Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ALIEN ANTHOLOGY: Blu-Ray (Fox 1979-97) Fox Home Video

The 1970s were a period of seismic shift in both the film-making industry and audience tastes and cultural mores. Save the justly deserved resurrection of nostalgia via MGM musicals featured in the compendium film, That's Entertainment! (1974), the decade was framed by a split from that fabled 'dream factory' ideal that had once been the main staple and blueprint for Hollywood's golden age. By mid-decade, declining audience revenue and a tightening of budgets across the board saw glamour replaced by a more grittier/less expensive realism.

This pervasive 'look' of reality eventually found its way into the realms of horror and science fiction; two of the most prominently featured genres of the decade to collide in one masterwork exemplifying both. That film was Ridley Scott's Alien (1979); a sustained and viscerally neurotic tale generating more inner hysteria than outward horror for its chills.

In retrospect, a lengthy period of gestation seems to have benefited the production immensely. Alien began its life as a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, later fully fleshed out with an assist from Ronald Schusett. Making no apologies for borrowing ideas and plot elements from practically every influential sci-fi movie from the preceding decades, O'Bannon and Schusett's screenplay was shopped around to limited interest before being sold to 20th Century Fox.

In passing the project to writers David Giler and Walter Hill, management incurred a creative rift that gradually boiled over into legalities when O'Bannon and Schusett accused the studio and its writers of attempting to steal the project outright. For all their backroom antics, Fox's executive board was unconvinced of the project's saleability.

Alien might have languished indefinitely as just another script in perpetual turnaround had not the overwhelming success of Star Wars (1977) illustrated that sci-fi had come of age with audiences. Even with Star Wars colossal success, finding a director for Alien proved elusive. After mandarins of their craft, Jack Clayton, Peter Yates and Robert Aldrich all turned it down, the film was offered to relative newcomer Ridley Scott whose early enthusiasm along with some high concept production designs produced by Swiss painter/sculptor H.R. Giger coaxed the powers that be into doubling Alien's budget.

As it eventually unfolded, the great success of Alien relied on a sense of claustrophobia rather than gut-wrenching thrills; although the film was to have its share of these as well. In recasting the lead protagonist as a female (in the original Ripley is a man), Alien also made a progressive leap towards the postmodern feminist age.

Save a few initial establishing shots, the narrative is confined aboard a vast commercial towing vessel, the Nostromo; returning to earth after a lengthy refinement operation in space. Under corporate orders, the crew picks up a weak communication signal and lands on a small and seemingly uninhabited planetoid to investigate its origins.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) takes Executive Office Kane (John Hurt) and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) on the exploration, leaving Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) on the Nostromo to monitor their progress. But their mission goes horribly awry when Kane is attacked by a bizarre alien 'face hugger'. Returning with their fallen colleague to the Nostromo, Ripley denies Dallas, Kane and Lambert permission to re-enter the ship on the assumption that Kane's attacker may pose other infectious concerns for the rest of the crew.

After a few taut moments, Ash overrides Ripley's authority and Kane is brought to the ship's infirmary for treatment. The alien, however, is unwilling to give up its prey, spewing highly corrosive blood when attempts are made to cut it loose from Kane's face. Determined to return to earth for further assistance , the Nostromo rises from the planetoid with the alien on board.

But hours later, Dallas returns to sick bay and discovers the alien quite dead with Kane showing remarkable resiliency after his encounter. Physical tests show no abnormalities. However, as the crew prepare to rejoice in Kane's full recovery the real threat to all of them makes its presence known. The face hugger has used Kane as its host to incubate an offspring. The new alien child bursts forth from Kane's stomach, before burrowing deep into the bowels of the Nostromo.

The rest of the story essentially follows a conventional 'race against time' scenario with the full grown alien attacker picking off crew one at a time. Brett follows his frightened cat into the ship's loading area and is devoured by the creature. Dallas attempts to force the alien into the ship's airlock where it can be expelled into space, but the creature ambushes him inside one of the ducts. Lambert encourages the remaining crew to board Nostromo's escape shuttle - a decision thwarted by Ripley who awkwardly finds herself in command.

Accessing classified computer files, Ripley learns that Ash was assigned by the corporation to apprehend the alien and return it to earth for study - even at the expense of Nostromo's crew. This revelation is short lived as Ash attacks Ripley but is decapitated by Parker instead, revealing that he is actually an android.

Ripley initiates the Nostromo's self destruct sequence, instructing Parker and Lambert to incinerate Ash before making ready their escape in the shuttle. But the alien kills Parker and Lambert and narrowly misses Ripley as she boards with Brett's cat.

The Nostromo self destructs and Ripley prepares for hyper-sleep aboard the shuttle, only to discover that the alien has made the escape with her. In the final moments, Ripley initiates explosive decompression by opening the shuttle's hatch, propelling the creature into outer space, but with her own solitary future uncertain.

When it debuted, Alien was not the blockbuster that Fox had banked on and, in retrospect, for good reason. It's story is brutally low key and, in Star Wars wake, unapologetically depressing; a postmodern epitaph arguably light years ahead of its time. In re-envisioning a sequel with Aliens (1986), director James Cameron initially ran into opposition from Fox precisely because the box office tally from the first film had not matched their level of expectation. Nevertheless, Cameron was bolstered by his cache as a director after the premiere of The Terminator (1983) - a certified box office dynamo.

Under Cameron's direction Aliens (1986) arguably takes the very best elements from the original film and makes them better. Ellen Ripley's shuttle is recovered by the Weyland-Yutani Corp. 57 years after the disastrous Nostromo venture. In that passage of time her only child has died and Ripley - alone and accused of having overridden company policy - is 'encouraged' by her former employers to return to the planetoid where the original creature was discovered. At first outright refusing to comply, Ripley is told by corporate 'yes man' Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) that the planet has long since been inhabited by a human colony without incident. That least, not until recently when all communication was suddenly terminated.

With a military escort aboard the Sulaco overseen by Colonel Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), Ripley reluctantly returns to the alien planet to find a colony seemingly abandoned by its human inhabitants. The one prospect for learning what happened to the rest of its members materializes in the form of a traumatized, mute little girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn) whom Ripley bonds to as her own child that, in fact, she never knew.

But the cocky Colonel and his equally brash crew have severely underestimated the situation. Inside the colony's science lab, they find remnants of alien face huggers preserved in formaldehyde. Realizing that the rest of the alien eggs have hatched, Ripley attempts to warn Gorman and his team of impending doom.

But Gorman disputes Ripley's concerns and attempts to set up a command centre instead. With precision, he and his brigade are picked off one by one - this time by an army of aliens who brutalize and dismember their prey with exceptional ease. After Newt is captured by an alien while hiding in one of the colony's sewers, Ripley summons up all her courage to go deep into the bowels of the mining centre with only a flame thrower and gun as protection.

