Wednesday, January 23, 2013

INDISCREET: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1958) Olive Films

Norman Krasna’s play ‘Kind Sir’ provided the basis for Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet (1958); an elegant champagne cocktail reuniting Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, this time as a pair of enigmatic lovers who manage to live happily ever after in spite of themselves. Bergman’s sagging film career had been resurrected by an Oscar win for Anastasia just a scant two years before. Yet, Bergman’s role in Indiscreet, that of celebrated actress Anna Kalman, seems eerily to parallel her real life circumstances – perhaps even poke fun at those peccadillos with a wink and a nudge. Like Anna, Bergman unrepentantly threw herself into an extramarital affair, ostensibly unaware, or at the very least disinterested, in its repercussions.
Bergman’s romance with Roberto Rossellini in 1950 erupted into an international scandal that all but submarined her professional aspirations to continue acting in America. Public sentiment instantly turned against her and she was even decried on the floor of the Senate as a wanton who should be barred from ever returning to the United States. Bergman’s alter ego in Indiscreet doesn’t go quite so far down this rabbit hole; her liaison with ‘married’ economist Philip Adams (Cary Grant) tempered by the fact that Adams is a devilish rake misleading his leading lady. He isn’t married at all, merely pretending so that Anna won’t get any ideas about settling him down. 
Still, and for its time, Indiscreet is pretty chancy stuff. Anna is introduced to us as a woman of means who has frivolously run off with, then just as freely ditched a Greek Ambassador, simply because he spoke broken English and spent more time and interest on other pursuits apart from her own. Anna, who resides in a fashionable apartment in London also has a faithful suitor on the side; considerably younger than she who courts and calls her on the telephone. Bluntly put: Anna has no shortage of male companions. Still, she’s bored – un-apologetically and without even the slightest moral contrition for being middle-aged, single and playing the field.  
Anna’s rather frank and flirtatious pursuit of Philip Adams – a man met quite by accident – is just as impetuously guided. Anna doesn’t need convincing to accept an invitation from her sister, Margaret Munson (Phyllis Calvert) and brother-in-law, Alfred (Cecil Parker) to attend a rather lavish, but stuffy monetary conference. After all, it is an opportunity to sit and gaze with mounting adoration at Philip as he waxes about investment funds and rising stock options that, even when expounded upon by the luscious Cary Grant, are about as captivating as watching ceiling paint dry.
Anna throws herself into the depths of their passionate pas deux, even after Philip tells her that he is married. Alfred, who has been desperately trying to convince Philip to come and work for NATO finally secures his participation, but only because being stationed in London will afford Philip the chance to court Anna. Over the next twelve months the two become inseparable. Stanley Donen’s deft use of montage effortlessly flips through an album of snapshots illustrating the natural progression of love, culminating in Anna’s blissfully obtuse happiness; cause for mild concern from her ever-devoted servants, Doris (Meg Jenkins) and Karl (David Kossoff).
It stands to reason that Anna’s heart will eventually be broken. Philip has not offered to leave his wife for her. Alfred learns from Philip’s dossier that he is a single man and confronts him with this deception. But then Philip explains his predicament: that for any man to lead a woman on without divulging that he is married would be cruel. But to lie up front about a wife where one does not exist actually has the opposite effect; the man having laid his cards on the table, thereby giving the woman every opportunity to turn him out beforehand. In Anna’s case, her choice to remain content as ‘the other woman’ is entirely her decision, absolving Philip of guilt and responsibility. Alfred doesn’t entirely respect this analogy, but cannot bring himself to disavow it either. And herein, one immediately comes to appreciate the absolute necessity in a star like Cary Grant to play the part. Grant’s inimitable branding as the uber-sophisticate, chic yet easy going, positively oozes congenial charm. Any woman could forgive him anything.
However, when Margaret intrudes on this fool’s paradise, confronting Anna with the truth, Anna decides that one wily deception deserves another. She grows coy and aloof toward Philip, deliberately using lines he has heard in her latest stagecraft – her seductiveness now beginning to sound tinny and insincere. Next, Anna plots a confrontation. She invites a former suitor to late supper in her apartment, knowing beforehand that Philip is intending to surprise her there on her birthday. The ruse turns sour when the suitor suffers acute appendicitis and is unable to attend the trap. Anna is forced, rather unscrupulously, to use Karl instead – who is much too old to play the part. Anna’s plan doesn’t fool Philip and the two find it necessary to confront their fears head on; hers, a middle-aged insecurity to grow old alone, and his, commitment shy to remain faithful to any woman unless she believes there is no future in the relationship.       
The button-down ultraconservatism of the 1950 would have shunned any flesh and blood couple attempting as much double entendre for the sake of their grand – illicit – amour. Curiously, this austere reviling of passion did not extend to fictional characters. Our lovers are hardly considered illegitimate – even if they are, as the film’s title suggests, very ‘Indiscreet’. But Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are self-possessed and Teflon-coated; their sterling star personas extending far into the fictional realm of their alter egos. As such, their eroticism is more luxurious than ludicrous; even more rich and confident in its strength of sentiment.
Freddie Young’s soft focus cinematography does more than merely flatter its stars. It creates a sublime relaxation. The enchantment between Anna and Philip remains slightly blurry – seen through the reciprocated viewpoint of each other’s rose-colored glasses. At times Indiscreet can be visually arresting. But Young’s pastel approach to impure love does not subdue the glamour. Instead, it places the audience amidst this halcyon. We can fall for Bergman and Grant and their fictional counterparts because the visuals are an extension of their inner most desire for each other.
And Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant have that most intangible of all commodities essential to a celluloid romance licked – on-screen chemistry. You cannot quantify, label or manufacture it – even when the actors are clever about their craft and willing to partake. But once seen, chemistry cannot be denied. Bergman and Grant first appeared together in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946): their relationship in that movie, tempestuous and predicated on a mutual contempt that reaches its deeper revelation only when one is placed in, and then rescued from, imminent peril by the other. In Indiscreet this narrative arch is subverted; the two beginning as friends, escalating to lovers, until one becomes determined to wreck all they have built upon together.
Primarily known for his collaborative association on MGM musicals starring Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen herein illustrates that his artistic eye and sense of critical timing are adept to handle a variety of genres. Donen would, of course, continue to exercise his creative brilliance throughout the 1960s in films like Charade (1966) and Two For The Road (1967). In retrospect, Indiscreet seems like a test run for these latter achievements; Donen experimenting within the boundaries of star power to deconstruct the fundamental flaws of a relationship.  In this regard, Indiscreet is a very adult movie; adhering to time-honored elegance, but with Donen allowing his camera an occasional glance beyond the velvet curtain of this otherwise light-hearted love affair.
When Bergman’s Anna – still unaware that Grant’s Philip is unmarried - suddenly catches herself wishing aloud for their lives to be spent together for eternity, we sense that strange undercurrent to her moral ambiguity and sexual frustration simultaneously at play. When Anna discovers the truth about Philip and plots to give him a taste of his own medicine we become acutely aware of her willful desire, as powerful as passion, to wreck that mythology he has constructed for them without her permission, if for no other reason, than she quite simply can.  These moody pieces of exposition elevate Indiscreet from trivial froth to eloquent sophistication. The net result is still a very stylish movie. But underneath all the Dior and diamonds are two people who would rather be let naked together and left quietly undisturbed.                    
