NIXPIX - DVD & BLU-RAY Reviews

Saturday, February 13, 2016

HAWAII: Blu-ray (Mirisch Co./Pan Arts, 1966) Twilight Time

The rape of the natural world, colonization of its native peoples, and, the pestilence and conflict arising from this clash of cultures and not altogether altruistic motives of the white man, endeavor to bring ‘order’ and ‘religion’ to these uncharted territories; all this and more are given rather short shrift in George Roy Hill’s somewhat apathetic, Hawaii (1966); a profitable, though not very endearing epic. As with all movies based on the works of author, James A. Mitchener, this one proved too unwieldy in breadth and scope to be sufficiently summarized; the screenplay by Daniel Taradash and Dalton Trumbo exclusively concentrated on the book’s third chapter, ‘From the Farm of Bitterness’, detailing the awkward settlement of this island oasis by the first American missionaries, including Calvinist, Abner Hale (Max Von Sidow), recently graduated from Yale University, and his young bride, Jerusha Bromley (Julie Andrews). Unable to resist having Andrews appear in a movie in which she did not sing a note, composer, Elmer Bernstein (together with Mack David) wrote a toss-away ditty, ‘My Wishing Doll’ (embarrassingly Oscar-nominated) – dispensed without fanfare during the first third of story. This chiefly centered on the somewhat tragically comical courtship of the priggish Abner – forcibly sent by his superior, Dr. Rev. Thorn (Torin Thatcher) to procure a wife as prerequisite to his assignment in Hawaii. Along for the fateful voyage is fellow graduate, Dr. John Wipple (Gene Hackman), an infinitely more compassionate disseminator of the gospel, unlike Abner, who is so incredibly blinded by the letter of Biblical law he cannot even warm to the affections of his own wife without first considering his husbandly duties an effrontery to loving God.  
Unhappy circumstance, the rest of the movie’s lengthy – and occasionally tedious 162 min. (189 min. in its original roadshow engagement) devolves into rank soap opera, repeatedly testing the doomed Abner’s rigid resolve to its breaking point. Faced with the innocently incestuous relations of the natives (who bed their brothers, sisters, cousins, fathers, mothers, etc. et al – unaware this is a sin), Abner’s determinist ambition to deny the Polynesian queen, Alii Nui (Jocelyne LaGarde) her enduring companionship with Kelolo (Ted Nobriga), her cousin, inadvertently destroys the very souls he is trying to redeem. Interestingly, LaGarde spoke not a word of English; cast for her ‘presence’ and taught to recite lines phonetically. To be sure, LaGarde’s Alii Nui is a force to be reckoned with; belting Abner into submission after he refuses to allow Jerusha to teach the island goddess English ahead of educating her in the Christian principles. Indeed, from the moment Alii Nui is hoisted aboard ship to greet the newly arrived, right on through to her penultimate demise – presumably, dying of a broken heart – LaGarde exudes that intangible star quality the camera quite simply cannot get enough of and is able to radiate it back to the audience with genuineness and authority.  
Still, Hawaii is a rather weighty tome to get through; pictorially satisfying, thanks to cinematographer, Russell Harlan’s documentary-styled aerial and stationary master shots of this lush, green island oasis. These are nothing short of breathtaking. In its roadshow engagement, Hawaii at least had the benefit of 70mm projection to enthrall. Given its extensive location work, the verisimilitude achieved is every bit as breathtaking as one might expect. However, like virtually all 70mm productions, reduction 35mm prints, edited for time (deprived of their overture, intermission and entr’acte) were also created to accommodate a much wider theatrical release. Hawaii in its truncated form isn’t quite the mess one might expect, but it does deprives us of the subtleties in Abner and Jerusha’s burgeoning relationship; also, a few all too brief scenes depicting Jerusha’s devotion to younger sister, Charity (Diane Sherry Case); merely glimpsed in the extended cut; alas, all but excised from the shorter version, thus leaving the full impact of her off-screen death on Jerusha (having received a letter from home in Hawaii’s third act) rather perplexedly hollow and emotionless.  
Jerusha marries Abner on the rebound after a lengthy pining for the sea captain who first stole, then broke her heart. Too bad the dull and lingering pang of first love will not die, and, as fate would have it, is rekindled when Jerusha comes face to face with her immortal beloved; Capt. Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris) some months after helping to establish Abner’s mission on the island. Rafer’s exuberance at seeing Jerusha again is crushed as he learns she is married to Abner. She confronts him about his inexplicable abandonment and he confesses he never stopped loving her, having written to her family many times, only to have virtually all his correspondences returned unopened. The couple now realizes the likelihood Jerusha’s stern father (Carroll O’Connor) is responsible for keeping them apart, presumably to spare his daughter the unsavory lifestyle of a roving mariner. The better half of Hawaii is devoted to the embittered struggle between Abner and Hoxworth for Jerusha’s heart; Abner realizing his wife will always take him second best to Hoxworth, but Hoxworth equally aware Jerusha’s strict morality could never allow her to be physically unfaithful to any man while Abner lives. Through plague, a hurricane and devastating fire that decimates Abner’s parish, Jerusha struggles to reconcile her feelings with her duties as a wife and new mother.
It’s all rather soapy and glossed over by director, George Roy Hill who is far more invested with preserving the spectacle of several set pieces than exploring the intimacy and moral quagmire of the piece. The Trumbo/Taradash screenplay grapples with its colonization commentary; the infiltration of this undisturbed paradise and its disastrous fallout – a measles epidemic that kills half the native population, including the heir apparent, Keoki (Manu Tupou); interpreted by Abner as God’s reckoning for Keoki having married his sister, Noelani (Elizabeth Logue) in defiance of the natural law. More than likely, the plague is the inevitable outcome from having Hoxworth’s drunken rabble take advantage of the local girls in a nearby brothel. But why quibble over a few STD’s?  As such, Hawaii unravels into a series of clumsily strung together vignettes – some, like the fire sequence, exceptionally impressive while others – as the hellish journey to paradise aboard a schooner (shot ineffectively against a blue screen) seem par for the course, merely to satisfy audiences’ expectations for a big and showy Hollywood-ized epic. Apart from Richard Harris’ fiery Hoxworth and Jocelyne LaGarde’s enigmatic Alii Nui, the rest of the cast behave as stick figures with no soul. Depending on one’s perspective, centering the plot around Max von Sydow’s stoic martinet is either the picture’s stroke of genius or that singular and stifling miscalculation, threatening to submarine the entire enterprise. Actually, it’s a little of both; Sydow, an irrefutably fine actor, managing to make something of the curt and morally rigid, Abner, in spite of the largely unappealing and thankless role.  
Hawaii’s $34,562,222 box office gross made it the second most profitable picture of 1966, surpassing such impressive competition as Alfie, Grand Prix, The Sand Pebbles, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, A Man for All Seasons, and even, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is perhaps an even greater oddity John Huston’s tedious tinkering with the Old Testament, The Bible…In the Beginning, proved even more popular with audiences than Hawaii, while curiously suffering from its own creative ennui and elephantiasis. Hawaii opens with one of those big bloated travelogue narratives for which a good many epics suffer to set their tone and tempo; a series of breathtaking aerial shots of the Hawaiian Islands, photographed in the blistering afterglow of sunset; golden beaches, expansive vistas, swaying palms, etc. The voiceover narration accompanying this virgin countryside speaks to the perils of colonization. We regress to a classroom at Yale’s Divinity School where Keoki is addressing the newly graduated missionaries who are intent on bringing Christianity to this virginal utopia. The year is 1820 and Abner Hale is passionately – and naively – resolved to become a part of this process.
Alas, the school will send no unmarried man abroad, lest he be tempted by the devil to lust after its willing native women. And thus, Abner is encouraged to take a wife. Rev. Thorn suggests Abner pay a social call on the Bromleys; his ineptitude at the social graces, and his almost immediate contracting of a terrible cold, resulting in a lengthy convalescence that brings out the mother instinct in Jerusha – the Bromley’s eldest daughter. Jerusha’s mother is dead set against the match. But her father sees Abner as a viable alternative to snap Jerusha from her melancholia. Jerusha has been in love with an adventurous sea captain for almost three years. Knowing her heart belongs to another, Abner is astonished when his feeble proposal of marriage is accepted; Jerusha seemingly come to terms with the loss of her old love and ready to move on to a new life in a new world with her new husband. The journey is anything but promising as the schooner carrying Abner, Jerusha, their good friend, Dr. John Whipple, Keoki, and, a small congregation of hopeful missionaries is rocked by violent seas. Only Abner escapes the perils of sea sickness; exuberantly encouraging the sailors on board to abandon their salty ways and embrace the Lord as their savior. Capt. Janders (George Ross) suggests Abner is wasting his time, while below decks, Jerusha prays for death to take her. 
