Wednesday, December 25, 2013

THE VIVIEN LEIGH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION: Blu-ray (Alexander Korda/London Films 1937-38) Cohen Media Group

When Vivien Leigh stepped before the Technicolor cameras for her American debut in David O. Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939) she forever put a period to what had come before it. Leigh will always be known as the fiery southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara; an iconic and immortalized performance standing head and shoulders above most everything else in the history of grand divas. The tragedy is that Scarlett O’Hara has all but obliterated Vivien Leigh as a peerless actress elsewhere; her reputation coming to a full stop with Selznick’s masterpiece: Vivien Leigh. Scarlett O’Hara. The end.
While some may also resurrect her as the definitive Blanche Du Bois in Elia Kazan’s film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), the rest of Vivien Leigh’s movie career remains something of a blur; buffeted by less than stellar flashes of her initial promise snuffed out in mostly forgettable movies made near the end of her career and long after the exquisite bloom of her youth had been worn down by the personal and professional implosions of life. Yet Vivien Leigh ought to be remembered in her prime and for a lot more than GWTW. Need proof? Consider Cohen Media’s Vivien Leigh: The Anniversary Collection – a 2 disc compendium of Leigh’s formidable pre-Scarlett efforts: 4 classic and very classy movies made for Alexander Korda: the eminence gris of British cinema.
In retrospect, Leigh’s patrician beauty and Korda’s exemplary challenge – to outdo Hollywood by making movies on par with their production values – seems to fit very snugly, hand in velvet glove. Yet, Korda’s initial impression of Vivien was less than flattering. Indeed, she was still a bride with a baby when Korda dismissed her as an actress lacking any sort of ‘break out’ appeal. It ought to have been a crushing blow to the young mother; this outright rejection from on high, and, from a man who usually knew his stuff inside and out. Instead, Vivien regrouped and went on the stage, determined as ever. She had a colossal success in The Masque of Virtue; proving she had the necessary ‘presence’ plus to command an audience. Korda now came to her, perhaps chaste of his preconceptions, and offering Leigh a very plum role in his glossy production of Fire Over England (1937); a ravishing period/costume drama set in the stately court of Elizabeth I.
Viewing Fire Over England today, one immediately feels Vivien’s brewing desire to be a great actress from deep within; her passion for the work and, perhaps more directly her co-star, the impossibly drop-dead gorgeous Laurence Olivier, for whom she would leave her husband and young daughter. There’s no getting around it. Director William K. Howard’s Fire Over England is a movie tailor-made for Vivien’s launch into super stardom; a king-sized endeavor with a stellar cast and elegant production and costume design by Lazare Meerson, René Hubert and Roland Gillett. Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov’s screenplay, based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason, gets a little muddled along the way, wallowing in its fumbled swashbuckler scenario. But the enterprise clings together because it sparks obvious romantic chemistry stirring between Leigh and Olivier – ably abetted by Flora Robson’s towering performance as the proverbial ‘fly in the ointment’ , herein reconstituted as England’s ‘virgin’ queen. Cinematographer, James Wong Howe, who would soon come to America to augment many a classic movie on this side of the Atlantic, displays a level of superb craftsmanship herein, filling the screen with discerningly composed master shots and a compendium of adoring close-ups showing off our young romantic leads at their most startlingly virile and sensuous.      
Vivien Leigh is Cynthia, a rather scatterbrain/love-struck lady in waiting to the austere Queen (Flora Robson), presently embroiled in a quagmire of palace intrigues; the Spanish Armada plotting to invade her tiny isle. Conspirators are everywhere. From the wily Spanish Ambassador (Henry Oscar) to the scheming courtier, Sir Hillary Vane (James Mason), Elizabeth’s throne is experiencing the first signs of a very nasty palace coup.    
It’s 1588 and relations between Spain and England have reached a critical impasse. The queen’s chief advisors, Lord Burleigh (Morton Selten), and paramour, Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Leslie Banks) offer their advice, though precious little in the way of a concrete counteroffensive against the brewing storm clouds of war. On the home front, Burleigh’s stunningly handsome daughter, Cynthia is a constant source of regret to the aging monarch who cannot help but appreciate how her own withering beauty is at odds with Cynthia’s youth and vitality. Moreover, the queen has become rather enamored with Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), the strapping son of her loyal friend, Sir Richard (Lyn Harding). Richard’s ship, with Michael aboard, is taken by the Spanish fleet led by Don Miguel (Robert Rendel). Owing to their lifelong friendship and mutual respect, Miguel allows Richard to spare his son’s life by affording him the opportunity of a daring escape. Michael swims ashore, barely conscious and shortly thereafter is nursed back to health by Miguel’s daughter, Elena (Tamara Desni).
Naturally, Elena is smitten with this dashing young swain – a flirtation briefly reciprocated, despite Michael’s attachment to Cynthia back home…that is, until he learns his father has been burned alive as a heretic in the name of the Inquisition. Miguel’s news infuriates Michael, who denounces the bloodthirsty savagery of the Spanish in general, and Miguel and Elena in particular, before fleeing back to England aboard a small fishing boat. This, of course, breaks - then hardens - Elena’s heart. In England, Michael thwarts an attempt on Elizabeth’s life during a public gathering, urging her to smite Spain’s menacing threat of invasion before these dissensions can spread and infect the whole European hemisphere. Michael also swears an unswerving loyalty to the crown.
Sir Robert confronts Hillary Vane with the accusation that he is a spy for Spain; a move forcing Vane to attempt an escape. He is killed and Burleigh hatches a plot. The crown will send Michael to the Spanish court in Vane’s stead to learn the identities of the rest of the conspirators still lurking about Elizabeth’s court. Michael’s initial introduction to King Philip II of Spain (Raymond Massey) goes off without a hitch. But when Elena discovers the ruse, for Michael’s disguise is rather thin, she struggles with conflicted emotions before confiding in her husband, Don Pedro (Robert Newton). Alas, Philip has seen through the charade already and Pedro elects to afford Michael another opportunity to escape in order the shield Elena from suspicions of being a heretic.
Michael’s daring escape is countered by Philip ordering the Spanish armada to set sail for England. Elizabeth amasses her troops at Tilbury and Michael arrives there to divulge the names of her traitors. He is knighted and ordered to confront the six who plotted to murder Elizabeth. Against Cynthia’s wishes, Michael goes off on his most dangerous mission yet; to fire bomb the Spanish armada off the coast of England. The venture is successful and Elizabeth reluctantly allows Michael and Cynthia to wed, ordering all mirrors removed from her rooms as she prepares to receive her adoring subjects.
Fire Over England is an exuberant drawing room melodrama that desperately wants to be an Errol Flynn-styled swashbuckler. It doesn’t really rise to this level of action or adventure. But the performances are so universally skillful throughout, the settings so meticulously crafted and the camera work as impeccably avowed, one can easily overlook the narrative shortcomings and simply appreciate the movie for what it is; a ravishing spectacle with considerable ‘fire’ lurking beneath the Elizabethan collars and cuffs. Leigh and Olivier smolder throughout; he, perhaps, just a wee over excitable at times (chalk it up to youth and inexperience), but Leigh remaining rock-steady and even lyrical in spots in her desperate longing to become Michael’s wife.
