Monday, April 20, 2015

ODD MAN OUT: Blu-ray (J. Arthur Rank/Two Cities 1947) Criterion

Before succumbing to the elephantiasis of his later career, primarily known for lumbering would-be epics (The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965) and big bloated musical extravaganzas (Oliver! 1968), director, Carol Reed was best known for crafting superb existential, metaphysical melodramas, directing, arguably, the greatest post-war mystery/thriller of them all; 1949’s The Third Man. However, in the shadow of this magnum opus remained two extraordinary masterworks (The Fallen Idol, 1948 and Odd Man Out, 1947); the latter, remarkable for its’ ubiquitous morbidity and unapologetically pessimistic view of the traditional heroic figure.  Thematically, Odd Man Out is a queerly complex amalgam of the noir thriller and Shakespearean tragedy; British cinema’s first major effort to peel back the agrarian façade of Ireland to reveal its unrepentant, dark urban landscape, populated by unscrupulous reprobates.  Almost from the beginning, the movie ran into complications at home and abroad; Reed’s desire to shoot F.L. Green’s scathing novel on location in Belfast, incurring the local government’s considerable ire, since virtually all of the actors to partake in this London-centric melodrama were not indigenous to the region.
Odd Man Out was distributed by J. Arthur Rank, but made for fiery Italian producer, Filippo Del Giudice’s Two Cities Production Company.  With Odd Man Out, Giudice sought to give Hollywood’s supremacy a real run for its money. Indeed, Odd Man Out is lavishly appointed with period recreations of Belfast that mark it as a ‘prestige picture’. Having left fascist Italy shortly before the war, Giudice was attracted to Odd Man Out primarily as a propaganda piece; appalled, in fact, to discover certain factions of the IRA were so desperate for their independence they had contemplated allegiance to the Nazis in order to hasten England’s demise. Green’s novel had described ‘the organization’ (code for the IRA) as an omnipotent plague; the book’s Johnny McQueen fermenting terrorism to split an already badly divided nation wide open. At the crux of the novel’s volatile story line remained a kernel of truth dedicated to the past: Ireland’s failed ‘War of Independence’ (a.k.a. Anglo-Irish War: 1919-1921) and its inevitable animosity created by the artificial partitioning of Ireland into six disparate counties in the north, dominated by a protestant majority, and twenty-six in the south, harboring a Catholic minority.
The novel, Odd Man Out is undeniably hostile toward the organization’s purpose. It’s also fairly unsympathetic regarding the fate of our antagonist, Johnny McQueen. In reinventing the story for British cinema, director, Carol Reed hired Green to adapt the screenplay, co-authored by R.C. Sherriff, whom Reed used as a buffer to expunge virtually all the novel’s politicized back story. Henceforth, Odd Man Out – the movie – would concentrate on the plight of a failed martyr; a man who, in grappling with his own fragile beliefs inadvertently jeopardizes not only his politics but also his life. Nevertheless, Odd Man Out is the first movie to openly deal with the harsh urban realities of Ireland. Gone is the cinema folklore dedicated to benevolent agrarians with their blarney stone charm for wee four-leaf shamrocks and the ‘little people’.  Odd Man Out ensnares our Johnny McQueen and his cohorts in an ever-constricting urban landscape of oppressive claustrophobia; Reed even employing elements of wind, rain and snow as the natural order casting its own judgement on Johnny and his friends.
While Odd Man Out reports to be taking place in Belfast, Reed had great difficulty convincing the government of his more altruistic intentions. Indeed, civic authorities denied him the necessary permits to shoot there; fearing depictions of their gun-toting police and brewing civil unrest would cast a very jaundice pall upon the nation’s aspiring tourist trade. Reed was successful at sneaking in a second unit. Yet, apart from the establishing aerial view of Belfast and a few choice master shots conducted at ground level, Odd Man Out is ultimately – and very effectively – the byproduct of that self-same London-centric film culture as its predecessors; photographed on sound stages at Denham Studios, including elaborate recreations of Belfast’s iconic clock tower as well as its famed Crown Pub; London’s Shoreditch district, sparsely populated, a wasteland dotted in abandoned bomb shelters and dingy tenement houses, supplying the necessary starkness and gloom. The movie’s bookends comparatively differ from the beginning and end of Green’s novel; Reed ordering a new opener to illustrate Johnny’s ambivalence toward committing the mill robbery (the book merely begins with a botched stick-up); the finale changed from its’ novelized murder/suicide to the cinema’s self-defense scenario. This latter alteration was made purely from necessity, to conform to Hollywood’s more stringent code of censorship and thus secure the movie’s release in America.
Odd Man Out’s stylistic design is a fairly transparent homage to America’s film noir movement; itself, borrowing heavily from German Expressionism and French poetic realism. Robert Krasker’s cinematography, with its harsh chiaroscuro lighting, densely shadowed alleys and crumbling rubble byways, lends a patina of Hollywood-esque magic and European exoticism to the postwar gloom; augmented by two neorealist deliria. In the first, Krasker employs skewed camera angles and lightly brushed Vaseline around the edges of his lens to suggest Johnny’s antipathy for committing the crime, even as he and his cohorts, Pat (Cyril Cusack), Denis (Robert Beatty), Nolan (Dan O'Herlihy) and Murphy (Roy Irving) prepare for their ill-timed rendezvous with destiny. Unlike the novel, the cinematic Johnny McQueen only commits murder after he is wounded by an assailant; thereafter, dogged by gnawing remembrances of taking another man’s life.  Near movie’s end, Johnny suffers a second hallucinogenic nightmare; impressively disturbing, as portraits painted by the mentally unsound artist, Lukey (Robert Newton) swoop down from the walls of his dilapidated studio, forming an army of panged and accusatory faces to confront Johnny; the benevolent figure of Father Tom (W.G. Fay) suddenly appearing amidst this motley crew to offer a fleeting glimpse of salvation.
Casting James Mason as Johnny McQueen adds a certain empathetic glamour to the role. Mason, who spends most of Odd Man Out losing an incredible amount of blood from his gaping shoulder wound, manages to skulk about these inhospitably desolate and seedy neighborhoods where once a happier childhood had likely been spent, looking perpetually panged, gaunt, emasculated and so very near to death, nevertheless, exuding the sort of megawatt ‘star quality’ that connects on an intuitive emotional level. His Johnny is a man of very few words, but his silent ambivalence lingers in the mind’s eye even when he is not on the screen. The case for Robert Newton is a little less convincingly made; chiefly because Newton’s Lukey, the tormented artist, is a grandstanding uber-violent drunk stricken with paralytic infantilism. He is incalculably depraved and perversely conflicted in his dubious vision quest for immortality via a bizarre painterly style. He wishes to paint Johnny McQueen as a martyr, to capture the look of death for his canvass. Talk about art imitating life!
Odd Man Out opens with a quietly frenetic pre-mill robbery discussion, Johnny holding court inside the cramped upstairs bedroom belonging to his darling, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) and her staunchly supportive, Grannie (Kitty Kirwan). He’s been on the lam for nearly six months after a daring prison break, ordered by the organization to take part in a robbery to secure some badly needed funds. Pat, Nolan, Murphy and Denis listen intently to Johnny’s plans. He cautions them against using their guns, merely employing them to threaten rather than to kill. After the rest of the team has departed for their assigned positions, Denis informs Johnny of the men’s reluctance to have him lead their expedition. Johnny’s time in prison has made him soft. Johnny denies this claim. Kathleen begs him to reconsider. But it’s too late. The die has been cast. And so, the mill robbery takes place; Johnny hesitating momentarily on the steps, suffering from some sort of dizzy spell after the crime is committed; enough to be ambushed by a well-intentioned mill cashier whom he wrestles to the ground and shoots to death in order to escape.
Unable to successfully pull Johnny back into their getaway car, a panicked Pat drives off, leaving Johnny to fend for himself.  Disorientated, Johnny struggles to his feet, stumbling through a derelict neighborhood and taking refuge inside one of the abandoned fallout shelters left over from the war. There, he hallucinates being back in prison, telling what he thinks is a guard of his curious dream about robbing the mill; momentarily awakening from this stupor and realizing he has just confessed his crime to a little girl come in search of her wayward ball.  Night falls and Johnny is confronted by two young lovers endeavoring to use the shelter for their flagrante delicto.  In the meantime, Denis and the others rendezvous at Kathleen’s; Denis, appalled by their abandonment, orders the men to spread out in search of Johnny before the police find him. Alas, their ineffectual search draws undue attention and the police pursue them through a series of darkened allies and byways. Pat encourages Nolan and Murphy to stop off at Theresa O’Brien’s house of ill repute. However, Murphy does not trust the dowager and hurries along. Indeed, such split-second clairvoyance has saved his life. For after pretending to favor Pat and Nolan with a drink in her parlor, Theresa hurries off to warn her other guests to clear out; telephoning the police and divulging Pat and Nolan’s whereabouts. She then pretends to have come by a rumor the police are closing in; forcing Pat and Nolan into the street where they are gunned down by waiting officers.
Meanwhile, Denis locates Johnny. He is terribly weak and unlikely to survive in his present condition. As the police surround the area Denis creates a diversion to draw them away from the shelter. Johnny makes a valiant attempt at escape. However, he collapses in the street; momentarily rescued by Maureen (All Clery) and Maudie (Beryl Measor) who believe he has been struck by a passing lorry. When they realize who Johnny is their attitude towards him changes from helpful to cautious. A similar fate befalls Johnny after he gets into a hansom cab; its driver, Gin (Joseph Tomelty) nervously unloading his fare on the outskirts of town. Understandably, no one wants to align themselves with a fugitive from justice. As fate would have it, the beggar, Shell (F. J. McCormick) has identified Johnny. Desiring a handsome reward for Johnny’s return to the police, Shell toddles off to Father Tom. By sheer luck, Kathleen has also come to the rectory looking for guidance, having arranged passage for Johnny and herself aboard a freighter bound for the Americas at midnight.
