NIXPIX - DVD & BLU-RAY Reviews

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

PRINCE VALIANT: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1954) Eureka! Home Video

With its swords-crossed Arthurian legend firmly established as a serialized comic strip originally created by Hal Foster in 1937 (and continuing on to this day in newspapers across the United States); its lavishly appointed art direction from Mark-Lee Kirk and Lyle R. Wheeler; superbly photographed by Lucien Ballard, and augmented with memorable bombast by Franz Waxman’s thrilling underscore; Henry Hathaway’s Prince Valiant (1954) is not only a…well… ‘valiant’ successor to Foster’s magnificent illustrated strip, but one of the most sumptuously produced ‘knights of the round table’ spectacles ever achieved for the expansive Cinemascope screen. Dudley Nichol’s deft screenplay manages the impossible feat of condensing nearly twenty years of Foster’s grand adventures into a manageable 100 minutes of flowing melodrama and chivalrous action.
The comic strip is generally regarded as one of the most visually resplendent ever syndicated. The movie deserved no less consideration, and under Wheeler and Kirk’s incredible stylization, Prince Valiant remains a lush and lurid evocation of that bygone era, devoted to fearless knights and their ladies fair, truly bringing Foster’s pubescent hero to life without a chink in the chainmail. That the movie failed to gel at the box office (it cost a whopping $2,970,000 and barely made back $2.6 in the U.S. on its initial release) was indeed a disappointment. For time, money and exceptional care had been bestowed to make this Prince Valiant a very noble changeling.  Much has been made of the effeminizing wig worn by Robert Wagner’s Nordic gallant. I must admit – it’s atrocious; almost as emasculating as the tights, and twice as lethal when coupled with Wagner’s inimitably handsome, though toothy grin.
That said, Wagner wears the wig – not the other way around - and with honor and occasional distinction; his acting mostly competent; his swordplay more than convincing. Wagner was, by 1954, rapidly becoming something of a heartthrob with lurid and adoring fan mail to prove it, pushed to the head of the line by the studio’s PR department for consideration as Fox’s latest leading man. Alas, Wagner’s strengths as an actor would not rival Fox’s homegrown, Tyrone Power – and certainly, never even came within spitting distance of that immortalized template for the virile swashbuckler; Errol Flynn. 
But Wagner’s Prince Valiant is a fairly pragmatic, enticingly energetic and goofily appealing pin-up; making the most of being surrounded by a stellar cast of supporting players that include the formidable Donald Crisp (barely glimpsed as his Viking father, King Aguar), James Mason (top billed as the thoroughly ruthless Sir Brack – a.k.a. the Black Knight), Sterling Hayden (Valiant’s mentor, Sir Gawain), and Brian Aherne and Barry Jones as Kings Arthur and Luke respectively.  
To this eclectic mix of youth and experience is added a pair of lovelies as pure ornamentation: Janet Leigh (as the luminous Princess Aleta) and Debra Paget (underutilized, but supremely attractive as her sister, Ilene). The ladies really don’t have much to do in Prince Valiant except wait to be won by the knights of their choosing, or rather, the one who would claims them for their own. Valiant is in love with Aleta; Ilene desperately pining for Sir Gawain, who prefers Aleta instead. So does Sir Brack. 
Popular girl, that Aleta – her father chagrined when she confides her preference for Valiant above the rest; an exile without a kingdom, whose parents live under Arthur’s protection but are in constant fear of being recaptured by treacherous forces loyal to Sligon (Primo Carnera); a Viking rival. King Aguar’s secret is kept safe by a devoted Christian warrior, Boltar (Victor McLaglen) who sneaks off to repeatedly visit the family in their remote castle hideaway off the coast of England. Aguar confides in Boltar he has lost all thirst for conquest – also, any desire to ever possess the throne for his own again. But he now places in Boltar’s care the future empire for his only son’s consideration. As such, the nubile Valiant will go to England in service to King Arthur and train with the Knights of the Round Table to become a great warrior for his own people.
The journey, alas, is hardly uneventful. For upon reaching the coast, Valiant observes the Black Knight in cahoots with Vikings loyal to Sligon who have already begun their search for Aguar, the Queen (Mary Philips) and Valiant, to recapture and take them back to Sligon’s court in chains for execution. Valiant clumsily topples from his secluded observation perch, landing with a thud at the Black Knight’s feet, quickly recovering and escaping through the forest on horseback; outfoxing the dark menace by cutting himself a breathing tube from one of the reeds and remaining underwater in a shallow lagoon until the threat of capture has passed. 
A short while later, Valiant encounters another knight astride his noble steed and elects to take no chances; beaning the unsuspecting titan in the head with a sizeable rock. When it is revealed to Valiant the knight is none other than Sir Gawain – noble friend to his father – Valiant pledges his services and rides with Gawain to Camelot where he is introduced to King Arthur and the remaining knights including Sir Brack.
Brack is most interested to learn the whereabouts of Valiant’s father and mother, repeatedly inquiring, then apologizing for his inquisitiveness when Val falls silent; having sworn to protect their secret whereabouts to his grave. Brack attempts to make Valiant his charge; a commitment deferred when Sir Gawain campaigns and wins Arthur’s right to claim Valiant as his apprentice in training. Nevertheless, Sir Brack manages to garner Val’s respect, initially appealing to his ego and vanity; offering Val the opportunity to lead him back to the area where he first witnessed the Black Knight’s clandestine rendezvous with the Vikings. This, however, is a deliberate trap; Sir Brack pretending to become separated from Val, thus affording his bowmen – hidden in the forest – a chance to surround Val. The ploy goes badly, however; Val staging a daring escape using an old Viking trick; wounded in the shoulder by one of the bowman’s arrow and lumbering off, barely conscious, to a nearby lagoon where Atela is bathing.
Taken into the family’s care by Atela’s father, King Luke, Val recovers from his ordeal in a few days and is reunited with Sir Brack, who claims to have spent all his time desperately searching for him. Unaware Brack is behind the deception and responsible for his near demise, Val elects to return with him to Camelot; the romance between Val and Atela already hot and heavy, despite Luke’s desire his eldest should marry a knight of quality instead, and – ideally – Sir Brack, who is most enthusiastic and receptive to this idea. Atela confides in Val that her sister, Ilene is desperately in love with Sir Gawain; a love match Val promises to encourage once he has returned to Camelot. 
King Luke and his family have intended to leave their castle within a few days to attend a jousting festival at Arthur’s behest. Now, Atela finagles an invitation to return to Camelot with her family and Brack and Val – Brack reluctantly agreeing to the arrangement, even though he is quite aware it means he cannot finish off Val in the forest on their return home as planned. Upon returning to Arthur’s court, Val discovers Sir Gawain severely wounded; having been ambushed in the forest while searching for Val himself.
Vowing not to leave his mentor’s side again, Val introduces Gawain to Ilene. Alas, there is no spark of romance between them, but more than flint and a few embers upon Gawain’s chance meeting Atela; much to Atela and Val’s chagrin. Val lies to Gawain about his own interests in Atela, encouraging Gawain’s pursuit of the girl he so obviously loves and would prefer as his own. At the jousting match, Sir Brack manages to maim and/or cripple virtually all of the competition, much to Atela’s dismay. For her father has bequeathed her hand in marriage to whoever proves the victor in this event. Determined to prevent Brack from winning Atela’s hand, knowing he shall never possess it himself, Val dons Sir Gawain’s armor and colors, preparing to do battle with Brack in Gawain’s stead. 
Alas, Val’s lack of training betrays his nobler intentions and he is easily defeated by Brack, revealed as a fraud once his helmet is removed on the battlefield. Now, a mysterious knight emerges on the horizon, also challenging Brack; the wily fox rising to meet the foe, but knocked from his mount, thus, losing the match.  When the rogue knight collapses and topples from his steed, Arthur’s physicians attend and quickly realize it is none other than Sir Gawain who has disobeyed his doctor’s orders to remain in bed, and reopened his dangerously infected previous wound.