Olive Films' Blu-ray is a vast improvement over the previously issued catastrophes on DVD from the now defunct Artisan Home Video label.  For one thing, the 1:85.1 aspect ratio has finally been enhanced for widescreen TVs. Indiscreet gets a modest single layer transfer, and although colors and contrast improve, the image is still inconsistently rendered. Freddie Young’s softly focused images look fuzzy rather than creamy. Film grain is rather thick and unnaturally reproduced in spots, while practically nonexistent in other scenes. Colors are subdued, leaving most of the image rather flat. Flesh tones are pinkish in tone. Still, the visuals are mostly free of age related artifacts that utterly plagued the old DVD transfers. And the DTS mono audio is a vast improvement too; not nearly as strident or grating on the acoustic nerve. Both visually and aurally Indiscreet advances in all of the expected ways, but it still won’t win any awards. Without a complete restoration this is likely the best this film will ever look in hi-def. That’s a shame. Worse still, there are no extras. Regrets. Bottom line: recommended, but with modest reservations.    
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Samuel Goldwyn 1939) Warner Home Video

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights has been a cornerstone of British literature practically ever since its publication in 1847. The novel’s gothic moodiness and grueling depictions of mental and physical cruelty found modest indifference amongst Bronte’s contemporaries. Still, the novel’s reputation has steadily grown thereafter and ever since. So, what would Bronte have made of William Wyler’s 1939 cinematic version? As scripted by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and John Huston, the film basically lops off the last fifteen chapters of her book to concentrate almost exclusively on the doomed romance between a very temperamental Catherine Earnshaw (Merle Oberon) and her sinister, long suffering paramour, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier).
Even so, Wuthering Heights is remarkably faithful to the first fifteen chapters of Bronte’s masterwork; heavily influenced by Wyler’s light touch when dealing with textually dense subject matter, and immeasurably aided by Laurence Olivier’s compelling portrait of all consuming self-loathing. Today we forget that the creative zeitgeist that was Laurence Olivier had yet to prove his metal in the movies. In fact, Olivier’s initial foray in Hollywood almost didn’t happen; his looks judged as lacking that necessary spark of rugged handsomeness that American movie audiences crave in their male stars. But Olivier had another strike against him; his extramarital relationship with the equally unknown Vivien Leigh – who would make a name for herself even greater than Olivier’s in Selznick’s Gone With The Wind this same year.
Between producers Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick it was mutually decided that Olivier and Leigh could not live together during the making of either movie. The hypocriticalness of the Catholic League of Decency forbade ‘living in sin’ – at least, in theory, while all too readily turning the other cheek to Hollywood’s hedonism behind closed doors elsewhere. In truth, neither Goldwyn nor Selznick much cared what Leigh and Olivier did in private so long as they kept their liaison guarded from the press and the paying public. Then, Hollywood prided itself on perpetuating the myth of perfect people with high moral character in all things, living idyllically amongst the swaying palms. Obvious, it served a purpose – that of sweet escapism during the Great Depression.   
Wyler’s Wuthering Heights lacks the gothic feel of Bronte’s novel; James Basevi’s production design owing more to the school of stark German expressionism a la Universal horror movies from this vintage. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography merely hints at the pervasive cynicism that plagues the manor house, while the atmosphere at Thrushcross Grange – the adjoining property - is as warm and stately as any estate featured in Architectural Digest. For obvious reasons, this contrast between the Grange and Wuthering Heights – the ancestral home of the Earnshaw family, serves as visual counterbalance. It works. It just isn’t particularly indigenous to Bronte’s original intent.
Our tale begins with the arrival of Mr. Lockwood (Miles Mander), the new tenant of the grange, to Wuthering Heights; the bleak manor house nestled atop the craggy moors.  Lockwood has lost his way in the dark and in the middle of a harrowing blizzard. He is bid entrance into the dark cavernous interior by stoic footman, Joseph (Leo G. Carroll). However, Lockwood quickly discovers a dower mood permeating the rest of the household who have assembled to warm themselves near a roaring fire. Housekeeper, Ellen (Flora Robson) and Heathcliff’s wife, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) cast careworn, bitter and accusatory glances in Lockwood’s direction, their contempt paling to the abrupt tongue-lashing that the sunken-eyed, gray haired lord of the manor, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) gives his guest.
Lockwood is reluctantly permitted lodgings for the night inside an abandoned bridal chamber upstairs – a desolate room with no furniture, save a very uncomfortable bed. But midway through his slumber, Lockwood is awakened by the cries of a young woman calling out to Heathcliff from Peniston Crag. Alarmed by this apparition, Lockwood shouts for Heathcliff, who burst into the room admonishing his guest, then ordering him out before rushing to the window in the hopes of seeing it with his own eyes. Hearing an all too familiar voice faintly call to him from the Crag, Heathcliff ventures into the storm shouting “Cathy!” Lockwood tells Ellen what he has seen and she confirms that the spirit at his window must have been that of Cathy Earnshaw.
We regress in flashback to the Wuthering Heights of Cathy’s youth – a rugged, but thriving estate overseen by a benevolent patriarch (Cecil Kellaway). Mr. Earnshaw has just returned from a trip to London with Heathcliff (Rex Downing); a boy he rescued from certain death in the slums. The two are met on horseback at the gate by Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp) and by Earnshaw’s children, Cathy (Sarita Wooten) and Hindley (Douglas Scott). Dr. Kenneth cannot understand what has prompted Earnshaw to bring this rather belligerent urchin into his home, while Hindley and Cathy are immediately insulted at the prospect of having to share what they have with Heathcliff.
While Cathy’s ignorance quickly abates, Hindley harbors resentment and jealously toward Heathcliff that will only continue to fester and ripen with time. Cathy and Heathcliff become inseparable; sharing long passionate rides on horseback to Peniston Crag. Cathy suggests the Crag for their imaginary castle and Heathcliff declares Cathy to be his queen. Upon Mr. Earnshaw’s death, Hindley immediately asserts himself as master of Wuthering Heights and relegates Heathcliff to the stables as his servant. As the years pass, Hindley’s hatred of Heathcliff consumes his every thought. Hindley (now played by Hugh Williams) becomes slovenly, ill-mannered and even more ill-tempered – wiling away the hours with petulant insults and whittling down his family’s fortunes with mounting gambling debts.
Cathy and Heathcliff take rides to Peniston Crag where Cathy confesses her undying love; yet, in the same breath she encourages Heathcliff to go away and make his fortune so that they might live together far away from Hindley’s influence and in resplendence and luxury. Hearing music coming from the grange, Cathy and Heathcliff follow the sound. The two come upon a lavish estate currently managed by Edgar Linton (David Niven) in the midst of an elegant dinner party. Cathy is immediately enamored with the courtly elegance and social graces of the guests. However, their secretive presence arouses the Linton’s Great Danes who attack and wound the pair as they attempt to flee in terror from the grounds. Cathy is carried into the parlor by Edgar, her bloody ankle immediately attended to by Dr. Kenneth. But Heathcliff, who has been bitten in the arm, is virtually ignored. Edgar and his guests are insulted by Heathcliff’s admonishment of them, even though their manners have been equally lacking toward him.
Cathy tells a very reluctant Heathcliff to return to Wuthering Heights. In the weeks that follow her recuperation, Cathy is lovingly tended to by Edgar’s sister, Isabella at the grange, while Edgar quietly becomes smitten with her – even dressing Cathy in some of Isabella’s more fashionable clothes for her return. But upon Cathy’s arrival to Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff immediately criticizes her for putting on airs. Edgar gallantly challenges Heathcliff, demanding that he apologize at once, but Cathy instead takes Heathcliff’s side against Edgar – ordering him off the estate.
