Friday, June 24, 2011

QUEEN BEE (Columbia 1955) Sony Home Entertainment

On the road to becoming an iconic screen legend Joan Crawford's career went through several mutations. The first saw her as a 20's flapper liberally indulging in Charleston contests and bathtub gin. In phase two Crawford morphed into the elegant shop girl with a penchant for wearing sporty clothes that no depression era working gal could ever afford. But the third time around Crawford became a tough as nails socialite clawing her way to the top as she plucked the eyes out of any woman who dared come between her and the leading man. By the mid-1940s Crawford entered her 'crazy lady' period exemplified by a series of highly potent performances as women on the verge of becoming raving psychotics.
Director Ranald McDougall attempts with varying degrees of success to straddle the latter two phases of Crawford's career in Queen Bee (1955); an unsettling, often garishly over the top tale that casts La Crawford as an overly possessive middle-aged viper. As scripted by McDougall, the film is very loosely based on a novel by Edna B. Lee, a potboiler for die hard Crawford fans in which our diva wastes no time dominating virtually every scene.
We are introduced to Eve Phillips (Crawford) living in seemingly pastoral luxury on her southern plantation with husband Avery (Barry Sullivan); an emasculated shell of a man who has turned to drink to cope with Eve's seduction of his business partner, Judson Prentiss (John Ireland). An extreme narcissist, Eve is a destructive force of nature and pure poison to anyone who has the misfortune of befriending her. This proves a tragedy for Eve's newly-arrived cousin, innocent Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) who has yet to figure out she has entered the monster’s lair. Judson's fiancée Carol Lee Phillips (Betsy Palmer) is obtuse to his affair with Eve. In truth, even he realizes what a colossal mistake it's been. He wants nothing more to do with Eve.
Unfortunately for all, Eve is calling the shots. After her attempts at renewing her affair with Judson are spurned Eve confronts Carol with the truth about his infidelity. This revelation shatters Carol's faith in their relationship. Jennifer and Judson later discover that Carol has hanged herself in the stable to be free of the lot of them. Indeed, death itself seems the only possible escape from Eve’s clutches. As MacDougall’s screenplay unravels, Eve becomes more and more calculating and destructive; a viper determined to wreck everyone else’s happiness, regrettably, also at the expense of her own.
Meanwhile Jennifer's naive attempts to befriend the embittered Avery have translated into a platonic romance. Eve warns Avery of the consequences for his dalliances. But Avery, unable to man up and simply ask for a divorce, instead decides there's only one thing to do; murder his wife by driving them both over a cliff. Realizing how much Avery loves Jennifer, and at the same time how much he hates Eve, Judson sabotages Avery's plan by offering to escort Eve to a party one dark and stormy night. Instead, he drives himself and Eve over the cliff as per Avery's plan leaving Avery free to pursue his relationship with Jennifer.
Queen Bee borders on grand guignol, its' noir elements playing second fiddle to Crawford's beastly perfection at chewing up the scenery. There's so much of Crawford in Queen Bee that at times it’s impossible to tell whether she is acting or simply being herself. The slap she gives Lucy Marlow midway through the first act is real and frightening. It must be said of Joan Crawford that whatever her personal misgivings and shortcomings she is one hell of a perfectionist on camera. Despite the rather sordid story line, she sells this macabre little nothing as no other actress can. Her performance is both compelling and tragic. The rest of the cast, particularly Barry Sullivan are all quite good if given precious little to do in the wake of hurricane Crawford. There isn't much more to say about Queen Bee except that it's a must for die hard Joan Crawford fans. It isn't one of her better films but her turn as the venomous self-destructive grand lady of the maison still packs a wallop. As pure bitch-fest there are few films to compete with Queen Bee.
Sony Home Entertainment's DVD, minted all the way back during DVD's infancy under the 'Columbia Classics' banner in 1997 still exhibits a mostly pleasing anamorphic transfer. The 1:75:1 image is sharp and mostly free of age-related artifacts. But the gray scale appears to have had its contrast levels boosted. Mid-register tonality is lost during some scenes while others look fairly accurate. Occasionally the image becomes softly focused, as though second generation elements were used as inserts into the original camera negative. It's difficult to assess the reason for this anomaly but suffice it to say that it does exist. There's also a minor amount of edge enhancement that crops up now and then, particularly in the horizontal shutters that decorate practically every window in every room in Eve's plantation. The audio is mono and adequate for this presentation. Extras are regrettably limited to talent bios and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: for Crawford fans a must!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

KISS ME DEADLY: Blu-ray (UA 1955) Criterion Home Video

It has often been pointed out by various scholarly film critics that during the 1950's movie genres increasingly broke with their tried and true criteria in an effort to win back theater audiences who had begun to stay home and watch television instead. While no one can deny that various hybrids emerged throughout the decade the reality is most genres remained fairly close to the values and aesthetics that had initially made them popular with fans. This is how I regard Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955): a grittier than most crime thriller that borrows both its title and central character from a novel by Mickey Spillane but precious little else, in favor of a totally original screenplay by A.I. Besserides.
