Saturday, April 21, 2012

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE: Blu-ray (Columbia 1958) Twilight Time

Can a witch and a mortal find true happiness? This is the inquiry at the crux of John Van Druten’s sexy comedy, Bell Book and Candle, produced on Broadway by Irene Mayer Selznick and winningly brought to the screen by director Richard Quine in 1958. The play, a light-hearted romp with few obvious moments for cliché or hyperbole, nevertheless proved an adroit winner with theatre audiences. The film has a bit more difficulty selling its wares, not because Quine and screenwriter, Daniel Taradash have altered the original chemistry or even construction of the piece, but rather because witchcraft and the occult seemed on film then – and continue to appear today – as strange bedfellows in a mainstream romantic comedy without the obvious laughs factored into the equation. 
Yet, Bell, Book and Candle is sincere to a fault about its subject matter. This isn’t TV’s Bewitched or the big screen’s Harry Potter, but a fairly well grounded, if slightly sadistic, manipulation of the natural state of love; pitting the naiveté of a hapless male, whose genuine affections are almost dispatched, merely to satisfy the figment of a woman’s guileless boredom. Thankfully, the film is ideally cast with ‘everyman’ James Stewart as Shepherd Henderson; a congenial book publisher who is looking to expand his credits into the occult after author Sidney Redlitch’s (Ernie Kovacs) novel ‘Magic in Mexico’ proves an unlikely overnight sensation.
Into this mix we add Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak); the sinfully mysterious proprietor of a gift shop specializing in African art. As it turns out, Gillian and Shep’ are neighbours. He rooms just above her establishment. After Gillian’s Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) casts a spell on Shep’s telephone, Shep’ inquires if he might use Gillian’s to confirm a rendezvous with fiancée, Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule). Although Gillian allows Shep’ the use of her telephone, she has already secretly decided to have a relationship with him too.
Gillian suggests to Shep’ that he might take Merle to the afterhours Zodiac nightclub where she intends to celebrate Christmas eve with Queenie, and her brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon) – who also plays the bongos in the jazz quartet there.  Yet, almost from the moment Shep agrees to her invitation, Gillian systematically sets about to ruin his pending nuptials. At first, Gillian’s deceptions are playful. Recalling that she and Merle once shared a dorm in college, and furthermore, that Merle was deathly afraid of thunderstorms, Gillian has Nicky and the boys in the band break into a wild rendition of Stormy Weather, complete with flashing light effects to simulate lightning. The song sends Merle over the edge and she flees the Zodiac with Shep in tow.
Later that evening, however, Gillian plots a more deliberate temptation for Shep, enticing him to the backroom of her shop and casting a love spell over him. Unable to control himself, Shep’ falls for Gillian and the two spend a blissful Christmas day together. Afterward, Shep’ goes to Merle’s apartment and rather cold-heartedly dissolves their wedding plans – growing ever more pleased with himself as he smartly dashes off in pursuit of Gillian. The wrinkle herein is, of course, that Gillian has no lasting interest in Shep. He is merely her latest distraction.
Gillian next uses her powers of black magic to summons the loveably alcoholic Sidney Redlitch away from his island retreat. He arrives at Shep’s office and proposes a sequel to ‘Magic in Mexico’ entitled ‘Magic in Manhattan’. Overjoyed to near euphoria, Shep agrees to publish this, as yet, unproduced manuscript. In the meantime, Nicky decides to have a little fun with Sidney by revealing that he is a warlock. Astounded and confused, Sidney agrees to co-author his book with Nicky.
The one fly in the ointment is Gillian’s arch rival, Bianca de Passe (Hermione Gingold). When Gillian threatens to boycott Nicky’s collaboration on Sidney’s book with another spell, Nicky does his sister one better by taking Shep to Bianca’s isolated home in the country to permanently undo Gillian’s love spell. This Bianca does quite effectively; perhaps too well. After his reawakening, Shep’ reads Sidney and Nicky’s book and thinks it ‘A’ number one trash. 
The great tragedy, however, is that Gillian has decided to forsake witchcraft for her one and only chance to be happy with Shep’ as a mortal. The proof of her contrition is in her sudden ability to feel genuine emotions and cry – something witches apparently cannot do. Shep’ who has already read about this anomaly in Nicky’s book realizes what a monumental sacrifice Gillian has made for him and falls in love with her all over again – only this time their magical chemistry is real.
Bell, Book and Candle is the sort of bizarre tripe that could only have worked quite so well during Hollywood’s golden age. Its crackling wit is an artistic subterfuge for an utterly nonsensical story without much of anything else going for it. The strength of the piece is therefore not derived from its narrative, but from clever character-driven star turns that manage to buttress our interests until the film’s inevitable conclusion.
James Stewart and Kim Novak’s reunion (having already co-starred in Hitchcock’s Vertigo 1958) seems not only a continuation of that winning association, but an obvious extension to the parts already played. Novak’s reluctantly devious Judy in Vertigo is brought to full blossom as the diabolically manipulative Gillian in Bell Book and Candle. Stewart’s Shep’ is even more obsessed with possessing Gillian than his Scotty was at keeping tabs on Judy in Hitch’s film. Herein, Stewart is never anything less than genuine, while Novak, at long last, eschews her rather ambiguous sensuality in the movies, evolving it into a steely-eyed insincerity that simply smolders with refined sexual tenacity.
And then, of course, there are the many distinguished in supporting roles who are every bit as integral to the film’s success as its two principle stars. Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester, Janice Rule, Ernie Kovacs and, Jack Lemmon (on the cusp of his own super stardom) make indelible impressions that continue to ‘haunt’ us even when they are not on the screen in a particular scene.
That tangible quality – to be memorable even in absentia – adds another layer of credibility to Bell Book and Candle - the movie - that arguably the play never had. In lesser hands, these parts would seem moderately silly to grossly ridiculous. Yet, none falters in their faithfulness to the material. Arguably, their commitment makes Bell, Book and Candle the first movie to be justly classified as both a fluff piece and a substantial work of cinema art. In the final analysis, there is something truly magical about this movie.    
Via an exclusive arrangement with Sony Pictures (custodians of the old Columbia Pictures film library), Twilight Time Home Entertainment gives us a relatively admirable 1080p transfer. The results are hardly perfect. Bell Book and Candle was shot at a particularly perilous time, long after the old 3 strip Technicolor dye transfers had given way to the more cost effective monopack vegetable dye process. However, almost immediately studios began to notice that this new colour system did not yield as rich a palette and was hardly as resilient against the ravages of time.
Bell Book and Candle’s original negative hints at some ‘vinegar syndrome’ deterioration. Blu-ray’s superior fidelity brings this out more readily and with greater clarity. As example, certain sequences exhibit a rather grainy quality coupled with softness and slightly faded colours. This degeneration is presented inconsistently throughout this 1080p transfer. Flesh tones that appear naturally pink in one shot suddenly look quite pallid in the next, or worse, take on a decidedly yellowish characteristic.
The overall image quality is gritty than expected. Again, this is not a flaw in the 1080p transfer but an age related anomaly that nothing short of a complete digital restoration effort could have rectified. Overall, contrast levels are adequately balanced, although these too have a tendency to be slightly bumped. Exterior location photography looks duller than interior set pieces and rear projection shots are painfully obvious. The DTS 5.1 audio is a revelation, particularly when augmenting George Duning’s original underscoring. With a few rare exceptions, dialogue is incredibly natural sounding.
Extras are a curiosity. We get Bewitched, Bothered and Blonde – a featurette in which Kim Novak waxes affectionately about her participation in the film. The oddity is a featurette, also with Novak, that focuses on Middle of the Night – another film entirely that is not a part of Twilight Time’s general release calendar. The isolated score track also leaves something to be desired as it tends to fade in and out to accommodate moments where dialogue is absent.  There’s also a theatrical trailer.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

