Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY: Blu-ray (WB 2005, '08, '12) Warner Home Video

Having endured the almost interminable legacy of Hollywood’s undernourished attempts to revisit Batman on film, not to mention the brutally campy Adam West TV serial from the 1960s, I must admit that when Warner Brothers announced a rebooted trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan I experienced everything from minor grunts and major groans to that panged ‘not again’ expression with the rolling eyes that generally spells imminent prejudice for anything I might see on the big screen. However, Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is the exception to that rule; a stunningly handsome, narratively complex and visually engrossing masterpiece that puts all other woefully bad installments to rest. In hindsight, always 20/20, these aforementioned disasters – beginning with Michael Keaton’s 1989 debut and concluded by the resounding thud when George Clooney donned the cape in 1997 – now appear as something of the cinematic equivalent to foreplay, whetting the public’s appetite for the real deal that is Nolan’s tri-picture excursion into the decidedly darker and more realistic expressionism of a world gone mad. Bottom line: Nolan’s movies are about as far removed from the original DC comic books as one can hope, but remarkably faithful to the graphic novels that inspired them, and this is all to the good.
My admiration for Christopher Nolan extends beyond The Dark Knight Trilogy. Yet these three movies so completely exemplify Nolan’s creative agility as a filmmaker and storyteller that I suspect they will long be dissected by critics and fans alike as a textbook example of his prowess. The Dark Knight Trilogy is blessed by the luxury of time; Nolan pre-planning on Batman Begins (2005) for nearly two years, removed by eight from the very bad taste left in everyone’s mouth after 1997’s Batman and Robin.  During this interim the Batman has evolved from cult superhero into a more realistic crusading vigilante. Bruce Wayne is still the fictional Gotham City’s man of the hour with enough disposable cash to fund a small revolution. But his motives are more questionable, his personal sacrifices and moral ambiguities more central to the narrative and perhaps best epitomized by the Biblical quotation “for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Indeed, as The Dark Knight Trilogy embarks into a very bleak immediacy of adventure with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) forced to endure many trials by fire, his self-discovery (and rediscovery in the last film) is guided by men who continue to ground him in the reality of his times; ever loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), devoted business manager, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Batman’s greatest champion by day, Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). The figure of ‘the dark knight’ is mostly misunderstood by the residents of Gotham who simultaneously admire yet fear his presence. Nolan explores this duality through Bruce Wayne’s chivalry. It is far more complex than being the mere protector of the city. Rather, it is rooted in painful childhood memories that have all but emotionally crippled the man and reduced his importance to that of a conflicted symbol. A social creature by forced necessity, Bruce keeps up appearances as one of Gotham’s high profile movers and shakers. Yet he experiences almost excruciating discomfort at playing this part; disassociated from the sycophantic and the wealthy, while realizing he can never entirely assimilate into their world.
Batman Begins (2005) is a compendium of themes and narratives gleaned from three separate classic comic books: Batman – Year One, The Long Halloween, and The Man Who Falls, superbly reconstituted as one cohesive story in a screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer. We are given the childhood backstory necessary to explain the man; something none – except for 1989’s Batman - superficially attempted to gloss over with only the briefest of flashbacks.   But in Batman Begins we learn that as a child Bruce Wayne fell into a well where he was terrorized by a swarm of bats, thereupon developing an extreme phobia to these winged creatures.  After witnessing the murder of his parents by mugger Joe Chill (Richard Brake) the heir to Wayne Enterprises is placed in the care of the family’s devoted butler, Alfred Pennyworth who emotionally adopts the forlorn and introspective child, rearing Bruce with great care, honesty and forthrightness.
Fast track fourteen years into the future. Chill is granted parole in exchange for his testimony against crime kingpin Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson).  Bruce’s intent is to murder Chill at trial, a vengeance narrowly averted when one of Falcone’s hired guns finishes the job instead to ensure Chill’s silence. Bruce’s childhood friend, now assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) chides him for his impulsiveness, a wound compounded when Falcone berates Bruce for his lack of comprehension towards the criminal element. Bruce decides to learn all he can about crime first hand. He makes pilgrimage to the Bhutanese prison where Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers to train him in the art of stealth and fear as a member of The League of Shadows organized by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). However, when Bruce learns the League’s true intent is to end crime in Gotham he burns down their temple. Ghul dies but Ducard is saved by Bruce and left in the care of local villagers.
Returning to Gotham, Bruce takes an immediate proactive interest in his own company as well as a rival defense conglomerate run by the corrupt William Earle (Rutger Hauer). Confronting his fear of bats, Bruce adopts their predatory nature for his own and the Batman is born. He engages Wayne Enterprise’s leading scientist Lucius Fox who reveals the arsenal of prototype artillery and body armor that his own company has been developing over the years. Taking advantage of this special equipment, Bruce adopts the devil-may-care persona of a rakish playboy by day and the caped crusader known as Batman by night, instilling fear in Gotham’s rampant criminal underworld. Batman’s interception of a drug shipment provides Rachel with enough evidence to indict Falcone while Sgt. James Gordon embarks upon a litany of arrests that strike deep into the heart of organized crime.  
Unfortunately Falcone and his mob are declared mentally incompetent by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy); a ruse to mask Crane’s involvement in their drug trade. To ensure his own safety Crane exposes Falcone to a powerful hallucinogenic that makes him insane. Crane also tries out the drug on Batman. But Bruce is spared Falcone’s demise after being rescued by Alfred and given an antidote concocted by Fox. Instead Batman exposes Crane to his own toxin, whereupon Crane confesses that he has been dumping vast quantities into Gotham’s water supply. However, Crane also confides that the toxin is only harmful if inhaled.  
The narrative becomes a tad spotty as we jump forward to Bruce’s lavish birthday celebration at Wayne Manor. Ducard interrupts the festivities with a small army of men and reveals to Bruce that he is the real Ra’s al Ghul. Now this motley crew has come to destroy Gotham by vaporizing its water supply, already saturated with Crane’s madness inducing toxin, employing a microwave emitter stolen from one of Wayne Enterprise’s cargo ships. To spare his guests, Bruce feigns drunkenness. Wayne Manor is torched by Ducard’s men and the toxin is vaporized, unleashing mass hysteria and violence upon the city. Bruce escapes this deluge with Alfred’s help and later drops hints to Rachel, whom he loves, about his true identity. But there is little time for such revelations. Batman confronts and kills Ducard aboard the city’s central train used to disseminate the toxin. In the film’s extended epilogue Batman becomes a public hero but loses Rachel in the process – unable to sacrifice his alter ego for his own happiness with her.   
In retrospect Batman Begins seems much more the setup for the last two movies in the trilogy than its own standalone creation; the film’s ending already hinting at the emergence of The Joker (Heath Ledger) who comes to dominate the central narrative of The Dark Knight (2008). Indeed, the screenplay for this second installment (also written by Nolan and Goyer) manages to offset the importance of Batman. Christian Bale spends a fair portion of its story out of his black armor, entertaining notions of winning Rachel back as Bruce Wayne while the narrative evolves into a showcase for Ledger’s self-destructive haunting performance as the demented and terrorizing madman. The Dark Knight opens with a superb bank heist in which each of the robbers sporting clown masks has been instructed to kill his accomplices once their portion of the theft has been achieved. This leaves but one robber in control of the loot, The Joker who wastes no time fleeing the scene.  