Spillane's Mike Hammer became a cultural phenomenon after WWII with Spillane himself playing the character he created in several movies based more closely on his own pulp fiction. In retrospect, the character's appeal is easy to understand amongst its male readership. Emotionally, physically and socially emasculated by those terrible years of war, and furthermore displaced in their lives and careers upon their homecoming, American G.I.'s were hungry for the sort of ‘take charge’ guy not beholding to anyone but himself. Spillane's Mike Hammer is such a brute – a vane bastard, though one with an irreprehensible penchant for womanizing the wrong kind of gal, seemingly without ever allowing her to get under his skin.
Aldrich's Mike Hammer takes the character one step further to his inevitable devolvement into a narcissistic lesser of two evils. Just what the 'other evil' is in the world of Mike Hammer will be explained in lurid detail by Aldrich and Besserides in short order. The screenplay opens with a girl, Christina Baily (Cloris Leachman) running barefoot and wearing only a trench coat on a lonely stretch of open road late at night. She manages to hitch a ride with L.A. private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) but only after damn near being run over by his sports car. Hammer is a hard boiled self-absorbed man about town; a breezily arrogant son of a bitch with absolutely nothing to lose...except, perhaps his livelihood and a few friends; the latter few and very far between.
After learning Christina is an escapee from a mental hospital Hammer helps her elude police. He stops at a gas station where Christina asks the attendant to mail a letter for her. He does and she and Hammer are on their way. But their car is forced off the road by men who are searching for Christina. Hammer is beaten unconscious while Christina is tortured to death inside a seedy motel. Afterward, the thugs (whose faces we never see) place Hammer and Christina in Hammer's sporty Jaguar and push it off the side of a cliff where it meets with a fiery end.
To Hammer's amazement he has survived the ordeal and wakes up inside a local hospital with dutiful secretary and sometimes lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper) leaning over his bedside. Hammer quickly learns from his fair-weather friend, Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) that he is part of a federal investigation. The task force ruthlessly grills Hammer. He keeps his cool – just barely - without telling them anything. Pat warns Hammer to stay away from the investigation. But Hammer, sensing a nice fat retainer at the other end, decides instead to ambitiously pursue it on his own term and with his usual lack of tact.
Reunited in his apartment with Velda, Hammer encourages her to work an angle on their latest divorce case. It seems Velda uses her feminine wiles to seduce wayward husbands whereupon Hammer employs his oily charm on the wives, thereby playing both against the middle to secure his fee. While Velda is off on her latest seduction, Hammer goes to see friend, Nick (Nick Dennis) a garage mechanic who informs him that his Jaguar is totaled. Next, Hammer follows a lead to Christina's apartment where he meets waif-like sex kitten Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers) who is posing as Christina's ex-roommate.
Lily tells Hammer that she moved out of the apartment they once shared because she was afraid for her own life. But Hammer suspects something more sinister is afoot when he is attacked after leaving Lily's. Christina's letter arrives at Hammer's apartment with the cryptic message 'remember me'. Hammer links this clue to a book of poems found in Christina's apartment and slowly begins to unravel the riddle behind what he and Velda have nicknamed 'the great whatsit.'
With Lily in tow, Hammer goes to the coroner's office, realizing that a pivotal passage in the poem makes reference to a key. The coroner, Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton) agrees but demands half of whatever the treasure might be in exchange for giving Hammer the key he's discovered on Christina' s person. Instead, Hammer breaks the man's fingers by closing them in a desk drawer, then takes the key with the initials H.A.C. to the Hollywood Athletic Club. Inside one of the lockers Hammer discovers a mysterious box containing a terrible force of nature. He attempts to pry the lid open but is severely scalded on the wrist.
Hammer tells the club's proprietor to keep the contents of the box and the locker a secret but late the proprietor is found murdered at the club by Pat Murphy. The box has vanished. Meanwhile, Velda has been kidnapped in an attempt to silence Hammer once and for all. Determined to know how much of the mystery Hammer has already figured out Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker), the criminal mastermind behind these baffling murders, has his thugs bring Hammer to a remote Malibu beach house. Hammer is injected with sodium pentothal but manages to divulge nothing to his captors.
Lily is revealed as Gabrielle, Dr. Soberin's nymphomaniac mistress. After Hammer escapes and realizes that Velda is being held captive at the beach house he returns to rescue her, only to discover that Lily/Gabrielle has murdered her lover out of greed for what's in the box. She wounds Hammer in the gut, then opens the box in front of him, inadvertently releasing the government's top secret H-bomb into the room. Wounded but still very much alive Hammer manages to crawl to an ajoining bedroom where Velda is tied up. He save her and himself from presumably toxic amounts of radiation, the pair escaping into the surf moments before the beach house is consumed in a radioactive fireball.
I suppose we must forgive Adlrich and Besserides this utterly implausible last act, especially since at the time of the film’s release no one knew how destructive splitting the atom could be. Under this pretext, it is enough that Hammer has diffused the situation, solved the crime, dispatched the criminal element and barely escaped with the woman who really means more to him than anyone else – except, of course, himself. Even so, Kiss Me Deadly is a bizarre film noir. At once it marks a revisionist beginning and sadly, an end to the movement begun nearly two decades earlier with The Maltese Falcon and I Wake Up Screaming. It dabbles in the then Cold War paranoia over nuclear annihilation but never quite explains how so many lowlifes and disreputable underworld characters have been able to get so close to a top secret technology that, at least in 1955, would have been largely unknown to all except a handful of top U.S. government physicists and engineers.
