Tuesday, March 6, 2007

BILLY BUDD (Allied Artists 1962) Warner Home Video

Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd (1962) is a rarely seen, though mesmerizing and quite intimate screen melodrama set aboard a tall ship. Based on Herman Melville’s compelling novel, the film’s plot concerns the almost mute Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), a beloved merchant sailor who is dragooned into service aboard a British warship. Loyal, brave and devoted to his work, Billy is both the envy and best friend of every sailor aboard; everyone, except the master-at-arms, John Claggart (Robert Ryan).

Claggart is a sadist who interprets all human interaction as a direct threat to authority. He despises Billy, primarily because Billy is so well liked by everyone else. To satisfy his own twisted sense of duty and tyranny, Claggart takes every opportunity to make an example and humiliate Billy’s inability to form cohesive sentences. This perpetual belittlement eventually results in tragic circumstances for both men.

Throughout, this film is an intimate critique of the gruel and cruel ethics imparted on men under the banner of maritime law and justice. As an audience, we are given quality substance, mostly without spectacle. Each character is a carefully delineated person – not a caricature.

Director Ustinov avoids clichés and the urge to turn his tale into another seafaring swashbuckler with its stoic and heroic figures lashed to the masts as martyrs. Terence Stamp's performance is a sublime exercise in understatement – seeming quite natural. Robert Ryan is his usual diabolical self – quite effective as the sailor who’s given his heart, and possibly his soul, to the sea. Outstanding mention goes to Melvyn Douglas’ reserved turn as The Dansker Sail maker, as well as Ustinov for both his adept direction and performance as Post Captain, Edward Fairfax Vere – a man torn between his sense of understanding and his commitment to duty.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is quite satisfactory; anamorphic widescreen with a refined B&W image; strong contrast levels and minimal amount of age related artifacts. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally clean. Occasionally, a hint of edge enhancement intrudes but does not distract. There are also several scenes which suffer from a curious soft characteristic. Fine details are realized throughout. The audio is mono but quite satisfactory. An audio commentary by Stamp and Stephen Soderbergh is the only extra. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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