Saturday, November 30, 2013

THE BLACK SWAN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1942) Fox Home Video

Director Henry King and stars Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara put the ‘swash’ in ‘swashbuckler’ with The Black Swan (1942); an ebullient adventure yarn shot with cinematographer, Leon Shamroy’s painterly precision. It all looks so luscious in three-strip Technicolor; the flowing auburn tresses of O’Hara set against Power’s midnight black ensemble and blood red cape; her imperious virgin-esque glamor goddess frothing over in white and robin-egg blue gowns pitted against Ty’s earthy, five o’clock shadowed, bare-chested masculinity. Each star has brought out the best in the other; their on-screen chemistry partly derived from the fact that Power and O’Hara were already good friends by the time each was cast in this film.
It might have never happened, if not for Charles Laughton who, seeing O’Hara on the London stage quickly signed her to an ironclad movie contract for his independent production company and put her to work in the movies – a medium O’Hara marginally considered ‘less than’ live theater. O’Hara made the leap across the Atlantic into instant stardom as the gypsy girl in Laughton’s masterful remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); her contract thereafter rented out – in parts – by every major studio, including Fox.  The Black Swan immeasurably benefits from O’Hara’s feisty Irish import; her air of haughty exclusivity translating into hot-blooded passion despite her on-screen romantic protestations.
On the other end is Tyrone Power – descended from an American acting aristocracy and arguably worthy of its mantel of quality. It doesn’t always stand to reason that just because a man is handsome he cannot act his way out of a paper bag. And Power, for all his undeniably gorgeousness, was never into himself as much as the ladies were undeniably very much into him. Power is arguably just right in The Black Swan. The role of a swarthy sea pirate with a certain dispensation for the social graces fits Ty like the proverbial eye patch and parrot – although neither is on display in the movie; a very sexy rogue indeed.  
But Power also harbored a bit of petty larceny toward O’Hara behind the scenes: nothing dastardly. He just encouraged his rather innocent costar to repeat the most lurid stories to their director, she misunderstanding their double entendre until it was too late. Eventually, O’Hara caught on to Ty’s trickery but held no grudge for being teased. In point of fact, she was just as smitten with Power’s charm as everyone else; an enviable commodity essential to any rake’s progress.
Having seen their future in Power’s star presence for at least a decade, 2oth Century-Fox spent lavishly on The Black Swan: Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller’s screenplay taking great liberties with Sabatini’s rollicking tale of piracy on the high seas. In point of fact, the story is the least fascinating aspect about the movie.  But this oversight doesn’t really damage the appeal of the movie; not when there’s Alfred Newman’s rousing score and James Basevi and Richard Day’s production values to consider, capped off by a spectacular production with all the zest for expertly illustrating a tall tale. 
The studio has rounded out their A-list action picture with some very fine performers; Anthony Quinn, Thomas Mitchell and George Sanders as pirates Wogan, Tommy Blue and Billy Leech respectively; Fortunio Bonanova as Spanish governor Don Miguel, George Zucco - the enterprising Lord Denby, Edward Ashley - unscrupulous plotter, Roger Ingram and, in the pivotal ‘historical’ role as Capt. Henry Morgan (yes, the one presently remembered more for lending his name to a bottle of Caribbean rum) Laird Creger – the robust ham whose legendary presence might have continued at Fox for many years if not for a fatefully botched intestinal surgery that claimed his life prematurely shortly after The Black Swan’s release.
The Black Swan is the beneficiary of these iconic star turns; each striking an indelible note within the movie’s scant 85 minutes.  If a criticism can be made, it’s that The Black Swan seems to end much too soon with elements central to the plot remaining unresolved after the final fade out. As example; we never learn of Captain Morgan’s fate – having been ousted as Jamaica’s governor by the nefarious backstabbing Roger Ingram who, in cahoots with Lord Denby is determined to illustrate to its island populace that Morgan is unfit to rule and, in fact, is responsible for the latest series of English tall ships being plundered just off the coast by pirates still loyal to Morgan’s former life as their leader. 
Our story does open in the moneyed Spanish stronghold of Tortuga raided by Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), Capt. Leech and Wogan. The storming of the town, raided for its jewels, liquor and eligible wenches, turns rancid on the beach when a stronghold of Spanish soldiers retaliates, dragging Jamie back into town. He is put on the rack and observed in all of his writhing pain with great pleasure by Don Miguel who threatens to separate Jamie limb from limb.
Jamie’s fate is disturbed by the arrival of Tommy Blue and his entourage of pirates who take Don Miguel hostage and imprison Lord Denby, much to the feisty chagrin of his daughter, Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara). After attempting to kiss her, and being bitten on the lips, Jamie knocks Margaret unconscious, slinging her over his shoulder as his trophy to be carried off in triumph. Soon Jamie learns that Captain Morgan (earlier convicted to hang for treason against the crown) instead has been set free by the king and appointed the new governor of Jamaica. For his good fortune, Morgan has promised his fellow pirates extensive land grants, but only if they lay down their swords and reform. Jamie is willing to give this a try. But Capt. Leech informs Morgan that he intends to continue pillaging these island satellites for his own pleasure and profit; a move that immediately pits Morgan against Leech for the rest of the story.
In the meantime, Jamie makes valiant attempts to woo Lady Margaret as a gentleman. He is, regrettably, unsuccessful. She accosts him with a stone and repeatedly defies his romantic overtures with venomous spite. After all, Margaret is engaged to the rather foppish Roger Ingram. Unknowingly, Margaret witnesses Ingram’s deceptions with Mr. Fenner (Charles McNaughton), a pirate spy feeding insider information back to Ingram as per the whereabouts of various English vessels loaded down with their handsome cargoes. Ingram then passes along this information to Leech. Leech uses his ship, The Black Swan, to locate loot and then destroy several prominent and seemingly untouchable vessels on the open waters, including the Prince Consort. News of its lost booty and casualties reaches Government House in Port Royal where Ingram uses the incident to lay blame at Morgan’s feet. Incensed by such treason Port Royal’s Board of Governors calls for Morgan’s removal from office. Ingram vows to sail to London immediately for a reprieve of the king’s appointment of Morgan.   
To stem this tide of dissention Morgan dispatches Jamie and his crew in search of Leech. But the wily pirate has been prematurely tipped off by Fenner. Thus, Jamie, Billy and the rest of his men return to Port Royal empty-handed, even as another ship is looted and sunk in the ocean by Leech’s stealthy Black Swan. As fate would have it, Jamie sets off in search of Leech, but not before he and Billy kidnap Lady Margaret from her home to ensure that she does not marry Ingram. Aboard his ship, the Revenge, Jamie spots Leech and his entourage. He is too late to outrun the Black Swan. Realizing he is outnumbered, Jamie elects to pretend to Leech that he has left Morgan to rejoin his mates in their criminal activities. Leech is unconvinced of Jamie’s loyalties, especially with the skeptical Wogan at his side. So, Jamie implicates Lady Margaret in his plan, telling Leech that she is his wife. Leech agrees to take Jamie and Margaret onto his ship, everyone sailing for a rendezvous in Port Royal.
Margaret feigns being married to Jamie but continues to question his motives until she pieces together Ingram’s involvement with Fenner and deduces for herself that her fiancée is the real traitor to the crown. But by then it is too late. Leech has recognized Jamie is merely going through the motions to placate him until such time as an ambush can be arranged. Calling Jamie out as the deceiver, Leech binds and gags him below deck, taking the Revenge’s crew hostage and sailing into Port Royal guns blazing. Morgan is outraged by this assault and blames Jamie for the attack. Forced from office by his irate constituents, Morgan sets sail to confront Jamie, Leech and the rest on the high seas. After learning of Leech’s treachery, Morgan exonerates Jamie of any wrong-doing and Lady Margaret, having at last come to her senses, joins Jamie at his side – presumably destined to fall in love and marry him.
The Black Swan is a mostly engaging and generally rousing action/adventure yarn.  Based on the 1932 novel by Raphael Sabatini, The Black Swan takes its artistic liberties where it can, indulging the audience in its fabled land of make-believe direct from the Fox back lot, with a nod to L.A.’s famed Griffith Park – the scene of so many classic movies presumably shot in lush tropical locations on the far side of the world. It’s really rather amazing to consider The Black Swan as a studio-bound vehicle. But director Henry King and Leon Shamroy have definitely done their homework; the iconic images of a trio of tall ships charging across vast sun-drenched waters only occasionally giving evidence to being impressively scaled down models floating inside a four foot tank with a painted backdrop of simulated clouds at sunset behind them.  What The Black Swan arguably lacks is a marauding spirit - the likes of an Errol Flynn to make Sabatini’s story catch fire and truly set sail for the seven seas. Everything looks absolutely marvelous. But does it ever come to life? Hmmm.