Batman and Lieutenant Gordon involve DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in their plan to eradicate mob rule from Gotham City. Bruce is impressed by Dent’s pure motives. Truly, Dent is a man ‘of’ and ‘for’ the people. So Bruce decides to throw him a fundraiser. In the meantime, Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), who has taken over Falcone’s mob, holds a videoconference with Lau (Chin Han), a Chinese accountant involved in the laundering of their money, but currently residing in Hong Kong. The Joker breaks into this meeting to forewarn that the dark knight knows no boundaries. He offers to assassinate Batman for half the mob’s loot. But the mob refuse these terms. Shortly thereafter, Batman skyhooks Lau from his Hong Kong penthouse, dragging him back to Gotham to face imprisonment.
The Joker publicly issues an ultimatum; that innocent people will die each day unless Batman reveals his true identity. To prove his point he murders Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb (Colin McFarlene) with a poisoned bottle of scotch and blows up Judge Surrillo (Nydia Rodriguez-Terracina) who had begun presiding over the mob trials. The Joker also targets Dent at Bruce’s fundraiser and Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) during the public funeral for Commissioner Loeb. Gordon takes the sniper’s bullet meant for Garcia and fakes his own death. The ruse flushes the Joker out of hiding. He is captured by Batman and taken to jail while Gordon is promoted to Commissioner. However, during his interrogation the Joker explains to Batman that he has deliberately allowed himself to be taken prisoner; a diversion while his men secure the imminent death of both Rachel and Dent in separate buildings rigged with explosives.
Forced to choose between Rachel and Dent, Batman races to the abandoned warehouse where Dent is bound to an oil drum. Gordon is too late to save Rachel and Dent is horribly scarred by the resultant explosion meant also to kill him. His disfigurement, coupled with a belief implanted in his mind by the Joker – that Gordon and Batman have both betrayed him – turns Dent toward the dark side. He becomes the vigilante, Two-Face. Meanwhile, the Joker has escaped from the police station with Lau, whom he later kills, taking hostages as he blows up the hospital where Dent has been recuperating.
Dent goes on a rampage, avenging Rachel’s death by murdering everyone he believes has been complicit in her kidnapping. To escalate the pandemonium, but also to prove his point, that people can be corrupted regardless of their social status in life, the Joker rigs two ferries with explosives; one full of ordinary citizens, the other containing Arkham Asylum inmates and prison guards. The Joker gives each ferry a detonator belonging to the other and suggests that if one of them makes the choice to blow up the other before midnight, he will let the survivors go unharmed. Otherwise everyone will die. After some harrowing debate amongst the passengers, both ferries refuse to partake in the Joker’s experiment. 
Batman exploits a technology developed by Lucius Fox to create a city-wide tracking prototype to help find the Joker. Fox, who is reticent about using this technology as a tool to spy on ordinary individuals, reluctantly agrees to monitor all incoming calls, but tells Bruce he will resign once the Joker is apprehended. The Joker dresses up hostages to resemble his men, thereby luring Gordon's SWAT team to assassinate them. But Batman uncovers this ploy and thwarts their annihilation, capturing the Joker instead. Dent takes Gordon’s wife (Melinda McGraw) and young son (Nathan Gamble) hostage inside the building where Rachel died, intent on murdering all of them once Gordon arrives. But Batman confronts Dent, the latter using a coin toss to decide their fates. Dent shoots Batman and then attempts to kill Gordon’s son. But Batman’s protective armor has shielded him from the blast. He tosses Dent to his death off the top of the building instead. To ensure that all of Dent’s previous good works – including the passing of the new crime bill legislation – endure, Batman tells Gordon that he cannot allow the public to ever know Dent was swayed to evil by The Joker. Instead Batman proposes that Gordon publicly blame him for the murders, thereby giving the citizens of Gotham a symbol to hate while the good in Dent’s master plan is allowed to proliferate. 
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) picks up our story eight years later, but not in an altogether successful way. Unable to accept Rachel’s death and still believing that she would have eventually left Dent to be with him, Bruce has become a recluse inside Wayne Manor. The years have been unkind to both him and his crumbling empire. Wayne Enterprises is on the verge of bankruptcy following a botched investment in Miranda Tate’s (Marion Cotillard) fusion reactor project that was supposed to provide Gotham with a new and cheaper energy source. But Bruce’s financial woes are the least of his worries. He is a shell of his former self, with a body rapidly deteriorating from the various internal wounds sustained during his crime fighting days.
Alfred confides in Bruce that his one lifelong hope has always been that Bruce would find personal contentment in the love of a good woman. In fact, Alfred confesses that for the past eleven years he has taken his holidays in Italy he has often imagined seeing Bruce with wife and child happily lazing about the piazza. Bruce tells Alfred that it is too late for such daydreams to take hold and Alfred, believing he has failed his master once too often, decides to leave his employ for good.
Meanwhile, guilt has overtaken Commissioner Gordon. He drafts a resignation letter confessing his complicity in covering up the truth about Harvey Dent. At a fundraiser inside Wayne Manor cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) masquerades as a maid to gain access to the upper floors where she steals a string of pearls belonging to Bruce’s late mother from his safe. The real prize, however, is a set of Bruce’s fingerprints that Selina uses to kidnap a congressman on behalf of Phillip Stryver (Burn Gorman) who is working for Brue’s business rival, John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn). Stryver attempts to double-cross Selina who, in turn, alerts the police to their whereabouts while she gets off Scott-free. In an unrelated incident Commissioner Gordon is captured by Bane (Tom Hardy); a mercenary excommunicated from The League of Shadows. Rescued by rookie patrolman, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), long an admirer of Bruce Wayne, Gordon confides the truth to Blake about Batman.
Connecting Daggett to Bane, Bruce asks Miranda to take over the daily management of his company to ensure its protection and Bane retaliates by killing Daggett. In an agreement to obtain some computer software that will effectively erase her criminal past so that she can start anew, Selina lures Batman to Bane’s lair where both his spirit and body are mercilessly broken, presumably beyond repair. Bane exiles Bruce to Ra’s a Ghul’s Bhutanese dungeon where he once endured unspeakable torture at the League of Shadows behest. One of the current inmates takes pity on Bruce, healing his cracked and protruding spine and telling him about Ra's al Ghul's love child, born inside the prison walls many years ago. As told, Bruce’s natural assumption is that the child became Bane.
While Bruce continues his recovery, Bane traps most of Gotham's police inside the city’s subway by detonating various explosions that transform the tunnels into their underground tomb. He blows up Mayor Garcia inside his private box at the stadium during a scheduled sporting event and forces physicist, Dr. Leonid Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), to convert Wayne Enterprises’ reactor core into a nuclear bomb. Bane then exploits Gordon’s resignation letter to reveal to the citizens the cover up about Harvey Dent, suggesting that the institutions they have placed their faith in for so many years have betrayed them. In response to this declaration anarchy breaks out and a new warped sense of justice prevails. Dr. Crane becomes the city’s magistrate, releasing the convicted from their prison cells while exiling the wealthy and once powerful to certain death.
