle Daisy. However, in his weakened condition he is overtaken and murdered by her instead using his own gun. Warren manages to disarm Daisy before she can free herself of Ruth’s handcuffs. Now, Warren assesses the situation with an almost Sherlock Holmesian proficiency for tying up all of Tarantino’s remaining loose ends. He deduces Mannix is innocent of the crime of poisoning the coffee, having almost taken to swig of it himself. Warren also ingeniously reconstructs the murders of Minnie Mink, her husband Sweet Dave (Gene Jones), fellow employee, Gemma (Belinda Owino) and another wagon master, Six-Horse Judy (Zoë Bell doing a Calamity Jane knock-off), innocently responsible for bringing these bandits to the haberdashery.
To expose the identity of the poisoner, Warren now aims his gun at Daisy’s head. Joe confesses. Alas, no one has anticipated that perhaps they are not alone; Warren realizing too late another plotter is lurking beneath the floorboards. This mystery man shoots Warren in the crotch. Oswaldo and Mannix wound each other in an exchange of gunfire.  Joe is shot by Warren who now orders the hidden assassin to reveal himself or Daisy will die. Enter Jody Domergue (Channing Tatum), Daisy’s mercenary brother who, having learned of his sister’s capture planned for a showdown with Ruth in Red Rock. Alas, the same blizzard that thwarted Ruth’s journey into town, earlier resulted in Jody and his entourage’s detour at Minnie’s; their execution of this trading outpost clan, sparing Gen. Smithers to use as window-dressing for their diabolical plot.  
Alas, either Jody has underestimated Warren’s resolve to be just as ruthless a butcher, or we, as the audience, have not seen enough Tarantino movies to recognize almost immediately how this one will end. Warren brutally blows Jody’s head apart with his pistols, the tidal wave of blood and grey matter showering a horrified Daisy who now angrily claims Jody has amassed an even bigger rescue party sure to descend on Minnie’s at daybreak and assassinate anyone who stands in the way of her freedom. Daisy tempts Mannix. If he will only kill Warren, she will promise him immunity from their wrath at dawn and even let him claim the bounties on all of these piled up corpses – a formidable sum. Oswaldo echoes Daisy’s suggestion, briefly contemplated by Mannix before Warren shoots both Daisy in the foot and Oswaldo in the leg. More bullets, more bodies and a brief respite from the carnage as Mannix temporarily blacks out from blood loss; regaining consciousness just in time to seriously wound Daisy. In honor of Ruth’s commitment to see her hanged in Red Rock, the dying Warren encourages Mannix to help him string up Daisy from the rafters. As she expires, her neck slowly twisting, then, breaking, the two men contemplate what their own lives have been worth; Mannix mildly amused by Warren’s forged Lincoln letter, reading from it aloud.
The Hateful Eight is brainless, bloated and self-indulgent to a fault; curious too of Tarantino to stage his Agatha Christie-ish locked room murder mystery in the ultra-widescreen 70mm process; a contradiction between format and subject matter. Arguably, Tarantino knows how to write dialogue. There is a lot of exposition in The Hateful Eight. But he cannot resist to unravel his solid prose with loaded four-letter barbs and a repetition of ‘that word’ until both have effectively lost all potency to shock and revile.  The vices far outweigh the virtues of this piece and, in the end we are left with a fizzling, hair-trigger pseudo-western/noir, populated by grotesques left virtually unrecognizable – even as stereotypes to the audience or archetypes gleaned from another Tarantino movie. There is no narrative arc, per say, other than to cage the cast like a pack of unwieldy animals and then let the lowest common denominator of their collected villainy, rather than nature, run its course. Tarantino’s view of humanity continues to depress. Lacking a denouement, or at least one to suggest there was anything better or more to this story than the devolution of man into beast, The Hateful Eight elevates nihilism to a finite craft, though never an art. You could easily do without seeing this one. I could sincerely do without any more such debauched outings from Tarantino – period!