Tyrone Power is at his heartthrob best as Jamie Waring, the self-professed scourge of the sea.  Both he and Maureen O’Hara look ravishing in Technicolor. The movie’s carefully crafted hues and set pieces take on the flavoring of a portrait painted by Rembrandt.  Yet despite its megawatt star power and some momentous action sequences the real star of this film is Technicolor. Power’s sexy pirate is very much a throwback to the silent era, a la the likes of a Rudolph Valentino meets Douglas Fairbanks Sr.  
Make no mistake: Tyrone Power was a Hollywood pin-up en par with Betty Grable – rakishly handsome yet strangely prepubescent; his shaven chest rather anemic when compared to the physicality of Errol Flynn; Warner Bros. answer to flounced pirate shirts and the cod piece.  Power has trouble making Earl Luick’s more flamboyant costumes look lived in. They’re costumes rather than clothes. At one point Luick’s designs seem to be taking their cue from The Mark of Zorro (1940); Power attired in a black cape with red insert and wide-brimmed gaucho-styled hat. Whereas Errol Flynn in pirate’s garb captures the essence of a butch buccaneer, Tyrone Power in similar duds looks like an actor trying too hard to pretend.
This shame is compounded by some rather shoddy fencing sequences. A duel between Leech and Jamie aboard the Black Swan, as example, appears to have been sped up in postproduction to add more urgency to its pacing. In point of fact, it comes off rather cartoony.  Disheartening too is the Seaton I. Miller/Ben Hecht screenplay, wrapping up the story without ever resolving many of its central threads.  After spending the first and middle acts as vehement enemies, and with barely ten lines of dialogue between them, in the last act sandwiched in between other sea-faring intrigues, we are suddenly expected to buy into a burgeoning romance between Jamie and Lady Margaret. And for all of our expectations to see Power’s uncouth vagabond of the sea mated with this smarmy daughter of English aristocracy, The Black Swan really doesn’t allow its romance to play out – at least not to any satisfactory conclusion.  Yet, none of the aforementioned shortcomings is enough to sink the enterprise as a whole. The Black Swan is entertaining. It just isn’t particularly cohesive.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray marginally improves on the DVD from 2002. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because the DVD exhibited a reference quality transfer. As expected, everything tightens up in 1080p. Fine details in fabric, hair and background information are enhanced and colors seem marginally more refined. It’s important to recall that like other Fox Technicolor product from this period, no original three-strip elements remain from which to do a proper restoration. Fox herein is cribbing from a meticulous effort derived from a single strip reprint done back in the late sixties on preservation stock that, regrettably, proved not to have the same longevity as its predecessor.  That said, the 2002 DVD restoration has done wonders with these second generation elements. We’re seeing some impressive work marginally improved by the added luxury of having it transferred to a home viewing format – Blu-ray – capable of registering all of the information available on film-based stock. Hands down, The Black Swan looks wonderful in hi-def.  
There is no edge enhancement, mis-registration, age-related or digital artifacts. But the image is smoother than one would like, and a bit thick at times, and seemingly absent of grain of any kind. This isn’t how The Black Swan must have looked in 1942. But, given the shortcomings Fox is working with, it is likely the closest approximation we’re likely to see. The DTS mono audio remains faithful to its source, Alfred Newman’s score sounding quite marvelous. Regrettably Fox has been stingy on extras again; only the DVD’s audio commentary survives: historian Rudy Behlmer and Maureen O’Hara offering conflicted insight on the making of the movie. Behlmer seems to be more interested in getting O’Hara to wax about her career in generalized terms rather than this movie in particular, so we don’t really get the level of ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories that we should. That’s a shame. We also get the original trailer. Fox has jettisoned the ‘restoration comparison’ and trailers for upcoming Fox Flix. Forgivable exclusions, I suppose. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Thursday, November 28, 2013

DESK SET: Blu-ray 1957 (2oth Century-Fox 1957) Fox Home Video

The magic hour chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn – always a money-maker – tops out in Walter Lang’s Desk Set (1957); a rather dated spoof about the computer age that has Tracy’s ‘efficiency expert’ Richard Sumner (Tracy) and his electronic brain – EMERAC – pitted against the hard-boiled wit and intelligence of plucky research analyst, Bunny Watson (Hepburn). Hepburn and Tracy: has there ever been a more perfect embodiment of the old married couple on the movie screen? And it’s a curiosity at that, since the pair only played an ‘old married couple’ twice in their tenure of nine movies. For the rest, they were either romantically sparing singles on the definite road to matrimony or kept apart by fate and circumstance. In Desk Set there’s a little of both conflicts at play and, at least in retrospect, this tends to water down the quixotic scenarios fleshed out in Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s occasionally mechanical screenplay. Tracy and Hepburn are at their best when left to their own accord and lumped together, given the full lay of the land to use as their platonic boxing ring. Desk Set doesn’t really give them this opportunity and it’s a shame but not a deal breaker.
The movie works, despite its misfires. For starters, Hepburn is just a tad long in the tooth to be convincing as the vacuous and adoring appendage to Gig Young’s blueblood exec, Mike Cutler. Hepburn’s exuberant “Oh Peg, he asked me!” after Mike has inquired about Bunny’s availability to attend a work-related social function, rings with all the giddy froth of a high school girl rather than a mature – and noticeably middle-age sharpshooter like Bunny. It doesn’t work. Then again, is there ever any doubt that Hepburn will leave this self-serving WASP for the more shrewdly matched Mr. Sumner? Of course, the answer is ‘no’. This is a Tracy/Hepburn movie and anyone who’s seen at least one other knows exactly where the plot is headed. Perhaps this is why the machinations that bring the couple together seem more contrived than challenging; not so much obstacles on the bumpy road to l’amour but obligatory ‘cute meets’ and ‘joyous defeats’ built around a premise we’ve already seen done elsewhere and to better effect. 
What the screenplay has difficulty articulating exactly is the moment Bunny’s affections turn from Mike to Richard. After all, there doesn’t seem to be any transitional sequence to suggest Bunny’s waning affections for Mike. He’s been keeping her on the hook for seven years! She’s enraptured by the prospect of spending a cozy weekend with him. But after these plans fall apart due to company obligations, and Bunny shares a car ride in the pouring rain with Richard, fellow employee, Smithers (Harry Ellerbe) and his wife and mother-in-law, Bunny suddenly begins to favor Richard instead.  It is problematic structuring like this that blunts the overall appeal of Desk Set.
Of course, the rest of the plot has something to do with this too. Desk Set is really a spoof on the modern age; the looming reality that ‘manpower’ must yield to the technological era of primitive digital computing. This sends the entire Federal Broadcasting Network into a tizzy with the prospect of overnight obsolescence and unemployment. Nowhere could the cuts be more devastating than to the firm’s research department, presently helmed by the elegant Ms. Watson and her three enterprising cohorts; Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall).  What none of them are, as yet, aware of is that somewhere on the twenty-third floor a tête-à-tête between FBN’s president, Mr. Azae (Nicholas Joy) and efficiency expert Richard Sumner is taking place. Azae wants Richard to do a feasibility study on his research department and assess whether it is a candidate for the installation of a new ‘electronic brain’.
Of course, secrets don’t last too long around the steno pool. Soon, Smithers is telling Bunny that Azae has sent down for her employment record. It’s enough to leave any gal off her game. If only Bunny had made in-roads towards her seven year enterprising relationship with her boss, Mike Cutler. But Mike’s a rather devious sort, plying Bunny with gifts of affection while baiting her with the promise of marriage, yet never quite getting around to the proposal. Bunny’s ever the optimist. But Peg urges, ‘make yourself less available’. Regrettably, Bunny’s the “faithful as a birddog type and can’t be devious”. She wants Mike – or, at least, thinks she does. But Richard is an unknown quantity about to loom large on the horizon. In point of fact, he’s an odd duck just like Bunny. They’re a pair, and realize as much after Richard escorts Bunny to the rooftop terrace in the middle of a frigid November to quiz her on a skill’s test designed to stump her practicality and intelligence. Richard is absolutely fascinated when Bunny not only navigates the questionnaire with ease but also manages to analyze him in the process; pointing out that he is single simply because he’s wearing a pair of mismatched socks. She could certainly teach EMERAC a thing or two!
Richard decides then and there to get to know Bunny better. In the meantime, Bunny’s plans for a weekend retreat with Mike are dashed after the firm decides to send him on an impromptu conference in Chicago. After sharing a ride in the pouring rain to Bunny’s fashionable brownstone, Bunny encourages Richard to change out of his wet clothes and into the plush bathrobe she’s bought as a Christmas gift for Mike. She also invites him to stay for dinner. It’s all so quaintly domestic and – regrettably – utterly misconstrued by Mike, who arrives unexpectedly for a last minute stopover after his plane has been grounded due to inclement weather. Sumner is amused by Mike’s jealousy; the mood souring between Bunny and Mike after she finds his insinuations disgusting and insulting. However, Bunny does nothing to quell Mike’s suspicions. In fact, she fuels them. Peg arrives and is mildly intrigued by this turn of events. But Mike storms off in a huff.  Sumner regales Peg with their ordeal, getting a rousing chuckle out of both ladies.