Cathy’s sexual frustrations gnaw away at her and will not abate. She desperately wants to belong to Edgar’s world but will forever be a part of Heathcliff’s heart – the two apparently cut from the same fiery and very self-destructive cloth. In the novel, Cathy and Heathcliff express their love more concretely at Peniston Crag. However, under the scrutiny of the production code, no such lustful liaisons occur in the film. Nevertheless, as time passes Cathy is again lulled to pursue a relationship with Edgar; simultaneously growing wearier of Heathcliff’s lack of initiative and utter complacency to remain in service to her vial brother. Sensing that he might lose his beloved forever, Heathcliff departs for America in a rage. His intensions unknown, in a moment of weakness Cathy decides to marry Edgar instead.
The years pass. Hindley has squandered most of the family’s money on drink and gambling debts. He lives with Joseph in the squalor that once was his proud ancestral home. Ellen has since moved into the grange with her mistress. Cathy and Edgar are contented; he more so and utterly blinded to her ardor, adoring his wife completely, while tolerating her infrequent bouts of melancholia. However, with Heathcliff’s return whatever happiness Edgar and Cathy might have shared is immediately shattered. The years have been good to Heathcliff. He has amassed a small fortune with all the trappings of a gentleman, but still utterly lacking in the more gentile social graces.
Heathcliff has paid off Hindley’s mounting debts in secret. Thus, Wuthering Heights now belongs to him. Heathcliff taunts Hindley with foul insults and drink, destroying his sense of pride and his health, effectively making Hindley a servant in his own house. But Heathcliff’s wicked desire to command and/or consume those who have done him wrong will not rest. He now turns his attentions to Isabella – still a dewy-eyed green girl - who regards him as a sinfully romantic figure. Seducing Isabella for the express reason of ruining her sisterly relationship with Edgar and to stir up jealousies in Cathy’s heart, Heathcliff makes Isabella his wife. Their marriage is loveless and Isabella quickly realizes that Cathy’s previous forewarning of her looming unhappiness, should she pursue Heathcliff, has come to pass. Curiously, Isabella does not blame Heathcliff for this lack of affection, but rather Cathy, whom she believes has stolen her husband’s heart and will always remain a threat while she lives.
Cathy, who has taken off on horseback during a violent thunderstorm to console her grief, falls ill. Her unspoken confession of love for Heathcliff shatters Edgar’s faith in their marriage. Realizing that she has painted herself into an impossible corner, Cathy lays in bed, waiting to die. Learning of her grave condition, Heathcliff barges into her bedroom with Ellen’s complicity. Yet his final words to Cathy are both a conflicted confession of his own feelings and a final admonishment of her decision to forgo their obvious love in favor of living a lie with Edgar. Heathcliff carries Cathy to the window so that they can gaze out at Peniston Crag together one last time. She dies in his arms and Heathcliff declares before Edgar and Dr. Kenneth that Cathy must not ever leave him, but continue to haunt his wicked heart and soul with her enduring memory.
We return to the present with the glimmer of a new dawn cresting over the window sill. Astonished by Ellen’s story, Lockwood is even more amazed when Dr. Kenneth burst into the room to suggest that he saw a man and a woman walking hand in hand toward Peniston Crag. Yet only Heathcliff’s frozen remains have been discovered. “Is he dead?” Lockwood inquires. Dr. Kenneth nods. But Ellen reassuringly assesses that “It was Cathy! No – not dead, Dr. Kenneth. And not alone. He’s with her. They’ve only just begun to live.” The final shot in the film shows a snowy Peniston Crag with the apparitions of Cathy and Heathcliff in their prime, ascending its rocky cliffs.
Despite its lack of faithfulness to Bronte’s novel, the filmic Wuthering Heights is an enduring melodrama; the obsessiveness in the ill-fated romance so palpable and, at times terrifying, that we can almost forget the last third of the book in its entirety. In the novel, Heathcliff and Cathy both have children by their respective spouses, the offspring later pursuing their own conflicted fascinations, thus ensuring that the cyclical nature of their parent’s haunted affair has not perished. This generational renewal is absent from the movie, but it really doesn’t matter because the performances throughout are quite simply very good. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon sell this strangely compulsive dedication of Bronte’s bitter lovers with a palpable sense of tragedy that grows ripe upon renewed viewing. We not only sense their erotic exacerbation, but can genuinely empathize with their bizarre desires to, at once, possess, consume, punish and, ultimately destroy each other.
Olivier, whom I generally have found rather stilted on film, and never much regarded as a ladies man, herein exudes a brutal manliness that is very exhilarating and sexually charged. His Heathcliff is a disturbing sadist – annihilated by some inexplicably awful passion, and yet, even more uncannily a figure worthy of our empathy, understanding and forgiveness. Merle Oberon has a much tougher hurdle to overcome. Her Cathy must go through a transformation – a greedy girl brought to heel at the rule of her own craving for Heathcliff that ultimately finishes her indomitably proud spirit. For the most part, Oberon manages this coup quite nicely – despite the fact that the film’s ultra-condensed narrative and very meager 103 min. run time often forces her to ricochet between these polar opposites from scene to scene.
William Wyler’s direction seems effortless. But it just seems that way. Behind the scenes, Wyler toiled and took great pains to handcraft his narrative into an impeccable example of the Hollywood system at its zenith with all its varied creative pistons firing at full steam. His attention is invisible to the naked eye as it should be, yet intangibly evident in every single frame of the finished film. There have been many interpretations of Bronte’s novel in film, television, radio and on the stage in the intervening decades; some far more faithful to the book –  but none as poetically realized or as enduring as this 1939 five star weepy.
If only we hadn’t Warner’s abysmal DVD transfer to cry over this might have been a highly recommended video reissue. Wuthering Heights has long been absent from home video. After its initial release from HBO, the movie all but disappeared. MGM/Fox never put out a competing edition after acquiring the rights to the Samuel Goldwyn library. Only after viewing Warner Home Video’s shoddy efforts – derived from the same fundamentally flawed elements – can we perhaps truly appreciate the reason why Wuthering Heights has been MIA for so many years.
The original film elements are in a delicate state of disrepair. Age related wear and tear is present everywhere. Worse, contrast levels have been bumped up, fading fine details throughout. The mid register tonality in the gray scale is gone, leaving blooming whites and murky blacks. But the worst offender is edge enhancement, present everywhere and wreaking havoc that thoroughly distracts from one’s viewing experience. The audio is mono as originally recorded, with minute traces of hiss and pop. Very disappointing, indeed. With the acquisition of the Goldwyn library I had hoped Warner Home Video would take the high road when reissuing this long absent catalogue title. Sadly, they have not.  Bottom line: not recommended.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1947) Fox Home Video

Some movies are undeniably a product of their time; others still, created with the purpose of addressing some socio-economic or political issue that, while relevant to the overall arc of human history when the movie was made, has since grown dated in both its premise and execution. For these reasons primarily, Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) hasn’t fared well – its deconstruction of the WASP power structure and its’ disquieting anti-Semitism, though hardly timely, and still very much with us – ultimately handled with too much reverence by Kazan. This melodrama creaks like an old wooden barn, its educational precepts buried beneath Kazan’s unusually heavy-handed directorial approach and a lumbering screenplay by Moss Hart, whose fervent desire to expose social injustices has blunted the overall impact of this message picture.
And Gentleman’s Agreement is unmistakably a ‘message picture’; righteously preachy despite some first rate  performances; particularly Celeste Holm’s devilishly classy fashion editor Anne Dettrey and John Garfield’s stoic ‘man against the world’ returning war hero, Dave Goldman. Regrettably, these are merely supporting characters, relegated to the backdrop of an otherwise killjoy romance between upper crust socialite Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) and widower newspaper writer, Phil Green (Gregory Peck).  Personally, I think McGuire came into her own later on in her career, especially when cast as a matronly figure. But as a romantic love interest she is decidedly odd – not quite as fresh faced as the ingénue, yet smelling of soap rather than smoldering sex.