From here on in the film’s timeline and various plot elements become increasingly problematic and fanciful. After months of recuperation a penniless, but miraculously restored Bruce Wayne escapes. Without passport or funds for that matter, Bruce somehow manages to return to Gotham City where he employs Selina, Officer Blake, Miranda, Gordon, and Lucius in a counterplot to stop Bane from detonating the bomb. However, the overall arc in Bane’s master plan is never entirely or satisfactorily fleshed out. Having brought about the dissolution of Gotham’s core values and transformed its citizenry into a fairly obvious facsimile of Nazi Germany, he has decided to decimate everyone with a cataclysmic nuclear explosion. Only he is also trapped in Gotham!
After subduing Bane, Batman is wounded by Miranda who reveals herself as Talia, Ra's al Ghul's love child that escaped the Bhutanese prison aided by her protector, Bane. Fortunately, Gotham’s demise is delayed yet again when Talia’s remote detonation of the megaton bomb is thwarted by Gordon who manages to block her signal. Talia departs in search of the bomb and Bane, already weakened by his assault on Batman, is murdered by Selina instead who has turned coat and come to Bruce’s aid. Batman intercepts Talia but not before she manages to destroy the reactor moments before dying. Unable to stabilize the bomb by reattaching it to the reactor, Batman flies it out to sea where it explodes far away from the city limits, but presumably kills him in the process.
Alfred and Lucius mourn Bruce in private and Batman is given a monument inside Gotham’s city hall. Wayne Manor is transformed into a home for orphaned children. However, not long afterward, while on a tour of Italy, Alfred sees Bruce and Selina together at a fashionable outdoor tratoria. Bruce regards Alfred with a nod, thus restoring his faith in the man who used to be his employer. Blake resigns from the police force and inherits the Bat-cave as Robyn.
The Dark Knight Rises is an imperfect last hurrah on several levels. Firstly, during the two previous installments the fictional city of Gotham was cleverly photographed in and around New York to conceal that city’s more obvious landmarks. But in The Dark Knight Rises we see New York in all its glory, with obvious glimpses of Wall Street and the Freedom Tower and a pivotal plot point played out atop the George Washington Bridge. So either the U.S. has renamed New York, Gotham City or the entire story has always been taking place in New York. We can’t have it both ways!
This will be a minor quibbling for some. But more disconcerting is the way certain time honored characters from the first two films have been allowed to aimlessly float in and out of the narrative structure of this third installment; particularly Michael Caine’s Alfred, who merely serves as emotional bookends to The Dark Knight Rises. Also, we are introduced to Selina ‘Cat Woman’ Kyle during the first third of the story. But after her double cross of Batman we see very little of her, a curiosity further exacerbated by the fact that, after professing a strong desire to run away and start a brand new life obscurely elsewhere, we find her still skulking about Gotham’s back alleys and stone and concrete byways, awaiting Bruce’s return in the third act; ready and willing to defy Bane at his request.
The Dark Knight Rises timeline is all over the place, particularly after Batman’s initial confrontation with Bane. Just how Bane manages to exile Bruce to the Bhutanese prison thereafter remains a mystery. How Bruce gets back to America without money or a passport is an even greater curiosity. But perhaps the most problematic element in this final chapter is Bruce Wayne himself. When first seen he is wrecked man, so crippled by paralytic arthritis that Selina is able to knock him to the ground simply by kicking out the cane he uses for a crutch from under him. It’s only been eight years since Bruce’s retirement. Is he as physically destroyed as he pretends to be? A cursory doctor’s examination suggests as much.  So how does he manage to don the Bat suit in time to confront Bane with all the agility of a jungle cat? And what of Bruce’s miraculous resurrection after having his spine broken and reset by blunt force trauma? We are given a montage of highlights showing Bruce working out in preparation for his escape from the Bhutanese stronghold. Just how he has managed to rebuild himself into a muscled machine under the most primitive of circumstances, despite being ravaged by life-threatening injuries is perhaps the greatest daydream of them all.  
Finally, there is the movie’s finale to contend with; too contrived and much too convenient to be appreciated. How does Batman escape nuclear annihilation, or at the very least, exposure to massive amounts of radiation poisoning? Not sure. Never explained. How and why should Bruce come to trust Selina and vice versa? Arguably, each gets what they wanted all along by their association – total anonymity from their former lives and a chance to restart a life shared together. But how does Bruce know where to take Selina so that Alfred can observe their serene happiness together?
There will be those who poo-poo my deconstruction of these various dangling threads as nitpicking tomfoolery at best. But they speak to a level of narrative construction, or absence thereof that leaves the movie to cling together in spite of itself. Does The Dark Knight Rises work. As pure entertainment, the answer is ‘yes’. It will most definitely amuse and distract. But is it solid storytelling? Hardly, and that’s my chief problem with it.
Warner Home Video’s Dark Knight Trilogy is impressive on Blu-ray, though not perfect. I will assume that the transfers included in this gift set of the first two movies are identical in quality to their standalone counterparts released individually several years before – particularly since I detected the same edge effects on The Dark Knight in exactly the same scenes. Overall, the image on all three films will surely not disappoint. These are 1080p hi-def masters and the results speak for themselves: refined colors, natural flesh tones, superior contrast and deep saturated blacks that never look crushed. Film grain has been accurately reproduced. Contrast is bang on perfect. If it weren’t for the edge effects scattered here and there the ‘wow’ factor on these transfers would rate a perfect 5 score from yours truly. The 5.1 DTS audio is explosive, although I detected a more aggressive bass in the last two films. I still can’t make out all of Bane’s dialogue in The Dark Knight Rises, an auditory problem I remember having during my theatrical viewing experience too. In some scenes he’s clean and articulate; others, just a garbled mess of syllables that I remain unable to decipher in any meaningful way.
Extras are plentiful. Batman Begins gives us an in-picture commentary, an IMAX prologue, a spoof called ‘Tankman’ and various extensive featurettes charting the making of the film. The Dark Knight offers more involved featurettes, including a psychological evaluation of Bruce Wayne – odd, but cool. We also get featurettes dedicated to the film’s gadgets and a deconstruction of shooting live action sequences with minimal CGI technologies applied. The Dark Knight Rises plumps out the goodies, including a minute long bio on the Batmobile with all five prototypes shown together for the first time, plus the extensive documentary on the making of the trilogy that covers the films from every conceivable angle. Each disc of extras also includes behind the scenes galleries with hundreds of photos and theatrical trailers.  Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Batman Begins 3.5
The Dark Knight 4
The Dark Knight Rises 3

4 overall

HARPER (WB 1966) Warner Home Video

As John Huston was preparing 1946’s The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s pulp fiction detective thriller, he was faced with a baffling question. Who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur, Sean Regan? Unable to find closure from his team of writers, Huston contacted the author himself who promptly informed the director that he really hadn’t a clue. Indeed, like Hitchcock and his MacGuffins, the murder in Chandler’s novel was incidental to the interplay between his fictional hero, Philip Marlowe and the nefarious characters met along the way. Chandler’s great strength as a writer was, is and will forever remain his crackling dialogue and ability to create fascinating situations in and of themselves. But from a purely narrative perspective Chandler tended to get lost in his stories. Not that it made any difference to his readers. In fact, perusing Chandler’s writing today one remains struck by its readability in spite of its lack of cohesion.