We fast track to Christmas Eve at the Federal Broadcasting Network; the entire office imbued with more than a cup of good cheer. In fact, they’ve been hitting the liquor pretty hard. Amidst all the holiday hullaballoo Bunny arrives with packages. She’s already two sheets to the wind but manages to give Mike the rather incongruous gift of a set of bongo drums. “What do you get the man who has everything?” she muses. Her gift for Richard is more personal; a scarf with his old alma mater colors. Popping champagne corks around the room and indulging in the gaiety with all her intoxicated fellow staffers, Bunny retreats to an overhead balcony with Richard where they share an introspective moment, each realizing that the other is the only one for them. Richard encourages everyone to join him for drinks at the Plaza. But the holiday atmosphere is deflated when his assistant, the overly officious, Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson) arrives to inform everyone that EMERAC will be installed the first of January inside the research department. Perhaps unemployment for Bunny and her brethren isn’t too far behind.
We turn over a new leaf, this one in the New Year; Peg, Ruthie and Sylvia inadvertently causing minor infractions (leaving a door open, attempting to light a cigarette) to EMERAC’s new ‘clean room’ policy. Miss Warriner has been ambitiously programming the computing system with a series of punch cards, storing vast quantities of data into its mainframe. Richard brings Azae and a group of executives down for a demonstration of this bulky vacuum-tubed apparatus. But only a few questions into the test EMERAC suffers a technical failure; Bunny and her research team coming to the aid with good old-fashioned know how and their finely honed research skills. Azae is impressed, but elects that there is room for both EMERAC and the ladies in his company. Afterward Richard assures Bunny that installing EMERAC was a precautionary measure since Azae has plans to ‘expand’ – not ‘close’ – the research department. There’s going to be too much work for even the girls to handle. Realizing how much she loves Richard, Bunny throws her arms around him and EMERAC signals it’s approval by spelling out the words ‘the end’ across its massive screen.
Desk Set isn’t a bad film. It isn’t even a bad Tracy/Hepburn movie. Arguably, the couple never made one. What it is - with very few exceptions - is bland; Fox relying on Cinemascope and color by DeLuxe to snazzy up the proceedings. Prior to this movie Tracy and Hepburn had only appeared in B&W. Charles LeMarie’s costuming is a 1950’s pastiche of flamboyantly collared, synched waist business attire. Maurice Lansford and Lyle Wheeler’s production design takes full advantage of the expansive widescreen frame, as does Leon Shamroy’s superb palette of bold and enriching colors. Yet for all its eye-popping visual appeal, Desk Set doesn’t necessarily benefit.  Tracy and Hepburn keep the film alive, ably abetted by some slick writing from the Ephrons. When the screenplay clicks, excising the superfluous characters and concentrating on the chemistry between its two stars, then Desk Set sparkles with renewed brilliance as only a Tracy/Hepburn comedy of errors can. But these very fine moments are always being intruded upon by the secondary cast; each given precious little to do once they’ve entered the frame except look gorgeous as they stick their noses in places they ought not. 
Let’s just get this one out of the way: Gig Young’s Mike Cutler isn’t even a third wheel, but a minor nuisance despite Young’s congenial self. When he dares attempt to play opposite Hepburn she eats him alive – practically unintentionally. He just can’t hold the same space as her and probably knows it because all of Mike’s dialogue seems to better inform the audience of his own insecurities and chauvinism rather than make even the feeblest outreach to ignite the fair Ms. Watson’s flames of desire (not that he could). Contrast this with Tracy’s relaxed and uncomplicated sparing and we know from the start he’s Bunny’s guy. Still, Mike continues to linger. It’s rather painful and pathetic to watch; like Eddie Fisher trying to hold his own between Liz and Dick.
The other great travesty of the screenplay is its short-shrift of Joan Blondell.  While Dina Merrill and Sue Randall were never considered anything better than second string starlets, Blondell’s career stretched all the way back to the early 1930’s playing hot and sexy in some very fine films. In Desk Set she’s Bunny’s appendage – period! Peg fields calls and chats up our star like a treasured gal-pal. But the Ephron’s screenplay gives Blondell no moment to shine; no snappy one-liners to rattle off as only she could; no appeal to reflect on that sassy gal we remember so well from yesteryear.  No, she’s just present and accounted for, and it is saying something of Blondell’s presence that her lack of on-screen time does not equate to a dearth of appeal. It’s great to see Blondell again. One simply wishes she had been given a more impressive part to play.
Desk Set won’t win any awards for romantic comedy of the year. But it is effortless fluff – easy on the eyes and ears and with the added bonus of seeing Tracy and Hepburn nearly their emeritus years together. They would appear only once more as a team – this time as man and wife (a role they never managed to play in life despite a thirty-seven year ‘affair’) in Stanley Kramer’s superb Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Tracy and Hepburn will always be fondly remembered as the pluperfect couple. But they’ve done their best work elsewhere. Desk Set is a minor effort.
Ugh! I am not loving Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray at all! The entire image is bathed in an aquamarine hue. A goodly number of vintage Cinemascope movies put out by Fox on Blu-ray have favored this bluish tint. I’m not exactly certain why. Never having seen Desk Set in Cinemascope projection I cannot say that this is not how the movie looked in 1957. But the DVD from 2002 exhibited superior colors. Whereas the DVD favored a warm palette with clearly delineated browns, greens, greys and reds, the Blu-ray looks as though someone at Fox fell asleep at the controls and turned every other color in the spectrum off except for the teal. Greys are now grey-blue. Flesh that was a warm orange is now a wan pink. Reds look more ruddy orange than anything else. Tracy’s black suits (at least, black on the DVD) are now a dark navy. Ditto for the laces of his shoes. Whites have adopted this bluish caste too. I also detected a few shots where eyes leaned toward an incredibly unhealthy looking blue-green. Worse, the image hasn’t tightened up all that much in hi-def. Yes, it’s tighter than the DVD as one ought to expect. But does the image pop with robust fine detail? Hardly. Not even in close up. Contrast too seems a tad weak. Film grain is practically non-existent. DNR scrubbing? Hmmm.
Cinemascope was hardly a perfect widescreen process. But Blu-ray’s of The Robe, How To Marry a Millionaire, Bigger Than Life, and so on illustrate that its overriding weakness was decidedly not color fidelity or favoring a bluish tint. I can’t imagine Desk Set looking this way in 1957. Certainly, it didn’t look like this on DVD – or even VHS (the worst of all possible formats to view any movie). So what happened?!? I can’t accept that what we’re seeing is vinegar syndrome for the simple fact that Desk Set looked quite good (strictly speaking of its colors) on DVD.  I also cannot imagine Fox not going back to the restoration masters made from that minting to crib their new 1080p derivative. It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s also a curiosity that Fox has stuck with a mono mix for this new DTS. Vintage Cinemascope offered six channels of stereophonic sound. Fox has also skimped on the extras; same audio commentary from Dina Merrill and historian John Lee. It’s fairly boring and not altogether an informative affair. You can easily skip out. And that’s about it. Desk Set on Blu-ray doesn’t get my recommendation, primarily because of the flubbed color and generally soft image. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1947) Fox Home Video

Do the dead come back to visit the living? Part of the mystery of death, at least for mankind, is that we can only experience it once – or, so it would seem. What becomes of the soul once the body is recalled into the earth has intrigued theologians and scholars since the beginning of time. There are no shortage of theories; spiritually-based and otherwise. The fascination endures for the simple fact that no one really has the answer. To some, death is a rather terrifying prospect – a finite conclusion to all that has gone before it, but (and a very important ‘but’ at that) with the eternal promise of heavenly serenity or hellishly lament to follow. Pragmatically, death is merely part and parcel of the inevitable counterbalance to life. For better or worse eternal rest and eternal life are inextricably linked to the time-honored tradition of ghost stories; supernatural tales of restless spirits who, for one reason or another, never quite made this permanent migration from the tangible world into the ethereal next.  Despite Biblical implications (you shouldn’t believe in ghosts if you believe in Christ, for example), public opinion and contemplation is overwhelmingly in favor of the possibility that those already having moved on can still return to influence the living at will.  
This protoplasmic manipulation of time and space is at the crux of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); a ravishing melodrama. It really does cheapen the movie merely to label it as a ghost story; its tale of impossible love transferable into a more tangible expression only in the afterlife; between a lonely young widow and the crusty, but benign apparition of a sea captain lost long ago. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir unexpectedly develops as an arresting romance before our eyes; far more eloquent than the traditional ‘ghost story’.  Death herein is both curse and salvation to the fated lovers never to consummate their affair in this lifetime. While fate is not on the side of either Lucy Muir (played with sustained grace and fortitude by Gene Tierney) or Capt. Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison in an impeccably masculine and lusty performance) time may serve their purpose. For the very much alive Mrs. Muir is destined to the inevitable that will allow her passage into the immortality presently occupied by Gregg.  The film doesn’t really concern itself with any religious implications, but focuses instead on the unlikely friendship that steadily grows into an ever-maturing bond of love.
