Thursday, January 30, 2014

HIGH SOCIETY (MGM 1956) Warner Home Video

One of the high-water marks in MGM's 50’s musical pastiche is undeniably Sol Siegel’s VistaVision production of High Society (1956); a sophisticated and sparkling, tune-filled, perfectly ‘swell-egant’ affair, brimming with oodles of chic good taste a la composer Cole Porter, whose more lilting melodies – including the top-selling romantic ballad ‘True Love’ - are delicately counterbalanced with razor-sharp and barb-laden pop tunes. Porter’s lyrics don’t simply inform both character and story; they excel in making glib social commentary on the idle rich.  High Society is a darling of a romantic/comedy cocktail, going down like well-aged cabernet while leaving behind the tickling memory of its bubbles. It’s a movie that could have only been made – or rather, remade – in the 1950’s; a glorious reconstitution of Philip Barry’s sensational Broadway show, The Philadelphia Story, first made into a movie under its non-musical namesake by MGM in 1940 and starring the indomitable Katherine Hepburn.
Grace Kelly assumes the role of the wounded socialite, Tracy Samantha Lord in High Society; more silken and less vinegary than Hepburn’s pert protagonist, but equally as engaging to the eye and ear; warbling a few bars of Porter’s aforementioned ‘True Love’ with costar Bing Crosby before moving on to even ‘higher’ society as Princess Grace of Monaco. And Kelly has sex appeal too – a quality Hepburn arguably lacked. Too bad for the men in Tracy’s life – ex-husband C.K. Dexter-Haven (Crosby), tabloid journalist, Mike ‘Macaulay’ Connor (Frank Sinatra) and fiancée, George Kittredge (John Lund) that Tracy wears a chip on her shoulder overshadowing the heart on her sleeve. “You have a fine mind and a body that does what you tell it to do,”  Tracy’s disenfranchised father, Seth (Sidney Blackmere) coolly tells her at one point, “You have everything you need except the one essential – an understanding heart. Without it you might just as well be made of bronze.”    
Yet, the movie’s take on female vanity always seemed a tad strained; what with repeat references to high priests and their virgin goddesses. George tells Tracy, that after they are married he wants to place her on a pedestal where he can be permitted to worship. “But I don’t want to be worshiped,” Tracy tenderly pleads, “I want to be loved.” “That goes without saying,” George casually explains. But does it? At the crux of Philip Barry’s original masterwork there always remained a distance between Tracy Lord and the world surrounding her – the original misfit, as it were – reaching for something that can never be hers while tossing happiness and her first marriage away with both hands. Ah yes, “She needs trouble to mature,” as Dexter slyly conveys to George while Mike and his photog’ gal pal, Elizabeth Embry (Celeste Holm) curiously look on. “I’m afraid she can’t count on me for that,” is George’s brittle reply. But now Dexter plies just a tad more sarcasm as he insists, “That’s a pity…because I gave her plenty.”
At the crux of Tracy’s gnawing uncertainty, that she will never find happiness through marriage, is her own haunted misunderstanding about what has happened to her mother – Seth having strayed from the family with a chorus girl. Will it undoubtedly happen to her? Men: they’re all such pigs! To prevent what she has already misperceived as the inevitable, Tracy sets up emotional barriers. Ironically, however, these serve the exact opposite purpose, leading to Tracy’s bitter dissatisfaction with Dexter who, in the interim, has become the ‘distinguished’ composer of ‘Choo-Choo Mama’ – a flashy pop tune. But this first marriage began in elopement. Perhaps that was the precursor to its annulment. And George is no Dexter; nor does he aspire to Dexter’s class and it’s probably just as well. For High Society is rather heavy on its class distinctions. Dexter presumably is of Tracy’s ilk, while George represents the rising proletariat, and Mike, the bottom feeder bringing up the rear.
The men in High Society are all pawns, rather bloodless even as they profess to have embers smoldering just beneath the surface of their starched white tuxedo shirts. George is too old for Tracy – both in years and in his mindset, and rather effete – someone more interested in the public presentation of his wife to this sycophantic collection of fair-weather friends than his own private exploration of every crevice on her body behind closed doors. Even Crosby’s C.K. Dexter-Haven is prone to bouts of the same ‘worship’ George has promised Tracy; having written a musical ode to her grace: ‘I Love You, Samantha’, first vamped in the absurdly lavish foyer of his adjacent mansion (actually the oft reused and ever-so-slightly redressed Versailles ‘throne room’ set from MGM’s Marie Antoinette 1938).  Only when Sinatra sings two of the movie’s most delicious ballads, ‘Mind If I Make Love To You?’ and ‘You’re Sensational’ does the screen crackle with a sort of sinful, earthy ‘take me, I’m yours’ that escapes – or rather ignores entirely – the platitudes of Crosby’s more refined exaltations.  Crosby sings ‘Little One’ – to Tracy’s prepubescent sister, Caroline (Lydia Reed) who utterly adores him. It’s a strange moment in the movie, perhaps unintentionally fraught with a whiff of pedophilia, while Crosby’s supreme declaration to his romance with Tracy – ‘True Love’ – remains but a memory rekindled for the audience in Tracy’s own mind as the one-time happy newlyweds sail aboard Dexter’s yacht on their honeymoon.  Ah me – bliss.
Yet, High Society takes Barry’s original play and does something quite wonderful to it; miraculously retaining just enough of the playwright’s wit, seamlessly married to Cole Porter’s adroit sense of self-deprecating humor about the haves and the have not’s. Relocating the story to Newport Rhode Island, to capitalize on a local jazz festival (after an initial film project proposed by producer Arthur Freed meant to focus on the festival itself fell through) and installing one of the greatest of all jazz musicians – Louis Armstrong, playing himself - as the movie’s éminence grise is a stroke of genius. Armstrong not only bookends the triumvirate of Tracy, Dexter and Mike with his own tongue-in-cheek running commentary about the quagmire of their feuding and fusing love – the story’s central theme, with George as its ‘fifth wheel’, but he also is given some plum opportunities to do what ole Satchmo does best; play his trumpet and warble a tune or two in his trademarked gravely-textured voice as only Armstrong can.  
The arbitrator of good taste herein remains MGM: the studio with more stars than there were in heaven. The production values on High Society are piece work at best, stitched from the lavishly appointed entrails and hand-me-downs constructed for other movies. As the bus pulls up to the exterior of Dexter’s manor house we’re shown a slightly altered matted painting of the same approach used in another Grace Kelly vehicle, The Swan (1956).  With the exception of a very bumpy overhead helicopter tracking shot sailing at great heights over the actual moneyed playground of Newport – and a few rear-projection inserts thereafter – High Society takes place almost exclusively on MGM’s fabled back lot. Knowing this doesn’t really wreck the mood of the piece, because the studio has skillfully created a fictional facsimile to stand in for the truth. It’s all cardboard and plywood, but it looks ravishing for the most part; borrowing props from just about every movie the studio ever made and using the same parquet flooring and ornate wainscoting created for the aforementioned Marie Antoinette and seen in countless MGM movies thereafter to suggest the bygone aristocratic wealth of the robber baron generation.   
High Society attains a sort of enforced greatness as a truly ‘swell-egant’ affair not so much because it reaches for, or ever attains verisimilitude, but because these characters and the actors who inhabit them for just an hour or two seem to perfectly fit within the artifice that surrounds them. One could no more imagine Sinatra at home inside an actual austere and dark mahogany-paneled Newport study than he might look comfortable in tie-dyed khakis and a kaftan.  Yet, he falls right into line in Uncle Willie’s (Louis Calhern) impossibly gargantuan library that serves double-duty as a private bar, warbling another vintage Cole Porter melody with Crosby’s assist; the playfully combative ‘Did You Evah?’  In actuality, the song was a toss-away from Porter’s score to another show: Du Barry Was A Lady, herein resurrected as sublime and utterly farcical double-entendre. When Crosby and Sinatra musically spar it’s of the highest order, swapping lines like: “Have you heard about dear Blanche – got run down by an avalanche” or “Have you heard that Mimsy Starr…got pinched in the As-tor bar?” What a swell party this is, indeed.   