If anything, director Aldrich's Mike Hammer is even less appealing and more of an egotist than Spillane's original incarnation, and it is saying much of Ralph Meeker's performance that despite his retention of those repugnant qualities he manages to exude a strange and seductive appeal the audience can root for. It is a genuine pity the film was a flop back in 1955 because we might have seen more Aldrich/Meeker collaborations and more Mike Hammer movies as a result. There really is no point picking apart the discrepancies between the film and the novel. The two are irreconcilable. The book isn't the movie and vice versa. The film's release proved an uphill battle for Aldrich who had to fight like hell, first with the MPAA to secure a general rating and then with The Legion of Decency, who condemned its ultra-violence. However, like Hitchcock's Psycho all of the murders that occur in Kiss Me Deadly happen off camera.
The most shocking moments in the film are Hammer's brutalization of one of Dr. Soberin's thugs whom he sends flying down a steep flight of cement stairs, and Lily/Gabrielle's demise at the end; rather graphically torched using a wax body double. Otherwise, Aldrich and the film stay fairly close to the familiar noir detective/crime story we have come to know and expect. In the final analysis Kiss Me Deadly is a fond farewell to film noir. Its failure at the box office and the gradual decline in popularity of the B-movie ultimately put a period to dark thrillers like this one; a real shame because Kiss Me Deadly is one of the best.
Criterion's Blu-ray leaves something to be desired. The disc's extensive linear notes do not detail whether this is a 2k, 4k or 6k transfers, although judging from the results 2k is probably more like it. The B&W image is often crisp but contrast levels occasionally appear slightly boosted. Many scenes are softly focused with a loss of fine details. Grain looks very natural in some scenes, but too heavy and slightly digitized in others. I have my suspicions that Criterion struck this 1080p transfer from existing digital files rather than a new image harvest from original camera elements. Too bad.
The audio is mono and acceptable for this presentation. I can't say I much care for the extras. Alain Silver and James Ursini's commentary is the best of the lot. A brief video piece featuring Alex Cox's reflections on the film begins and ends abruptly while its image is riddled with edge enhancement effects. We get only excerpts from a 1998 and 2005 documentary instead of the whole documentary. The advertised 'controversial ending' is less than thirty seconds long and is not at all 'controversial'. Bottom line: Kiss Me Deadly is deliciously subversive and perverse film noir. It's a must have blind purchase. Despite the aforementioned difficulties with this transfer, this is by far the best the film has ever looked on home video. Enjoy.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE: Blu-ray (UA 1962) Fox/MGM Home Video

In retrospect, American movies made after 1949 increasingly reflect the period in which they were made. Whereas the 1930's on film had been an escapist panacea of mythical art deco backdrops not found anywhere in the real world, by the late 1950 film culture had begun to embrace a growing sense of realism. This was, of course, still being artistically reconstituted and marginally reconciled with the realities of the world at large. Movies and movie stars were still very glamorous. However, as the studio system that had fostered such glamour steadily declined throughout the 1950's and later fell into complete oblivion, the chasm between life on film and life in general narrowed.
By the 1960s America was a country disillusioned, both morally and socially and utterly divided along the lines of equity in gender and race. These precursors of a time yet to follow were not necessarily the result of that fallout from the war itself, but from a shredding of America’s own cultural touchstones on the home front, and by the new found and ever-increasing paranoia over the threat of nuclear annihilation that had all but paralyzed the collective consciousness of the nation. As such, the 1960s became the perfect decade for movies about reexamining our own corruptibility and self-destructiveness through variously themed morality plays. Throughout the decade filmmakers would continue to mirror this world-weary angst and ambiguity about the future. One of the first was John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Based on Richard Condon's 1958 novel, the screenplay by George Axelrod begins in earnest during the Korean War. The Soviets capture an American platoon and take them to Communist China where they are collectively brainwashed. After the war, the soldiers, including Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) return home as decorated war heroes, but with an implanted account of a skirmish that, in reality, did not happen. Shaw's mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) has remarried to Senator John Iselin (James Gregory); a thoroughly misguided McCarthy-esque fop whom she hopes to put into the White House. Eleanor arranges for a marching band to meet her son at the airport, thereby linking the Senator's name with Raymond’s presumed military success. But Raymond shuns the spotlight and thwarts any and all further attempts to make himself a part of their political machinery.
Instead, Shaw rekindles his romance with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of one of his stepfather's arch political rivals, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver). Unlike Senator Iselin, Senator Jordon holds no grudges over Raymond's head. In fact, he is both tender and encouraging of the romance that continues to blossom between Raymond and his daughter. Under Platoon Commander Captain Bennett Marco's (Frank Sinatra) recommendation Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor. But something is remiss. Marco knows that Shaw is cold and calculating, yet he finds himself compelled to refer to him as the kindest, bravest, gentlest man he's ever known. This contradiction about Shaw is echoed by the other soldiers in his platoon. But Marco is having second thoughts. Since his promotion to Major he has been plagued by crippling nightmares in which he witnesses Raymond Shaw murder two of his fellow soldiers at the behest of a Chinese commander.
