Friday, May 28, 2010

STAGECOACH: Blu-Ray (Walter Wanger 1939) Criterion

John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is often billed as the first ‘adult western’ and for good reason; coming, as it had on the heels of a decade’s worth in low budget two reel quickies that were little more than Saturday matinee filler for the kiddy set. Ford’s revision of the Hollywood western is quite something different – if not new. The script by Dudley Nichols and an unaccredited Ben Hecht weaves a hypnotic narrative of lives intertwined within the confines of a carriage racing toward the open plains.

The story begins in earnest with woman of ill repute, Dallas (Claire Trevor) and a disgraced alcoholic, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, in his Oscar-winning role) being run out of town.Together with card shark, Hatfield (John Carradine in a thinly veiled impersonation of Doc Holliday), pregnant newlywed Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) – eager to be reunited with her husband serving in the cavalry, and the modest henpecked traveling salesman, Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) the stagecoach hits the open road, driven with wild aplomb by the irrepressible Buck (Andy Devine).
On the outskirts of town, the stage stops to pick up bank manager, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) who has just absconded with the bank's $50,000 payroll. But danger is near. Buck and Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) have received word that Geronimo’s tribe is on the move.

Under the cover of a cavalry escort (led by a very young Tim Holt), the stage makes its way across Monument Valley's desolate landscape, meeting up with The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) – a good natured desperado with a reputation who has just broken out of the penitentiary and is on the hunt to avenge his brother's killer, Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler).

The rest of the film is basically a series of vignettes tracing the intersecting lives and social hypocrisies of these men and women from varying strata, forced to occupy the same limited space. Louise refuses to eat at the same table as Dallas. She is sheltered by Hatfield who presents himself as a gentleman. Ringo befriends Dallas – and later proposes marriage. Doc Boone reclaims his profession and his dignity by delivering Louise’s baby. Henry is exposed as a thief. But all of these narrative threads are mere back story for the film’s raison d’etre; a harrowing race against Geronimo that threatens to put a period to all concerned.

In a chase/action sequence with few equals – Ford took many artistic liberties, broke editing rules, employed a litany of stuntmen and sacrificed several horses: the result - one of the truly outstanding highlights of any western film yet made – a high stakes/no holds barred and bare knuckle trek across the baron wasteland. Impressive too, is Ford’s meticulous attention to every detail in staging and set design. In the final analysis, Stagecoach is a film of stark intelligent beauty and very intimate portraits of life.

Criterion's Blu-Ray disc bests Warner Home Video’s 2 disc DVD offering from a few years back. Still, the results are far from stellar. One really cannot fault Criterion for the lack lustre image quality. Stagecoach is, regrettably, one of those many exemplars from the early part of Hollywood's golden age for which no original camera negative or even a remotely salvageable first generation print survives. Hence, Criterion is working from substandard materials. The linear notes suggest that many hours were spent removing hundreds of anomalies from the image. If that's the case, the original film stock must have been in exhaustively terrible shape.

That said, as they appear on this Blu-Ray, the B&W elements are often hanging on by a thread. Dissolves and fades between scenes suffer the most with excessive and distracting grain. Long shots are plagued by a barrage of age related scratches, tears, nicks and chips that are quite distracting. Close ups are the most stable and exhibit a goodly amount of fine detail. Contrast levels have been brought back in line on this Blu-Ray, as opposed to Warner's DVD that shows signs of boosting and considerable DNR manipulation. Bottom line: if you purchase this disc be forewarned that it's not to show off the reference quality reproduction of the Blu-Ray format.

The Blu-Ray audio is mono as originally recorded, but more subtly nuanced than the audio on Warner's 2 disc DVD. The biggest regret herein remains in the extras. None of Warner's special features survive this upgrade. Lost is an audio commentary and two informative and comprehensive documentaries; one on the making of the film, the other of John Wayne and John Ford’s tempestuous relationship over the course of their respective careers.

In place, Criterion has included an early western silent feature shot by Ford in 1917, a brief opinion piece by Peter Bogdanovich, an overview of stuntman Yakima Canutt's career, some vintage promotional junkets including a lengthy interview with Ford, a new audio commentary that falls short of expectations and the film's original theatrical trailer - in even worse shape than the feature itself.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
3

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