Chandler’s popularity was arguably not lost on author Ross Macdonald, who inherited the mantle from Chandler in the late 1960s and proved to be as cryptic in his crime writing prose as his predecessor. Director Jack Smight’s Harper (1966) is therefore The Big Sleep of its generation: a thoroughly convoluted story of abduction, murder and spousal betrayal. Like The Big Sleep, Harper is a movie of immense style; its stunning use of California locations spectacularly photographed by Conrad L. Hall, and its ensemble cast, featuring some of the best in the business, working overtime to throw the film’s protagonist, P.I. Lew Harper  (Paul Newman) completely off his game. For most of its 121 minutes the audience is just as disoriented as our hero. The strength of the piece is not the ‘who’ in this who done it, but in the man himself: Lew Harper - much too tough for the fellas, while remaining way too sexy for the ladies.
By 1966 the detective/thriller, a main staple throughout the 1940s in American cinema, had lost much of its appeal with audiences. Indeed, nothing quite like Harper had been attempted on the screen for a very long while. All the more reason to admire Harper for its slick and stylish resurrection of this subgenre; with its hard-edged hero, flirtatious sex kittens and unscrupulous villains creating a milieu of danger and social deviants out for all they can get. Harper slinks across the screen with its modish trappings and hairpin plot twists like a pulp fiction masterpiece; soaking up the California sunshine even as it casts a spurious pall over everything.
William Goldman’s screenplay is an enigma. Who kidnapped millionaire Ralph Sampson gets buried beneath a much more fascinating series of unfortunate events. Our story opens on a typical day in the seemingly unglamorous life of Lew Harper, who awakens in his undershirt and boxers inside his rundown apartment/office, blinded by the mid-morning sun, and thereafter rescuing yesterday’s stained coffee filter from the garbage to brew a fresh pot. From this rather inauspicious debut we delve into the alternative universe of Bel Air; a moneyed playground where the ultra-rich laze around poolside all day without a care in the world. Except on this particular day the physically disabled egotist, Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) has discovered that her husband Ralph (whom we never see) has disappeared without a trace.
Elaine, who is not nearly as concerned as she ought to be, nevertheless finds it prudent to inform the family’s milquetoast attorney, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) about Ralph’s absence and Albert, in turn, pawns the assignment off on his close friend, Lew Harper. Harper wastes no time interviewing Elaine, who is both flirtatious yet strangely aloof, suspecting that Ralph is off with another woman. Harper then finds Ralph’s daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) frugging in a bikini by the pool while the missing millionaire’s private pilot, Alan Taggert (Robert Wagner) casually looks on. Harper nicknames Alan ‘beauty’ because of his bronzed Apollo appeal. Miranda wants to be ‘Beauty’s girl’. If only he didn’t view her as just another rich little diversion to pass the time.
‘Beauty’ takes Miranda and Harper to Ralph’s private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel to search for clues. She feigns a seduction toward Harper that ends when Harper pretends he’d be willing to take advantage of her inside Ralph’s bedroom – a garish nightmare fancifully decorated in violent purple and cheaply golden astrological signs. Finding a glamorous photo of ex-movie star Fay Estabrook (Shelly Winters) among Ralph’s belongings Harper inquiries, “Whatever happened to her?” to which ‘Beauty’ laughingly declares, “She got fat!”
Pretending to be an adoring fan from Texas, Harper fakes an ‘accidental’ rendezvous with Fay at a nightclub. He quickly gets her drunk on flattery and cheap booze, taking Fay home where she promptly passes out. Searching her bungalow in haste, Harper intercepts a telephone call meant for Fay’s husband, Dwight Troy (Robert Webber) from Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) – a drug addicted lounge singer who forewarns that ‘someone’ (Harper) is skulking around their past. When Harper reveals that he is not Troy, Betty abruptly hangs up and Troy, who has been hiding in the bungalow all along, emerges to shoo Harper away at gunpoint.
Harper tracks Betty down at the beatnik nightclub where she sings and directly threatens to turn her in to narcotics after observing fresh needle marks on her arm. But Betty gets one of the bouncers, Puddler (Roy Jenson) to carpet-haul Harper into the alley behind the club instead. ‘Beauty’ intervenes, knocking Puddler unconscious with Harper’s gun. The two hurry back to Fay’s bungalow where Harper continues his search while ‘Beauty’ keeps watch outside. Hearing gunshots, Harper rushes outside and attempts to stop a truck that is speeding away from the property. He narrowly averts getting run over.
The next day Harper collects Miranda for a trip to the mountaintop temple that was bequeathed by Ralph to Claude (Strother Martin) presumably for the purposes of establishing a religious retreat. Harper isn’t fooled by Claude’s re-born piety, recognizing the familiar tire treads from the same truck left in the dust just outside the religious compound. Meanwhile, Elaine is sent a ransom note written in Ralph’s hand, asking her to cash in a half million dollars in bonds. Harper deduces that the kidnapper is an insider. With Beauty and Albert’s complicity he attempts a fake drop off at an abandoned oil refinery. Instead a struggle ensues and one of the kidnappers (Tom Steele) plummets to his death. Harper finds a matchbook inside the dead man’s coat pocket for a bar called ‘The Corner’ and plies his craft to pump the waitress and bartender for more information. He quickly learns that the deceased was Eddie Fraley – Betty’s brother who also made a long distance call to someone in Vegas three nights before using The Corner’s payphone.  
Harper then identifies the same truck that tried to run him over parked just outside. Waiting for the driver, Harper tails the truck to Claude’s temple where he is ambushed by Claude and Troy who have been using it as a front to smuggle illegal immigrants. Taken to an abandoned shack to be further pummeled by Puddler, Harper instead manages to break free, kill Puddler and escape. He arrives at his estranged wife, Susan’s (Janet Leigh) bungalow a disheveled mess. Although bitter over their breakup, Susan takes pity on Harper. The two share an intimate night together and Harper – true to form – runs out on her the next morning.
On the pretext of needing to borrow a clean shirt, Harper confronts ‘Beauty’ about his involvement with Betty Fraley. The two are involved in Ralph’s kidnapping. ‘Beauty’ admits as much, but then draws a gun on Harper whom he intends to murder. Instead, Albert bursts in, shooting and killing ‘Beauty’. Harper races over to Betty’s home in Castle Beach where she is presently being tortured with cigarette burns applied to the bare soles of her feet by Troy as Claude and Fay look on. Betty confesses the whereabouts of the hidden ransom. Harper breaks through one of the window, killing Troy, knocking Claude unconscious and locking Fay inside a closet. Harper then rescues Betty, who tells him that Ralph is being held captive inside an abandoned oil tanker. Next, Harper telephones Albert to meet them at the shipyards.