The Hateful Eight on Blu-ray is an enigma. Tarantino has denied home theater viewers the ‘luxury’ of experiencing the full breadth of his depraved wish fulfillment. We get only the ‘theatrical cut’ and not the roadshow. Honestly, it’s a silly decision; one made arbitrarily by Tarantino to suggest the only ‘real’ way to experience the movie in its complete form is at the cinema. We lose the overture, intermission and entr’acte, plus a few choice bits of dialogue that otherwise expands the run time without enlarging either the vocabulary or the impact of the story itself. The Blu-ray’s image is immaculate, as expected; capturing the subtlest nuances in Robert Richardson’s low-lit interior cinematography. From a pictorial standpoint, the best parts of The Hateful Eight take place outside – a pity these represent less than a third of the run time. But the establishing long shots lensed by Richardson are of a magnitude as exhilarating as anything created for a David Lean epic; smooth, steady master shots of the mountainous terrain looking positively ravishing under a blanket of undisturbed snow.  
Once we move indoors, the effect of 70mm is greatly subdued; Tarantino expertly filling the vast expanses of the screen with interesting details, and blocking the action with meticulous craftsmanship. As I stated at the beginning of this review – there’s nothing wrong with the ‘look’ of the picture; only the picture itself, and this 1080p presentation will surely not disappoint. Rich color saturation, natural flesh tones, exquisite amounts of fine detail, beautifully textured film grain and superior contrast.  The DTS 5.1 audio is equally impressive. Frankly, from a movie made only last year, we expected no less. Extras are disappointing: a brief ‘making of’ featurette and a self-aggrandizing look at the 70mm process hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, as though he were heralding the coming of the next The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Alas, only ‘the ugly’ is presented for us herein. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, May 14, 2016

DARK PASSAGE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1947) Warner Archive

Bogie and Bacall bid farewell to their on-screen teaming in Delmer Daves’ gritty, though misguided thriller, Dark Passage (1947) an ambitious, often brooding hybrid of the escaped convict pot boiler that had been all the rage during the early to mid-1930's. Trademarking their ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach to telling hard tales of even harsher-living characters of spurious repute, Warner Bros. had practically invented the ‘gangster’ sub-genre, cultivating their own ‘murderer’s row’ of rough n’ ready all-stars with headliners like George Raft, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and – yes, even Humphrey Bogart; all of them rivals to the likes of a John Dillinger or Al Capone; at least…in the movies. But by 1947, the Robin Hood-esque exploits of these real-life reprobates had decidedly fallen out of fashion with audiences. Moreover, they flew in the face of the newly established Production Code of Ethics that, by 1939, had purged Hollywood’s movie screens of such deliberate ruthlessness. Warner never entirely abandoned the gangster flick however, even as it abided by this new tradition in the picture-making biz. Thus, by 1940 even Eddy Robinson was mugging for the camera, doing a wicked lampoon of his formerly sadistic ‘Little Caesar (1931) in Brother Orchid (1940). You dirty rat, indeed!  
Dark Passage is perhaps the feeblest of Warner’s attempts to resuscitate the gangster sub-genre, made a full two years before Cagney’s own superlative benchmark and goodbye to it, White Heat (1949), sounding the death knell once and for all. If anything, Dark Passage illustrates just how much Bogart’s movie-land persona had grown up since his early days at the studio; chronically cast as a Duke Mantee knock off who gets ‘knocked off’ in the third reel.  Herein, director, Delmer Daves has become utterly enamored with the subjective camera – a gimmick used this same year even less effectively in MGM’s Lady in the Lake. The virtues of the subjective POV are equally its vices and, indeed, studio head, Jack L. Warner was not at all pleased with the final results in Daves’ grand experiment; Bogart’s iconic visage absent from virtually all but a handful of brief shots scattered throughout the last third of the picture; the audience limited to seeing only what Bogie’s alter ego, Vincent Parry, sees. Mostly, Vincent has his eyes on renewed hope reflected back at him by one Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall); a successful landscape artist, living fashionably in a San Franciscan deco apartment.