Once inside, she discovers Newt wrapped inside an alien cocoon. Freeing the child, Ripley comes face to face with the alien queen (a multi-pronged bit of malignant magnificence created by Stan Winston) who is in the process of harvesting a new host of offspring. Torching the field of eggs that lay all around her, Ripley makes her way back to the Sulaco with the queen in pursuit. After a brief battle, Ripley and Newt board the Sulaco and bid the planetoid farewell.

Aliens is arguably a better constructed film than its predecessor. With a screenplay credited solely to Cameron (despite story assists from Giler and Hill) and a more centrally focused narrative on Sigourney Weaver as the series' star, Aliens became a much more profitable movie for 20th Century Fox.

Regrettably, the success of Cameron's movie at the box office gave way to two more instalments in the series; both inferior to either the first or second films. In truth, Sigourney Weaver did not want to return to the franchise after Aliens, prompting Giler and Hill to pen a screenplay that omitted her character entirely - a ploy designed to resurrect Ellen Ripley in a fourth feature. Fox vetoed this idea, however, leaving director David Fincher to scramble for plot consistency as he dove head strong into production on Aliens 3 (1992) without ever having a finished script. After completion of the film, the studio reworked this rough footage without Fincher's participation or consent, leaving the final edit suspect as to the director's original intent.

The film begins with an unforgiveable sin - removing Newt from the series by having a fire break out on the Sulaco. The ship crash lands near a prison/refinery with Ripley as its sole human survivor. Unbeknownst to the prisoners or Ripley, a face hugger has also survived the crash and shortly thereafter begins its usual - and by now - conventional spree of carnage with Ripley discovering by plot's end that she has been impregnated with an alien offspring.

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997) the plot concocted by Joss Wedon grows even more tedious and removed from the series roots - this time by 200 years with Ripley cloned and an alien queen surgically removed from her body; all part of a diabolical U.S. military plan to study alien/human hybrids. Tossing in the briefest whiff of lesbianism between Ripley and Capt. Annalee Call (Wynonna Ryder), the story goes nowhere fast, its predictable results and wizardry of state of the art special effects enjoyed to better effect elsewhere in the franchise.

Fox's Blu-Ray debut of the Alien franchise is stunning and will surely NOT disappoint. As this reviewer has often stated in the past, I rarely have doubts that a film made within the last 20 years will look stunning in hi-def. But what about 30 years and beyond - particularly when so much of what has been archived throughout the decades has been stored with less than stellar attention to film preservation?

Yet, in these transfers we have that rare treat for fans of the original movie and its masterful first sequel. Alien and Aliens have been given the deluxe treatment on Blu-Ray - along with their less fondly remembered counterparts. Image detail takes a quantum leap forward. Flesh tones have been nicely realized throughout all four films, with the first film retaining its cooler palette and more pasty hues of skin when directly compared to the other three films in the franchise. The image on all four movies is razor sharp with no visible signs of compression artefacts. Rear projection and model work is more evident to the keen eye, but Stan Winston's creature effects hold up remarkably well under such close scrutiny.

The audio has been given a 7.1 Tru-HD upgrade and again, the outstanding moments on these discs comes from the renewed sonic experience attributed to the first and second movies; neither the benefactor of exemplary sound design at the time of their original release. When the alien bursts forth from Kane's chest in the first feature, surround channels become aggressively spatial. Are there still dated characteristics to the sound field in general? Absolutely. After all, this is a 30 plus year audio sound mix - but one meticulously gone over with all of today's advantages for creating state of the art sound design.

Delving into the goodies, this box set also comes with a myriad of new and previously released footage, documentaries, featurettes, commentaries, stills and theatrical trailers that chart the series creation from virtually every conceivable aspect. 'Comprehensive' is a grossly inadequate term to sum up Fox's efforts on this outing. The Alien Anthology is a MUST HAVE Blu-Ray event. Very highly recommended! Please note that Fox has also made this set available in a flashier 'egg' package complete with batteries that make the translucent plastic shell shimmer and glow; a nice added touch for the finite collector except that the 'egg' set is sold for nearly $50 more than the one reviewed herein.

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

Alien 4

Aliens 5

Alien III 2

Alien Resurrection 1





Tuesday, October 19, 2010

APOCALYPSE NOW: FULL DISCLOSURE (Paramount/American Zoetrope 1979) Lionsgate/American Zoetrope Home Video

Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) is a movie that could never be today; in as much as its’ infamous and meticulously documented folly of director-driven obsession and near-death of its star, Martin Sheen (who suffered a heart attack) would be enough for any nervous studio exec to pull the plug and send everyone home for good. Two mitigating factors prevented the cancellation of Coppola’s shoot; the first, Coppola’s grand and devouring mania to will his vision into existence beyond all comprehension for his own self-preservation. Second, that the film was being funded by United Artists – a production house catering to independent film makers in an unobtrusive way, giving them full authority and autonomy to make whatever movies they so desired.
In the past UA’s good faith policy had been extremely well-placed, its lucrative alliances with such heavy hitters as Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Albert R. Broccoli marking an enviable win-win situation for all concerned. However, in the mid-1970s, such blind allegiances began to test the patience of all concerned – and more importantly, at least from UA’s perspective, strain their coffers to the point where it had begun to impact their ability to continue to do business as a viable alternative apart from the more stringent dictates of other corporate-owned studios. Add to the mix the 1978 departure of UA’s guiding force, Arthur B. Krim, with a mass exodus of UA’s top-flight talent who followed Krim to the creation of Orion Pictures after a particularly nasty split with its parent company, Transamerica. UA was left with a middling roster of executives who, fearful of making a misstep, ultimately brought about the ruination of the company by allowing its status quo ‘don’t ask, don’t interfere’ policy to endure and foster movies of quality that nevertheless were more costly than the company was ultimately capable of producing.  
Apocalypse Now is frequently cited as one of the most intense and genuine movies ever made about the Vietnam conflict; a moniker it justly deserves. But even before cameras began to roll, a snafu with film maker Carroll Ballard resulted in a lawsuit over the rights to produce it. In retrospect, it proved a very bad omen of things to come. With a script by Coppola and John Milius drawing its central themes from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now remains an arguably honest, exceptionally bleak and very foreboding entertainment. But behind the scenes, Coppola encountered a journey more arduous and self-destructive than perhaps any put forth on film; one that threatened to destroy all of the cache he had built up as one of Hollywood’s premiere movers and shakers on his two previous Oscar-winning efforts for Paramount: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).
Indeed, Marlon Brando - a Coppola favorite, (though not his first choice to play Kurtz) - was of no help to the director on his outing, arriving on set morbidly obese and flubbing his lines so often that Coppola was forced to patch together his performance in the editing room during post production. To minimize Brando's girth on set, Coppola shot another actor from behind in long shot and focused primarily on Brando's face; his body draped in black and often barely lit or emerging from the shadows. For years the character of Kurtz was thought to be based on Tony Poe; a Paramilitary officer with a morose thirsty for the more extreme brutalities of combat. Coppola however, has always suggested that the character was based on Col. Robert Rheault whose 1969 arrest over the murder of a double agent had garnered considerable press.
As production in Manila progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace, Coppola was faced with a natural disaster - a typhoon that decimated several large sets already constructed for the film. Six weeks behind and $2 million over budget, arguably Apocalypse Now's greatest impediment became Coppola himself. Unable to reconcile the footage already photographed with a screenplay that was forever changing in his mind, Coppola wrote and rewrote entire sequences, shooting to excess, only to excise much of it in his final cut. After principle photography wrapped, Coppola informed editor Walter Murch that he had a mere four months to assemble the sound elements for the film; an insurmountable task given that sound libraries in Hollywood back then contained virtually no convincing audio effects for mechanized weaponry used during the Vietnam War.
After cajoling UA to postpone the movie’s debut from May to October of 1978, Coppola was still not ready for a premiere by December of that year. In April 1979, Coppola elected to screen a three hour 'work print' of Apocalypse Now for audiences at Canne that proved a disaster, capped off by film critic, Rona Barrett's snap assessment, labeling the movie "a disappointing failure." Regrettably, this negative publicity would continue to dog Apocalypse Now to its official premiere in August of 1979. Despite an impressive $150 million as its worldwide gross, the pall from the experience of making - then remaking - Apocalypse Now had physically and emotionally exhausted Coppola and all but crippled his ability to procure future financing as an independent in Hollywood. Where only two years earlier Coppola had been the fair-haired heir apparent who could have written his own blank check and aspired to make any movie of his own heart’s desire, he had suddenly and spectacularly fallen into the category of the industry’s red-headed stepchild; an opinion and a stigma that continued to linger and was all but cemented in perpetuity with 1982’s cataclysmic failure of One From the Heart.  On Oscar night, Apocalypse Now won only two statuettes, each in relatively minor categories for sound editing.
Arguably, Apocalypse Now was the wrong movie for its time; the Vietnam conflict having ended a mere four short years before the movie’s debut – a grace period in which the ruinous and ongoing psychological consequences of returning soldiers, virtually ignored for their contributions abroad and worse, publicly spat on their own native soil as perceived war mongers and baby-killers (when, in fact, most had honorably served their country with valor, justice and pride under the most onerous of wartime conditions); these truths remained a travesty obfuscated by the hippie counterculture, and something of an embarrassment to the United States government who could in no way delineate a clear-cut victory from all the shell-shock and disbelief overshadowing the South East Asian conflict. But these were precisely the realities that Coppola sought to bring forth from the national blind-sighted obscurity with an even more frank and unvarnished spectacle meant to humanize the inhumanity of it all.
Arguably, Apocalypse Now played more like a bucket of salt poured into this still very raw and gaping wound; the pall of its own lengthy and extremely difficult incubation leading the critical charge and backlash from the critics. Further still, perhaps America was not ready to face the realities of war or simply felt they had been brutalized enough in their popular entertainments with the release of Michael Cinimo’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (both released in 1978).  Whatever the reason, Coppola’s movie became one of the scapegoats for putting a period to the era of director-driven ‘auteur’ movie making; the final stake being driven into its heart by Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). However, as is often the case, time does very strange things to cinema art, and Apocalypse Now is today regarded as perhaps the pluperfect representation of the Vietnam War, its fictionalized narrative somehow revealing far more impactful and lasting truths than either of its aforementioned competitors. Viewed today, Coppola’s movie is indeed a startling artistic achievement with arguably no competitor then or now to match its oppressively genuine vision.
Coppola’s self-destructiveness, his becoming absorbed into the project to the point of almost losing his way and, in fact, his sanity, has yielded to a shockingly real masterwork that burrows deep and upsettingly into our collective consciousness. The iconography of imminent doom seems utterly void of melodrama; the behind-the-scenes chaos somehow permeating the verisimilitude in ways unattainable through art for art’s sake alone. In effect, Coppola, Sheen and the rest of the cast and crew have gone through their own trial by fire, the ravages endured leaving behind indelible and permanent marks on the chemical makeup of their characters and, in fact, the movie itself.    
Plot wise: in 1969, Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), an emotionally barren, psychologically scarred Vietnam vet, is hired by Lt. General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) to make journey on the Nung River in Cambodia in search of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly decorated Special Forces operative feared to have gone rogue. It is an assassin's pilgrimage, fraught with danger on all sides and the very real possibility that Willard will not survive his ordeal. Willard is informed that Kurtz is insane and is currently in command of a legion of troops who have also become psychologically unhinged and now follow only his commands with implicit abandonment. These claims are supported by disturbing radio broadcasts made by Kurtz himself. Aboard the Navy patrol boat Riverine with Commander George Phillips (Albert Hall), Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Tyrone Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and Jay Hicks (Frederic Forrest), Willard rendezvous with an Air Cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall).
At the mouth of the river Willard, Kilgore and his troops are feebly ambushed by the Viet Cong and shortly thereafter decimated. In the resulting carnage and decimation of a nearby village, Kilgore utters the film's most oft quoted line; "I love the smell of napalm in the morning... Smells like, victory" as he recalls an earlier battle. From here, the Riverine navigates increasingly more treacherous waters with Willard's own silent obsession to apprehend Kurtz growing ominous and self-destructive. The Riverine encounters a sampan in their midst, the crew – having been frazzled to the point of nervous breakdowns - blindly opening fire and slaughtering all on board only to reveal the vessel as civilian. Discovering that one of the wounded - a young girl - is still alive, Hicks demands that she be taken immediately for medical attention, whereupon Willard quietly shoots the girl dead; thereby alienating himself from the rest of his men; in effect Coppola drawing a parallel between Willard’s own psychological implosion and that of the mysterious Kurtz whom we have yet to discover but will shortly meet.
Further upstream, the Riverine encounters utter chaos at the Do Long Bridge, the last U.S. outpost on the river. A North Vietnamese attack has left the remaining U.S. troops stationed there without leadership. Willard learns that an Army Captain was sent earlier to find Kurtz but has since vanished without a trace. Meanwhile, aboard the Riverine, Lance pops open a purple smoke grenade that attracts enemy fire. In the resulting chaos, several of Willard's men are killed and Phillips, wounded by a spear through his chest, attempts to murder Willard by drawing him onto its protruding tip. Willard confides the real purpose of his journey to Lance and Hicks and the three men agree to see the mission through. As they draw closer to Kurtz's compound even they are shocked by the sight of a coastline strewn in butchered bodies. Willard orders Hicks to launch an airstrike if he and Lance do not return, but only a bit into the forest Willard and Lance are met by a manic photographer (Dennis Hopper) who attempts to explain Kurtz's greatness; a stark assumption irreconcilable with the many bodies and dismembered heads encountered along the road to a nearby Buddhist temple where Kurtz currently resides.
Bound and brought before Kurtz, Willard is given a crash philosophical take on the war in a hauntingly bloodless, bone-chillingly effective monotone monologue that culminates with Hicks' murder aboard the Riverine; his severed head dropped into Willard's lap by Kurtz. Sometime later, a weary villager frees Willard from his restraints and gives him a machete. Entering Kurtz's chamber, Willard slaughters his captor before dropping the weapon at his feet. The villagers allow Lance and Willard to leave the stronghold; the pair sailing into a very uncertain future.
Viewed today, Apocalypse Now remains a very sobering entertainment; dark and evocative of Conrad's novel while infusing the basic story with deeper, and then more timely meaning, that in retrospect continues to ring with ominous truth. In 2001, Coppola released a 'redux' version of his masterwork into theaters and then on home video, incorporating an additional 49 minutes. Back in 1979, UA had balked at the already lengthy run time, forcing Coppola to make further trims to Apocalypse Now’s general release. Now, the film has been reassembled once more, with Coppola tweaking the footage a little further still.  
American Zoetrope/Lionsgate Home Entertainment have joined forces to bring both versions of Apocalypse Now:The Full Disclosure Edition on Blu-Ray with breathtaking results. The packaging leaves something to be desired. For starters, my own copy did not come with the much touted 48 page booklet. Also, the disc clearly marked as 'special features' actually houses both versions of the movie, the disc marked as the movies, actually the special features. Just sloppy!  Clearly, someone was not on the ball during the final stages of prep on this box set.
Now, for the pluses: first - both versions of Apocalypse Now have been given a full 1080p ground-up video remastering with stunning clarity achieved throughout. The image is subtly textured, with more natural and very vibrant colors. Fine detail takes a quantum leap into the future, head and shoulders above and beyond the old Paramount Home Video release from 2002. Film grain – always problematically rendered on DVD, now appears quite indigenous to the source, contrast perfectly pitched with deep velvety blacks that compliment Vittorio Storaro’s evocative and lush cinematography.  The DTS 5.1 audio will really give your speakers some exercise, particularly the bass and subwoofer. Hold on to your chairs; the floor beneath them is about to movie with very intense vibrations.
There are over 9 hours of extras – too plentiful to delve into herein with any degree of accuracy. Included: an informative audio commentary by Coppola, the 1938 audio recording of Orson Welles reading Conrad's novel for radio, new and exclusively produced conversations with Coppola, Martin Sheen and John Milius, as well as the original full documentary 'Heart of Darkness' detailing the film's immensely troubled production. Bottom line: Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