DESIREE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1954) Twilight Time

Marlon Brando’s star was firmly on the ascendance when he was cast as Napoleon Bonaparte in Henry Koster’s Desiree (1954); a largely fictionalized, lavishly produced spectacle in color by DeLuxe and Cinemascope. Brando had made a smashing success of his film debut, playing an emotionally/physically scarred veteran in The Men (1950), and had then compounded his appeal at the box office by recreating Broadway brute, Stanley Kowalski for Elia Kazan’s film version of A Streetcar Named Desire the following year. Despite being branded ‘the great mumbler’ by the critics, Brando’s persona – both on stage and on screen - was larger than life and never anything less than hypnotically compelling. One problem: the actor knew it.
As such Brando’s ego would increasingly wreak havoc on his subsequent film career. These ‘difficulties’ with reigning Brando in, arguably became obvious first on the set of Desiree – a project the actor begrudgingly accepted after agreeing to a two picture deal at 20th Century-Fox; then reneging on his commitment to star in The Egyptian after taking a most immediately dislike to co-star, Bella Darvi. The Fox lawsuit against Brando was effectively dropped only after he agreed to Desiree. However, that did not stop the actor from ‘requesting’ changes to both the script and production every step of the way.
Desiree is based on a semi-biographical novel by Annemarie Selinko, revolving around a romantic détente between Napoleon (Brando) and a young girl, Desiree Clary (Jean Simmons). Set in 1794 Marseille, Daniel Taradash’s screenplay attempts to boil down the novel’s rather lengthy romance into 110 minutes of fluff, ably augmented by Milton R. Krasner’s lush cinematography.
Spirited and headstrong, Desiree returns home one windswept night to find the rest of her family already at dinner; mother (Isobel Elsom), brother, Etienne (Richard Deacon) and sister, Julie (Elizabeth Sellars). She tells them all she has just met a Corsican, Joseph Bonaparte (Cameron Mitchell) in the street, has told him all about Julie’s beauty, and furthermore, has invited the young man to visit them the following night. Naturally, Desiree’s brazenness leaves the family agog. But to refuse an invitation after it has already been given would be rude, and so the Clary’s reluctantly agree to entertain Joseph and his brother, Napoleon.
Napoleon is an egotistical General, full of passionate ideas about military campaigns that will conquer the Italians and the English. He quickly dispatches with the niceties during his brief conversation with the Clarys before encouraging Desiree to show him their gardens. Joseph and Julie become immediately smitten with one another and Napoleon is frank with Desiree about his romantic interests towards her. Perhaps they have more to do with her potential dowry, but that does not stop Desiree her sustained liking of Napoleon, even after some initial apprehensions.     
Regrettably, Napoleon is arrested by the Army under suspicion for treason. His incarceration does not last very long, however, and soon he is reinstated as the First Consul of the French Republic, ordered to pursue royalists in Paris. Desiree pleads for him to renounce his commission in the army and remain with her in Marseille. But Napoleon refuses, proposes marriage, and then asks Desiree to loan him money to go to Paris. He promises he will return to her with all speed. As the weeks turn into months, Desiree doubts Napoleon’s intensions and with good reason.
Travelling to the city to investigate his whereabouts for herself, Desiree finagles an invitation to a house party through her chance meeting with Gen. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie). There, she discovers to her ever-lasting chagrin that Napoleon is betrothed in marriage to the exceptionally wealthy Josephine de Beauharnais (Merle Oberon).  Jean is captivated by Desiree’s strange and intoxicating blend of fire and compassion and pursues her romantically for himself.
The narrative leaps ahead – ever so briefly - to 1797. Napoleon has conquered Italy where Desiree currently resides with Julie and her husband, Joseph. She is bored, however, and returns to France where another chance meeting with Jean results in a proposal of marriage.
We jump ahead another two years. Desiree and Jean are happily married with a son, Oskar (Nicholas Koster). Jean is asked by, and joins, Napoleon’s council of state. Several more years pass and Napoleon is proclaimed Emperor of France. But during his coronation he removes the crown from Pope Pius VII’s hands and crowns himself, suggesting that the future influence of the church on the state will not be a harmonious one. Curiously, the film never delves into the tenuousness of this relationship beyond this brief scene; an obvious and very literal recreation of Jacques Louis-David’s celebrated portrait of the real event.
Now, five more years pass. Napoleon divorces Josephine after it becomes quite apparent that she is unable to give him an heir. Foreshadowing the future malaise that will envelope Napoleon’s kingdom, Josephine calls Desiree to her bedchamber. The exiled queen makes Desiree promise that she will remain near and faithful to Napoleon. Afterward, Napoleon and Desiree are reunited in the darkened corridor just beyond, where he commands her to teach him to waltz – a skill he lacks, but one necessary for his pending marriage to eighteen year old, Marie Louis of Austria (Violet Rensing).
The years roll on. Napoleon’s thirst for conquest goes unquenched. He involves France in one war after the next – each campaign more successful than its predecessor. Jean is approached by representatives of the King of Sweden who plans to make him the heir to his throne. Much to Napoleon’s dismay, Jean renounces his French citizenship and he and Desiree depart for Stockholm.
Regrettably, the crown is an ill fit for the pert Desiree, who – after eighteen months of suffering insults and indignations from the rest of the royals - informs her husband that she intends to return to France. Once in Paris, Desiree attends a lavish ball on New Year’s Eve with Julie and Joseph. Napoleon arrives with Marie Louis to show off their infant son.  Later, he confronts Desiree with veiled threats against her family if Jean persists in forming an alliance with Russia.
However, this Swedish/Russian alliance proves lethal for Napoleon’s armies. Crushed in battle against them, Napoleon asks Desiree to write a letter to Jean, requesting his help. Instead, Jean destroys the last remnants of the French army and Desiree returns to Sweden to stand at her husband’s side. Exiled at Elba, Napoleon briefly resurrects his prospects for a return to the throne before his forces are utterly decimated at the Battle of Waterloo.
He retreats to the Chateau de Malmaison where representatives from the Allied Army send Desiree to plead for his surrender. Despite the years, fates and circumstances that have divided them, there is still a spark of romance between Desiree and Napoleon, who finally abdicates, offering Desiree his sword in surrender. The film ends on a sombre note with Napoleon suggesting to Desiree that her dowry was not the only reason he professed marriage to her so many years ago.
Desiree is uneven entertainment at best. Brando is superb as ‘the little General’ – a startling character assimilation, strangely realized with a clipped British accent and nose piece designed by makeup artist, Bill Nye. Brando is Napoleon; his every nuance evoking a flesh and blood impression of the man only known to our modern world through still images and paintings.
So too, does Jean Simmons infuse our heroine, Desiree with a soft and appealing patina of womanly grace. This seems naturally, and believably, to evolve and mature as the film progresses.
The rest of the cast are really just window dressing for these two stars. Merle Oberon and Michael Rennie are elegant mannequins who adorn their scenes convincingly, but are given precious little to do.
Thanks to Leland Fuller and Lyle Wheeler’s art direction, and, Rene Hubert and Charles Le Marie’s costume design, at least visually there is a lot to admire. We get high style plus and a fairly convincing re-constitution of 16th century France built, and/or redressed, using free standing sets on the Fox backlot, as well as clever integrations of matte paintings and stock footage long shots of the real thing.    
Regrettably, Daniel Taradash’s screenplay is a clumsily convolution, glossing over important elements – not merely plot points in Selinko’s novel – but also historical events that are given embarrassingly short shrift in the film. The leap from Desiree and Napoleon’s initial romance in Marseille to his coronation as Emperor – a span of some fifteen years - takes about twenty minutes of screen time to unfurl. That’s barely a minute and a half per year! Linking the story together through various entries excised from Desiree’s diary results in a meandering series of vignettes that are loosely strung together. What we have then is not a narrative film, per say, but a series of coming attractions for a more in-depth movie that will never come.
Despite these shortcomings, Desiree was Fox’s biggest money maker of 1954 after Three Coins in the Fountain, solidifying – at least in Darryl F. Zanuck’s mind – that the expansive proportions of the Cinemascope screen could conquer and eclipse even the flimsiest storytelling. For a while, the public was indeed spellbound by this elongated screen, and Desiree benefits greatly from Milton Krasner’s lush cinematography, as well as Alex North’s vibrant underscoring. The two are a perfect compliment.
Twilight Time’s Limited Edition Blu-ray is, in a word, sumptuous. The 1080p transfer exhibits bold colors, vibrant and exceptionally crisp detail, and a very solid rendering of contrast levels. The image pops with impressive clarity. Transitions between scenes are briefly grainy, as was a shortcoming of early Cinemascope. But film grain throughout has been faithfully reproduced for a very film like presentation and age related artefacts are virtually nonexistent. Better still, the new DTS 5.1 audio captivates with all the sonic bombast of vintage 6 channel, directionalized stereo. Truly, there is nothing to complain about here!
Extras are limited to an isolated score and a theatrical that has not worn well. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of the film, then this 1080p disc comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