Inexplicably, Irene is Vincent Parry’s singular champion all through the lean years he served in San Quentin for a murder he did not commit.  Buried under all the hoopla and gimmickry is an occasionally clever, though never entirely engaging ‘who done it?’ almost as desperate as Parry to break out and have its’ day in court. Alas, Dark Passage can never decide whether it is a crime/thriller, a chase for the man with – or without – the face, an atypical Bogie/Bacall romance, or just a nice – if quirky – little flick, fitting neatly under the hashtag ‘crime doesn’t pay’ but if it did, the dividends would hardly satisfy. Ironic too, as Dark Passage ends with no fulfillment for our hero’s journey; unearthing his frame-up and tracking the deceiver down to a seedy downtown apartment, only to have her inadvertently stumble and plummet through an open window, thereby destroying all hope to gain an eye-witness confession: also, now likely to be blamed by police, rife to pin another murder charge on Vincent Parry’s already blackened reputation.  
A genuine pity Daves’ screenplay, based on the novel by David Goodis, is a little too cliché, and much too conveniently stitched together to satisfy even the most liberal suspensions of disbelief. Whether we are to trust in Vincent’s innocence from the outset in the same sort of naïve and nobly fawning way Irene has without possessing anything more or better than blind-sighted faith in a man she barely knows, or, suspect the duplicity of her ‘best friend’, Madge Rapf’s (Agnes Moorehead), middle-aged quixotic venom at the crux of the supposed ‘crime of passion’ that sent Vincent to prison for life, now rekindled and soon to be exacted full-throttle on the mysterious stranger recuperating from plastic surgery in Irene’s apartment (surgery that effectively turns gritty mug shots of a lumbering clod into…well…Humphrey Bogart, thus leaving him to briefly walk the town with impunity, undetectable as the daring escapee for whom an all-points bulletin and roadblocks have been set up); and further still, to think a total stranger, cabbie, Sam (Tom D'Andrea) would lead a wanted man to an even more shadowy figure, disgraced ‘doctor’ (Houseley Stevenson), who takes pleasure in creating real-life works of art from crudely sewn flesh; Dark Passage is a movie more invested in the magic of movies and its own fanciful style than substance and far more in love with some truly gorgeous B&W cinematography by Sidney Hickox. Dark Passage really is Hickox’s show – from its exquisitely dank, bleak and perpetually moody usage of real San Franciscan locations, to its Salvador Dali-esque inspired hallucination/nightmare (as Vincent awakens from the ether after his surgery). This movie is a textbook example of how an elegant approach can divert attention away from a rather pedestrian and occasionally bungled plot.
Style, alas, will only get you so far: ditto for star power. Dark Passage would be nothing at all without the Bogie and Bacall, and, Hickox’s ingeniously visualized masquerade. But it is a movie that desperately wants the audience to forget there is a crime story buried somewhere beneath all the gimmicky ‘first person’ viewpoints of our rather empathetic protagonist; Bogart’s persona and particularly his voice, utterly at odds with the newspaper mug shots of Vincent Parry, looking about twice as tall and equally as wide in the shoulders with a square-jawed scowl that could stop a coal barge. Our first glimpse of Bogie, post-surgery and out of his bandages, gives Claude Rains’ Invisible Man a real run for his money. In hindsight, it is not altogether a convincing juxtaposition with the rest of ‘the truth’ as represented in this story. We can completely understand why Madge hasn’t a clue the diminutive ‘new guy’ in Irene’s apartment isn’t the same fellow she had a jealous yen for prior to the operation – because he isn’t; her recollections stirred only by the sound of Parry’s muffled voice through Irene’s door. Personally, I have my doubts the various bits of business conducted by a pair of unreservedly ‘werewolf hairy’ hands in front of the first person camera are not actually Bogart’s; looking far too meaty and in need of a good trim/wax.  Besides, why pay a major star like Bogart to do what any B-actor or grip aspiring to the big time could, given half the prompt and motivation by a skilled director like Delmer Daves?