PSYCHO: Blu-Ray (Paramount 1960) Universal Home Video

By 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was an international celebrity – instantly recognizable around the world. Only part of this notoriety was due to his films. Hitchcock’s more palpable form of celebrity came from his weekly appearances, introducing segments of his own television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC. Budgetary restrictions and the fast pace of shooting television would come to serve as a template for Hitchcock’s most popular cinematic endeavour.

Often cited as the film that matured American cinema into its present state of sublime cynicism, Psycho (1960) is based on a novel by Robert Bloch rooted in the real life serial killings by a deranged New England farmer who quietly butchered his neighbours. In the book, Norman Bates is a rather pudgy middle aged recluse – easily identifiable as someone with a darker side. In transplanting the attributes of a serial killer into the seemingly normal and youthfully handsome Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock plays upon an erroneous - yet almost universal misperception; that evil is immediately and quite easily identifiable or, as Shakespeare more astutely observed, “he that smiles may smile and be a villain.”

Budgeted at a remarkably modest $800,000, Psycho went on to earn forty million in its initial release – a telling sign of the cost-cutting that would come to exemplify film making more and more throughout the 1960s. Joseph Stephano’s screenplay carries an immersive underlay of psychoanalysis, perhaps because the writer himself was also in therapy at the time the script was written.

The story begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh); a hot and bothered secretary whose lover, Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) is unable to commit to marriage because he is struggling to pay for his ex-wife’s alimony. To expedite her way to the altar with Sam, Marion decides to steal fifty thousand dollars from her employer as a runaway down payment on that fantasy life she misperceives can be hers.

Unfortunately, en route from Phoenix to Fairfax the weather turns ugly, forcing Marion to take a night’s refuge at the Bates Motel from which she will never return. The motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a congenial mama’s boy on the surface, but quickly develops a paralytic sexual frustration that manifests itself as murderous psychosis. After stabbing Marion to death inside one of the motel showers, Norman disposes of her body in a nearby swamp.

Enter private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Assigned by Marion’s employer to track her down, Arbogast eventually traces Marion’s route to the Bates Motel and shortly thereafter suffers the same fate as our heroine. Forced to take matters into their own hands, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam journey to the motel and that now infamous old gothic house on the hill just beyond – actually a free standing set built on Universal’s back lot.

After Sam diverts Norman's attentions, Lila hurries up to the house to explore. Having earlier been told by Arbogast that Norman's mother is an invalid, Lila is determined to question Mrs. Bates as per her sister's whereabouts. But Norman becomes unsettled by Sam's probing questions. After temporarily knocking Sam unconscious in the motel's office, Norman hurries home to confront Lila who has hidden herself in the cellar, the last place she thinks anyone will look for her.

Unfortunately, the basement is home to the real truth behind Norman Bates; that his mother, who earlier figured prominently as a possible suspect in Marion’s disappearance, is actually a mummified corpse, dressed in her favourite shawl and wig, but rotted through nonetheless. Hitchcock frames Lila’s terrifying moment of realization in extreme close up, with mother’s back to the camera. He then slowly spins her chair around to reveal a shrivelled corpse, its cavernous and blank eye sockets staring to some unfixed point beyond the camera.

Lila's shrieks draw Norman to the cellar, dressed in his mother's drag and toting a butcher knife for the next slaughter. But Sam arrives in the nick of time to thwart Lila's murder and apprehend filmdom's most celebrated serial killer.

The final act of Hitchcock's most compelling psychological thriller is dedicated to a somewhat laborious explanation by Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) about Norman's 'condition' - explained as an inability to reconcile his own previous act of murdering his mother and thereafter transforming half of his life into a schizophrenic counterpart that becomes jealous when Norman is sexually aroused by other women.