Alexander Korda was unquestioningly impressed by Vivien’s performance, as were the critics.  His next move was to assign her a more contemporary role in Victor Saville’s Dark Journey (1937); an often profound and consistently intense WWI espionage drama that, once again, falters in its third act. Vivien is cast as double agent, Madeleine Goddard, a French spy pretending to work for the Germans using a false front as a successful businesswoman of a respectable couturier is Stockholm. Our story begins in 1918, the last year of the war. A German U-boat stops a Dutch freighter, taking prisoner one of its passengers for being a Belgian spy. The Germans also suspect Madeleine for a brief moment. In Stockholm, Madeleine meets her contacts by attending a private fitting of some of the latest fashions with vital information against the Allies sewn into the fabric of each gown.
Meanwhile, retired German Navy veteran, Baron Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt) has just arrived in Sweden; a wily bon vivant who charms the ladies at a local nightclub, though he is suspected by some of his former colleagues as being a deserter. Seated at a nearby table with her English secret service handler, Bob Carter (Anthony Bushell), Madeleine quietly observes as Karl uses an old parlor trick to seduce various woman at the club. Brazilian socialite, Lupita (Joan Gardner) is particularly intrigued, and made severely jealous when Karl takes more than passing interest in Madeleine instead. But Karl’s charm fails to work its magic on Madeleine, especially after she exposes the secret to his trick. The next day, Karl and Lupita visit Madeleine’s shop and Karl once again baits Madeleine with amorous prospects. Again, she refuses the invitation, and continues to do so for several days thereafter until Karl begins to lose interest. When he finally does give up, Madeleine changes her mind – always the woman’s prerogative.
Soon the pair becomes inseparable. Madeleine and Karl are seen everywhere. Karl is obviously more than smitten. In fact, he even proposes marriage. But their whirlwind romance is thwarted when Madeleine’s German co-conspirator, Anatole Bergen (Eliot Makeham) is found brutally murdered. Madeleine’s German handlers order her immediate return to Paris after information she provided them proved utterly disastrous for the Germany army. In Paris, Madeleine is awarded the Médaille militaire for bravery and shortly thereafter returned to Stockholm by the French to continue her work. Madeleine and Karl’s romance reaches its critical moment of truth when, after a night of carousing, capped off by a rather humiliating confrontation at the nightclub, each quietly confides that the other is a spy working for the opposite side. However, these confessions come with a bitter realization; that Madeleine and Karl’s plans for an idyllic life together can never be.
Not long after Madeleine turns to Bob for protection, knowing that Karl will plot against her. Bob arranges for a rather public spectacle to play out – Madeleine’s arrest: her shop brimming with eager patrons who have been brought there with the deliberate false promise of a liquidation sale. The deportation spares Madeleine’s life. But her ship is intercepted in neutral waters by a German U-boat with Karl aboard. The plan is, of course, to arrest Madeleine for being a French spy and take her back to Germany. Instead, a British destroyer engages the U-boat and Karl is the one taken prisoner for being a German spy. As Madeleine learns of Karl’s fate – mere imprisonment for the duration of the war - she calls out to him in the fog. She still loves him and will wait for his release, thus ensuring that even in war their love has endured.
Dark Journey is rather tautly scripted by Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis. Conrad Veidt’s early career had been promising, cast in German movies as the suave intercontinental lover with a penchant for slightly deviant romantic folly. While his inevitable exile from Germany at the start of WWII to escape the Nazi regime brought him to the attention of English and American film audiences, regrettably, his thick German accent usually recasting him as the quintessential Nazi villain rather than the romantic lead. In Dark Journey Veidt’s public image is clearly in transition. He’s a fascinating actor to observe, with stern and very expressive eyes telling so much more than mere dialogue allows. In fact, without even trying, Veidt’s performance tends to dominate the movie. Vivien holds her own. But hers is decidedly the less flashy part. The other unusual aspect of the film is its uncharacteristic lack of any romantic thread interwoven into its grand narrative of timely espionage. The relationship that awkwardly evolves between Karl and Madeleine is fairly pedestrian; its best moment the ‘confession scene’ where Karl tells Madeleine about herself and she reciprocates by exposing him as a German spy. One senses the tenuousness in their love; perhaps even with a hint of insincerity between them; their loyalties divided between the individual and the state.
Clearly sensing the need to test the breadth of Vivien’s talents further, Korda next cast her in Storm in a Teacup (1937), by far the most featherweight – if utterly delightful – film featured in this collection. Co-directed by Ian Dalrymple and Victor Saville, Storm in a Teacup is an exquisite drawing room comedy based on Bruno Frank’s hilarious play, ‘Sturm im Wasserglas’ adapted by James Bridie. Our story concerns a dog – Patsy – and the cumulative wrath of Baikie; a tiny Scottish community brought on the head of Provost William Gow (Cecil Parker) after he refuses to extend a helping hand of tolerance to Patsy’s owner, Honoria Hegarty (Sara Allgood) who cannot afford to pay for the dog’s license.  Gow is a rather haughty and exclusive windbag with aspirations to ascend the political ladder as Scotland’s first Prime Minister. Rex Harrison is Frank Burdon, an aspiring newshound who taps into this minor event, whipping it into tabloid backlash after being assigned by his editor, Horace Skirving (Gus McNaughton) to cover an entirely different story.
Vivien is Victoria Gow, the Provost’s rather pert daughter, newly returned from finishing school. Victoria suspects her father – a widower - has begun an extramarital affair with Lisbet Skirving (Ursula Jeans), Horace’s wife; the pair carrying on right under Horace’s nose and seemingly without shame and Horace’s complicity. In the meantime, Frank’s negative article on the Provost has given rise to a groundswell of animosity impacting Gow’s chances for political ascendance. While police officer, McKeller (Edgar Bruce) looks after Patsy for Honoria, William prepares to entertain Lord Skerryvore (Robert Hale) at his stately home with a grand dinner party to gain his favor as the ideal political candidate. Regrettably, the evening is a disaster after Frank stages a rather daring canine assault; hundreds of dogs let loose on the Provost’s home barking, jumping up on the guests and the furniture and transforming the evening’s courtly gathering into a rambunctious three-ring circus.
Forced into a trial to resolve the matter, Frank attempts to explain his position to Victoria, whom he is deeply in love with, but who will have none of his elucidations. As a result of Frank’s articles in the paper the once nearly destitute Honoria has since become a wealthy woman through the philanthropy of her peers. She is reunited with her beloved Patsy through generous public donations. Seeing the good that Frank’s writing has done, and realizing she is, in fact, also in love with him, Victoria perjures herself on the witness stand by declaring she and Frank are married, thereby unable to give testimony against her husband. William is incensed by his daughter’s actions, but concedes the trial to save her reputation.  In the final moments, Frank and Victoria are seen driving off together in a convertible jalopy, having vindicated Victoria’s claim by getting married for real.