Father Tom preys upon Shell’s naiveté and compassion as he persuades Shell to fetch Johnny. However, while dropping off his pet bird at home, Shell is accosted by Lukey (Robert Newton), the mentally deranged artist who shares residency inside the abandoned building each calls home. Lukey has been toiling to paint a portrait of martyred death, stumbling across the inspired notion to use Johnny as his model. Alas, both men are in for a rude awakening as Johnny, momentarily revived, stumbles into the Crown Pub. Its proprietor, Fencie (William Hartnell) immediately recognizes Johnny. However, desiring to remain neutral, Fencie hides Johnny in a private booth until after hours. Sensing Shell has deprived him of his art, Lukey descends on the bar, accosting its patrons and raising hell. Fencie chases his paying customers out to avoid a scene with the police, ordering Shell and Lukey to cart Johnny off before anyone is the wiser. Back a Lukey’s makeshift studio, Johnny is propped up in a chair for his portrait sitting.  Disgraced medical student, Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones) uses his practical training to patch up Johnny's shoulder as best he can. Johnny suffers a vision of Father Tom and quotes aloud 1st Corinthians, baffling Lukey and Shell.
Back at the rectory, a light snow begins to fall. Father Tom lies to an empathetic police inspector (Denis O'Dea) searching for clues as Kathleen quietly slips away. Desperate to reunite Johnny with Kathleen, Shell starts off for the rectory with Johnny stumbling close behind. His general inability to reason between reality and fantasies grotesquely imagined through his dying haze leaves Johnny feeling even more isolated. The end is near. The police are closing in. Kathleen suddenly appears. At first, neither can believe the other is real; Johnny commanding if this apparition be genuine, for it to rush to his aid and embrace him with all her heart. Kathleen complies. She explains her plan of escape aboard the steamer. Alas, the ship has already left port. In this bittersweet moment of farewell, Kathleen realizes what she must do. She reaches for the gun in Johnny’s coat pocket. “Is it far?” Johnny inquires, still fanaticizing their departure. “It’s a long way, Johnny,” Kathleen tenderly confides, “But I’m coming with you.” Pointing the gun at the police, Kathleen fires several benign rounds. The police reciprocate with a hailstorm of bullets. Johnny and Kathleen are killed; Father Tom, led by Shell, discovering their lifeless bodies in the new fallen snow.
Although blunted from the novel’s original intent, the finale to Odd Man Out is unapologetically bleak. In retrospect, it plays to our present day appreciation for flawed humanity; Reed tempering the overwrought cynicism of the piece with William Alywn’s sobering and poignant underscore. Filippo Del Giudice’s fervent belief in the power of movies as great art has afforded Carol Reed unbounded opportunities to pursue his own cinematic passions, providing the old art lover with nothing less than a full flourish of inspired greatness.  Odd Man Out is perhaps Reed’s most triumphantly artistic movie, although devotees of The Third Man will sincerely disagree. It is impossible to compare these two films. Perhaps, the only similarity shared between them is Reed’s appreciation for two irreconcilable worlds: the bygone prewar gemütlichkeit and its postwar scarcity. However, whereas The Third Man takes rather playful advantage of American ‘star power’ (in the likes of Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles), setting its action amidst the crumbling ruins of old Vienna, with only flashes of its former decadence fleetingly in evidence, Odd Man Out explores the devastating isolationism of a Belfast one cannot imagine ever possessing such warmth or charm, seen through the eyes of a British star, yet to emerge as such on the other side of the Atlantic.
Depending on one’s point of view, James Mason’s autonomy either helped or hindered the movie’s popularity then. Herein, contemporary audiences, old enough to recall Mason’s Hollywood tenure, are at a greater advantage. Only in retrospect, is he already a star on par with a Cooper, Gable or Brando, and therefore, a distinct and familiar presence in this film. Is it this retrospective star quality we find intoxicating today?  Or rather, is it Mason’s innate ability to transcend ‘star quality’ and still appear queerly appealing as the nondescript, long-suffering and intellectualized fatalist of the piece that draws us into this story?  Mason’s career was built upon such weak and ineffectual men, always of a particular inner failing and incapable of escaping it, except in death. His Johnny McQueen is a mournful shill; a man whose conscience has suffered a conversion in prison that he cannot openly confess without betraying his ensconced political beliefs. The film’s nihilistic finale brings Reed’s focus full circle, back to the romantic dilemma facing young lovers torn asunder by the inhospitable hands of fate.  As a novel, Odd Man Out was a condemnation of Ireland’s volatile political landmines, its author casting a harsh pall upon the forces he believe responsible for its civil unrest. Deprived of this politicized backbone, the movie excels in an entirely different direction; the sad-eyed adieu to love amongst these ruins.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Odd Man Out falls just a tad short of expectations; presumably, at the mercy of less than perfectly archived materials, but the recipient of considerable clean-up and restoration.  Indeed, this is a new 2K scan apart from the one made from original nitrate 35mm prints held in trust at the BFI National Archive. By comparison, the British release of Odd Man Out appears slightly brighter and sharper than Criterion’s transfer, although shadow definition is superior on Criterion’s release. I am rather torn as to which 1080p transfer I prefer. Both have their pluses and minuses; the BFI shows untoward black crush and sharpness that may or may not be indigenous to the original film elements. I’ll side with the Criterion here, as it reveals a considerable amount of information to the right of frame; the BFI edition looking slightly cropped by comparison. At times, fine details in Criterion’s transfer are lost, as the image is decidedly darker overall.
Alas, the BFI edition is plagued by the prominence of age-related damage, infinitely more resolved on the Criterion, though not entirely eradicated.  Film grain fluctuates throughout this presentation. Do I love it or hate it? Hmmmm. Love it, I suppose, particularly when coupled with Criterion’s image stabilization. I still think the BFI image is superior in some regards to Criterion and vice versa; hence, my being torn to recommend one over the other.  Criterion’s PCM mono audio is adequate rather than spectacular; dynamic range limited by the elements, I suppose, but also lagging in intensity. Don’t worry about background hiss because there isn’t any, although higher frequencies suffer from some light unevenness. We get three featurettes to augment our appreciation of the movie: new interviews with British cinema scholar, John Hill, Postwar Poetry, a short documentary about the making of the film, and a rather truncated interview with music scholar, Jeff Smith discussing William Alwyn’s score. Perhaps the best extra herein is ‘Home, James’; a superb documentary made in 1972, following James Mason as he returns to his home town. Criterion loves its radio adaptations. I confess, I’ve never listened to one of the many featured on their discs in its entirety.  Finally, there’s a printed essay from critic, Imogen Sara Smith. Bottom line: highly recommended with caveats regarding the overall quality of the transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jules Verne's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH: Blu-ray Redux (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Twilight Time

The science fiction/adventure novels of Jules Verne were to undergo a fascinating cinematic renaissance throughout the 1950’s. Verne, the second most translated author in the world, sandwiched in popularity somewhere between English-language writers, Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, was, in his own time, regarded as an avant-garde surrealist. In retrospect, his resurgence as a movie-land icon served a particular need in America; the nation emerging from the darkened years of WWII, at the cusp of an unprecedented economic boom and able, at long last to reflect upon the more quaint Victorian era with a hint of cultural sadness for all that had been lost in the frantic rush to modernity and industrialization, but now, poised ostensibly to realize at least part of Verne’s spectacular flights into fancy; travelling 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) or Around the World in 80 Days (1956) – the era of rocket ships, airplanes and submarines come to pass.  In retrospect, most of Verne’s novels are similarly themed, their central protagonists faced with a spectacular expedition in which a crisis of conscience inevitably arises.  
Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) caps off the public’s resuscitated curiosity with Verne on an oddity; not the least for its transformation of the author’s Germanic hero, Professor Lidenbrock, into the more Anglo-friendly, Edinburgh geologist, Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (played with Teutonic fortitude and manly grace by a very erudite, James Mason). Mason was a rather unlikely star, and even unlikelier choice to play Verne’s proactive professor; usually cast as the weakest of men who succumb to their fears or foibles (or both) with a tragic implosion. Herein, he acquits himself rather nicely of a change of pace; his Sir Oliver one part sexist to two parts genius, the former inadequacy eventually giving way to a tenderer heart.  At the time of its release, Journey to the Center of the Earth was a smash hit, despite the fact not a whole lot takes place during its’ 2hr. plus runtime apart from some subterranean skulking; Sir Oliver accompanied on his fantastic voyage into the earth’s core by a nubile male protégé, Alexander McKuen (Pat Boone), engaged to Oliver’s niece, Jenny (the uber-placid Diane Baker); a stalwart, if enterprising mademoiselle, Carla (Arlene Dahl), widow of his rival, Dr. Peter Goetabaug (Ivan Triesault); a non-speaking guide, Hans Belker (Peter Ronson in a thankless part) and his beloved duck, Gertrude (oh, please…and no: no yellow-billed mallards were harmed in the making of this picture).
Despite its ineffectual use of matte paintings, clumsily aligned with some of the most obvious rear projection work ever achieved in movies; also, hampered by a few irrelevant interludes in song (because, of course, it’s Pat Boone…how can he appear in any movie in which he does not sing?!?), Journey to the Center of the Earth nevertheless maintains its axis as a fairly tantalizing bit of ‘silly’ cinema; implacably adorned in Hollywood hokum. Miraculously, the picture carries it off, in no small way due to Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett’s deftly written screenplay. This being a vehicle for Pat Boone, the narrative also serves up ample beefcake; whether taking a shower inside a crystal-licious cavern, where falling water appropriately obscures certain choice parts of his anatomy, or stripping down to some homemade shorts, before plummeting shirtless through a series of salt sink holes, Boone shows off his major assets. These, decidedly have nothing to do with his acting, though, nevertheless, they made him a star.