Arthur charges Val with the severity of the crime of impersonating a knight; Val confessing he knew beforehand the penalty would be extreme – if not, in fact, lethal. Sir Brack cunningly pleads for Arthur to reconsider the charges; affording Val the freedom to confine himself to Sir Gawain’s quarters while Arthur deliberates the appropriate punishment. Alas, Brack’s motives are once again corrupt; a mysterious stranger dropping King Aguar’s jewel-encrusted ring into Sir Gawain’s bedroom late at night to alert Val to the reality his family have been taken prisoner by forces loyal to Sligon. 
Sacrificing his own freedom to return home and save his parents, Val’s escape from Camelot is momentarily prevented by Atela, who mercilessly pleads with him to reconsider what will happen if he leaves without Arthur’s permission. It’s no use, however. Val is headstrong and departs on horseback; alas, ambushed by Sligon’s Vikings in the forest, along with Atela, who has chased after him; the pair carted off, but not before the Black Knight reveals himself to them both.
Stunned to learn Sir Brack is actually the mysterious traitor, Val vows to avenge the injustice. But Brack gloats how he has made a pact with Sligon. In exchange for delivering King Aguar and his family to their doom, Sligon has agreed to provide military assistance in Brack’s campaign to overrun Camelot and become its supreme dictator. Val and Aleta are taken by force to Thule; placed in separate dungeons where Aleta is united with Val’s parents and begins to explain the situation of their capture. On the outskirts, Boltar quietly observes this turn of events and vows to gather his opposing Christian forces in a plot to sneak into the castle, assassinate Sligon and reclaim the throne for King Aguar and his Queen. 
Val escapes the dungeon using his wits; reunited with Boltar, who has already managed to enter the castle undetected. Boltar orders Val to the tower, instructing him to light a torch: his signal to the waiting army outside that Sligon has been killed in the throne room. Alas, before Boltar can act, Val is discovered by Sligon’s forces; an impromptu and fiery battle ensuing all around them. In the resulting chaos, Val and Sligon exchange swords, Val defeating his father’s arch-nemesis and freeing his family and Aleta from the dungeon with mere moments to spare before a good portion of both it and the castle are engulfed in hellish flames.
Returning a full-fledged knight of his own realm to Camelot, Val confronts Sir Brack for his treason in Arthur’s presence as the other knights look on. Brack is chagrined, demanding immediate satisfaction at the point of a sword. Although Arthur encourages Val to accept Sir Gawain as his substitute champion for the duel, Val instead throws down the gauntlet on his own terms and, in a heroic display of swordsmanship, manages to mortally wound and defeat Sir Brack. Victorious, Val feebly reunites Atela with Sir Gawain who magnanimously returns her to Val; confiding in the pair, that in their absence, he has since been seeing quite a lot of Ilene who has made her own amorous intentions known to him. The two are betrothed to one another in fact. Val is ordered by Arthur to kneel before the throne; knighted for his valor with Arthur’s trusty Excalibur.
Prince Valiant is a nonstop spectacle of immeasurable charm, action and chivalry. Hollywood has, for some time, had a great affinity for these courageous days of the Arthurian legend; perhaps never better realized than in this movie. Fans of the Prince Valiant comic strip ought to have been hard-pressed to find fault with such a glowing tribute. Alas, critics were less kind, chastising the production for its endearingly laughable pseudo ‘olde worlde’ dialogue and pantomime cardboard cutout villains. Viewed today, Prince Valiant harks back to a decidedly different era in movie-making; but with a magnificent flair for its sprite adventure yarn, where good predictably triumphs over evil every time, and, no hero worth his weight in armor is ever left without a reconnaissance of kisses levied at him by the token fair maiden of the piece; well-paid remuneration for bravery against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Is Prince Valiant perfect entertainment?  Hardly, its acting is mostly theatrical and often clunky; its characters drawn with broad strokes and little appeal beyond their one-dimensional cartoony feel. Robert Wagner’s sugar-bowl haircut not withstanding; it’s the actor who is present and accounted for on the screen in this adventure yarn – not the character as conceived by Foster. We can never set aside Wagner’s presence and become absorbed in his alter ego. 
That said, Robert Wagner is almost always appealing; fresh-faced, clean cut, briefly showing off his taut torso in a wet, shirtless scene, and thereafter giving us a blistering display of his physical agility as he leaps from tree branches to castle turrets with the ease of a jungle cat let loose on this cobblestone Arthurian landscape to suffer the slings and arrows – and hot cauldrons of oil, no less – but always coming out on top and virtually unscathed for having endured these perilous ordeals.
Viewed today, Prince Valiant speaks to two glorious – if wholly fictitious – pasts; one, centuries in the making and endlessly mythologized on the screen before and ever since; the other, appearing almost centuries older still; the fanciful legend of King Arthur and the even more allegorical glories of that ancient system in old Hollywood, tragically relegated to the annals of history for all time.  We shall not see the like of a Prince Valiant again; or, if so, not one nearly half as fanciful, disarming and full of passion. Pity that. I know I do.
Eureka! Home Video’s Blu-ray release is ‘region free’ but decidedly a grand disappointment; fraught with a barrage of age-related problems that continuously manifest and distract throughout this 1080p presentation. Prince Valiant is superbly staged and photographed by one of the cinema’s true artists – Lucien Ballard; this hi-def transfer giving us a wan ghost flower of what those visuals must have looked like in 1954. The Technicolor elements utilized are in a bad way. It isn’t only transitions between scenes that exhibit a momentary and garish exchange of those originally lush and vibrant hues, since turned to chalk with alarming frequency. The image toggles between moments where the color snaps together with almost remarkable resilience, and, other instances, when it all but implodes with severe fading and the onslaught of vinegar syndrome. 
There’s also some built-in flicker and a slight, though nevertheless obvious, gate weave throughout, more noticeable in projection than on smaller monitors. Age- related artifacts plague, although I must admit they’re not heavy or even very distracting for the most part. Film grain waffles back and forth; from practically nonexistent to severe and heavy in spots. Ugh – and ugly to boot.
The DTS 5.1 audio is another reason to weep; though sharp and with clearly represented dialogue, there is a noticeable hiss and occasional pop happening throughout. Quiescent moments are just awful; so much distortion and background noise it’s like listening to the ocean in a seashell. If this transfer has been officially sanctioned by 2oth Century-Fox (as opposed to a bootleg) then the studio ought to be ashamed over what’s happening herein. Prince Valiant is a veritable disaster; a text book example of everything and anything that can go wrong when a movie isn’t properly archived/restored and remastered for future generations to admire and appreciate.
I would have liked to recommend this classic swashbuckler to a new generation as well as to older fans who remember the movie in its prime. But Eureka!’s presentation is among the worst Blu-rays I’ve had the misfortune to screen. Pass – and to be used as a Frisbee or coaster for your highball only!  And the studios continue to question why there’s no renewable market for classics on Blu-ray?!? Well, duh!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
1
EXTRAS
0

THE CHILDREN'S HOUR: Blu-ray (United Artists 1961) Kino Lorber

The insidious lie of a malicious child and how it destroys the lives of three adult innocents remains at the crux of William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961); a rather odd duck of a movie reporting to be about lesbianism; or rather, the implication of it, but winding up a loose character study, presented mostly in hushed whispers, snide insinuations and with some unintentionally laughable bad acting. Lillian Hellman’s play of the same name had created quite a stir in 1934; Hellman basing her treatise about small town hypocrisy on an actual incident occurring in 1809: two Scottish teachers whose lives were destroyed by allegations of a lesbian affair. The Scotts didn’t take things lying down. They were victorious in their liable suit; the victory, alas, never equating to a restoration of their ruined reputations. In Hellman’s play, the rumor, what was then considered a sexual abomination, is compounded by the loss of this lawsuit; the truth only revealed by a gracious whim of fate, exposing the two girls who have perpetuated the lie; one the habitual ‘bad seed’, the other an angst-ridden kleptomaniac.