Storm in a Teacup is a fairly charming farce with Rex Harrison at his insolent best. The initial cute meet between Victoria and Frank says it all; he peeling off a sticky sucker that she has sat on from her butt before inquiring if the finishing school she’s been sent to has ‘finished’ her off yet.  Frank doesn’t have much use for human hypocrisy (I like him already). When asked what the Provost’s political stance is – and told that it is ‘Scotland for the Scots’ – he rather impertinently declares, “Why? Does somebody else want it?” Indeed, in viewing the movie today, one is acutely aware how much more Storm in a Teacup is Harrison’s gig than Vivien’s. And Harrison is having an undeniably good time as the razor-tongued crusader for the little guy; his enlightenments made at trial full of the actor’s superb comedic timing and inherent wit to make even the most basic line of dialogue seem pointedly funny. Cecil Parker overplays his hand and outstays his welcome. It’s both refreshing and a relief to watch as all of his Provost’s self-appointed worldly pomposity is repeatedly deflated by the point of Frank’s poisoned pen. Vivien’s part in this amusing and quirky comedy of errors is decidedly thankless; the straight man (or woman, as this case may be), unable to see the merriment for the chaos that surrounds her and quite simply remaining dissatisfied with virtually every and all aspects of her life until Frank comes along to rescue from her abstemious self.  
By now, Vivien Leigh was a name above the marquee in her native England. She could have so easily gone on making movies there. Except that Laurence Olivier, who had become her lover after Fire Over England had now gone on ahead to America to forge a new film career abroad, signing with agent Myron Selznick (David O.’s brother). In hindsight, the void left behind from his departure seems to have impacted Leigh’s performance in Tim Whelan’s St. Martin’s Lane (rechristened as Sidewalks of London, 1938 for its North American release): an exuberant snapshot of London’s west end at the turn of the last century. St. Martin’s Lane is a cornucopia for proud buskers and wily peasants parading past the theater façades; a cavalcade richly teeming with fascinating lives and aspirations set just beyond the yellowing cast of footlights.  
At least in hindsight, the plot knocked together by screen scenarists Bartlett Cormace, Clemence Dane, Charles Laughton, Erich Pommer and Tim Whelan – that of a relative unknown rising through the ranks to become an international star of both stage and screen on both sides of the Atlantic  - seems to foreshadow Vivien’s present and, then, future aspirations. She really is quite marvelous as the uncouth Cockney thief, scheming, ambitious to a fault and destined to make her mark as one for the ages. Leigh’s angst of separation from Olivier has been translated herein into a noted defiant strength and needling fortitude.  She won’t give in, give up or settle for second best; a quality destined to, at once, set her apart though ultimately alienate from her contemporaries. And despite being cast opposite Rex Harrison and the formidable scene-stealer Charles Laughton, St. Martin’s Lane belongs to Vivien Leigh. Her lower class Libby, hammers out the enigma of a stage presence rechristened ‘Liberty’ (just, one word…like Garbo, as Leigh’s resourceful heroine points out early on), giving us insight as to just how ruthless she is willing to be to get exactly what she wants. 
Charles Laughton is Charles Staggers, a middle-aged busker amusing the Piccadilly theatergoers with his overwrought recitations of famous poetry while his two cohorts, Arthur (Gus McNaughton) and Gentry (Tyrone Guthrie) strum their instruments as backup. After swiping a farthing from Charles’ cap, the urchin, Libby (Vivien Leigh) escapes to a nearby coffee stand where she meets London composer, Harley Prentiss (Rex Harrison).  Her joie de vivre is infectious and thoroughly captivates Harley, enough for Libby to steal his gold-plated cigarette case, though not before Charles witnesses the theft and makes chase to retrieve it.
Escaping to the interior of an abandoned but elegant manor house, Libby performs a devastatingly lyrical and celebratory dance, one interrupted by Charles who demands Libby return the cigarette case. He creates a scene, thereby altering a local bobby to their presence. Instead of turning Libby in Charles takes pity on her, the two returning to his squalid attic flat some time later. Libby is grateful for a warm place to sleep, but in the morning makes a spectacle by smashing Charles things when he attempts to keep her locked in his room. Libby rechristens herself ‘Liberty’, forming a new busking act with Charles, Arthur and Gentry that once again garners the attention and praise of Harley, who invites her to come and dance for a small group of his friends at a house party he is giving later that same evening.
Libby wows the hoi poloi with her seemingly effortless routine and Charles gets a theatrical agent to take an interest in jumpstarting the girl’s career. Returning to Charles’ flat with her good news, Libby is heart sore when Charles leaps into a jealous tirade, awakening the rest of the boarding house with his angry outcries. Undaunted, Libby pursues her career under Harley’s tutelage; her star ever rising until, at long last, she is the much adored and equally sought after actress of her generation. Recognizing how right Libby was, Charles succumbs to strong drink and self-pity, hiding from Arthur and Gentry. He attempts to reconnect with Libby outside the stage door after her show. But the mob of thronging admirers, clamoring for autographs, drowns him out and Charles is arrested for disturbing the peace and given four months in prison.   
After learning of an offer to go to Hollywood, Libby rather forwardly asks Harley to marry her. She is promptly turned down, Harley explaining he will not become another Charles – just another rung on the ladder of success Libby is determined to climb. Not long thereafter, Libby encounters Charles, newly released from prison and impersonating a blind man to garner badly needed monies. After admonishing him for his deceptions, Libby encourages Charles to try out for a small part in her new play; plying the producers ahead of time with the shared understanding that they will hire him no matter what. But the audition is a rather embarrassing disaster; Charles suddenly realizing that his performance is overwrought and decidedly out of tune with what’s expected of him in the ‘legitimate’ theater. Succumbing to his own humiliation, and with a renewed understanding that he will always be a busker at heart, Charles asks Libby for her autograph, thus bringing her to tears.  He returns to the streets, and Arthur and Gentry, picking up where he left off before he and Libby had met.
St. Martin’s Lane is a bittersweet valentine to the nameless toiling for their art never to see anything in the way of public recognition as the fruits for their labors. Leigh and Laughton are superbly matched; her rather callous clawing at the brass ring of fame counterbalanced by his innate passion for a level of artistry he can never attain, though nevertheless respects and admires from afar. In its own subtle way the movie questions where the greater art lies; in the streets of London, as presented by the Charles of this world who clearly feel it in their bones, or in the ‘legitimate’ theater where the yardstick of success clearly equates to a more superficial form of celebrity. Leigh brings to the role a certain heightened sense of self, an almost frustration, crying out ‘see me’.
Indeed, across the Atlantic, in Hollywood David O. Selznick screened a print of St. Martin’s Lane while suffering his own quandary in the casting of his ideal Scarlett O’Hara – and this from a formidable roster of American talent that uniformly failed to impress him as much as Leigh’s brief moment in St. Martin’s Lane, when she takes to the floor of the abandoned mansion for a minute and a half of nimble-footed brilliance that, at least in retrospect, conveys all of the fiery grit of Selznick’s southern vixen. For Vivien, Gone With the Wind was both a new beginning and the beginning of the end. One can argue that Vivien Leigh’s Hollywood career never quite lived up to Scarlett’s expectations or potential. The bar had, in fact, been set very high. And while there are undeniably other movies in the actress’ canon worthy of distinction (1940’s Waterloo Bridge comes immediately to mind), Leigh and Hollywood, like St. Martin’s Lane’s Libby and Charles, somehow operated at different levels of artistic integrity; Vivien increasingly dissatisfied with the roles she was being asked to play.