All, however, does not go according to plan. Leaving Betty to wait in his car, Harper rushes into the tanker where he is promptly knocked unconscious by an unseen attacker. Arriving late to the scene, Albert revives Harper only to discover Ralph murdered inside one of the ship’s compartments. Harper learns that Betty has stolen his car. He and Albert make chase in Albert’s car along a narrow hillside. In her zeal to get away Betty loses control and plummets to her death. Harper telephones Elaine with the news of Ralph’s demise that seems to satisfy her immensely.
On the drive back to Elaine’s Harper confides in Albert that he suspects him of Ralph’s murder, citing that anyone involved in the heist would have searched his pockets for the key to the locker – something Harper still has on him.  Albert confesses: he thought Ralph a despicable man who toyed with people for his own amusement. Pulling up to Elaine’s, Harper informs Albert that he intends to give her back the ransom money and that the only way Albert can hope to escape prosecution is by shooting him in the back. Albert draws his pistol on Harper as he slowly walks toward the front door. But at the last possible moment both men have a change of heart – presumably out of their mutual friendship.
Right from its opening, through its jigsaw puzzle plotting, until its morally obscure ending, Harper isn’t so much complex as it remains perplexing. Like The Big Sleep the pieces simply do not add up. Also like The Big Sleep, Harper proves an engaging riddle with no easy explanation. Both films are immeasurably blessed with strong leading men: Big Sleep’s Bogart vs. Harper’s Newman – an entirely different, though arguably just as ambiguous anti-hero. Both Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and Lew Harper know how to perpetuate the game on their suspects and women alike and each finds sadistic pleasure derived from their seedy profession.
But Paul Newman’s Lew Harper is a man of few words, so perfectly timed they elicit a concise snapshot that makes him immediately loveable.  How much of Lew Harper’s appeal is based on our appreciation of Newman’s own persona is debatable, and in truth Newman has never entirely been able to eschew his own presence on the screen to ‘become’ any character. Like Cary Grant, he is ever present as himself - or a reasonable facsimile that we, the audience, assume is really what Paul Newman in the flesh, and out of the spotlight, must be like. However, this assessment of Newman – the star – does not negate the pleasure of watching him work. On the contrary, the observation of the man apart from his craft, or perhaps in spite of it, is a sheer delight. Newman is a star – period - and stars of his caliber are as rare among our contemporary ilk of celebrities as the ghost flowers from that golden vintage in Hollywood’s history when movies really were larger than life.
The other half of Harper’s enjoyment is quelled from the elegant roster of solid talents amassed to back Newman up. Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Shelly Winters, Robert Wagner, et al. provide a sort of Around the World in 80 Days ‘look who’s here’ experience, giving off the necessary ‘built-in’ feel good viewing. We look forward to what come next because of ‘who’ comes next in the lineup. The last great good fortune visited upon the film is Conrad Hall’s lush cinematography, as much a time capsule of swingin’ 60s California mod as it provides a lavishly appointed backdrop in all its high key lighting and interesting camera set ups. Claude E. Carpenter’s set decoration and Alfred Sweeney’s art direction take off as a gold coast travelogue.  Because of its many assets, not only does the lack of cohesion in William Goldman’s screenplay not sink the picture; but it doesn’t make any difference at all. Harper’s ‘what me worry?’ approach to storytelling is mirrored in the character’s laissez faire attitudes toward his profession and life itself and in director Jack Smight’s casual aversion to clarifying the story any further. In the final analysis, Harper is a valiant successor to The Big Sleep in practically every way. Its success at the box office briefly resurrected the appeal of detective thrillers on the big screen. Predictably, none that followed it matched Harper as a class act.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive, though I would prefer the studio get around to giving us a new 1080p Blu-ray in 2013. I won’t hold my breath, however.  What we have is a very fine looking DVD indeed; anamorphic widescreen with bold, refined colors. Flesh tones are extremely natural. Colors in general, but particularly reds and greens, pop. Fine detail is strongly represented and contrast levels look as they ought to: solid, deep blacks and very clean whites. Either the original film elements were in very good condition to begin with or Warner Home Video has done some serious restoration work on this title because everything is as it should be. Age related artifacts are all but nonexistent and film grain looks very good overall. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, dated but strong, with good spatial separation. Harper also gets an audio commentary. William Goldman isn’t all that comprehensive in his thoughts, yet it is nevertheless fascinating to hear what he has to say.  Bottom line: highly recommended!

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012


With its uncompromising frankness about the world of professional boxing and magnetic central performance from Paul Newman, then Hollywood’s young Turk, Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) comes out swinging; a two fisted tale of hard-knocks and seemingly insurmountable odds unable to break the indomitable spirit of a very stubborn-willed reprobate: Rocky Graziano. Based on Graziano’s no holds barred biography (co-written by Rowland Barber) the screenplay by Ernest Lehman remains utterly faithful to that unvarnished truth about this Hell’s Kitchen scrapper who squandered his rebellious youth in and out of reformatories, prisons and a very brief stint in the army, only to emerge from the fray as one of the most beloved sport’s celebrities. 
Wise, who previously directed The Set-Up (1949), a story about a fictional, but nevertheless recalcitrant prize fighter defying the underworld mafia graft, was initially reticent about doing this film. But his interests were sparked when MGM promised a week-long location shoot in New York’s Little Italy, thereby adding the necessarily verisimilitude that Wise then worked diligently to recreate back in Hollywood on MGM’s back lot – mostly for interiors. Wise, an editor long before becoming a director, shot minimum coverage to maximum effect on Somebody Up There Likes Me, generating a taut realism that manages to capture all of the gutsy chaos and social unpleasantness of New York’s lower east side.
Paul Newman, justly regarded as one of the last truly great Hollywood stars today, had yet to prove himself in the movies at the time Somebody Up There Likes Me went before the cameras. Indeed, he was not the first choice for the part and had suffered a terrible flop with 1954’s The Silver Chalice – a debut that all but ruined his chances of becoming a star. Relegated to walk on bits in television (then considered an inferior entertainment), Newman was not enough of a heavyweight. But when James Dean died in a car accident Wise ‘wisely’ turned to Newman almost immediately, thereafter appreciative of the formidable intensity the actor brought to the role.
Somebody Up There Likes Me is immeasurably blessed by its stellar supporting cast – each delivering their own knockout to compliment Newman’s bravado as the loudmouthed fisticuffs pug-ugly. The film would have degenerated into a one man show without their pivotal contributions. Who can forget Eileen Heckart’s Ma Barbella, the put-upon frump, nerves frayed by a lifetime of compromise, worry, self-loathing and pity; or Everett Sloane as the crusty boxing manager, Irving Cohen; or Pier Angeli’s Norma – the proud, though never demanding woman who helps reshape Rocky’s appreciation for home and family; creating that stable center to see him through long after the cheers from adoring – though fickle – fans has dimmed in his ears?
Our story begins with its own ‘set-up’; one of childhood abuse as eight year old Rocky (Terry Rangno) is being playfully pummeled by his step father, Nick Barbella (Harold J. Stone) for the singular amusement of his fair-weather rummies. The boy is humiliated and runs away. Nick, who ought to have been a prize fighter of some merit himself, gave up the sport at the behest of his wife (Heckart) long ago, turning to self-pity and drink instead.