CAMELOT: Blu-ray (WB 1967) Warner Home Video

The 1960s were particularly unkind to the American movie musical. The studio system – that had so effortlessly assembled all the necessary creative talents to meet the demands of making a big budget musical – was gone. Under their creative aegis movie musicals had artistically profited from a distinctive ‘in house’ style. It was virtually impossible to confuse a musical made at MGM with one developed over at Fox, per say, or anywhere else for that matter. But eventually audiences began to tire of the formulaic ‘boy meets girl’ scenarios. If the songs were winners a musical might still pull in the audience. But if they were simply mediocre tastes had already begun to shift, substantially enough to stay away and simply catch one’s favorite musical talent at home on variety shows like Ed Sullivan or The Tonight Show.
By the mid-1960s there didn’t seem to be much point to the big and splashy movie musical any more – despite its sporadic successes throughout the decade. Lest we forget this was still the decade where Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music had managed to undue much of the financial damage Fox incurred on Cleopatra. Disney had had his greatest success in live action with Mary Poppins, while West Side Story and My Fair Lady had all but dominated the Academy Awards in their respective years. But these were exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, musicals remained in vogue in Hollywood, even as late as 1967, the year Joshua Logan undertook to bring Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot to the big screen.
Jack Warner was still in charge of Warner Brother but his movie empire was in a state of financial retrenchment. Although Warner still maintained an extensive storehouse of props and costumes, as well as pride in a series of back lots – at least for a time, the writing was already scrawled on those walls to have a date with the wrecking ball. Worse, the creative personnel (choreographers, singing coaches, stage directors, et al) necessary to create the musical had since decamped – or, more to the point – been quietly asked to leave the premises as soon as their iron clad contracts elapsed. Cost cutting was a necessity in Hollywood throughout the 1960s, though arguably few heeded it when push came to shove, because an even more queer mentality had begun to permeate the executive logic. To combat TV, movies had to be landmark productions. As far as Hollywood was concerned ‘bigger was definitely better’. Too much of a good thing was still never enough. This ironclad edict was further exacerbated by a glaring reality that studios blindly chose to ignore; profits were at an all-time low even as production costs continued to skyrocket through the roof. With so much upheaval and change buffeting the industry it remains a small wonder that anything of quality was being made.
Despite these impediments Hollywood valiantly trudged on; usually to its own detriment. In retrospect, Camelot seems to have suffered greatly from this acute elephantitis. Designed as a ‘road show’, complete with intermission and fanfare the resulting 179 minute film became as overblown as it was overproduced; misguidedly miscast with actors rather than singers to carry on in the grand tradition of the stage show. On Broadway, with its impressionist backdrops and subtle interplay of stagecraft lighting, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe score had possessed an ethereal quality. Regrettably, on film these melodies became grounded in realism – gaudy indoor sets that completely robbed this familiar Arthurian fantasy of its more magical properties.
Unlike the stage show, the film’s central plot is told as a giant flashback with world-weary King Arthur (Richard Harris) first glimpsed as the steely blue-gray of dawn creeps over the horizon. This is Arthur in the twilight of his former glory. In fact the man has only hours to live. He is preparing for battle against Sir Lancelot (Franco Nero); once his most trusted, noblest knight of the round table. Arthur’s piteous reflections of happier times lead him to a faithful plea for guidance from his childhood mentor, the sorcerer Merlin (Laurence Naismith), whose naive advice is to simply think back. Obeying Merlin’s command, Arthur recalls his first chance meeting with his now estranged wife, Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave). Betrothed to Arthur, Guinevere flees into a mysterious forest on the eve of their wedding. She finds Arthur just as forlorn by the prospect of marrying someone he has never met. Without knowing either’s identity the two become acquainted and Guinevere realizes that her lord and master is not only a patient man, but a benevolent ruler who desires to unite England’s disjointed provinces under one kingdom to be governed justly by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. How very democratic indeed!
News of Arthur’s passionate quest to restructure England reaches the shores of France where the self-righteous Lancelot thinks it a splendid idea; one ideally suited to his own superior virtues. Without cause – or invitation, for that matter – Lancelot makes journey to Camelot. The knight’s prowess with a sword impresses Arthur and the two become immediate friends. But Lancelot’s robust ego is initially a turn off to Guinevere who goads three of the Round Table’s most proficient protectors – Sir Lionel (Gary Marshal), Sir Sagramore (Peter Bromilow) and Sir Dinadan (Anthony Rogers) – to challenge him to a joust. Lancelot easily dispenses with them. But his victories come at a terrible price. Although sworn to celibacy, Lancelot finds that he has begun to harbor a deep-seeded passion for his queen. Worse, she has fallen madly in love with him.
Arthur turns a blind eye to his wife’s illicit romance, especially after his own illegitimate son Mordred (David Hemmings) arrives in search of his father’s acceptance. Unwilling to acknowledge the boy, or allow him fellowship to the Round Table, Arthur is encouraged to go on a hunting trip by Mordred who knows that Guinevere will be unable to resist Lancelot in her husband’s absence. That evening, the lovers reunite. Only this time Mordred has placed several knights in the vicinity of Lancelot’s bedchamber to catch them in the act. Lancelot escapes persecution for his ‘crime against the state’. But Guinevere is taken prisoner and sentenced to be burned at the stake. At the last possible moment Lancelot reappears and rescues his beloved, much to Arthur’s relief. Regrettably, Arthur is bound by the law to persecute the pair. The flashback ends. Arthur is unexpectedly visited by Lancelot and Guinevere who has renounced her lover to become a nun instead. It makes no difference, however. Arthur must go to war. As the trumpets sound Arthur meets a peasant boy, Tom of Warwick (Gary Marsh) who declares his allegiance to the high ideals of Arthur’s Camelot. Knowing that he will likely die in battle, Arthur knights Tom; then commands the boy to wait behind the battle lines so that he will be able to tell future generations about the legacy of Camelot.
As pure stagecraft co-starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, Camelot proved a magical – though hardly perfect – theatre-going experience. The film, regrettably, suffers in their absence from too much inspiration and not quite enough perspiration put forth in the performances by the principle cast. Although Vanessa Redgrave is winsome enough as Guinevere, her singing voice is anemic and rather coyly perverse. Worse, Redgrave seems to be playing the queen as an enterprising female from the start, rather than the ever loyal companion who becomes inadvertently corrupted by lust.
Richard Harris is an actor of considerable merit. But musicals are not his forte and he proves it with too many mannerisms that make his Arthur a weak-kneed martinet and slave to the latest fashion. On the flipside is Franco Nero; in very fine voice indeed, but who does not believe anything his character says or does. These woeful misfires deprive Camelot of its fragile emotional center. As such the film exaggerates, instead of rectifying the stage show’s awkward imperfections. If the rest had come together under Joshua Logan’s direction at least something might have been salvageable. But Camelot misses its mark on almost every level. Logan’s heavy-handed direction makes the plot drag. Richard H. Kline’s cinematography is pedestrian at best with excruciatingly long static shots designed to show off John Truscott’s production design, but that anchor the visuals in a sort of stage bound limbo. Truscott’s sets are also problematic; rather drab and too faithful to that period to be fully appreciated as the fanciful locations for a medieval fantasy. The costumes are infrequently bizarre, including one dress worn by Redgrave sewn with pumpkin seeds. But everything tends to run together; the courtiers and their ladies fair reduced to an indistinguishable rabble wearing more of the same. What we are left with, then, is Lerner and Loewe’s score – given full bodied orchestrations by Alfred Newman and Ken Darby that all but drown out the thin vocals. In the final analysis, the genuine mystery of Camelot the movie is how a studio as rife with insight on the making of iconic 60s musicals as My Fair Lady and The Music Man could have so completely mismanaged that legacy with this abysmal contribution.
I have long been perplexed by Warner Home Video’s decision making process to green light weighty clunkers like Camelot for Blu-ray before more worthy contenders like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Gypsy or even Calamity Jane. With the old MGM, RKO and Selznick libraries currently under their umbrella, there is so much good stuff to choose from that a chestnut like Camelot really doesn’t rate being pushed to the front of the line. But I digress, because there’s really nothing to complain about with Camelot as a Blu-ray. Warner has gone back to the drawing board to produce a spectacular looking hi-def transfer that is absent of the horrible aliasing and edge effects that plagued their DVD release from 1997. The image is dark and softly focused – as it should be. Colors pop. Fine detail and grain are faithfully reproduced. The audio has been repurposed into a lush and lovely 5.1 DTS that flows and glows with sonic aplomb.
Extras are a tad disappointing. Stephen Farber gives a most comprehensive audio commentary full of insightful information. There’s also a newly produced featurette ‘Falling Kingdoms’ that parallels the steady decline of Jack Warner’s movie empire with the fictional realm of Arthur’s kingdom. We also get the vintage ‘premiere’ footage and a slew of trailers that were also included in the DVD release; plus a CD sampler. Oh, for heaven sakes; just give us the whole damn score and be done with it! What is missing from this Blu-ray is the isolated 5.1 Dolby Digital score that came with the DVD – and such a shame too.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