Arlene Dahl is a rather peculiar actress; her career begun in the late 1940’s and attaining a dubious popularity throughout the 1950’s. Yet, her beauty has an imperious quality, like a porcelain figurine. Her Carla is more admirable than amorous (always the kiss of death for a leading lady from this vintage…the movies preferring a little sauce with their tarts). But there’s zero romantic chemistry herein; Dahl’s corseted peacock, perpetually casting aside her mock independence for the stereotypical hapless/helpless/screeching female, her ‘come hither’ celestially blue orbs capable of piercing right through Mason’s dull-headed notion of the heroic martyr.  There is a wax mannequin quality to her poise, more stultified than stunning, though no one could say she was not a handsome woman. But she never comes alive on the screen. Dahls’ artificiality complicates the film’s denouement, as well as our belief this grief-stricken widow has come around for the soft touch of a confirmed old bachelor who doesn’t quite know what to do with any woman – even one as obviously willing and gorgeous as she.
If the central love interests are problematic, their ineffectualness pales by comparison to the wholesome milquetoasts that are Pat Boone and Diane Baker; a truly antiseptic pair of star-crossed sweethearts. Not surprising, Boone is at his most manly and enticing when he warbles Robert Burns’ immortal poem, ‘My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose’, cleverly set to music by Jimmy Van Heusen. He attains a mature apex of seduction in this moment that belies Boone’s otherwise boyish appeal; a ‘come here, my woman and let me get to know you better’ quality Baker’s fresh-faced and demure ingénue doesn’t quite know how to handle. That’s a problem too. Not that her Jenny is given half the chance to be sexy as the enterprising Alec elects to accompany his mentor on his grand expedition with the likelihood he will not come back to his beloved alive – if, at all. Talk about commitment shy! And Boone’s aspiring man of the world has no quam, in fact, about attempting to woo Carla right under Oliver’s nose; the more womanly widow putting a decided stop to his awkward innuendoes by reminding him of all young men’s proclivities to follow most any pretty face down the primrose path to premature ejaculation. Carla is too much woman for him and she surely lets Alec know it. 
In the interim between 1959 and 2015 our cinematic tastes have veered more to the fantastic; apocalyptic movies, heavily laden with special effects. Yet, Journey to the Center of the Earth is rather sincerely more interested in the plight of its characters, perhaps because director, Levin intuitively realizes the technological wizardry mustered up by Johnny Borgese is sub-par for the expectations of his audience. Even by 1950’s standards, the cheese is spread fairly thick; purple glowing wind tunnels, an oceanic vortex that as all the frenetic allure of a drain plug having been pulled in the bathtub, and, reptilian alpha-males devouring one of their own; rejects from a Western Costuming experiment gone horribly awry. Nevertheless, our suspension of disbelief remains untrammeled; chiefly because the cast treats these absurdities as though they were a Median tragedy or Homer’s Odyssey. Reverence to Verne is genuine too; enough to counterbalance the not terribly prepossessing make-believe, about as terrifying as a romp through one of Knott’s Berry Farm’s ‘dark rides’.
Our story begins in Edinburgh, circa 1880: or rather, Hollywood’s reasonable facsimile of it; some gorgeous second unit cinematography by Leo Tover marred with inserts of James Mason’s bumbling Sir Oliver, still floating on a cloud of ether after being knighted, strolling through some obvious sets and/or looking very much like a Colorforms cut out, pasted against some slightly askew rear projection photography.  Badly done! Not to worry, however, as before long the film embraces its own artificiality a la a typical Fox Cinemascope production from this vintage; quaintly decorous and highly stylized. After his graduating class presents Sir Oliver with their gift in honor of his recent knighthood, his most admiring student, Alec McKuen remains behind to offer his own to the professor; a curious piece of volcanic rock with a remarkably uncharacteristic weight. Thanks to the carelessness of Oliver’s lab assistant, Mr. Paisley (Ben Wright) the laboratory is blown up, the rock yielding a plumb bob with a cryptic inscription. Oliver deciphers it as the work Arne Saknussemm; a scientist who, 300 years earlier, claimed to have discovered a hidden passage into the earth’s core. Of course, no one took Saknussemm seriously then. (Aside: in Verne’s novel it is the runic manuscript of an Icelandic saga written by Snorri Sturluson that serves as the impetus for Professor Lidenbrock’s journey.) But Oliver is on the cusp of being brilliant – or bamboozled – or, perhaps, a little of both as he prepares to make ready for his expedition: fundamentally, the same flawed path to fortune and glory.
Upon learning of Sir Oliver’s excursion, Professor Göteborg of Stockholm (Ivan Triesault) proposes a minor coup – to reach the center of the earth before Oliver and Alec, by whatever underhanded trick he can use to gain his advantage. In the barren far reaches of Iceland, Göteborg and his devious assistant (Red West) shanghai, knock unconscious, and finally, imprison Oliver and Alec in a remote feather merchant’s farmhouse. Mercifully, the pair is freed by the proprietor, Hans Bjelke (Pétur Ronson), who is devoted to his pet duck, Gertrude. Indeed, upon hearing the first signs someone is on the other side of the wall that divides them, Oliver and Alec suspect it a romantically involved couple by the sound of Hans kissing Gertrude and vice versa.  Not long thereafter, Oliver and Alec make their way back into town, demanding of the innkeeper (Edith Everson) to be shown into Göteborg’s room. Instead, they discover the door ajar and Göteborg murdered in his bed with some potassium cyanide crystals still lingering in his goatee.
Enter Göteborg's widow, Carla, overwrought by the news of her husband’s demise, though quickly regrouping in her sullen contempt for Oliver after he rather unceremoniously dictates his intensions to claim Göteborg’s espionage for his own. The papers Göteborg has acquired are, of course, Oliver’s. But a rift between Oliver and Carla leads to her refusal to comply. Instead, she suggests she would burn the research than share it with anyone else…that is, until she discovers her late husband’s diary among his personal effects and suddenly realizes what a scoundrel he has been in his pursuit of science. To make amends, Carla offers Oliver access to all her husband’s things. Her philanthropy comes with a loaded request: to accompany the men, along with Hans, on their mission. Oliver is apoplectic. After all, the center of the earth is no place for a woman. Regrettably, he can find no logical argument to dissuade Carla. And so, the team that was to have been two are now four…or rather, five: Hans electing to take Gertrude along for the trip. 
Göteborg was surprisingly well stocked in his plans to trump Oliver’s vision quest. Now, Oliver confiscates his adversary’s formidable array of supplies, including much prized Ruhmkorff lamps to illuminate the caves once they go below the surface of the earth. Regrettably, the team is dogged by the unscrupulous Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a direct descendent of Arne and most determined to get to the earth’s core first. In fact, it was he who murdered Göteborg. So far, Journey to the Center of the Earth has been a fairly even paced ‘who done it?’ with an adventurist’s spirit tacked on for good measure. Tragically, once the two rivaling parties go below in search of fame the movie hits something of a brick wall. We are treated to a series of interminably episodic bouts of spelunking; a lot of matte work in long shot and full scale paper mache for medium and close-ups; thoroughly unconvincing at best. Count Saknussemm’s man servant is ordered to mark the cave with fresh symbols to confuse and lead Oliver astray. For some time this ruse works. After many days travel, Oliver and his party stumble upon a series of fossilized crystal caves, a sort of hot springs spa where everyone pauses for a respite and to bathe, although for rather obvious reasons, only Pat Boone’s Alec is seen partaking of these therapeutic waters.
Alec possesses all the curiosity of a ten year old boy, or perhaps a novice without a brain, presuming nothing tragic could happen alone, in claustrophobic conditions, miles beneath the earth’s crust. What?!?! Silly boy! As the audience already knows from the tired old cliché, dedicated to ‘curiosity’ and what it did to the proverbial cat, our tension exponentially grows as Alec skulks off to explore an adjacent cavern. Predictably, he becomes lost. In the meantime, fascinated by these crystalized crustaceans, Oliver decides to chisel away a sample for his collection back home. Too bad the density of the rocks is weak, crumbling under his hammer and exposing an underwater cistern that quickly floods the area, threatening to drown Oliver, Hans, Carla and Gertrude. At the last possible moment, a loose stalactite dislodges from the ceiling, allowing this foursome their escape. Back in the caves, Alec is disillusioned by his inability to find his way to the rest of his group. A leaden series of false starts ensues before Alec slips through a crack in the floor, down a slide of salt and ending up at Saknussemm’s feet where he discovers his man servant quite dead. Saknussemm suggests his hired help died of an accident. However, given the Count’s penchant for killing off the competition, this may or may not be the truth. In any case, Saknussemm now demands of Alec that he pick up his slack and carry all of his supplies. When Alec refuses, Saknussemm fires his pistol, wounding Alec in the arm. Oliver, Hans, Carla and Gertrude arrive on the scene; Saknussemm now threatening to kill them all until Oliver momentarily blinds him with a handful of salt.
Afterward, Oliver acts as judge and jury in the case against Saknussemm; the five compatriots having found him guilty of at least murdering Professor Göteborg, Oliver sentences Saknussem to death. Too bad he can neither convince Hans, Carla nor Alec to commit the execution; nor can he bring himself to kill the Count as an act of justice. Instead, Saknussemm will accompany them on the rest of their journey. Sometime later, the troop discovers a large antechamber full of life-size mushrooms. Presumably, never having heard some mushrooms are toxic, Alec freely eats them and then prepares food from their stalks for the others. Mercifully, the soups are nourishing rather than fatal. Saknussemm and Oliver are confronted by a family of dimetrodons; gigantic lizard-esque beings who cannot follow them into the water. At this point, one of the dimetrodons attacks Carla. She is spared by Hans’ quick thinking. He plunges several spears into one of the animals; the others swarming the carcass to eat their own. Bound on a makeshift raft buoyed on this subterranean ocean, too late Oliver discovers the conflicting magnetic forces of the polar north and south have created a whirlpool that threatens to suck their tiny raft under.  Without explanation, everyone is spared this fate. Instead, they sail away to the other side of the ocean, washing up exhausted on the sandy shore.