Gregory Peck, for all his manly propriety and defiant pride, remains rather stalwart and stuffy as the romantic suitor herein– torn between love of family, pride of conscience and lust for a woman he knows harbors traces of the very prejudice his own morality seeks to expose and dismantle.  Kathy, however, never quite undergoes that full conversion of seeing things Phil’s way, and it is doubtful that, as written and performed by Peck and McGuire, the couple will ever truly see eye to eye.
In a nutshell, Gentlemen’s Agreement is a standard melodrama; its Oscar cache derived from its anti-Semitism protocol – then even more taboo in Hollywood. Reportedly, Darryl F. Zanuck sought to do the film after being denied entry into Los Angeles’ Country Club after management presumed that Zanuck was Jewish. Even without the snub, Gentleman’s Agreement was right up Zanuck’s alley. Throughout the 1940s, Zanuck had proven to his harshest critics that traditionally ‘unpopular’ subject matter could be turned into praise-worthy and profitable motion pictures. Moreover, he had felt the stinging cause of injustice personally this time, and turned the project over to Elia Kazan – a film-maker whose proactive desire to make good pictures about important topics perfectly aligned with Zanuck’s own.
Regrettably, Kazan is best known by today’s casual film fan as the snitch who named names during the McCarthy communist witch hunts of the 1950s; his testimony directly resulting in the blacklisting of many of his contemporaries. This unglamorous chapter in Kazan’s private life has all but eclipsed his stature as a brilliant film maker and this indeed is a shame. It was, after all, Kazan who gave us the heartbreakingly tender A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); Kazan who would later wow us with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and would continue to do movies about tough social issues: unionized graft (On The Waterfront), adolescent sexuality (Baby Doll), miscegenation and racism (Pinky) and self-destructive all-consuming love (Splendor in the Grass).
But Gentleman’s Agreement is not Kazan’s finest hour as a film maker and that is a genuine shame, because in Laura Z. Hobson’s novel he seems to have the perfect subject matter to do yet another searing exposé about a social reality that most Americans simply refused to acknowledge. Yet, as pure art Gentleman’s Agreement founders. Phil Green’s moral objections are more saintly pontificating than heartfelt and purposeful. At times, Gregory Peck seems as though even he isn’t quite sure about the words of dialogue issuing from his lips. And Dorothy McGuire’s wasp is too good to be wrong, yet too wrong to be worthy of Phil’s crusader. The film begins as a message picture, and then awkwardly segues into a romantic melodrama at the midway point; thereafter waffling between its two diametrically opposed narrative threads that never quite come together in any sort of meaningful way.  
We wait for Kathy to come to the conclusion that she has been wrong in her thinking. But this epiphany never entirely materializes. Rather, Kathy is contented to accept what Phil says because she loves him – not because she believes what he says to be the morally upstanding thing to do. And Phil, having realized just how Kathy truly feels – seems just as contented to forgo her ‘mild aspersions’ toward people of the Jewish faith, because he wants to belong to someone once again – even if that someone remains ever so slightly unworthy of his time and devotion. No, it just doesn’t work – and Kazan doesn’t seem particularly engaged to suggest to his audience that it ever will; at least, not in any sort of lasting or meaningful way. Because of these issues, Gentleman’s Agreement remains pedestrian fare at its best; amiably acted, valiantly directed, but coming off as a lush and lovely waxworks with a tinge of pro-activism tacked on for good measure.
Our story begins in earnest with the arrival of widowed journalist, Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), who has brought his young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere) to New York City for a fresh start following the death of his beloved wife. Joining a prestigious magazine, Green gets into the good graces of publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) who encourages his hot new writer to do piece on anti-Semitism. The project, however, does not appeal to Green at first. He needs an angle to become inspired.
So, Green decides to adopt a Jewish persona, renamed Phil Greenberg, and write about his personal experiences as a ‘Jew’. The idea has merit. Minify agrees to keep Phil’s true identity a secret. But almost immediately Phil begins to feel the quiet, but very ugly backlash of anti-Semitism creep into his comfortable middle-class surroundings. Tommy is called names and beat up in the schoolyard and Phil can sense the suddenly cool and aloof glances from colleagues who considered him a friend at first.
Phil meets Minify’s niece, Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) who had suggested the series of articles to her uncle. The two are instantly attracted to one another, but later Phil confides to his mother that he is not entirely comfortable that the idea for his stories came from a woman. Still, as women go – Kathy acquits herself quite nicely of the role of the socialite; slumming it a few days a week as a substitute teacher while her uncle foots the bills for her fashionable apartment and lifestyle the rest of the week. Phil and Kathy begin a liaison that reaches its first stumbling block when Phil reveals to her his intentions of writing the articles from observations made as a Jew.
Kathy’s inquiry as to whether Phil is really Jewish throws a monkey wrench into their fledgling relationship. After all, what are Kathy’s liberal views good for if she remains inhibited by the same social prejudices she supposedly seeks to depose? Meanwhile, believing that Phil is Jewish his new secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc) confides that she is too, then reveals to him that in order to get the job with the magazine she had to change her name and lie on her application. Phil tells Minify who promptly implements a new hiring policy that Elaine fears will allow ‘the wrong Jews’ to get in and ruin it for the few who are currently employed by the magazine.
As Phil’s relationship with Kathy becomes more strained he becomes acquainted with the magazine’s fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm) over cocktails; a devoted friend who might be something more if things between Kathy and Phil don’t improve soon. At the same time Phil takes in Dave Goldman (John Garfield); a dear friend who, having retired from the army, is looking to move his family to New York City. Dave is supportive of Phil’s desire to expose the unspoken bigotry of middle-class America but worries for Phil and his family’s safety.
When Tommy returns, bloodied by another schoolyard brawl, Kathy consoles him with the understanding that the racial slurs he has endured are without merit because he knows he is not Jewish – instead of taking umbrage to the slurs in and of itself. Kathy’s attitude toward the whole matter alarms Phil who briefly ponders postponing their engagement. His apprehensions are not quelled when Kathy’s sister, Jane (Jane Wyatt) throws the couple a party at her home in Darien, Connecticut, a community where anti-Jewish sentiments run high. Although Jane’s friends are polite to Phil, many choose not to attend the party at the last minute, and those who do are decidedly going through the motions to remain cordial, while silently shunning Phil with their accusatory glances.  
Dave informs Phil that he will have to quit his new job because he cannot find sufficient housing for his family in New York. Knowing that Kathy’s family owns a vacant cottage in Darien, Phil offers to talk to Kathy about renting it out. But she is reluctant to do so, presumably more concerned over what her friends will think than whether or not such friends are worth having in the first place. Phil is disgusted by her apprehensions and breaks off their engagement. Distraught, Kathy tells Dave that she attended a party where a guest told a racially motivated joke that made her ill. But when Dave questions her as to what action she took to voice her outrage Kathy confides that she did nothing. Dave suggests to her that prejudice will forever endure so long as the people who should know better do nothing when confronted by it.
Phil finishes his series of articles. However, upon publication of the first, despite receiving great acclaim, Phil informs Minify that he intends to resign from the magazine and leave New York with his family. But Dave arrives with good news.  Not only has Kathy decided to rent him and his family her cottage, but she will be living next door to them to ensure they are being treated with dignity by the neighbors. Upon hearing this news Phil realizes that he truly loves Kathy. The two reconcile – presumably to begin their romance anew.