Learning that another soldier from his platoon, Allen Melvin (James Edwards) is also having these nightmares, Marco decides to go to Army Intelligence with the understanding that they have all been brainwashed. After identifying key figures in the Communist government, Army Intelligence agrees that something is wrong and decides to help Marco in his investigation. Meanwhile, Eleanor Iselin is revealed to be the communist party’s American operator; sacrificing Raymond to the cause and responsible for triggering his episodic lapses in memory whenever he is shown the Queen of Diamonds playing card. Inadvertently, Jocelyn arrives at a costume party thrown by Eleanor dressed as the Queen of Diamonds. Raymond becomes hypnotized by her and when Jocelyn suggests that they marry Raymond agrees under her spell.
Although pleased by the announcement, Senator Jordon informs Eleanor that he will seek her husband's impeachment if he even dares make a run for the White House. Instead, Eleanor hypnotizes Raymond with another bout of the cards and thereafter sends him to Jordan’s residence to assassinate the Senator. In the ensuing gunfire Jocelyn is also murdered. This treason dutifully carried out under hypnosis, a stunted Raymond returns to the Jordan house much later to discover the bodies. With no prior knowledge of his own crime, Raymond is genuinely grief stricken. Meanwhile, Marco has befriended Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh) a compassionate reporter who encourages him to seek help for his persistent and haunting nightmares.
Learning the secret of the Queen of Diamonds on his own, Marco confronts Raymond with a game of cards and observes as he triggers Raymond's complete obedience. Under hypnosis Marco commands Raymond to break his association between the Queen of Diamonds and any assignments he is given thereafter. Unaware that Marco has tampered with her son's programming, Eleanor primes Raymond to assassinate the Presidential nominee at the convention center, thereby securing Senator Iselin's nomination. Raymond complies with her command, or so it would seem. He arrives at the convention center disguised as a priest and takes refuge in a high balcony where he assembles a rifle with a scope.
Having deconstructed the plot for himself, Marco hurries to the convention center with his superior, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson) to apprehend Raymond just as the Presidential nominee (Robert Riordan) is about to take the podium and deliver his speech. Instead, Raymond exacts his revenge on his mother and stepfather, shooting them both before taking his own life in front of Marco while still wearing his Medal of Honor.
The Manchurian Candidate is taut entertainment with a political kick. Frankenheimer and Axelrod had to do some minor tweaking of Condon's references to family incest between Eleanor and Raymond, but otherwise the film remains exceptionally faithful to its source material. One interesting anomaly in both the book and the film worth noting; neither makes comment about whether or not Rose Chaney is Marco's controller in the same way that Eleanor is Raymond's. Yet, the initial 'cute' conversation between Rose and Marco on a train bound for Washington suggests a rather curious familiarity between two people who have only just met. In the book Rose is more a transient figure. In the film she becomes a romantic interest for Marco, one - so it is hinted by the end of the story - who will continue to remain at his side.
After 1963 The Manchurian Candidate was rarely shown in public presumably because Frank Sinatra had it removed from distribution after the assassination of his friend, President John F. Kennedy as an obvious embarrassment of art influencing life. In the years since, the decision to keep the movie out of circulation seems to have been inspired more by bad timing and lapsed copyright that necessitated a renegotiation of terms with the original UA holding company before the film could be reissued.
Viewed today, The Manchurian Candidate continues to pack a powerful punch. The usually starchy and stoic Laurence Harvey is ideal as Raymond Shaw - a man so emotionless and mentally scarred that he is driven into isolation from the whole human race. In retrospect, Frank Sinatra has proven himself a remarkably eclectic talent. Anyone who has seen ol' Blue Eyes as the scrawny singing counterpart to handsome Gene Kelly during their musical heyday at MGM will be hard pressed to ignore the transformation from the bobbysoxer’s delight into a genuine star with real acting ability realized. While middle-age has often proven the kiss of death for many a star – both male and female – it was something of an elixir for Sinatra’s career. He effortlessly transitioned from featherweight musical/comedy star to a grittier sense of self, frequently exercised in war pictures like Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and steely-eyed detective thrillers like The Lady in Cement (1968). Arguably, none of these movies would have been possible without The Manchurian Candidate. Angela Lansbury is diabolically effective as the unscrupulous matriarch who would exploit her own son to topple a government. In the final analysis, The Manchurian Candidate is not to be missed.
Fox/MGM Home Video's Blu-ray transfer is adequate though hardly exceptional. The biggest improvement to the B&W image is in its black levels. These have become very deep, especially when compared to the DVD, supporting Lionel Lindon's somber cinematography. Overall, the image is 'tighter' on Blu-ray. But edge effects and issues with grain not looking very film like still persist, particularly during the opening sequence shot at night and title sequence that immediately follows it. Bottom line: this is a 1080p bump of the original digital files used in the DVD’s mastering rather than a complete rescan of original camera negatives. Fox is famous for going this quick and cheap route rather than taking the time to redo things accordingly. That’s a shame, because The Manchurian Candidate could definitely use the upgrade!