Philip Dunne's screenplay tweaks the plot points in R.A. Dick's novel ever so slightly, while sustaining the ethereal mood that made the book such a page turner. As a movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is an intelligent masterpiece. It forgoes the usual trappings of a spooky dark old house suspense/thriller or happily haunted comedy. Elements of these hybrids are in play throughout the story to be sure. But gradually these yield to a surprisingly adult-themed and sincere romance of contemplations; Gregg’s spirit recognizing his fallibility in developing feelings for this handsome creature of the flesh – yet, unable to fulfill or satisfy her tactile desires. Lucy Muir could go on like this, despite her sad-eyed inquiry of “What’s to become of us, Daniel?” made on a desolately foggy eve. But Harrison’s caustic captain isn’t about to let a vibrant lass such as this languish in the invisible hollow of his arms aching to hold her. In fact, it is Harrison’s rather sensitive portrait of sexual frustration that fuels the middle and third acts of the movie; his noble relinquishment of the woman he so obviously adores and would have made every valiant attempt to possess in life are herein made all the more agonizing by Harrison’s commanding presence.
In some ways the middle act of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a Median tragedy; the realization that any ‘understanding’ between the dead and the living can only go so far forces this couple – who so clearly belong to one another – to part for the duration of Lucy Muir’s life; Gregg setting aside his desire, allowing Lucy a life removed from his influences. It’s a heartrending decision; Gregg’s moonlit farewell to Lucy as she sleeps, his lips so close to her own as he whispers farewell, erasing all but the faintest whiff of remembrance of his visitation from her mind before decamping his ancestral home. This penultimate departure comes early in the third act; the bloom of Lucy’s youth encroached upon by the specters of time and age. Despite this benevolent chance at earthy happiness, Lucy Muir remains a creature apart and removed from the life she might have pursued; a devoted spinster enduring her isolation at Gull Cottage by day, only to awaken from more pleasant nocturnal escapisms renewed each morn.
Joseph Mankiewicz’s handling of Lucy Muir’s advancing years is dealt with concisely; Hollywood’s aversion to the aging process herein tempered with the gentlest of directorial hands, Dunne’s screenplay allowing our acceptance of graying hair and wrinkles to intrude upon the glacial beauty of our star and the inevitable relinquishment of her foolish fancies about Capt. Gregg. The captain does, in fact, return one stark and windswept night, hovering for just a moment or two, eyes blazing with renewed affection beyond his corruptible shell and burrowing deep into the heart of this woman who still completely captivates him.
Without trick photography or clumsy/flashy edits, Mankiewicz (perhaps taking his cue from John Cromwell’s exceptionally underrated The Enchanted Cottage 1945) allows his actors this moment of transference; Gregg taking hold of Lucy Muir’s gnarled old finger tips, the camera suddenly cutting to a shot of the rapturous Gene Tierney restored to her youth. This subtle representation of the spirit restored and released from its earthly shell, Tierney rising with a tender gaze for this man never farther from her thoughts all these years, as the pair stroll toward a moonlit and vaporous path just beyond the front door, strikes an indelible chord and lingers steadfast and true; sending a curious chill down our collective spines even as it stirs and simultaneously warms the heart. Few movies of any genre have so completely plumbed such mixed emotions with so comprehensive a mercurial consummation of the senses.       
Gene Tierney was one of Fox’s most bankable stars throughout the 1940’s. And yet The Ghost and Mrs. Muir marks something of a last hurrah to her heady days as a leading lady. Tierney, who had solidified her place in the cinema firmament just a scant few years earlier as one of its most stunning ice princesses in Laura (1944) and Leave Her To Heaven (1945) was to suffer much tragedy and heartbreak beyond the footlights. Such are the contradictions between life vs. art.  Not long after The Ghost and Mrs. Muir Tierney began experiencing bouts of severe depression brought on by the tragedy of committing her daughter, born with severe retardation, to an institution. Even more disturbing to Tierney was her sudden lack of focus in her work, ultimately leading to a mental collapse and total implosion of her movie career; the peerless glamor girl at fitful odds with the emotionally fragile creature who arguably never found her place in the world at large again.  
In hindsight there is something of a hint of this impending real-life doom intricately woven into the fabric of Tierney’s portrait: Lucy Muir - too soon a widow, scrutinized by her late husband’s family; scatterbrain/stern mother-in-law, Angelica (Isobel Elsom) and even more opinionated sister-in-law, Eva (Victoria Horne) and put upon by an unscrupulous new love on the horizon, Miles Fairley (George Sanders at his oily best). Tierney is at her best when sparing with Rex Harrison’s cantankerous spirit; no small feat given Harrison’s formidable talent and his penchant for scene stealing. By all accounts Harrison and Tierney got on famously throughout the shoot. So too, in retrospect, does the movie feel very much like a springboard for Harrison’s super stardom, having made a significant splash in Anna and the King of Siam only the year before. But Harrison’s fame would pale to his infamy after Carol Landis’ suicide in 1948. Fox’s solid second-string starlet had been ambitiously courting the married Harrison for some time when she took her own life. Popular opinion blamed Harrison, Fox dropping his studio contract shortly thereafter.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is blessed by a moody Bernard Herrman score. This preempts even the 2oth Century-Fox trademark and thereafter dominates the main title sequence, with California’s Baja coastline substituting for England’s white cliffs of Dover. From here we regress to inserts of the Fox back lot redressed in Victorian finery for our introduction to Lucy Muir. The recently widowed girl is being criticized by her late husband’s family, Angelica and Eva, for having made the decision to move away with her young daughter, Anna (Natalie Wood) and loyal housemaid, Martha Huggins (Edna Best).  Not long after, Lucy engages the services of a rather bumbling realtor, Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote) in her search for the ideal place to rear her child. Lucy is attracted to Gull Cottage; a rather forlorn and modest abode situated near the sea and once owned by a sea captain, Daniel Gregg who was lost in a terrible storm. Coombe forewarns that the cottage is haunted by Gregg’s restless spirit but reluctantly agrees to show it to the persistent Lucy when her interest in the property remains unabated.
Gregg’s ghost feebly attempts to startle the pair as they explore the quiet, dusty but sunlit rooms. While Gregg’s hapless hauntings are enough to frighten Coombe back into town, Lucy finds the unsettled nature of the place ideal and moves right in, along with Martha and Anna without reservations. On a dark, windswept and rainy night Lucy is visited by Gregg in the kitchen. And although he initially startles her, the pragmatic Lucy quickly regains her composure, ensuring Gregg that she has no intention decamping the premises. She even makes a demand of Gregg; that he will not haunt her daughter or Anna. Gregg is fascinated by Lucy’s convictions and strength of character. No one has ever talked to him this way; certainly no woman he ever knew while still a man of the earth prone to dalliances with many. 
Gregg agrees to Lucy’s terms and the two begin what will ultimately evolve from a very reluctant détente into a meaningful friendship with perks. Gregg delights in terrorizing Coombe who infrequently pays visits to Gull Cottage. He also wreaks havoc on Martha and Eva after they have come to inform Lucy that she will be given no more money from her late husband’s estate unless she agrees to return to the fold and move back into town. Lucy is despondent. But Gregg inspires her to write his memoirs, teeming with lurid details that utterly delight London publisher, Mr. Sproule (Whitford Kane), who agrees to publish it. Royalties accrued from the book’s success secure Lucy's future at Gull Cottage. But the trip back to the cottage leads to an unexpected introduction made by children’s author, Miles Fairley (George Sanders). Unbeknownst to Lucy, Miles is also a notorious lady’s man. Gregg is initially jealous of this new man in Lucy’s life. But he also begins to realize that his own steadily growing affections for Lucy have negatively impacted her ability to live a mortal life according to her own heart.
Determined that Lucy should not ‘waste’ her life on him Gregg decides to implant a thought into her mind while she sleeps: that he has been nothing more than an ambitious figment of her own fertile imagination. Awakening from her slumber, Lucy decides to pursue her romance with Miles. But Lucy’s daydreams of happiness abruptly end when she learns her lover already has a wife (Anna Lee). Retreating with great embarrassment to the cottage Lucy resigns herself to a celibate life, raising Anna alone and fostering her closest ties with Martha. Although she intuitively senses a presence at her side, Lucy is unable to quantify it in any concrete terms. The years quietly pass. Anna grows up, marries and leaves Gull Cottage. Lucy ages, her spirit unbowed, her body transformed through the inevitable ravages of time. Yet, Lucy has never entirely forgotten 'the memory' of Capt. Gregg.