The back story to Gentleman’s Agreement is actually more fascinating than the finished film. After Zanuck’s rebuke from the country club, he decided to helm the project as a personally supervised production. At every step however, Zanuck was repeatedly discouraged in his artistic pursuits to see the project through. Friends warned that the film might never get passed by the Hollywood censors because Joseph Breen was known to be an anti-Semite.
There were also mild concerns that McGuire’s Kathy being a divorcee on the make would sour popular opinion from the Catholic League of Decency, or that Anne Revere – already suspected of having socialist views – would incur the wrath of the ever mounting witch hunt brewing in Washington against suspected communists and communist sympathizers.
As for casting: Cary Grant, Zanuck’s first choice for the role of Phil Green, politely turned down the plum part after his agent insisted he refrain from the project. Gregory Peck’s agent encouraged a similar dismissal once Zanuck had offered the role to him. But Peck firmly believed in the importance of the movie as a catalyst for social change and pressed on. In the end the anticipated backlash from critics and audiences never materialized. In fact, Gentleman’s Agreement became a colossal smash, reaffirming Zanuck’s faith in producing popular mass entertainment with a social and moral conscience.   
There’s good news and bad news regarding Fox’s Blu-ray. The bad news is that this is only a single layered transfer with a modest bit rate. I suspect Fox is using old digital files bumped to a 1080p signal. The good news is that for the most part the image is solid. Could it have looked better? Arguably, yes. The opening credits have a slight hint of thickness and inconsistently rendered grain. I also detected an ever so slight tint of chroma bleeding in the letters during the credit sequence. Not a promising start. But the image thereafter was mostly satisfying.
Occasionally, the B&W elements looked slightly soft with a minimal loss of fine detail the most obvious transgressor. Film grain is present, but inconsistently rendered. Age related artifacts are present but greatly tempered do not distract. The audio is mono and adequate for this presentation. Extras include a Back Story ‘making of’ and an audio commentary and theatrical trailer – same as the old DVD. I’ll just go on record here to say that Fox needs to be more proactive in their approach to classics on Blu-ray. We don’t want or need ANY more thin-looking 1080p transfers with marginal bit rates. You have the disc space and the capacity to fill it. Gentleman’s Agreement runs less than 2 hrs. A new scan is in order. Utilize Blu-ray’s storage capabilities to their fullest. Bottom line: Recommended with marginal reservations.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1941) Fox Home Video

It is quite simply impossible for me to get through John Ford’s Oscar-winning masterpiece, How Green Was My Valley (1941) without shedding a few tears; its reverent and poetic celebration of life and love, perhaps even more far reaching, beyond the truthfulness in those moments. Told almost entirely in flashback, the earliest recollections are undiluted and joyous, rekindled through the eyes of a child, not yet fully able to comprehend the darkness that thinly veils, but has yet to intrude, on his idyllic surroundings. Like a lyrical sonnet or meticulously woven tapestry, Ford integrates the various threads in Philip Dunne’s superior screenplay to produce a thoroughly fulfilling, often bittersweet family portrait. Plumbed through finely wrought performances by a stellar cast of notable, though hardly iconic performers from their generation – some of whom would go on to have lasting careers - How Green Was My Valley has endured the test of time mostly because it seems very real and very true, not merely to its source material, but to a way of life all but forgotten with the passage of time.  
When asked to name the favorite of all his many cinematic accomplishments, John Ford, a true visionary when resurrecting the heroism and pageantry of the American west, chose How Green Was My Valley to stand in as most closely indicative of his hallmarks as a true movie craftsman. Although the choice may seem ironic, in hindsight one can plainly understand why the appeal of making this movie triumphed over the rest in Ford’s memory. Ford, who could be curmudgeonly and crass when dealing with actors, and who was often adversarial with the star most closely associated with his own career – John Wayne -  instead worked diligently with his ensemble on How Green Was My Valley; a memorable experience for all concerned.  Indeed, costar Maureen O’Hara would later tell stories of Ford’s tender encouragement, the way he guided everyone through their performances, and even took time out to gather the ladies for afternoon tea between takes.  
Based on Richard Llewellyn’s best seller, How Green Was My Valley is perhaps the most perfectly realized family drama ever put on film. The story concerns the Morgan clan; Welsh miners overseen by a morally benevolent, if outwardly stern patriarch, Gwilym (masterfully realized by Donald Crisp) and feisty matriarch, Beth (poignantly evoked by Sarah Allgood). Crisp and Allgood are genuine troopers. Crisp in particular, a consummate professional who rarely escaped being cast in support of other actors in a minor role, but who enriched virtually every movie in which he appeared, is arguably the real star of How Green Was My Valley; despite flashier turns by Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pigeon. Undeniably, his Gwilym is the glue that keeps the Morgans together.
Ford begins his story in the present, with our narrator never seen from the neck up while preparing a modest kitbag for his departure from the valley; the only place he has ever known as home. Yet the valley of the present, with its stone pillared courtyards barren of vegetation, in ruins, and void of all signs of life, save a few aged scraps of humanity unable or unwilling to leave it as yet, bears little resemblance to the rolling hillside we regress to. In less than a generation, we come to know the valley in its prime – lush and green, with a thriving village built at the foot of its mining concern, its black faced minions happily returning home after a hard day’s effort of toiling deep within the bowels of the earth.
The Morgans are well respected within this community. Gwilym is, in fact, an intermediary between the mine’s boss, Mr. Evans (Lionel Pape) and the men – trusted, admired and charged with facilitating their productivity. Gwilym’s eldest son, Ivor (Patric Knowles) has become engaged to Bronwyn (Anna Lee) – a girl from a neighboring village. This announcement breaks the heart of the Morgan’s youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowell) who, while still a boy, has nevertheless developed a puppy love crush on his brother’s wife. At the wedding reception the Morgan’s daughter, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) becomes smitten with the town’s minister, the kind-hearted Mr. Gruffyd (Walter Pigeon).
However, in a town where even the least flirtatious provocation can be misconstrued as sinful, the tender relationship between Angharad and Mr. Gruffyd is doomed from the start, particularly after Gwilym is approached by Mr. Evans to broker an arrangement for his son, Lestyn (Marten Lamont). The implication, that a full grown woman should have her own affections arranged by such clandestine machinations may sound ridiculous by today’s standards. But in a time when women in general were considered little more than property, servile and obligated to the wills and whims of the patriarchy, Angharad’s complicity to fulfill her father’s wishes was not only anticipated, but expected.  
In the meantime, the men have become increasingly disgruntled with the owners of the mine. Gwilym’s adult sons Ianto (John Loder), Ivor, Davy (Richard Fraser), Gwilym Jr.(Evan S. Evans) and Owen (James Monks) propose that the village rally in support of establishing a union. Gwilym, who regards even talk of a union as ‘socialist nonsense’ refuses to partake in their efforts. But Mr. Gruffyd encourages their decision to strike, citing that individually they are weak, but collectively each may share in the strength and safety of their numbers. The decision, however, backfires, and the men are locked out. As the sting of sustained unemployment bears down hard, a bitter resentment grows amongst the men who throw rocks at the Morgan home one evening, shattering its front window.
