Wednesday, June 17, 2009

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK - Blu-Ray (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Fox Home Video

Based on the best-selling authorship of a 13 year old Jewish exile, hiding with her family from Nazi persecution in the attic of a Holland spice factory, director George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) remains one of the most poignantly wrought melodramas of all time. Not an overwhelming financial success at the time of its release, the film nevertheless received its much deserved share of critical praise. But it's reputation and popularity with audiences has only grown since, living up to Stevens' own claim of "we'll know what kind of film this is in twenty years."

Stevens, who as a field unit cameraman had witnessed first hand the Nazi desecration of humanity within the concentration camps in 1947, was deeply affected by the experience. Upon returning to America, the director primarily known for his frothy comedies and bombastic adventures became focused on more introspective literary material. For Stevens, movies could no longer simply entertain us. They had to also serve as a mirror held up to society at large, asking 'what's wrong with this picture?'  

Critics usually dubbed this type of entertainment 'the message picture', and very often audiences found such movies heavy-handed in their ability to education, quite often at the expense of providing sheer distraction. Yet, Stevens found a way to make his social commentaries work on the big screen as both 'message pictures' and pure entertainment. As such, audiences have been a little richer for his contributions.

In late 1955, Stevens met Anne Frank's father, Otto to discuss the possibility of bringing their story to the big screen. Although Otto was a congenial gentleman through and through, his association with the motion picture ended after preliminary discussions and principle casting had been completed. After interviewing hundreds of hopefuls for the lead, Stevens decided to cast Millie Perkins; a New York model with virtually no acting experience. Perkins proved an inspired choice. Unaccustomed to the Hollywood lifestyle, her naivety was exactly the sort of fresh faced vitality so essential to play the unassuming character of Anne.

To help craft his intimate epic, Stevens turned to noted screenwriters Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had already written a successful stage version based on Anne Frank’s diaries. Reluctantly, Stevens also agreed to shoot the film in Cinemascope – Fox’s patented widescreen process; though he did win the argument to shoot the film in B&W rather than color. And although, the 2:35:1 aspect ratio was not without its challenges, Stevens managed to make the anamorphic process appear smaller and more intimate than it usually was.

The film opens in Amsterdam shortly after the war breaks out. Anne’s (Millie Perkins) prudent father, Otto (Joseph Schildkraut) has arranged with spice factory manager Kraler (Douglas Spencer) and Miep (Dody Heath) to take his family underground to avoid being sent to a concentration camp.The Franks are joined by another family; the Van Daans - Petronella (Shelly Winters) Hans (Lou Jacobi) and their son Peter (Richard Beymer).

Over the next two years, both families will share this utterly cramped, hidden attic space, concealed by a hidden book shelf. At first, the families congregate, mostly in hushed silence, but under the most congenial of circumstances. However, as time wears on – patience wears thin.At night, the Franks and the Van Daans move about the rest of the complex freely until one evening, a wayward thief attempting a break in threatens to expose their secret hideaway.

Through it all, Anne endures many hardships, danger and extreme loneliness, yet without bitterness and always inspired to hope for a better tomorrow. Despite her current predicament, she genuinely believes in the goodness of people. Regrettably, her prayers for the future are to remain unfulfilled. The Nazis discover the Franks and Van Daans hideout. The families are seized, separated and sent to various concentration camps where they are inevitably slaughtered. Only Otto survives. He returns to the spice factory after the war, without fear, only to find Anne's diary still lingering among their few pitifully discarded belongings buried under the dust in the attic. With tears in his eyes, he randomly turns to a chapter and reads aloud of Anne sincere desire to believe in the goodness of all people. That blind faith in humanity, so eloquently expressed by his daughter, restores his own.

The Diary of Anne Frank is an emotionally stirring production. Not only does it manage to capture the essence, tone and mood of the great war's most intimate tragedy, but it also preserves the enduring legacy of Anne Frank – a girl aged well beyond her years, who had the clairvoyance to put down on paper one of the most utterly genuine accounts ever written about WWII.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray reincarnation for the film’s 50th Anniversary offers a more refined B&W anamorphic transfer than the ‘Studio Series’ standard DVD released just a few years ago. And yet, this latest preservation is hardly without its flaws. The image in general seems to sporadically suffer from ‘breathing’, the sides of the Cinemascope image in constant flux in contrast levels. Certain scenes have an extremely heavy patina of film grain while fine details are occasionally lost in an image that seems slightly overly contrasted. Edge enhancement is rare, but present. The audio is represented in 5.1 Tru HD and 4.0 Dolby Digital with minimal sonic difference between the two tracks.

Where this Blu-ray bests the DVD is in its extra features. In addition to the original 90 minute documentary on the real Anne Frank, we get a mountain of extras that cover the film and George Stevens' career from every conceivable angle. George Stevens Jr., Diane Baker and Millie Perkins lend new thoughts and back story, and there are some period featurettes also that immeasurably flesh out the historical record. Finally, we get an engaging and informative audio commentary from George Stevens Jr. and Millie Perkins and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!

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



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