The audio has received a new DTS 5.1 but the question remains...why? This isn't exactly a movie to give your surrounds a workout and it would have been more advantageous to have a true hi-res scan with the original mono elements left intact. Extras are all carried over from the DVD release including a comprehensive audio commentary by Frankenheimer and several brief but instructive featurettes on various aspects of the making of the film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

LOLITA: Blu-ray (MGM-Seven Arts) Warner Home Video

To say that when it was first published in English in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita caused a sensation is putting things mildly. The subject of a middle-aged man's sexual fascination with a precocious twelve year old girl elevated 'kink' to a whole new level and gripped readers with its frank perversity. In re-envisioning the novel for the big screen director Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) has a monumental hurdle to overcome; mainly how to suggest the crippling sexual addiction of its 40-ish protagonist without actually being able to show the libidinous relationship in any detail. Circumventing the production code and still maintaining the potency of the piece seems to have been a balancing act at best, one that does not entirely come off in the finished film.
The screenplay by Nabokov, Kubrick and screenwriter James Harris skips over our hero's predilection for very young girls in Switzerland as well as his failed marriage to a Polish waif. Instead, the narrative begins in medias res with a confrontation between Beardsley professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and successful playwright Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) - a sycophantic chameleon who has currently adopted the façade of a wanton playboy. After a brief verbal altercation Humbert shoots Quilty dead.
We regress by four years to the time when Humbert first arrived in Ramsdale, New Hampshire and took up residence by renting a room from Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) - a blousy sexually-frustrated widow. From the start, Charlotte has her eye on Humbert. But Humbert has his sights fixed on Charlotte's sixteen year old daughter, Dolores (Sue Lyons); a crass, soda-guzzling, gum-chewing tart, promiscuous well beyond her years. Dolores toys with Humbert's affections, writing him mash notes and eventually becoming his lover. Knowing full well what her daughter is capable of, Charlotte sends Lolita to summer camp in order to have Humbert all to herself. Charlotte and Humbert are married and shortly thereafter Charlotte informs her new husband that she intends to send Dolores away to a private school for the remainder of her education.
Trapped in a loveless marriage Humbert grows more solemn and aloof while writing lurid odes to Dolores in his diary. These are discovered by Charlotte who, in a paralytic fit of disbelief wanders into the street during a rainstorm and throws herself under the wheels of an oncoming car. Seizing the opportunity to have Dolores for himself Humbert takes her away from summer camp but does not yet inform her that her mother has died. For several days Humbert plots his seduction of this child, strangely unable to bring himself to take complete advantage of her. Eventually, Humbert reveals the truth about Charlotte to Dolores who becomes hysterical and grief-stricken.
For a time, at least, she agrees to stay with Humbert. Yet at every turn Humbert and Dolores are pursued by strange 'men' who suggest that a sexual relationship is going on between Humbert and 'his daughter'. The first of these occurs between Humbert and a total stranger (Peter Sellers) in the lobby of the hotel he and Dolores are staying at. The second confrontation is between Humbert and Dr. Zemph (also Peter Sellers), a psychologist who encourages Humbert to have a talk with his daughter about 'the facts of life'.
Concerned that his attachment to Dolores has become too obvious Humbert quits Beardsley and takes the girl on the open road once more. The two are pursued by a mysterious car that never quite catches up to them. By now, Dolores has begun to tire of Humbert's constant need to control her. She contracts the flu, becomes severely ill and has to be hospitalized. Humbert comes to visit her every day while she recuperates. But after a cryptic phone call to his hotel room suggests that yet another stranger knows of Humbert's intensions toward the girl he races back to the hospital only to discover that Dolores has been discharged earlier that day and is currently in the care of someone claiming to be her uncle. An irrational Humbert attacks the nurse in charge (Lois Maxwell) and is nearly institutionalized.
Several years pass. Then, out of the blue Humbert receives a letter from Dolores. She has married Richard Schiller (Gary Cockrell), a boy of her years and is pregnant by him and living in squalor not so far away. Begging Humbert for money, Dolores reveals to her stepfather that Clare Quilty took her from the hospital with promises of a life of glamour. Instead, he took advantage of her youth and forced her into his depraved 'art' movies. Dolores further explains to Humbert that Clare and her mother Charlotte were once lovers, prompting his infatuation with her the same way that Humbert developed his obsession. Realizing what a fool he has been, Humbert gives Dolores $13,000 from the sale of her mother's house and departs on route to the murderous rendezvous at Clare Quilty's that began the film. An epilogue explains that Humbert later died of coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial for Quilty's murder.
Lolita is an odd film to say the least. The true depth of moral depravity so meticulously described in the novel has been distilled into suggestive flashes in the film. As such, the 'kink' factor – so essential to the novel’s success - is really more speculated than implied. James Mason adds yet another variation to his morally fragile and slightly disturbed leading men. But in this case, he isn't quite as accessible or even as engaging. Instead, Mason simpers and struggles with wild-eyed ineptitude and fits of blubbering madness. As such one wonders how a sexual sophisticate like Dolores would find Humbert even remotely attractive - even as a tease – much less agree to remain a consort in his care for as long as she does.
As for Sue Lyons, she occasionally scales the heights of the gritty calculating viper described in Nobokov's novel but on the whole comes across as more of an emotionless manipulator than hot-blooded vixen. Peter Sellers has the real plum part (or parts as the case may be) and his zeal for impersonation is working overtime. He is perhaps at his most despicably suggestive and unsettlingly seamy as Dr. Zemph, the psychologist. As Clare Quilty, Sellers is a tad less effective, moreover hampered by the production code that forces him to imagine, rather than live out, Clare Quilty's peccadilloes.