Rocky rebels by becoming the neighborhood punk – stealing everything from tires to fur coats with his gang that includes knife-happy Fidel (Steve McQueen) and baby-faced Romolo (Sal Mineo).  The boys unload their stuff to a wily Fence (George Cisar) who basically takes advantage of them, resulting in more theft and eventual incarceration. The District Attorney Hogan (Robert Lieb) sends Rocky to the reformatory where, while digging ditches on a work detail he promptly beats up, and almost kills one of the guards (Don Haggerty).  From here the picture only seems to get bleaker for Rocky with stints at Leavenworth and Riker’s Island. There, he inadvertently meets boxing racketeer Frankie Peppo (Robert Loggia). Rocky is not particularly interested in making friends, but takes Peppo’s advice about boxing as a profession once he gets out of jail seems to stick in Rocky’s craw.
Hard time has had no effect on Rocky. He’s looking forward to getting out and doing some celebrating with his old gang members. But the reunion is a shay premature. For upon his release Rocky is immediately drafted into the U.S. army, making a damn nuisance of himself with Corporal Quinbury (Robert Easton) and knocking his superior, Captain Grifton (Russ Conway) unconscious. Going A-wall, Rocky decides to look up Peppo on the outside at Stillman’s Gym. Instead he meets Lou Stillman (Matt Crowley), the owner, and fight promoter, Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane); the latter amused by Rocky’s total lack of refinement but just as impressed by his fighting spirit.
Rocky’s sister, Yolanda (Donna Jo Gribble) introduces him to her best friend, Norma (Pier Angeli); a principled wallflower who nevertheless finds Rocky’s brute exterior exciting. From the beginning there is something very nurturing about their relationship, with Rocky becoming protective of Norma. She, however, does not want to date a prize fighter; regarding the profession as dangerous and distasteful. Ma Barbella encourages prudence and patience, telling Norma that she once made the same mistake with Nick, blaming herself for ruining the life he might have had if she had encouraged, rather than dissuaded him from his true calling.
Norma rethinks her stance and patiently supports Rocky through his many bouts. The two are married and have a child. Rocky is a bull in the ring. But his winning streak is interrupted by a painful defeat against reigning champion Tony Zale (Court Shepard), leaving Rocky shaken at his very core with a gnawing insecurity about his own future in the sport. Norma and Irving quietly stand by while Rocky’s inner confidence crumbles. His pride is further wounded when Peppo resurfaces, suggesting that Rocky take a bribe or face some trumped up sanctions by the Boxing Commission. Rocky rejects Peppo outright. But he also refuses to name name’s when confronted by the Commissioner (Billy Wilson), resulting in a brief suspension of his license.
Eventually reinstated, but fearing that reputation has been irreversibly damaged, Rocky stumbles and struggles. Norma is not about to let her husband throw in the towel. Believing she can do more for Rocky by admonishing him for his cowardice, their marital confrontation leads to a bittersweet reunion between Rocky and his father. After Rocky calls Nick out as a coward, blaming him for all the years of abuse, Nick makes a half-hearted attempt to strike Rocky, only to have his own punch blocked. Reduced to drunken tears, Nick and Rocky reach a very painful reconciliation and Rocky – reinvigorated with confidence – charges into the ring and defeats Tony Zale in their rematch. Basking in his penultimate moment of glory while being driven through the streets in a ticker-take parade in his honor, Rocky hugs Norma, proudly declaring “Somebody up there likes me!”
Somebody Up There Likes Me is an exceptional sports movie – one rarely listed on critic’s top ten lists, but just as deserving of that honor as Pride of The Yankees or Raging Bull. Paul Newman’s performance is perfection itself. With minimal prosthetics effectively transforming his startling good looks into the more roughhewn Graziano, and a maximum amount of acting talent to boot, Newman becomes his alter ego. Apart from his physical appeal Newman’s most saleable asset has always been his brain. One can sense the intellect behind the eyes, in this instance evoking Graziano’s painful childhood and troubled youth, projecting that inner turmoil of a man who clearly views himself as something of a caged animal yearning to break free. It’s a powerful, glaring and mostly unflattering reflection; and it is to Newman’s credit that although he spends the bulk of the movie involved in rather unscrupulous behavior and activities we acquire a haunting sense of empathy for this brutish bully who could so easily have fallen through the cracks and become just another career criminal.  
History has proven Robert Wise to be one of the most diverse directors of his or any other generation. Comfortable working in virtually any genre, Wise’s prowess as an editor greatly benefits his equally formidable talents as a director. He seems particularly engaged herein, his staging of the action and drama intricately balanced and very in tune with his subject matter. Wise and Newman both met the real Graziano prior to starting the picture, with the retired champion’s input beneficial to both men in their pursuit of authenticity. Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography is also a winner – literally – taking home the Oscar for his realistic B&W re-interpretation of the lower east side. In the final analysis, Somebody Up There Likes Me is a powerful drama: a superior ‘true to life’ human interest story and a hell of a good flick about the underside of professional pugilism.  
Warner Home Video’s DVD is adequate but not astounding. It’s about time Warner became more focused on releasing - perhaps less catalogue titles but in - better quality transfers. Somebody Up There Likes Me is definitely worthy of a hi-def 1080p blu-ray. I will digress for just a moment to champion a cause for more classics on Blu-ray before concluding this review.
A while ago I contributed an article about all of the major studios’ increasing disinterest to revisit classics in hi-def. Their reticence has been chiefly predicated on what the powers that be suggest is a lack of interest on the part of the public to embrace such releases and an equal shortage of funds necessary to do justice to all but a handful of timeless classics like The Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia. True enough, Blu-ray’s high resolution reveals the startling ravages of time. Older movies require more restoration and preservation (and hence, more money) to make them acceptable in hi-def. But it was the studios that made us this promise in the first place. Had home video remained in the doldrums of VHS or stayed in the advanced capabilities of DVD we, the public, might never have known just how good any movie could look on our television screens.
But now that the studios have made this promise – and shown by example what the future for movies at home can hold - I am very much afraid that they are stuck with this vision. But rather than face that challenge squarely the executive mindset has been appallingly shortsighted. We either get transfers like Von Ryan’s Express (with its obvious vinegar syndrome glaringly preserved) or flawed, faded transfers slapped out through third party distribution. The most recent and glaring example is Paramount Home Video selling off its remaining catalogue rights to Warner Home Video.  Warner’s earliest efforts in hi-def were commendable. But more recently they too have slipped into giving us less than perfect renderings of movies like Dead Ringer and The Postman Always Rings Twice; classics that ought to have sparkled and popped in 1080p but instead continue to look only ‘marginally’ better than their DVD counterparts. That isn’t what Blu-ray technology promised and it is certainly NOT what the format is capable of!