Having endured Mother Nature’s battering tidal waves off the coast of Cape Horn, the schooner lumbers into port, receiving a royal welcome from the Queen, Alii Nui and a congregation of bare-breasted native women. Almost immediately, the Queen takes an interest in Jerusha, escorting her to the royal encampment where she demands to be taught English. Abner’s intervention in this exercise is met with a swift and violent slap that sends him to the ground. While humiliated, Abner is powerless to prevent Alii Nui in her steadfast determination to learn the language first and the precepts of accepting Christ as her savior second. But Abner is both shocked and appalled to discover the natives are all related to one another, having intermarried and casually consummated their affairs with members from their own family. Abner orders Alli Nui to give up her beloved, Kelolo, as it is a sin for her to engage in an incestuous marriage. Her willingness to do so will become an example for the rest of the tribe. But only after a span of several years, and Jerusha’s enduring, if far more tender influence on the Queen, is Abner successful at convincing Alii Nui to make a series of proclamations, banning the worship of their once sacred pagan idols. The native girls are taught to cover their bodies, and, the practice of intermarriage is discouraged.
Meanwhile Jerusha’s true love, Capt. Rafer Hoxworth, resurfaces on an expedition to the island. Abner confronts Hoxworth’s laissez faire attitude about his crew taking advantage of the native women. Thoroughly surprise to be reunited with the only man she has ever truly loved, Jerusha admits to a bewildered Hoxworth she is married Abner, and comes to his aid after Hoxworth knocks her husband to the ground. It seems Hoxworth wrote Jerusha many times in the years since their separation, only to have his letters returned. Jerusha now realizes her father has intervened in their romance. Interestingly, she does not regret her decision to have married Abner and elects to remain his loyal wife, despite his many character flaws and her enduring affections for Hoxworth. Sometime later, Hoxworth’s drunken rabble set fire to Abner’s church in protest over his ban on their engaging in sexual relations with the native girls. Jerusha leads the natives to the cause of putting out the fire. Her dress catches fire, but she is spared being burnt alive by Kelolo’s quick thinking and ability to extinguish the flames. The church, however, is lost and will need to be rebuilt. Hoxworth arrives on the scene, realizing Jerusha’s strict sense of propriety will not allow her to be unfaithful to her husband. Together with his crew, Hoxworth retreats in abject shame and sails away. Alas, the island will not remain uncharted for much longer as more settlers arrive to commercialize and corrupt the Polynesians’ simple way of life.  
Deprived of Kelolo’s companionship, Alii Nui falls ill, but makes good on her promise to become a Christian. As such, Abner gives her a proper baptism. She dies and is buried. However, a short while later an embittered Kelolo exhumes the body, disposing of it in the traditional pagan manner. An embittered Keoki defies Abner by marrying his own sister, Noelani; the hellish measles epidemic that breaks out a short time later, self-righteously proclaimed by Abner as God’s divine retribution against their incestuous union. Time passes, though it hardly heals all wounds. Jerusha bears Abner three sons and redoubles her efforts to be a buffer between her husband and the natives. She is anointed with honorary respect for her efforts by the natives. However, Jerusha sternly suggests Abner ask for his own forgiveness from God for the much sorrow he has brought to this land. Jerusha also receives a letter from home, informing that her beloved younger sister, Charity, has since died. The news does much to weaken her resolve and strength. Meanwhile, Hoxworth has an entire prefabricated New England home brought aboard his ship as a gift for the Hales; though chiefly, because he cannot bear to think of his beloved Jerusha living in Abner’s missionary hovel. Alas, his arrival to Abner’s church is bittersweet and too little too late, learning Jerusha has since quietly died. The aged Abner and Hoxworth come to blows, but each is spared his dignity as Abner’s youngest son intervenes, restoring the peace between them. In the film’s epilogue, we advance seven years into the future; Abner, now infirmed, but still refusing to depart the island, despite having been relieved of his commission by the ministry. Instead, he sends his three strapping adult boys aboard the latest schooner departing for England with the promise their lives will be enriched, but very likely never again to see their faces.
In this penultimate farewell, Hawaii attains a wan hint to having become a rather sorrowful generational familial saga. Its success at the box office practically ensured a sequel, also based on Mitchener’s novel; 1970’s altogether less effective and less profitable, The Hawaiians, directed by Tom Gries. Viewed today, Hawaii is an unprepossessing and lengthy movie, lacking the narrative scope to match its grand visuals. The Trumbo/Taradash screenplay touches upon Mitchener’s thematic proses but never goes beyond the surface of his storytelling. We lose Mitchener’s internalized commentary, given a very minor nod in Jerusha’s forthright admonishment of her husband’s religious blind-sidedness. It still might have worked, except that the characterizations in the movie are weak at best, and downright nonexistent in some cases. Gene Hackman’s empathetic doctor meanders in and out of the story without much staying power. The native population is essentially ‘white-washed’ under the oft popularized cliché as ‘the noble savage’. Julie Andrews adds warmth to the character of Jerusha, but is hampered by far too little opportunity to make her presence anything more than token estrogen in this otherwise male-dominated tale of pillage and plunder. Clearly, director, George Roy Hill’s verve is situated on the adventurous aspects of the picture. There are echoes and shades of MGM’s failed second attempt at Mutiny on the Bounty (1962); by comparison, an infinitely more attractive and cohesive viewing experience (although audiences did not think so at the time). In the final analysis, Hawaii is a footnote rather than a headliner from a decade’s worth of roadshow epics that effectively wore out their welcome by 1969.     
MGM Home Video has never done right by Hawaii and this new 1080p offering via Twilight Time is no exception. While markedly improved from the careworn and non-anamorphic DVD releases, Hawaii in hi-def is still one of the worst looking discs I have seen in a very long while. For starters, this scan is derived from a 35mm reduction print, not the original 70mm source which would have yielded truer colors and more refined grain with infinitely better detail and contrast. Dirt and scratches are noticeably more obvious, owing to Blu-ray’s higher resolution. I could have suffered through as much if MGM had at least made the effort to balance the color before slapping these careworn elements to disc. But no, we have color fading – severe at times – rendering flesh tones a garish orange. Foliage that ought to be a vibrant green is instead muddy brown/green. Overall color fidelity is mostly dull, flat and uninspiring, all but emasculating Russell Harlan’s one-time gorgeous cinematography. There is also water mark damage that sporadically crops up in the dead center of the 2.35:1 frame. The image is very soft in spots. The DTS 2.0 mono fares better, but only marginally – Elmer Berstein’s score lacking the enveloping atmosphere that must have accompanied the original roadshow release. TT does give us an isolated score in stereo and a theatrical trailer derived from 70mm elements which, after viewing this disastrous 35mm reduction print, just seems like a dishonest slap in the face to those who were hoping the actual movie would look half as good. It doesn’t.
Honestly, I could not be more disappointed. MGM has included the roadshow cut of Hawaii as a non-anamorphic ‘extra’ – riddled in excessive edge enhancement with further color implosion that renders the viewing experience virtually impossible. Am I supposed to be grateful Hawaii has finally made the leap to hi-def? No, I don’t think gratitude is the right word. Personally, I see NO point in releasing ANY movie to Blu-ray that has not first been given even the most basic consideration and restoration. The argument herein will likely be – MGM does not have the funds to reinvest in their deep catalog. Okay…I’ll buy that. But what is stopping MGM from turning to Fox or outside sources like The Film Foundation for additional funding? Hmmmm. 
I do not presume to speak for anybody else – but it seems to me if the general public is expected to invest in collecting and/or repurchasing movie memories on any new format, then the quality of the transfer ought to be of paramount consideration and a primary part of the marketing strategy. Again, personal opinion: but I am not buying movies on Blu-ray simply to own them on Blu-ray. I am buying them to improve my overall viewing experience. This Blu-ray never rises above mid-grade drivel with woefully subpar color saturation and very weak contrast. Badly done! Pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
1
EXTRAS