Forging into a blinding snowstorm, Beth confronts the strikers at their rally, declaring that if any harm befalls her husband the town will have her reckoning to endure. On the way home she loses her way and falls into the frigid lake with Huw clinging to her side. Saved at the last possible moment from freezing to death, Beth and Huw face months of painful recovery at home. In the Spring Beth struggles to come downstairs from her bedroom to show Huw that his own recovery is not far off. Mr. Gruffyd arrives on afternoon. But unable to shake the boy free of his depression, he declares “Where is the light I thought to see in your eyes?” before taking Huw – whose legs have greatly suffered from hypothermia – into the hills on piggyback where he encourages Huw to walk again on his own.
An accident at the mine claims Ivor and Bronwyn moves in with the Morgans temporarily where she gives birth to Ivor’s son. At approximately the same time Huw is sent to school to get an education. It is Gwilym’s sincere hope that the boy will become something other than a miner. Regrettably, the schoolmaster, Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is a ruthless disciplinarian who regards Huw with a contemptible desire to see him fail. After being pummeled by a schoolyard bully, Huw is taught to defend himself by the Morgan’s close friend and fisticuffs champion, Dai Bando (Rhys Williams). Although Huw is successful in a subsequent bout at school, Mr. Parry exploits his victory as an excuse to severely cane him, resulting in Dai Bando going to school to give Parry a taste of his own medicine.
Angharad marries Lestyn and moves away to a great house in a neighboring village.  Despite having provided Angharad with a lifetime of financial security Gwilym’s intervention has robbed his daughter of the satisfaction of knowing genuine happiness. The busybodies in town waste no time in concocting rumors about Angharad and Mr. Gruffyd. As a result, the church deacons elect to remove Mr. Gruffyd from his post as their pastor. Having left school, Huw takes a job in the colliery with his father and brothers, moving into the home Bronwyn once shared with Ivor to support her. Another accident at the mine claims Gwilym. His remains are brought to the surface by a stoic Mr. Gruffyd and Huw. Aside: the look of utter defeat and sheer isolation caught in young Roddy McDowell’s eyes in this scene will break your heart.  
The flashback concludes with the man, whom we now realize is Huw all grown up, having finished his packing, departing the decimated remains of the valley in search of some undetermined – but hopeful– future; his declaration that “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then?’ resonating with a compendium of flashbacks that extol idyllic memories of a way of life alas no more.
How Green Was My Valley is a superior example of 2oth Century-Fox’s studio craftsmanship at its zenith. Originally planned by Darryl F. Zanuck as a 3 hr. splashy Technicolor extravaganza to rival Gone With The Wind, unable to shoot on location in Wales, designers Richard Day an Nathan Juran instead built an entire Welsh village and the façade of a coal mine on the Fox ranch in Malibu Canyon. Wartime budgetary restrictions also thwarted Zanuck’s plan to shoot the film in color; in hindsight a blessing, since viewing How Green Was My Valley today one cannot imagine it any other way: Arthur C. Miller’s B&W cinematography perfectly eulogizing the stark coal dusty landscape of the colliery.  
Apart from its’ remarkable production design, How Green Was My Valley is also highly regarded for its ensemble acting. The actors – all of them – seem utterly true to life; a real family with not one false note struck among them. How Green Was My Valley abounds in that most intangible of all screen attributes - chemistry. In hindsight it seems destined that John Ford should have directed How Green Was My Valley; Ford’s natural affinity for blending the frankness and more delicate textures yielding rich tangible pleasures; an almost unbearable verisimilitude that can just as easy set our hearts to sing as it can instantly fill them with the more sincere tragedies and struggles in life. Many a film before and since has tried to evoke this human condition in artistic terms. How Green Was My Valley is affecting genuineness; inspired cinema magic of the highest order.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray at long last does justice to Ford’s masterpiece. Previous DVD incarnations have yielded images too stark and too gritty to evoke Arthur Miller’s cinematography. The Blu-ray radiates every stunning grain of that sumptuous visual design, with breathtaking clarity that only true HD can offer the home video consumer. Truly, watching How Green Was My Valley on Blu-ray was, for me, like seeing the movie all over again for the very first time with a heightened sense of Miller and Ford’s sublime visual subtext. There is a startling depth to the B&W image. Close ups are stunningly handsome in all their fine detail.  Establishing shots exhibit a crispness never before attained. Film grain has been naturally and consistently reproduced. Contrast is ‘bang on’ perfect. The audio has been remixed to pseudo stereo. We also get the original mono mix – preferred. Extras are direct imports from the DVD: a Back Story on the making of the film and audio commentary. Very highly recommended!     
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



Sunday, January 13, 2013

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS: Blu-ray (Orion 1986) Fox Home Entertainment

For many years, and without adjustments made for inflation, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) was Woody Allen’s most financially successful comedy. Personally, I place about as much faith in box office numbers as I do in Oscar tallies – that is to say, none. Popular films are just that – popular. Some carry their initial flourish into the annals of history. Others simply fade into obscurity once the zeitgeist of clever marketing has cooled. A film’s financial successful is also often the result of audience anticipation. As example, the $212,222,025 gross on Raiders of the Lost Ark was eclipsed by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s $ 317,101,119, mostly due to the hype and buzz generated for another installment in the series. But you would be hard pressed to find someone claiming Crystal Skull is a better movie than Raiders.
Few movies are as charmingly dishonest about life, love and the search for the perfect religion as Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters; yet another quirky excursion into the fruitful imagination and socio-psychoanalytical mindset of its creator. Allen, who has always been at the cutting edge of esoteric reflections on contemporary American society, delves deeply herein into the fundamentally flawed relationships of a triage of sisters: the ever-stable/ever-loyal caregiver – Hannah (Mia Farrow), free-spirited flirt, Lee (Barbara Hershey) and neurotic middle-aged scatterbrain, Holly (Diane Wiest). 
Yet Hannah and Her Sisters is middling Woody Allen at best – undeniably amusing, but never quite rivaling his masterworks; Annie Hall (1978) and Manhattan (1980). Allen’s intermingling of three separate narrative arcs lacks his ingeniousness for integration: Allen’s clever-cleverness infrequently becoming obvious for its own sake. There’s nothing inherently misguided about Hannah and Her Sisters, and yet nothing quite outstanding either. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, the film seems an obvious extension of the Alvi Singer character from Annie Hall – whatever became of that obsessively overanxious and slightly cantankerous playwright, toiling with great pains and even greater panged expressions over having to debase his art to peddling it to the lowest common denominator as crass commercialism. All well and good, except that Allen’s Mickey Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters is hardly the focus of the story. That’s a problem, as is Hannah herself (Mia Farrow); the least interesting member of this familial sisterhood.
Our story begins on Thanksgiving, at a cozy gathering of friends and family that include Hannah, her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine) sisters Lee and Holly, and their parents, Norma (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Evan (Lloyd Nolen) as well as a good friend, April (Carrie Fisher). Norma and Evan are a couple of old time hams – once the toast of Broadway – now comfortable in their old age and singing songs from the time-honored repertoires of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Holly and April have decided to go into a catering business together, despite Hannah being the one with the culinary prowess. Hannah’s pursuits, however, are more cerebral. She has just finished a successful off Broadway run of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – a role her mother once played on the stage. Having sewed these artistic oats, Hannah is now content to return to domesticity with Elliot.
Unfortunately for Hannah, Elliot has designs on Lee, presently living with Frederick (Max von Sydow); a cranky painter, existing mostly in a social vacuum of his own design, with a heightened state of depression. Elliot is determined to seduce Lee,  finagling an audience between Frederick and one of his writer buddies (John Turturro) under the rouse that perhaps Frederick will be able to sell a few of his canvasses. The boys don’t hit it off, but Elliot does manage to make his intentions clear to Lee. She is at first frightened, and then confused, but nevertheless intrigued enough to begin an affair with Elliot at the St. Regis Hotel shortly thereafter.