Without a fulfillment of its anticipated eroticism Lolita falls short of expectations. The film’s forced ambiguity lacks impact. Kubrick does his best to insinuate impropriety where ever possible (and I must admit that the toenail polishing sequence still carries a slightly unnerving perversity about it) but in the end the film remains a sort of obtuse titillation - a coming attraction that falls short of the sexual corruptions as promised.
Falling short is a good way to describe Warner Home Video's Blu-ray transfer. The B&W image is less refined than expected. The opening credits are slightly blurry and unstable. The image is occasionally sharp, but elsewhere suffers from a distinctly softness. Fine detail suffers. Worse, contrast levels appear slightly boosted. The mid-register of the gray scale is absent. Grain is often thick and curiously less film-like than expected. There seems to be some debate about the proper aspect ratio for this film, although I must confess that the overall 1:66:1 framing on the Blu-ray looks right to me. The audio is mono as originally recorded. There are no extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

BARRY LYNDON: Blu-ray (WB 1975) Warner Home Video

An intricate character study of a rake's progress, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) is a methodical, stylish and often surreal spectacle; its attention to period detail arguably unsurpassed. Based on William Thackeray's sprawling novel, the film is in many ways a throwback to the grandiose big-budget historical epics in vogue throughout the late fifties and early sixties. After 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Kubrick became enthralled with making a film about Napoleon. The like-minded subject matter featured in Dino De Laurentis production of Waterloo (1970) and its spectacularly disastrous reception from both the public and critics caused Kubrick's backers to panic and renege on their financing.
Outraged but unable to find new financiers Kubrick turned his attentions to making A Clockwork Orange (1971) instead. Then, in 1972 Kubrick became enamored with Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a book not made into a movie since 1933. Timing again was off, with the BBC beating Kubrick to the punch by producing a television series based on Thackeray's masterwork. At this point, Kubrick took solace in another Thackeray novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon and, in retrospect it's easy to see why. Like most of Kubrick's filmic heroes, the novel's protagonist is a tragically flawed young man whose aspirations bring utter ruination to everything he touches. One can say that Kubrick came to Thackeray's novel third best or perhaps more accurately, thrice removed. Although the resulting film bears Kubrick's hallmark for meticulous planning, there is an odd disconnect between the director's style and the film's subject matter.
The screenplay by Kubrick follows the novel's trajectory quite closely - perhaps too closely for a director so used to veering wildly away from his source material. It's 1844 and Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is our picaresque Irish rake. His father has been killed in a duel leaving Barry's mother (Marie Kean) devoted to her son's upbringing. During his youth Barry is tempted into an illicit affair with his cousin, Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton); a ruthless spider who goads his lust until a well-borne English Captain, John Quinn (Leonard Rossiter) proposes marriage.
Unable to reconcile his thwarted feelings for Nora, Barry demands satisfaction from Quinn in a duel. The game, however, is rigged. Although Barry shoots Quinn in the chest, the gun's ammunition has been switched to mere tow. Quinn, a coward at heart, fakes his own death forcing Barry into exile in Dublin. Regrettably, Barry is held up by a highwayman (Arthur O'Sullivan) along the open road. Penniless, he is forced to join the British Army. There, an old friend of the family, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) informs Barry that Quinn not only survived the duel but has since married Nora.
Barry's regiment is sent to fight the Seven Year's War where Grogan is fatally wounded in a skirmish with the French. His life once again unbearable, Barry decides to steal an officer's uniform and a horse and become a deserter. En route to Holland he encounters Prussian Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger) who sees through his disguise and enlists him in the Prussian Army instead. Barry saves Potzdorf's life after another battle and is given a commission in the Prussian Police as his reward.
His first assignment is to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee); a professional gambler who is suspected of embezzlement and cheating. Instead, Barry becomes the Chevalier's friend. They escape Holland together and travel the finer spas all over Europe, profiting handsomely by their wicked manipulation of the cards. But Barry's one fascination in life - to become a gentleman - has yet to be fulfilled.
To this end, Barry seduces the wealthy Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) under the watchful eye of her elderly and ailing husband, Sir Charles (Frank Middlemass). After Sir Charles' death Barry marries the Countess and takes her last name for his own. The couple settle in England where Barry's first attempts to ingratiate himself as a stepfather to the Countess ten year old son, Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage) are an utter disaster. The child despises Barry who proves to live down these low expectations by wantonly spending the Countess's money and eventually becoming unfaithful to her in their marriage with multiple lovers.
Eventually, Barry comes to his senses and realizes how much he loves his wife. The Countess forgives him and gives birth to their only son, Bryan Patrick (David Morley); a loving and affectionate child whom the adult Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) also comes to loathe. On his seventh birthday Bryan falls from the horse made a gift to him by his father and is trampled to death. Now Barry's mother advises her son to cultivate an acquaintance with the influential Lord Wendover (Andre Morell) to obtain a noble title in order to protect himself from financial ruin. Seeing the purpose of this alliance Lord Bullingdon publicly assaults Barry's reputation at a concert with accusations that he is a debaucher and a deceiver.