Even the mention of the word ‘homosexuality’ was taboo in 1934 – actually, illegal under New York State law. However, Hellman’s keen exposure of its allegation as a lie proved so shocking – as entertainment – the play became an instant sensation with critics and audiences, the authorities willing to look the other way for the sake of ‘art’. If such stringencies seem cruelly hypocritical to downright silly today, they were only amplified when director, William Wyler undertook to transpose Hellman’s play to the movie screen in 1936; producer Samuel Goldwyn forced by the Hays Office to censor the premise; also to change the title of the movie – first rechristened ‘The Lie’, but later released as ‘These Three’. Instead of lesbianism, it was whispered that one of the teachers had been having a salacious sexual affair with the other’s fiancé. Egad! Made impotent by the Production Code, These Three was little more than a blip on the cinema radar; a movie of such stilted and melodramatic tedium it quickly vanished from the public’s consciousness.
However, in remaking the movie in 1961 under its original title – and with its original premise intact – William Wyler has still managed to miss much of Hellman’s potency; despite the fact he is less encumbered by such artistic stringencies and afforded ample freedom to explore Hellman’s loaded scenario. John Michael Hayes’ screenplay retains a lot of Hellman’s dialogue and adheres closely to the machinations of her stagecraft; altering the penultimate suicide from a fatal gunshot to a hanging (less messy and graphic, I presume, and artfully staged in the film from a low camera angle; a toppled chair in the foreground/the shadow of a pair of dangling legs cast across a nearby bed – how very Lillian Gish of Wyler). Alas, Wyler seems to have acquired cold feet in the eleventh hour of postproduction; co-star Shirley MacLaine later claiming some of her best work fell to the cutting room floor because of her director’s concerns over negative critical reaction.   
Viewing The Children’s Hour from our present day acceptance of homosexuality as a part of human sexual relations is a bit like taking a quantum step back in time, when such narrow-minded rejection of even the notion of same-sex love – let along marriage – seemed disgustingly abhorrent. North America’s suppression of such undeniable, valid and ever-present human interaction has always fascinated me; particularly in the shadow of Europe’s laissez faire attitudes. What exactly are we afraid of; the notion then that homosexuality was a ‘curable disease’ best left undiscussed for fear its very mention would contaminate even those not predisposed to ‘dabble’ in its experimentation? Really?!? Under such unfriendly circumstances, Lillian Hellman’s play must have tempted not only providence in 1934 but also the general tenor of popular – and thoroughly misguided…uh… ‘wisdom’ on the subject back then. And Wyler, who clearly felt he had made compromises – and did – in his 1936 version, alas, has managed to remain somewhat aloof in committing wholeheartedly to the potency of the play in this 1961 remake.
There are several gaping holes in the narrative tapestry this time around; the most egregious, that we are left to speculate just what was whispered into Mrs. Amelia Tilford’s (Fay Bainter) ear by her revoltingly manipulative granddaughter, Mary (Karin Balkin); the insinuation never spelled out for the audience, but continuing to fester in some veiled remarks made by one of the accused’s relations; an aunt - Mrs. Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins), who deems her niece’s friendly devotion to her best friend as ‘unnatural’. The term ‘unnatural’ becomes a loaded inference in the movie, spreading like wildfire throughout the nimble-minded community. Despite the relaxed nature of the Production Code by 1961, Wyler cannot even bring himself to share the film’s dirty little secret with the audience in a scene where school teacher, Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) demands to know the reason why one of the parents, Mr. Burton (William Mims) has come to remove his child from their private institution. Instead, the scene is played in long shot, the other teacher in this equation, Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) quietly observing from a distance and through a screen door as Karen’s demeanor changes from rank frustration to emasculated defeat at the discovery she is being denunciated for a lesbian relationship.
Worse for the overall tenor and strength of the movie, Wyler denies us even a few choice snippets of the liable lawsuit brought by Karen and Martha in their enfeebled attempt to clear their good names of these charges; their loss at trial revealed only in a brief toss away line after the fact; Martha and Karen left near catatonic and wondering how such slanderous allegations could endure without any legitimate basis in fact to support them. The wrinkle in the play – and the movie – is, of course, that one of the accused has, in fact, harbored homoerotic feelings toward the other, unrequited but nevertheless genuine; the discovery of these suppressed urges and feelings leading to a fatal rupture in the integrity of their friendship and, ultimately, death by suicide. Wyler’s lack of confidence to just come right out and state the premise of the story is really what submarines its focus in the end; the already fatigued second-tier romance between Karen and her fiancé, town doctor, Joe Cardin (James Garner) – who also happens to be Mrs. Tilford’s nephew – relegated to objectionable weak-kneed platitudes, self-doubts and pities.
Interestingly, William Wyler showed more defiance and courage in hiring James Garner to co-star in his movie; Garner coming off of a rather messy lawsuit and break from Warner Bros. over being released from his contract on the popular television series, Maverick (1957-62). The blackballing of Garner by the studio might have easily ruined his chances to procure other work. Instead, Wyler helped to re-launch Garner’s career as a movie star. If only Wyler had been more aggressively supportive of Lillian Hellman’s powerful stagecraft, The Children’s Hour might have truly been an outstanding piece of progressively-minded cinema art. As it stands, the film is little more than a moderately compelling melodrama, further impugned by some really clunky acting; the worst being Karin Balkin’s over-the-top devious and prepubescent hellcat who runs the gamut from dramatically faking a blackout to blackmailing impressionable fellow student, Rosalie Wells (Veronica Cartwright), the latter giving into fear her kleptomania will be exposed; particularly since Balkin’s Mary Tilford holds the evidence in the palm of her hand: the discovery of a charm bracelet in Rosalie’s possession, a stolen gift belonging to another student, Helen.
The Children’s Hour begins in the idyllic country house Karen and Martha have converted into a private all-girl’s school. It’s taken every investment of their time, energy and money to build the enrollment to its present sustainable standard. And by all indications, next year’s membership promises even more handsome returns. The school is not without its problems; chiefly, Martha’s rather slavish devotion to Karen and Karen’s strong desire to wed Joe at summer’s end, presumably, to leave the school in Martha’s competent care. Martha’s aunt, Lily proves something of the proverbial fly in this ointment; a silly and self-professed ex-star of the Broadway stage, who chronically laments her decision to remain at the school and help out by offering elocution classes to the young girls; also tips on social graces and etiquette that are as outdated as they prove ridiculous.
Lily points out to Martha that her own lack of procuring a husband, as well as her loyalties to Karen, and minor jealousies toward Joe, are ‘unnatural’ – a phrase overheard by two of Mary’s roommates without any context or understanding of what it actually means. Mary, who is a troublemaker and spoiled in the extreme, decides to use her interpretation of ‘unnatural’ as revenge against Karen, who has more recently taken to disciplining the girl for her belligerence. Whispering something in her grandmother, Amelia’s ear, Mary is pleased when the mummified dowager moves her back into her home and begins to doubt the integrity of the school, spreading the rumor throughout the community and thereby inciting the rest of the conservative parents to partake in a mass exodus of their children from Karen and Martha’s care.
Perplexed and wounded by this sudden and mysterious reversal of their good fortunes, Karen confronts one of the parents, Mr. Burton, demanding to know the reason. Burton’s reluctant confession sends Karen and Martha straight to Amelia’s house; Joe in full support of Karen as Amelia is forced to admit what she has done. In the meantime, Rosalie has been blackmailed by Mary to back her in the lie about Karen and Martha being lovers. Though Rosalie is obviously averse to keeping Mary’s secret, she cannot expose it without Mary disclosing to everyone she is a chronic thief with the threat of jail hanging over her head. Thus, when Karen, Martha and Joe confront Mary in Amelia’s presence, inquiring how she comes by her information, the child lies, first – that she herself observed the pair through the keyhole of Martha’s bedroom (a lie easily exposed by Martha, since there is no keyhole in her door), then by forcing Rosalie to lie for her about having spied Martha and Karen from a distance through an open doorway.
This corroboration of Mary’s lie forces Karen and Martha into an impossible situation: a public trial they fervently believe will exonerate their good names. Instead, they lose their case – the verdict sealing their fates as wanton sexual perverts unworthy of managing an all-girl’s school. Forced to live in exile inside the abandoned school, infrequently leered at by curious passersby, Karen suggests the two make plans to leave the area at once and seek other employment elsewhere and far away from all the unpleasantness. Joe returns to Karen’s side. He is contrite but angry for having his doubts; temporarily resigning his commission at the local hospital and making plans to wed Karen immediately, taking both her and Martha away until the latter can make for other arrangements.