And bringing up the rear, as she so often did in the movies, is the marvelous Celeste Holm; her Liz Embry readily acknowledged as being ‘quite a girl’ by more than one man in her midst, even though she is never anyone’s first choice for love’s romantic kiss. Holm is a talent apart from most supporting players who graced MGM’s formidable roster. In point of fact, she was a 2oth Century-Fox contract player first, before becoming a free agent. When she engages Sinatra in the duet, ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ she is every bit his musical/comedic equal – knowing exactly where to place her emphasis to compliment his own. When, as the screenplay implies though never quite shows, she is rather heartily pinched on the bottom by Uncle Willie in a turn around the dance floor, Holm’s double-take reaction of indignation suggest a wound more deeply felt, even as she fluffs it off as mere male machismo run amuck; overtures made by a middle-aged man who will one day ‘grow up’ to be a juvenile delinquent.  
Later, when Crosby’s Dexter inquires why she has failed to land Mike Connor as a potential mate – clearly, the only man for her – Holm’s astute and world-weary hopeful explains that she doesn’t want to get in Mike’s way; acknowledging that in keeping her distance she may lose the only man she’s ever loved. The role of Elizabeth Embry was originally played in The Philadelphia Story by Ruth Hussey; an actress much closer in age to James Stewart’s Mike Connor.  In reinventing the role for Holm – who was, in fact, only two years older than Sinatra but looking at least six to ten years his senior – High Society introduces a curious level of romantic uncertainty into its mix; one never convincingly resolved in the final few moments at Tracy’s wedding when Liz resolves to snatch up Mike before somebody else does.
Our story opens with some breathtaking aerial shots of Rhode Island, ever so slightly marred by the jarring second unit shaky camerawork. From this spectacular vista we regress into the back of a private bus hurtling toward the estate of C.K. Dexter-Haven; a much beloved jazz aficionado and patron of the popular arts. Our M.C., Louis Armstrong warbles the ‘High Society Calypso’ to, as Satchmo puts it “stop that weddin’ and ‘tout that match”. Armstrong and his band arrive in style and are shown by Dexter’s butler (Gordon Richards) into the grand foyer where Dexter, ever amused and delighted to see them again, encourages the boys to vamp a little in anticipation of their appearance at the local jazz festival (which we never see).
Armstrong’s jazzy riff of ‘I Love You, Samantha’ incurs the ire of Tracy Lord who has been collecting wedding presents in the family’s solarium while her mother, Margaret (Margalo Gillmore) makes an inventory of all the gifts and writes the many ‘thank you’ cards.  Younger sister, Caroline is up to some petty larceny, inserting a silver-framed portrait of Dexter into the collection. When Tracy sees it she hits the ceiling. But her wrath is stirred to even greater heights when she recognizes the melody wafting over from the adjacent property. Charging up the lawn to Dexter’s house, Tracy confronts her ex-husband with an ultimatum; to ‘go away’ and ‘stay away’ from her wedding. But Dexter confesses that he is still in love with her. “I still think you have what it takes to become a wonderful woman,” he suggests. “Thank you,” Tracy sarcastically replies, “I haven’t the same high hopes for you,” to which Dexter nonchalantly offers his gender-bending reply, “I don’t want to become a wonderful woman.”
Leaving Dexter to his own accord, Tracy encounters George back home and explains about Dexter’s return. In the meantime, Uncle Willie telephones the house from the offices of ‘Spy Magazine’; a notorious rag prone to publishing salacious tidbits about the wealthy. In their current issue set to run is a story about Seth Lord’s infidelities that, as Willie explains, will hit the magazine stands unless Tracy agrees to have a reporter and photographer cover her pending nuptials. At first appalled by the suggestion, Tracy reconsiders her options; electing to stage a spectacle that will ‘stand their hair on end’.  Caroline is employed as a sort of scatterbrained buffer after Elizabeth Embry and Mike Connor arrive; playing the piano – badly – and wearing a tutu and toe shoes, she primes the pair for the entrance of Tracy, who thereafter toys with Mike in particular; suggesting he is much too old to be wasting his time with the magazine, and then intimating that Liz and he are ‘together’ – sexually speaking. “It’s the sort of detail you enjoy publishing, isn’t it?” Tracy goads Mike before moving on – rather hilariously – to critique everything from his childhood and upbringing to English history. “I’m delighted you came,” she facetiously concludes, “We have so much cake.”
Introduced to Margaret Lord, Mike and Liz take a few pictures and next inquire when they will meet Seth – unknowing, as they are of either Seth’s affair, his estrangement from the family at Tracy’s behest, or the real reason why they have been assigned to cover Tracy’s wedding. Thus, when Uncle Willie arrives for lunch, he is immediately passed off as Seth Lord by a very nervous Tracy; the moment teeming with resignation after Seth arrives on an impromptu whim and is henceforth pawned off on Mike and Liz as Uncle Willie.  Sounds confusing, but it’s not – really – and very funny besides.  To further complicate this luncheon, Dexter makes an appearance and is encouraged by Liz to pose for photographs with Tracy and George. However, when Liz’s lens captures a snapshot of Willie, with Liz declaring “To the father of the bride…we’ll use it to head the article”, Tracy orchestrates a moment to sabotage the film by breaking the camera.
Sometime later, Liz and Mike take inventory of the lavish wedding presents. Dexter presents Tracy with a model of his yacht, the ‘True Love’ as his parting gift to her, exiting with bitter regret and affording Tracy the opportunity to daydream about their past. We see a couple quite unlike the one about to tie the knot; Dexter relaxed and Tracy ebullient as she prepares a sandwich and tomato juice for her groom. The couple serenades one another by concertina and moonlight; this moment of happiness shattered when George suddenly appears with a bottle of champagne and two glasses to surprise his fiancée. Momentarily, Seth and Margaret arrive poolside for a stroll, Seth’s arm loosely around his wife. It’s as though nothing has happened, and Seth’s liberties incur Tracy’s wrath. She strikes at him with nail-biting disdain, he returning the volley with an admonishment of her aloof exterior that Seth regards as a tragedy for any man unlucky enough to find his daughter attractive enough to marry.
The emotional wounds inflicted by this father/daughter confrontation cause Tracy to abandon her plans for an afternoon swim and take Mike Connor for a ride instead – both literally and figuratively. Tracy shows Mike the “high cost of being rich”; rows of boarded up mansions no longer feasible because of taxes. She then takes Mike to her Uncle Willie’s fabulous estate, already in mid-preparations for her co-ed bachelor party. The mood between these two adversaries warms and they share a drink in Uncle Willie’s study as Mike confides in Tracy that she ought to be wearing an orchid instead of a chip on her shoulder.  Embarrassed by her obvious attraction to Mike, Tracy departs to get ready for the party. We return to Dexter’s home, as Louis Armstrong vamps in the foyer and Dexter warbles his heartfelt ballad ‘I Love You, Samantha’ with his windows open – the tune filling the night air and captivating Tracy as she listens from her own open bedroom window.
At Uncle Willie’s party, Liz and Mike are informed of the mix up in identities between Seth and Willie and the reason for their being ‘invited’ to cover the wedding. In reply, Mike gets soused and Tracy becomes quite inebriated, making a spectacle of herself before George condescendingly exiles her to a nearby suite to sleep it off. Dexter introduces Newport to jazz and Louis Armstrong with the infectious and rhythmic ‘Now You Has Jazz’; then retires to the library where he and Mike continue to drink and exchange barbs by singing ‘Did You Evah?’ Mike eventually locates Tracy attempting to escape from her locked room through an open window and together they run away for a midnight swim. When George finds out, he is livid. But Dexter takes matters into his own hands, knocking Mike unconscious before he can explain the incident with any sort of comprehension that would make sense to either Dexter or George. The next day, Tracy awakens with a severe hangover to discover her jewelry missing. Dexter, having found her ring, bracelet and necklace on a patio cushion the night before, now toys with Tracy’s own understanding of the previous night’s events until his hints stir musings that frighten and confuse her. George arrives to threaten a delay in his plans to marry Tracy; his tide of conceit ebbing after Mike confesses that their ‘so called affair’ consisted of two kisses and a swim that he will neither deny nor suggest he did not thoroughly enjoy.