Cohen Media has rather apologetically advertised each of these transfers as ‘2k restorations’ at the mercy of the ravages of time and surviving archival materials. In point of fact, a good deal of restoration work has been done. The results, alas, are less than perfect, and in some cases, nowhere near pleasing. Fire Over England looks the best of the lot; albeit with slightly boosted contrast that, at times, obliterates the mid-register of tonal grays. There is a shocking lack of film grain, I suspect, from some undue DNR liberally applied. The image is just this side of waxy but not a deal breaker in my opinion. Overall, the image is quite sharp with a good smattering of fine detail solidly represented. But there are also some annoying edge effects that crop up midway through, shimmering detail in clothing, and this persists for about half the movie. Dark Journey suffers from exactly the opposite inconsistencies; heavy grain (occasionally looking slightly digitized), muddy contrast levels, and, a softly focused image lacking in any sort of visual distinction and/or clarity. Close-ups are appealing, but long shots are very blurry.
Storm in a Teacup contains a distressing level of edge enhancement. The image teeters between a slight blurriness and made artificially crisp. Again, contrast seems ever so slightly bumped up. Finally, St. Martin’s Lane looks fairly good, occasionally with weaker than expected contrast levels. But what’s happened to its audio? What a mess! Strident to the point of being distracting, with a glaring hiss and pop, yet muffled during its musical portions. I just can’t figure this one out. Surely, there are mastering tools available to the audio restoration expert that could have alleviated a goodly amount of the aforementioned distractions and evened out the audio at a relatively pleasing decibel level. Extras are limited to a brief and truncated interview with Vivien Leigh biographer, Anne Edwards and some extensive liner notes provided by historian/author Kendra Bean.   
Bottom line: I’m sincerely torn about recommending this release. I absolutely loved the movies and Vivien Leigh’s performance in each is truly a revelation. I can respect the fact that less than perfect archival elements have survived, and, as I said before – work has been done to spruce up what’s there. What I cannot abide are the digital intrusions (edge enhancement, shimmering of fine details brought on by sloppy remastering efforts) that ought to be a thing of the past by now. This isn’t the first ‘experimental hi def transfer of a vintage catalogue release. The transfers in this lot leave much to be desired in my opinion and that’s a disappointment considering it is highly unlikely we will ever see these titles brought to hi-def again in better incarnations. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Overall – 4.5

Fire Over England    3.5
Dark Journey     3
Storm in a Teacup     2.5
St. Martin’s Lane     2



Saturday, December 21, 2013

ROYAL FLASH: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1975) Twilight Time

Richard Lester’s Royal Flash (1975) typifies the ribald English farce; a gaudy, bawdy spectacle following the exploits of our iniquitous anti-hero, plucked from the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s second ‘Flashman’ novel. Initially, Lester sought to begin at the beginning; the rights to Fraser’s first book proving inaccessible. Incidents from that inauspicious elementary start to Flashman’s life and career are briefly referenced in the movie’s derisory prologue as our gangly and celebrated military man, Captain Harry Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) is seen addressing a gaggle of impressionable adolescents on what it means to be an English gentleman – something ‘Flashie’ knows absolutely nothing about; his expert tutelage distilled to “take a cold shower every day.” 
We regress to that decisive moment in Flashman’s Afghanistan military campaign, the soldier turned chicken denouncing the Union Jack, King and country to save his own skin, only to be saved by the cruel and twisted hand of fate at the last possible moment. A supporting wall inside his bunker collapses, knocking Harry unconscious but also killing his enemies. Now a decorated war hero, we see Harry in full regalia, framed by this nationalized emblem – the flag; the academic setting that surrounds him a perfect foil for his rather clinical musings on bravery to this quizzical lot of empty heads full of mush. In these introductory moments we are reminded of a credo gleaned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, Flashman proving the lie over and over again as the rule rather than the exception.
Fraser’s inspiration for what ultimately evolved into a series of twelve novels collectively referenced as ‘The Flashman Papers’ (his character first gleaned from Thomas Hughes 1857 novel, Tom Brown’s School Days) details the exploits of a rather repugnant rogue. Royal Flash - the movie somewhat waters down Captain Harry’s caustic wit and razorback defiance of authority while maintaining his exceptional cowardice.   It’s a gutsy move; taking this gross pig of a human being footnoted in one author’s work of 19th century fiction and intellectualizing him through a 20th century sort of English music hall rubric as the illegitimate interloper/instigator and protagonist of history’s ever-unraveling and quixotic tapestry.  The ruse works, more so in Fraser’s novel – but also in the movie – because our anti-hero is, at his core, a loveably self-centered entrepreneur of earthy pursuits; clumsily boozing and balling his way into adventures while accidentally stumbling upon the finer points of human bing-bang collectively lumped together as ‘historical fact’.
The trick for the movie lays in Malcolm McDowell’s queerly endearing performance. After all, the novel’s Harry Flashman really is a slutty scamp; unrepentantly self-indulgent, dishonorable in every way that a man can be, and quite shamelessly immoral in his social/sexual proclivities. McDowell’s incarnation isn’t less so, per say, just somehow more understandable in all his flawed nature and rampant thirst for deliberate debauching – an altogether decidedly more bumbling rather than brooding fish out of water; unable to believe his good fortune, though not above taking advantage of it while hiding behind its grotesque parody.
Our appreciation for the magnitude of Flashman’s ineptitude is compounded by Oliver Reed’s demonic, steely-eyed and utterly terrifying presence, herein cast as Otto von Bizmarck. Reed is an actor tailor-made for the part of the villain, I suspect, because in real life his bellicose nature lent itself to bar room scrapping and scrapes with the law that helped foster the general public impression of him as a very loose cannon not to be messed with. The movie needs such obvious villainy in order for Flashman’s temerity to come across as empathic spinelessness and Reed delivers this in spades.
Royal Flash is also a rather impressive showcase for Alan Bates as Rudi von Sternberg; the suave counter foil to Oliver Reed’s flourishing brute. Bates, who remained married to one woman throughout his lifetime but carried on many hetero and homosexual affairs to supplement that enduring relationship, plays Sternberg as a manipulative mahatma. Whereas Reed’s glowering demigod makes no apology or even attempt to mask his truly vial intensions, Bates’ cool customer is almost the antithesis of this seething masculine rage, though not ambition; a male equipoise of the sleek little minx, herein played to perfection by Florinda Bolkan as kinky superspy, Lola Montez, the latter reveling as she beats her suitors’ buttocks with a wire hairbrush.  Bolkan’s bewitching trollop is offset by Britt Ekland’s Duchess Irma; a rigid ice princess melting under Flashman’s sexual tutelage.  
Royal Flash is padded out with an exemplary roster of supporting characters: Christopher Cazenove (in his first movie) as Eric Hansen, the suspecting best friend of a Prussian prince held captive by Bizmarck and whom Flashman – despite his uncanny physical resemblance – is unable to make convincing through his masquerade. Michael Hordern’s gregarious headmaster, Alistair Simms’ wily advisor, Mr. Grieg, Lionel Jeffries’ assassin, Kraftstein, and, Bob Hoskins’ flighty police constable all contribute their moments. There’s ballast to each of these performances even though most barely last more than a few minutes on the screen. Finally, there are the movie’s production values to consider; Alan Tomkin’s art direction and Peter Howitt’s set decoration a sumptuous visual feast. Royal Flash is a regally mounted sham-comedy, exquisitely photographed against some spectacularly recreated sets and stunning Bavarian backdrops lensed by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth using his archetypal soft diffusion technique.  