Lily, who left the school at Martha’s behest earlier, before the rumor broke – but refused to testify on her niece’s behalf at trial – thus, helping promote the rumor by her absence and lack of support – now returns to the school; her fledgling comeback on the stage an absolute bust. Joe confesses to Karen he still has his doubts, his empathic need to inquire whether or not the rumor was ever true, forcing Karen to realize regardless of her reply he will always have his misgivings. It’s over between the two and for the first time in their relationship, each knows it; a very bitter pill to swallow.
Karen sends Joe away and Martha cruelly orders Lily to leave the school just as soon as she can pack and catch the next train. Karen encourages Martha to reconsider their options. They will leave the school together – forever under a cloud of suspicion – but nevertheless as friends devoted to see this unholy episode in their lives through to a brighter future somewhere else. Alas, Martha now confides in Karen she has indeed ‘loved’ her from afar as more than a friend; her own emotions constantly tortured and kept hidden deep in her heart, occasionally manifested as rank and unwarranted jealousy toward Joe. It doesn’t matter to Karen now, perhaps because she has never entertained any such notions herself. And Martha, despite her ‘flaw’ has been a devoted friend whom Karen’s personal integrity will not allow her to abandon even now when she knows the truth but needs her most. Karen decides to go for a walk to clear her mind; Martha quietly observing her from an upstairs window.
Alas, too late Karen comes to an ominous premonition; that Martha has remained behind to kill herself and thus put a period to her emotional suffrage. Hurrying back to the house, Karen finds Martha’s bedroom locked, using a heavy metal candlestick from the closet to break down the door, only to discover her friend having hanged herself from one of the support beams in the ceiling. Joe, Amelia and Lily attend the funeral, though only Karen remains behind with the casket to say a few words of prayer. Depositing Lily, who is overwrought with insincere emotions, into a waiting cab, Karen proudly marches out of the cemetery and past the sheepish gathering of onlookers, now more clearly able to see them for their own ugliness: hypocrites who contributed to the demise of her one true friend.
The Children’s Hour has its moments, and indeed the acting put forth by Shirley MacLaine in particular is of the highest quality; Audrey Hepburn and James Garner running her a very close second. In this triage of stellar talents, director William Wyler manages to generate some sparked exchanges and pronounced sexual friction that never appears rehearsed, forced or simply grappling to expose the melodrama for its own sake.  Alas, the film is hampered by its ancillary performances; particularly Fay Bainter’s duped adjuvant, who spends the bulk of the film wringing her hands with a wounded teddy bear expression sketched across her weather-beaten wrinkly façade.  When Bainter’s Amelia first learns of the alleged homosexual relationship from her granddaughter it is an awkward moment of revelation; one that should hardly have prompted such a rash decision to spread the unsubstantiated rumor all over town before at least confronting the accused to get the other side of the story.
Karen Balkin has the look of a pigtailed deceiver and bearded hypocrite, but not the temperament or stomach for it. Her scenes with Veronica Cartwright – an infinitely more talented and convincing actress – are weak and predicated on a highly stylized bit of manipulation. There’s no subtly to Balkin’s delivery; nothing to convince us she actually would do this wicked thing, be able to successfully pull it off, and, not expect it all to backfire in the end. And alas, the whole film seems to pivot on our ability to accept that everyone else would buy into Balkin’s lie when she so clearly doesn’t really believe it herself. Yes, Mary is using her own wicked imagination to get back at the two educators who have endeavored to enrich, evolve and force her to progress in her character. Alas, Mary has none; and Balkin lacks the ability to convince us of the child’s wholly unscrupulous nature.
The Children’s Hour is still a fairly entertaining artifact of its time and well worth the price of admission as a solid movie starring our beloved Audrey Hepburn. It is imperfect entertainment and a not terribly prepossessing melodrama – a pity that – because it’s rather obvious the stars involved and William Wyler have hoped for and aspired to a better piece of cinema more enlightening, progressive and startlingly in its revelations than it actually is. Nevertheless, The Children’s Hour isn’t a washout entirely, even if what’s present only gives us a faint whiff of Lillian Hellman’s trend-setting stage work.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a middling effort, culled from imperfectly archived film elements under MGM/Fox’s lock and key. There are several glaring cuts in the film. Shirley MacLaine has always maintained Wyler somewhat chickened out in the editing process, removing bits of dialogue to soften the homosexual context. And, indeed, we can see some rather clumsy edits at play; two shots suddenly jumping from medium to close-up with an optical zoom; the trains of actors’ thoughts unceremoniously interrupted with a jump cut or splice ruining the continuity of the scene. But there are some curiously absent frames scattered throughout that belie Wyler’s simply editing out bits of dialogue. A scene where Shirley MacLaine silently enters the room appears to be missing one or two frames as she opens the door, as example. There are also a few brief scenes obviously sourced from optically zoomed in and reframed film elements. Were these made at the time of the movie’s original shoot – in camera - or in Wyler’s editing room, or perhaps inaccurately reprinted somewhere after the fact and to what purpose? Hmmmm.  The B&W image is mostly smooth, perhaps a little too smooth – the absence of discernable film grain suggesting undue DNR has been liberally applied. Although contrast is mostly solid, there are a few scenes where levels have been artificially boosted, particularly in a few of the daytime exteriors. These exhibit weaker than anticipated tonality overall. The DTS mono audio is adequate though unremarkable; mercifully absent of any noticeable hiss or pop. As with most other Kino Lorber classics recently released, The Children’s Hour comes with zero extras, save a truly atrocious trailer that all but gives away its shocking suicide ending. Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS

0       

Monday, August 18, 2014

TARZAN: Blu-ray (Walt Disney 1999) Disney Home Video

Interesting man, that Edgar Rice Burroughs: ex-military, twice married – once, to the ex-wife of his best friend – a dabbler in outer space adventurist novels and a war correspondent at the time of Pearl Harbor. Burroughs was what, sadly, is no more: a true renaissance man to whom the imagination was a fruitful escape from the realities of life; an individualist with a keen sense of timing and an even more ambitious and prosaic writing style that thoroughly captivated the public’s imagination; first with bizarre exploits into the farthest reaches of space. Gene Roddenberry would have loved Burroughs. But it was another character for which the author will likely always be remembered: another rugged nonconformist: sinewy and caught unawares in his loin cloth – the ape man: Tarzan.
In an era when too few in North America knew anything about the world outside their small rural communities, Burroughs’ lurid tales of the Dark Continent and this uninhibited titan of virile masculinity proved the magic elixir to fire our collective imaginations. Burroughs’ readership for Tarzan ran the gamut from six to sixty and appealed to men and women alike for obvious reasons. Boys/men saw themselves in the part of this towering, taut figure from the jungle, taming the wild beasts with superior intellect and finely honed hunter’s skills. Girls/women quietly fanaticized about such a raw and uninhibited superman sweeping them up in his bulging arms and pressing their bosom to his naked chest. Apart from a best-selling novel, first serialized in 1912, and thereafter published in its complete form in 1914, Tarzan would also become a much celebrated comic strip, a radio program, and finally, a different kind of hero in the cinema. Adolph Hitler reportedly banned MGM’s Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) as part of his degenerate art program; the film featuring a nude swim between Olympic champion, Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan; the latter actually receiving death threats and offers to live out the rest of her days in exile – and shame – for briefly appearing in the raw. Ah me, how times have changed.
In re-conceptualizing Tarzan as a creature of Disney fiction, supervising animator Glen Keane became awestruck by two attributes inherent in Burroughs’ original character design; first, Tarzan was a skilled mimic, who had mastered the dialect of his four-legged brethren; including his adopted ape family, truly affording him the ability to ‘talk to the animals’ long before Rex Harrison’s Doctor Doolittle even entertained such a notion; and second - Burroughs’ descriptions of Tarzan’s physical prowess and agility were impossibly beyond the movements of the human body as created by nature. Nevertheless, the ape man’s athleticisms were faithfully recopied in all their fanciful virility, particularly in the celebrated graphic comic strips of the 1920’s, giving Keane a novel idea. Perhaps, this ancient man of the jungle, in his daring pivots, leaps and vine-swinging dexterity, shared more than a passing commonality with the contemporary skateboarder; a sport for which Keane’s own son shared an affinity.