For its time, Psycho was a disturbing revelation. It exemplified the weakening of the Production Code of Censorship that would never have allowed such grotesqueness on the screen before then. The shower sequence that claims Marion's life remains one of the most effective and masterful bit of editing ever put on film. Involving ninety cuts, a partially nude stand in for Janet Leigh, and a melon being slashed to simulate the sound of steel cutting into flesh – the sequence unravels as an assault on the audience’s collective expectations of what murder is – providing quick horizontal and vertical edits that collectively reassemble in our minds as a brutal homicide that, in reality, is never entirely visualized on the screen.

When the film debuted it was readily denounced by the Catholic League of Decency as well as by a select few film critics who condemned it and Hitchcock as going too far. The backlash, coupled with Paramount’s clever marketing only served to further fuel the public’s rabid fascination to see it. In hindsight, Psycho proved to be Hitchcock’s most successful movie of all time.

Years of neglect, and ownership of the film slipping from Paramount to Universal did much to dampen the impact of Psycho on home video. Over the years, the film has looked dated, worn and remarkably un-film like. But now, there is a definite reason to rejoice. Psycho on Blu-Ray is at long last a fitting tribute to Hitchcock's masterful classic. The B&W image reveals so much new fine detail that there really is NO point in directly comparing this Blu-Ray to Universal's utterly unsatisfactory DVD from 2002. The gray scale now retains its middle grain and tonality - something lost on previous editions.

We can see imperfections in flesh, crisp detailing in fabrics and minute subtleties like the glint of sunlight off of the hood of Marion's car. Occasionally, digitial noise and minute trackes of edge enhancement crop up but nothing that will severely distract from your viewing enjoyment.

Psycho's audio has also been given a crisp revitalization and, in stereo, though film purists would probably not approve. For their consideration, the original mono track has also been included, but the stereo remaster reveals some startling cues in effects and scoring that, at least for this reviewer, only seems to add to the mystique and melodrama of this 50 year old classic.

Extras are all direct imports from Universal's DVD, including an audio commentary and featurettes on the making of the film, all given a modest sprucing up on this outing with less compression artefacts evident. Bottom line: Psycho is a no brainer repurchase. On Blu-Ray it is a must have.

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






MOULIN ROUGE: Blu-ray (Fox 2001) Fox Home Video

If ever there was a motion picture that unequivocally proves movies are an art form – Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) is that film; a frenetic, pulsating extravaganza reformatted for the MTV generation and with its revisionist ode to 50's super musicals in full tilt glitz. Loosely based on the Orphean myth and Giuseppe Verdi's immortal opera, La Traviata, Moulin Rouge blends vintage Bohemia with the likes of Madonna, Elton John and Rogers and Hammerstein. Drawing upon a song catalogue from Broadway and pop chart-topping hits spanning nearly every conceivable decade of the 20th century, Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce have constructed a musical mélange that never once seems out of place, jaded or absurd.

To this rich music heritage the screenplay affixes the most generic and conventional of plots; a penniless artist meets an equally penniless girl betrothed to a wealthy man, whom he has fallen in love. Yet, the best of vintage Hollywood musicals have functioned on far less. What is perhaps most inspiring about Luhrmann’s tour de force is his ability to make these generalities seem quite unconventional and fresh.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, a courtesan at Paris' most decadent nightclub. She is forced into a romance with the maniacal, Duke (Richard Roxbury) by her employer/pimp, Harold Zeitler (Jim Broadbent) but falls for artist and poet, Christian (Ewan McGregor) instead. Typical musical fare, but carried off with flair and good humour.

We first meet Christian, hungry and struggling in his cold water flat to pen a great story on which his future fame as a writer will hang. He is mercilessly interrupted in this endeavour by Henri de Toulouse-Latrec (John Leguizamo) and his merry band of Bohemian artists who crash through the ceiling of Christian's apartment singing an aria from The Sound of Music introducing Christian to the wonderful mind-altering properties of Abthence.

Floating on the ether of the Green Fairy (Kylie Mynogue), Christian arrives at the Moulin Rouge in time to witness the club's sultry star attraction, Satine descend from a rhinestone encrusted swing in the ceiling. Captivated by her beauty, Christian is quite unaware that he is in direct competition for Satine's affections with the Duke, whom Harold hopes to convince to finance his new enterprise by loaning Satine in sexual trade.

But the Duke is a masochist with a frigid exterior. By contrast, Christian offers Satine a life of passionate respect - if, on a budget. After convincing Satine in song that they should become lovers, Christian fools the Duke into believing that his interests in Satine are strictly focused as the musical director on Harold's new show. However, at every conceivable turn Christian finds ways to divert Satine's commitments from rendezvous with the Duke to 'working on the show'. Only fellow dancer and aspiring star, Nini Legs in the Air (Caroline O'Connor) knows better.

After Nini convinces the Duke that Satine and Christian are collaborating on more than high art behind closed doors it is up to Harold to tame the Duke's frustrated inflamed desires. This he does to riotous effect in one of the film's show-stopping moments; belting out 'Like A Virgin' to the Duke to illustrate Satine's desire is to cleanse herself of a spurious past through prayer.

However, unbeknownst to Christian and the Duke, Satine is dying of tuberculosis - her condition grave as the date for Harold's new theatrical endeavour nears. Harold convinces Satine that she must renounce Christian and pledge herself to the Duke in order to spare the Moulin Rouge from bankruptcy. Reluctantly Satine agrees, leaving Christian feeling as though their entire romance was a lie.

To relieve his pain, Christian crashes the show's premiere, casting Satine to the ground in a cascade of bills as payment for services rendered. Satine confesses that she has always loved Christian and, to a stunned house, they are reunited in song moments before the final curtain. But the reunion is bittersweet. For time has run out on Satine's condition. She collapses in Christian's arms and dies with the promise of their lives together unfulfilled. The days turn into months and Christian, at one with his arctic desolation, finally sits down at his typewriter to pen his story - the memoir of his great romance with Satine.

Moulin Rouge is compelling, visceral and enigmatic entertainment; its superb amalgam of transcendent pop culture songs perfectly grafted onto the lost decadence of 19th century France. As proprietor of Paris’ most bawdy hot spot, Jim Broadbent emerges as something of a loveable gargoyle – baiting the Duke with prospects of bedding his most eligible whore, all the while plotting to turn his den of iniquity into a legitimate theatre with the Duke’s money. In the end, nobody wins – an uncharacteristic, but telling postmodern epitaph to the musical genre usually bent on its happy endings.