BUCK PRIVATES: Blu-ray (Universal 1941) Universal Home Video

Few comedians of any vintage have been as justly celebrated as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The boys have six stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame – one each respectively for their careers in radio, film and on television. Even more impressive, Abbott and Costello found almost immediate and, most certainly enduring, success regardless of the mediums they tackled. Put bluntly – these boys were pros. Arguably the greatest ‘straight’ man who ever lived, Bud Abbott’s infallible seriousness and cynicism was perfectly matched by Lou Costello’s infantilized charm and mischievous innocence. Behind the scenes their partnership was rarely as idyllic. Lou was infrequently tyrannical, often incurring Bud’s discontent and the wrath of his directors. If their friendship was occasionally tenuous, their on screen partnership at Universal Studios was never anything but secure between 1939 and 1951. In fact, A&C were the number one box office draw – not only at Universal, but around the world - four years running, immediately following the release of Buck Privates (1941). Taking a cue from their days in burlesque, Bud and Lou chose to remain faithful to the routines that had made them famous on the stage – reviving a good many for the camera; slightly sanitized and delivered with rapid sure fire wit. Their timing in the movies could not have been better.
By 1941 Universal was a studio struggling to reinvent itself after an initial flourish of Deanna Durbin musicals and supernatural horror legends like Dracula and Frankenstein had outstayed their welcome. A&C brought something fresh and exciting to Universal’s back lot – comedy - and for the next decade they dominated box office intake as few stars at any studio could. For many, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello didn’t just work for Universal during this period – they were Universal Studios. Owing to their fame and fortunes fattening studio coffers their movies were afforded lavish budgets. Still, Lou was always pressing for more artistic integrity. Rarely loaned out to do such stellar work elsewhere Bud and Lou effectively ended their Universal tenure in 1951 after 36 films – 28 of them made for their alma mater.
Arthur Lubin’s Buck Privates (1941) represents the team at the cusp of super stardom. They are appropriately cast as a pair of lovable con artists; Slicker Smith (Bud) and Herbie Brown (Lou). The boys are perpetrating their fraud on a street corner, peddling poor quality neckties to the unsuspecting crowd when they run into interference from police officer Michael Collins (Nat Pendleton). Slick and Herbie make rather a bad enemy of Collins, who hunts them down to an Army Recruitment Office where Slick and Herbie inadvertently sign up for boot camp to escape prison. What they soon discover is that Collins has been drafted and will very shortly become their drill sergeant. In another part of the office spoiled playboy, Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman) is also enlisting in the draft, along with his long suffering chauffeur, congenial Bob Martin (Alan Curtis). It had been Randolph’s hope that his father (Douglas Woods) would be able to finagle a release from Maj. Gen. Emerson (Samuel S. Hinds). Bob, on the other hand, looks upon serving his country as an honor. Both men find themselves sparring for the affections of camp hostess Judy Gray (Jane Frazee).
Life on camp is fairly homey, what with The Andrews Sisters frequently breaking into song to entertain the troops and Herbie adding comic relief each time he screws up his seemingly straight forward duties, much to Sgt. Collin’s chagrin. Randolph proves himself a fairly able body with a rifle, but skips out on an integral shooting match for a date with Judy. His company loses the match and thereafter bitterly resents him for his lack of team spirit. This also costs him his relationship with Judy for the time being. She may be in love, but she won’t settle for a dodger as a boyfriend. However, during a war game exercise Randolph manages to save Bob’s life. His valor creates quite a rouse and he is accepted by his unit, winning back Judy’s admiration as well. A telegram arrives at base camp, informing Randolph that he has been accepted into Officer’s Training. Believing that his father had a hand in this appointment, Randolph turns it down.
But Sgt. Callahan (Harry Strang) informs Randolph that the army’s decision to admit him into the corps was based solely on his merit as a soldier in training. After learning that Bob and Judy have also been offered commissions in the OTS, Randolph willingly accepts his commission. Buck Privates is a rousing patriotic charmer. Premiering, as it did at the cusp of America’s involvement in WWII, the film was practically guaranteed success. A&C offer some fairly hilarious routines to liven the otherwise pedestrian love story scripted by John Grant and Arthur T. Horman. The best of A&C’s repartees are always an elegant byplay on words. ‘You’re ten/She’s forty’ illustrates the proper way to orchestrate a May/December romance. ‘Loan Me $50’ is a hoot of a swindle in which Slick cons Herbie out of all his army money. But perhaps the best of the lot is ‘Drill’ – as Slick attempts to pound some military precision into his undisciplined charges.
The Andrews Sisters give out with three instantly recognizable songs that became part of their touring repertoire: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time, and, Bounce Me Baby With A Solid Four. The songs are mere inserts. That said; all are showstoppers. In later years The Andrews Sisters would frequently make cameo appearances to ‘liven up’ and/or merely stretch the run time of other A&C movies. But here they seem properly placed along with the other oddities in this menagerie.