On a windswept, foggy eve Gregg returns to Gull Cottage, entering Lucy's bedroom while Martha is downstairs preparing her some tea. He stirs the aged dowager from her slumber with comforting words. But as Gregg takes Lucy by the hand the years suddenly melt away. Lucy Muir is once again a startlingly youthful girl and we suddenly realize Gregg’s return is meant to coincide with Lucy Muir’s death; his spirit having patiently waited for hers to return to him. The barriers between life and death removed, Gregg and Lucy depart Gull Cottage for a glowing fog bank just beyond, the once forbidden recesses of heaven’s porthole now opening up to welcome them home.
Ethereal and riveting, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is top notch entertainment. Rex Harrison is a formidable presence.  When he grumbles the earth seems to tremble beneath everyone else’s feet. But when he captivates our stoic Mrs. Muir he utterly beguiles as an intuitive, zesty vapor with manly resolve and a great winter passion for the living. Gene Tierney, often cast as a rather stilted portrait of feminine beauty, emerges herein a resplendent and luminous creature of flesh and blood. Her Lucy Muir is a strange concoction of pert and pleasantness. Where a lesser actress might have played to the obviousness of a girl visited by ghosts, Tierney instead faces the prospect with as common and staunch fortitude befitting anyone facing a more earthly challenge. Our Mrs. Muir has guts and brains and balances both with her Patrician good looks. Tierney wows us with her stunning features; but she remains utterly sensational for the way she handles the part. The rest of the cast are perfect compliments to these two great stars. But the show undeniably belongs to Harrison and Tierney.  And Joseph Mankiewicz has achieved the extraordinary; a ghost story that is neither frightening nor silly, but eloquently expressed as one of the most gratifying love stories ever put on film.
One of Fox’s most enduring and treasured movies, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was reissued several times before being remade as a half-hour television sitcom in 1968 where it promptly and painfully expired. Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray rectifies the fantastic sins of its abysmal DVD from 2001. The DVD was marred by severe edge effects and pixelization, whole portions of the image in constant flux with disturbing halos.  The Blu-ray eradicates these misfires and what we’re left with is an utterly gorgeous 1080p transfer that is brighter and infinitely more refined. Wow! Fox has really done their homework on this title. You are going to fall in love with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir all over again! The gray scale has been rendered with superb contrast. By far, this is one of the finest hi-def offerings of the Christmas season and a very fine film besides.  Fox gives us two DTS audio tracks to consider; the original mono (preferred) and a faux stereo remix done for the DVD but sounding far more robust herein. Fox hasn’t given us anything new as extras: two independent audio commentaries; one featuring Greg Kimble and Christopher Husted, the other with historians Jeanine Basinger and Kenneth Geist providing alternative information and history on the making of the film. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


NASHVILLE: Blu-ray (Paramount/ABC Productions 1975) Criterion Home Video

A cavalcade of seventies hopefuls and future stars strut their stuff in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975); a cornucopia of southern-styled home cooking, brilliantly conceived as a microcosmic heartland of country music. Nashville is perhaps the perfect tribute to America's bicentennial, what with Altman’s verve for overlapping dialogue and Joan Tewkesbury’s hyper-critical screenplay exposing these seedy misfits, musical marvels and never-to-be protégées in all their greedy, self-absorbed pursuits to hit the big time; the emerging portrait of this famed Tennessee capital, at once tantalizing, ugly, contemptible, yet downright spellbinding. 
Whether it’s sacrificial lamb, warm-hearted first lady of country music, Barbara-Jean (Ronee Blakley – so deliberately a knock off of Loretta Lynn) or misguided waitress, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) – who quits her day job for a chance to share the spotlight but winds up the brunt of a deliberate set-up to strip to a room of cat-calling middle age contributors during a political fundraiser, or even the kindly middle-aged, Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) about to unexpectedly become a widower and virtually ignored by his narcissistic niece, Martha (a.k.a.  L.A. Joan played by Shelley Duvall, in an utterly bizarre role); Nashville evokes a caste system in this red-neck aristocracy, equal parts comedy and pathos. Apart from the inevitable dating (the movie is undeniably an artifact of the seventies, yet thematically, even more relevant and universal today) these fractured lives on display continuing to resonate with a cheap luster translating to a most assured - if tawdry - appeal.
Initially, Altman was asked by United Artists (UA) to do a film in Nashville from an already acquired screenplay. Altman read and hated the story. However, he did agree to direct something of his own for UA, dispatching long-time friend and writer, Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville to keep a daily journal of her first-time experiences. Tewkesbury’s inauspicious arrival, grappling with the crowded, noisy chaos oozing southern hospitality on all sides, and, a perilous car wreck stalling traffic for miles along the interstate, would eventually become the first act of Nashville. Altman loved what Tewkesbury had done. But at some point, UA became thoroughly unimpressed with this free-flowing approach and released him from his contractual obligation. Undaunted, Altman took his story to ABC and producer, Jerry Weintrub who immediate green lit the project without any reservations. 
Viewing Nashville today is an uncanny ‘through the looking-glass’ experience. The country music empire has long-since moved beyond these humble beginnings depicted in the movie, as a melting pot for star-struck yokels and disenfranchised, fresh-off-the-farm outsiders, the proverbial American dream tucked deep into their blue jeans back pockets; a fourth grade education and lifetime of waiting tables at a greasy spoon on their précis. Today’s mainstream affiliations with country music have somewhat eclipsed the immediacy of the 'little' story Altman is trying to tell and, at least on this level Nashville plays more like a quaint relic today; its perpetually side-burned ‘good ole boys’ and high-haired Aqua-Net divas truly giving historical significance to its ‘time capsule’ appeal. 
Nashville was ill-received in Nashville at the time of its release; Altman criticized for his use of songs written by various cast members in lieu of using time-honored ditties penned on the river by real country folk to augment and authenticate his story with ‘ya’ll come back now’ verisimilitude. In retrospect the eclectic score, featuring the Oscar-winning ‘I’m Easy’, sung with unapologetic masculine sadness by Keith Carradine, is a blessing. Both the songs and the characters who sing them run parallel to the ‘then’ reality. And Altman, in a grander, more prolific wisdom, has discovered the kernels of his social commentary on the struggles and tragedy of life in the most unlikely of places. 
Whether it’s the frank and scintillating pontification of the movie’s fictional politico, Hal Philip Walker (written and voiced by real-life politician Thomas Hal Philips who is never seen, but omnipotent from bugled loudspeakers blaring his alter ego’s campaign message to the people) or Barbara Harris’ emotional outpouring of a post-celebrity assassination dirge, ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ (“You may say, that I ain’t free…but it don’t worry me!”) - Nashville envelopes its audience in a panorama dedicated to this surreal mendacity. None of the characters who populate this movie are genuine of heart or purpose. Nor are any of them able to articulate what it is they hope to achieve beyond their vacuous thirst of instant fame – an elusive and ultimately very self-destructive carrot dangled before their noses; the puppet masters all too eager to capitalize on the intellectual deficiencies of this talent pool.
Nashville is a diamond in the rough; careworn and coated in dust off a lonely country road, not so much because it demystifies the perceived simplicity of homespun southern folk direct from the Grand Ole Opry. We do, in fact, see far more of the salacious backstage shenanigans than any performance from these alter-icons in the industry; the backstabbing between Cheshire-grinning rivals and the unscrupulous exploitation of raw talent by those closest to it. Altman has labeled Nashville as 'his musical', but the movie doesn’t exactly play as such – even as an ‘integrated musical’. As written and performed, the songs serve the melodrama while curiously never advancing the story. In a way, each is an introspective requiem; our caricatures expressing through their music what they are utterly incapable of sharing with others privately through more articulate thoughts.  When Altman’s stars take to the mic and the movie allows them their uninterrupted moment, the songs always inform on a multitude of levels beyond mere entertainment value.
Of these, Ronee Blakley’s stories within a song are the most heartrending to endure; the kitten-faced, emotionally fragile woman, straight-jacketed into a career by a sadistic money-hungry spouse, Barnett (Alan Garfield) only interested in her profitability as a country superstar. Blakley’s tender portrait is the lynch pin that keeps the other meandering narrative threads from unraveling to the point of abject absurdity.  One senses a great talent unable to stop this perverse manipulation and slowly being destroyed by her own gifts. When Blakely dedicates Barbara Jean’s penultimate appearance at a political rally to ‘mama and daddy’ Altman converges and contrasts her unassuming sweetness with the cold calculations of a political hack, via his shameless promoter, John Triplette (Michael Murphy) who, after Barbara Jean is fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet can only pace the concourse of the Parthenon, considering what her death has done to his candidate’s chances of winning the Presidential primary.
Barbara Jean’s story is not the only one Altman tells with intricate details. In another part of town is Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin); a gospel singer courting disaster with disreputable scamp, Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) who seduces women as readily as he slips in and out of his BVD's. Carradine’s egotistical parasite is often misconstrued as a ruthless womanizer. In point of fact, he is a cleft man; his morally loose-fitting identity wrapped in a belief that talent – as either part of a popular country/western trio or burgeoning solo artist - entitles him to dalliances with an ever-evolving line of sexually willing, but emotionally vapid, groupies. Linnea is the exception to this entourage: a mother of two deaf children openly resisting Tom’s telephoned advances at first, but bowing to temptation as an escape from her rather pointless marriage to political promoter, Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty).