George reconsiders that with Tracy’s virtue in tact she is still worthy of his affections. But Tracy now reveals how it would have made her more proud if he – George - had stood by her despite any indiscretions. Infuriated by this turn of rejection, George marches off, leaving Tracy to face her guests and explain away the situation. Instead, Dexter proposes for a second time and Tracy, realizing she ought never have divorced him in the first place, now vows to make him a good wife this second time around. With some regret, Mike falls back on accepting Liz as his mate, while Caroline nudges a hung over Uncle Willie in the ribs, all while Louis Armstrong serenades the wedding guests with his own inimitable jazzy rendition of the traditional wedding march – “End of song. End of story.”
When High Society debuted it was a colossal hit for MGM; partly due to the invested publicity hype of the studio, marketing the occasion as the absolute last time audiences would see Grace Kelly in a movie. Incidentally, the engagement ring given to Kelly by Monaco’s Prince Rainier makes a guest appearance in the movie; a stunning diamond that Celeste Holm joked needed a highball around it. Viewed today, High Society is vintage MGM movie-making from the 1950’s; a time of financial entrenchment and upheaval at the studio. With its founding father, L.B. Mayer already ousted from power, the implosion of his ‘star-making’ system in steep decline, and the uncertainties of a dwindling audience and shrinking box office creeping in, High Society clearly punctuates MGM’s more restrained investment of both time and money on the Hollywood musical – a genre the studio did not invent, though arguably refined and mined more readily and to greater effect than all the rest put together.
Virtually all of the sets and props are hand-me-downs from other studio product; including, the story itself. That MGM was able to reinvent Philip Barry’s most celebrated play as a frothy musical is a testament to their creativity and ability to unite just the right entourage of talents, capable of bringing off the experiment to its successful conclusion. Ironically, there is an absence of dancing in High Society; the songs lyrically sung by all concerned, but without any ‘routines’ to follow them. Arguably, Cole Porter’s lyrics don’t need happy feet to express what is already clearly on the page note for note; adroit cynicism and immeasurable charm effortlessly blended together.  With the exception of ‘Did You Evah?’, the score is brand new and a million dollar seller. MGM expands this repertoire with l underpinnings from some of Porter’s most famous ballads like ‘I’ve Got My Mind On You’ and ‘Rosalie’; all of them superbly orchestrated by MGM’s in-house conductor Johnny Green with an assist from Conrad Salinger.  In the final analysis, it’s one hell of a show with Crosby, Sinatra and Kelly at the pinnacle of their powers as entertainers. Within a few short years this sort of lavishly mounted entertainment would seem as bygone as the studio era that spawned it. Today, High Society retains its luster as an escapist movie musical. For all of the aforementioned reasons, they don’t come much finer than this and they certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to!
If only the same could be said of Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer. It’s high time Warner became serious about remastering High Society in hi-def for Blu-ray; not the least reason being that this is a movie superbly photographed by Paul Vogel in Paramount’s patented VistaVision – a process that yielded true motion picture hi-fidelity; none of it in evidence on this DVD incarnation from Warner’s. Time and money need to be spent to gussy up this print because what’s here borders between mediocre to downright embarrassingly bad.  Very little attempt has been made to color balance and/or color correct this badly worn negative. When the DVD was released back in 1999, much was made of the fact that Warner had ‘restored’ the original silver lettering in the main titles. True enough, these look rather fabulous, even as the background effortlessly changes from royal blue, to cranberry red, then velvety jade green.
But once the credits fade out we are treated to a rather disappointing assortment of digital anomalies, beginning with an exceptionally grainy aerial shot of Newport, heavily speckled in dirt and scratches. Even when we descend into more stable lighting conditions on the obvious sets, rear projected plates are so badly faded they almost appear to have been shot in sepia. Color wavers throughout, flesh tones looking 'piggy pink' and rather garishly orange on occasion. There’s also a considerable amount of gate weave in the left side of frame, creating some rather depressingly obvious instability for long stretches during the middle third of the story. Virtually every stock shot of exteriors is riddled in a heavy patina of highly digitized film grain. What a travesty! 
High Society on DVD never comes close to replicating the resplendent textures and detail available from vintage VistaVision. The audio too lacks sparkle, except in the songs. These have been sourced from restoration work done much earlier by Scott McQueen for the truly old, out of date, and out of print, MGM/UA laserdisc that featured the very first rendering of High Society’s illustrious score in 5.1 stereo. Vintage VistaVision only allowed for mono tracks or what was then commonly known as Perspecta-Stereo; a faux stereo created from directionalized mono audio ‘stems’.   
Finally, Warner Home Video affords us only a clumsily slapped together ‘retrospective’ hosted by the late Celeste Holm, who mostly glosses over personal impressions and shares some threadbare facts that anyone with a computer and IMDB could look up for themselves. Two more short subjects and High Society’s badly worn theatrical trailer round out the extras. Bottom line: we need High Society in hi-def. Given the studio’s exquisite work on Hitchcock’s North By Northwest – the only other MGM movie to be photographed in VistaVision – it’s high time High Society was given similar consideration. Come on, WB! Get with the program!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

TITUS: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1999) Twilight Time

For me, movies generally fall into two categories: the ones I absolutely love, and the misfires I’ve never been able to understand. The gray area in the middle – where movies of copious production, but little entertainment, value reside…ah, now there is the most fascinating pantheon yet to be discussed, and arguably the platitude on which Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) rests. Ever since seeing it I’ve had this love/hate relationship with the movie. I love to hate it which, as a critic, is so unlike me. I mean, there’s usually something I can find even in the most awful flubs to recommend a movie.
I think the chief problem that persists, the one this mind refuses to even begin to wrap itself around the fringes of acceptance, is that Taymor is working with an extraordinary cast. True, William Shakespeare’s play, Titus Andronicus is the least celebrated and/or revived of the playwright’s works – his first stab at the revenge tragedy and, many scholars agree, not a terribly good one at that; shameless in its borrowing from Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe and utterly desperate in its attempt to mimic the masterworks of Sophocles. Then again, wasn’t the bard supposed to be a shrieking fraud…I mean, at least, according to Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011)? But I digress.
Titus is just one of those movies I have never been able to warm up to. Believe me, with a cast featuring some of my all-time favorites (including Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Alan Cummings, and Colm Feore) – each, in a class by themselves - I have sincerely tried to appreciate this movie as something other than dreck. But Titus defies my admiration and consistently stirs a momentous and gnawing displeasure from within. So I am probably the wrong person to write any review about this movie, incapable - as I am - of remaining objective. I just hate it – completely and without reservation. Bad, I know. But it may help the reader to understand this before embarking upon the rest of my acrimonious prose. To paraphrase – ‘oh, unhappy man, I cannot accept thee!’
For I can see absolutely no point to the exercise: the artifice-infused choreography as the returning Roman centurions, in their clunky blue-gray art deco armor, looking like a bunch of break-dancing chickens, perform dance steps better suited to a Paula Abdul concert; the faux contemporary introduction of a young – though not so terribly innocent – spoiled brat eating breakfast at his kitchen table before suffering from a sudden and unexpected attack of pseudo-Tourette Syndrome; spraying his toys with milk and ketchup before being whisked away to the ancient past; the purgatory of styles and timelines feeding into a sort of diseased Baz Luhrmann-esque landscape where chariots, motorcycles, and 50’s finned automobiles collide with breast-plate wearing junkies and cavorting, cross-dressing cutthroats who oddly enough seem to foreshadow the gutter depravity that has since become acceptable behavior at The Grammy’s. 
No, Titus doesn’t just raise my dander and dampen my spirits simultaneously because of director Julie Taymor’s run amuck eclecticism, but rather because in her zeal to transform Shakespeare’s most tedious play into high art she hasn’t made any artistic choices at all; rather, quite simply and moronically the opposite; filling the screen with every unattractive pestilence and pseudo-neorealist cliché her production designer, Dante Ferretti, and art directors Pier Luigi Basile, Massimo Razzi, and, Domenico Sica have suggested will be in service to the story.
Watching Titus again, I could almost believe Taymor drank from the same state-sanctioned Kool-Aid that gave Italy their Mussolini; the production full of utterly mad and unrestrained ideas allowed to take hold and dominate. No kidding; Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies are visceral experiments exposing the darker underbelly of the human condition, ending in death. But apart from Taymor’s affinity for cheap erotica and bump n’ grind kink, Titus remains an exercise in the wretched grotesqueness of degenerate humanity; severed heads, hands, tongues and oozing entrails strewn about its rather monolithic landscape and making no attempt to capture either the glories of Rome or pragmatic cynicism of the play. Taymor is relying on cheap shlock and shock value to get her points across. She doesn’t build upon the play’s multitudinous torments that drive Rome’s greatest warrior to debauched humiliation, total surrender and ultimately insane retributions against his enemies. Instead, she ladles and harps upon the grief, reveling in the play’s suicidal reckonings with all the B-grade subtlety of a Dario Argento slasher flick.     