Universal Home Video’s decision to release Buck Privates on Blu-ray as part of their 100th Anniversary celebration is a rather curious one: not because the film isn’t entertaining or deserving of a Blu-ray release, but rather because it is hardly the ‘one’ Abbott and Costello movie everybody fondly remembers as being their best. While individual tastes may differ, the fact remains that A&C’s most successful film at Universal (at least, in terms of box office dollars) was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Personally, I’ve also been partial to Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, The Time of Their Lives, and, A&C Meet The Mummy.
At any rate, Universal offers us a very nice 1080p transfer. A few years ago, Universal released a comprehensive box set of all the A&C movies, including Buck Privates on DVD and I do have to say that upon viewing both the DVD from that collection and this new Blu-ray I detected no quantum improvements between the two to firmly recommend a repurchase of this title on Blu-ray – especially if you already own the box set. That said; Buck Privates on Blu-ray looks grand. The gray scale is impeccably balanced. A few brief shots still suffer from a ‘thick’ characteristic, but otherwise there is absolutely nothing to disappoint. Film grain appears to have been tempered using DNR, though not excessively. The image is smooth and mostly free of age related artifacts. Close ups reveal quite a bit of fine detail.
The audio is a 2.0 DTS mix – not stereo, but mere mono coming out of two channels. It is remarkably clean and free of hiss and pop. Universal continues to leave its vintage catalogue titles on Blu-ray undernourished. We get the same old (and not terribly impressive either) featurette: A&C Meet Jerry Seinfeld in which the latter tries to articulate the team’s popularity for today’s audiences. We also get the oft regurgitated featurettes: ‘100 Years: Restoring the Classics’ and ‘Unforgettable Characters’ as well as an all too brief featurette on Carl Laemmle. Universal has handsomely packaged the film in a digipack hardcover booklet with a DVD copy too.
Bottom line: It’s Abbott and Costello. If you don’t already own the aforementioned box set then I suppose Buck Privates on Blu-ray is a good way to get your feet wet. My only question would be: ‘Why don’t you own the box set?!?’
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: Blu-ray (WB 1951) Warner Home Video

One of a handful of truly great plays in the American stagecraft, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire broke all the rules and taboos, clearing away the cobwebs of clean cut complacency from the Broadway theatre in 1948 to introduce its seething depiction of unrepentant animal magnetism and cold, calculating aversion to middle-class morality.

At a time when the emotional impact of melodrama in live theatre was slowly being eroded by the onslaught of musicals by Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and later, Rodgers and Hammerstein, ‘Streetcar’ revived something of that raw emotional connection with the audience; only this time by tearing open a wound into subject matter rarely discussed amongst the socially affluent theatre goer.

But this had always been Tennessee Williams’ great strength as a playwright; to evoke and critique with moral ambiguity the illicit and irreproachable topics of life that no one other than he dared expose. More than any other author of his time, Williams unapologetically stripped bare the hidden dark recesses that had lain dormant too long under the American dream.
As is often the case, with ‘Streetcar life imitated art. Williams based the ill fated character of Blanche DuBois on his own sister who had struggled with crippling lifelong mental illness. Translating the play to film in 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire proved something of a challenge for director Elia Kazan. For starters, all references to Allan Grey’s homosexuality were removed in the film. Blanche’s late husband is now described as having committed suicide owing to ‘a general weakness’.

So too did the film board of censorship balk at having Stanley Kowalski rape the mentally unstable Blanche after his wife, Stella is admitted into the hospital with premature labour pains. On screen, rape would have to be implied rather than shown. Otherwise, Kazan and screenwriter, Oscar Saul remained relatively faithful to the blunt force trauma of Tennessee Williams’ original words.
As in the play, we find Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) disorientated at the railway depot, having just arrived from her hometown of Auriol Mississippi (changed from Laurel in the play). Suffering from exhaustion, Blanche stumbles through the seedy red light district of New Orleans’ French Quarter in search of the apartment building her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) shares with new husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) on Elysian Fields Ave.

Eventually finding Stella inside a bowling alley, watching Stanley and his friends bowl, Blanche confesses to her sister that their ancestral home, Belle Reve, has been foreclosed and sold for back taxes. Blanche, who is an English school teacher by trade, has been permitted a leave of absence from the Spring semester after the strain over losing her home became too great for her to bear. Stella accepts her sister’s explanation for her hasty arrival in town at face value.
But Stanley is not nearly as gullible. A primal sensuality courses through his veins. He is a brutish hulk of a man who, by his own admission, has taken Stella down from her pedestal, igniting her inner wickedness with his own raw sexuality. While Blanche is refreshing herself in the bathroom, Stanley tears through her steamer trunk, finding jewelry, furs and various other attire that he believes would be impossible for Blanche to afford on a school teacher’s salary.