2

Friday, February 12, 2016

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS: Blu-ray (RKO 1942) IVC Home Video

Orson Welles' RKO career as the irrefutable ‘enfant terrible’ of American cinema was short-lived and very bittersweet. Hailed as the new boy wonder genius of 1940, by 1942 his reputation had soured to the point where Welles was persona non grata in Hollywood. His tenure at RKO generated two immortal classics that effectively ostracized Welles from the director's chair but left him with a succès de scandale and a fairly lucrative acting career. The first of his RKO/Mercury Player Productions was Citizen Kane (1941); the second, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), an even more somber outing, based on Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel and centered on an incestuous mother/son relationship (which, for censorship reasons, could never be shown, much less implied); unceremoniously butchered in the editing process by assistant director/editor, Robert Wise, himself forced by the powers that be to shoot a prerequisite ‘happy ending’ in lieu of Welles’ glum finale, thereby defeating the point and purpose of all that had gone before it. The Magnificent Ambersons has long been rumored to be Welles’ other great masterwork; the first being the aforementioned Kane. If it is, then it endures as a masterpiece in absentia, the sum of its total creativity never scaling the anticipated formidable heights of its predecessor.
Sincerely, and with all due respect to Welles’ legacy, I have never been able to warm to its presence on the screen. As with virtually all of Welles’ movies, Ambersons is far more a testament to the director’s superior prowess behind the camera than a deification of the art in making popular entertainments. Given Welles’ penchant for testing the boundaries of screen censorship – as well as the patience of his superiors – I suspect this is as it should be. But The Magnificent Ambersons is not a movie for movie lovers, per say, as much as it remains a fascinating – if costly – test subject or textbook example of how not to make a grand familial epic – even a monumentally tragic one. One need only reconsider Welles’ favorite scene in the film – the ball – more bound to his sense of pride in achieving a dramatic single take in long shot with a crane; the camera effortlessly following the action up three flights of stairs. Welles considered this a technical achievement. It probably was. The studio thought it profligate. I probably was. Ditto for Welles’ second most cherished sequence, the boarding house finale – excised altogether to accommodate RKO’s need for a more hopeful ending.
Welles’ love affair with Tarkington’s novel began in 1939 when he adapted it for his one-hour radio drama. From that moment until the cameras began to role nearly three full years later, on Oct. 28, 1941, Welles pursued the project with a passion, insisting production designer, Albert S. D'Agostino construct the Amberson manor as a real and fully functional estate with one major advantage; virtually all its walls could be rolled back and/or lowered to accommodate Welles’ inspiration and Stanley Cortez’s cinematography. It is rumored Welles shot several of the crucial scenes himself, with cameraman, Jack MacKenzie – neither receiving official screen credit. After Ambersons proved a flop and RKO had effectively rid themselves of ‘genius’ (in their own words, replaced by ‘showmanship’) the studio kept and reused whole portions of these lavishly appointed sets to augment producer/writer, Val Lewton’s run of lucrative psychological horror classics; most noticeable in The Seventh Victim (1943) which employed the Ambersons’ foyer and staircase for an all-girl’s academy.
For authenticity, Welles demanded, and was granted the right to go on location near Big Bear Lake and San Bernardino National Forest. He also shot some of his ‘exteriors’ inside the refrigerated storage facilities of Union Ice Co. to capture breath for the winter scenes. In its fully realized form, The Magnificent Ambersons ran 135 minutes – nearly double the length of the average RKO programmer; its budget, at first envisioned around $800,000, eventually ballooning in excess of $1.1 million;  a very weighty responsibility for the modest studio that, in the thirties had prided itself on the art deco lavishness and elegance pervading a series of frothy Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, but by 1942 had fallen in reputation, enough to earn the rather unflattering wartime tag – “In case of an air raid, head to RKO…they haven’t had a hit in years!”  Today, one can only speculate what The Magnificent Ambersons must have played like at 135 min. Indeed, the Pomona preview was a disaster. Even Welles felt the picture ran long and, together with editor, Robert Wise, elected to make several trims before previewing it again to equally tepid audience response. As Welles had already conceded his contractual right to the final cut, RKO unceremoniously took the picture away from him at this point, electing to hack away nearly 40 min. of footage. Unable to make head or tail of the piece, the executive decision was then made to re-shoot whole scenes and tack on a new ‘upbeat’ ending. RKO’s notes are a little sketchy on who shot what, but we do know directors, Fred Fleck, Robert Wise, and, Jack Moss, the business manager of Welles' Mercury Theater Co., all had their hand in reshaping the final cut. Not only did Welles disapprove of these cuts and retakes, his various attempts to intervene from afar were virtually ignored by the studio.
“Of course I expected that there would be an uproar about a picture which, by any ordinary American standards, is much darker than anybody was making pictures back then," Welles later explained to biographer, Barbara Leaming. "There was this built-in dread of the downbeat and I knew I'd have that to face. But I thought I had a movie so good — I was absolutely certain of its value. But they destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me!” In the end, Welles believed himself to be a prisoner of Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor policy; shooting a movie in Brazil and quite unable to do anything beyond flooding RKO’s front offices with a barrage of cabled memos on how to improve and/or restore the picture; virtually all his suggestions ignored. In later years, the pall of Ambersons’ failure at the box office would continue to stick in Welles’ craw, although Robert Wise has gone on record to suggest Welles’ cut was hardly a masterpiece.  Alas, we will never know; the original negative, as well as all prints made from it, cut down to barely 88 min. with all excised portions destroyed to free up vault space.  In the sad final days leading up to The Magnificent Ambersons officially premiere, RKO also received word from composer, Bernard Herrmann that he wished to have his name stricken from the credits as almost half of his original underscore for the picture had been either excised or replaced altogether. RKO reluctantly honored the request and Herrmann severed all ties with the studio immediately thereafter.
The picture was met with indifference by the audience; even modest laughter in all the wrong places; RKO chagrined and with an expensive turkey on their hands, pulling The Magnificent Ambersons prematurely, as they had done a year earlier with Citizen Kane – only this time, for all the wrong reasons. For too long thereafter The Magnificent Ambersons remained buried in the annals of film-making as the butchered chef-d'oeuvre from a cinema genius. To be certain, in reviewing the movie today – or rather, what remains of it – one can definitely see flashes of Welles’ own magnificence on display; ambitious touches and direction and staging unlike most anything being made in Hollywood at that time.  But great moments alone do not a cohesive motion picture make, and Ambersons, even in the scenes that arguably retain Welles’ penchant for long takes, do not play with maximized dramatic effect. In the end, what emerges from the exercise is a series of vignettes, some creaking with an unbearable maudlin streak; others, suffering from an intolerable, almost embalming theatricality.
The screenplay by Welles opens with a superb time capsule of the gay 1890s in Indianapolis. Society is gentile and relaxed. Cordiality and superficiality rule the roost: propriety, the beacon and the hallmark of all good taste. However, just behind these splendid fine grain wood doors, beckoning the weary traveler to enter, is a moral turpitude as insidious and self-destructing as anything yet deemed acceptable in such ‘polite society’, and at the forefront of all this faux respectability are those magnificent Ambersons - the wealthiest family in town. Daughter, Isabel (Dolores Costello) is amiably pursued by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a middle class suitor destined to rise above his modest station in life, leading the charge of the ‘new’ entrepreneurial American spirit – although no one, least of all the Ambersons are ready to accept their fleeting era, dominated by old money and robber barons, is fast coming to an end. After a clumsy moonlight serenade, Isabel allows herself to be spirited away by the rather stuffy, Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). The two quickly marry and have a son, George (Bobby Cooper) who is spoiled rotten during his youth and grows up a defiant and rebellious prig (played as an adult by the rather wooden Tim Holt). Upon returning home from studying law at college, George is given a rather lavish reception by his grandfather, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). In the interim, Wilbur has died leaving Isabel to rekindle her affections for Eugene, himself a widower. Eugene's daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter) briefly becomes the focus of George's romantic interests.