Meanwhile, back at home, Jenny pines and ponders the fate of her beloved fiancée and her uncle Oliver; waking in the middle of the night with terrible dreams. As the others rest on the shore, Saknussemm lures Gertrude to a nearby cave where he kills and eats her. Discovering the scattered feathers nearby, Hans attempts to strangle the Count. He is spared becoming a murderer himself when Saknussemm stumbles backward over a narrow precipice to his death, an avalanche crushing his body. The hole left behind from the collapse creates a wind tunnel partially blocked by debris. However, Alec has discovered how to create flint and a fuse to detonate the rocks and set everyone free. While preparing this explosion, the troop is attacked by a gigantic chameleon. Alec’s explosion rocks the earth’s interior, creating a hellish earthquake and lava flow. It consumes the giant lizard, but also gurgles and gushes until Oliver and company, who have climbed into a metal discus, are forced upward inside this volcanic shaft to the earth’s surface at lightning speed. Spewed at the crater’s surface into the ocean, Carla, Oliver and Hans are rescued by a nearby fisherman. Alec, however, has been jostled and inexplicably stripped naked in this deluge, landing atop a prickly pine tree near a convent. Unable to explain to the nuns who have rushed to his aid he needs pants to maintain his sense of modesty, Alec is further chagrined when the branch he is perched on breaks, knocking him to the grass. Comic relief kicks in as Alec grabs a wayward sheep from the pasture to conceal his unmentionables.
The narrative glosses over Oliver and company’s return to Edinburgh; the entire university turning out to welcome them home. Alec arrives in a wheelchair pushed by Jenny, who explains how he fell down a flight of church stairs. Oliver attempts, rather badly, to enlist Carla as his muse and secretary to help him pen his memoirs. As she bluntly refuses to remain his grunt or the brunt of his sexism any longer, Oliver confides he has fallen in love to get Carla to remain at his side. She willingly agrees, presumably because she too has begun to harbor affections for this ridiculously clinical man. Thus ends, Journey to the Center of the Earth as benignly as it began and without much fanfare; save a choral reprise of the student’s chant, ‘Professor of Geology’. 
Viewed today, one can definitely see Journey to the Center of the Earth’s enduring influences on other pop-u-tainment – and not only on the rather pathetic 2008 remake. As example, the rolling bolder sequence almost certainly inspired director, Steven Spielberg to concoct his similar peril for Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The 2008 remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser, was a terribly sloppy visual effects extravaganza, relying on choppy 3D SFX (more suited for a video game than a major motion picture) to exert chills, spills and thrills. Few remained that did not upset the equilibrium. The ’59 original is hardly a masterpiece. And yet, it remains relatively engaging in all its uber-simplicity and ultra-naiveté. A lot of Fox’s sexless and gaudy Cinemascope ventures from this period have not held up nearly as well. This ‘Journey’ has. But it’s really James Mason’s ability to simultaneously pull off caustic and debonair that continues to weave its magic spell. His supporting players are adequate at best. The gooney special effects do not help his suit much – if, at all. But Mason is a pro unlike any from our current generation; a real actor’s actor who, given the right material (or even the wrong kind) could pull off its’ Victorian-inspired pastiche with a straight face and sell it as divine artistry. When all else fails to impress (and frequently, it does) Mason keeps Journey to the Center of the Earth from suffering a complete implosion.
Well, how to take Twilight Time’s brand new reissue of Journey to the Center of the Earth except with equal portions of elation and contempt; both emotions lobbed at Fox Home Video, who have ‘graciously’ provided their third party distributor with a much improved true hi-def 1080p transfer, although only after fans of this classic were morally outraged by Fox’s slipshod first effort. Fox Home Video has incurred my ire of late too. The studio definitely knows better, as this new 1080p reissue proves. So why not do it the first time around, instead of as an afterthought in a reissue? The obvious reason is Fox didn’t think anyone would care as much in the first place; ergo, they elected to slap to disc whatever elements were presently in their hopper, instead of approaching their catalog as true conservationists of cinema art ought! Okay, I’ll lay off the powers that be responsible for the first release of Journey to the Center of the Earth; chiefly, because this second trip to the well has yielded a spectacular resurrection of the image with a few minor caveats to be considered.
So, where to begin? With the new image harvest, of course: cleaner, with more vibrant and fully saturated tones, properly framed and lacking the Cinemascope ‘mumps’ effect that plagued the original release.  Fox is still having color-timing issues with their Cinemascope releases. They can argue its’ vintage DeLuxe color that is the culprit herein, but NO vintage DeLuxe color image has ever favored robin-egg blue (nee, teal) as a dominant palette. So, no – I’m not buying it either. There’s something remiss about the way whites favor the bluish caste. I should point out it’s not as egregious as some of Fox’s other Blu-ray releases of vintage Cinemascope. For starters, I can’t watch their hi-def rendering of either Desk Set (1957) or Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). I mean, even the whites of Ingrid Bergman’s eyes are blue. What a crock! But I digress. Journey to the Center of the Earth’s problematic color scheme is not as distracting. So cheer up. You’ll enjoy what you see – infinitely more than what you saw the first time around. Your old TT Blu-ray is now officially a Frisbee. Fling!  We get the same 5.1 DTS remastering effort as before, also the original 2.0 mix. Honestly, these were perfect the first time around, so kudos for the carry-over herein. Ditto for the extras: an audio commentary featuring Diane Baker, TT’s own, Nick Redman and film historian, Steven C. Smith. Good solid stuff in Julie Kirgo’s liner notes too. Bottom line: highly recommended. I just wish Fox would give their catalog the respect, time and consideration it so obviously deserves – you know, the first time around. Making everyone double dip for this title just seems greedy on their part. N’est pas?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, April 17, 2015

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS: Blu-ray (Paramount 1941) Criterion

There is a moment in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) when the butler, Burrows (Robert Grieg) suggests poverty is hardly a topic suitable for the movies and that “only the morbidly rich” would find it fascinating. Indeed, in preparing his most daring work to date, Sturges’ approach to his most lithe and yet, scathing social satire became even more bitterly sarcastic. The morality and the barbs traded in Sullivan’s Travels mark it in a class apart from Hollywood’s usual screwball fare, and, even more succinctly depart from Sturges’ own hit-producing formula. It isn’t an overstatement to suggest Sturges’ ascendance as Paramount’s crown prince created a seismic shift in the industry, its shock waves stirring old jealousies anew. For in less than a year, the highest paid writer working in pictures then had cleverly finagled the deal of the decade to both write and direct a feature film. Hollywood had seen nothing like it and was not at all certain it wanted to encourage the practice. Writers then were considered a dime a dozen, doing the grunt work for menial pay. Sturges’ had noted and despised this hierarchy almost from the moment he came to town, propelled by the steam from his Broadway success – Strictly Dishonorable. “It's taken me eight years to reach what I wanted,” Sturges would confide upon learning his deal was set to direct The Great McGinty (1939), “But now, if I don't run out of ideas – and I won't – we'll have some fun. There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing, I will make some of them.”
So long as Sturges’ pictures made money, there was little the status quo could do to knock him off this perch. Pea-green envy aside, Sturges’ wielded his newfound fame and fortune with an enterprising flair; opening a fashionable restaurant and hosting lavish gatherings attended by some of the industry’s most respected entertainers. His movies almost always employed a repertory of personal favorites; faces either long forgotten or fondly recalled because they frequently graced the movie screen, augmented by Sturges’ ribald sense of humor and impeccable comedic timing. In hindsight, his bourgeois bravado was likely as responsible for eventually getting him broomed off the backlot. But at least for this brief and shining moment, Preston Sturges was Paramount's golden boy, dispelling Grieg’s suggestion that a picture about the plight of human suffrage – but with a little sex thrown in - could only serve to compound the miseries brought on by the Great Depression.  
For all his youthful privilege, and not particularly suffering for his art along the way, Sturges’ perspectives on the poor were astutely spot-on and frank. After the mid-1930’s Hollywood en masse was reluctant to tell stories begun in squalor and despair, unless, of course, they evolved into the atypical ‘rags to riches’ yarn, spirited away on the ether of the American dream. Instead, sweet escapism had been the order of the day, acting as both a buffer against the nation’s socio-political woes, but also as a necessary elixir to anesthetize its’ growing fear these lingering ‘tough times’ might never end. And Sullivan’s Travels, for all its starkness – particularly in its latter half (our hero, studio director, John L. Sullivan, attacked by a hobo, mistakenly presumed for dead, and discovering a ‘worse than’ fate after being sentenced to six years hard labor for assaulting a belligerent railway worker) – is a generally light romantic comedy with more than ‘a little sex’ and social commentary thrown in for good measure. Sturges’ screenplay moves like gangbusters; his wit unbounded by not having another director run off with his material, Sturges was so intensely invested, Joel McCrea would later comment how he could see him lurking from behind the camera, basically acting out the scene himself as he would have wished it to be, putting so much emotion and physicality into his performance it proved a minor distraction for those attempting to give theirs in front of the camera.
Struges’ plush upbringing, spoiled by an independently-minded matriarch following her muse – the dancer, Isadora Duncan – sashayed about the chichi cafés and theater districts of Europe, surrounded by the free-spirited bohemian subculture of poets, painters and their ilk, ultimately gave Sturges his invigorating contempt for the idle rich. Indeed, he much preferred his time spent with his stepfather in America, taking the very first opportunity in his teenage years to leave his mother’s influences behind. Nevertheless, an indelible part of that tenure abroad remained ensconced in Sturges’ intercontinental verve for absurdity; revealed in his movies as glib repartee and sly innuendo. The characters in a Preston Sturges’ comedy are usually a deft – and often daft – blend from both high and low born culture; the cream of the jest, that the lowliest among them is frequently the most sublimely stuffy, with a haughty and exclusive opinion to express. In retrospect, the term ‘piss elegance’ might have been coined for the wily wits in a Sturges’ comedy.