One aspect of Blanche’s psyche is painfully clear. She has yet to recover from the suicide of her husband, Allan Grey – who shot himself after she admonished him for his ‘general weakness’. Playing the part of a gentile southern belle from another vintage, Blanche is at first attracted to Stanley for the same reasons her sister is, but finds Stella’s readiness to surrender to him morally repugnant, particularly after she witnesses Stanley strike her pregnant sister with his fists, before shouting for her to come back to him - which she willingly does.
As we soon learn, Stanley’s behavior is a destructive pattern in all their lives – his physical and emotional abuse followed by bouts of congeniality toward his wife and Blanche. But behind this courtly facade, Stanley has begun a more sinister quest; to rid himself of Blanche’s influence on Stella by destroying her credibility in any way that he knows how. In the meantime, Blanche has begun an attachment with Harold Mitchell (Karl Malden); one of Stanley’s poker buddies.

‘Mitch’ is a wallflower, living with his aged mother who is dying of an undisclosed illness. He is kind to Blanche, tender and affectionate at precisely the moment she desperately needs the kindness of strangers to buttress her sad state of emotional decline. But Stanley has quietly discovered Blanche’s past from a co-worker who makes regular deliveries to Auriol.
She did not take a leave of absence from teaching, but was fired by the school after a sexual liaison with one of her seventeen year old pupils; one of many conquests she indulged frequently at a trashy motel on the outskirts of town where she was well known for her own deviant sexual proclivities.

Now, with the prime of her youth behind her, and her reputation from a scandalous past rapidly catching up, Blanche is exposed to Stella and Mitch by Stanley for the shallow slut that she is. Heartbroken at being deceived, Mitch breaks off their engagement. Stella goes into premature labour and is rushed to hospital to deliver her baby, leaving Stanley and Blanche to pursue their toxic collision course alone.
Without Stella to act as a buffer between them, Stanley is emotionally cruel beyond all human decency. He confronts Blanche with the realization that she is no longer welcome in his house. He calls her out as a prostitute and then decides it is of no consequence for him to take from her that which she willingly offered to so many others but has coyly denied him ever since moving into his apartment. The rape of Blanche sends her over the edge of reason, and in the days following Stella’s return to the apartment with Stanley’s infant son, Blanche becomes a fragile recluse, hiding in hallways and bathrooms, unable to look her sister in the eye for fear she will learn the truth.

With Stella’s complicity, Stanley decides to have Blanche committed to an asylum. However, Mitch, knowing that Stanley has raped Blanche, and furthermore, that the rape itself is responsible for shattering her already delicate state of mind, attacks Stanley in his apartment, just as the institution’s sympathetic doctor (Richard Garrick) has arrived to collect his new patient.
Stanley claims that he never touched Blanche, but Stella now realizing the truth for herself, makes her husband a solemn vow. He will never lay a hand on her or her child again. Their marriage is over. The movie ends with Stella watching as the doctor takes Blanche away. Stanley hollers for his wife to return to him, but this time his cries going unacknowledged.

A Streetcar Named Desire is riveting entertainment. Sixty years after its Broadway debut, the play has lost little of its dramatic potency. With the exception of two scenes, all of the confrontations take place inside the pitiful squalor of Stella and Stanley’s cramped two room apartment. This confinement of the cinematic space serves to reiterate for the audience that our central protagonists are, as pack of wild animals clawing at one another, confined to a very tight little cage.
With the exception of Vivien Leigh, all of the actors came to the film from Broadway; their familiarity with the roles galvanizing their characterizations into a dark and brooding verisimilitude. Brando, in particular, is a harrowing force of nature; so taut and electric that he threatens to devour the rest with his engrossing – yet utterly vile - male machismo.

Vivien Leigh had played Blanche during the London run of the play. In re-crafting her performance for the film she carefully builds genuine sympathy for Blanche that is stripped away the moment Stanley confronts Blanche with his findings about her past. Then, and only then does Leigh reveal a harsher underbelly to Blanche. This dramatic shift is daring, but necessary as it helps transfer the audience’s emotional response towards Blanche from empathy to ultimately a sense of pity.
Kim Hunter and Karl Malden offer stellar support to what is essentially a clash of wills between two self destructive people out for blood. Elia Kazan keeps the narrative tightly focused. There is not a lot of down time between these fierce exchanges. Harry Stradling’s moody deep focus cinematography creates a generally oppressive claustrophobia while Alex North’s bawdy/brassy score plays up the cheap eroticism that fuels and motivates our protagonists.

Even with the blight of film censorship clinging to its poisonous charms, A Streetcar Named Desire remains a noxious blend of sin and seduction not easily dismissed. This is one potent, and very hard hitting American classic that has retained its ability to sting.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is admirable, but not entirely what I expected. While the image predictably tightens up in 1080p, fine details are still somewhat wanting, and there is a rather disturbing softness to the image that seems out of character, as though an excessive amount of DNR has been applied to eradicate film grain almost entirely from this presentation. Predictably, the image darkens up considerably over the DVD, as it should. But contrast levels seem a tad weaker than they ought with the general tonality of the gray scale registering from mid to low. I am not entirely certain that this is a new re-scan of the film elements as much as it appears to be a 1080p conversion struck from the old remasters used to create the 2 disc DVD from some years ago.

The audio is DTS mono and really shows off the bluesy riffs of Alex North’s score, while dialogue is exceptionally crisp sounding without ever becoming strident on the ears.
Extras are all imports from Warner’s 2 disc DVD and include the feature length documentary, Elia Kazan: A Filmmaker’s Journey, as well as comprehensive featurettes on the making of the film, Alex North’s contributions, Tennessee Williams prowess as the author of the play, the Broadway play, and Brando’s exceptional performance. We also get screen tests, audio outtakes, an audio commentary track from Karl Malden, Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young, plus the film’s original trailer. Warner has created a handsome digipack to house this disc with its usual affinity for picture book materials intact. Bottom line: recommended.