Viewed 10 years from its premiere, Moulin Rouge has lost nothing of its wicked charm. As the ill fated lovers, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman have sparked chemistry so palpable and intertwined that one can almost forget them as the stars they so obviously are and simply become immersed through their finely wrought characterizations. Neither was nominated for an Oscar - a tragedy more unsettling than the one that closes the film.

What most critics and AMPAS perhaps overlooked in their reviews 10 years ago – for there can be no other reason to exclude Baz Luhrmann from what ought to have been his most justly deserved Best Director Oscar nomination (and, at least in this critic's opinion; well deserved win) – is that his Moulin Rouge is a wickedly satirical slant on contemporary life – perceived as a delicious - if utterly devious - party where the only plausible escape is through sublime death.

The screenplay is a critique of youth gone sour with Luhrmann and Pearce's subliminal snap at sex as commerce quite fulfilling. Moulin Rouge then, is a musical of varying tempos but only one real melody – that of truly enchanted entertainment. The acting throughout is superb camp of the highest order; the pacing, manic and exciting; and the film – spectacular, spectacular!

Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray is a wonder to behold. The obvious benefactor of a new and painstaking remastering effort, Moulin Rouge is more colourful, gay and finely wrought than ever before; easily besting Fox's 2-disc DVD offering from 2002. Colour fidelity has been exceptionally realized with razor sharp detail throughout. This is a reference quality Blu-ray that belongs on everyone's top shelf. Fox gives us a 5.1 DTS audio that represents the film's soundtrack as never before. Subtle effects that were eclipsed in the previous DVD's audio are brought forth herein, adding another rich dimension to a film of already rare qualities.

Extras include many of the highlights from the DVD, including Baz Luhrmann's audio commentary, stills gallery, reference art work and theatrical trailers, in addition to several all new featurettes on practically every aspect of the making of the film, plus an exclusive intro by Luhrmann. Highly recommended!

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






Friday, October 15, 2010

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (Fox 1992) Fox Home Video

Based on James Fenimore Cooper's historic novel (the second and best known of the Leatherstocking Tales anthology), Michael Mann's The Last of The Mohicans (1992) is a powerful and engrossing epic that continues to mystify and grow more resilient and memorable with age. Cooper was inspired to write his saga of struggle between Native Americans and the warring French and English factions after his 1825 vacation through the Catskills. Despite critical reception, the novel - and, in fact, the anthology - sold remarkably well, both in America and in Europe and beginning in 1920, Hollywood's fascination with the story began to manifest itself with various film adaptations. To date there have been no less than 5 movie versions, with Mann's being the last, and quite possibly, most definitive.

The screenplay by Mann and scenarist Christopher Crowe is set in 1757 at the height of the British/French conflict and Indian War. Bound by law, reluctant Colonialists led by Jack Winthrop (Edward Blatchford) leave for Albany to pledge their loyalty and form a militia that will stand with the British crown in defence from French aggression. Chigachgook (Russell Means), his son Uncas (Eric Schweig) and his adopted 'white' son, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) also make their journey to Albany to obtain terms from Gen. Webb (Mac Andrews). Publicly, Webb agrees to let the militia disband if their homes are attacked while they are away. But the old guard is a wily plotter and quite unaware that in his midst there stands the traitor, Magua (Wes Studi) who intends to lead the British to destruction.

Meanwhile, in another part of the glen, Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) is being wooed by hapless suitor, Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). Although Cora considers Duncan a close friend, she has no intensions of accepting his marriage proposal. While Cora is indeed knowledgeable and wiser than her years on such matters, her younger sister Alice (Jodi May) is a true innocent. The two sisters are being escorted by a British garrison to Fort Henry to meet with their father, Col. Edmund Monroe (Maurice Roeves). Magua, however, has other plans.

Ambushed deep in the woods and sustaining many casualties, Cora and Alice are saved from certain death by Hawkeye who sees them through to Fort William Henry. On their way they pass the smouldering ruins of the Cameron homestead. The news is not much better at Fort Henry. Under siege by the French, Col. Monroe realizes that Magua has betrayed the British and informs Duncan that unless a messenger is sent to Gen. Webb at Fort Edward for reinforcements, Fort Henry will fall.

Meanwhile, Hawkeye informs the colonials of the Cameron attack. But Munro refuses to grant them pardon to return to their respective homesteads to save their families, forcing Hawkeye to help Jack and his friends escape. Hawkeye remains behind with Cora and is arrested for sedition and ordered to be hanged. But time and fate are on Hawkeye's side.

Fort Henry is forced to surrender to French Gen. Montcalm (Patrice Chereau). The terms of that surrender, however, are quite generous with safe passage provided for all to Albany on the condition that they return to England immediately. Regrettably, as the British march on they are once more ambushed by Magua's Huron armies. Magua vows to murder Cora and Alice, first cutting out Munro's heart and burning Duncan at the stake.

Cora and Alice are taken prisoner by the Hurons. Alice, who has developed an unrequited attachment to Uncas watches helplessly as Magua murders her beloved before taking her own life by jumping from a cliff. As Cora is led up the steep precipice, presumably to her death Hawkeye and Chingachgook ambush what remains of Magua's cutthroat army. Chingachgook avenges his son's murder by killing Magua and Hawkeye saves Cora - presumably with the two on their way to becoming man and wife. In the final moments of the story, Chingachgook reluctantly names himself the last of the Mohicans at a ceremony honouring Uncas' passing.

The Last of the Mohicans is compelling entertainment, powerfully wrought with intense melodrama bookended by some of the most brutal action sequences of its time. Michael Mann's direction is taut, the pace of the editing swift and self assured, elevating what might otherwise have simply degenerated into gross carnage to a quantifiable level of artistic merit and cinematic poise. In their brief moments together, Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe have genuine romantic chemistry - the passionate heart of an otherwise skewed historical drama.

Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray transfer is, regrettably, quite unacceptable. Despite a dual layer 1080p transfer, the video image is severely darker than expected with the result being an intense loss of fine details throughout this presentation. Contrast levels are so low that one has to strain to concentrate on the story - even in a completely darkened room. Another curiosity of this transfer is that, even in close up, flesh tones lack in fine detail. It's as though excessive DNR has been applied liberally to the film from start to finish - yet, occasionally uniforms and background forest details will suddenly pop to life with razor sharpness.

The audio is also nothing to get excited about: a 5.1 DTS master that sounds tinny and shallow with a considerable lack of bass tonality. Last, and probably 'least' of all - Fox has overlooked this great catalogue title in the extras. We get Mann's commentary (a holdover from previously issued DVDs and - if memory serves me correctly - the laserdisc release) plus the briefest of featurettes on the making of the film. For shame!