In many ways, Disney’s Tarzan (1999) is closer to Burroughs’ archetypal feral man/child than any of the many lucrative cinematic adaptations gone before it; the animators, under Keane’s supervision in France, delving more deeply into human anatomy and physiology than ever before to will this jungle giant into his cartoon reality. Ultimately, any story about a muscle man wearing little more than a strip of torn cloth, barely covering his genitalia, is going to spark issues involving human sexuality – a big no-no for any Disney feature meant to appeal to very young tots and the prepubescent sect. And, I must confess, there were some moments in Disney’s Tarzan that positively reeked of sweaty pheromones and male machismo run amuck. As example, the adult Tarzan’s brutal confrontation with the vicious leopard that killed his human mother and father while he was still a baby, builds on a subliminal underlay of sexual tensions; Tarzan – without his mate – destined to establish his masculinity as a predator/victor over nature’s most vicious alley cat.
To help diffuse the heart-palpitating primal aura in these vignettes, the Disney animators have fallen back on a time-honored tradition of rank slapstick for their inspiration once Burrough’s lord of the jungle (magnificently voiced by Tony Goldwyn) meets Jane Porter (Minnie Driver), the woman who will teach him many things, including the concept of love. Alas, this latter pursuit has been completely distilled and buried under a mountain of slickly packaged double entendre, culminating in one very antiseptic kiss. ‘You Tarzan…me Jane?’ To clarify, that line is never uttered – not just in this version, but in virtually every movie gone before it. Tarzan and Jane’s ‘cute meet’ in Disney’s version takes place appropriately in the treetops after he has narrowly rescued her from a hungry pack of baboons. She attempts to break the strongman’s silence with several pert and plucky queries that he clumsily mimes back to her; the pair getting no closer to the truth of the moment until Tarzan appropriately raises a tender finger to Jane’s lips; as in ‘shut up, woman and kiss me.’ Alas, this Tarzan is far more fascinated coming face to face with one of his own kind; his oversized Neanderthal-knuckled fingers pressed firmly against Jane’s slender digits.
And this Jane is hardly the forthright, headstrong researcher following in her father, Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne) footsteps, but a rather mawkish, occasionally flirty, and thoroughly flighty female, who swoons and moons over our tawny Tarzan almost from the moment she first sets eyes on his rippling frame and flowing mane of Rastafarian brown hair. ‘Me Jane…you husband?’ The rest of the characters in Disney’s Tarzan are played strictly for laughs. Professor Porter is a bumbling aristocrat with a thoroughly unscientific mind. His guide, Clayton (Brian Blessed) is a boorish hulk who commands via courtly fear and at the point of a double-barreled shotgun constantly pointed at anything stirring in the underbrush.  Tarzan’s best friends are Terk (Rosie O’Donnell); a Mohawk-ed female gorilla, all guts but no glory, and Tantor (Wayne Knight), a slightly neurotic elephant, worried about microbes in the lagoon water. This leaves the crux of our tale and most of the dramatic heavy lifting to Glenn Close’s Kala – Tarzan’s adopted ‘gorilla’ mother – and Lance Henriksen, Kerchak, protector of the band.  
Tarzan is most effective in its first act, told almost entirely in pantomime under Phil Collin’s superb ‘Two Worlds’ – a musical bridge, effectively illustrating whole chapters from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel in just a few brief scenes, given to some of the most complex and powerful animation yet exhibited in a Disney feature. We witness a shipwreck during a violent thunderstorm (shades of Disney’s own Swiss Family Robinson 1960); the baby Tarzan’s human father and mother narrowly escaping with their child; forging with little more than the clothes on their backs into this tropical paradise, alas, soon to become their grave. For upon building a fabulous treehouse, complete with furniture and heirlooms (presumably salvaged from the wreck), the couple are torn to pieces by the leopard; the babe left buried under a blanket to survive on its own. In another part of the jungle, Kala and Kerchak experience the death of their beloved offspring – again, killed by the leopard who, clearly, gets around. Forlorn, Kala wanders off from the band, stumbling upon the ravaged treehouse and Tarzan, whom she almost immediately develops a maternal bond toward.
Kerchak is hardly supportive of Kala’s decision to rear this human offspring as one of their family. In fact, as time wears on, Kerchak develops a distinct distaste for the young Tarzan (voiced by Alex D. Linz); repeatedly told by Kerchak he will never truly be one of them. The child’s feelings are wounded. But he begins to evolve socially as his own creation – also as something of a born leader, trademarking the famous roar (created as a half yodel by Johnny Weissmuller for the 1932 MGM classic and forever after entered into the annals as part of the Tarzan folklore). Terk is Tarzan’s friend…well, sort of…encouraging him to acquire an elephant hair in order to prove his worth to the band. It’s a stunt, of course, but one the naïve boy endeavors to fulfill, inadvertently inciting an elephant stampede after Tantor mistakes the amphibious Tarzan for a man-eating (or in this case, elephant-eating) piranha. Another pair of songs from composer/singer/song writer, Phil Collins – the poignant ballad, ‘You’ll Be in My Heart’ and rockabilly ‘Son of Man’ and we advance into Tarzan’s adulthood. Tarzan (now voiced by Tony Goldwyn) is a buff, butch and tree-surfing muscle god who uses both his feet and hands to maneuver through the dense jungle terrain. There are sequences in Tarzan that ought to have been photographed in 3D and it is a wonder – given our present-day occupation with 3D that Tarzan has yet to make the conversion and reissue in theaters. Go figure. But I digress.
Tarzan’s friends are still Tantor and Terk; that is, until the arrival of Jane and Professor Porter and their jungle guide, Clayton. Jane predictably strays off course, losing sight of her father and Clayton, but encountering a baby baboon who she sketches in her notebook. Alas, her precocious model steals the picture; Jane tricking the tiny animal into giving it back with the promise of a banana, only to suddenly realize she is surrounded by adult baboons intent on settling the score by tearing her apart. Tarzan appears, rescues Jane with ease and carries her up into the treetops to relative safety. She discovers his name and shortly thereafter realizes an unanticipated physical attraction. Part of the success of virtually all cinematic versions of the Tarzan story is that each relies on the traditional damsel-in-distress fairy tale; Burroughs’ idea of Prince Charming having morphed into a man unashamed of his almost naked masculinity and unaware of how this woman’s touch will intrude upon his perfect world.
Jane introduces Tarzan to her father and Clayton; the latter, insincerely encouraging Jane’s reeducation of the ape man in the hopes he will lead them straight into the hideaway of the gorilla band. Alas, Tarzan is torn in his alliances; increasingly drawn to Jane – for obvious reasons – and incurring Kerchak’s ire and Kala’s disappointment. Eventually, Kala realizes she can no longer deny this son of man his rightful place among his own kind. She leads Tarzan back to the derelict treehouse where his journey first began. Discovering the clothes of his late father – miraculously preserved – Tarzan emerges from the treehouse in Victorian attire. Not long thereafter, Tarzan elects to return to England with Jane and her father, the trio unaware Clayton has given orders to the crew of the waiting ship to kidnap them once they board; Clayton pursuing the gorillas into the jungle and taking a good many captive – presumably as specimens for the zoos back home.
Realizing their friend is in trouble, Tantor and Terk board the vessel while most of its crew is on the mainland, setting Tarzan, Jane and the Professor free. Tarzan manages to liberate Kala, Kerchak and others from the band who have already been taken captive by Clayton, but not before Clayton manages to shoot Kerchak and wound Tarzan. In the ensuing struggle high atop the trees, Clayton becomes entangled in vines and is strangled to death; the moment vividly – and quite artistically – captured in silhouette as Tarzan looks on. Departing the jungle for home, the Professor encourages Jane to remain behind with Tarzan, whom she has obviously come to love. Jane leaps from the boat in full dress and stumbles back to shore in her sopping wet gown and pantaloons. Alas, the proverbial cliché for a Disney happy ending intrudes; the professor electing to stay behind as well. In the final moments, we see Tarzan, Jane and the professor swinging through the trees, the sequence concluding with a panoramic vista of the jungle set against a backdrop of waterfalls and Tarzan, perched atop a precipice, giving out with his trademarked yelp.