Altman fleshes out these woeful stories of human heartache, at intervals ringing tinny rather than true in their dedication to the cliché ‘my baby done left me, my horse died and somebody just stole my truck’ with a teeming populace of stellar support: Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton – the diminutive and perpetually frustrated pride of the Opry who suffers from a short man’s complex (a role originally intended for Robert Duval); Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal ‘from the BBC’ – a rather flighty and easily stirred social butterfly intruding on all these lives, microphone in hand, chipper-voiced and bouncing in and out of frame without ever committing herself to the people she is supposed to get to know; Barbara Harris’ hopeless simpleton, Winifred, who spends the bulk of the movie eluding her redneck husband, guitar in hand, but rises to the occasion, calling cattle down from the Ozarks for the movie’s exceptionally fine closer, ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ – Altman’s liberal ode to gun control; Karen Black – as self-absorbed and utterly insular Connie White; a serious rival to Barbara Jean should the latter suddenly slip and fall from grace, and finally, David Hayward as Kenny Frasier; the unassuming, socially awkward mama’s boy who proves to be anything but in the final reel.
If only to limit this critique to the aforementioned in greater detail, then Nashville would already be an intense and intricate character study. But Nashville’s secondary and even tertiary cast always compels our viewing. Who can forget Jeff Goldblum’s nearly silent performance as ‘tricycle man’ – a leering, long-haired hippie performing magic tricks to impress waitresses at local nightclubs and roadside greasy spoons; Barbara Baxley’s Lady Pearl – Hamilton’s dutiful wife unable to rid herself of some terrible sadness or resilient pride as she ‘stands by her man’; Timothy Brown as the homogenized Opry-land crooner, Tommy Brown – having transgressed in the eyes of some Non-Caucasian brethren as being the ‘whitest n_gger in town’; or Scott Glenn’s decorated war veteran ever-devoted to Barbara Jean who cannot bring himself to be her champion until it is too late. 
Nashville sells its wares with an extraordinary vitality because Altman markets his cast with a presence for each and every part. Nothing and no one is wasted. Even the cameos – Julie Christie and Elliot Gould (each playing themselves) – come with a payoff; Christie’s leading to a particularly funny gag when Connie White, in addition to not knowing who Julie Christie is, adds to her own arrogant ridiculousness a playfully chiding Hamilton for lying to her about Christie’s popularity as a movie star.
Nashville opens in the true spirit of shameless self-promotion; Altman staging the credits over a faux album cover and a hyperactive voiceover reading off the names of his cast.  From this flamboyant opener we retreat to the campaign offices of Hal Philip Walker, a van equipped with bugle horns peddling the great man’s prophetic ‘what’s wrong with America?’ diatribes up and down the city streets, exquisitely contrasted as the movie retreats into a recording booth where Haven Hamilton is cutting his patriotic salute to America – the beautiful; 200 Years. The demo is frequently interrupted by Hamilton’s mounting vexation with his slightly stoned piano player, Frog (composer Richard Baskin) and his tetchiness directed at an unwanted visitor, Opal – from the BBC. Hamilton’s rather beefy but congenial son, Buddy (David Peel) is ordered to escort Opal out; her interview ongoing as Opal and Bud step into another booth laying tracks for Linnea and a local gospel choir. 
Altman gives us no more than a few snippets for what will follow, and yet they are exceptionally well-placed to whet our appetites. We move into an airport terminal where the Tricycle man is entertaining waitress Sueleen Gay with his slights of hand. Sueleen is impressed; her employer, Wade less so. We also meet Mr. Green, informing a patron he is waiting for his niece, Martha (Shelley Duval) – come all the way from California to visit her ailing aunt. Also newly arrived are feuding marrieds and fellow band members, Mary (Cristina Raines) and Bill (Allan Nicholls). Bill suspects his wife of infidelity. But not even he can fathom that his better half has been sweating up the sheets with the third wheel in their band, Tom Franks, presently avoiding both Mary and Bill to launch his solo singing career.
Landing at the airport is Barbara Jean – the first lady of country music, newly recovered from severe burns sustained during a house fire. Dressed in virginal white and flanked by an entourage that includes her handler/husband, Barnett, Hamilton, his wife Lady Pearl and Hal Walker’s PR man, John Triplette, Barbara Jean braves her adoring fans and a full-out marching band before suffering another collapse on the tarmac. She is rushed to the hospital post haste. Departing the recording studio, Opal shares a car with Linnea, the two winding up in gridlock after a six car pileup on the interstate delays traffic for miles. Opal exploits the moment to interview Tommy Brown and his band. Returning home, Linnea receives a cryptic phone call from Tom imploring a romantic rendezvous while her husband, Del is entertaining Hal Walker’s political organizer, John Triplette at dinner.  Linnea reluctantly refuses his invitation but then agrees to accept another phone call at a less awkward time; the second call met with nervous repudiation as Del listens in on the other line.
Meanwhile, reclusive Kenny and the guileless, Winifred meet along a lonely road into Nashville; each briefly sharing their reasons for coming to town. Winifred confides she is on the lam from her husband, ducking into a nearby gas station at the first sight of his red pickup. Kenny hitches a ride into town and later rents a room from Mr. Green. That afternoon Hamilton has an informal gathering at his house, Triplette persuading him that if he were to back Walker’s campaign with a few public appearances Walker would reciprocate by promoting Hamilton as a viable prospect for the state’s next governor. In the presence of his wife, Lady Pearl – who insists they remain apolitical – Hamilton politely declines this offer, but afterward encourages Triplette to attend his live performance at the Opry where he will ultimately give his consent. 
Not heeding Wade’s advice – to keep her day job – Sueleen debuts her singing act at a seedy watering hole. It’s painful, but her provocative off-key purring incites the club’s owner, Trout (Merle Kilgore) to play a very cruel trick on her; recommending Sueleen appear at Triplette’s fundraiser as a stripper without her knowledge. At the hospital, Barnett isolates Barbara Jean from a barrage of well-wishers, the pair quietly listening to a live broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry where singer Connie White is a last minute substitute for what ought to have been Barbara Jean’s comeback. Connie brings down the house and Barbara Jean is made jealous.
After Barbara Jean throws a slight tantrum Barnett cruelly suggests she is losing her mind and treats her with contempt and condescension before leaving to go ‘hobnobbing’ with Hamilton and Connie at a popular night spot, thus rendering Barbara Jean inconsolable. Once she has fallen asleep alone in her hospital room, Barbara Jean is visited by Pfc. Kelly who was actually instrumental in rescuing her from the fire. After the show, Hamilton informs Triplette, who is impressed with Connie’s Opry performance that Barbara Jean and Connie never appear together, but that he will agree to appear anywhere Barbara Jean does. The onus is now on Triplette to get Barnett to agree to have his wife appear at Hal Walker’s campaign rally. Meanwhile Bill is incensed with Mary, suspecting she is having an affair with Tom. Mary is, in fact, in love with Tom and whispers as much during their post coital embrace; an unreciprocated confession. 
So far, Nashville has been a series of relatively disjointed misfortunes and misadventures told with Robert Altman’s quirky and inimitable style. But Altman now moves into his third act with a series of poignant revelations. Mr. Green is informed by a nurse at the hospital that his wife passed away during the night. Opal and Tom, then Tom and Linnea sleep together. Opal spends the next day wandering through stockpiles of rusty cars and hulking school buses at the auto graveyard, spouting poetic elegies into her tape recorder. We segue to a stock car race where Winifred’s singing debut is drowned out by the deafening hum of the raging engines. Triplette implores Bill and Mary, who have been feuding all morning, to perform at Hal Walker’s rally.
Back at Mr. Green's house, Kenny becomes disturbed while on the phone to his mother when Martha attempts to take a peek inside his violin case. Barbara Jean performs at Opryland USA, Triplette doing his best to coax Barnett into agreeing to an appearance at the Parthenon. But only moments into her second song, Barbara Jean suffers some sort of a mental breakdown and we, the audience, are suddenly made aware of how deeply and emotionally scarred and fragile she is. Barbara Jean’s pathetic ramblings cause the crowd to boo her and throw things at the stage. To temper their displeasure, Barnett tells the audience they can come to the Parthenon the next afternoon to hear Barbara Jean sing for free, thereby committing her to Hal Walker’s rally under certain preconditions ironed out with Triplette, all of them ignored once it is already too late for Barbara Jean to back out.
At his insistence, Linnea goes to see Tom perform at a nightclub, choosing to isolate herself at the back of the club when she sees Martha attempting to pick Tom up. At another table Mary’s pride is wounded when Opal inadvertently confesses she and Tom have slept together. Tom is asked to sing, performing with Mary and Bill and then making his solo debut with ‘I’m Easy’ – a rather sincere confessional ballad about a man recognizing his own failings to commit to any relationship. Moved by the song, Linnea goes back to Tom’s room after the show where the two make love. When Linnea needs to leave, citing commitments to her children, Tom callously calls another woman and has a very flirtatious conversation in her presence.