When first we meet our disreputable English bastard, Capt. Harry Flashman, he is expounding upon the virtues of being one of the noble gentry to a packed auditorium of aspiring Rugby schoolboys. We regress into a not so distant porthole from Flashman’s past, exemplifying his cowardice in the face of insurmountable odds on the battlefield. As fate would have it, Harry’s not for the sword…not just yet, surviving his Afghan ordeal quite by accident and subsequently decorated despite his obvious lack of heroism. The die is cast. The legend takes hold. There’s no going back. That evening Harry attends a house of ill-repute raided by the police. In his subsequent escape from authorities he ducks into a nearby waiting carriage, discovered by Lola Montez and her suitor, Otto von Bizmarck. Lola finds Harry rather foppishly charming; Bizmarck decidedly less so. In fact, Bizmarck makes an honest attempt to have Harry arrested by the constable. Instead, the constable acknowledges Harry as a celebrated soldier and threatens to have Bizmarck deported for being a foreigner.
A short while later, Harry incurs Bizmarck’s wrath yet again during a demonstration pugilist’s match. Bizmarck suggests that boxing is a crude sport unfit for gentlemen. So Harry goads him into accepting a challenge from noted champion, John Gully (Henry Cooper), who manages to illustrate the finer points of fisticuffs while senselessly pummeling the disgraced Bizmarck, forced to begrudgingly acknowledge his humiliating defeat in front of Lola Montez.  Bizmarck makes Harry a threatening promise: that if ever he should come to Bavaria, the point of a sword shall prove his undoing. Not long thereafter Harry is tricked by Lola and forcibly dragged to Bavaria. There, he is introduced to the smooth schemer, Rudi von Sternberg who further complicates matters by returning Harry into Bizmarck’s clutches.
George MacDonald Fraser’s screenplay now kicks into some rather high-gear plagiarism of Anthony Hope’s celebrated novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. Harry is commanded by Bizmarck to impersonate a Prussian prince betrothed to the icy cool Duchess Irma, but suffering from an outbreak of gonorrhea, thereby preventing a consummation of their pending marriage. Bizmarck delights in his ‘training’ of Harry to take the prince’s place; blackening his hair and even going so far as to scar his face with a sword to mimic the prince’s own facial wounds incurred during his early years of military sparring. Harry makes several madcap attempts to escape this transformation, before discovering that Irma is quite an attractive creature; albeit one utterly inexperienced in the ways of the flesh. Harry breaks Irma of these sexual hang ups and thereafter finds her a most willing partner in bed.
Eventually, Harry latches onto the idea to steal the crown jewels locked in the palace clock tower and free the real prince from his dungeon beneath the castle, thereby exposing Bizmarck’s master plan. It all goes awry, however. After all, how could it not. Bizmarck is unmoved by this reversal in their deceptions. Harry escapes with the jewels and his legacy as a tawdry adventurer intact, only to be cheated by Lola out of his pirate’s booty, awakening in her coach after their in flagrante delicto with Rudi at his side; the pair indulging in a game of Russian roulette that ends with a mysteriously unseen shot ringing out.
Royal Flash was not a success when it debuted. Had it been otherwise, we might have seen the entire Flashman Papers find its way onto the big screen. Perhaps the movie’s fractured perspective on history went over the heads of most sitting in the audience. After all, you have to know something of history in order to admire George MacDonald Fraser’s wickedly aberrant take on it. But Royal Flash is an exquisitely sublime circus rather faithfully grounded in the historical record, deriving its humor in these truth-based absurdities rather than a complete fabrication or revision made for art’s sake.
The audacity of history is one thing. Tweaking its misfires to expose a shambles of human folly is quite another. Having any genuine appreciation for the latter requires a capacity to recognize this distinction.  The sophistication in Fraser’s screenplay is admirably abetted by the exemplary cast doing their utmost to blur the dissimilarities further still. In the end we’re left with a fairly accurate tale of considerable text book merit; but one retold from a rapscallion outsider’s perspective. Captain Harry Flashman is the proverbial fly on the wall – more often than not, with his wings clipped – as he finds himself stuck in the ointment of this grand narrative.  Surviving the ordeal is the real challenge.  
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a fairly welcome affair. Geoffrey Unsworth’s heavily diffused cinematography still appears marginally problematic at the start of the movie; the blown out whites tending to impact overall contrast levels and color saturation. Flesh tones veer ever so slightly on the unnatural pink side. Film grain has been accurately reproduced throughout. But there are a few obvious instances where age-related artifacts intrude, mostly under the main title and end credits. The 2.0 DTS is faithful to the limitations of its vintage audio. Twilight Time pads out the extras with a very comprehensive audio commentary from Nick Redman, sitting down with star, Malcolm McDowell – the two reminiscing in great detail about the making of the film. We also get a pair of fascinating featurettes; Inside Royal Flash and Meet Harry Flashman with insightful sound bytes from historians and crew, plus Twilight Time’s usual commitment to providing an isolated score in stereo, this one featuring Ken Thorne’s marvelous re-orchestrations. Finally, Julie Kirgo offers her usually stellar intuition and opinions in some handsomely reproduced liner notes. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, December 20, 2013

NORTH TO ALASKA: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1960) Fox Home Video

En route to becoming one of movie land’s most iconic stars – ensconced as an emblematic presence in the eternal landscape of the Hollywood western – John Wayne’s public persona went through several permutations: the romanticized buck, embittered recluse, caustic comic, and finally, defiant (though rarely defeated) sage. In Henry Hathaway’s North to Alaska (1960) Wayne’s movie iconography is clearly in transition; still clinging to the vestiges of the far-away and careworn loner, but also having developed a yen for curmudgeonly comedy.  At 53, Wayne was still bankable box office. He could also hold his own with leading ladies half his age and come off the viable bronco-bucking stud. Based on a play by Ladislas Fodor, John Lee Mahin, Wendell Mayes and Martin Rackin’s screenplay is, at times, veering dangerously close to becoming episodic and cliché. North of Alaska’s John Alden premised plot – that of a good friend interfering with his partner’s romance after he discovers the betrothed girl already married – is fairly ridiculous. Sultry international sensation, Capucine somewhat miscast as Michelle, is the tough French prostitute with a proverbial heart of gold who becomes the unwitting substitute for the friend’s affections, only to have our hero realize he too is in love with her.
Wayne and Capucine have some wonderfully acidic repartee. Where North of Alaska tends to falter is in its supporting cast; beginning with Stewart Granger’s rather hammy George Pratt, best friend and mining partner to Wayne’s stoic Sam McCord.  With the overwhelming success of Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo (1959) firmly in mind (featuring several songs sung by teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson), North to Alaska’s producers have also penciled in a squib of a role and a real milquetoast of a song for teen idol, Fabian, herein cast as George’s younger brother, Billy; an oversexed and altogether clumsy, fresh-faced kid desperate to become a man, but constantly getting tossed around and/or pushed aside by either George or Sam. Ernie Kovacs is in this one too, doing a variation on his loveably irreprehensible slickster, this time as Frankie Canon.