Almost instinctively, George scorns Eugene - not only in his chosen profession as one of the proponents of the newfangled automobile, but also because he absolutely refuses to allow his mother to fall in love with anyone else. For all his wealth and privilege, George, like the rest of the Ambersons, is a very backward thinking 19th century man, destined to have his stately brow and lingering heart broken by the hustle and bustle of the mechanized 20th. Alas, George would prefer the times of gentlemen to the current age of the industrialist. And why not? The past suckled the Ambersons like a lovely camellia into this ancient flowering world of graceful beauty and charm. By contrast, the future is cold and foreboding, unsettling even, as money alone can no longer guarantee prominence or a place amongst the privileged class. The future belongs to men like Edison, Westinghouse, Einstein – and yes, perhaps even Eugene Morgan: men of vision. Indeed, the Ambersons wealth will quickly evaporate in these changing times. Very soon Eugene's good fortunes and smart investments come to rival the family’s formidable wealth. To George, this makes Eugene more of a threat than a contemporary, for he cannot be dismissed as an upstart any longer, and certainly not on the grounds of lacking all the privileges that money alone can buy. George's Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) and Uncle Jack (Ray Collins) inform him Isabel has long admired Eugene, even before she met his father. This realization sends George into a petulant rage. He interrupts his own love affair with Lucy, rebuffs Eugene and takes Isobel on an extended trip to Europe where they live obscurely until illness forces them to return home.
The bond between Isabel and George is vaguely tinged with a hint of incest that the film cannot fully explore. Hence, we are left with a curiously possessive mother/son relationship. Isobel's strange and compelling far away glances and her periodic cradling of the adult George in her arms is meant to suggest a relationship far more insular and self-destructive. But when Isabel and George return to Indianapolis they find a very different home than the one they left behind. One thing unchanged is Eugene's love for Isabel. But Eugene is once again thwarted in his attempts to woo her by George, then by Fanny who has becoming increasingly erratic in her behavior. Isabel confesses on her death bed she would have liked to see Eugene one last time. Grief stricken over his daughter's loss, Major Amberson gradually succumbs to bouts of crippling depression and an opium addiction. Jack decides to leave town and take a job in New York. He tells George plainly he has finally received his comeuppance for all the wickedness he perpetuated upon the clan these many years. Through bad investments the family's fortunes are squandered. George is forced to forsake the law and get a job at one of the local factories to support himself and Aunt Fanny, who has completely lost her mind. The Amberson mansion is boarded up. Although she loves George, Lucy never reconciles with him, telling her father a story about a Native American chieftain who was pushed out in a canoe after he became too obnoxious and overbearing for the rest of the tribe to tolerate. Lost and alone, George wanders the streets - unable to comprehend how the world has moved on without him. In the final moments we learn George has had a terrible ‘off camera’ car accident, paralyzed in both legs. Eugene rushes to his side and the two are reconciled. Eugene manages to bring Fanny back from the brink of her mental implosion. Together, they leave the hospital with renewed hopes for a brighter tomorrow.
This final sequence was not shot by Welles, nor did it receive his consent when he screened the rough cut. Worse, the excising of nearly 40 minutes of footage by the studio after Welles’ departure has transformed the last act of The Magnificent Ambersons into nothing more than an extended montage, the cohesive narrative carefully constructed by Welles during the first two thirds completely removed and replaced by a pantomime of rushed devices and narrative entanglements, merely designed to bring the meandering story together, however, unsuccessfully. Major Amberson’s drug-induced diatribe is interrupted by a slow fade to black right in the middle of his thoughts. We lose Fanny's progressive descent into madness. She ricochets from relative sanity in one scene to stark-raving lunacy in the next.
The tempo and the mood, the meticulous pacing that is Orson Welles at his very best at the start of the film is utterly destroyed in this last act. There is no build up to George's car wreck. We simply fade up on a wreck with strangers gathered around and gossiping about what has transpired. But we never see George again. Instead, the scene dissolves to Eugene leaving George's hospital room. He is met by Fanny who lovingly takes him by his arm as the two stroll down the hall with Eugene insisting George will be well once again. All is forgiven. All is well. In this upbeat ending, Fanny appears just as she did at the start of the movie – her temporary insanity at an end, or perhaps merely a fantasy of her imagination. How has she recovered? Why has she recovered? Why have George and Eugene reconciled? They were mortal enemies. No. The pieces simply do not fit. Is it any wonder The Magnificent Ambersons tanked at the box office. In its current form it is a severely fractured masterpiece. To be sure there are touches of greatness scattered throughout. But the last act is shockingly bad.
It has been rumored Brazil might hold a more complete version of the film. After RKO took over the picture and shed 40 minutes they presumably destroyed the original camera negative and all prints containing Welles’ additional scenes. Without them it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to judge The Magnificent Ambersons as a work of art – good, bad or indifferent. Clearly, this is not the movie Orson Welles intended audiences to see. And despite Robert Wise’s protestations, that the longer cut was merely ‘longer’, not better, The Magnificent Ambersons in its current state plays like an elongated ‘coming attraction’ for a movie yet to follow it.
In 2006, Warner Home Video elected to release The Magnificent Ambersons as ‘an extra’ on DVD to accompany their lavishly appointed Blu-ray of Citizen Kane.  The DVD, while adequate, was hardly stellar, owing to a lack of archival materials. The image on the DVD was both thick and occasionally murky, its' mid-register gray scale looking rather harshly contrasted. Edge effects were prevalent from time to time. Overall, the image was free of digital manipulations, but age-related dirt and scratches were fairly obvious and occasionally distracting. Like the video, the audio, in Dolby mono, was passable, though just, and, suffering from occasional hiss and pop. Now, some ten years into the future, we have a Blu-ray – alas, not from Warner Home Video, but IVC – an independent ‘art house’ label out of Japan. IVC has promised The Magnificent Ambersons as only the beginning in their endeavors to release a slew of RKO classics, yet left moldering with the past in Warner’s vaults on this side of the Atlantic; including hi-def releases of Val Lewton’s Cat People, and, I Walked With A Zombie; also, The Thing from Another World, They Live by Night, Suspicion, The Fugitive, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master and Bringing Up Baby. 
The reality is RKO’s rights in Japan were sold off long ago, Warner having no say in the matter and unable to prevent another company from releasing these deep catalog titles overseas. However, since IVC has made The Magnificent Ambersons available in a region free hi-def encoding, the expectation some of these discs will eventually trickle into collector’s homes on this side of the pond is not only plausible but highly likely.
But you may want to reconsider such releases and use IVC’s Blu-ray of Ambersons as a solid barometer of what to expect from the company’s output in the future. I cannot say I am all that impressed with what is here. The image is sharper, tighter and more heavily influenced by a prominent grain structure – as it should be – but it is also considerably, and I would argue, artificially lighter than necessary. There are NO true blacks, the inky shadows in Stanley Cortez’s cinematography reduced to a medium grade tonal gray. As such, fine details needlessly suffer; the contrast extremely weak and the entire image fairly bland and uninspiring. I think it prudent to point out that ‘in motion’ The Magnificent Ambersons reveals some rather obvious age-related damage that only a full-blown restoration would remedy – one IVC obviously cannot afford. It is also possible to slightly tweak these weak black levels by adjusting contrast and brightness on one’s home viewing monitor, although nothing you can do at home will recreate the true darkness of the image as originally intended.
If only Warner Home Video would be more proactive with their output of deep catalog RKO titles on home video, collectors might not have to resort to such subpar editions being peddled on the – if not ‘black’, then extremely ‘gray’ world market. Do I support IVC in their efforts? Hmmmm. Only if they spend a little more money and time to improve the overall quality of their subsequent releases. Yes, this is full 1080p and shows considerable ‘improvements’ over the Warner SD-DVD. Yes, it does look more film-based.  But the results are hampered by the aforementioned misfires factored in. The biggest advantage to owning this IVC release is the audio; a new uncompressed PCM soundtrack greatly benefiting Bernard Herrmann's underscore with dialogue sounding much more crisp and refined. As one might expect, there are NO extras to compliment this release. Personally, I am going to reserve my judgement on IVC until I can sample a few more of their discs state’s side; preferably, Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, the latter given an appallingly subpar DVD transfer by Warner in North America – so catastrophically riddled with aliasing and edge effects it is virtually un-watchable. To see I Walked With A Zombie in an un-digitized edition, even with weak contrast levels, would be a definite plus. How sad to admit as much. As for importing The Magnificent Ambersons to add to your hi-def collection – pass, and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