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a movie desperately crying out for a concerted restoration/preservation and hi-def release. The film elements are not in particularly terrible shape, but do exhibit some minor softness, as well as a modicum of age related artifacts that crop up with infrequency, but obviously distract throughout this DVD. On the whole contrast is solid and fine detail nicely represented. Film grain can look just a tad clumpy at times, an inherent shortcoming of DVD that has become more unacceptable and obvious since the debut of Blu-ray. Like so many classics currently available on DVD, this one will satisfy the casual viewer, though it will hardly impress. The audio is mono as originally recorded but accurately represented.  The only extra is an audio commentary by Wise that tends to occasionally meander and suffers from long bouts of silence. Bottom line: recommended for content.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

TED: Blu-ray (Universal 2012) Universal Home Video

I suppose I should start off by informing the reader that I'm not going to spend too much time on this one. I've already wasted 107 minutes of my life that I can never get back. But Seth MacFarlane’s debut comedy, Ted (2012) is a pretty abysmal affair. Buried somewhere beneath all the truly unsavory sexual profanity and infantile bathroom humor is a quirky, but not terribly convincing message picture about delayed adolescences infringing on the moral, social and sexual ambiguity facing a frustrated middle-aged male. Well, sort of. Ted is the story of John Bennett (Mark Walberg); an emotionally stunted adult who cannot get past his childhood fear of thunderstorms and whose best friend just happens to be his favorite play toy from childhood – Ted, a stuffed bear that came to life because of a wish John made when he was five.  
It’s been 24 years since that miracle occurred. Since then, Ted and John have been inseparable.  But their friendship isn’t the warm and cuddly kind. In fact, Ted’s a street savvy, bong smoking, horny little bugger who takes considerable delight in ripping on John’s various romantic disasters, inviting trailer trash hookers over to his apartment and generally mucking around with John’s current involvement with Lori Collins (Mila Kunis). John and Lori met at a nightclub after he accidentally belted her in the forehead with his flailing arms, attempting to impress another potential date by bustin’ a pretty pathetic move on the dance floor. 
Lori’s a grown up, something John is not. This doesn’t seem to bother Lori at first, presumably because like all women of her ilk she sees John as a fixer-upper who just needs her love and understanding to mature him into the sort of guy she wants him to become. But Ted is not about to let go of John so easily. And so the struggle for John’s ultimate future happiness begins.
It’s hard to take Mark Walberg seriously in this regurgitated Failure to Launch (2006) premised R-rated movie, designed to appeal to some niche market who enjoy snorting “Snuggle” fabric softener; more difficult still to accept him as the emotionally retarded thirty-something boy in a man’s body, perhaps because at 41 Walberg is well past his prime to partake in this sort of clueless badinage. Walberg is trying way too hard to channel his own youth from the ‘Funky Bunch’ days and be the ‘cool’ cute dude that once made him the envy of underwear models with their dangling participles all buff and larger than life in Time Square. But that ship has sailed and Walberg isn’t on it anymore.
Walberg’s pedestrian performance alone is enough to sink the film. But the comedy simply isn’t funny – just crude; as in the scene where Ted, who works part time, performs simulated sex acts on a bar code scanner behind the register to impress fellow cashier, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). She’s modestly amused until Ted attempts fallacio on a chocolate bar. Really? That’s what passes for comedy these days? How sad – and raunchy – and raunchily sad!
MacFarlane who, in addition to writing and directing the movie provides the voice for Ted fails to grasp the concept of good humor – odd, because his Family Guy TV series is a potpourri of risqué and raucous repartee that never veers into the ‘gross out’ tastelessness that fills the bulk of Ted’s run time. I can still hear that damn ‘Thunder’ song Walberg and Ted sing to alleviate John’s angst over thunderstorms. I can’t repeat the lyrics herein, and frankly, they’re not really worth repeating anyway. But they stick in the mind like candy between one’s teeth and just as corrosive to one’s I.Q. as creating a cavity elsewhere that, no doubt, Ted and McFarlene would be more than happy to fill.
Nearly three decades ago comedian Eddie Murphy (no stranger to profanity), while addressing his audience during his standup in the film Raw astutely pointed out to his audience that he could not simply come on stage and perform “a curse show” – spewing four letter words with no context and expect to get the prerequisite laugh while garnering their respect for his performance. Point taken.  
Unfortunately, MacFarlane’s sense of humor in Ted never goes beyond such obligatory and obvious verbal perversities. We aren’t entertained, simply indoctrinated with a slew of ‘T’ and ‘A’ stupidity run amuck that most sitting in the audience probably haven’t found quite as amusing since puberty hit. Yet, if Ted’s R-rating is any indication, then kids are decidedly not the film’s target audience. Too bad Ted talks down to adults as well; anyone who hasn’t been educated with an air hose and inner tube will not be amused. Ted will undoubtedly find its appeal among those who secretly wish they could behave as irresponsibly as John or as badly as his alter ego.
But Ted isn’t a movie you’ll want to ever see again, if, in fact, you choose to see it at all. Its ‘kick in the crotch’ comedy isn’t even trying to be clever; just woefully debauched, making it a genuine turn off. Comedy doesn’t have to be ‘clean’ per say, as long as it makes us feel good. This one just made me want to take a very cold shower. Overall, I give Ted a solid ‘F’ – and it doesn’t stand for fantastic or that other ‘F’ word!
Ted hits hi-def in an adequate looking transfer from Universal. Colors are subdued but accurately rendered and fine detail is as it should be. A lot of the scenes take place in dimly lit hotel rooms and smoky nightclubs, accurately reproduced without impacting contrast levels. I detected no ‘hot’ whites or crushed blacks. Fine detail is pretty startling throughout and the CGI Ted is exceptionally integrated into his human surroundings. Ergo, visual believability is preserved. The DTS 5.1 is extremely frontal sounding, very much like a TV sitcom and less of a movie experience. Is this deliberate on McFarlene’s part or just sloppy remixing? Can’t say. But the sound field didn’t do it for me or my surrounds.
Universal gives us a ‘gag’ reel as part of the extras. Why? The whole film is a joke! We also get McFarlene’s audio commentary and a 25 minute making of in which we learn that McFarlene interacted with his human counterparts on the set so the ‘comedy’ would be more spontaneous. Deleted scenes and alternate takes round out the fun pack. Bottom line: I can’t imagine Ted as a holiday offering. It does for the intellect what errant dog crap does for one’s shoes. Don’t step in this one. It stinks!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: Blu-ray (Liberty Films 1946) Paramount Home Video

In his first post war production director Frank Capra alienated audiences with the somber tale of an 'every man' who, after being driven to the brink of suicide, is given the very great gift of being able to see what life would have been like if he had never been born. There are many today who regard It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as the American Christmas Carol; its apocalyptic last act rivaling Ebenezer Scrooge’s carpet-hauling to his own grave, illustrating for our world-weary protagonist the perils of wish fulfillment in an alternate universe where all that was goodness and light while he lived has been turned into the rank and murky chalk of social iniquity in his absence.    