Take Sullivan’s Travels, Miz Zeffie (Esther Howard) as a prime example: the oversexed landlady, taken with a lecherous shine to the shirtless Sullivan as a handsome young bum she can bounce on her knee. In this picaresque vignette, Sullivan, masquerading as one of the downtrodden, gets more than he bargains for after he elects to do some household chores in exchange for room and board. Alas, Zeffie’s philanthropy is hardly altruistic, and she makes no bones about her intensions either; delirious and overt in her flirtations with Sullivan and even more devious in her double entendre exchanges with frumpish housekeeper, Ursula (Almira Sessions). “Did you notice his torso?” Zeffie asks. “I noticed that you notice it!” Ursula explains. “Don’t be vindictive, dear,” Zeffie playfully admonishes, “Some people are just naturally more sensitive to some things in life than some people…and furthermore I have never done anything that I was ashamed of” to which Ursula begrudgingly admits, “Neither have I.” “Yes dear,” Zeffie concludes, “But nobody ever asked you to!”  The dialogue is more than snappy and fun (though it is both), and far beyond the scope of a woman of Miz Zeffie’s social strata, yet perfectly in keeping with Sturges’ contempt for uppity middle-class biddies and matrons.  Throughout his film-making career, Sturges would create such indelible second and third string characters, usually marginalized in the artistic milieu, but in a Struges’ movie, brought forth with richly satisfying opinions to intrude upon the central narrative, frequently swapping barbs with the principle players and effectively blurring the line between ‘star’ and ‘supporting player’
Immediately following the film’s opening credits, Sullivan’s Travels begins with a spectacular action sequence; two men in a fight to the death atop a speeding locomotive. Suddenly the words, ‘the end’ appear on the screen and we realize the whole setup has been just that; a mere hoax and prelude to distract the audiences’ but also set up Sturges’ expectations for what we are about to see. “You see!” Sullivan proudly declares as he jumps from his seat in the screening room, “Capital and labor destroy each other.” Ah yes, here is that picture of social significance briefly discussed before. Too bad for Sullivan, neither the studio’s head, Mr. LeBrand (Robert Warwick) or his publicity man, Mr. Hadrian (Porter Hall) can see the proverbial forest for the trees. LeBrand wants Sullivan to keep churning out frothy, light-hearted comedies and musicals, just the sort of fare that’s been selling a lot of tickets and has, in fact, made Sullivan the studio’s most sought after and successful director. Sullivan tries to persuade the duo his newfound morality has the potential to revolutionize motion pictures. “It was held over at the Music Hall for an extra week,” he suggests. “It died in Pittsburgh”, Hadrian shoots back. “What do they know about art in Pittsburgh?” Sullivan rhetorically proposes. “They know what they like!” LeBrand vehemently champions. “If they knew what they liked they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh”, Sullivan suggests. “Besides, who goes to the Music Hall anyway? Communists!” Hadrian mutters.
Sturges’ ability to introduce a multiplicity of thoughts and ideas into this singular set piece is stiflingly brilliant. It’s more than rank cleverness or merely throwing everything at the screen to see what will stick in either the public’s craw or memory long after the footlights have come up. Herein, Sturges is giving us the collected character traits of both our hero and the forces he is up against; the lay of the land too (as in, Sullivan’s cushy and relatively pampered existence, soon to conflict with the realities of life); the purpose behind his ambition (to make an enduring cinematic artifact out of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and finally, the pomposity of our protagonist, illustrating a fundamental weakness in his character (he knows nothing of human suffrage). This sudden realization of his shortcoming propels Sullivan into the movie’s central narrative; namely, to suffer – at least for a while – by impersonating a hobo – in essence, becoming one of the great unwashed to better inform his directorial prowess once shooting on his opus magnum gets underway.
Alas, the studio sees only the publicity angle behind such a masquerade, hiring a curmudgeonly press agent, Mr. Jones (William Demarest), and a small army of photographers and reporters to follow Sullivan around in his appropriately careworn rags. Sullivan momentarily eludes his entourage, escaping in a young man’s roadster after thumbing for a ride on the side of the road. Next, Sullivan decides to commit himself to hard work. But he quickly draws the unwanted romantic attentions of Miz Zeffie, who wastes no time putting him to work in her yard, merely to ogle him as he removes his sweaty shirt while chopping firewood. Later, she offers Sullivan the room adjacent her own in the boarding house; a bathroom shared between them, a portrait of her late husband (keeping watchful eyes on them both) hanging over the mantle. She locks Sullivan in his room at night, but leaves the door to her boudoir available, should nature take its course. Instead, Sullivan makes a daring escape from his second story cell, tying bedsheets together to scale the wall to relative safety; inadvertently, awakening the entire neighborhood with a clatter of noise as he plummets to the ground.
Not long thereafter, demoralized and struggling to justify his scheme, Sullivan meets his perfect foil at a roadside diner; the nameless ‘girl’ (Veronica Lake), cool, aloof, and sinfully attractive, but with a homespun heart to recommend her. She’s obviously been out on an all-night ‘date’ – the last in a series of unsuccessful attempts to inveigle her way into a big-time Hollywood producer’s next picture and her first big break. Although Sullivan’s manners are far too refined to match his atrociously bleak attire, the old adage about ‘clothes make the man’ is enough to fool the girl. She takes pity and buys him some breakfast – a favor later returned. Presently, she won’t let this bum reciprocate the favor. She doesn’t need his sympathy – just a bus ticket back home to Chicago. She’s through!
Instead, Sullivan reveals his true self, picking the girl up in his snazzy sports car, determined to do right by her philanthropy by paying for her bus ticket home. Mercifully, it’s not to be. The police, seeing a hobo driving an expensive automobile, give chase and arrest the pair, presumably for having stolen the car. Sullivan telephones his house; both Barrows and his valet (Eric Blore) vouching for his identity and integrity. Taking the girl back to his stately digs leads to a reconciliation of sorts, but not before the girl – whose pride has been sincerely wounded by falling for the lie – manages to push Sullivan, fully dressed, into his pool. Sullivan returns the favor, leaving Barrows and his valet to succumb to a similar fate. Afterward, Sullivan is more determined than ever to pursue his masquerade. The girl thinks it a ‘swell idea’ and elects to partake in the experiment, much to Sullivan’s objections. Nevertheless, the two appropriately attired waifs make their first clumsy attempt at riding the rails. Unfortunately, they all but alienate their fellow travelers and quickly discover ‘roughing it’ on ten cents isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Thankfully, Mr. Jones and company are not far behind. The girl is grateful to return to the relative luxuries of Hollywood, but stubbornly elects to follow Sullivan on his further explorations. Sturges’ handling of their shared experiences is a daring departure into montage; covering the realities of the Great Depression from every conceivable angle with a startling sense of realism. Sullivan and the girl eventually take refuge at a religious hostel where Sullivan’s shoes are stolen as he sleeps by an enterprising and very desperate hobo. This same nondescript man will later play a pivotal role in the plot. But for now, the audience has all but forgotten, in the event something were to happen to Sullivan, Barrows had sewn an identification tag into the soles of his shoes, now no longer in his possession. Returning to the relative safety of his home, Sullivan is certain he has suffered enough to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? a living testament to the downtrodden and destitute. Meanwhile, LeBrand’s publicity department has churned out enough PR to whet and fuel the public’s appetite for ten pictures. To show his gratitude, Sullivan decides he will appear in hobo’s garb one last time, distributing five dollar bills to any homeless person he encounters along his route.
It’s a big-hearted, though decidedly empty-headed gesture at best; illustrating a thoroughly misguided sense of philanthropy destined to land Sullivan in very hot water. For the same man who stole his shoes at the hostel now takes to stalk Sullivan into the rail yards where he knocks him unconscious with a rock, depositing his body into an open box car while attempting to gather up all of the wayward bills scattered across the tracks. Fate intervenes and an oncoming train kills the hobo, leaving only his shoes – Sullivan’s shoes – behind. Unable to identify the badly mangled body, the police discover the identification marker sewn into the soles and declare John L. Sullivan dead. Meanwhile, Sullivan awakens at the break of dawn, miles from home, but with a very bad case of amnesia. Mistaking him for a bum, a brutish rail worker (Howard M. Mitchell) attempts to Billy club Sullivan into submission. Instead, Sullivan attacks the man with a rock. At trial, the judge (Willard Robertson) throws the book at Sullivan. Still plagued by the after effects of his amnesia, Sullivan is unable to clear up this misunderstanding. He is sentenced to six years in a labor camp.
Suffering at the hands of its unrepentant task master/manager (Alan Bridge), Sullivan is befriended by Trusty (Jimmy Conlin) who advises him that the best one can hope for on this chain gang is to keep out of trouble. Demoralized and beginning to lose all hope of ever escaping his predicament, Sullivan and the rest of the inmates are treated to a two reel Walt Disney/Mickey Mouse and Pluto cartoon; Sullivan noticing how the power of film can transform the bleakest circumstances into a bearable likeness of being, even for these unfortunates who have nothing else to look forward. It dawns on Sullivan suddenly he has been an A-1 heel. Now, he devises a way to get free of the chain gang. Pretending to repent for the murder of John L. Sullivan, his picture is splashed across all of the newspapers. Having presumed her husband dead, and thus the cash cow she expected to pay out for her support in perpetuity gone, Mrs. Sullivan (Jan Buckingham) has remarried her husband’s ex-manager (George Anderson), thereby getting Sullivan off the hook for continued alimony.