0

I CONFESS: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1953) Warner Archive Collection

“I feel that both I Confess and The Wrong Man suffer from a lack of humor. The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject. It seems to me that some of my British films were too light and some of my American films were too heavy handed, but it’s the most difficult thing in the world to get just the right dosage. It’s only after the film is done that one can judge that properly.  Aside from the public, many apparently felt that for a priest to guard a secret at the risk of his own life was absurd… If the basic idea is not acceptable to the public, it compromises the whole picture. And this brings up another generalization: To put a situation into a film because you yourself can vouch for its authenticity, either because you’ve experienced it or because you’ve heard of it, simply isn’t good enough. You may feel sure of yourself because you can always say, ‘This is true. I’ve seen it.’ You can argue as much as you like, but the public and critics still won’t accept it… That’s the trouble with I Confess. We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional. But the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice himself for such a thing.”
–Alfred Hitchcock
In retrospect, the crisis of conscience potboiler, I Confess (1953) is an underrated Hitchcock masterpiece – a sort of preamble to the master of suspense’s spectacular decade of screen achievements, and one of the grotesquely overlooked and underrated films in his canon. Primarily of interest for Montgomery Clift's closeted pang re-channeled as the contrition of a Catholic priest, I Confess is teeming with delicious subtext, polished off by Robert Burks’ magnificent use of its Quebec City locations and a very solid story, coauthored by George Tabori and William Archibald. At just a little over an hour and a half, I Confess is a very tightly scripted and quick-paced movie. In retrospect, the picture is regrettably overshadowed by Hitchcock’s more flamboyant Technicolor '50s fare. In the wake of such classics as Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and, North By Northwest (to name but only three), Hitch’s early spate of ‘50’s movies made for Warner Bros. (save Strangers on A Train 1951) is generally, and unfairly, dismissed as the proverbial poor relations. Yet, I Confess cannot be so easily discounted if only because it cuts deep to the bone of Hitchcock’s personal grappling with his Jesuit upbringing. Paul Anthelme’s 1902 play, ‘Nos Deux Consciences’ (Our Two Consciences), from whence Tabori and Archibald have derived their inspiration, questions one of the cornerstones of Catholicism. Should a priest tell the truth to expose a murderer when his religious education demands of him that he remain silent? Hitch adds intimate visual significance to this quandary via ‘pure cinema’; juxtaposing Clift’s internalized anxieties – both in character, and perhaps, a few holdovers from the actor’s own emotional baggage as a closeted homosexual – with concrete examples (literally, the iconic statuary bearing down on this milieu); an imperishable faith, unchallenged, and ready to pass immortal judgment.
The property was brought to Hitchcock’s attention by French playwright, Louis Verneuil, inevitably going through several permutations and screenwriters, including Victor Peers, Leslie Storm and Paul Vincent Carroll to evolve the finished shooting script. The movie is a far cry from these earliest incarnations on paper; in particular, Storm’s prose yielding to a much darker premise, involving an illegitimate child born from the affair Father Logan had with Ruth Grandfort before entering the priesthood. Also, the movie was to have ended with Logan discovering he is a father, before being unjustly convicted and hanged for the crime of murder; his innocence exposed only after his public execution. It remains unclear exactly who or what influenced these revisions, excluding the child and allowing Logan to be exonerated of the crime; although many suspect intervention by The Catholic League of Decency with its then imperious and all-powerful influence on the motion picture industry.
Even so, Hitchcock had already cast Swedish lovely, Anita Bjork to co-star; the actress arriving unknowingly in Hollywood with her lover and an illegitimate child in tow.  Possibly, the League put the kibosh on Bjork, although, in hindsight it seems more than likely Jack Warner did not want even the whiff of impropriety associated with his studio; the tabloids still reeling and reveling in the illicit affair between Ingrid Bergman and Italian director, Roberto Rossellini. For certain, Anne Baxter’s casting in Bjork’s stead was an executive decision Hitchcock almost immediately detested.  “I didn’t want Anne Baxter to play the lead,” Hitchcock would later confess to Francois Truffaut, “I wanted Anita Bjork, who had played Miss Julie. However, Warner Brothers sent Bjork back to her fiords, and I was informed by phone Anne Baxter had been assigned to the picture. I met her for the first time a week before the shooting…a pretty awkward substitution.”
I Confess is the story of Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) a Catholic priest who, upon learning his gardener, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) has brutally murdered an unscrupulous lawyer, Monsieur Villette (Ovila Légaré) to conceal his own crime of theft, is nevertheless straightjacketed by his vow of silence; conflicted in withholding Keller’s confession from Police Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden). The situation is further complicated by the fact Villette was attempting to blackmail Logan and Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), the wife of a high-ranking political official, Pierre (Roger Dann), over their torrid liaison shared briefly after the war; before Logan was resigned to becoming a priest. Villette’s death has freed the one-time lovers from their fear of reprisals, but not from the suspicion they had something to do with Villette’s murder. Indeed, Larrue is most convinced Logan has been at least complicit in the crime. He has, after all, the testimony from two young schoolgirls who just happened to be passing Villette’s on the night in question, in time to see someone in a priest’s cassock hurrying away from the house. It was, of course, Keller, borrowing one of the cassocks from the rectory as a disguise. Now, stained with Villette’s blood and hidden in the laundry, the cassock is Keller’s trump card to incriminate Logan, should the priest break his vow and tell Larrue everything.
As with the The Wrong Man, Hitchcock’s primary fascination with I Confess centers around the premise of how a good person can be betrayed by circumstances beyond his control, and how popular opinion may be corrupted, turning against even a priest on nothing more substantial than rumors. Larrue clearly believes he has more than mere speculation to go on; amassing a case, his dander raised when Logan appears somewhat confrontational in refusing to answer his more intimate questions. In fact, Logan is shielding Ruth, unaware Pierre already knows how deep his wife’s love for Logan remains, despite her marriage and the passage of the years. Hitchcock is empathic to Pierre – the dutiful and patient husband, unable to be rid of the passion he clearly feels for his wife, even as he fully comprehends it has never been reciprocated by the woman he adores. Ruth has no compunction about expressing her feelings for Logan.
There is, for example, maliciousness to the moment immediately following a grand house party in which Ruth learns from one of her guests, Crown Prosecutor, William Robertson (Brian Adherne) Logan will likely be arrested and charged for the crime of murder. For a few tense moments after these palatial rooms have emptied, the couple verbally spar; Ruth making no apologies for the torch that continues to burn brightly for Logan. She is rather heartless in suggesting Pierre spare his public reputation by divorcing her. “How easily you can say that,” he admits. And, indeed, Anne Baxter’s performance emanates a glacial despondency that Hitchcock juxtapositions with her clandestine and decidedly tender meetings with Logan aboard a ferry. It should be pointed out Anne Baxter’s strong suit was never playing the shrinking violet. For here is the gal who gave us the quintessence of a viper in All About Eve’s, Eve Harrington, her latter day career built upon variations of this fundamentally flawed character trait. To borrow a line later used to describe Grace Kelly’s Tracy Lord in High Society (1956), a woman without an understanding heart “might just as well be made of bronze”; a sort of virgin goddess to a high priest set upon his throne. 
I Confess takes this literally; Ruth, having remained emotionally – if not physically – chaste and secure within her treasured and locked away affections for, and memories of Logan. Seemingly to spite her husband and marriage, she has endured the years with Pierre as a sacrifice, tantamount to Logan’s devoutness as a priest; his willful inability to reciprocate Ruth’s love in any meaningful way that might satisfy her womanly desires for him. It is the unattainable aspect of their never-to-be fulfilled passion that allows Hitchcock to create an excruciating friction apart from his centralized ‘wrong man accused’ scenario; this and a flashback inserted shortly thereafter (odd and uncharacteristic for Hitchcock to ‘go back’) to illustrate the pre-war grand amour between Logan and Ruth, ending badly when Villette discovers this ‘happy couple’ taking refuge in a pergola from a torrential rainstorm. Owing to the conventions of the time and Hollywood’s reigning code of censorship, we see very little of this supposed affair de Coeur; a few panged embraces and several antiseptic kisses; goofy smiles in the wee hours of the morning to suggest a pleasant, muddle-headed daydream or memory of some more obscenely raw exchange best left undisclosed, though clearly implied.
Hitchcock’s opinions of the priesthood (apart from Logan, whom he clearly admires and views as unnaturally harboring – or rather, suppressing – man’s innate virility, thus, never to be fully formed as the perfect cleric) is as a fellowship of emasculated capons; Father Benoit (Gilles Pelletier); a sage of sorts, but easily offended by the strong smell of fresh paint emanating from Father Logan’s renovations in the salon; Father Millars (Charles Andre), Logan’s contemporary, at least in years, little more than an awkward figure of fun, chiefly concerned over a suspected puncture in his bicycle tire. By contrast, one clearly senses Father Logan as a more worldly presence. He has come to the priesthood second best. Despite Logan’s protestations to Ruth, he has devoted his life to God, Monty Clift offers us concurrent gazes of self-loathing, and pitiable suffrage throughout, meant to suggest something more cryptic and yet, easily interpreted as the embers of desire. It really is a remarkable performance. Inexperienced as they are, neither Benoit nor Millars can comprehend the gravitas of Logan’s situation and, as a result, are helpless to stave off his mounting insecurities.