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






Tuesday, October 5, 2010

THE EXORCIST: Blu-Ray (WB 1973) Warner Home Video

In the history of American movies, two films from the 1970s broke the mould for acceptable screen violence, ushering a new era in Hollywood. The first was The Godfather (1972). The second is The Exorcist (1973).

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains as emotionally unsettling and viscerally disturbing as horror movies get; a terrifying excursion into the heart of darkness and demonic possession. Based on William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel - itself loosely an account of the 1949 exorcism of Robbie Mannheim - the film stays remarkably faithful to the novel and, upon its initial release received only an 'R' rating for its efforts.

Friedkin and Blatty had met socially in 1968, long before the book's publication, but their chance encounter was hardly cordial. Blatty showed Friedkin a script idea that Friedkin hated outright. The director wasted no time in sharing his disdain for the effort. However, the rejection of Blatty's work seems to have enhanced the author's resolve to do better.

Overnight, Blatty's subsequent novel, The Exorcist (published by Harper & Row in 1971) took off as few books of its vintage had. Even more unexpected, however, was Blatty connecting with Friedkin again, this time to suggest that he direct the movie based on his best seller. Simultaneously humbled and intrigued at the prospect Friedkin approached Warner Brothers; but only after Blatty rejected the studio's other choices for director was a deal struck.

Casting The Exorcist proved something of a challenge, since few parents of the 'then' reigning child stars working in the industry approved of the film's subject matter and would not allow their offspring to be subjected to the arduous transformation required to make the plight of demonic possession believable.

At one point, it is even rumoured that Friedkin considered casting an adult midget in the pivotal role of Regan McNeil. Eventually Linda Blair was selected from a short list of potential candidates, primarily because she was unknown to audiences, but also because she revealed an almost angelic quality to Friedkin that would make her transformation into the very essence of evil that much more terrifying.

As for the rest of the cast; the studio heavily pushed for Friedkin to cast Marlon Brando in the part of Father Merrin (the role eventually going to Max Von Sydow). Friedkin balked at the idea - believing that Brando's name would overshadow the story. He would also reject Jack Nicholson to play Father Karras. On the other hand, Blatty preferred Stacy Keach for the latter role while Friedkin had recently become enamoured with relative unknown stage actor Jason Miller - who eventually won and accepted the part with mild reservations.

After Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine both turned Friedkin's request down with outright disgust, the part of Chris MacNeil was pitched to Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft. The former agreed to do the part only if the film was shot in Rome while the latter was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Finally, Ellen Burstyn signed on, proving the ideal choice for the emotionally strained and religiously scarred matriarch who does ultimate battle with the devil for her daughter's immortal soul. The last bit of casting proved just as integral, if invisible, to the film's success; legendary radio and film star Mercedes McCambridge became the voice double of Satan, lending dramatic intensity to the devil.

The screenplay by Blatty begins as his novel, at the site of a remote archaeological dig in Iraq overseen by Father Lankester Merrin (Sydow) that unearths a bizarre grimacing bestial creature. This winged gargoyle-like creature terrorizes the locals, but it compels Father Merrin to do further research as to its purpose and architect. From here the narrative jumps forward to Georgetown University where Father Damien Karras (Miller) is troubled by his own lack of faith in dealing with his mother's terminal illness. Karras' mother dies without him at her side, an emotional hook that is revisited later in the film.

The central narrative concerns popular Georgetown actress, Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) whose young daughter, Regan (Blair) experiences a seizure that gradually begins to lead to more perverse and inexplicable behaviour. As example; at a house party, Regan appears from a deep sleep at the foot of the stairs, suddenly urinating through her nightgown in front of Chris' company.

Initially, Chris attributes Regan's manifestations as part of the onset of puberty. But then the truly harrowing behaviour starts. Regan curses and blasphemes in various tongues and demonic male voices. She levitates over her bed and mutilates herself with a crucifix.

Doctors are of no help; suggesting everything from a brain tumour to psychiatric dementia. At home the occurrences escalate. Regan's bed shakes violently, furniture hurls about the room and the temperature drops to frigid conditions. After Chris' director, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) is found brutally murdered just beyond the family home, Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) begins to suspect foul play, though even he cannot fathom that the child is possessed.

Having exhausted all medical cures, Chris turns to the church and the possibility of exorcising Regan's demons. This unorthodox procedure is administered by Father Merrin with Father Karras' assistance. But the devil is in the details - literally - wreaking havoc on the priests and playing upon Karras' maternal regrets as it manifests as Karras' mother. After Merrin is killed by an unholy blast of power and physical assault from the devil, Karras takes hold of Regan in a last ditch effort to save her soul.

The demon passes from her into Karras, but before it can claim him for its own, Karras throws himself from Regan's second story bedroom window, effectively sacrificing himself and thereby saving both Regan and his own soul from eternal damnation. Kinderman, who has been keeping a very close watch on the McNeil house resolves that Chris and Regan are blameless in both Dennings and Karras' deaths and the film ends with Chris taking Regan away to parts unknown, but hopefully, free of the demon that plagued her.

Despite changing morays and audiences tastes, viewed today The Exorcist remains a film to be reckoned with. At the time of its general release, Billy Graham decried the film as evil incarnate. The Catholic church, however, embraced its frank depiction of prayer drawing out and destroying the devil.

Ironically, all of the backlash that the studio presumed would happen - especially after Friedkin refused to alter the depicted violence in his film from suggestions derived during a private screening for executives - never occurred. Instead, Warner Brothers happily found an audience eager to embrace the movie; even if some left midway through their viewing, white knuckled and pale faced.

Viewed today, The Exorcist retains its ability to shock. Can anyone truly forget the green-eyed, pock-faced Regan stabbing her bloody genitals with a crucifix, or the repugnant moment when she spews pea green vomit all over Father Karras? These are indelible moments of vial exposition that, once seen, become burned into our cinematic consciousness forever.

What the film has, therefore, is staying power – not so much for what is presented on the screen, but for what remains trapped inside the hidden recesses of our mind to tease and tempt us, like the proverbial snake beckoning Eve for a bite of the apple. Reportedly, for the scene where Regan is being violently snapped back and forth against her mattress, the special effects department rigged a sort of torture device that shook the girl to such an extent it generated real bruises across her entire body.

At least Blair escaped without any enduring physical and/or psychological repercussions. A leather harness designed to jerk Ellen Burstyn across the room after she is supposedly belted by the devil, left the actress with permanent spinal injury. When the film was re-released in theatres as ‘the version you’ve never seen’ in 2000 reportedly the newly inserted footage of Regan walking upside down and backwards elicited several loud chuckles from the cheap seats. Now, that is frightening.