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



LADY FOR A DAY: Blu-ray (Columbia 1933) Inception Media Group

Wholly improbably, delightfully obtuse and completely charming, Frank Capra’s Lady for A Day (1933) represents the director’s prowess firmly situated behind the camera and at the cusp of his greatest artistic flourish. Throughout the early 1930s Capra had been evolving his cinematic style at Columbia Pictures on various melodramatic projects (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Miracle Woman, American Madness, et. al) that the poverty row studio had sincerely hoped would bring both prestige and profits so desperately needed. While the movies were often meticulously crafted and illustrated Capra’s inimitable flare for the visual, none had made much of a splash with audiences.
Initially, Capra balked at making Lady for A Day, but then began to have daydreams about acquiring such top notch talent for the project from MGM as Marie Dressler, Robert Montgomery, William Powell and W.C. Fields. In the final analysis Capra had a bevy of bargain basement thespians foisted upon him by studio chief Harry Cohn, who had neither the time nor the money to negotiate contracts for any of the aforementioned. Lady for A Day is basically the Cinderella story in reverse; its protagonist a 70 year old indigent alcoholic who is destined to return to the dustbins of life after she has effectively fooled her daughter’s fiancée and his father into believing that she is a lady of leisure. Robert Riskin’s screenplay is loosely based on Damon Runyon’s short story Madame La Gimp, first published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1929. Riskin retains Runyon’s affinity for the loveably low-class and gangster set, but jettisons just about everything else from the original.
Our story is of Apple Annie (May Robson), a senior living in a rundown one room basement apartment, who gets by on peddling fruit to the idle rich. One of her regular customers is Dave the Dude (Warren Williams); a charming underworld scoundrel who has come to regard Annie as his good luck charm. He never makes a move without first buying an apple from her. The Dude is flanked by a pair of loveable cons, the sardonic Happy McGuire (Ned Sparks) and easily confused, Shakespeare (Nate Pendleton). He also has a girl, Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) who currently entertains the masses at a swank uptown nightclub in Manhattan.
Despite her destitution, Annie is well connected and equally respected in the community – at least, within her circle of friends. Annie’s daughter, Louise (Jean Parker) has been raised inside a Spanish convent these many years and has never been to America, her only contact with her mother through Annie’s glowing – and utterly fabricated – letters of correspondence where she has assumed the identity of Mrs. E. Worthington Manville; an uptown swell permanently ensconced inside the fashionable Hotel Marberry. But when Louise writes that she has become engaged to Carlos (Barry Norton), son of the wealthy Count Romero (Walter Connelly), and furthermore, that the three are planning to visit New York before the Count will give his consent to their marriage, Annie’s world of make believe suddenly falls apart. To ease her woes over this impending disaster, she succumbs to the power of strong drink.
In the meantime, The Dude has sent Shakespeare and Happy to find Annie so that he can buy an apple from her for good luck. Learning of Annie’s predicament, The Dude decides to help her live up to all her fanciful expectations. To this end he borrows a suite of rooms at the Marberry from old friend, Rodney Kent (whom we never see), and employs Kent’s butler (Halliwell Hobbes) to address Annie as the lady of the house. Missouri shows up with a small army of fashionistas who transform the dowdy apple seller into a regal socialite. The transformation is so startling, that at first even The Dude does not recognize his protégée. The Dude hires Judge Henry G. Blake (Guy Kibbee) – a fraudulent pool shark, to play the part of Annie’s beloved husband, Mr. Manville, and thereafter calls in every last marker he has to gather an assortment of reprobates, redressing them as awkward mimics of society swells for a planned reception given in Count Romero’s honor.
The Count, however, is not so easily fooled. In fact, he smells a rat but cannot quite place his finger on what is wrong with this glowing picture. Unfortunately for Annie, all does not go according to plan. A nosy cub reporter (Sherry Hall) poking around for a scoop on the mysterious Mrs. Manville is kidnapped by Shakespeare and Happy, leading Police Capt. Moore (Edward LeSaint) to place twenty-four hour surveillance on The Dude and his men. In fact, the police are barking up the wrong tree, but that doesn’t stop them from arresting The Dude and his entire pack of society wannabes en route to the Count’s reception. Forced to divulge the truth to Capt. Moore, The Dude strikes a bargain that has both Moore and the Governor (Hobart Bosworth) attend the reception in Annie’s honor. Duly impressed, the Count sanctions the marriage between his son and Louise. A police escort takes everyone to the docks where Louise, Carlos and Count Romero catch their luxury liner back to Europe, as Annie says her tearful goodbyes from the pier.
From a narrative perspective, Lady for A Day makes absolutely no sense at all. There are too many loopholes to discuss at any length herein. For example: how will Annie stave off freedom of the press once The Dude has released his kidnap victim? Annie’s love has perpetuated a fraud that must – and arguably – will be exposed at the first possible light of day. Even if the Count and Louise fail to read the local papers, surely an exposé of such monumental proportions will reach them ahead of their European port of call. And let’s just say, for argument’s sake that it never does. How will Annie maintain her lavish facade should Louise ever return to America with Carlos for a visit in years to come?
No, none of the machinations in Robert Riskin’s screenplay make any sense at all in the real world. However, in movie terms, it all functions magnificently. We completely buy into this elaborate sham; hook, line and sinker, and are well rewarded for our suspended disbelief by superb performances that quite simply sell this absolute silliness as high art. May Robson delivers a poignantly affecting performance; first as one of society’s degenerate poor – then later, as its equally believable, sympathetic rich. Warren Williams, whose movie career never went beyond playing disreputable cads, herein is given the opportunity to play a charismatic charlatan and he does the part proud. Guy Kibbee is his usual effacing self, capable of charming the wings off a butterfly – or in this case – the Count right out of his money during a fixed game of billiards.
In the final analysis, Lady for a Day is a text book example of style triumphing over substance. It is a film that could only have been made in the 1930s, and remarkably, one that still continues to weave its sentimental spell into our hearts to this day. Nominated for four Oscars, it won none, but set up Capra and Columbia for even greater success the following year with It Happened One Night. In 1961, Capra tried in vain to recapture Lady for A Day’s success with A Pocketful of Miracles, co-starring Bette Davis and Glenn Ford. The elements for another winner were all in place but box office success eluded this production – Capra’s last before retiring. For many years Lady for A Day was thought to be a lost Capra classic. Columbia’s original nitrate negative was ‘misplaced’ while en route to a film lab in the 1950s. But Capra had had the foresight to make a 35mm print for himself and later, a dupe negative from this print for preservation purposes. It is this dupe negative that Inception Media Group has utilized for their Blu-ray release and, I am happy to report, that the results in 1080p are quite astounding indeed.
The B&W image is remarkably clean, with few age related artifacts to speak of and a superbly balanced gray scale that captures most of Joseph Walker’s evocatively soft focus cinematography – a visually arresting style of photography held over from the silent era. Transitions and dissolves are still quite grainy, but otherwise the image is very smooth and refined with a remarkable amount of fine detail evident throughout. The audio is mono and exhibits minimal hiss and pop, but is otherwise in very fine shape. Inception also carries over Frank Capra Jr.’s introduction to the film, as well as his audio commentary and the theatrical trailer that accompanied a DVD release of the film from some years before. However, unlike the DVD, the Blu-ray also integrates 4 ½ minutes of additional footage thought to be missing – including a scene where The Dude and the Judge discuss plans for Annie’s reception.
Bottom line: Lady for a Day is a gem in the canon of ‘Capra-corn’ that hopefully will receive much more playtime now that we finally have the film in such quality on home video. It is a movie rich in vibrant performances that needs to be revived and revered more than it has been in the past. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

ZORBA THE GREEK: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1964) Fox Home Video