Superficially, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these performances, except that the screenplay can never establish consistent character traits for any of the aforementioned. As example; Capucine’s Michelle – nicknamed ‘Angel’ by Sam – starts off the hard-bitten realist. But she quickly illustrates a heart that can be easily broken. Midway through our story, Michelle goes from world savvy gal pal to love-struck scatterbrain. Stewart Granger’s George suffers a similar fate; an eager romantic transformed into matchmaking buffoon after he discovers Michelle’s heart has run away with her head…but for Sam. Ernie Kovac’s scheming saloon/hotel keeper/con artist is arguably the most consistent of the lot – finding new ways to turn old tricks into future underhanded prospects. This leaves Fabian’s as the only genuinely grating performance; his wide-eyed ‘gosh and golly’ more singing capon than crowing rooster. Poor Billy Pratt - his undeniably raging hormones repeatedly landing him in ‘cold’ water - literally.
North to Alaska really owes more to the classic 1930’s screwball than the traditional western, its cardboard cutout fops and floozies photographed against a lusty, rustic backdrop, exuberantly lensed by master cameraman, Leon Shamroy.  This is one utterly gorgeous movie to look at, right down to its garters and even featuring a brief and rather shocking ‘nipple’ shot as Capucine leans forward beyond the white porcelain barrier of her bathtub. (Frankly, I don’t see how this fleeting glimpse of flesh ever made it past the censors. If I can see it on my 65 inch HD monitor imagine how big it must have looked spread across the expansive Cinemascope screen in a legitimate theater! But, I digress.)
The Point Mugu and Hot Creek, California locations (convincingly subbing for Nome) are visually breathtaking; the detailed interiors recreated on soundstages at 2oth Century-Fox by Duncan Cramer and Jack Martin Smith resplendent evocations of ‘roughing it’ Hollywood style. Today’s movie makers, with their equilibrium-altering ‘steadicam’ photography have all but forgotten that movies are a visual medium meant to be seen and appreciated. Shamroy’s camera makes love to the scenery, remaining stationary a good deal of the time. Yet none of his master shots ever appear static or without some utterly fascinating bit of set decoration to look at, ably supplied by art directors Stuart A. Reiss and Walter M. Scott. Because of its sumptuousness we can excuse North to Alaska’s less than perfect narrative. And there’s regrettably a lot to overlook here, from the rather mechanically staged fight sequences with their ten gallons tipped more to The Three Stooges’ slapstick than vintage western brawling, or the rather pointless dispatch of our love story in favor of a claim-jumping caper that goes absolutely nowhere very fast.
We first meet big Sam McCord (Wayne) preparing to leave Nome for Seattle to collect his friend and mining partner, George Pratt’s (Stewart Granger) fiancée, Jenny Lamont (Lilyan Chauvin). Sam, George and George’s kid brother, Billy (Fabian) make a pit stop at the local watering hole where Sam lets it be known that he and George have just struck it rich on their mine. The news is music to con artist, Frankie Canon’s (Ernie Kovacs) ears; that is, until he tries to swipe Sam’s leather satchel during a bar room brawl, then later at a steam bath where Sam catches him in a lie and promptly knocks him unconscious.
Sam vows to bring Jenny to Nome – a promise unfulfilled when he arrives in Seattle laden with presents only to find Jenny (a servant girl in a great house) already married to the under butler (Marcel Hillaire). Sam decides to whoop it up a little, stopping at a house of ill repute where he meets Michelle – one of the working girls. Despite the fact Sam is spending money like water Michelle is remarkably cold and aloof…at first. But when Sam offers her safe and very moneyed passage back to Nome she mistakenly assumes he’s offering her the world. Sam takes Michelle to a logger’s picnic where he wins a tree-climbing contest and introduces her to his longtime friends, Lars (Karl Swenson) and Lena Nordquist (Kathleen Freeman). Lena is, at first, skeptical of Michelle. But after a few drinks the kinks are ironed out and everyone gets along. Later, on the boat back to Alaska Michelle confides in Sam that she feels like a new woman and he, realizing she has mistaken his intensions, decides to clear things up by explaining that no such notion of a life together entered his head.
Naturally, Michelle is disappointed. But after a few days of isolation she warms to the idea of starting over in Nome. Meanwhile, Frankie attempts to snooker George and Billy out of their share of the gold mine. He is unsuccessful, but manages to launch a series of claim-jumping offensives on nearby prospectors. Sam and Michelle arrive at the mine and honeymoon cabin George built for Jenny, only to learn from Billy that George has gone several miles ahead to help a nearby prospector protect himself against Frankie’s posse. Leaving Michelle in Billy’s smitten care (he makes dinner and serenades her while she bathes), Sam rides off to the prospector’s slues and saves the day by launching a one man offensive using a runaway wagon to smash into the slues where the gunmen are hiding. George learns that Jenny did not make the voyage. But after meeting Michelle (and being rather cruel) George decidedly warms up to the idea of having her around.
It doesn’t take long for George to realize Michelle is desperately in love with Sam. So he conspires with her to make Sam jealous, a ruse that works only too well. In the meantime, Frankie has convinced the town drunk, Breezy (Stanley Adams) that he has a legitimate claim on Sam and George’s mine because he once built a bonfire on the land, thereby marking his spot ahead of them and thus, under Alaskan law, legally entitled to all of the riches the present mine has yielded. It’s a con of course, but one the Land Commissioner (Joe Sawyer) must entertain and investigate. Sam’s assets are frozen with Sam bitterly vowing to learn the identity of the man who filed the claim. Frankie complicates matters by hiding Breezy in his hotel under lock and key, a desperate act that fails to conceal the drunk for too long; especially after Sam takes to breaking down every door in the hotel until he finds and frees Breezy, forcing him to repeat his story to the commissioner. Frankie attempts damage control and, in the ensuing no holds barred fist fight that breaks out between him and Sam right in the middle of town, no extra – man nor beast – is spared. Michelle is thrilled for Sam but still electing to return to Seattle until Sam publicly proposes marriage.
North to Alaska is good-natured fun to be sure. It just isn’t particularly great story-telling. The Mahin/Rackin/Binyon screenplay seems intent on throwing every cliché and catalyst into the mix, hoping something will stick. Alas, too much does. Is this an impassioned story of a man and a woman finding one another? Well, yes – in spots. Is it the comic tale of a lover’s triangle? Occasionally. Is it a rollicking adventure yarn about rough and tumble claim jumpers going after the gold rush? Could be. Are we meant to view this latter conflict through a good vs. evil rubric? Hmmm. Where’s the villain?
Frankie Canon isn’t so much evil personified as loveably perverse. When Frankie sees Michelle in Nome he attempts to rekindle an old flame they presumably shared in another lifetime back in Seattle – just another momentary wrinkle in this Shar Pei puppy of a plot. However, she rebuffs him and Frankie steps aside; threatening to wreak havoc on Michelle’s daydream of a life with Sam. In fact, Frankie never follows through on these wicked intentions. Nor does he ever remotely prove himself a match for Sam; either physically or intellectually. No, he’s just a good-time weasel who briefly gets the upper hand. Hence, we’re deprived of a good solid villain we love to hate.
Another problem: there are too many sidekicks to consider. George and Billy Pratt are lumbering cornballs at best; especially Fabian’s smooth-skinned pretty boy crooner, unable to hold his liquor one minute, the next eloquently serenading Capucine in her bathtub (with a curtain dividing them – for modesty). And Wayne’s Sam seems to know he’s caught adrift in this sea of buffoons, frequently losing his temper with both George and Billy before succumbing to his own bought of idiocy; accidentally releasing the handbrake on a runaway cart hurdling down the embankment toward the slues and claim jumpers without first bothering to get out of the cart himself. 