Disney’s Tarzan remains, regrettably, one of the last examples of the studio’s preeminence in hand-drawn character animation, utilizing computer technologies only when the genuine touch of human artistry requires a helping hand rather than a crutch to tell its story effectively. One of the film’s most appealing aspects is its fidelity to realistic jungle terrain and vegetation. Glen Keane and his team of animators actually went to Africa to soak up the flavor of the Dark Continent – Uganda’s gorilla park proving an inspirational starting point to better inform the movie’s background paintings and layouts. Returning to the studio with a wealth of documented footage shot on 150 rolls of film and video tape; Tarzan’s co-directors, Kevin Lima and Chris Buck turned their full attentions to the story behind the visuals, relying on ‘Deep Canvas’; a digital program to allow the animators a 360 degree porthole into Tarzan’s lush tropical world; the camera seemingly effortlessly moving in and out of this dense jungle foliage; the perspective in a constant heart-palpitating flux. While Keane single-handedly animated Burroughs’ muscled superhero in France, supervising animator, Ken Duncan worked on the creation of a convincing Jane back at the Burbank studios; the two constantly in teleconference; the results, a seamless blend of character interaction.
In turning to Phil Collins to score the picture, Disney Inc. made a fortuitous decision that, in hindsight has severely dated Tarzan. Collins remains an artist of rare and passionate sincerity; also, raw emotional content. Alas, the essence of his sound is iconic of a particular moment in time rather than lending itself to a more timeless air and quality. There is more than a hint of the 80’s Phil Collins in Tarzan – the drum-heaving beats of ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Strangers Like Me’ harking all the way back to Collins’ own chart-topping, ‘Sussudio’ from 1985. The score for Tarzan is undeniably poignant in the same way Elton John’s songs for The Lion King (1994) yield a magnificently rich sonic presence. But John’s music does not box The Lion King’s visuals into any sort of musical timeline. Part of the challenge with Tarzan is that Collins is on the soundtrack; his underscore playing like an extended pop-opera a la The Who’s Tommy or a concert piece in which Collins – not the characters who inhabit our story – is the real star.
In the final analysis, Disney’s Tarzan is an artifact from an era in animation, sadly, behind us. Its strengths are plainly visible to the naked eye and mesmerizing to behold; ideally, the most comprehensive and viscerally immersive visual experience yet produced under the studio’s renaissance banner, certainly since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Alas, in hindsight, it lacks the staying power of the aforementioned movie, also The Lion King, to be a truly iconic part of the studio’s heritage. Instead, it’s a noble contribution to what I will label Walt’s second string which, after all, and, at least for Disney, is still head and shoulders above most everything else we’ve seen in the world of animation before or since.
Disney Home Video has finally come around to releasing Tarzan on Blu-ray. It’s been well worth the wait, however…well…mostly.  Colors are splashy and vibrant with inky blacks and superbly balanced contrast. Fine detail is another reason to sit back and go ‘wow’! Alas, there’s significant ringing around some of these razor-sharp line drawings. There are also prevailing issues of macro-blocking in fine detail, particularly animal fur, and aliasing/pixilation, coupled with some intermittent banding and ever-so-slight built-in flicker. Tarzan is a movie of arresting visual splendor that rarely takes a breather long enough for the eye to settle on such minute distractions. But they are present, and more glaringly obvious in projection than on standard flat screen monitors.  In motion, Tarzan looks fairly appealing until the eye manages to focus on one of the aforementioned oversights. Then, it becomes a game of periodically distracting the eye from appreciating the visual artistry on display – and that’s a genuine shame.
After a spate of remastered classics in 7.1 DTS Disney Inc. has retired the idea, remaining true to Tarzan’s original 5.0 theatrical mix. Alas, it’s dated somewhat, and less aggressive during the thunderous action sequences than one might expect, missing the boom-boom bass that might have blown the discerning audiophile out of his/her chair. Dialogue is nevertheless intelligibly represented and your rear speakers are in for a workout that makes the jungle atmosphere of the picture all-encompassing.  Extras are all imports from Disney’s SE DVD, and included an informative audio commentary, plus a litany of featurettes that really ought to have been edited into one comprehensive documentary. It’s a minor quibble. A more prominent one is that none of the aforementioned featurettes has been remastered. The video quality is really quite horrible and subpar for Disney. Extra features – if they’re important enough to include, they ought to be cleaned up and remastered to bring them in line with current viewing standards. Of course, this too is based on the quality and format of elements being used. But what’s here has so obviously been slapped together in whatever condition it existed in back in 1999 that it really is quite disappointing. Bottom line: the movie is recommended, though not perfect. The extras are disposable at best and presented in such a way as to quickly tire and bore the eye.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
3

Sunday, August 17, 2014

NIGHT AND THE CITY: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1950) Intergroove

Renowned for its lurid concoction of unrepentant remorseless and ruinous characters, its startling brutality and its maggoty episodes of sexual betrayal; Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) remains an explosive and exploitive excursion into London’s dodgy netherworld. The film was infamously decimated by famed, NY Times’ critic, Bosley Crowther as a ‘pointless trashy yarn’ reveling in its ‘turgid pictorial grotesque(ness)’.  Crowther’s review, though unapologetically negative, nevertheless, manages to tap into the essential ‘quality’ of the piece since earmarking Night and the City as a cornerstone of film noir. We must recall the term ‘film noir’ had no place in the American cinema-maker’s consciousness at the time such films were being made. Dassin, as example, did not set out to make a ‘film noir’; the term introduced into critical discourse as early as 1946 by French critic, Nino Frank, though not embraced as part of the American lexicon until the 1960’s; meant mostly to catalogue and more easily identify ‘the movement’ after the fact; a decided departure from all those frothy light-hearted spectacles from the 1930’s toward a more cynical mélange after 1940.
Too many theories about noir have tried to classify it as a subconscious endeavor. Yet, perhaps, only when considering the rationing of the war years (that decidedly put a cap on Hollywood’s ability to produce spendthrift entertainments as they had done only ten years earlier) does the true impetus of noir style begin to seep into Hollywood’s collective output. Simplified: consider how the woes of the Great Depression and WWII had made audiences more readily accessible to cynicism. But lest we forget that chiaroscuro lighting, a fog filter and great cinematography can do wonders for any film’s ‘production values’ when there are no ‘big beautiful gleaming white sets’ to photograph. And nowhere is this absence better revealed than in the noir crime/detective thriller. For here is a realm populated by an assortment of distortedly unscrupulous, often vicious reprobates who lived, not in the aristocratic penthouses of the hoi poloi but in the dank bowels, war-ravaged ratskellers and unseemly ramshackle of wooden huts dotting the perpetual murkiness of sea rot and worm-infested wharfs.
We get all this – and a lot more – in Dassin’s Night and the City – jolly-old London, given over to a post-war squalidness, haunted by urban decay. Jo Eisinger’s screenplay, based on Gerald Kersh’s novel of the same name uses location to extol the stark wickedness of some truly evil people caught in a trap of their own design. There’s Francis L. Sullivan’s Phil Nosseross (as in Rhinoceros…get it?), the perpetually sweat-sticky/portly proprietor of the Silver Fox – a hotbed for underworld espionage. His wife, Helen (Googie Withers) is a hot-to-trot ex-showgirl – nee prostitute – given safe haven in trade for a tenuous favor-based marital relationship, since worn severely thin, despite the fact Phil really does love the viper he married. Helen, however, has never been satisfied with their arrangement and yearns to ditch her life as a kept woman to become the owner of her own house of ill-repute.  The Silver Fox is hardly above board; the hired help coached by Helen in the ways of lightening their clientele’s purses once the lights have been turned down low. We also get Mike Mazurki – one of the undisputed criterions of ‘noir’ – herein cast as ‘the Strangler’ – a pro-wrestler, misused by notorious racketeer, Kristo (Herbert Lom).   