In Hollywood, the girl, since become an extra in the movies at LeBrand’s behest, sees Sullivan’s picture in the paper and hurries to tell LeBrand and Hadrian the good news – John L. Sullivan is alive! In short order (and another montage) Sullivan is set free from prison, his hoax exposed with a litany of positive press and restitution presumably paid for his attack on the rail yard worker; reunited with his friends and the girl aboard a plane bound for Hollywood. LeBrand tells Sullivan there is enough publicity now to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? an instant smash hit regardless of whether or not the picture actually happens to be good. Unfortunately, and much to LeBrand’s chagrin, Sullivan has had a miraculous change of heart. Having seen the gracious whim of fate in his misguided gesture to bring ‘reality’ into the art of make-believe, Sullivan now professes his eagerness to return to the featherweight comedies and musicals on which his director’s reputation has been founded, explaining to LeBrand how sometimes laughter is the only cure the people have for what is ailing them.
Sullivan’s Travels remains a benchmark in comedy; chiefly because its levity is never allowed to overpower its message and vice versa. Contemporary film makers ought to take notice of Sturges’ sublime jab, squarely directed at the purpose behind making movies; not to indoctrinate an audience with dire dirges about the futilities of life, rather, made as entertainment that can exult in the triumph of the human spirit, particularly in times of adversity – and yes…with a little sex.  Even in its dark third act, Sullivan’s Travels avoids becoming a grim and stylized pity party, meant more to show off or to prove a point – albeit, an idiotic one. Sturges is, in fact, deeply invested in the plight of the homeless, presenting them neither as a benevolent flock of wayward sheep, nor as the great unwashed yearning to breathe free; but simply as the tragic majority, struggling to survive. Moreover, the extras hired to partake in the exercise have been expertly groom to look the part without plucking our heartstrings like a Stradivarius.
Of course, Sullivan’s Travels hails from another epoch in movie-making when even the musicals and the comedies used to be good – nee great – that is to say, had purpose, meaning, heartfelt sentiment and oodles of charm, grace, dignity and class; qualities present day Hollywood seems to know absolutely nothing about. But at its core, both the film and Sturges are advocates for the strength of sentiment; that lighthearted joie de vivre woefully in short supply in our contemporary movies. Sturges respects the art of writing comedy enough to know its escapism must have a point and a purpose and he places the highest value on this intangible commodity. As such, Sullivan’s Travels attains a level of prestige far greater than the laugh – although, fundamentally, it’s the art of the pratfall that lures us into its story. Sturges’ virtuosity as an ardent and clear-eyed observer of life ensures a very good time. Yet, Sullivan’s Travels is, at once, as slick and hard to take as Veronica Lake; the movie’s message about the weight of laughter in times of crisis, perennially relevant and beguiling. Ditto for the elegantly insolent Ms. Lake…a little sex thrown in, indeed!
Criterion's reissue of Sullivan’s Travels on Blu-ray is only marginally a cause for celebration, perhaps because there was nothing inherently wrong with their retired B&W DVD transfer – except that it is now, sadly, out of print; also, it seems little more has been done in the interim to ready this release for hi-def, and nothing substantial has been added by way of extras to make it the sort of colossal ‘must have’ – jam-packed with goodies – that a good many Criterion titles of late have offered. We get a ‘new’ hi-def digital restoration. I’ve become savvy about reading between the lines where Criterion’s packaging is concerned. And to be fair, Criterion is always quite clear about the work that’s been done on titles re-released under their ‘art house’ brand. When a 2K or 4K scan has been utilized, they have no problem advertising it as such. That their back jacket makes no such claim is good enough for me to suspect Universal (the company holding the rights on this catalog title) is probably cribbing from digital files that are more than a few years old. Is this a bad thing? Hmmmm.
While I have to say, Sullivan’s Travels on Blu-ray looks fairly spectacular, solidly contrasted, gorgeous black levels, good smattering of grain looking indigenous to its source, there is still some residual built-in flicker (that ought to have been stabilized) and a few very minor hints of edge enhancement (by now, this untoward tinkering ought to be extinct!!!). So, I’ll simply go on record to add we are at the cusp of a new epoch in the digital age. 4K monitors and upscaling Blu-ray players are making it possible to see a level of clarity virtually unseen on home video. It’s not a stretch to suggest the major studios have been lax in getting their back catalogs up to snuff with these hardware technologies. And let us be clear in suggesting some studios have been far more proactive than others. (Sony gets my sincere vote as well as a nod of hearty admiration for being the most consistent.) Because 4K is poised to become the new ‘norm’, I don’t really see the point in releasing ANY movie to hi-def without a new 4K scan being done. Ah, yes – the money factor.
Well, folks: it’s a double-edged sword. To make hi-def (real ultra 4K) feasible requires our show of support for the format. If we say it with sales, the studios will have to produce more to keep up. No sales and the quality of disc media will lag. This, alas, has been Blu-ray’s demise. How many discs do you currently own of movies more than ten years old that have been mastered to ‘perfect picture and sound quality’ as has always been Blu-ray’s claim to fame? No, the studios quickly realized two things: first, getting older stuff to conform to the new standards was going to be a very costly and time-consuming endeavor, and second, fans wanted these catalog titles ‘yesterday’. So a very gray area emerged where some executive logic believed they could cheat the consumer (or at least, his eyes), slapping out tired old digital masters initially compressed and authored for DVD, now, simply bumped up to a 1080p signal.
That was then. This is now. Once you’ve seen true 1080p in all its glory, nothing falsely modest or half way will do! And consumers, apart from lacking the amount of disposable income they once used to lavish on trivialities, like home entertainment, are not nearly as uneducated or willing to accept anything less than perfect – nor should they be expected to settle for anything less! We’re through the looking glass on this one, people. At this point, nothing short of perfection will do. After all, what is the point of having the capability to view 4K if disc content is incapable of delivering the goods? With Universal’s shortsightedness in mind, Criterion has done the absolute best on this release. But that still doesn’t let the studio off the hook! The PCM mono audio is more than adequate.
Regurgitated on this outing: the extremely comprehensive audio commentary from 2001 by filmmakers, Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean. Also from 2001: an interview with Sandy Sturges, the last wife and widow of the great man. There’s the magnificent, American Masters documentary from 1990: Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer; at 75 minutes, just a tad short and generally glossing over Sturges’ private life, but amply supported by vintage interviews and utterly fascinating nonetheless. Film critic, David Cairns and filmmaker, Bill Forsyth provide us with a new ‘video essay’. Video essays have become something of ‘a thing’ with Criterion of late. They’re not bad, but they do fall short, in my opinion. Criterion rounds out its extras with a 1951 Hedda Hopper interview, plus some archival audio recordings featuring Sturges.  Par for the course is Stuart Klawans essay, presented in booklet form. Bottom line: Sullivan’s Travels is required viewing. If you haven’t seen it then you are depriving yourself of greatness. The Blu-ray is preferred, though not yet as perfect as the material itself. Pity that and hope for better in the coming months. Raise your level of expectation, but open your wallets when the effort exerted warrants it. This is the only way things will ever improve.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY: Blu-ray (Merchant-Ivory 1993) Twilight Time vs. Sony Home Entertainment

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) remains an opulent period melodrama, exquisitely wrought with psychological complexity and an underlying social commentary about England’s caste system. Herein, Ishiguro uses the English butler as his template, catalyst, and cultural touchstone to illustrate pre-war England’s stoic isolationism and its slow and equally as tragic post-war demise. In more recent times, Julian Fellowes has done as much with Gosford Park (2001) and TV’s Downton Abbey (2010 - ). But The Remains of the Day ought to be credited with starting the trend; or rather, resuscitating it from a long overdue hibernation. During WWII, Hollywood excelled at telling tall tales about this highly fictional and equally as ‘merry’ ole isle across the Atlantic, supremely cultured on the one end, yet teeming with ribald cockney humor on the other. Britain’s own perspective – at least in the movies – was somewhat more circumspect. Yet, in hindsight, it was Hollywood that set the tone for North American perceptions about London after midnight, the white cliffs of Dover, and those craggy Cornwall moors where the likes of the brooding Baskervilles and/or remnants of a once proud country estate named Manderly were unearthed.  
So ensconced in the collective cultural mindset have these images remained in the interim that, at least in hindsight, every modern day film-maker endeavoring to tell such a story – presumably or factually set in England – has been at their mercy. Indeed, Ishiguro would openly admit in preparing his novel he did very little research on the gentleman’s art of butlering, choosing instead to crib from his own imagination and these fertile past notions. Hence, our Stevens (peerlessly portrayed with a wounded strength of character by Anthony Hopkins), in addition to the duties one might imagine ascribed the invisible of a grand household like Darlington Hall, is also observed ironing newsprint and dusting dust jackets in the library. Visually, The Remains of the Day is a sumptuous feast; Tony Pierce-Roberts cinematography, an exemplar of meticulously crafted visual design; stunningly rich in its compositions and almost poetic and lyrical in their execution. The Remains of the Day reflects on this almost foreign epoch, where social graces and gentlemanly decorum took precedence above most everything else, with a careworn nod to the age of modernity soon to set its quaintly cultured precepts on end. Indeed, such an era was far too good (at least, to its upper classes) to last.
Where the movie excels is in its obscured contrasts and comparisons; the estate auction at the beginning of the picture (where the late Lord Darlington’s personal effects are being sold off to pay for taxes, the estate itself, darkened and boarded up), effectively injected with a vapor of life as the past enchantment rushes forth in a colorful display of red riding coats; the upper crust gathered on horseback for the fox hunt on a crisp autumn afternoon.  In all, the liquidity with which director, James Ivory maneuvers from bustling pre-war England to its gloomy post-war aftermath, yields a sublime tapestry where all interwoven threads between the aristocracy and the layman are destined to unravel. Not unlike the prologue to Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939), “here is a world where gallantry had its last stand…look for it only in books as a dream remembered…” Ivory, cribbing from a superior script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, illustrates the tragic march of time through the eyes of the man most powerless to prevent its cataclysmic implosion: the butler – symbolically, the epitome of this even-keeled elegance, propriety and decorum.