At some point we simply have to ignore the plot and appreciate what’s left. The selling features for North to Alaska are, of course, plentiful. John Wayne doing what John Wayne does best; Capucine looking utterly radiant in either her prostitute’s red sequin and feather boa ensemble or, for that matter, any of the other decidedly more virginal costumes she wears throughout the rest of the film; a lot of meticulously redressed back lot sets given Fox’s A-list production values and some location work exquisitely showing off for the camera, and finally, folk singer Johnny Horton warbling the rambunctious title tune ‘a way up there’ – regrettably, his last. Horton died in a horrific car accident that same year.  
Viewed today, North to Alaska is a rather boisterous hodgepodge. We watch it mainly for Duke Wayne; an enduring testament to Wayne’s continuing pull at the box office. No other star of his vintage – and certainly none from our present day line up – has anywhere near the staying power. John Wayne was an original; arguably the star by which all stardom is ranked and judged. North to Alaska isn’t his best effort – not by a long shot. But it affords Wayne some absolutely wonderful moments and it is these that his fans continue to live for. On that score, Wayne in particular, and the film in general, never disappoint.
No one will be disappointed with Fox’s exquisitely remastered 1080p Blu-ray. When North to Alaska was released on DVD it suffered from a horribly faded print heavily favoring a brownish/beige palette with ruddy flesh tones and decidedly muddy colors. The Blu-ray exemplifies the need for remastering all classic movies in hi-def. North to Alaska is ravishing. Blu-ray colors are bold, rich and fully saturated. There are several very brief moments when the color seems just a tad off; Capucine’s fine bone features almost ghost-like in one particular close-up. This is a very minor quibbling, however. The outdoor locations pop in 1080p, revealing a level of detail unseen since the movie’s theatrical release. Everything crisps up as it should with fine detail vastly improved and contrast levels absolutely pitch perfect. The remastered 5.1 DTS audio is equally impressive; Cinemascope’s vintage six-track stereo holding up remarkably well. Extras are the only disappointment. As before, we only get a very brief MovieTone’s news clip marking the premiere and a very badly worn theatrical trailer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

SLAP SHOT: Blu-ray (Pan Art/King's Road/Universal 1977) Universal Home Video

A modicum of old-time talent and a lot of thoroughly tasteless bathroom humor went into George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977); an adolescent, navel-gazing amusement that cast Paul Newman as wily has-been, Reggie Dunlop whose ‘pro’ hockey career is presently circling the bowl. Nancy Dowd’s loose-tongued screenplay, dashing every four letter word to pieces ad nauseam, is loosely based on her brother, Ned’s experiences as a minor league defenseman. In fact, Slap Shot not only utilizes Johnstown, Pennsylvania – Ned’s old stomping grounds - as its central location, but it also hired several of Dowd’s teammates from the Johnstown Jets to fatten up the Chiefs’ roster. Incidentally, Ned also appears in the movie as the much-feared super goon, Ogie Ogilthorpe. Verisimilitude can work wonders on a B-grade comedy; ‘truth through laughter’ being the most prominent and ‘endearing’ feature of Slap Shot. At some point the viewer simply has to throw up his/her arms to accept the prevalent ‘Don’t give a sh_t. Never did. Never will.’ attitude and thereby appreciate all the ‘C’ and ‘D’-grade lunacy that follows.   
Generally, I’m not a fan of smut cinema; my rule of thumb being that if you have to rely on excessive verbalized filth, violence, and, gratuitous sex to pad out your run time then you really don’t have much of a movie to begin with. Yet, for all its vulgarity and seemingly pointless debauching, Slap Shot never quite veers into rank stupidity, if for no other reason, because it’s just too embarrassing to consider Paul Newman committing himself to anything less than ‘good’. And Slap Shot does get the genuine laugh. That’s impressive, especially since its’ unabashedly perverse, in-your-face/kick-in-the-crotch story-telling never quite allows the audience to forget high art is decidedly not the order of the day. In spite of itself, Slap Shot entertains; its underdog scenario rising to the top (either as cream or vermin might) and kept afloat by its Cinder-fella story line: good things happening to people – even those who may not deserve it. Wish fulfillment is a perennial favorite theme in American movies; the sucker punch for we suckers who still believe in, or at least desperately crave, magic in our lives. 
Slap Shot is a grossly unapologetic, fairly episodic affair – Dowd’s snippets of light drama, mere shoestrings used to loosely stitch the film’s ultra-violent/potty-mouthed ‘T’ and ‘A’ slap stick (pun intended).  It’s no secret that violence was a selling feature in hockey back in the seventies, comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s classic quip that he “went to a fight and a hockey game broke out” summarizing the general spirit of Slap Shot. Curiously, this never occurs to our fictional ‘hero’ Reggie Dunlop until he learns that his team, the Charleston Chiefs, is being liquidated at the end of the season. With his newly ensconced ‘what the hell?’ attitude, Reggie decides to transform his burnt out teammates into the roughest crew of hockey goons this side of Boston; a decision that ironically invigorates their game, breaks the team’s uninterrupted losing streak and ultimately draws their dwindling fan base back into the arena.
Although Slap Shot is presumably set during Fall and Winter, months when the sport is in season, it was actually shot in July; Newman and his co-stars wearing heavy winter coats in the sweltering heat with full blooming trees and flowers clearly visible in the background. Again, I suspect that like tact, continuity was never a concern for the film makers. And George Roy Hill must have known he had another winner on his hands with Newman as his star; Newman, of course, being Hill’s good luck charm ever since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). In fact, Newman would regard Slap Shot as his favorite movie; the ‘on set’ camaraderie fostering friendships lasting for many years. In viewing Slap Shot today one definitely senses this chest-thumping joie de vivre emanating from the peripheries of every frame. The cast revels in their saucy exchanges; ‘cut loose’ testosterone-driven, male-bonding nonsense, anteing up the level of silliness with tongue firmly in cheek.  This ‘balls in’ audacity is Slap Shot’s raison d'être, and, I suspect, the sole reason it lingers in our collective consciousness as a dirty little ‘fond’ memory.     
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is a physically beleaguered/emotionally stunted, over-the-hill player/coach. The Charlestown Chiefs are a nearly forgotten dog of a minor pro hockey team whose roster is undeniably at the bottom of the proverbial barrel. These guys couldn’t win a game if their lives depended on it and Joe McGrath (Strother Martin), their portly manager, knows it. Resorting to cut-rate and embarrassing promotional tie-ins to keep the Chief’s bottom line from mercilessly sinking into the red has left the team further defeated; their morale about as low as it can get. Reggie is neither particularly gifted nor motivational. But he is a rather slick con artist. And yet, he is entirely unable to keep even his own house in order; figuratively and literally, his marriage to local hairstylist, Francine (Jennifer Warren) about to implode. Meanwhile, Joe buys up the contracts of Jeff (Jeff Carlson), Steve (Steve Carlson) and Jack (David Hanson) Hanson; a trio of social misfits who cumulatively possess the intellectual power of a dead flashlight battery. Insulted by their acquisition, Reggie chooses to bench the Hansons. They’re not hockey players. They’re outcasts or, as Reggie unflatteringly labels them, ‘retards’.