Into this den of iniquity stumble two innocents: one marginally tainted; small time operator, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) who, despite possessing both intelligence and charm, is always pursuing the wrong dreams in his desperate desire to ‘become somebody’ quick. We pause a moment here to tip our hats to Richard Widmark; his tenure at 2oth Century-Fox begun playing raving psychotics like Tommy Udo, Alec Stiles and Jefty Robbins in Kiss of Death (1947), The Street with No Name (1948) and Road House (1948) respectively, before effortlessly crossing to the other side as a second-string leading man. It’s in Night and the City Widmark’s film persona is in its most obvious transitional phase; the bone-chilling whack job from the aforementioned films leaning just this side of misguided. Harry Fabian is a loser – and not of the lovable ilk either – but one we can feel a modicum of empathy toward.
The other novice of the piece is Harry’s careworn, yet eternally empathetic gal pal, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) who is in chronic ‘damage control’ mode to keep both she and Harry afloat financially. Alas, there’s just so much even this inherently ‘good woman’ can do. Pity Gene Tierney; an actress whose talents, honed and willed by Darryl F. Zanuck, made her one of the studio’s most sought after leading ladies of the 1940’s, but whose career experienced a cataclysmic downward slalom. Looking back on Tierney’s tragic private life beyond the movies, there always seemed to be another dimension of allure to all those sad-eyed vixens she brought to the screen; occasionally as the willful and self-destructing femme fatale with poison on her mind and venom in her heart – or…at least, occupying the hollow where a real woman’s heart ought to be.   
Night and the City really doesn’t give Tierney much of an opportunity to shine. She breezes in for a few choice scenes at the start, then all but vanishes until near the end; forced to crisscross the backdoor world of Suzy Wong in search of her wayward lover, earmarked for extinction by Kristo as revenge for the death of his own father; wrestling great, Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko).  Interestingly, Night and the City isn’t entirely Richard Widmark’s picture either; his presence merely essential to keep the machinations of Jo Eisinger’s plot moving along. If anything, the movie belongs to Jules Dassin; newly exiled after being labeled a communist sympathizer by HUAC. In hindsight, the unpleasantness of that ordeal seems to have effectively soured Dassin on humankind in totem; Dassin bringing a modicum of more personalized bitterness to the movie’s already funereal patina. There isn’t one character among the lot who remains ‘above it all’; only varying degrees of villainy from this rogue’s gallery even the likes of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would be hard-pressed to embrace. 
Night and the City works for two reasons; chiefly because it is an exquisitely produced, rancid and juicy slice of ambition given over to the devilry of desperation and vengeance. Also, because today’s topsy-turvy tumult and societal ambivalence toward heroes in general is more willing to embrace the inert and phlegmatic dictates of imperfect vipers and heavies, herein championed as merely par for the course of how the proverbial cookie crumbles in a world feeding upon itself to its own inevitable moral implosion. Particularly in its own time, Night and the City must have seemed foreign; for it doles out an astonishing amount of unalloyed animosity. But Night and the City is more than competently made. It is, in fact, a moody plat du jour for Dassin, working with cinematographer, Max Greene, who gives us a London unlike any we’ve seen before; a claustrophobic cityscape of congested flats and shabby shanties wedged in between Tower Bridge and Piccadilly Square – both, prominently featured in the movie.
Our story begins appropriately with a chase, possible the greatest in any noir; Greene ripping a page out of cinematographer, Gregg Toland’s manual on deep focus as a means to frame Harry Fabian’s escape down a narrow cobblestone byway in his attempts to elude yet another crony he desperately owes money. Harry bursts into the apartment he shares with live-in, Mary Bristol, hurriedly searching the room for some quick disposable cash. Mary catches Harry rifling through her purse. He lies to her about wanting a cigarette. But Mary knows him too well for games. Moreover, she’s been down this road before with Harry. He wants too much - for himself, that is - and not nearly enough for the two of them as a couple; just a small-time hood who desperately needs to think of himself as the proverbial ‘big man’
Unhappy chance, Mary doesn’t have any money either. Instead, she lumps it up a flight to the cramped flat of Adam Dunne (Hugh Marlowe hopelessly miscast as a beatnik artist/sculptor with a surprisingly lucrative cash flow). The screenplay momentarily waffles as we find Adam in the process of burning yet another pot of spaghetti on his stove. Mary pinches him for the money Harry needs. Adam lends it willingly. But he also attempts to clarify for Mary – whom he transparently desires for his own (but who obviously is not yet willing to give up on her paramour) – that Harry is an artist without an art. Confused, Mary asks Adam to explain, to which Adam reasons any man without genuine purpose in his life to get up in the morning is doomed to remain perpetually frustrated with life in general. Such philosophizing will prove very prophetic, indeed.
Harry rushes off to pay his debt, also to stop in at the Silver Fox; quietly observing Phil’s wife, Helen going over trade secrets and the rules of the house – or rather, the scam – with her girls; stiffing the clientele for some high-priced chocolates and pocketing the rest of their dough to feed her kitty. Phil is condescending toward Harry. After all, he can spot a rube a mile away. Any way you slice him, Harry Fabian is a bad investment. Still, he’s a fairly competent con artist – Phil and Helen exploiting Harry’s ‘talents’ as their plant to lure naïve, rich American tourists away from the more reputable clubs in town with the promise of female companionship and excitement in their money trap. Sending three new suckers to their doom after a chance ‘on purpose’ cute meet at the American Club, Harry tries a similar ruse at the local fights, nearly booted out by the arena’s manager, but making the acquaintance of retired Greco-Roman wrestler, Gregorius and his protégé/son, Nicholas of Athens (Ken Richmond).
Harry cons Gregorius into thinking he still believes in the art of classical wrestling, something the notorious racketeer, Kristo does not. In fact, Kristo – who also happens to be Gregorius’ son, has made a killing off ‘the Strangler’ and his more theatrical bouts. Harry strikes up a deal with Gregorius to resurrect and promote Greco-Roman wrestling in London. The self-promotion alone could lead to a very lucrative cash flow; also a perilous confrontation with Kristo. Hurrying back to Phil with his good news, Harry is disgusted by Phil’s lack of vision. Phil suggests if Harry can raise 200 quid he’ll match it; thereby giving him the necessary funds needed to launch his enterprise. But Phil is so condescending toward Harry, the bargain immediately turns rancid between them; Harry attempting in vain to tap every con in the city he knows for the money he needs, including Figler (James Hayter), the king of the beggars, Googin, the forger (Gibb McLaughlin) and black market seller, Anna O’Leary (Maureen Delaney). Each turns him down flat.
Appealing to Phil again, Harry is shot down, this time, by Helen’s insistence: to invest in any of Harry’s schemes is tantamount to flushing it all away down the proverbial crapper. Helen has ulterior motives however; not the least, her own desires to rekindle a previous affair she carried on with Harry right under her husband’s nose.  Helen’s already pilfered 200 quid from the Silver Fox’s safe to give to Harry: no – not for his venture, but for Harry to get Helen a nightclub license on the fly. Alas, Harry can use this money to bait Phil to ante up his half of the promised investment – all of it funneled back into Helen’s nightclub – the Flamingo.  Unfortunately for both Helen and Harry, Phil figures out where the money actually came from; facetiously allowing Harry to continue with his ruse, but insisting Fabian Promotions remain strictly Harry’s company with Phil as its anonymous ‘silent’ partner.
Not long thereafter, Harry and Gregorius form their partnership; Kristo paying Harry a call with the Stranger in tow, to urge Harry to drop his interests in pro-wrestling…or else. Instead, Harry reveals to Kristo his own father has invested with him; the father/son rift growing into a bittersweet chasm. Kristo confronts Phil who openly confides his plan is to see Harry Fabian destroy himself. Kristo assures Phil so long as Harry only promotes Greco-Roman wrestling his business is destined to fail. So, Phil promises to withdraw his hundred quid for the rental of the arena at the last possible moment, pretending to Harry he has merely had a change of heart about their joint venture. In the meantime, Harry lies to Helen about securing her a license to reopen the Flamingo. Instead, he’s had Googin forge a reasonable facsimile at a greatly reduced fee, pocketing the rest of the money to use for his wrestling enterprise.  