Unrelentingly critical in its depiction of Hellenic culture, Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba The Greek (1964) provides Anthony Quinn with his most enigmatic screen role; that of a lovable, yet occasionally ruthless, wandering drunkard with the proverbial heart of gold. And it is saying much of Quinn’s formidable talents as an actor that his Zorba is a character morally ambiguous, yet strangely upstanding at the same time; someone who is emotionally and even socially flawed, yet lusty and passionate about the things he truly believes in. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorbas, the symbiosis between Cacoyannis’ screenplay and Walter Lasally’s starkly plain cinematography give the film verisimilitude. In Kazantzakis’ novel the narrator is unnamed, but of Greek heritage and with socialist ideals firmly implied. He is an intellectual determined to immerse himself in the plight of the working-class peasants by reopening an abandoned lignite mine.
By contrast, the film’s narrative begins along the windswept Greek coastline on an unpleasantly stormy afternoon. Stuffy, half English/half Greek writer, Basil (Alan Bates) is preparing to make his journey to Crete on a commercial boat. Regrettably, his education abroad has filled his mind with high ideals and platitudes that will prove utterly useless to him in the real world very shortly. Living abroad has also isolated Basil from his own Greek heritage. Now, as he patiently waits amongst the locals for his cruise to get underway, Basil begins to exhibit the hallmarks of an uppity, socially mobile prig. But Basil is about to have his Ivy League middle class morality tested after a chance meeting with enthusiastic peasant, Zorba (Anthony Quinn). After learning of Basil’s plans to reopen the lignite mine, Zorba finagles an invitation to accompany Basil to Crete. Zorba tells Basil he has mining experience. Actually, Zorba is a jack of all trades, but sadly, a master of none – his chief virtue being an exemplary lust for life that permeates everything he does. Undaunted, Basil agrees to take Zorba on as an employee of the mine.
Basil’s plans are met with a most favorable response from the locals, whose own economy has been struggling ever since the old mine closed. Zorba ingratiates himself with flirtatious aplomb to Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova); a reclusive French war widow and the one relatively wealthy woman in town who owns the Hotel Ritz. Basil is repulsed by Zorba’s crass suggestion that he seduce Hortense for her money. Fearless, Zorba pursues his own seduction of the flighty hotel proprietor. After discovering that the mine is in a perilous state of disrepair, Basil is immediately disillusioned. Zorba, however, suggests that they pursue a logging industry instead by convincing the monks who own the heavily treed property next door to allow them access to the timber. That evening Zorba attends the monks in their monastery where everyone gets paralytic drunk. Sealing the deal, Zorba returns hours later to perform a dance that mesmerizes Basil. The next day, Basil and Zorba go into town where they accidentally meet ‘the widow’ (Irene Papas); a broken hearted young woman who is taunted by the locals for staunchly refusing to remarry, especially since one of their own young men, Pavlo (George Voyadjis) has repeatedly expressed his romantic desires towards her.
After experiencing her disgrace in public, Basil compassionately offers the widow his umbrella to shield her from the rain. And although she denies even this simple kindness at first, the widow reluctantly accepts the umbrella. Zorba suggests to Basil that this could be the start of a relationship for him. But Basil is shy and retiring, perhaps because he knows firsthand how unkind people can be. Hortense confides in Zorba that she loves him and Basil entrusts Zorba with some money needed to purchase supplies for their forestry operation in the nearby town of Chania. Yet, left to his own accord Zorba uses the money to indulge his carnal lusts with a much younger cabaret dancer. He writes Basil a confession of squandering his money and finding love elsewhere and Basil, wounded by these betrayals, lies to Hortense by promising her that Zorba will return to them both to marry her very soon.
Upon his return to the village with supplies and gifts, Zorba is outraged to learn of Basil’s lie to Hortense. He confronts Basil with his own whereabouts in his absence and Basil confides that he and the young widow have indeed consummated their relationship. Regrettably, a villager has caught sight of them, relaying his discovery to Pavlo who is mercilessly ridiculed by everyone in town. Shamed and great despair, Pavlo drowns himself in the sea, his body discovered the next day by the local fishermen. Pavlo’s heartbroken father holds a funeral attended by all, including the widow, who is cornered in the church courtyard and accosted, then stoned by the villagers as revenge for the boy’s suicide. Unable to bring himself to intervene, Basil sends one of the locals, Mimithos (Sotiris Moustakas) to fetch Zorba, who arrives just in time to prevent Pavlo’s best friend from plunging his knife into the fallen woman.
Believing that he has diffused the situation, Zorba comforts the widow and turns his back on the crowd. Pavlo’s father pulls his own knife and slits the widow’s throat. As she bleeds to death, the crowd apathetically shuffles away leaving only Basil, Zorba and Mimithos to mourn her brutal passing. The next afternoon Hortense presses Zorba on a more concrete timeline for their pending nuptials. Although it has always been Zorba’s intension to delay their marriage, he relents to an engagement after Hortense produces a pair of golden rings she has had made especially for the occasion. Basil is delighted by Zorba’s change of heart. Regrettably, a short while later Hortense contracts a fatal bout of pneumonia. Learning of Hortense’s demise the desperate villagers storm her house. Zorba makes a valiant attempt to thwart their ransacking, but to no avail. The Hotel Ritz is stripped clean of its treasures and Zorba returns sometime later to find only Hortense’s corpse left behind.
Zorba builds an elaborate contraption to ferry lumber down the steep hillside. A blessing ceremony is held to mark the occasion. Unfortunately, the event turns disastrous as the logs prove too unsteady and violently dislodge the support beams of his apparatus, destroying all of his hard work. Left behind to lament this final insult, Zorba attempts to tell Basil his future – predicting a journey to a great city. Basil, who has already decided to return to England, encourages Zorba to teach him how to dance the sirtaki. As Basil and Zorba practise their dance along a forgotten stretch of beach, Basil laughs off the ridiculousness of their many follies together.
Zorba the Greek is a film of curious contradictions. While its ultimate message seems to be a celebration of life, many of the film’s individual scenes emphasize unrelentingly cruel hardships that impede this possibility. The un-avenged murder of the widow and the ransacking of the Hotel Ritz in particular are despicably vial acts that transform the seemingly innocuous townsfolk into a devouring rabble, animalistic and all consuming. Yet, somehow Cacoyannis’ screenplay and direction manages to bring calm from this chaos. Even queerer is the overriding casual acceptance of these events as merely par for the course of the harsh realities of life on the isle of Crete. This passive acquiescence begins to seep into the story almost from the moment Basil arrives on the island, and gradually builds so that neither of the aforementioned events seem out of place or, even more bizarrely, strange to the audience. They are, quite simply, a truth about humanity and our oft’ inhumane treatment of one another.
The film is also blessed by Mikis Theodorakis’ infectious mandolin score; its buoyant strains delightfully at odds with the more repressive realities of the narrative. And then, of course, there is Anthony Quinn; a veritable zeitgeist of conflicted and contrasted emotions, seamlessly blended into one overwhelming and multifaceted characterization. He is the embodiment of what we think of today when we conjure to mind images of the Hellenic culture, and this despite the fact that he was born of Mexican/American parentage. Nevertheless, Quinn’s great gift to American cinema has always been his earthy appeal. He is a very genuine actor, immersed in his own passion for his craft. As such, he becomes wholly believable as the ebullient and irrepressible Greek peasant. Aside: on the day that Quinn was to shoot his dance with Alan Bates on the beach he was suffering from a broken foot, thereby forcing an improvisation of the loose shuffle he performs in the film. That ‘shuffle’ has since been trademarked by many a Greek performer as the definitive way to dance the sirtaki.
Opah! MGM/Fox Home Video has released Zorba the Greek with a 1080p image that is rather impressive with a beautifully rendered gray scale. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are very clean. Fine detail is fully realized and film grain looks more natural than gritty, as it often did on Fox’s DVD incarnation of Zorba from some years ago. The audio is DTS stereo surround, with all the limitations of vintage stereo one might expect. Nevertheless, this is a well preserved soundtrack with good fidelity and a very crisp – though never strident – sonic characteristic. Extras include a Biography Special on Anthony Quinn, alternative opening, a somewhat meandering audio commentary from Cacoyannis and the original theatrical trailer – basically everything that was included on the original DVD from Fox. Regrettably, the extras are in 480i standard resolution. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)