And the cast are none too clairvoyant either, but overcome by her invisible plague of faux incredulity masquerading as artistry; each overplaying their hand – Shakespeare’s words overly saturated in grandiose pontifications, the actors – with the exception of Jessica Lange’s uber-slinky Queen of the Goths - shrieking their lines at ear-shattering decibels with insipid contempt over each other to be heard; presumably having a grand time at being perpetually indignant without truly understanding what all this passionate ire is about.  
Can I possibly write any more to make you think I like this movie any less? What is this? Titus Redux or a cheap burlesque gussied up with trashy/trendy sets? Nothing about the film has dated well in the interim – not that it seemed cutting edge in 1999 either; the movie’s indiscriminate timeline simultaneously distilled, while anchoring the narrative to its clattering, caliginous claptrap of livid diatribes. I’m not going to waste any more time trying to analyze this one. It is what it is – or rather, remains in my own perception. If only I could purge this memory as easily as I intend to expunge these files off my computer once this review is published.
We begin Taymor’s odyssey of endurance with young Lucius (Osheen Jones) eating breakfast at a table strewn with various toys mimicking the implements of war, and this in a kitchen straight out of the 1950’s. Please forgive; but the significance of this prologue and discombobulated timeline escapes me.  The boy obviously has issues, because he begins to destroy virtually everything in sight; dunking his plastic warriors in milk and spraying them in ketchup.  A bomb blast outside his window stirs the child to the realities of war. He is taken from the deluge by a rather oafish clown (Dario D'Ambrosi) and thrust into a blackened amphitheater where invisible crowds cheer. The Terracotta Army enters - bizarrely, with a frenetic stamp of the earth beneath their feet; their hero, Titus Andronicus (Sir Anthony Hopkins) having returned with spoils and prisoners: Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), her sons, Alarbus (Raz Degan), Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Johnathan Rhys Meyers) and Aaron – the Moor (Harry Lennox).  Tamora begs Titus to spare Alarbus’ life. But he has been marked for execution and Titus, so that the spirits of his twenty-one dead sons may be appeased, carries out the death sentence with considerable ease.
We regress to the ‘Square Coliseum’, built by Mussolini and widely regarded as an iconic piece of fascist architecture. Here we discover that the Emperor has since died and his sons Saturninus (Alan Cummings) and Bassianus (James Frain) are engaged in a heated political campaign of succession, tooling around the Roman alley ways in open top 1950’s convertibles and WWII tanks, megaphones blaring their smug superiority for all to hear. The Tribune, Marcus Andronicus (Colm Feore) announces that the people's choice for a new emperor is his brother, Titus. Titus, however, is contented to remain what he is – Rome’s valiant warrior/servant. He refuses the title; the throne automatically reverting to the emperor’s eldest, Saturninus.
Partly to incur the people’s pleasure, but also to wreck the betrothal of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser) to his own brother whom he insanely despises, Saturninus publicly proposes marriage to Lavinia. It is a backhanded ‘honor’, but one Titus feels compelled not to refuse. To spare their sister this indignation, Titus’ sons help Bassianus and Lavinia escape the Pantheon.  It is an embarrassing moment for Titus who illustrates his loyalty to the new emperor by slaying his own son, Mutius (Blake Ritson). Unimpressed by this sacrifice, and suffering the angst of being publicly spurned, Saturninus frees Tamora and makes her his Queen. Tamora persuades Saturninus to feign a forgiveness of Bassianus, Titus and his family.  But afterward she quietly puts her own plan of revenge into action. A clandestine meeting between Tamora and Aaron in the woods is witnessed by Bassianus and Lavinia. Aaron sets Chiron and Demetrius after the pair to murder Bassianus as Lavinia helplessly looks on. His body is thrown into a pit and Lavinia raped by Chiron and Demetrius; her tongue cut out, her hands chopped off – gruesomely replaced with inserted tree branches – so that she can neither speak nor write down the identity of her assailants.  When Marcus discovers her perched atop a stump in a muddy swamp she spews blood from her mouth in a silent scream.
Next, Aaron frames two of Titus’ sons Martius (Colin Wells) and Quintus (Kenny Doughty) for Bassianus’ murder, trapping them both in the same pit where Bassianus body lies and forging a confession letter detailing their complicity in the crime. The letter is, of course, taken at face value and despite Titus’ grief-stricken pleas, the boys are taken away to be executed at the Emperor’s command. 
Not long afterward, Aaron arrives with a faux ultimatum. Martius and Quintus shall be spared if either Titus, his eldest son, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen) or Marcus will sacrifice their own hand. Each man vows to devote his limb to the cause. But only Titus succeeds in carrying out this bloody amputation, commanding Aaron, who blissfully lops off the appendage with a meat cleaver. Tragically, no reprieve for Martius or Quintus is forthcoming; their severed heads returned to Titus a short while later along with Titus’ own hand.
Having truly sacrificed all power and prestige, Titus now commands Lucius to depart on his own revenge, raising an army from their former enemies; the Goths against Rome. Titus's grandson, Lucius indicates that Lavinia has been persistent in pointing out to him the story of Philomela – a mute not unlike herself who ‘wrote’ the name of her wrongdoer. Clutching a stick between her lips, Lavinia scratches the names of Chiron and Demetrius’ into the dirt. It is more than Titus can bear. Marcus instructs his kinsmen to intrude upon a rather garish orgy at the palace, firing their arrows with pleas for justice into the lavish gardens and sending the inebriated revelers scattering in all directions. Meanwhile, Lucius has amassed an army of Goths who march on the gates of Rome.
Tamora gives birth to a child of mixed race sired by Aaron. To conceal the birth from the Emperor, Aaron murders the nurse who attended Tamora as Demetrius and Chiron look on. Next, Aaron steals away into the night with his son. Captured by Lucius’ forces, Aaron confesses his complicity in Titus’ undoing, reveling in each monstrous detail. Convinced of Titus’ madness, Tamora, Demetrius and Chiron arrive at his home in the dead of night, masquerading as the spirits of Revenge, Murder and Rape.  Tamora – as Revenge - instructs Titus to call off Lucius and his forces. In reply, he – Titus – will be granted sweet revenge against his enemies. Assessing the situation wisely, Titus insists that Rape and Murder remain behind. Tamora happily agrees, believing she has spared the city its demise. But once she is out of earshot, Titus’ servants attack and bind Chiron and Demetrius to a rack, Titus slitting their throats while Lavinia holds a basin to collect their blood.
The next day, Titus – dressed as a chef – invites the Emperor and his Queen to dine. The main course is a pair of freshly baked pies which the Emperor and Tamora consume. However, when Lavinia enters the grand hall, Titus asks Saturninus whether a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped. When Saturninus reluctantly agrees that only death can cleanse such a shame, Titus slays Lavinia in their presence. Saturninus is horrified and demands that Chiron and Demetrius be brought to him at once. Now, Titus gleefully replies that both sons are dead, baked into the pies they have been eating. Tamora is understandably sickened by this realization. But Saturninus flies into a rage, murdering Titus with a large candelabras. In reply, Saturninus is dispatched by Lucius; a revenge most sweet for his father’s death.  
We are returned to the blackened Roman Arena where all this villainy began. Lucius regales the people of Rome with his tale. He is proclaimed Emperor and begins by issuing proclamations swiftly: that Saturnius’ remains be consecrated; Tamora’s body be flung to the wild beasts and that Aaron – who remains unrepentant and bitter to the end – be buried up to his neck and left to die of starvation. The movie concludes with young Lucius cradling Aaron’s bastard child in his arms and slowly walking down a long dark corridor toward the rising sun.