In the meantime, Holly has tapped Hannah for $2000 to start the Stanislavski Catering Company with April. Their first gig is a success. The girls are introduced to David (Sam Waterston) an architect who wastes no time taking Holly and April on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan’s finer architectural achievements. Holly is instantly smitten with David. But her insecurities get the better of her, affording April the opportunity to pursue David for herself. 
Hannah sincerely worries about Holly – a recovering drug addict with a fragile ego perpetually and precariously primed for a relapse. But Holly is much stronger than either Hannah or Lee gives her credit. After dissolving their catering partnership over David, Holly dabbles in several flawed career aspirations before becoming a writer. Her first manuscript is met with great enthusiasm by Mickey (Woody Allen); a TV producer/writer whom Holly once shared an utterly disastrous blind date while still in her gay ol’ Bohemian days of snorting cocaine and partying with punk rockers half her age.
Hannah’s former husband, Mickey has had a recent health scare after complaining to Dr. Grey (Fred Melamed) about a slight loss of hearing in his right ear. A CAT scan reveals a gray blotch on the brain that sends Mickey’s obsessive fear into overdrive. In flashback we discover that Mickey and Hannah were told they could never have children and that the flaw was in Mickey’s low sperm count. Mickey and Hannah then turned to his former creative partner, Norman (Tony Roberts) to provide them with a necessary sample for Hannah’s artificial insemination. After some consternation, Norman complied. But he thereafter dissolved their partnership and moved to Los Angeles where, so we are told, he has since become a very wealthy television producer.
After some preliminary tests, doctors concur that the blotch on Mickey’s brain is benign – possibly a shadow or some other anomaly that he has absolutely nothing to worry about. But Mickey has had an epiphany of sorts. Desperate for answers to life’s most perplexing questions, Mickey briefly toys with religious conversion, first to Catholicism, then Krishna Consciousness. After a laughably botched suicide attempt, a forlorn Mickey experiences a reawakening of his desire for life while attending a screening of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Shortly thereafter he makes a conscious effort to get reacquainted with Holly inside a seedy record store. Now clean and sober, she appreciates Mickey’s sense of humor much more. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into romance and are eventually married.
Lee ends her affair with Elliot and goes back to school where she meets a professor (Ivan Kronenfeld) who becomes her lover and later, her husband. Meanwhile, Elliot discovers how much he loves his wife. Although Hannah has infrequently suspected that something had changed in their marital relationship, she is reassured of Elliot’s enduring affections – if not his fidelity – when he decides to rekindle the passion they once shared for one another.  In the final moments of the film, Mickey is seen attending yet another Thanksgiving celebration with Hannah and her sisters. Holly, who has since become a successful writer arrives late to the dinner and informs Mickey that she is pregnant with their child.
Hannah and Her Sisters is rather obviously inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) with parallels between both movies extending to each dramatic arc; the close knit theatrical family’s evolution through times of peace and conflict over three consecutive years, and, pigeon-holed around a particular holiday (Christmas in Bergman’s movie; Thanksgiving in Allen’s). The penultimate scene where Mickey’s reflection suddenly appears from behind Holly is a direct rip off of Bergman’s reference to the bishop’s apparition in his film.
An old adage claims that to steal from one is plagiarism but to steal from many is research. Yet I’m not entirely certain if the adage holds true when the artist – in this case Woody Allen – is borrowing from himself. Allen’s craftsmanship as a film maker on Hannah and Her Sisters never achieves a level of originality found elsewhere in his canon: from Annie Hall to Manhattan, or even The Purple Rose of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose. There are some charming vignettes to be sure, for no movie made by Woody Allen is ever an out and out flop. But the story becomes fragmented by Allen’s inability to bring his various narrative threads together until very near the end. Regrettably, by then his denouement seems oddly contrived, stitched together to mimic narrative cohesion without actually achieving it.
Allen’s Mickey Sachs is a clumsy edition to the story. He is Hannah’s ex and Holly’s soon to be husband. In Manhattan, Allen also played the ex, to Meryl Streep’s Jill and her new lesbian lover. However, Jill was never the focus of that film. Presumably, Hannah is the focus of this movie (after all, the title is 'Hannah' and 'Her Sisters'), except that she is not the focus at all. The central narratives revolve around Elliot and Lee, and Holly and Mickey.
Padding out the rest of the cast with such luminaries as Mia Farrow, Max von Sydow and Carrie Fisher, with cameos by Tony Roberts and Sam Waterston, only serves to dilute the narrative further. Their inherent celebrity cache raises the audience’s level of expectation that they will have more participation within the story than they ultimately do in the finished film. Carrie Fisher in particular is utterly wasted as April – a gal we barely see – and yet Fisher is fourth billed in the credits, above Barbara Hershey who clearly has the more plum role.
And then there is the rather awkward way Woody Allen recycles the non-linear narrative structure from his previous hits, herein into obscure and disassociated vignettes. Take, for example the entirely unexpected departure that has Hannah acting as an intermediary between her two drunken parents – each dredging up the other’s past infidelities and current indiscretions. This scene has its counterpoint later on when Mickey confronts his mother and father about his decision to denounce Judaism for an alternative religion. Both scenes are genuinely affecting and quite humorous in and of themselves. Yet neither enriches the main plot or even involves the main characters in our story.  We don’t understand Hannah or Mickey more because of these scenes; their cause and effect to whatever else is going on around them, marginal at best. The prerequisite thirty-second laugh is still there, yet utterly lacking interconnection.     
In the end, watching Hannah and Her Sisters is very much like being exposed to little gems inside the impenetrable artistic clutter that is Woody Allen’s creative mind. However, unlike the previously mentioned treasures in Allen’s cinematic trove, in Hannah and Her Sisters Allen seems less selective about which gems to share – the opportunity to simply rummage through the lot devolves into a claptrap where the pieces quite simply do not fit as neatly – or even as fascinatingly - as they ought. While one may argue that this is Allen’s intention from the get go, the overall impression remains awkward and unfulfilling. Hannah and Her Sisters may be thought-provoking – but rarely does it rise above the commonplace.  
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is single layered with inconsistently rendered film grain. In some scenes it’s practically nonexistent, and in others it is so heavy that it threatens to break apart fine detail in background information. There’s just no happy medium; likely the result of using old digital files merely bumped to a 1080p signal. Colors are muddy and unrefined. Flesh tones infrequently veer toward that unattractive ‘piggy pink’ and never attain a completely natural texture. Fine detail is wanting throughout this entire presentation. Minor hints of edge enhancement are also present. The DTS mono audio is adequate and in keeping with Allen’s own minimalist approach to film making. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Not recommended. Another disappointing effort from Fox – one of many, I might add.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



Friday, January 11, 2013

THE JAZZ SINGER: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1927) Warner Home Video

Placed within its proper context as a pseudo-talkie, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) most effectively marks that historic place when the golden silence of American movies yielded to a brand new invention of synchronized sound; soon to become a very costly epoch and industry standard.  However, in hindsight it is important to distinguish The Jazz Singer as not being a sound film per say, at least not in the truest sense that audiences have come to regard since. In fact, The Jazz Singer was not even the first attempt at synchronization of music and effects. But it is the first to combine verbal and musical audio tracks to those flickering images on the screen, via a cumbersome wax record playback system that must have been hell to rig and execute nightly in front of a live theater audience. Most of The Jazz Singer had already been shot as a silent feature before Harry Warner deemed it the worthy contender for that grand debut of true sound recording in films.
