BEST PICTURE 1937
"There are times when the most courageous thing is to be cowardly" exclaims the eminent defense attorney, Emile Zola (Paul Muni). Indeed. The quiet rectitude permeating director William Dieterele’s The Life of Emile Zola (1937) is one of the film’s distinct pleasures to observe. It neither embellished nor flag waves, but proves to be just as emotionally satisfying and twice as likely to be championed as a cinema masterpiece well into the next century.
Zola is a quiet man of conviction who is forced to reexamine his fellow countrymen’s opinions toward a highly publicized case involving Jewish soldier, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut). Sentenced to life on Devil's Island for giving out military secrets, Dreyfus is innocent but trapped. Dreyfus’ wife, Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) believes in his innocence and implores Zola to take her husband’s case. But how long will Dreyfus’s vindication take, particularly when those responsible for his arrest are themselves members of the justice system?
The film's definite slant against anti-Semitism is now one for the time capsule; foreshadowing that growing angst of nations and Nazi terror that was soon to engulf Europe and the rest of the world. Dieterle's direction is timeless and seamless, making his points but never dwelling on them. The musical score by Max Steiner, is one of his finest.
Warner Home Video's DVD is remarkably refined. While there are age related artifacts throughout, and some scenes suffer from considerable grain, the overall image is solid, sharp and beautifully contrasted. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered with deep, rich blacks and, for the most part, solid clean whites.
Certain brief sections appear to have been duped from second or third generation elements but, baring this in mind, and the fact that the film is 70 plus year old, these lapses are forgivable. The audio is mono but has been presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a rare audio only recording of Muni doing Zola. The one disappointment here is that no time was taken to do at least a featurette on the making of this classic film. Regardless, it comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)