Titus could have been considered Grand Guignol. If only director Julie Taymor had suffered the afterthought a little bit more. Instead, what we have is a veneration of the perverted and incalculable horrors merely suggested in the play, but herein given that irreprehensible ‘in your face’ treatment that quickly devolves Shakespeare’s feeblest revenge-tragedy into a bloody abomination.  Regrettably, Taymor’s stab at creating hybrid melodrama never rises above rank theatricality. She gives us misshapen villainy aplenty, so anomalous it can elicit dry heaves of ironic laughter. Taymor’s inspiration, it seems, was her own stage adaptation of the play done five years earlier. But the film is an anxious and unconvincing amalgam of…um…styles; the players’ punk’d by an aesthetic motif that serves no other purpose than to applaud the vanity of its distortion.
Anthony Hopkins is a superior talent. Yet, his Titus is an ill-conceived spook rather than that dashing warrior reduced to human rubble by muddled/missed opportunities and his own piteous need for revenge. Alan Cummings is a bizarre Emperor – an utterly effete antithesis of his namesake and quite unable to convince us he would prefer to spend his evenings with either Lavinia or Tamora as opposed to Chiron and Demetrius. 
Harry Lennix’s Aaron is the play’s deus ex machine, herein reconstituted as a beastly thing; bitter, brooding and belligerent. We’re supposed to love to hate him or perhaps, despise our own compelled attraction to his disgusting treacheries. But Lennix gives us evil incarnate; a joylessly wicked thing; soulless and disturbing. He’s just bad – all bad – and characters without even a shred of redemption are very hard to relate to or appreciate.       
In some regard, the supporting players fair better than their star-powered counterparts. Laura Fraser’s Lavina, as example, is an exquisitely dreadful creation – dead from the moment she witnessed the murder of her beloved Bassianus – yet forced to endure her emasculated victimization in haunted silence. 
So too does Colm Feore manage sustained modicums of sincerity as the panged bystander who can do nothing to alleviate the erosion of his corrupted brother’s family.  In the end, these performers are eclipsed, or rather, overshadowed by the more ostentatious and obnoxious among them. Most every scene begins and/or ends as a strident perdition; endless gnashing and/or clashes of swords between collectively damned souls. If only to give the audience pause to drink in the diction, Taymor ought to have encouraged her actors toward introspection and subtly. Instead, every character is wearing their hearts (or rather that vacant abyss where a heart ought to be) on their sleeve along with a sizable chip threatening to topple from their shoulders. In the end, it doesn’t work – not for a moment’s pause or in any comprehensible way as a collective whole. Titus fails us on every level. It is an utter waste of time.
The same can be said of Fox’s 1080p transfer released through Twilight Time. I recall when Titus had its debut on DVD back in 1999 how the Fox Searchlight logo was mired in some rather obvious and severe edge enhancement. Well, guess what? That same edge enhancement is present at the start of this hi-def transfer!  No upgrade at all!!! Fox has merely ported over the same flawed digital files from 1999 onto this Blu-ray. What a crock and a sham! The image is softly focused throughout and occasionally quite blurry, with weak contrast, pasty flesh tones that veer into ‘piggy pink’, dull colors throughout and a thorough lack of indigenous grain and fine detail present as a result. Worse, we still have dirt, scratches and other nicks and chips in evidence throughout this transfer. 
Honestly, Fox didn’t even go back to a camera negative to source this disc. They simply took their digital files from whatever working print was at hand back in 1999. We have chroma bleeding for God’s sake; and aliasing in background details married to artificial sharpness applied to the point of distraction. Truly, I would love a straight answer from Fox – what was the point in releasing this title to Blu-ray in its present condition – even through third party distribution via Twilight Time?!?
Another irony: the DTS-HD 2.0 surround fairs better than its 5.1 counterpart: dialogue appearing to lack clarity in the latter. Jessica Lange’s whispered coos and plotting are inaudible at average decibel levels while the more frequent tirades shouted out by the rest of the cast become garbled and strident. Junk in/junk out.  What a mess!
With the exception of an isolated score featuring Elliot Goldenthal’s eclectic music, all of the extras are ported over from the 1999 DVD. They include 3 separate audio commentaries, and nearly two hours of shorts and Q&A sessions that document the ‘making of’ Titus, plus trailers and TV spots. Julie Kirgo is being exceptionally kind in her detailed liner notes; always a treat to read – regrettably, the only joy I found from my viewing experience herein. Bottom line: Titus is a dud. Not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, January 25, 2014

IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: Blu-ray (UA 1963) Criterion Home Video

And now for something completely different… Well…alright…not really. Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) may not have invented the all-star travelogue comedy caper but it undeniably remains one of the most potently funny, rambunctious and wild-eyed laugh-fests ever brought to the big screen. And big it is, with a mind-boggling roster of A-list Hollywood alumni – some almost past their prime – each playing their parts to the hilt, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a lavishly appointed compendium of hilarity, wit and slapstick. All of the pieces fit – or rather, each has been conceived as a flawless vignette to showcase the particular strength of the comedy geniuses on display. William Rose’s screenplay could have all too easily devolved into episodic tedium, except that his one premise plot – that of a gaggle of colorful strangers overcome by greed in their mad dash to find $350,000 buried somewhere under a big ‘W’ – serves as particularly ingenious – if utterly threadbare – framework for all the farcical nonsense that follows.
Initially Rose sent director Stanley Kramer a ten page outline entitled ‘Something A Little Less Serious’ about a caper through Scotland. Although the working title mutated into ‘One Damn Thing After Another’ and the locale was ultimately shifted for a trek across California, Kramer paid Rose a whopping $300,000 for his idea. Stanley Kramer may not have seemed a likely candidate to direct this potpourri of comedy. Indeed, he had cut his teeth producing and directing some very weighty melodramas, including On The Beach (1959), Inherit The Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); hardly the required pedigree to launch into his latest project. But Kramer was determined to prove his detractors wrong. Moreover, he implicitly understood that the strength of his movie relied on his ability to assign great comics to the key roles, then kindly step aside and allow them to do their shtick.
From the onset, the project seemed to blossom through word of mouth – one by one, the great comedians of their generation clamoring for a chance to appear in Kramer’s movie; even if only in a cameo (a phrase first coined by Michael Todd in preparing the other great comedy travelogue of its time; Around the World in Eighty Days 1956). Rose happily obliged, his screenplay going through various permutations to accommodate the ever-expanding roster.  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World derives its title from Thomas Middleton’s 1605 comedy, ‘A Mad World, My Masters’. In shaping his cast, Kramer went after Sid Caesar first; then considered something of a cultural mandarin thanks to his iconic run on TV’s ‘Your Show of Shows (1950-54). In a very short time, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters and Jimmy Durante signed on, Kramer encouraging Edie Adams to partake of his efforts after the untimely death of her husband, Ernie Kovacs in an automobile accident in 1962. Kovacs had been initially considered for the part of Melville Crump (ultimately played by Sid Caesar).
Of the top-billed, Jonathan Winters is arguably the standout; effortlessly mixing pratfalls with scathing verbal jibes, many of them ad-libbed. The other notable exception also proves to be Mad World’s linchpin – Spencer Tracy. Tracy had appeared for Kramer in both Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, and is still considered one of the finest American actors ever to grace the movie screen. However, his forte was not comedy, despite having appeared to excellent effect opposite Katharine Hepburn in some utterly charming romantic comedies throughout the 1950’s. But Tracy’s air of self-deprecating humor proved both affecting and, in fact, a breath of fresh air, slightly removed from the more hammy machinations of the rest of the cast.
The other ingenious bit of casting is Ethel Merman; then considered one of Broadway’s great ladies, but something of an overpowering presence in motion pictures. Her sporadic movie career had been given a boost in the mid-1950’s at 2oth Century-Fox, most notably in Call Me Madam (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) – the latter, allowing la Merman to reprise that chart-topping Irving Berlin title song she had first made famous on the stage in Annie Get Your Gun.  In It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Merman is given her due, and arguably her comeuppance, as the unscrupulous, power-hungry gargoyle who dominates and berates her weak-kneed son-in-law while barking orders to her placid daughter. It’s a hilarious part, and one that Merman devours with gusto. Not everyone was charmed by her performance, however. Milton Berle, cast as the aforementioned son-in-law, was to harbor an enduring animosity after playing a scene in which Merman stuck him on the head with her purse. The wallop left a sizable welt on the back of Berle’s skull for weeks into the shoot because Merman had neglected to empty her purse of jewelry beforehand. Afterward, Merman would make periodic – if slightly coy - inquiries about the swelling to which Berle cordially replied, “Oh, go to hell!”