Even so, the expense by which such exquisite naiveté is fraught, designed to keep the status quo comfortably ensconced within their hearth-burning antechambers, plush libraries and majestic ballrooms, exacts a disastrous price on the one forever doomed to remain a living relic in its shadow.  The story is very much one of how to waste a lifetime in pursuit of trivialities, seemingly important at the moment, yet, in the grand sweep and undertow of human history, revealing their deceptiveness and depriving the substance of memory in painful sacrifices dedicated to glory. What price, this glory? For Stevens, none he can justify – or even rectify, when that rare window of opportunity faintly glimmers from the postwar abyss. At its crux, The Remains of the Day is a tragedy of fairly disturbing and occasionally epic proportions; casting a jaundice view on the England that arguably never was – at least, not entirely – as well as a sad farewell to North America’s deified version of it.  In film-makers’ terms, it harks all the way back to a resplendent glamor virtually unseen in American movies today; not surprising, since the creative team behind The Remains of the Day is Merchant-Ivory – a company known for quality, craftsmanship and above all else, exceptional story-telling.
Herein, Luciana Arrighi’s production design, John Ralph’s art direction, and Ian Whittaker’s set decoration have conspired to evoke both the regal traditions of pre-war England and their inevitable post-war weariness. Understandably, the past is the more richly satisfying of these two irreconcilable worlds; sweet and familiar to anyone exposed to the Hollywood-ized version of Britain. But the filmmakers never shy away from its aftermath. Indeed, from the start of this movie, the present has already begun to linger, gradually intruding upon this picturesque past – moments of sublime luxury haunted by the deprivation of elegance and charm in the future; England’s caste system crumbling to dust in the wake of Lloyd George’s decision to make the country’s serfdom and landholders beholding to a higher authority in parliament and a personal income tax few could afford to pay without surrendering their calling as country gentlemen or ladies of leisure.
The Remains of the Day is, of course, a metaphor for this passage of time, the dwindling of the hours and life itself, both distilled to a deeper ripening of human understanding. Alas, this can only be revealed through labors born of experience and life lessons learned the hard way. It all could have become quite maudlin. Yet,  Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay burnishes such overwrought drama, using it as building blocks for a more poignantly personal scenario about lost opportunities revisited. As such, The Remains of the Day is grandly edifying; the film’s visual stylization effectively serving the story rather than being mere decorous appendages; something ‘nice’ for the audience to look at and/or fill the camera lens. As a novel, The Remains of the Day was tailor made for success, though it proved a best seller only in its native England.  A year before the movie’s release, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were basking in the afterglow of their Oscar-nominated Howards End; a peerless adaptation of E.M. Forester’s brilliant novel, similarly themed in Edwardian England’s caste distinctions; slum prudery, middle class morality, and upper crust snobbery. Reuniting the stars from that movie – Emma Thompson and Sir Anthony Hopkins – would prove inspired casting, although initially The Remains of the Day was begun with quite a different cast and without Merchant/Ivory’s participation.
Columbia Pictures and producer, Mike Nichols had owned the property outright for some time. Although the crux of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay wisely concentrates on the novel’s ill-fated ‘love among the ruins’- as it were – her intricately revised narrative also seeks to examine the nation’s ill-fated understanding of ‘peace in our time’; the country brought to heel at the machinations of realpolitik by its well-meaning amateurs. In many ways, The Remains of the Day is both a gentle nod and a decidedly sharp nudge to this misguided understanding of world events, exposing Britain’s Achilles heel that, by 1939, was rife for Adolph Hitler’s disastrous push into Europe.
One cannot underestimate the importance of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s superior skills as an intelligent and highly literate constructionist. The Remains of the Day moves from past to present then back again with seeming effortlessness, paralleling the blindsided optimism of pre-WWII England with its world-weary postwar aftermath; the decline and death knell of the country’s empire building era mirrored in its vanishing aristocracy typified by James Fox’s rather benign, Lord Darlington; an ineffectual political theorist who fancies himself as a power in the game. Alas, Darlington is, as American congressman, Lewis (Christopher Reeves) suggests; an amateur statesman: worse, a bumbler, allowing his own colored impressions of a prostrate Germany (clouded by the suicide of an old friend, Hans Bremer) to bungle his benevolence – leading directly to some unflattering – and untrue – postwar impressions, made long after Darlington’s death – as being both a misguided war monger and traitor to his country.
Affixed to this political tragedy is the enraptured love story between Stevens and Darlington Hall’s new housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), told with uncharacteristic, yet wholly convincing, subversive sensuality. Here is a pair unlike any other in movie history; the gentlemen’s gentleman; horrendously flawed in his belief the world will take care of itself (if one can delay the onset of one’s own opinion on practically any subject beyond the superficial concerns of achieving a high gloss polish on the sterling silver) and the woman of moral principles who lacks better judgment, but summons at least enough conviction to defy the only world she has ever known. This, leads to an uncertain future and proves anything but emotionally satisfying. It is difficult to quantify what happens between Stevens and Miss Kenton as a ‘romance’ and yet, each discovers, mostly to their own detriment, they have sacrificed whatever personal happiness might have come from their lives intertwined for no good reason in the end; the latter, merely out of frustrated stubbornness, mostly, to prove a point.
Exposing the subtleties in Britain’s miscalculated desire for peace adds yet another layer to this bittersweet melodrama. Ultimately, the impressions of the beginning of this end are gleaned from, then funneled through the rubric of one man’s incalculable inability to see beyond the comfortableness of this rigidly structured past. To satisfy these prerequisites required an actor of considerable range; also a man already well into his own emeritus years, aged in reverse through the magic of makeup. In choosing ‘Tony’ Hopkins to portray this wounded soul, prematurely aged in his stifled thoughts long before the perils of age itself have taken hold, the film is already half way home in achieving its immortality.
Since 1960, Sir Anthony Hopkins had enjoyed an enviable career, conquering the mediums of stage, television and the movies; along the way marking his territory with an indelible testament. The Welsh born Hopkins, perhaps best known for his carnivorous Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) has led a charmed life; though not without enduring the pitfalls of success. Indeed, Sir Laurence Olivier, whom Hopkins replaced in The Dance of Death (after an attack of appendicitis sidelined the star), lavished high praise, marking Hopkins as “an actor of “exceptional promise” who “walked away with the part…like a cat with a mouse between its teeth.” Hopkins would gradually migrate from stage into British television before coming to the attention of film director, Anthony Harvey, who cast him in a supporting role in The Lion in Winter (1968). This ought to have launched an exceptional film career. Regrettably, Hopkins all but disappeared from the movies shortly thereafter, struggling with bouts of alcoholism that nearly ruined his life. By 1991 – the year The Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards, Hopkins was a virtual unknown to American audiences. In hindsight, this made his reemergence all the more impressive. For several years thereafter, Hopkins remained a high profile character actor, achieving a level of success usually reserved for the dashingly youthful male star.
Initially, producer, Mike Nichols had brokered a deal with Columbia Pictures to direct The Remains of the Day. However, Nichols later backed out from the project, citing prior commitments. In handing over the reins to Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Nichols knew his pet project would be in very capable hands. Besides, Nichols would remain its de facto executive producer. In hindsight, Merchant-Ivory was the last of the small production houses capable of carrying off such a big-time entertainment. Although they frequently quarreled, Merchant and Ivory’s tempestuous personal and professional relationship seems to have brought out the very best in both men.  In preproduction, this creative team scoured England’s countryside in search of the ideal estate to embody the fictional Darlington Hall. Unfortunately, they soon discovered no single house could fully satisfy all of their requirements. Most vintage manors were exceptionally well appointed but lacked period authenticity in their below stairs kitchens, cellars and servant’s quarters; long since stripped of their fixtures and, quite often, converted into gift shops or storage facilities.  In stitching together the blueprint that would suggest Darlington Hall, Merchant and Ivory turned to Durham Park, then Powderham Castle; two magnificent country estates that had survived the deluge of the changing times.
Critics initially quick to dub The Remains of the Daythe Tony and Emma Show’ were in for a surprise. Immediately popular with audiences then, and acquiring a devoted following ever since, one is immediately dumbstruck by the film’s palpably pronounced social commentary as well as its’ thought-numbing melancholy, pervading from the peripheries of the screen. Here is a story to completely enrich the mind, intelligently stirring the heart to wince in tandem with regret, the delicate nature of its embroidered narrative proving the old Shakespearean adage, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”  No small achievement indeed, and largely due to the combined creative tempestuousness brewing between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory: a formidable artistic alliance begun in 1961, the same year the couple fell in love. They would go on to produce 40 films along the way – many with an unparalleled mark of excellence and most employing the immeasurable wit of novelist cum screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Shortly before James Ivory’s death in 2005, Ismail Merchant reflected with amusement on their life-long collaboration. “It has been a strange marriage. I am an Indian Muslim. Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster.”
The Remains of the Day opens with a static line drawing of a typical English manor, its center window gradually dissolving to reveal a spectacular tracking shot under the opening credits, the camera following a vintage automobile down a heavily treed and winding country road on a particularly sullen afternoon. Our introduction to Darlington Hall is not unlike Hitchcock’s debut of Manderly in Rebecca (1940): Darlington Hall, once the grand bastion of stiff upper-lipped pride, elegance and refinement; rather, now the sad derelict, branded a ‘traitor’s nest’ in The Times, silent and diminished in the shadow of an auctioneer’s tent; its’ priceless wares sold to the highest bidder.  We begin with a voiceover narration from Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson); the former head housekeeper, responding in kind to a letter written by Stevens, the head butler (Hopkins). Her brittle commentary is about the weary state of postwar England and the badly maligned reputation of the estate’s former owner; their employer, Lord Darlington (James Fox). Like the estate, Stevens has been relegated to the scrapheap of time. Yet a reprieve of sorts is in store for both the man and his memories. Retired U.S. congressman, Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeves) has bought Darlington Hall for his retirement retreat and is in the process of repossessing as many of its cultural artifacts. Lewis encourages Stevens to take a road trip in Lord Darlington’s Daimler; Stevens suggesting he might venture to the West Country where he has been practically assured of Miss Kenton’s return into service. Quickly, however, we discover Stevens has more personal reasons for making this journey.