Sueleen premieres at the all-male fundraiser and is informed by Del and Triplette that she is expected to take her clothes off to satisfy the crowd – her compensation for this public humiliation a chance to sing at the Parthenon the next day with Barbara Jean. Sueleen becomes uncomfortably numb as she bares her all to these leering tomcats, Wade coming to her rescue a short while later on the front stoop of their boarding house by urging her to go back to Detroit with him. But Sueleen refuses, still believing her own fame is just around the corner. The next day the performers arrive at the Parthenon. Walker’s name towering overhead on a billowing canvas enrages Barnett who had been assured by Triplette that no mention of the candidate would be on display. Mr. Green angrily departs his wife’s burial with Kenny in pursuit to go in search of Martha who has rather callously ignored him since her arrival in town and has gone to the rally instead.
Hamilton and Barbara Jean perform together before Barbara Jean dedicates a solo to her parents - a rousing ditty about the hard-knock life of steadfast and exceptionally proud people who raised their children with love and devotion. The moment is shattered as Kenny pulls out a pistol and shoots Barbara Jean dead, wounding Hamilton in the arm. As Pfc. Kelly wrestles Kenny to the ground, Hamilton attempts to calm the crowd. Hal Walker’s motorcade departs without the crowd ever seeing the ‘great man’, leaving Triplette to pace back and forth, contemplating what the assassination has done to his client’s chances of becoming the next President of the United States. Winifred takes advantage of the situation, belting out the inspiring and defiant ballad, ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ with Linnea’s gospel choir chiming in; Altman’s camera tilting from the incongruity of this garish spectacle to a hopeful blue sky before fading to black.   
In these final moments Nashville becomes a penitent masterpiece; its apocryphal tragedy transformed into a self-effacing celebration of the human spirit. Only in retrospect does this moment seem imbued with clairvoyance; Altman later asked by a New York Time’s reporter if he ‘felt responsible’ for contributing to the cultural mindset that inspired Mark David Chapman to assassinate John Lennon.  In response, Altman replied, “If anything ‘you’ should feel responsible for not heeding my warning.”
Viewed today, Nashville remains scathingly original; truly a showcase for Robert Altman’s epic vision of this thin slice of Americana made unapologetic and derisive. This isn’t ‘America the beautiful’ but rather American Gothic Redux; a richly absorbing, free-flowing country/western musical/docu-drama/comedy with all the grand meditations of a cinema genius so clearly in love and obsessing over his material. In most any other case this would spell disaster for the finished feature. But Altman has proven time and again he knows how to make eclecticism thrive on the big movie screen; how to ply his celebrity-laced junkets with flashes of high-flying exhilaration, each and every jumbled moment counting toward something greater than itself. 
While the characters populating Altman’s masterwork are decidedly insular, self-serving and self-destructing all at once, the movie exponentially expands in its premise, building to its crescendo by bringing together all of these intricately woven narrative threads; a bawdy, gaudy claptrap somehow never unraveling despite its tenuous cohesion. Prepare yourself for a movie unlike most any other you’re likely to see. Altman’s Nashville is the cinematic equivalent of a hearty swig; potent moonshine newly brewed off a backwater distillery.    
Nashville on Blu-ray is an exceptionally fine presentation. The DVD from Paramount had suffered from a considerable amount of age-related artifacts, faded colors and a curious ‘greenish’ tint. Criterion’s new hi-def incarnation eradicates all of the aforementioned shortcomings and adds a superb reproduction of film grain. The Blu-ray’s palette is decidedly warmer, flesh appearing far more natural. Contrast levels are pristine. The ‘wow’ factor is in evidence in every frame. You are going to love this disc!  The remastered DTS audio isolates Altman’s scattered overlapping dialogue, the music being the only enveloping presence across all 5.1 channels with exceptional depth and clarity.
Now, for the goodies. We get Altman’s audio commentary and brief interview, each recorded for Paramount’s DVD from 2000. Criterion has produced a new hour long documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews from Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls and Lily Tomlin, plus screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury; assistant director Alan Rudolph and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman. Criterion also adds two more archival interviews with Altman; almost a half hour from 1975 and a snippet recorded in 2002 that is less than ten minutes. There’s behind-the-scenes footage and demos of Keith Carradine performing the songs he wrote for the movie. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer and liner notes from feminist/critic Molly Haskell. Criterion has also included 2 DVDs in this package, containing all of the aforementioned. Bottom line: one of the highlights of 2013 and a must have. Break out the banjos. It’s Nashville, y’all!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, November 21, 2013

THE WAY WE WERE: Blu-ray (Rastar/Columbia 1973) Twilight Time

The time-honored, age-old inquiry of ‘can opposites attract?’ is at the forefront of Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973); one of the most poignant and intriguing cinema romances ever put on film. It isn’t only the iconic Oscar-winning/chart-topping Marvin Hamlisch song; only the galvanized performances given by two of Hollywood’s biggest superstars (Redford and Streisand…is there any need to mention their ‘first’ names?); only Harry Stradling Jr.’s lush and evocative cinematography; only Arthur Laurents’ intricately woven screenplay that takes its pro-active young Communist Jew meets blasé and impossibly handsome Wasp incompatible love affair and grafts it onto a more timely story about America at one of its less than flattering moments.
No, The Way We Were continues to resonate with audiences because it is the culmination of a period in American movie-making that sadly is no more; a time when experimentation in the ensconced genres was not only readily evident but encouraged; the status quo having decamped, leaving the mantle of quality to a younger generation who were fearless in taking chances. In many ways, director Sydney Pollack brilliantly straddles this chasm between old and new in The Way We Were – looking back on all those ‘misty’ and ‘water-colored memories’ of the way movie’s used to be made with a clear-eyed approach to the material.
Since its premiere, The Way We Were has become a microcosmic reflection of America’s once bright-eyed optimism turned asunder; a capsule of changing times both in front of and behind the camera. The Way We Were is deceptively superficial, functioning as a tragi-romance and occasionally pulpy melodrama; the spectacle of seeing Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in their prime, locked in embrace and teetering perilously close to sublime happiness – only to watch it all slip away – has jerked many a tear over the last forty years.
Can it really be forty years?!?! Time, alas, has neither erased nor rewritten every line. The film remains vital and fresh; of the moment while somehow escaping the similar fate of other movies made throughout the 1970’s. The Way We Were was always a period piece. As a result, it hasn’t dated – much; although several of the Dorothy Jeakins/Moss Mabry costumes and hairstyles lean dangerously close to falling out of period and succumbing to that irrefutable bell-bottomed style of the 1970’s.
Robert Redford did not want to do this film; perhaps recognizing that in the early drafts his Anglo-Saxon stud, Hubbell Gardiner is little more than luscious eye candy pitted against Streisand’s flashier ‘woman of principles’. “People are their principles!” Streisand’s Katie Morosky tells Hubbell in a heated moment, a notion he understands all too well. Because as the movie progresses we realize that underneath Redford’s amiable, always smiling, man about town lies a deeper oppression; one self-inflicted by conscience. It isn’t that nothing is going on inside Hubbell Gardiner’s head.  It’s that there’s too much for him to even articulate – except perhaps in moments when pushed into frustration. Maintaining an elusive aura of the rugged devil-may-care is a full time job. Moreover, it is a mask to keep the outside world at bay while his truer feelings fester and feud from within; something Katie utterly fails to grasp. Can you blame her? Streisand’s political activist with a chip on her shoulder wears her heart on her sleeve. Yet, at their core, Katie and Hubbell are not so much opposites, but all too similarly aligned to ever go beyond their hot-blooded friction.  It won’t work – but that doesn’t stop either from trying.
Redford’s great ‘movie star’ quality has always been his unattainability; the bronze Apollo somehow just a little out of reach for the starry-eyed female costar who has thrown herself at his head in countless movies over the decades. Streisand’s Katie makes the attempt only once; pitifully pleading for Hubbell to comfort in her heartbreak in the middle of the night. It’s a moment of uncharacteristic weakness; the iron petticoat turned to heart-palpitating mush in order to get what she wants – her man. But in The Way We Were, Redford offers us a distinct variation on his trademarked beefcake; intuitive and troubled by the fact that, as Katie points out early on, everything comes too easy for him. On the surface, at least, this is true. Hubbell is admired without even trying to impress; fawned over by cute but vacuous kitten-faced beauties and followed by male stragglers who are neither as competitive, handsome nor as physically accomplished as he, hoping some of that ‘Hubbell Gardiner mystique’ will rub off. It could so easily be a soothing massage to his ego - except that Hubbell knows he is a fraud.  Underneath the brave veneer this paragon cringes. We see flashes of this insecurity early on. In fact, it’s what makes Redford’s jock endearing to both Katie and the audience. He’s a real man. But he’s also one of us.