Capra’s rare gift for looking into the human condition and finding its’ raw emotional center had always been the director's strength, particularly through a series of memorable movies made at Columbia during the 1930s. Capra’s repatriation into the war effort in the early forties, coupled with a split from his alma mater upon his return from service created a minor disconnect within his filmed output and continuity. Indeed, like fellow film maker, George Stevens, Capra returned from the war a changed man; arguably, a more precise individualist and unafraid to stare into the brooding darkness of men’s soul to face the fear and loathing that might be found from within – something Capra’s heroes from the 1930s never did, or arguably, could even attempt.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a far more mature movie than audiences were willing to embrace in 1946. Perhaps they simply had tired of those terrible years of war or were unable to connect with a protagonist who wished himself gone from the earth at precisely a time when so many were merely grateful to be alive after the dust had settled on that global conflict abroad. By now, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is so much a part of our yearly televised tradition that it seems all but impossible to regard it as a flop. Certainly, from an artistic standpoint, it never was one. But at the time of its theatrical release the story skillfully scripted by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Capra himself found utter indifference at the box office and this, of course in retrospect, is a genuine shame. Despite five Oscar nominations, the film entered and exited the box office with a resounding thud that effectively ended Capra's dreams of establishing his own independent production company.
Yet of all the stories Capra committed to film, It’s A Wonderful Life is perhaps his most disturbingly profound and emotionally satisfying. One is taken on the complete journey this time: through a man’s flawed trajectory in life - the thwarted desire to pursue his own dreams interrupted by the desires and needs of others, his gradually resentment at constantly being the buffer against social injustice without any tangible reward for his efforts, his temporary temptation to succumb to the moral ambiguity, and finally, his penultimate self-loathing at even contemplating such a betrayal of his principles that force him to attempt suicide – only to be shown the error of his judgment through divine intervention. Capra exploration is both astute and succinct, and, in 'every man' James Stewart he is immeasurably aided by an individual and a talent for whom the audience justly has respect, can relate to and finally, champion throughout his many emotional deluges. 

George Bailey (James Stewart) has led an exemplary life. In his youth, he saved his younger brother, Harry (Todd Karns) from drowning on a frozen lake. He prevented the distraught, drunken chemist, Emil Gower (H.B. Warner) from accidentally poisoning one of his patients with a flawed prescription. Assuming the burden of sustaining his home town of Bedford Falls with the only independent financial institution to rival tyrannical millionaire, Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) after the death of his own father, George has also married the prettiest girl in town; Mary Hatch (Donna Reed).These are no small feats. All of them are responsible for building George's moral character as a fine and upstanding citizen. Yet, George considers the arc of his life's work a complete and utter failure because he never achieved the basic dreams he aspired to – adventure, travel and financial security.

Indeed, the Baileys are rich in only one thing – friendships – an intangible that George does not entirely respect or even understand for its true value. In fact, he has all but taken these friendships for granted. George’s modest living, and possibly his reputation are threatened when Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces the Savings and Loan deposit slated for the bank. Without this payment the organization his father founded will be cast into bankruptcy and scandal. Seizing the opportunity to ruin George once and for all, Potter first attempts to bribe George with the promise of wealth and authority in their small town, then threatens foreclosure, imprisonment and financial ruin when George refuses to play along. This leads George to believe that his family would be better off if he were dead.
If postwar America was anticipating another 'feel good' masterpiece from Frank Capra, they received it, albeit in a more subdued, though arguably just as undiluted form. To be sure, It’s A Wonderful Life dabbles in the familiar ‘Capra-corn’ with ample dollops of sugary sweetness. But these moments are counterbalanced by the harshness of living; the death of a parent and the surrender of a dream, or in George’s case – more than one.  
George and Mary's courtship is hardly that of the idyllic ‘hearts and flowers’ ilk that usually sprinkled the pixie dust in Hollywood romances – violin strings, starry-eyed montages and moony gazes exchanged across a starlit trellis or the rippling waters mirrored inside a wishing well. In fact, in some ways the romance between George and Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life owes more to the flawed and infrequently interrupted trajectory of the lusts and passions inherent of a noir hero; a strangely alluring undercurrent that is more superficially represented through several light-hearted vignettes.
George meets Mary at Harry's high school prom where Mary is a senior. The more worldly Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) openly flirts with George but Harry makes George promise to dance with Mary instead. Freddie (Alfalfa Switzer), a jealous rival for Mary’s affections looms large over George and Mary's immediate happiness, despite the fact that Mary has already set her cap for George. Hence, given half the incentive and all of the opportunity to wreak havoc on it, Freddie activates the gymnasium floor. It opens beneath the dancers revealing the school's swimming pool and George and Mary - along with half the attending guests - plunge into the waters. Strolling home afterward in oversized bathrobes and football attire, wet clothes slung over their shoulders, Mary confides in George her future aspirations for quaint domesticity. But these dreams are interrupted when Harry arrives in a borrowed jalopy to inform his brother that their father Peter (Samuel S. Hinds) has suffered a fatal heart attack.
From here on in Capra’s film increasing digresses away from this moderately sunny backdrop, culminating in a nightmarish third act that begins, ironically, when an angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) arrives to fulfill George's request that he has never been born. The fate of Bedford Falls and George's family are painfully revealed to George: Harry's childhood death by drowning, Uncle Billy's incarceration for fraud, Violet Bick's sordid sexual debauchery, Emil Gower's self-destruction – having drunkenly poisoned one of his patients by accident - and Mary's reclusive spiral into bookish spinsterhood.
What George has utterly failed to realize until this moment is how meaningful his life has been to his friends; how the kindnesses he has shown others along the way have helped to shape their lives in all sorts of positive ways and how much their successes are a reflection of his own triumphs as a man and as an unacknowledged, though never underappreciated pillar of their community. The penultimate moment of triumph for George is a return to that life he already had – not with the promise of greater glories ahead – but with the personal satisfaction of knowing what a help he has been to those around him. Yet here too, the elation – while a shameless tear jerker – is hardly garish or over celebratory.
We depart the theater at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life sharing in George’s gratitude for having been reinstated into the world, but without the satisfaction of seeing at least a portion of his own dreams fulfilled. Perhaps, it is enough to know that the man has had his own more intimate epiphany – not with a flourish of bombast and spectacle, not with a grand declaration or even a few kind words of thanks – but in a more quiet moment of complete isolation – in that vacuum far from the people he now holds so dear to his heart.

James Stewart’s performance as the every-man at the end of his rope is both heartbreaking and genuine. In the moments following his initial confrontation with Clarence we see George’s mind eagerly at work, believing the hoax, however elaborately conceived. Yet, it is the starker and more terrifying realization, that his void in that society has managed to destroy everything once immeasurably enriched by his presence, that eventually leads both George and the audience to coincide with the film’s penultimate message: that no man is a failure who has friends.

After releasing a restored B&W print on DVD two Christmases ago, and then a B&W and colorized collector's set last Christmas, Paramount Home Video has seen fit to debut It's A Wonderful Life on Blu-Ray and the results are most welcome. We get an immaculate image with startling amounts of clarity in fine detail - much more than anticipated, in fact. Yes, the colorized version also benefits from this 1080p upgrade, but if anything, the sharper image illustrates even more glaringly the limitations of the colorization process.

On the B&W version the gray scale has been impeccably mastered with stunning tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. All age related blemishes have been removed for an incredibly smooth visual presentation. Rare hints of edge enhancement are present but these do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded, but restored to its original brilliance. Extras are the anomaly here: we get the much regurgitated ‘making of’ featurette but lose the personal reflection from Frank Capra Jr. The original theatrical trailer has also been remastered in HD. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)