I Confess opens with a breathtaking approach by the St. Lawrence toward Quebec City’s famed Le Château Frontenac, the scene of the penultimate confrontation between Father Logan and Keller; backlit under the main titles by a blistering sunset and married to Dimitri Tiomkin’s deliberately syrupy love theme. From here we retreat under the cover of night to the winding labyrinth of deserted cobblestone streets in the old city center; superbly photographed by Robert Burks in the noir style; Hitchcock making his brief cameo, casually strolling between two buildings, his repeated use of the ‘one way’ direction signs leading us through an open window into Monsieur Villette’s front parlor; Villette already lying dead on the floor; a shadowy figure immerging onto the street and hurrying away. The man, Otto Keller, sheathed in a priest’s cassock, is spotted by two school girls (Carmen Gingras and Renée Hudon) before disappearing down a darkened alley on his way to St. Mary’s church. Spotted by Father Logan as he enters the chapel, Keller is confronted by Logan by candlelight after he refuses to respond to Logan’s repeated requests to identify himself in the dark. Interestingly, O.E. Hasse plays Keller in this early scene as contrite and self-pitying; a man truly torn by the wrong he has only just committed; begging for Father Logan to hear his confession after apologizing first for having betrayed his kindness. It seems Keller and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) are refugees, taken in by the church and given wages and a place to live.
Logan is understandably taken aback by Keller’s confession, but quite unable to convince the caretaker he should turn himself in to the police. Retiring to his room in the rectory, Otto confesses to Alma; the two agreeing to keep the secret – fully aware, Logan is bound by the penitent/priest privilege. The next morning, Keller returns to the scene of the crime as it is Wednesday; the day he usually attends Villette’s garden. Logan’s conscience will not rest. And so he too makes an impromptu visit to Villette’s; surrounded by curious onlookers and swarming with police, including Inspectors Larrue and Murphy (Judson Pratt) and Det. Sgt. Farouche (Henry Corden). Logan lies about having an appointment with Villette to gain access to the crime scene. Keller is clearly unnerved to see him. But Logan keeps his vow of silence, incurring Larrue’s immediate suspicion, further aggravated when he witnesses Logan through an open window in cloistered talks with Ruth Grandfort just outside. Larrue begins to build his case, managing the two school girls for a little chat in the presence of Crown Prosecutor William Robertson. As they both clearly identify the man as a priest, owing to Keller’s clever camouflage, Larrue now makes a clean sweep of all the rectories in town to learn the whereabouts of every priest on the night of the murder. Only Logan cannot account for his whereabouts, claiming he went for a walk.
Logan’s awkward refusal to answer any personal questions regarding his brief encounter with Ruth Grandfort raises Larrue’s dander. Robertson, however, refuses to believe in any impropriety, having only just attended a cocktail party the night before at Ruth and Pierre Grandfort and considering both good friends. Behind closed doors we discover the Grandforts marriage has already begun to crumble. Ruth is still in love with Father Logan, whom she had an affair with long ago. She has no compunction about sharing these feelings with Pierre. He is bitter and yet sympathetic, despite her emotional betrayal. At this juncture, Larrue sends several detectives to shadow Ruth’s every move. It does not take long before she and Logan meet aboard the ferry to discuss their options. Now, Larrue calls Ruth in for questioning in Logan’s presence. He repeatedly implores her to remain silent. Buoyed by her determination to exonerate Logan of any implication in the murder, Ruth divulges the contents of her extra-marital affair and Villette’s discover of it, thus setting the blackmail plot into motion.   
Meanwhile, the mood between Logan and Keller has turned insidious; Keller, devolved into a rather clichéd villain, goading Logan into silence, repeatedly reminding him of his vows. Believing he has quite enough for an indictment, Larrue charges Logan with Villette’s murder. At trial, Robertson does everything to discredit Logan’s reputation by suggesting his affair with a married woman has broken every priestly vow. Logan rightly points to the fact he was neither a priest, nor aware Ruth had married Pierre at the time he spent an entire day and evening with her, having only just returned from the war after nearly two years absence. Although the jury exonerates Logan, in the court of popular opinion he remains suspiciously guilty of some indiscretion, quite likely to lead to either a crisis of conscience or his defrocking. Exiting the courthouse under a police escort, Logan is ridiculed by the mob gathered outside; the spectacle witnessed by Larrue, Keller and Alma. Unable any longer to see an innocent man persecuted, Alma rushes to Logan’s side and begins to explain how her husband murdered Villette. Keller draws his gun and shoots Alma. In the ensuing chaos, Keller disappears into the crowd, taking refuge inside Le Château Frontenac.
To connect this action, Hitchcock had asked Montgomery Clift to look up from the steps of the courthouse in the direction of the hotel so he could insert a cutaway identifying the famous landmark for the next scene. When Clift, a Method actor, explained to Hitch’ he did not believe his character would have any good reason to do so, Hitchcock lowered the boom, reportedly saying “Well you better, because that’s where I’m going to cut!” In reality, Hitchcock did not have difficulties with Clift or vice versa. Although the pair would never work together again (each’s loss), Hitchcock not only tolerated the interventions of Clift’s drama coach, Mira Rostova - a formidable presence on the set to whom Clift more often than not turned to for approval over Hitchcock – but actually endeavored to make Rostova a part of his decision-making process, thereby striking a friendly détente that held together, however brittle, until the production wrapped. However, Hitchcock did remain rather perplexed by Clift’s total immersion in his character.
Larrue has the hotel surrounded. After fleeing through the bowels of the kitchen, Keller is cornered in the ballroom, threatening to shoot anyone who enters. Logan defies Keller, slowly approaching as Larrue, Murphy and a small band of officers follow at a safe distance. Keller is wild-eyed and thick with contempt; blaming Logan for his having to shoot Alma. He professes to having murdered Villette to steal money necessary to give Alma a better life. But Keller also threatens Logan, implying he is all alone now; his reputation in tatters, his ability to remain a priest likely destroyed.  They are both dead men – hypothetically speaking, from within: Logan’s reputation mortally wounded and dying; Keller, literally having sacrificed his soul by needlessly murdering two people – Keller, as yet unaware Alma has died. As Keller appears he might draw his pistol to murder Logan, Murphy administers the fatal gunshot to put Keller down. Collapsing near the proscenium, they dying caretaker begs Logan for absolution; Logan, torn, but nevertheless administering the last rights as Keller quietly dies in his arms.
I Confess was a highly personal movie for Hitchcock; a way for the master of suspense to exercise his own Catholic guilt and make a truly remarkable – and arguably, never duplicated movie-going experience to cleverly challenge and iron out the wrinkles in the priest-penitent privilege. The film was neither a hit nor a flop when it premiered in the U.S., though proponents of the French New Wave were highly enthusiastic, placing I Confess at the top of their ‘ten best’ movies of all time. Clever lot - the French - as North American audiences have since – if ever so slowly – come around to regarding I Confess as an important work in Hitchcock’s canon. I Confess was one of the first major motion pictures to be entirely photographed on location; Hitchcock utilizing the claustrophobic cobble-stoned streets in Quebec City to create an overriding sense of psychological entrapment that genuinely heightened the quandary facing Father Logan. How can any man – much more one of the cloth - profess purity if he cannot even withstand the moral turpitude of his peers by exposing an obvious injustice. Alas, a priest has not this layman’s luxury; the sacred trust overriding manmade laws, and forcing a crisis of conscience. In this crushing Catch-22, Father Logan cannot release himself of the sin of omission without committing an even greater sin in the eyes of the church and God.
I Confess is unevenly paced, chiefly in its middle act – interrupted by the flashback. Nevertheless, it remains one of Hitchcock’s most affecting and serious thrillers. It must be stated, the flashback is problematic; shot with gauzy soft focus and underscored by Dimitri Tiomkin’s rather florid composition. The artificially romanticized effect is decidedly deliberate – perhaps too deliberate for all the seriousness that bookends it; Hitchcock aiming for the cinematic equivalent of a young woman’s ‘rose-colored’ daydreams, now having rewritten an imperfect past. I Confess is quite unlike any other picture in Hitchcock’s canon; meticulously laid out in its various set pieces – especially the introduction to Villette’s body lying cold and dead on the living room floor. Hitchcock illustrates, perhaps ironically – as he generally despised working outside the confines of a studio - his superb mastery of locations; the byways and landmarks of this ancient French-Canadian city adding immeasurable verisimilitude to these proceedings.  George Tabori and William Archibald's screenplay keeps us guessing as to where Father Logan's loyalties reside while Robert Burke's noir-ish cinematography transforms Quebec City into a veritable labyrinth of deceit, lies and death. I Confess often gets overlooked as a bona fide classic in Hitchcock’s canon – a genuine pity. For one thing, it predates Hitchcock's extravagant use of locations on To Catch A Thief. Yet, in both cases, Hitchcock utilizes locations not simply for their aesthetic appeal, but to enhance the overall mood of his story. As such, and in hindsight, which is always 20/20, I Confess is a phenomenal artistic achievement. 
Prepare to be dazzled, as Warner Archive’s I Confess on Blu-ray is a quantum leap ahead of the tired old DVD from Warner Home Video proper. Fine detail previously unseen emerges as the dominant difference herein, contrast superb without the weak crushed blacks prominently featured in standard def. Grey scale tonality is rich and absorbing; whites clean and never blooming, the darkest corners of the frame revealing minute amounts of information and a light smattering of indigenous grain.  The 2.0 DTS audio is clean with consistently crisp dialogue and subtly nuanced ambience in underscore and SFX. Extras are limited – basically, Laurent Bouzereau’s 20 minute featurette on the making of the film, directly ported over from the original DVD and looking its age. There’s also barely a minute’s worth of newsreel footage showing the Canadian premiere, and a badly worn theatrical trailer. I won’t poo-poo the lack of extras, although an audio commentary would have been welcomed this time around.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS

1

Monday, February 8, 2016

SNOW WHITE and THE SEVEN DWARFS: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Productions 1937) Walt Disney Home Video

In 1934, the Hollywood trades rumbled with an insane rumor American entrepreneur, cartoonist, animator, voice actor, and producer, Walt Disney had already begun to lay the groundwork for his first feature-length animated motion picture. As with most ‘firsts’ – having no precedence quickly equated to abject skepticism almost overnight. For many in the industry, to say nothing of the critics, the announcement was fraught with implausibility, pitfalls and certain failure. Oh sure, the two-reel cartoon short had been around practically since the dawn of motion pictures; and, equally the case, Walt and his small army of artists had been at the forefront of that evolution; pushing the boundaries to include Technicolor, the multiplane camera, and, occasionally, the combination of live-action and animation. While these technological advancements had been met with excitement, equally as popular with parents and their kiddies, virtually no one could conceive of a time when animation could hold an audience spellbound in the dark for two hours. We must first, if only in passing, tip our hats to Walt Disney; that composite figure of unwavering audacity, blind constancy and unparalleled ambition, in who all points of our collective 20th century childhood have long since converged. There is a word for men like Walt, however meager and grossly inadequate it remains in adequately summarizing his towering list of achievements; but that word is sheer genius.
Ignoring the seemingly sound counsel of not only his brother and business partner, Roy E. Disney, but also his beloved wife, Lillian (both tried to dissuade Walt from what the critics had already dubbed, ‘his folly’), and borrowing against a life insurance policy and mortgaging his assets when virtually every bank in America refused to loan him the necessary funds to finish the picture, Walt spent the money wisely; hiring noted Chouinard Art Institute professor, Donald Graham to begin the necessary training process, meant to raise the bar in his animators’ art. For the next several years Walt’s lucrative franchise, The Silly Symphonies, provided the ideal platform for the animators to test the new methods gleaned from this expert tutelage: also, to try out burgeoning technologies, including the multiplane camera, that added depth of field to this one dimensional art form. Arguably, without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) there would never have been a Disney empire. Certainly, the whopping $8 million windfall Snow White earned back on its initial release (equivalent to $134 million today) afforded Walt the opportunity to shudder his cramped Hyperion facilities and move his entire base of operations to the more spacious and campus-styled Burbank Studios, expressly designed to carry on the fledgling ‘tradition’. Today, Snow White harks back to a cultural touchstone in what is today, sadly, the all-but-defunct industry of hand-drawn cell animation; Walt’s coup complete when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a special Oscar and seven miniature statuettes to mark the occasion; the award(s) presented to him by an ebullient Shirley Temple, matched by Walt’s own enthrallment, only partly for having achieved his goal. After all, there is a greater satisfaction to be derived from having proven wrong one’s harshest critics.
Indeed, nothing like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been seen before, certainly not at the world premiere held at the Carthay Circle Theater; its forecourt cluttered in lavish replicas of Snow White’s cabin in the woods (complete with working water wheel) and the queen’s castle; the bleachers packed to capacity with eager fans ready to witness Hollywood’s glitterati descending on mass in their lavish furs, frocks and tuxedos to mark the occasion. The same critics who had condemned Walt’s enterprising notion to spend over a million as a feat of complete ‘idiocy’ now began writing the picture’s epitaph with plaudits. One cannot underestimate, or perhaps even fathom, what that night must have meant to Walt; the first of many affirmations his creative verve had truly come of age.  There is not an individual working in Hollywood today who can hold a candle to Walt Disney’s dedication to a dream; begun under a very dark cloud of skepticism in 1934, only to emerge victorious nearly three years later; the gamble well worth it. A new distribution deal was orchestrated with RKO; Snow White becoming the first picture marketed under the ‘Walt Disney Productions’ banner. Initially, Walt had hoped to produce Snow White for $250,000 (roughly ten times the cost of a single Silly Symphony). But with great hope there arose even greater responsibility to ensure Snow White did not simply match all the efforts thus far put forth, but went far beyond any level of expectation, elevating animation to an art form; the ballooning bottom line of $1,488,422.74 cringe-worthily astronomical by 1937 standards.
From the beginning, Walt was centered on ‘the dwarfs’ as the picture’s stars; given no names or individual personalities in the original Grimm fairy tale, first published in 1812. But Walt wanted seven unique personalities rife in comic relief; the eventual names chosen for these beloved dwarfs distilled from a list of nearly fifty; virtually all of them chosen to reflect a distinguishing characteristic.  Staff writer, Richard Creedon did extensive work to flesh out the story, borrowing from Grimm wherever possible, but also inventing scenarios along the way. In this preliminary outline the story became somewhat more cleverly ‘involved’, overwrought and unnecessarily complex; plans to have the Queen employ a poisoned comb (taken directly from Grimm), entrap the Prince in a plot to marry him for herself under a spell; then, leaving him for dead in a dungeon filling with water, were all eventually discarded. Walt believed firmly in animation to tell stories, but he also felt such meandering narrative threads were getting in the way of the base innocence and charm of the piece. In simplifying the story, Walt chose to almost telescopically focus on Snow White’s gradual warming to the seven diminutive fellows in her midst. Early on, Walt made his most critical decision, ultimately to ensure the picture’s success. Apart from the dwarfs, virtually all the humans would be drawn in an, as yet, uncharted manner of heightened realism; the huntsman, the Queen (and her alter ego, the old hag), Snow White and her Prince Charming affecting a highly romanticized Hollywood-esque charm, but with realistic human behaviors and mannerisms.  As example, it was Walt who reformed the original design of the Queen from portly curmudgeon to stately and statuesque villainess, a critical decision adding an unsettling dimension of wickedness and austerity to her presence. 
By November 1935, the basic story elements were locked into place and Walt and his animators proceeded to concentrate on the stylistic elements in Snow White’s evolution; Walt, refining the particulars while keeping tight reigns on the project as a whole; encouraging his staff to see as many movies as possible to stimulate their creativity and expressly finding inspiration in MGM’s 1936 Romeo and Juliet, for the romantic pas deux between Snow White and Prince Charming, and, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the Queen’s transformation into the old hag. The now iconic ‘Heigh Ho’ sequence was animated almost exclusively by Shamus Culhane, although the overriding arc of design was the work of Albert Hunter, with artists, Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren refining the characters. Ably assisted by Chouinard’s fine artist and art instructor, Donald W. Graham, the animators dove head (and heart) strong into their respective tasks of achieving a heightened sense of realism, the collaboration affectionately dubbed ‘brutal battles’, fueled by a mutual inability to grasp one another’s basic concepts – at first – but gradually buoyed by as an enthusiastic willingness to learn and frenetic creative energy to surpass even their own expectations.  Although rotoscoping (tracing over live action footage) was generally frowned upon, in the final hours of production, several sequences were rotoscoped to expedite finishing the project in time to meet its Christmas release.
Meanwhile, Walt had hired composers, Frank Churchill and Larry Morey to write catchy songs to be interpolated between the more somber and adventurous moments in the picture, relying on Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline to supply Snow White’s incidental underscore.  Because Walt did not own a music publishing apparatus at the time of Snow White’s release, the rights to all this music fell to Bourne Co. Music Publishers who have long since held onto them, much to Disney Inc.’s chagrin, forcing them to re-license their own work for subsequent reissues of the movie; also, its soundtrack albums, of which Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved the forerunner. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens with a majestic fanfare, the rest of the score veering from rambunctious melodies like ‘The Silly Song’ and ‘Heigh-Ho’, to melodic ballads (Someday My Prince Will Come, and, I’m Wishing) to the operatic, ‘One Song’. In short order we are introduced to the wicked Queen (voiced by Lucille La Verne); her magical incantations of “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” forcing the ghostly visage (Moroni Olsen) caught in her reflection to confess another as being the ‘fairest in the land’. This, the Queen absolutely will not tolerate. Learning it is Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) whose beauty is far beyond compare, the Queen commits a huntsman to take the girl deep into the woods and commit murder, ordering he should bring back Snow White’s heart in a tiny box as proof the crime has been carried out. Before her outing with the huntsman, Snow White inadvertently meets Prince Charming (Harry Stockwell). The couple are smitten, but deprived of any genuine way to show their affections, other than a very brief musical interlude.  
Snow White is taken into the woods as planned. However, at the last possible moment, the huntsman experiences his own change of heart, begging for her forgiveness and revealing the Queen’s evil plan.  Snow White flees deep into the woods to escape the Queen’s wrath. Terrified and lonely, she eventually comes across a wood cutter’s cottage. Exhausted by her ordeal, she collapses into a deep sleep upon one of the upstairs beds. A short while later, the seven miners who occupy this house; Sleepy, Grumpy (both voiced by Pinto Colvig), Sneezy (Billy Gilbert), Happy (Otis Harlan), Bashful (Scotty Mathraw), Dopey (Eddie Collins) and Doc (Roy Atwell) return to discover Snow White still very much asleep. Doc, the self-appointed leader of the group, demands she leave at once. However, Snow White quickly establishes herself as an integral part in all their lives; the perfect housekeeper and cook, winning support from virtually all the dwarfs – even Doc, who would rather hold stubbornly steadfast to his original conviction, but cannot entirely refuse all her hard work and kindnesses.