Regressing into the film’s pre-war story, Stevens, considerably younger – is leading what he once perceived as an enviable life. As a proper English butler he is afforded the comfort of his surroundings and the honor to serve one of England’s premiere houses, of notable repute in political, as well a social circles. Lord Darlington is a gentleman of highborn pedigree who casually dabbles in politics. His meddling is well-intentioned. Inadvertently, it has drawn post-war Britain closer into the looming second European conflict.  On this particular afternoon, Darlington is hosting a fox hunt for his neighbors. The day is marked – at least in Stevens’ memory – by the arrival of Sarah Kenton who has come in search of a position as its replacement housekeeper.  Initially, Miss Kenton and Stevens do not get on. In fact, she mildly resents his rather imperious tone and quizzical interventions. He is, in fact, marginally amused by her initial bristling and frustration.
However, as time wears on, a quiet understanding grows between Miss Kenton and Stevens – though he seems quite incapable of accepting even her most remedial acts of kindness without remaining quietly aloof; considering the freshly cut blooms she has brought to enliven his drab room, “a distraction”, or refusing to reveal the contents of a book he has been reading in secret which turns out to be ‘just a sentimental love story’; the big reveal being Stevens might be placing his more altruistic thoughts elsewhere than on the work at hand. Perish this thought – and readily, it does simply that, as Stevens struggles to suppress his inner feelings. Jhabvala’s screenplay is particularly devious (though never false) in the way it builds upon these seemingly innocuous sparring matches, and Hopkins and Thompson are marvelous together in their subdued exchanges, brewing with burgeoning romantic realization.
With Lord Darlington’s permission, Stevens hires his aged father, William (Peter Vaughan) as the under butler. Afoot and at stake are negotiations between Germany, France, England and America; an international peace conference set to take place at Darlington Hall. Apart from its diplomatic importance, Lord Darlington is determined the conference will be an exemplar of English hospitality and tradition. But William is forgetful. Moreover, he has past his prime as a viable manservant. Unavoidable derelictions of duty are brought on by age. Miss Kenton readily recognizes these infractions and attempts to point them out to spare both men their dignity. But Stevens is adamant and unwilling to even acknowledge them. When William trips and falls on some crooked paving stones while carrying a heavy silver tray, Lord Darlington sends for the doctor, leaving his staff one short during the conference.
In the meantime, Lord Darlington’s nephew and budding journalist, Reginald Cardinal (Hugh Grant) has arrived to cover the conference for his newspaper. He cautions his uncle on prudence and contemplation, rather than big-hearted, thick-headed and empty-promised appeasement that everyone, except Congressman Lewis, seem all too willing to embrace. During these four days of heady discussion William succumbs to a stroke and dies. Miss Kenton delivers the unfortunately news to Stevens, only to be asked if she would manage all further inquiries, including closing William’s eyes. On the surface, Stevens’ inability to rush to his father’s side or even shed a tear in private over his death, seems callous. Yet, lest we forget this is a man so utterly shielded from any reality apart from his immediate duties to his employer, so recklessly guarded in an inability to express a single human emotion – perhaps even to reason, communicate or understand them fully from within – that Stevens is, for all intent and purposes, an emotional cripple.
During the conference Miss Kenton is reintroduced to Thomas Benn (Tim Piggott-Smith); a man servant whom she once knew rather well at Stanton and Lacey; her former place of employment. The two are reacquainted in Stevens’ sitting room with Benn later commenting on Kenton’s attractiveness. Herein, Stevens delivers a rather telling reply, “I’d be lost without her,” with an intense duality of meaning. On the surface, his comment is mere praise for Miss Kenton’s abilities as a housekeeper. But we begin to sense – perhaps as Stevens does for the first time – how tethered her presence has become to Stevens’ own heart, or rather, its reawakening from a very long slumber. A few days after the conference, Stevens is summoned by Lord Darlington to his study, praised for his participation but nevertheless instructed to terminate the employ of Elsa (Emma Lewis) and Irma (Joanna Joseph); two refugees previously taken in at the start of the war, who Darlington now feels are not suitable for employment because of the Jewish heritage. Miss Kenton is outraged, informing Stevens of the likely consequences; without proper references, Elsa and Irma will likely be sent back to Germany where, as history and retrospect teaches, their fate is assured. Miss Kenton threatens to resign, but later rethinks this urgent decision, her cowardice continuing to gnaw away at her.
She and Stevens come to a disagreement about the hiring of another house maid, Lizzie (Lena Headey) whom Stevens wisely regards as a young girl moving from post to post ‘looking for love’. Determined to reassert the authority she believes has been lost by betraying Elsa and Irma, Miss Kenton overrides Stevens’ decision, but later comes to regret it when Lizzie decides to run off with the rather cocky head footman, Charlie (Ben Chaplin) instead. This impromptu elopement puzzles Stevens. But it rekindles Miss Kenton’s wellspring of desire to fall in love and marry. Confiding with sincerity her affections toward Stevens, Miss Kenton amour is stifled by his non-responsiveness. She begins casual meetings with Thomas Benn on her days off, returning from one such outing on a windswept night to announce to Stevens she has received (and decided to accept) Benn’s proposal of marriage.  Her news hits Stevens like a sledgehammer. But even now – with the wound so obviously deep and festering – he can do little more than congratulate Miss Kenton on her excellent choice, his voice shaky, his eyes glazed over with tears that refuse to escape.
We return to postwar England. Having run out of petrol on the open road, Stevens is forced to spend the night at a local pub where he indulges in some spirited conversation about the war and meets Doctor Richard Carlisle (Pip Torrens). The patrons mistake Stevens for a gentleman with political connections. But when asked about Lord Darlington, Stevens categorically denies he ever knew the man. The next day, Doctor Carlisle, who sees through Stevens’ disguise, offers to drive him to the spot where his car stalled with a can of petrol for his motor. In his company, Stevens confides he is a man servant who not only knew, but also greatly admired Lord Darlington, despite the papers having branded him a complicit Nazi sympathizer. Carlisle and Stevens part along the open road and Steven hurries to the West Country where he is reunited with Miss Kenton. Alas, the reunion is short-lived and fraught with the greatest loss of all. For Miss Kenton has received a letter from her daughter, soon to have a baby. She cannot return to service and will likely attempt reconciliation with her estranged husband. Her unexpected decision utterly destroys Stevens; the moment, photographed with heartbreaking sadness on a pier in Brighton out of season; Hopkins poetic stare capturing all of the arctic desolation mirrored in the stark grayness of these damp and colorless surroundings.
At the end of what remains of their day spent together, Stevens escorts Miss Kenton to her bus depot. He quietly suggests they may never meet again and removing his hat in her honor, allows the rain to cover him as he gingerly releases her hand, the bus pulling away and leaving him in darkness – both figuratively and literally. This is the movie’s most unguarded moment; Miss Kenton’s eyes full of bitter tears; Stevens, unable even now to fully realize the magnitude of his loss, blankly staring off as the bus rounds the corner before either can fully ascertain this moment as their final ‘goodbye’.  In this penultimate farewell, The Remains of the Day achieves a sort of epistolary adieu on par with great lovers throughout history; and such an unlikely reveal it is too, coming between two people time has so completely forgotten. Resigned to Darlington Hall, Stevens begins the arduous task of preparing the long-shuddered house for the arrival of Lewis’ family. His efforts are momentarily thwarted by a pigeon having entered the once grand banquet hall down the fireplace flue and begun its panicked flutter in this enclosed space. The bird is eventually captured by Lewis who quietly carries it to the open French doors, releasing it from captivity; the obvious parallel, that there is no such escape for our Mr. Stevens.

Like all truly great romances, The Remains of the Day tells of an imperfect past. In all their unrequited and thwarted passions, their inconceivably misguided approach to finding happiness, these never-to-be-lovers come into the twilight of their respective lives, and with epiphanies much too late to salvage anything more from this colossally tragic realization, Hopkins’ Stevens and Thompson’s Miss Kenton are two of the most forsaken creatures on God’s green earth. Both actors have flavored their performances with irreproachable sensitivity. We feel for these characters, perhaps understanding their motives even more than they do, can or ever will. Yet, despite their unhappy end, we are ultimately fulfilled.
Twilight Time has finally come around to a North American release of The Remains of the Day. Dirty little secret: this catalog title has already been available in the U.K. for nearly two years via Sony Home Entertainment in a region free 1080p release. Is there any difference between the two? Yes, though not in image or sound quality. Whatever your selection, the transfer is identical, the movie looking positively breathtaking in 1080p. The pluses first: a gorgeous hi-def rendering with rich colors, naturalistic flesh tones, exemplary contrast levels and stunningly realized fine detail, also very accurately reproduced film grain. In short - perfect; the ‘wow’ factor definitely in evidence in virtually every frame. This is a flawless visual presentation further augmented by an exquisite DTS 5.1 audio track. 
Best news to buy the Twilight Time release over the Sony: TT has reinstated the audio commentary that was part of Sony’s old DVD release but somehow missed the boat on the Euro-disc Blu-ray. Holdovers from that import include several documentaries included herein, plus deleted scenes with additional/optional director’s commentary. TT sweetens the deal further with their usual commitment to an isolated score. Bravo! First rate! Did I say, bravo?!? I’ll say it again. Bottom line: The Remains of the Day has never looked this good on home video. You must own this disc! It's that simple!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Twilight Time: 5+
Sony 3.5