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was shot in Ultra Panavision 70, a single strip process inaugurated by the Cinerama Corporation as a replacement for its vastly more cumbersome 3-panel/3-projection setup first debuted in 1952.  The superior clarity of Ultra Panavision 70, coupled with its vast horizontal expanse proved an ideal fit for the cavalcade of talent ready to burst forth from the screen. The list of talent appearing in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is mind-boggling to say the least. Some, like Jimmy Durante and Jerry Lewis only appear for a few moments, their prior cache as comedy superstars carrying more weight than their actual parts. At some level, Kramer is, in fact, pandering to the times; the 60’s ‘bigger is better’ mentality designed to lure audiences back into theaters with a roadshow engagement, herein is given its most garish – if funny bone-tickling – case of elephantitis.
Yet, curiously, the exercise never quite succumbs to idiotic or belabored claptrap. In hindsight, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s might even be coined the cinema’s first – and arguably only - ‘epic’ comedy. Equally fascinating is the seamless blending of the eclectic comedic styling; the visual slapstick of a Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, or even The Three Stooges effortlessly paired next to the then more contemporary strain of sustained comedy illustrated by Phil Silver, Don Knotts and Jack Benny. It all works to marvelous effect, the thimble-sized plot kicking into high gear just a few moments after Saul Bass’s imaginative animated main title sequence, set to Ernest Gold’s rowdy score, ends.        
We open on a wreck in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, a sequence that must have sent chills down Edie Adam’s spine, given her late husband’s demise. It seems that ‘Smiler’ Grogan (Jimmy Durante) a parolee newly released after serving fifteen years for robbing a tuna factory, has lost control of his car. It plummets off a steep ravine, the accident witnessed by five motorists who stop to survey the damage. Dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters), Dingy Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy (Buddy Hackett) - two friends on their way to Vegas - and milquetoast businessman, J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle) are too late to save Grogan from the great beyond. But just before his passing, Grogan confides in them that he has buried $350,000 from the aforementioned robbery somewhere under a big ‘W’ in Santa Rosita State Park.
Presently, two police detectives (Norman Fell and Nicholas Georgiade) arrive on the scene. Actually, they were tailing Grogan in the hopes he might lead them to the money. Dingy and Melville encourage silence from the rest of the group, the witnesses clumsily dodging the detective’s questions, pretending to know nothing. Afterward, however, they regroup with the rest of their passengers; Melville’s wife, Monica (Edie Adams), and Melville’s wife, Emmeline Marcus-Finch (Dorothy Provine) and mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), who muddles the whole affair by suggesting they divvy up the loot into equal shares. But how equal? Their car contains three passengers. Are they entitled to ‘three’ shares as opposed to, say Lennie, who is traveling alone? Predictably, push leads to shove with an argument that ends in an ‘everybody for his/her self’ scenario that kick starts the movie’s mad dash for the cash.
Meanwhile in Santa Rosa, Police captain T. G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) is pensively awaiting word of Grogan’s progress. After all, he’s been working the case for fifteen years. Cracking it now means he could retire with honors and quite possibly even the loot. Learning of Grogan’s demise, Culpeper orders his officers to tail the witnesses, telephoning officers outside his jurisdiction (Andy Devine, Stan Freberg) for help and instructing his switchboard operator (ZaSu Pitts) to monitor all incoming calls, including one unrelated hilarious confrontation between Culpeper’s distraught wife, Ginger (Selma Diamond) and their wayward daughter, Billie Sue (Louise Glenn).
Greed clouds everyone’s judgment to their own detriment and multiple setbacks ensue. Melville and Monica charter a rickety biplane from an unlicensed pilot (Ben Blue). The plane lands in Santa Rosita, but short of the expected location with Melville and Monica arriving at a nearby hardware store moments before closing time.  A simple-minded store employee (Doodles Weaver) lets them in to shop for supplies for the excavation. Unfortunately, the store's owner, Mr. Dinkler (Edward Everett Horton) is unaware of their presence and locks Melville and Monica in the basement before going home. Desperate to reach the park before anyone else does, Melville inadvertently wrecks the place with fireworks, blasting a hole through the wall with a few well-placed sticks of dynamite. The pair jump into the back of a cab (driven by Eddie Rochester Anderson) determined to pick up the chase.
In another vignette, Dingy and Benjy convince a very hung-over millionaire, Tyler Fitzgerald (Jim Backus) to shuttle them to Santa Rosita in his twin-engine aircraft. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald hands over the controls in mid-flight to Benjy while he ducks in the back to mix drinks. Benjy’s erratic flying causes Fitzgerald to knock himself out by bumping his head on an overhead rack, the plane successfully crash-landed with an assist from air-traffic controllers (Carl Reiner, Eddie Ryder, Jesse White) and a retired Air Force pilot (Paul Ford). Hiring their own cabbie (Peter Falk), Dingy and Benjy pursue the money while the firemen (The Three Stooges) extinguish the flames from their crash landing.
Meanwhile, Pike smashes his furniture truck into the back of Finch’s car.  Finch persuades the rather simple-minded Pike to ride off for help on a girl's bicycle. Next, Finch, his wife and mother-in-law flag down Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas) and implore him to drive them to the nearest phone booth. At an out of the way service station, Finch tries to bribe its owners (Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan) into renting their tow truck. They decline. Mrs. Marcus throws a temper tantrum. Emmeline sides with her mother and Finch – who has seemingly had quite enough of being henpecked – elects to go off with Hawthorne, leaving them both behind.
Pike makes a flimsy attempt to hitch a ride from passing motorist, Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers). Foolishly, he tells Otto about the money. Ever the opportunist, Otto ditches Pike shortly thereafter. But a blowout forces Otto to make a pit stop at the same service station. An enraged Pike arrives, hell-bent on revenge. Otto escapes his wrath – barely – but Pike steals the tow truck, very reluctantly picking up Mrs. Marcus and Emmeline, who flag him down from the side of the road. Mrs. Marcus has a moment of clarity…well…sort of…and telephones her beach-bum/hot headed son, Sylvester (Dick Shawn) who lives in Santa Rosita, explaining to him about the loot. However, instead of going in search of the money, Sylvester abandons his slinky girlfriend (Barrie Chase) to rescue his mother. Meanwhile, having experienced his own car troubles, Otto hails a nervous motorist (Don Knotts) and steals his car.
All of this makes for some heady surveillance by the police, Culpeper biding his time, but becoming increasingly bitter after he learns just how measly his pension will be. What was it all for, and how can he get his cut of the Grogan loot? Time to find out as the various conspirators arrive at Santa Rosita’s State Park to begin their frantic search for the big ‘W’.  Culpeper observes the chaos from a distance, ordering his officers to stand down while he casually confronts Emmeline. She has inadvertently figured out that four swaying palms form the letter ‘W’ and has decided to keep the money for herself so that she can retire to a convent. Offering to split the cash with Culpeper if he will help her dig for it, their brief interlude is interrupted by Pike and the others who have also come to the same conclusion about this naturally formed ‘X’ marks the spot. The excavation begins with frenetic energy, the brood’s elation in discovering the satchel containing the money diffused when Culpeper identifies himself as an officer of the law and suggests the stolen cash must be returned to its rightful claimant – the tuna factory.
Instead, Culpeper makes a dash for a nearby waiting cab intent on keeping the money for himself. Realizing they have been hornswoggled, the irate group now makes chase after Culpeper. Unable to reach Culpeper by radio, Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest) swears out a warrant for his arrest. Everyone congregates at an abandoned building; Culpeper narrowly escaping Melville, Dingy and the others by attempting to climb down an unsafe fire escape. Despite warnings from a union official (Joe E. Brown), a rickety fire ladder is raised up to bring everyone down. However, the ladder’s hydraulic system malfunctions, sending Melville, Dingy, Pike, Culpeper, Benji, Otto and Finch sailing through the air in various directions, the stolen money dispersed to the hysterical crowd gathered below.