“What the hell is the point of having a star in the part?” Jack L. Warner reportedly told Daves after screening the early rushes. Warner’s legendary lack of tact is practically digestible herein and well worth taking into consideration. As we only see what the camera sees for nearly two/thirds of the movie, we never really get to experience the sort of insolent on-camera chemistry that made Bogie and Bacall such legendary sparring partners on the big screen; no deep romantic clinches either, as it is virtually impossible for Irene to get close enough to the camera to make it work. So, we are left with a view witnessed through a shadowbox; Hickox’s camera panning back and forth across an enviable landscape of shadow-laden, foggy vistas, punctuated by the lonely call of harbor boat whistles and the occasional echo of shoes clicking on damp pavement. This sets the tone of the piece, although without ever allowing us access into Vincent Parry’s head. Part of what a skilled actor brings to any part is body language – particularly, in facial gesturing. Without Bogie’s descriptive visage to crib from, the first third of Vincent Parry’s escape and survival devolves into cheaply imagined pantomime; ultimately rectified when the bandages come off and we see Bogart’s reincarnation for the first time. But even with his head wrapped up like a mummy, Bogart manages to do some miraculous emoting with his eyes. It works, sort of, but comes far too late to make any real difference.  
Yet, despite these shortcomings, Dark Passage is hardly a write-off, as no picture co-starring Bogart and Bacall could ever be considered ‘bad’ on principle alone. However, it miserably fails to hold even the faintest flicker in notable resemblance to their other great moments together – particularly in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Without Bogie, we are left with Bacall to carry the bulk of the load, her reactions to acting opposite a camera, with Bogart undoubtedly standing off to the side of its’ bulky apparatus, feeding her the next line, creates a few rather woefully transparent moments of awkwardness. And Bacall just looks different – ditto for Bogart (once revealed), his painted image used in posters to promote the film, that of the Bogie we best recall in his physical prime a la Casablanca (1942), decidedly not matching up with the more careworn, weather-beaten and skinny fellow whom we later meet in passing, but who looks as though makeup artist, Perc Westmore has plastered a little too much rouge and lip gloss on an already sweat-soaked face. For more than half the movie, Bogie remains an enigma to the plot despite being the focus of it – the elephant in the room no one gets to see except Irene. I can completely understand why Dark Passage was not another Bogie/Bacall mega hit when it first came out. I mean, if you went to the circus to see the elephant and only the clowns appeared, you would be fairly upset, n’est pas? And Jack Warner likely fancied himself a showman of P.T. Barnum’s ilk; different medium and minus Barnum’s personal panache.
Viewed today, Dark Passage is a fairly gripping story, steeped in uncanny cynicism. Bogart gives his reincarnation of Vincent Parry class, tinged in faux heroism - two contradictory sides to any man's life clashed together in Daves' screenplay like the tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault and with just as much friction mounting as the narrative progresses.  Moving along: Bogart is Vincent Parry, a man wrongfully accused of murdering his wife and sent to prison for life. He escapes San Quentin in a metal garbage barrel (honestly, is no one in the watch tower being vigilant today?). After a terrible tumble off the open back truck, down a steep ravine, and landing in a watery underpass near Golden Gate Park, Vincent is rescued by amateur painter, Irene Jansen (Bacall) who – conveniently – just happens to be nearby when her radio tunes into the all-points bulletin about Parry’s daring escape, and just happens to be passing by the spot where his battered mode of escape has landed. Call it fate. I prefer to think of it as the most utterly far-fetched of movie-land contrivances. Irene smuggles Parry under a tarp in the backseat of her station wagon, past police who have already cornered off the Golden Gate Bridge. Again, the boys in blue are not very thorough here. They don’t even lift up the tarp!