Unable to control his wrath, Barry beats and attempts to strangle his stepson in front of the crowd. He is barely restrained, branded a social pariah and loses all of his friendships with Lord Wendover and the others in high-standing that he worked so hard to cultivate. Fearing that the Countess' spiritual advisor Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin) is plotting with Lord Bullingdon to dissolve Barry's marriage, Barry's mother dismisses Runt from court. Upon hearing the news Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel.
However, Lord Bullingdon's gun misfires, providing Barry with the opportunity he has been waiting for: to kill his ungrateful stepson. Instead, Barry chooses to spoil his shot, forcing Lord Bullingdon to take another at him. Bullingdon's musket shatters Barry's knee cap and he loses his leg as a result. While Barry is convalescing Bullingdon takes over all the financial concerns of his late father's estate, granting Barry an annuity of 500 guineas for life if he ends his marriage to the Countess and leaves England forever. Demoralized and ailing, a reluctant Barry accepts the offer.
Barry Lyndon is sumptuous entertainment to be sure. John Alcott's striking cinematography - shot using only natural and candlelight when necessary - extols the breathtaking splendors of the Irish countryside (subbing in for England, Holland and the rest of Europe). Ken Adams and Roy Walker's Art Direction is first rate. Unlike other costume epics the world of Barry Lyndon looks resplendent but always lived in.
Kubrick's casting choices are interesting though not entirely successful. A former fashion model, Marisa Berenson is undeniably beautiful. But she lacks any sort of genuine character of her own to live and breathe as the tragic countess. Rarely does she defy the window-dressing of her former profession or Milena Canonero’s lavish costumes that dwarf her acting attributes under a mountain of fine woolens and lace. As such, Berenson’s presence utterly fails to elicit anything more than a few quiet sighs from her more ardent male admirers.
Ryan O'Neal does not fare much better; his 70s handsomeness at odds with the overall vintage ruggedness of the character as written about in Thackeray's novel. There's no evolution to O'Neal's technique either as the story progresses. Although his makeup and hair age throughout the story his acting regrettably remains rigidly the same. Of all the actors in the film O'Neal looks the least comfortable in his period wigs and costumes.
When it was released Barry Lyndon was not a success. Critic's decried Kubrick’s aloof approach to the narrative. In point of fact, the audience is never invited into these lives on anything more than a superficial level. Kubrick keeps us deliberately at a distance. The scenes unfold with a stately elegance and are painterly in their execution, yet oddly static in their presentation. Kubrick's stylized approach does not harm the story per say and neither does his excruciatingly slow pacing that, after the first half hour, continues to grow on the viewer.
But viewed today Barry Lyndon endures largely as a moving tableau; a great tapestry far removed from the decade in which it was conceived. It has a cadence and a tempo unlike other films of its vintage, a very Thackeray-esque feel to it and it has Kubrick’s masterful touch to recommend it. When all other aspects about the story fail to gel, Kubrick's overriding vision never allows the film to entirely succumb into an implosion that could otherwise mark it an artistic failure.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray captures all of the subtle nuances in John Alcott's cinematography. The 1080p image from start to finish is breathtaking and refined. Colors are vibrant. Flesh tones are accurately realized. Film grain is represented as grain and not digital grit. The stylized and occasionally softly focused cinematography is gorgeous from start to finish. Truly, there is nothing to complain about here. The audio is a DTS remaster. The score, comprised mostly of traditional pieces slightly re-orchestrated to fit the action is quite aggressive as are sound effects of muskets being fired during battle. My one regret is that Warner Home Video has placed no time or effort in providing fans of this movie with either an audio commentary, a documentary on its making or even a brief featurette to compliment this presentation. We get a theatrical trailer and that's all.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST: Blu-ray (Paramount 1968) Paramount Home Video

Serendipity has always played a big part in life as well as the movies, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in Sergio Leone's seminal Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). After The Good The Bad and The Ugly Leone, a man of few words potently placed (often with glib satire) elsewhere in the genre, publicly announced his retirement from making spaghetti westerns. Offers came and went but Leone remained staunch and determined in his refusal to return to the genre until Paramount offered a substantial budget and access to Henry Fonda, Leone's all-time favorite star whom he had never worked with before.
At Leone's request Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento were brought in to develop the property in 1966, spending almost a year watching, then deconstructing the classic Hollywood western for their inspiration. Conscious of the fact that his lengthy run times were severely paired down for general release in America, Leone commissioned Sergio Donati to help refine and edit their screenplay. For Once Upon A Time in the West Leone broke many of his own traditions, including allowing his characters to evolve on screen. His motif of the railroad (aka civilization and culture) come to disrupt the mythical properties of the unspoiled west, Leone’s characters are left standing after the gun-fighting - representatives of this transformation. Running parallel in theme is Leone's last stand for the west’s mythical heroes, villains and legends. With his curious preservation of these legacies, part glowing tribute/part revisionist deconstruction, Once Upon A Time in the West would eventually stand at a crossroads within the western genre, bridging that ancient Hollywood tradition for gallant heroes with a much more contemporary strain decrypting the anti-heroic disruption of mankind upon this natural landscape.