The Jazz Singer is loosely autobiographical. Leading playwright Samson Raphaelson was inspired to write a short story, ‘The Day of Atonement’ based on Al Jolson’s real life account of how he defied his family’s hermitical Judaism to forge his own life as a stage performer. Raphaelson eventually expanded upon the idea from that story and ‘The Jazz Singer’ – the play – was born, to great critical and popular success. The play had starred George Jessel as a second generation Russian born Jew, Jakie Rabinowitz who prefers the modern age of jazz to his father’s time honored hymns sung at synagogue.
When talks first began to make The Jazz Singer into a film sound recording had yet to make inroads in the industry and Jessel was tentatively signed to recreate his role for the movie. In truth, it was not the advent of sound that prompted Jessel to withdraw from the project, but rather the complete rewrite in Alfred A. Cohn’s third act that has Jakie defy his dying father’s final request and return to the Winter Garden Theater in blackface to enthrall his audience while his devoted mother champions her son’s performance from the cheap seats. The stage play had ended with a contrite Jakie sacrificing his dreams of the theater to honor his Jewish heritage instead.
Viewed today, The Jazz Singer really is a one hit wonder – that hit being the introduction of sound to picture. And sound itself is rather sparingly used – the bulk of the film remaining faithful to the esthetics of a silent movie; the insertion of title cards to advance the narrative, the overcompensation of reactions and gestures by the cast to overwhelm the audience as in a stage play - while the story’s set pieces – mainly Jolson’s songs – are given over to the full range of Vitaphone monaural recording. Unfortunately, Cohn’s rather pedestrian screenplay isn’t up to this technological debut. If a picture is worth a thousand words, The Jazz Singer unequivocally proves that a few well-placed pop songs sung by Jolson can easily overshadow its threadbare linear narrative.
Once Jolson leers into the camera, exuberantly declaring, “Wait a minute! You ain’t seen nothing yet!” before segueing into his rousing rendition of “Toot-Tootsie, Good-bye” it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to slip back into the interminably long portions of silent cinema that follow. We are suddenly impatient and even dissatisfied at having to sit through these melo-theatrics in silence as an orchestral score plays on until another Jolson zinger comes floating over the ether.
As our story begins, young Jakie (Bobby Gordon) is entertaining patrons inside a local speakeasy with his Vaudeville inspired buck n’ wing. He is promptly discovered by his father, the Cantor (Warner Oland) and carted off by the ear to be admonished for his blasphemy. Music is for the synagogue and Jakie will have a very long career in a house of worship once he has expunged all of the cotton, hay and greasepaint from his system and forsaken the prospect of worldly fame and riches.  Young Jakie doesn’t believe this, however, and neither does his desire to become a star abate with the passage of the years.
As an adult, Jakie (Al Jolson) plays the piano in his mother, Sara’s (Eugenie Besserer) front parlor, tempting her with the promise of hobnobbing with the respectable rich Jews who live on Fifth Avenue; the Goldbergs, Greenbergs, etc. Sara is patient with her son. Moreover, she believes in him and tries her best to massage the ever frayed nerves of her husband into understanding their son, even as Jakie is tempted to pursue his dreams of becoming a star. Jakie falls in love with a Gentile, Mary Dale (May McAvoy). Although the girl is pure of heart, her presence is frowned upon by the Cantor who will not bend an inch to welcome her into the family.  A rift between father and son ensues and Jakie leaves home to pursue his dreams and Mary.
The Cantor becomes ill and calls Jakie to his bedside, hoping against hope that he will abandon the theater. A strange, though hardly complete, sense of forgiveness is achieved between these two stubborn men. The Cantor dies and Jakie makes good on his own promise to give his mother an easier life by becoming a famous Vaudeville performer. In the final moments of the movie, Sara and Mary are seen together at a box inside the Winter Garden Theater as Jakie performs Mammy in blackface to tearful applause.
The Jazz Singer is so very much a product of its time that one either dismisses its story altogether as absolute tripe or embraces its quaint absurdities as pure entertainment. My vote is for the latter. Al Jolson is an enigmatic screen presence. He’s too obvious in his lascivious glances into the audience – enjoying the exercise of playing to the crowd far too much to be convincing. And his mannerisms are grand gestures, flailing arms and legs haphazardly scuttling across the stage: much too theatrical, though arguably never mechanical.  Still, Jolson electrifies us with his sheer presence on film.
It is impossible to look away when he is on the screen – the fluidity embodied in his ‘do no wrong’ self-confidence so unabashedly proud and unapologetically ‘in the moment’ that we can feel his charm – if not his finesse – emanating from the screen. That quality is usually referenced as ‘star power’ and herein Jolson has it in spades. Although his subsequent movies at Warner Brothers would fare with infrequent success, The Jazz Singer remains Jolson’s moment in the spotlight and the heat he manages to generate beneath the beams from those glaring arcs is a wonderment to behold.
The Jazz Singer comes to Blu-ray via an exceptional transfer from Warner Brothers that belies the film’s age by at least a half century. Truly, The Jazz Singer has never looked better. The image not only tightens up in 1080p but manages to yield a remarkable clarity and incredible amount of fine detail throughout. Even better, the B&W visuals are free from all but a handful of age related artifacts with exceptional contrast and very accurately reproduced film grain. I was frankly astounded by how vibrant and well delineated the gray scale appeared. The audio, regrettably, is another matter.
Warner has performed a minor miracle on the old Vitaphone recordings. But no amount of digital trickery and cleanup will ever be able to conceal the inherent shortcomings of these original sound recordings. Hiss is present, as are minor pops. Dialogue is thin sounding and occasionally Jolson’s vocals are in imminent danger of being eclipsed by the band playing just behind him. Remember, all of this was recorded with extremely primitive microphones dangling just out of camera range. No prerecording and post lip sync with a mixing board. That said, I was very satisfied by what I heard. The flaws in the audio gave me a very quaint feel for the dawn of the sound era. So, bravo and kudos to Warner Home Video for this remastering effort. It won’t win any awards for sonic fidelity but it is extremely faithful to its source material.
Brace yourself, because there are a truckload of extra features. The film gets a comprehensive audio commentary by Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano. On the same disc as the film we also get five early Vitaphone shorts, one with Jolson performing ‘a plantation act’ in blackface. I’ll just voice my minor disappointment herein by saying that discs 2 and 3 of this 3 disc set are mere regurgitation from the DVD box of The Jazz Singer, virtually identical in their content and on DVD without the benefit of a 1080p upgrade.
Disc Two’s crowning jewel is the nearly 2 hr. ‘The Dawn of Sound: How The Movies Learned to Talk’ documentary – comprehensive and thrilling as anything produced so far.  Of historical importance, we also get rarely seen two strip Technicolor excerpts from the lost film Gold Diggers of Broadway, a few shorts about sound made during the early sound era, a 1946 short celebrating Vitaphone and a 1955 short extolling Hollywood’s illustrious early sound era.
Disc Three tips the scales with almost 4 hrs. of Vitaphone musical and comedy shorts. Most merely document early Vaudeville acts doing their thing in a very static way. These shorts have been included for their historical significance. Some are truly compelling while others genuinely laughable. The quality of these shorts ranges from fairly good to downright scary – the latter yielding to the ravages of time with severe decomposition. Bottom line: The Jazz Singer and these Vitaphone shorts are history in the making. Their intrinsic value as some of the earliest historic artifacts from the sound era make them intangibly compelling. Warner’s new Blu-ray incarnation of the feature is the only way to enjoy this iconic piece of American cinema. A must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


4 – for the Blu-ray
3 for the DVDs