Back at Irene’s apartment, Parry gets some spending money; then finds a sympathetic cabbie to take him to a disgraced plastic surgeon who will alter his facial features. Both men are of the anti-establishment ilk – unusual for a movie of this vintage; even more progressive when one considers neither knows for sure the fellow they are aiding and abetting is not a cold-blooded killer. A subtler homage: the cabbie is called Sam – the name of Bogart’s right-hand, immortalized by the inimitable Dooley Wilson in Casablanca; actor, Tom D'Andrea here giving this Sam a gum-chewing lowbrow satisfaction as the ‘everyman’ just trying to make a buck, suddenly invigorated by the prospect of making a few more off the meter, and, perfectly counterbalanced by Houseley Stevenson’s moderately brutish, though equally as blunt Doc Walter Coley, who casually threatens ever-lasting post-operative disfigurement before applying the ether. Each man becomes a distorted apparition in Vincent Parry’s drug-induced post-operative fantasy/nightmare; the ‘dream sequence’ vaguely reminiscent to Gregory Peck’s regressed memory fantasia in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).  
The plot thickens as Parry arranges to stay with an old friend, George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson) while he recovers from his wounds. However, when Parry returns to George's apartment all bandaged up a few hours later he discovers George’s corpse lying on the floor. Someone is on to him; perhaps the same person who murdered his wife. Retreating into the night, Vincent eventually winds up back at Irene’s. For the next several days she shelters him, both from the police and Madge’s probative inquiries. Irene is a very cool customer; comforting to a point, but devious to a fault. Her absence from the apartment leads to an unexpected chance encounter between Madge and Vincent. He manages to discourage her from entering. Ah, but the voice is familiar – too familiar to be ignored. It is…no, it couldn’t be. Yes – it’s Vincent. Recognizing the danger he has put Irene in, Vincent elects to vacate her apartment in search of the truth. Since Madge has not seen his new look, Vincent pursues her to a seedy downtown apartment. He is determined to get to the bottom of things. But after questioning Madge for only a few moments, she cleverly recognizes the man behind the voice is Vincent Parry. What happens next is rather obtusely handled by director, Delmer Daves; Madge retreating in abject fear as Vincent approaches in a non-threatening way; pressed against a large picture window that gives way. Madge plummets several stories to her death, the thud of her broken body on concrete far below bringing a small army of police to investigate ‘the crime scene’.  Madge murdered Vincent’s wife out of jealousy, then deliberately helped to frame him out of spite. But who will ever know the truth now? In a frantic race against time, Vincent and Irene quietly meet in secret at the bus station before he makes a run for the border. Considering the veritable military presence closing in on all sides, Vincent’s miraculous vanishing act is capped off by another truly ironic moment; an epilogue inside a chichi nightclub in Mexico City. A hunted man no more, Vincent is reunited with Irene, the two sharing a moment together – presumably to lead to romance – before the screen fades to black.
Dark Passage is about as dubious and austere as movies get; Delmer Daves casting a veil of alienation over his big city milieu. Perhaps, Daves firmly believed with Bogart as his star nothing could discourage the picture’s success. He was mistaken. Not even Bogart’s reputation – nor the promise of the ole Bogie/Bacall chemistry – could salvage Dark Passage from devolving into a rather careworn and remorseless epitaph. For certain, part of the picture’s awkwardness is owed to its first person POV. This dominates two thirds of the movie, but deprives us of Bogart’s iconic visage. The other problem with Dark Passage is its screenplay; held together by Vincent Parry’s oft mindless skulking in search of clues. Here is a guy with no ‘Plan B’ – living moment to moment like a scared little animal being hunted by a pack of wild dogs. Odd too, since Parry’s pre-Bogart persona suggests a real piece of work operating outside the law – thug muscle with fists of steel. With Bogart’s casting – and big reveal some 39 minutes in – presided by the notion plastic surgery can magically transform a muscled-up oaf into…well, Humphrey Bogart – seems not only inconceivable, but actually quite silly. And Bogart offers us little of his trademarked rank sarcasm that, at least in other movies, translates rather effectively to raw masculine toughness, with or without a gun.