Always more interested in the rituals preceding violence than the act of violence itself, Donati and Leone's screenplay for Once Upon A Time in the West features sparse dialogue and lengthy sequences with very little action, though hardly little story development. The narrative centers primarily on two epic conflicts taking place in the fictional town of Flagstone (actually an amalgam of location work shot in Spain and Utah); the first, the deed of a cold-blooded murder, the second a transgression that leads to bitter revenge. The impetus for all the carnage is a parcel of land known as Sweetwater bought by Brett McBain (Frank Wolff); a lonely settler who foresaw a way to capitalize on the railroad. Desiring Sweetwater for himself, the railroad's crippled baron, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) sends his hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda) and his men to intimidate McBain and lay claim to the property.
Instead, Frank takes considerable pleasure in murdering the entire McBain family (father, and three young children) while planting evidence to suggest that the bandit Cheyenne (Richard Robards) is responsible for their slaughter. Earlier, Frank also sent three of his best men to the station to meet Harmonica (Charles Bronson); a mystery man and the only gun who could challenge him. Dispatching Frank's men in short order, Harmonica meets up with Cheyenne in a cantina and informs him that he is being set up by Frank. Meanwhile, McBain's new bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives too late in Flagstone and is met by the town's folk already preparing the family’s funerals.
Harmonica and Cheyenne become smitten with Jill. Harmonica explains to Cheyenne that unless the station is built by the time the tracks reach the McBain property she will lose Sweetwater. Cheyenne puts his men to work to build Jill her station. Outraged at Frank for having defied him, Morton offers Jill a deal on her property. This betrayal turns mate against master with the die cast for a showdown. Frank rapes Jill and then forces her to sell the property in an auction, believing that he will be its only bidder. Instead, Harmonica holds Cheyenne at gunpoint to make his own bid for Sweetwater, using money acquired for turning Cheyenne in to pay for the land himself. Harmonica then sells Sweetwater back to Jill. Paid by Morton, Frank's men attempt to kill him. But Harmonica now comes to Frank's defense so that he may have the privilege of killing Frank himself.
During their final showdown Frank demands that Harmonica identify himself. In a flashback it is revealed that Frank killed Harmonica's older brother by tying a noose around his neck and forcing Harmonica - then a mere boy - to support him on his shoulders, knowing that the child would be unable to do this indefinitely. Harmonica shoots Frank dead and places a harmonica in his mouth to make his own revenge complete. Her arch nemesis gone, Jill supervises construction of the depot near her property as the train comes through. Cheyenne reveals to Harmonica that during his earlier confrontation with Morton's men he has been mortally wounded. He collapses and dies in Harmonica's arms and is carried off into the sunset by Harmonica as the railroad – that perennial symbol of a new burgeoning on the horizon - looms larger than ever in the foreground.
From a purely narrative perspective Once Upon A Time In the West is an imperfect film. Having the bandit Cheyenne become our heroic figure is problematic. If he's a bandit, then we never really see him at his most ruthless. If anything, he's an over-the-hill nobleman sheathed in the aura of his own pretend. It's also rather unlikely, having seen the cold-blooded-ness of Frank firsthand, that his men would suddenly forget themselves for a few pieces of gold and turn against him for Morton or anyone else. But there is so much style and superb characterizations to be had throughout we can easily forget such shortcomings in story development and still have a relatively coherent viewing experience.
Casting the film proved a challenge. Initially, Henry Fonda turned down Leone presumably because he did not want to play against type as the heavy. This decision Fonda regretted, then reconsidered only after friend and spaghetti western veteran Eli Wallach advised him to do the film. Charles Bronson was hired for Harmonica, but only after Clint Eastwood refused to do the film and James Coburn demanded too much money to play the part instead. Robert Ryan backed out of playing the Sheriff for a bigger part in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.
Two tragedies also marred the production. The first involved actor Al Mulock who played a supporting role as Knuckles in the film's opening confrontation between Harmonica and Frank's men. The actor committed suicide in full costume shortly after his scenes had been shot in Spain by leaping from his hotel room. Two years later Frank Wolff (McBain) followed Mulock's lead by jumping from his hotel suite in Rome.
As Leone suspected his 165 minute international cut was ruthlessly butchered for the American release. As a result the film did poorly at the box office. Viewed today in its restored version one cannot help but admire the brilliant light touches in Leone's sustained pacing. Performances throughout are powerful, haunting and peerless. For a film so generous in its scope and size, Once Upon A Time in the West seems a remarkably intimate affair in retrospect as it effortlessly unfolds with ever-compelling detail about its conflicted characters.
Paramount Home Video's Blu-ray is not quite as impressive as expected. Sourced from restored elements the image exhibits exceptional fine detail throughout. However, colors seem to lack in the bold richness we've come to expect from the Blu-ray format. Comparing the Blu-ray image with Paramount's stellar 2-disc DVD reveals the Blu-ray's color palette as less warm. The Blu-ray favors a blue/brown schematic rather than the DVD's more ruddy brown/gold hues. Contrast remain nicely realized. Blacks are deep and velvety smooth. Whites are pristine.
Sonically, the DTS soundtrack fairs only marginally better. Ennio Morricone's magnificent score is the real benefactor here. But dialogue continues to sound strident, thin and frontal. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD and include a litany of short featurettes that cumulatively assemble as one lengthy and comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)