In the meantime, Reggie learns the local steel mill is about to close. No mill – no patrons…not that there were many still going to the Chief’s home games anyway. But Reggie’s suspicions are confirmed when fellow player and top scorer, Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) overhears Joe on the phone desperately marketing himself for a job with another team. Ned doesn’t care for Reggie. In fact, he regards him as little more than a relic who ought to have hung up his skates some time ago. The two clash on just about every point on how a good hockey team ought to be managed. Reggie repeatedly makes a play for Ned’s young wife, Lily (Lindsay Crouse) who, frankly, has had it with Ned, the team and their dead-end existence in this know-nothing town. Joe confides in Reggie that the team will fold at the end of the season. With nothing to lose, Reggie decides to forgo fair play and sportsmanship and give the fans what they truly want – a good, ole-fashioned knock down/drag out brawl. He lets the Hansons play, quickly realizing that their thirst for blood on the ice is the perfect complement to his accidentally stumbled upon master plan. 
The Hanson’s goon squad mentality rubs off on the rest of the team – everyone except Ned – and the Chiefs quickly establish themselves as the bruisers of the American Minor Hockey League. Reggie now plants a false story with eccentric sports writer, Dickie Dunn (M. Emmet Walsh) that a prominent Florida retirement community is planning to buy the Chiefs. This generates some healthy spin and good buzz to elevate the team’s morale. With their new found mantra of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em – kill ‘em’, the Chiefs embark on a winning streak unlike anything experienced in recent years. Their booster club and fans adore them for it. But being the ‘bad boys’ of hockey also incurs the ire of rival coaches, referees and teams; particularly the Syracuse Bulldogs whose mercenary captain, Tim ‘Doctor Hook’ McCracken (Paul D’Amato) vows to wipe out the Chiefs after an especially humiliating defeat.
Reggie realizes that time is of the essence. His gag can only go so far unless he learns the identity of the team’s owners and can persuade them to actually sell off their interests to a ‘legitimate’ Florida buyer.  But Joe isn’t about to divulge this information to Reggie; at least, not until Reggie threatens to expose Joe’s past homosexual propositioning of him in the tabloids. Reggie is surprised to learn that a wealthy widow, Anita McCambridge (Kathryn Walker) is the Chiefs’ sole owner and silent partner. But Reggie is equally stunned, and frankly insulted, when Anita openly admits to him that, although his thug tactics have resurrected the Chiefs’ potential for a viable sale, her accountant has advised to fold them instead as a tax write-off. Realizing that the championship game will be their last, Reggie spills the beans to his teammates and further instructs them to go out by playing some good, clean ‘old-time hockey’ against the Bulldogs. It’s a disaster. Without coordination or even a game plan, the Bulldogs mop the ice with the Chiefs. Joe, who has brought scouts in to witness a victory, descends upon the Chiefs’ locker room at halftime to admonish them for their disgusting defeat. As a result, Reggie instructs the team to revert back to their ‘kick-ass’ ways and, when the Chiefs return to the ice, an all-out affray ensues.
Ned, who still refuses to partake in the team’s brutish antics, is suddenly inspired to change his mind when he catches a glimpse of his Tom-boyish wife, miraculously transformed into a real cheap looker by Francine’s hair and fashion tips. Ned takes to the ice, performing a striptease down to his jock, a spectacle that causes McCracken to lose it and sucker punch the referee, thereby forfeiting the game.  The film ends with the Chiefs riding open car down Main Street, Reggie momentarily managing to delay Francine’s departure with the good news that he has accepted a coaching job with the Minnesota Nighthawks. Promising future or just another tall tale spun by Reggie the con? Who can say? Reggie’s not telling and neither is the movie as Francine simply smiles and pulls away from the curb; leaving the future of their marriage an open-ended question.
Slap Shot is a disreputable claptrap, one that manages to be hilarious though rarely clever. It’s one of those films you know you shouldn’t like but do.  After all, the characters we get to know are not beautiful people or likeable. Let’s be honest. They’re not even normal! What they are, arguably, is fundamentally alive and genuine in all of their ultra-flawed behaviors. The movie works because it isn’t a stretch to imagine these goons and gals behaving badly. But the fact that they’re unapologetic about it doesn’t impact our level of empathy for them either and that’s refreshing. Our alignment with these characters’ interests, hopes and dreams is built into the Paul Newman persona, crafted from decades of consistently high-caliber performances elsewhere in the cinema firmament.
To see Newman so hard up, with seemingly no place to go and no one left to love him, makes us root for his loveable reprobate even more; the line between congenial star and cornball character effectively blurred. We’re really cheering for Newman, not Reggie Dunlop. But that doesn’t matter because within the context of Slap Shot they are one in the same. And since Reggie’s teammates are so naïve and willing to blindly follow him on just about any damn fool’s errand he might propose, by extension this makes us love them all the more too. It is this level of star power that sets Slap Shot up for the proverbial hat trick as a ‘mass pop-u-tainment/moneymaker’.  The movie works because Newman and his cohorts high stick us with their rank idiocy. We choose to find them charming, albeit on a commercially crass level.   
Screenwriter, Nancy Dowd didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Many of Slap Shot’s pivotal scenes are grounded in facts; as the moment when Jeff Hanson is struck in the face by a fan’s car keys that narrowly miss his eye, forcing Jeff and his two brothers into the stands. This actually happened to real-life player Jeff Carlson during a game between the Johnstown Jets and Mohawk Valley Comets. While one could definitely argue that there’s nothing ‘pro’ about ‘professional hockey’ as depicted herein, Slap Shot’s more violent vignettes are far more telling about the state of real sportsmanship – or lack thereof. 
On the whole critics were not kind to Slap Shot when it premiered, but that didn’t stop the public from making it a smash hit at the box office. Over time these same critics have come around to reconsidering the movie’s tawdry appeal and impact. Don’t get me started – or wrong. Slap Shot isn’t a great film. At times, it isn’t even a competently made one. But it manages to capture something of the essence of a sport and a time with incredible honesty, effortlessly translated into supremely amusing satire. You’re not going to love Slap Shot because it’s great film making, but rather because it exposes the decidedly less than altruistic motivations of hockey fans who prefer to combine their love of the game with a blood feud or two on the ice. That’s a brave statement for any sports movie to make and Slap Shot has no compunction about letting us in on the gag; that there is a very fine line of distinction between fair conduct and no holds barred roughhousing. 
Universal’s Blu-ray delivers a great looking 1080p transfer...sort of. Overall, colors are vibrant and contrast is very good with rich velvety blacks and clean whites. Film grain has been accurately reproduced for a very film-like visual presentation. There’s only one exception to bring up. During Ned’s penultimate striptease on the ice the image suddenly becomes softly focused; both color and contrast looking decidedly weak. Never having seen Slap Shot in theaters I am unable to comment whether or not this is how this sequence looked back in 1977. But it does seem to me that something is slightly remiss in the remastering. This sequence exhibits none of the razor-sharp image quality of the footage that bookends it. Deal breaker? In my opinion – no. But it is distracting nonetheless.  We get a remarkably aggressive 2.0 DTS audio that sounds fantastic, albeit within its obvious limitations. Extras are all holdovers from Universal’s DVD and include a fairly ribald and thoroughly funny audio commentary from the Hanson brothers, a featurette ‘Puck Talk’ with the Hansons and another featuring their ‘classic’ scenes. There’s also a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Slap Shot is wickedly entertaining; a sordid slice of low brow to ‘no brow’ Americana.  Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)