Even less palpable is Irene’s rather insidious fawning over Vincent, her motivation to see him a free man as wafer thin as the rest of the plot. Are you ready for it? – because the particulars of Vincent’s case recall Irene’s own father’s trial and subsequent incarceration, resulting in his death behind bars. Oh brother, is Irene the posterchild for ‘hybristophilia’ or what? It’s too bad for this Bonnie (but perfect for the Production Code) her Clyde is actually quite blameless of the crime for which he has been accused. Not that it matters to Irene one way or the other. But as it turns out, Vincent Parry would no more harm a hair on either his philandering wife’s or even Madge’s head than defile a chrysanthemum. And Bacall, for all her intuitions and wit as an actress elsewhere, herein plays Irene Jansen right down the middle as a sort of melting mass of ‘his gal Friday’ flavored butter, darting sexual attraction utterly muffled beneath her high-collared noblesse oblige as the forthright defender/patron saint of all lost causes. Virtue does not really suit Bacall’s temperament – at least, not in the movies. There is not enough piss and vinegar in this Sweet Polly Purebred to spark the flint during her dulcet moments of romanticized fantasizing. While poster art and trailers sell Dark Passage as full of lust and passion, what we actually get is a very antiseptic story about Suzy Cream Cheese and her Sport n’ Shave Ken doll who just had the dumb luck to do real time in a penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.  
It is one of Hollywood’s mad ironies Agnes Moorehead once again plays the reviled bitch in Dark Passage. Nearly her entire career was built upon such variations as the spinsterish and persnickety dried prune with nothing but bitterness and venom in her heart; ironic, because in life, Moorehead’s philanthropy was as big as all creation, the keys to her home and her heart left for anyone in need of a helping hand, a good ear to listen and a gentle word, providing genuine comfort.  The last bit of clumsiness that makes Dark Passage B-grade Bogie/Bacall (and occasionally C-grade noir) goes to Delmer Daves’ artistic choices; not only for his screenplay, sorely sagging at intervals, thus allowing the mind to wander – if still be reasonably anesthetized by Sidney Hickox’s inventive and stylish cinematography – but also, for his rather ridiculous abandonment of the subjective POV after Vincent becomes ‘Humphrey Bogart’ incognito. It is a jarring moment of transition; the audience, conjoined with the camera’s eye at the start and cajoled into seeing only what the main character does, suddenly separated from this myopic viewpoint and brought into every scene as the traditionally omnipotent third party, outside looking in for these characters’ motivations and the next pivotal plot point. In the final analysis, Dark Passage is not a great movie. It remains a cagily blemished creature of varying intrigues but like the proverbial toad, no matter how many times kissed, never manages to morph into a prince.  
With Warner Archive’s debut of Dark Passage on Blu-ray, the only co-starring Bogie/Bacall feature left to languish is To Have and Have Not. One sincerely hopes the delay will not be long. Despite the passage of time, Dark Passage on DVD looked superb. On Blu-ray, it advances in all the usually expected areas; better contrast, more refined film grain and a greater amount of detail to delight and amaze. Warner Archive really ought to take a bow and a breath for this and all their other hi-def releases, though particularly the unexpected onslaught of deep catalog titles released as of January this year. Classic movie lovers are being repeatedly treated to Warner’s gradual reopening of their formidable cave of wonders; cinema gems culled from the back catalogs of three golden age movie studios (WB, MGM and RKO) Wow and thank you again! God – and executive management willing – we should see more great titles from this offshoot of Warner Home Video proper in the coming months with rustlings of pending Blu-rays for Victor/Victoria, Love Me Or Leave Me, Silk Stockings and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon already slated.
While I have, from time to time, questioned the decision-making process giving certain ‘lesser’ catalog undue preference, I have nothing but unaffected praise for the consistent level of quality afforded these hi-def releases. So, a bow is definitely in order. Consider it done from this end. The mono DTS audio is, as the visuals, up to snuff. It sounds fantastic. Extras are regurgitated from the old DVD and include a Bugs Bunny short and featurette on the making of the movie. Dark Passage is a reference quality Blu-ray of a less than perfect movie. I would much rather have it this way than the other way around. Wouldn’t you? Bottom line: very highly recommended! Support the format and the studio’s efforts. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)