Warner Home Video's 2 disc Blu-Ray contains two versions of The Exorcist; the original theatrical release and The Version You’ve Never Seen Before’ rechristened herein as the Definitive Director's Cut. Color fidelity is vastly improved on both versions when directly compared to the various standard DVD incarnations. Sharpness and fine details take a quantum leap forward. But film grain is inconsistently rendered.

For example; long shots of Georgetown exhibit grain that looks more like pixelization (harsh, shimmering and breaking apart fine details) while medium shots and close ups have a decidedly smoother, more pristine characteristic that seems, at least on the whole, more film like. Flesh tones exhibit marked improvement - less pasty pink and orange than on the DVDs.

The audio is a lossless 7.1 upgrade that is remarkably dimensional - considering that the original mix for this film was in mono. The theatrical cut contains the comprehensive nearly two hour long BBC documentary; Fear of God that delves not only into the film's cultural impact but also provides a thorough history of exorcisms and the Catholic faith. The director's cut contains 3 newly produced featurettes exclusive to this Blu-Ray release that explore the making of the film, its locations, and, its overall impact on American film making. Bottom line: this 2 disc Blu-Ray is a must have for fans of the film. Recommended!

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






Saturday, October 2, 2010

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE: Blu-Ray (WB 1948) Warner Home Video

The story behind John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is almost as compelling as the film itself. The author, B. Traven proved an enigma as elusive as the gold that character Fred Dobbs seeks to claim for his own in the story. Written abroad and first published in German, the novel was a scathing indictment on capitalism that the author vowed would never appear in print in any capitalist country. By 1935 however, readers in the U.S. were absorbing Traven's sobering words in droves.

In Hollywood, director John Huston took an interest and told his agent to option the property. Despite the novel's success, Jack Warner refused to green light the project, citing that the book had no female interest, no love story, ended badly for all concerned and was, on the whole, quite depressing; all qualities that appealed to Huston's sense of dramatic storytelling.

Over the next few years Huston worked diligently on his screenplay, all the while directing big hits for Warner Bros. that were capped off by The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Regrettably, before Huston could force his hand on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre he was drafted into service for WWII where he would spend the next several years making training shorts for the Army. Upon his return to the studio, Huston finished his screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jack Warner, however, was still unconvinced at the film's saleability. But bolstered by Huston's track record for screen success, and his choice in casting the studio's biggest star - Humphrey Bogart - in the lead, Warner reluctantly gave his stamp of approval.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the first films to be shot on location - primarily in Mexico. After going over budget and over schedule, the company was called back to Burbank where remaining exteriors and interiors were shot.

Reportedly Huston, who was accustomed to working closely with authors on film adaptations of their work, awoke one night in his hotel room in Mexico City to find a mysterious man standing at the foot of his bed. The stranger identified himself as B. Traven's agent, Hal Crowe and proceeded to instruct Huston on how best to develop the novel. Beyond this chance encounter by moonlight and the ideas derived from it, Crowe was named 'technical advisor' by Huston and remained on location at the director's side as filming progressed. Today, there is some speculation that Crowe was, in fact, B. Traven, though Crowe vehemently denied it. This allegation, first made by Huston himself has never been proven.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart as murderous panhandler Fred Dobbs. Repeatedly asking his “fellow American” (played in cameo by John Huston) to stake him for food, a haircut and other temporary diversions in the bustling Mexican town of Tampeko, Dobbs and another desperate prospector, Tom Curtin (Tim Holt) eventually join other migrants working for Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane). One problem; McCormick's operation is a cut and run. He ‘employs’ labourers for work projects, then absconds with their wages before they realize they have been hoodwinked.

But not Dobbs. Just as ruthless and calculating as Pat, he and Curtin confront and beat up McCormick for their take of the profits. The two then decide to go into business together for themselves as gold prospectors. One problem: neither knows a gold nugget from a tumbleweed. Enter wily old codger, Howard (Walter Huston) – a man who promises the boys all the fortune and glory they can stand. Together, these three trek deep into the Mexican wilderness, unaware of the bandits and pitfalls that await them. At first, their efforts seem in vain. When gold is finally discovered and their fortunes are practically made, a new obstacle intrudes – mistrust and greed.

Casting for the film proved inspired with minor, though memorable parts going to Robert Blake as a young boy selling lottery tickets in Tampeko; former Olympic shot putter Bruce Bennett (actually Herman Bendix) as hands on prospector, Cody and Mexican actor, Alfonso Bedoya - cast as bandito, Gold Hat whose memorable line, "We don't need no stinkin' badges!" has since been much parodied and revered.

Tim Holt, who had achieved a curious fame via B-westerns, but had appeared in A-list projects like The Magnificent Ambersons as well, was also the son of Hollywood royalty. His father Jack Holt appears briefly in the flop house sequence as a grizzled former prospector.

For years it had been suggested that Warner star Ann Sheridan appears in the Tampeko sequence of the film as a prostitute who catches Dobbs' eye as she struts past him after he has had his hair cut. A studio publicity still of the day does indeed show Sheridan in makeup and a hooker's costume standing next to Huston and Bogart on a set. However, pausing this footage from the actual film reveals that the woman playing the hooker for those few brief moments is decidedly not Ann Sheridan.

Huston’s film is basically a cautionary morality tale about destructive human nature that seems to go hand-in-glove with untold riches. The story is much darker and apocalyptic than most postwar melodramas. At the time of its release, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was hailed as a masterpiece by the critics but only marginally received by the public who, true to Jack Warner's initial assessment, found it depressing and downbeat, and, furthermore did not appreciate seeing Humphrey Bogart cast as the heavy (ironic, since Bogart had played nothing but gangsters, thieves and villains for most of his early tenure at WB). Today, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is justly accepted as one of the greatest movies ever made at the studio; its unrelenting portrait of sadism, greed and self destruction a gripping saga that continues to mesmerize and captivate.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray effort is on the whole an entirely more satisfactory effort than the one put forth several years ago on their 2 disc DVD. The image herein is more film like in general - its rendering of grain more natural and, ironically, more smoothly represented than on the DVD. Contrast levels take a quantum leap forward. Whereas the DVD represented a visual characteristic that was primarily centered in a mid-range of tonal grays, the Blu-Ray offers a distinct and sharply contrasted image that reveals much more fine detail throughout.

The audio is mono but nicely cleaned up and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are all directly imported from the 2 disc DVD and include a very informative audio commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax; a thorough recanting of the ‘making of’ the film as well as a vintage feature length documentary on John Huston’s life and career with vintage interviews and considerable behind the scenes footage.

Aside: I can't much say I appreciate Warner Home Video's abandonment of using original promotional and poster art in favour of their rather gaudy airbrushed slip covers for this and The Maltese Falcon Blu-Ray releases either. Nevertheless, highly recommended!

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