As fate would have it, the Queen learns of the huntsman’s treason. She concocts and drinks a hellish magic potion that transforms her stately features into the hunched and gnarled disguise of an old hag. This transformation sequence is one of the most harrowing and haunting of any in a Disney movie; Walt and his artisans tapping into German Expressionism to create a truly memorable and disturbing visualization.  Passing herself off as the peddler of juicy apples, the hag arrives at the cabin. Innocently, the girl takes a bite from one of the poisoned fruit and falls instantly, and presumably, dead. The hag relishes her victory. But the dwarfs, realizing what she has done, make chase through the woods. A terrific storm invigorates their pursuit. The hag makes an attempt to dislodge a bolder from the top of a mountain, surely to crush her pint-sized pursuers. But at the last possible moment she is thwarted in this malignant deed by Mother Nature; a bolt of lightning causing the hag to topple from the mountainside to her death. Returning to the cottage, the dwarves mourn the loss of their beloved Snow White, placing her in a glass coffin. Having learned of the young girl’s demise, the Prince arrives. His farewell kiss breaks the evil spell. Snow White is not dead, but merely in a trance from which she now awakens. The dwarfs rejoice and the Prince leads his beloved to his castle in the clouds where surely they will live, ever predictably, happily ever after.      
In addition to putting his critics to shame and allowing Walt the opportunity to build an even bigger studio to house his future dreams, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also afforded Walt the ability to pursue two even more ambitious projects; Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940). Regrettably, neither matched the commercial success of Snow White, and, in fact, sent the new studio’s balance sheet sinking deep into the red. In the lean years that were yet to follow, buffeted by wartime rationing and Walt’s commitment to churning out military training and goodwill short subjects for the U.S. government (an admirable, though hardly profitable endeavor), the 1944 re-issue of Snow White managed to stave off the specter of total ruin, as well as establish a tradition of re-releasing animated features every seven to ten years. Consequently, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would enjoy re-re-re-issues in 1952, ‘58, ‘67, ‘75, ‘83, ‘87 and ’93 with its lifetime gross surpassing $418.2 million, to say nothing of the profits derived from its various reissues on home video. In 1993, this cornerstone to Walt’s fairy tale kingdom received a much needed and labor-intensive photo-chemical and digital restoration; the files scanned in at 4K resolution for future archival preservation.  Retrospectively, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains nothing short of a milestone. Indeed, filmmakers of Walt’s time, Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin were quick to add their notable praise; Eisenstein going so far as to suggest Snow White the greatest movie ever made. There is little to deny the picture’s influence on pop culture. It opened up the field of family-orientated fantasy film-making capped off by MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and rival animator, Max Fleischer attempting to breathe life into Gulliver’s Travels (both released in 1939). Snow White also spawned imitators and parodies; Howard Hawk’s 1941’s screwball gem, Ball of Fire, costarring Barbara Stanwyck as a hep cat girl of the jazz age and Gary Cooper as her scholastic Lochinvar; also, Bob Clampett’s unapologetic and irreverent 1943 Merrie Melodies short, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; war-themed and with the entire ‘black’ cast warbling jazz tunes.    
To suggest Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs changed the trajectory of animation is an understatement. Once regarded as little more than a minor diversion for tots, suitable only as one reel shorts sandwiched between other features, the movie once dubbed ‘Disney’s folly’ achieved overnight landmark status by which all like-minded endeavors have long since been judged. Today, Snow White continues to entertain us, although, in hindsight, it tends to seem tamer and less ‘appointed’ in direct comparison to Walt’s other ‘princess-themed’ features: Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) among them. And yet, what remains perennially appealing is Snow White’s virginal tenderness; Walt and his artisans tapping into the inescapably wholesomeness too often stripped from family-themed entertainments today; replaced by sentimentalized treacle or worse, rank adult cynicism, designed to mature (or rather steal away with) our childhood memories, instead of staving off the specter of adulthood for just a little while longer.
The best of Disney’s animated features – particularly those Walt supervised – tap into childhood with a magically timeless diviner’s rod, capable of bringing forth oft buried remembrances from our own happier, carefree times. In Disney films we escape the realities of life; not by being shielded from them, but rather, gently coaxed out of its darker recesses, safely kept at arm’s length by the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Within this context there is a lot to unpack; virtue triumphant; goodness preserved and/or restored, evil vanquished; the natural order held together by the purity of a take-charge heroine, and so on. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs promises all this and more and for 83 minutes at least, this much rings true; the world is a place where fears are faced, but where any dreams dared to be dreamed can come true. Is it wrong to believe in wishing wells and fairy tales? Do we do our children a disservice by keeping them unawares for a little while longer? Flying in the face of abject scholarship that suggests as much, personally, I think the opposite is true. Stimulating impressionable minds ought to be the ensconced precept of any great work of cinema art endeavored for the young. Walt distinctly understood this as an elemental necessity. His movies thus appeal to the young and young in heart, and, collectively endure because they speak to renewable human longings, despite changing mores, tastes and socio-political upheavals, perennially enjoyed for their undiluted fresh-faced naiveté. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is among these timeless works of art. It lives because Walt never gave up or into the prejudices facing him at the start. For this, I say, ‘Courage, thy name is Disney’…uncle Walt, if you prefer, as I do.                 
'Perennially satisfying’ is also a good way to describe Disney’s Blu-Ray. If you do not already own the previous Diamond Edition Blu-ray, now many years out of print, I suppose it is as good a time as any to pick up this edition, although, already owning the aforementioned, I am really not loving the studio’s new slimmed down look; the cardboard sleeve and homogenized vertical writing having become something of ‘a thing’ with Disney Inc. hi-def releases. The company really did put its best foot forward on the aforementioned 2009 Blu-ray, housed in a handsome blue embossed booklet or, for those with very deep pockets, a red velvet deluxe case also containing a book, lithographs and other sundry bling and tangible extras. So there is not a whole lot of room for improvement this time around, and, in fact, none is forthcoming; the video/audio quality virtually identical to the old 2009 release.
Sourced from a painstaking restoration of the original camera negative, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. I am always blown away by the resiliency of metal dye transfer Technicolor; its overall fidelity and sensitivity to even the subtlest changes in light and shadow. Contrast levels are again perfectly realized and much – if not – all of the image exhibits razor-sharp clarity; the minor caveats, the result of the source – not the hi-def mastering process. Disney Inc. is somewhat adverse to grain but Snow White escapes the studio-sanctified verve to eradicate it altogether. There’s a light smattering present, indigenous to the source, and without the added distraction of age-old dirt and debris. Just shy of its 80th anniversary, the fairest of the fair can still hold that claim with more than a modicum of pride. Once again, the vintage audio is presented in both original mono (restored) and a splendid new 7.1 Dolby Digital mix. Bottom line: an A-list reference disc to be beloved for as long as the child within remains the centerpiece of life.
Extras are a mixed bag. Disney scholar, John Canemaker hosts a vintage commentary with excised comments from Walt and other Disney staff no longer with us. It’s a comprehensive history and well worth the listen. We also get ‘In Walt’s Words’ almost five minutes of a 1956 interview, but a virtually repeat of the comments interpolated throughout Canemaker’s commentary.  At around the 7 min. mark is Iconography, a chance for current Disney alumni to reminisce about Snow White and then produce sculptures. @DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess is 5 min. of animators recognizing the influences of Snow White on the contemporary Disney heroine, and, clocking in a full minute short of this is, The Fairest Facts of Them All with Disney Channel’s Sofia Carson relating ‘little known’ facts about the movie. Honestly, I could have done without ‘Snow White in Seventy Seconds’ a minute’s worth of gutless rapping meant to contemporize the tale for today’s youth, who seemingly cannot contextualize anything unless it comes with a beat. For a while now, it has become something of a thing at the Mouse House to offer insight into the movie that never was. In Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White we get a pseudo-representation of a story meeting and Walt’s original concept for how the fairest of them all and her comely prince should have found true love.
The best extras are all carry-overs from the old Blu-ray release; beginning with The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, at just a little over a half hour, about as densely packed as one might expect with historians, Neal Gabler and John Canemaker telling the tale. Personally, I think it still a tad truncated – condensing four years into 33 min., including the film’s premiere and cultural importance. To flesh out the particulars, we get Andreas Deja, Bringing Snow White to Life – 10 plus min. of intensely discussed animation with his fellow artists. I have always liked Deja and felt the company continues to under-use him as the ‘new’ spokesman for the studio’s rich heritage. He clearly has a passion to become the eminence grise. Hyperion Studios is an interactive tour of the original animation studio. This, and Decoding an Exposure Sheet, a technical look at the record kept on each sequence of the movie, are holdovers from the Platinum edition DVD. Ditto for Snow White Returns: a reconstruction of a never realized animated sequel. There’s also, Story Meeting/Dwarfs, Story Meeting/Huntsman, Deleted Sequence/Soup/Bed, and finally, an all too brief puff piece on the various voical talent. Shameless to the end, Disney Inc. cannot resist giving us theatrical trailers for their new movies, Zootopia and The Good Dinosaur. Bottom line: if you don’t already own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs you definitely should. This disc comes highly recommended, but only for those who do not already own the fairest of them all in 1080p.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS

4