A short while later we find all of the aforementioned schemers immobilized in their respective bandages and body casts inside a ward at the prison hospital – each blaming the rest for his predicament. Culpeper attempts to make light of the situation and Benjy tosses a peel from his banana on the floor moments before Emmeline, Monica and Mrs. Marcus arrive for their monthly visit. After launching into one of her predictable tirades, Mrs. Marcus slips on the banana peel and is carried off by orderlies on a gurney; the men bursting into fits of hysterical laughter in unison.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World won’t win any awards for high art, but it remains a boisterous nut bar of fanciful farce. The sheer magnitude of talent on display sets the film apart from almost anything seen before or since. Size alone isn’t always a signifier of quality. But It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World illustrates that both scope and significance are possible when all the variables are in play. William and Tania Rose’s screenplay was reportedly the size of a modest telephone directory; one half containing only the set-up and dialogue in each situation, the other half illustrating a detailed account of the death-defying stunt work to coincide.
For years after the picture’s release comedian Don Rickles would single Stanley Kramer out during his Vegas nightclub act to inquire why he didn’t make the cut to appear in the movie. He might have first considered neither did Red Skelton, Bob Hope or Lucille Ball; all avid artisans of the wry jest. We’re also missing Groucho Marx, Bud Abbott (Lou Costello died in 1959), and Stan Laurel (Oliver Hardy died in 1959).  Oh well, we can’t have everyone. Without outstaying its welcome, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World delivers the goods on a truly epic scale: a rollicking ride that builds upon its high-octane laughing gas; it most definitely will not put anyone to sleep!   
When It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had its world premiere it ran 192 minutes. Gradually, and at the behest of theater exhibitors (who always want to cram the most possible screenings per day to maximize their profits) the movie’s length was pared down to 154 minutes. In the interim it was rumored that most, if not all of the excised footage had been rather unceremoniously thrown away. However, as the years passed, pieces of the original 70mm negative began to resurface; a scene here, a sound byte there. In the late 1980’s Criterion issued a 182 min. laserdisc reconstruction of the movie that contained much – if not all - of the lost footage. Later, MGM Home Video would offer us 174 minutes of restored video.  Now, comes Criterion’s ‘new’ newly restored Blu-ray at 3 hr. 17 min. However, while this version does come closest to the complete roadshow engagement, there are a few caveats to consider.   
First, while many of the scenes run longer none of the inclusions appear to serve a purpose. Kramer’s cuts to his masterpiece were arguably initiated with the understanding that what he was leaving on the cutting room floor in no way impacted the overall arch of sheer joy or even the continuity of his screen spectacular.  Second, the reinstated ‘lost’ footage has not been sufficiently cleaned up. Criterion has a five minute featurette to explain why the absent scenes look so much worse for the wear, but what it really boils down to is ‘time’ and ‘money’; neither having been spent to sufficiently color correct and clean up the ravages of time itself. There are instances of both missing footage and soundtrack to contend with – still images supplementing for the former. But let’s be honest; the digital tools at a restoration expert’s disposal today can fix just about anything if ample funds and a fair allotment of hours are afforded to complete the task.
Happily, Criterion has restored the police ‘radio calls’ that came during It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s intermission. These were included on their laserdisc, but remained absent from virtually all subsequent home video releases until now. They’re a treat to listen to. Criterion’s jam-packed gift set gives us the theatrical and extended cuts in hi-def on two separate discs. There are also DVD’s included herein for those who still haven’t come around to watching their movie art in hi-def. What are you waiting for?!?!
Apart from the aforementioned anomalies inherent in the reinstated footage on the extended cut, image quality is quite exemplary throughout; the Ultra Panavision 2.76:1 aspect ratio perfectly preserved.  I suspect that the theatrical cut is a simple port over from MGM’s previously issued single Blu-ray. Doing a direct comparison of Criterion’s theatrical cut and MGM’s aforementioned release shows virtually identical image quality with robust colors that pop off the screen. The level of fine details exhibited throughout is reference quality phenomenal.  Criterion’s theatrical cut gets 19 chapters while the extended version clocks in at 21.  The biggest improvement herein is in the DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix – a complete re-envisioning of the old MGM Blu-ray with far more aggressive spatiality. Your surround channels are in for a workout, as SFX and Ernest Gold’s score explode in all directions. Dialogue is also directionalized. When characters move within the frame their voices follow the action. Really good stuff!!!
Extras are another big plus for this Criterion reissue. We get promotional spots, TV ads and several trailers – all of them in HD.  We also have nearly an hour long, two-part CBC documentary that covers the press tour and Hollywood premiere, hosted by Fletcher Harkle. Thirty-five minutes of rare interviews conducted with the stars in 1963 follows, as does a half hour of Stanley Kramer’s reunion show, made in 1974. The extended cut of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World gets a thorough audio commentary from aficionados Paul Scrabo, Mark Evanier and Michael Schlesinger. This is a fascinating listen and one surely to be treasured by fans of the movie for years to come. There’s also a few sound bytes from AFI’s televised special, 100 Years…100 Laughs. I’ll just go on record as saying I am opposed to truncated inclusions like this.  Universal did a similar thing with their Hitchcock box set, giving us only Hitchcock’s acceptance speech from the AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award television special. Just show us the whole damn show, why don’t you?!?
But I digress. Criterion’s extras continue to lavish with a nearly forty minute 2012 tribute hosted by Billy Crystal, plus another forty minutes dedicated to the movie’s visual effects, with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt delving deeply into the ‘how’d they do that?’ lore of the movie. A very brief ‘restoration video essay dedicated to restoration expert, Robert Harris’ considerable commitments to see the roadshow of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World resurrected from oblivion, and, an eighteen page booklet featuring insights from New York Post’s Lou Lumenick round out this deluxe packaging; truly a keeper among favorites on everyone’s top shelf of beloved movie memories.
My one regret is that Criterion did not port over the fantastic documentary ‘And Now For Something Less Serious’ featured on MGM’s DVD and Blu-ray releases. This documentary included a wealth of interviews featuring surviving cast members now sadly dead and gone. So don’t junk your old MGM release just yet.  Bottom line: If It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remains the last word in high-spirited screwball comedy, then Criterion’s all-inclusive deluxe Blu-ray reissue is the only way to experience this classic in hi-def. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Theatrical Cut 4.5
Roadshow Version 3.5

Friday, January 24, 2014

MAN IN THE DARK: Blu-ray (Columbia 1953) Twilight Time

First doesn’t always equate to best. Case in point: Lew Ander’s Man in the Dark (1953) – a ‘C’-grade film noir melodrama of monumental absurdity, made even more tedious by Columbia’s insistence that it be shot in stereoscopic 3D. The film marked Columbia’s foray into 3D and was, in fact, the very first 3D movie released by a major studio; beating out the debut of Warner Bros.’ superior House of Wax by just a scant 48 hours.  For the record, Bwana Devil was ‘the first’ 3D movie to be released; made a full year ahead through United Artists; the little independent that could. For the most part, the craze that briefly was 3D seems to have had a negative effect on just about every movie shot in the process; film makers’ hell bent on exploiting the gimmick at the expense of telling a good – nee, even competent – story. Man in the Dark isn’t anything like a good story, or even a passable film noir, despite the casting of noir veterans, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter to headline its cast.
Bottom line: the George Bricker/Jack Leonard screenplay is a malodorous schmazzle, incongruously stitched together from the most pedestrian clichés in the noir movement (a man on the lam and his gun moll who reforms at the last possible moment). It would make an enterprising scientist like Dr. Frankenstein blush to witness just how much wasted talent is expended on this vain attempt to breathe life into such a noisome experiment.  ‘Substandard’ effectively summarizes the writing. But it also – ironically – speaks to the performances. Both Edmund O’Brien – as the thuggish Steve Rawley and Audrey Totter (his fallen angel, Peg Benedict) behave as though they’d rather be sipping Cuba Libres poolside at the Beverly Wilshire, while the supporting cast - Ted de Corsia as Lefty, Horace McMahon as Arnie and Nick Dennis as Cookie – tragically overplay their hands; a trio of ambitious hams looking rather rank and amateurish.  What we’re left with then is 3D, that snappy little trick played on the eye to give depth – superficially speaking, of course – to this pancake flat little nothing of a narrative.  