Harry now appeals to the Strangler’s manager, Mickey Beer (Charles Farrell), concocting a diabolical scheme to get the Strangler to challenge Gregorius’ son, Nicholas; sparking a grudge match. The Strangler is too stupid to figure out he’s being played as the patsy; and Gregorius, while infinitely more intelligent than the competition, is nevertheless blinded by his faith in Harry to see him for the small-time hood he truly is and will always remain. Elated by this turn of events, Harry rushes back to Phil, certain he will put up the necessary funds. Instead, Harry learns too late he has been duped by Phil, who telephones Kristo to explain about the match, believing Gregorius will never stand for it. When Harry informs Phil he has already gained Gregorius’ support on the matter, Phil is both chagrined and amused at once. For Phil has still won their battle of wits – this time, on a technicality. Harry hasn’t the money to rent the necessary venue to stage his match.
Frustrated, Harry elects to tap his easiest mark – Mary – yet again. Thanks to Adam’s intervention, Mary finds Harry trying to steal her money. She begs, pleads and implores Harry to reconsider the error of his ways. But it’s no use. Harry’s a lost cause and – as Phil has already wisely assessed, “a dead man”. Returning to the gym, Harry is confronted by the Strangler who insists on satisfying the grudge match then and there. Nicholas and the Strangler begin to fight, the Strangler easily breaking Nicholas’ wrist in a few short rounds, thereby ruining Harry’s chances to put on the pro match and thus recoup his losses. As Kristo, Harry and Mickey helplessly look on, the Strangler and Gregorius begin to battle; the old master and the lumbering ox sparing like a pair of sweaty farm animals in a brutal no-holds-barred showdown. After an exhaustive bout, Gregorius is victorious in the ring, but collapses just beyond and is carried into Harry’s office where he dies with Kristo by his side. Kristo now demands blood for blood; Harry’s head on a platter. In the meantime, Helen discovers the license Harry obtained for her nightclub is a forgery. Her fate in question, she slinks back to Phil who may or may not be in a forgiving mood; at least, not one without sacrifices yet to be made on Helen’s part.
Kristo puts out a hit. Harry’s fair-weather friends turncoat to satisfy their greed. Narrowly escaping a pair of Kristo’s goons, Harry ducks into Figler’s hideaway. To his face, Figler offers Harry safe refuge. Behind his back, he plots to alert Kristo of his whereabouts in order to collect the reward. Once more, Harry averts certain death; finding his way to Anna O’Leary’s dilapidated shanty on the Thames. She sincerely offers him a place to hide, Mary unexpectedly turning up to encourage Harry to get out of London altogether before it’s too late. As something of an apology for all the grief he’s put her through, Harry tells Mary to turn him in to Kristo and collect the reward. If someone must, let it be Mary – the only woman who ever truly loved him. Mary refuses to entertain this notion. So, Harry makes a spectacle of himself, chasing after Mary while shouting at the top of his lungs, drawing undue attention.  The Strangler, who is nearby, pummels Harry to death before tossing his lifeless remains into the Thames near the Tower Bridge as Mary helplessly looks on. From his place atop the bridge, Kristo looks on with a sinister glint of pure satisfaction; presumably with no intention of paying out anything to anyone.
From beginning to end, Night and the City is relentlessly bleak; director Jules Dassin tapping into the darkest parts of the human psyche. Few noir thrillers are as bereft of even the slightest emotional core. None of these characters – except perhaps Harry Fabian, in the eleventh hour of his own mortality – exhibit even an ounce of compassion, much less remorse for their wicked, ‘wicked’ ways. Richard Widmark gives us a pitiable derelict out for all he can get; cruel in his intensions, maniacally manipulating the variables, but without any real success achieved in the end. No – Harry Fabian will never be a ‘big man.’ At this point he isn’t even much of a human being; just desperate and hapless, bitter and tortured; a shell of something that is supposed to come with a conscience, but instead lacks even a sliver of decency as he drifts from pipedream to pipedream on the ether of his own ego. And Widmark gives a delicious performance herein; the quintessence of a beaten loner just arrogant and dumb enough to think he can pull himself from this bottomless pit.
A trifecta of stellar and blistering performances round out Night and the City; Googie Withers’ heartless harpy, Francis L. Sullivan’s despicable schemer and Herbert Lom’s outright merciless hoodlum. The sexual relationship between Withers gadabout and Sullivan’s oily nightclub owner is bizarre, tasteless and ghastly; Sullivan’s formidable bulk in constant danger of crushing Wither’s slender frame. At one point, Phil tempts Helen with a stylish mink in trade for just a kiss. She is given the briefest of moments to consider the offer before his abject frustration overtakes. The struggle that supervenes gives the audience a sample of what their sexual relations must be like; perverted - like watching a killer whale trying to mate with a pelican. Withers writhes in disgust while Sullivan locks her in his meaty fists and damn near squashes her against his bloated girth.
The last performance worth mentioning is Herbert Lom’s Kristo; an appetizingly unsparing heavy. Kristo has no soul – no stomach, either for doing the heavy lifting; his pleasure derived from quietly observing as his edicts are met with the most brutish reprisals inflicted by his small army of thug muscle. One senses a deeper frustration at play in Lom’s subtle exchanges with Stanislaus Zbyszko’s mountain of a man; the epitome of old world stalwartness; Lom’s hard-boiled eyes casually ogling Ken Richmond’s more slender, if muscular pinup; his father’s rejection completing his own emasculation.
The real star of Night and the City is undeniably the phenomenal B&W cinematography from Max Greene – a formidable visual artist whose work spanned the early silent era to the mid-1960’s. Night and the City is unequivocally Greene’s signature statement, possessing an odious allure. Every element of the plot, each subtle nuance of character development has the sword of Damocles hanging over it; Greene going well beyond mere mood lighting techniques. There’s a distinct – and by my mind, wholly unique style at play herein; a look of oppressiveness and claustrophobia permeating each and every frame; the scenes abhorrently lacking an appropriate level of oxygen for these characters to survive within the same space.  Watching Night and the City for its visual flair alone (with the sound off) is like being subjected to the chaotic and distressing attributes of a carnival ‘dark ride’; our plummet into eerily lit and spookily concealed shadows given over to an intoxicating paradigm of pathos and hopelessness magnified to near lethal levels.
We can start to get excited about the German release of Night and the City; incorrectly advertised on Amazon.U.K. as a region 2 release in 1.77:1 aspect ratio, from Intergroove under their ‘Pretty Gold Productions’ label, which appears to be sanctioned by 2oth Century-Fox. What Night and the City on Blu-ray actually is, is a correctly framed 1.37:1  ‘region free’ hi-def offering that will blow you away. Let’s start with the fact you can play this disc anywhere in the world – bonus! All of the menus are in German. However, choosing the English option allows you to view the movie sans subtitles in its original English format – bonus, again!!
Now for the really good news: Night and the City in 1080p is a visual feast. With the exception of some extremely minor age-related dirt and speckles, this is a near pristine visual presentation with razor sharp crispness, no artificial enhancements, and with exceptional tonality to boot. We get perfectly pitched contrast levels and film grain accurately reproduced. The DTS 2.0 audio is remarkably aggressive.  Franz Waxman’s score, as example, is pronounced with a genuine sonic kick.  No extras - but we really won’t poo-poo that.
I’ve stated the obvious in the past, but will do so again herein; merely to reiterate releasing classic movies ONLY in the foreign markets as an extremely odd marketing decision. In North America we’re repeatedly told by the studios there is NO market for golden age Hollywood product on Blu-ray, while Europe has been experiencing something of a renaissance and continues to reap the benefits of some truly aggressive classic movie output. I can’t imagine the market share for such releases would be greater over there than it is over here. And let’s be fair, as well as pragmatic; if these discs are being released ‘region free’, how much more expense could there be in simply issuing them globally with menus in English and English printed cover art. The hard work – the actual remastering of the original film elements in hi-def – has already been achieved. Well…enough said – for now. Night and the City comes very highly recommended on Blu-ray from Intergroove. This is a legitimately authorized 2oth Century-Fox transfer and it looks fabulous. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS
0