Hubbell’s an enigma to Katie at first and why not? She’s uncompromising and steadfast in her beliefs and has no problem sharing them with anyone who will listen. Moreover, she knows her own mind. And she isn’t pretty. Part of Streisand’s own exploration of self – at least in the movies – has been to critique the myth and reality of ‘what is pretty?’ It’s a central theme of practically every movie she’s appeared in, beginning with her debut in William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968).  A decade later Streisand is still asking the question ‘Am I beautiful?’ in The Way We Were; exercising her strengths and assets to minimize the reality that she will never be ‘conventionally cute.’
It is a rather crushing blow to Katie’s tightly-wound conceit that Hubbell’s own appeal extends beyond his good looks; a rare man of hidden qualities indeed. After his short story is singled out in a writing class Katie desperately wants to excel in, the pair finds common intellectual ground where the sparks in their tempestuous romance can dance and play. Recognizing the parallels is troubling to Katie. She will spend the rest of the movie struggling to reconcile this gorgeous mannequin with her ideal mate that she desperately wishes he could become.  It all matters, to Katie. The extraordinary thing is that it matters just as much to Hubbell – but in a very different way.
The impetus for The Way We Were is a little convoluted to follow. Screenwriter, Arthur Laurents remembers being approached by producer Ray Stark with the unusual concept of having Streisand play a school teacher who uses music to reach out to her mentally challenged pupils. But many years before while Laurents was still a student in college he became fascinated by a young politically proactive student who organized radical rallies and peace strikes in protest of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. This began the real genesis for Laurents’ rewrite. In fact, The Way We Were is not at all the way it began; the rough cut of the movie much more political in tone; Katie reflecting on her youth through the eyes of another young activist at Berkeley; her marriage to Hubbell breaking apart after the witch hunt has branded her a communist sympathizer. To save her husband’s face and career she suggests divorce and he agrees, despite the fact she is carrying his child.
Arthur Laurents first draft immediately impressed Stark who green lit the project without reservations.  Laurents also suggested Sydney Pollack to direct; a decision embraced by Streisand – who had worked with Pollack before – but receiving little encouragement from Stark who reluctantly backed Laurents on the grounds that Pollack could get Robert Redford to sign on. Redford, however, was dragging his heals. Until the eleventh hour, Stark repeatedly threatened to recast the movie with Ryan O’Neal; Pollock wooing his reluctant star – and very good friend – by wearing him down. At this point Arthur Laurents bowed out; his prose distilled by the intervention of eleven writers including black-listed Dalton Trumbo, Alvin Sargent, Paddy Chayefsky, and Herb Gardner. Regrettably, the result was a script so badly mangled and chocked full of half-realized ideas that neither Streisand nor Redford agreed to partake of it. Laurents was recalled into service, agreeing to do a complete rewrite only after he received an exorbitant salary as his compensation.
At the start of the movie the narrative timeline is rather complex. We find our heroine, Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) a dramatist toiling on a popular radio program during WWII. But Katie’s anti-war propagandizing is at odds with the entertainment value of the show. To take the edge off Katie’s boss, Bill Verso (Herb Edelmen) suggests a night out at the Cocoanut Grove where Katie accidentally sees Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) in full naval uniform seated on a bar stool and obviously two sheets to the wind. From this rather lengthy prologue we regress in flashback to the real start of The Way We Were; opening with a peace rally organized by the Young Communist League; its chairwoman, vocal Marxist Jew, Katie Morosky attempted to broker favor with the predominantly Anglo-Saxon student body. They chide and goad her repeatedly throughout the ruminations of what eventually becomes her rousing anti-war speech. Regrettably, this shining moment is defused by pranksters who hold up a sign behind her that reads ‘any peace but Katie’s piece.’  Still, resident jock and heartthrob, Hubbell Gardiner is bowled over by Katie’s passion for a cause she believes in. There’s just something about her that gets under his skin.
The two romantically spar. Katie isn’t particularly interested in Hubbell whom she disregards as superficial and vane – at first. But his congeniality – and moreover, his hidden talent as a formidable writer – win Katie over. And why not, when such intelligence comes so neatly wrapped in an attractive blonde and buff package? The attraction for Hubbell is based on Katie’s baffling conviction and her insatiable and almost hypnotic ability to persuade others to take up social causes. But friction mounts between the pair, primarily because Hubbell’s friends, J.J. (Bradford Dillman) and, more importantly, potential rival love interest, Carol Ann (Lois Chiles) seem so vacuous and empty-headed to Katie. After some deeply felt passions ignite, things reach a fevered pitch and Hubbell and Katie part in a flurry of mutual frustration. All is not lost, however.  The narrative timeline returns to the present… or, at least, what is present in the film. Hubbell awakens on his bar stool but is still quite inebriated, deciding to take Katie home with him. The two rekindle their college flame and carry on an affair, Hubbell’s frequent absences due to being stationed as a naval officer in the South Pacific, allowing for badly needed separations whenever he and Katie quarrel. Still, it’s always so good to come home and eventually Hubbell and Katie marry and decide to move to Hollywood.
But Tinsel Town is an ill fit for the socially-conscious Katie. It doesn’t help that J.J. and Carol Ann have made the trip too; the foursome constantly surrounded by a plush but sycophantic superficiality. Katie allies herself with acting coach, Rhea Edwards (Allyn Ann McLerie) and finds at least something redeeming in Hubbell’s studio boss, producer George Bissinger (Patrick O’Neal). However, when the FBI takes to bugging George’s home in the hopes of weeding out communists and communist sympathizers, Katie’s ire is raised. (An interesting aside: the aforementioned ‘bugging’ incident has its basis in real life; at a fashionable Hollywood house party attended by Arthur Laurents where famed comedian Charlie Chaplin attempted to provide the entertainment by doing a silent bit as both a bullfighter and the bull. When Chaplin accidentally lost his balance during the performance he struck and dislodged a picture from the wall whereupon it was discovered a listening device had been planted.) The communist witch hunt polarizes Katie and Hubbell right down the middle; Hubbell’s insistence that no amount of solidarity amongst the innocent will help the cause of standing against government spying on private citizens in direct odds with what Katie perceives as Hubbell’s ‘do nothing’ attitude.  
As the specter of the blacklist encroaches on all their lives Katie's political activism increasingly jeopardizes Hubbell's reputation in the industry. Her persistent abrasiveness leads Hubbell to having an affair with Carol Ann despite the fact that Katie is already pregnant with his child. The couple divorce and time passes. Years later, they reunite – this time, quite unexpectedly; Katie spying Hubbell in front of the Plaza Hotel with his new wife. She invites the couple for a drink. But although it is quite obvious that neither has ever severed the bond of love that continues to throb between them, Hubbell politely refuses Katie’s invitation. They embrace, perhaps as friends – definitely as unresolved lovers – with Katie brushing a wayward lock of Hubbell’s hair from his forehead as she tells him that his ‘girl is beautiful’. Whether by choice or mere resignation, each knows that what might have been between them is at an end. The way they were can never be again.  
In this penultimate moment of bittersweet farewell, The Way We Were is heartbreaking; the shared loss and passage of time not enough to reunite these two people who so undeniably continue to care for each other. Katie’s realization, that Hubbell was never more alive or vibrant than when he was with her, and his abject surrender of both his wife and daughter, the latter named Rachel who he has never met – and will likely never meet – tears at the ties that bind and remind both Hubbell and Katie of the way they were. Streisand and Redford deliver high-caliber performances that sell what could so easily have become a moment of maudlin rank melodramatic sentiment, herein imbued with a genuine sense of epic loss and mournful regret. We feel for these characters; want to see them happy, then almost inadvertently and instinctually recognizes – as they have – that happiness is an unattainable illusion. There is no perfect ending for this imperfect match. It’s simply over – finished – with the lingering angst and ennui likely to haunt and plague Hubbell and Katie for the rest of their lives. Each will always be to the other ‘the one that got away’.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray doesn’t let The Way We Were get away from a fantastic looking 1080p transfer. The movie looks spectacular in hi-def. Sony’s mastering delivers a vibrant image with precise flesh tones, rich colors, excellent contrast levels and a light smattering of film grain looking very natural throughout. The ‘wow’ factor is present and much appreciated. This disc sounds about as good in DTS 5.1; Streisand’s rendering of the title track enveloping with a very solid spread across all the surround channels. You are going to fall in love all over again with The Way We Were. Twilight Time gives us an isolate score of Marvin Hamlisch’s orchestrations that incorporate a good number of vintage tunes into the musical mélange. We also get a fairly comprehensive audio commentary, and – even better - extensive featurette ‘Looking Back’ that was on Sony’s SE DVD from 2003, with input from the late Arthur Laurents, Sydney Pollack, Streisand and others expounding on the development and enduring legacy of the film.  Very good stuff and very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)