Ennui sets in almost from the moment the credits begin to roll. In short order, we’re introduced to Steve Rawley, a hardened criminal and the forced resident of a secluded clinic where apparently scientists are allowed at will to play God with any patient’s mind.  Having escaped a prison sentence for his latest payroll robbery, Rawley’s fate is ironically more perilous and improbable. For the brainbox behind this experimental surgery is determined to perform a sort of Jekyll and Hyde operation on Steve that effectively erases his memory. It’s unclear why Steve would agree to any of this, or who is footing the bill and taking the…uh…ethical responsibility…for this unorthodox tinkering with the whole works. Steve does, in fact, resist when the moment is upon him, subdued by a trio or orderlies who inject him with a powerful tranquilizer before wheeling his incoherent remains into surgery most foul. Awakening some time later, presumably a ‘new man’ dedicated to goodness, Steve is encouraged by the placid Dr. Marston (Dayton Lummis) to take up gardening; a hobby this new Steve finds therapeutic.
Too bad for Steve; his old time gang, now fronted by Lefty, wants their cuts from the stolen bankroll. While private insurance investigator Jawald (Dan Riss) spins his wheels, rummaging through seedy bars in the hopes of uncorking a submersed memory that will lead him to the hidden cash, Lefty, Arnie and Cookie kidnap Steve from Marston’s clinic right under the watchful eyes of the law. A harrowing car chase ensues, the gang rather easily escaping to their hideout where Steve is reunited with Peg. She cannot wait to pick up where things left off…well, sort of. Unfortunately, Steve has no recollections; not of the robbery, or who these kidnappers are, or even his presumably hot and wild nights with darling Peg. Wow! That’s some operation!  Lefty repeatedly threatens Steve with bodily harm. Peg has her go at him too. Each is unsuccessful at rekindling the past.
The whole ‘house arrest’ scenario that occupies the first third of our meandering tale is rather idiotically realized. Given Steve’s reluctance to play ball with these old-time cronies, they nonchalantly afford him the run of the apartment without supervision. Steve even manages to make it to a telephone in the front hall (only a few feet away from a card table where the gang are cheating one another in a game of poker) before Lefty realizes Steve is trying to call for help. The next day, Steve is taken to the house he once owned – now boarded up – to jog his memory. It’s a fairly swank abode turned to chalk and dust in a remarkably short time and looking like the remnants of a haunted house; Steve making another perfunctory and even more laughable escape attempt before being tackled by Arnie.
From here the plot only becomes more offbeat and off-putting as our failed anti-hero begins to suffer through a series of stereoscopic enhanced nightmares juxtaposed with flashbacks of Steve’s torrid liaisons with Peg and tethered tidbits about the robbery and Steve’s failed rooftop escape from the law that began this tawdry little affair. The chief problem with Man in the Dark is that it seems to paint its' narrative into a corner at every possible opportunity.  Messrs Bricker and Leonard must have missed the first day of screenwriting 101 because Man in the Dark has more fitful stalls than a beat up jalopy, turning to 3D for its salvation – or perhaps, simply as an afterthought to escape the embarrassment of their failed plotting.
As Steve bumps around in the dark – literally and figuratively – he inadvertently ignites a deeper passion within Peg who cannot make up her mind whether to run away with Steve anew (or, at least, the man he has since become) or throw him to the proverbial wolves: Lefty, the mob, Jawald and the police. It all ends in the predictably favorite sweet spot for many a noir thriller; the amusement park (herein, Santa Monica’s Ocean Park) with Steve desperate to elude Lefty and his men who have given up on waiting for Steve’s memory to kick in. Hunted through the garish fairgrounds, with ad nauseam inserts of an audio-animatronic clown annoyingly cackling and careening back and forth; Steve shimmies up - then down - the rickety boards of a roller coaster, toppling his adversaries to their death from its flimsy apex as the rocketing coaster cars, full of unsuspecting patrons, come dangerously close to him.
The finale to Man in the Dark is about as senseless as movie endings get. Steve, presumably exonerated of his crime – at least in the eyes of the law - is reunited with Peg who has since reformed to the ‘good girl’ – or, at least, giving a reasonable facsimile of one. Jawald – who previously set his sights on recapturing the stolen bankroll – fluffs off his failed errand instead, turning to a nearby cop and sardonically asking “Brother, can you spare $30,000 dollars?”  If this is Bricker and Leonard’s attempt at an ‘all’s well that ends well’ scenario then it is one of the weakest ever conceived for a major motion picture; vapid, silly and vacuous to a fault.
A big problem with Man in the Dark is that it completely fails to adhere to the time-honored precepts of the traditional film noir crime/thriller. The good guys aren’t nearly as good in their pursuit of the ‘criminal element, while the bad guys are just milquetoast regulars, drinking from the fountain of underworld espionage as a casual afterthought in between talking up a storm about pulling off the ultimate high-stakes robbery. Each character ricochets in their intent and purpose. If Lefty’s sole reason for kidnapping Steve is to squeeze the truth from him for the loot at all costs, then why is Steve allowed to roam the apartment and thereafter lead Lefty and his boys on one wild goose-chase after another?
Today, Steve would be tortured with thumb screws and hot coals or have a bullet put to his brain. But Lefty and his pals aren’t hardline Mafia or even second string thug muscle; just good ole boys with Damon Runyon-esque accents who have quite sincerely forgotten where they left their brass knuckles. Peg’s motivations are even less clear. Is she still in love with Steve or cold-heartedly trying to worm her way into the hidden location of the money? Is she in cahoots with Lefty or working this angle for herself? Hmmm. We’re never quite sure and neither is Audrey Totter, it seems; the actress’s usual sure-footed command for playing the proverbial femme fatale utterly lacking herein.  
At every turn, Man in the Dark appears extremely uninformed about its purpose. The story is incidental to the gimmick of 3D, used to rather campy effect throughout. We get too many close-ups of fists, cigars, forceps, spiders, roller coaster cars, gun barrels and their like pointed directly into the camera with the obvious effect incurred; each jumping out from the screen and into our laps. But the 3D doesn’t enhance the story so much as it remains something apart and/or removed from the central narrative. We’re meant to enjoy the stereoscopic illusion for its own sake and forget about plot and character development (who needs them?!?); the film’s dénouement a cursory postscript tacked on without fanfare or even logic.  If Man in the Dark were a demo reel for the 3D process it would not necessarily be a bad one. Unfortunately, the film is masquerading as one of those ‘ripped from the headlines’ crime stories about the seedy folk of Los Angeles doing despicable things to one another. Too bad Man in the Dark is no L.A. Confidential (1997)! It commits Hollywood’s unforgiveable sin. It fails to entertain us.
No one can fault either Grover Crisp at Sony or Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of this forgettable lemon. This is another stellar transfer given ample third-party distribution. Frankly, with all of the catalogue titles in Sony’s backlog yet to make it to hi-def I cannot understand how Man in the Dark rates such preeminence – even as a limited edition. But the B&W image looks exquisite throughout, with exceptionally balanced tonality, superb contrast and a startling amount of fine detail rendered.  There are a few very brief moments where the image appears ever so slightly soft in focus. There’s also a fleeting glimpse or two of age-related artifacts. But for a film of this vintage, Man in the Dark’s transfer sparkles. It’s as near to reference quality as one might expect. The DTS mono audio is equally vibrant. As with other Twilight Time releases, we get an isolated track featuring Ross DiMaggio’s orchestrations of some of the studio’s stock music. You can’t really call what’s here ‘a score’ per say, but it’s a fascinating listen nonetheless. We also get the original theatrical trailer.
Bottom line: Sony continues to maintain its integrity in the hi-def market place with this release, giving tired old chestnuts no less consideration than they have Lawrence of Arabia. Such devotion to virtually ANY movie in their catalogue is highly commendable.  If only other studios would take the hint and a cue from the good people at Sony and start to release their vintage movies with equal care and quality it would be a very happy 1080p world indeed. I’ll simply conclude with a note to any Sony executive who may be reading on the other end of this review. How about some Frank Capra coming down the pipeline (Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It Happened One Night, et al), and some Rita Hayworth (Gilda immediately comes to mind). Personally, I’ll get in my digs for Theodora Goes Wild (1936), Holiday (1938), The Talk of the Town (1942), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), The Awful Truth (1937) and some vintage Three Stooges shorts. I think after reading this brief list we can all agree Sony has a lot more to offer the consumer in hi-def than Man in the Dark! Just an opinion, of course, but I’ll stake it against most anybody’s.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)