Friday, February 28, 2014

THE FRONT: Blu-ray (Columbia 1976) Twilight Time

The post WWII era in America is frequently referenced in history books as ‘those fabulous fifties’ – a moniker that, at least, accurately signifies the nation’s new-found economic prosperity. To all intents and purposes, this launched the ‘baby boomer’ generation and gave rise to the suburbs, making the shag carpet and poodle skirt the height of domestic chic. It wasn’t all hearts and flowers, however. The decade’s button-down conservatism, while reporting to speak to the founding ideals of this great nation, equally engendered a silent socio-sexual repression; increasingly a counterpoint to the constitutional precepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, still restricted on the basis of gender and racial inequality. In hindsight, middle-class morality ushered in a decade of stifling conformity and the promise of even greater homogenized panaceas ahead…if only one could follow ‘the rules’; a sort of redefined freedom, optimistically unencumbered by anxieties about the bomb and cold war.  
Perhaps nowhere were the winds of change more intensely felt than in Hollywood. In fact, by the end of 1949 it had already become abundantly clear to the moguls that something was desperately amiss in their uber-glamorous capital of the entertainment world. For starters, rising costs had impacted their ability to spend lavishly.  Tried and true genres (the musical, the western) practically guaranteed to perform well, had suddenly fallen out of favor with audiences in search of more realism, putting added strain on the studio’s already dwindling coffers. Adding to this anxious fray was television – at first considered inconsequential and thus ignored, but cutting theater attendance by nearly half within the first two years of its debut. Hollywood en masse suddenly found itself in very unfamiliar territory; having to keep up, catch up or merely maintain their status against the onslaught from this new technology.
Conversely, at a time when Hollywood really could not afford to invest in itself, the studios became embroiled in a very expensive race to retool their dream factories. Cinemascope, six track stereo, 3D; these were innovations to briefly generated renewed excitement and buzz within the industry. None were new, per say. In fact, Fox had contemplated the widescreen revolution as far back as 1930 with Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail – an epic dud. Walt Disney pioneered Fantasound – a cumbersome preamble to stereo – for Fantasia (1940), while the polarizing ‘third dimension’ – like the creation of TV – had already debuted as mere gimmick at New York’s World’s Fair in 1939. WWII delayed the inevitable. But as the new decade began, it must have seemed to the old monarchs that the earth had suddenly and inexplicably shifted from under the industry. Worse: the studios were being forced into a divestiture of their theater chains, crippling their once magisterial reign in distribution. 
But an even more insidious government intervention was about to get underway. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC for short, and, first established in 1938 as an organization in charge of investigating allegations of subversive activities) began their systematic dismemberment of the industry’s talent – employing a top down analysis to weed out communists and communist sympathizers. The Red Scare, the blacklist, the McCarthy witch hunts: however one chooses to regard it, this was the beginning of an unseemly period that crushed careers, ruined lives and changed the face of Hollywood – forever.
Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) is, at once, a deceptively sugar-coated dramedy about the blacklist, and a fascinating time capsule, expertly using dark humor to expose a far more grim reality. There is an old adage, ‘Dying is easy. Comedy is hard’ – rather prophetic, given The Front’s abysmal performance at the box office. For The Front is not a movie easily digestible as either drama or comedy. With Woody Allen and Zero Mostel as its headliners, The Front was arguably mis-perceived by critics as lacking spontaneity. But from the moment we segue into the opening B&W pastiche of newsreels – increasingly less nostalgic – to its’ very last scene, with an ebullient Woody Allen being led away in handcuffs by scowl-faced G-men, knowing his fraudulent alter ego, Howard Prince, has taken a stand against the government’s intrusion on civil liberties, The Front assumes a moodily magnificent, occasionally somber, thumbing of the nose at HUAC’s strong-armed tactics: no small feat, considering HUAC remained active until a year before this movie’s release, only to be consolidated under the House Judiciary Committee thereafter. Hence, its influences have never entirely gone away.
The Front’s reputation – largely ignored and/or forgotten over the years – seems to have been negatively impacted (ironically so) by Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. Indeed, each was regarded as a major comedy genius; Woody’s esoteric intellectualizations sublimely melded to Zero’s larger-than-life gesticulations. The chief difficulty for audiences then, as it arguably remains so today, is getting over our built-in expectations. After all, it’s Woody Allen that we’ve come to see – and Zero Mostel to a lesser extent.
Fair enough – Allen isn’t directing himself. By all accounts, he’s also staying relatively faithful to Walter Bernstein’s screenplay, if not entirely able to restrain himself from a few glib Woody-isms along the way.  And Mostel too is fighting his more comedic inspirations to remain truer to his character as written; a merciless ham, desperate for work after being branded a ‘communist sympathizer’; forced to spy on Allen’s hack writer, though ultimately judging him a ‘good man’, and thereafter leaping from his rented hotel balcony in utter disgrace – distant shades of real-life actor, John Garfield’s untimely passing (a fatal heart attack brought on after he was called to testify on behalf of HUAC in their infamous ‘naming of names’ public hearings).
In hindsight, it’s rather abhorrent to consider how many ‘creatives’ were destroyed on both sides of the blacklist – the now famous ‘Hollywood Ten’ going to prison, sacrificing themselves for their beliefs by bucking the system tooth and nail. On the flip side was director Elia Kazan, branded a pariah for complying with his subpoena and testifying on the committee’s behalf. You just couldn’t win in those days. Even those few who managed to escape the allegations by the skin of their teeth were likely to have an open FBI file on their daily activities for the rest of their lives.
At the time of its’ release, The Front was heavily criticized on two ‘fronts’ (pun intended); first, for failing to provide the expected yuk-yuks befitting the formidable talent of its two stars, and second, for presumably being too light-hearted about this very bleak chapter in American history. By 1975, HUAC’s hearings had been rather perfidiously swept under the carpet, the general population suffering from collective amnesia to the point that most ticket buyers knew nothing (or even cared…even more frightening) about the historical accuracies screenwriter Walter Bernstein had managed to infuse into the movie.
To set the scene, The Front opens with a glorious montage in B&W: snapshots of a supposedly simpler time melodically serenaded by Frank Sinatra. “Fairytales can come true…it can happen to you…if…” As we listen to the classic ballad, Young at Heart a series of newsreels flash before us. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who would come to represent the austere face of HUAC, is seen on the day of his wedding - cherub-esque and immaculately groomed. We shift to the Korean War, then an atypically large suburban American family taking cover from the threat of nuclear annihilation in their brick and mortar backyard bomb shelter. Don’t worry, kiddies. It’ll all be over by Howdy-Doody time. A New York tickertape parade for Gen. Macarthur follows; then, glimpses of an elated Harry Truman, and moments later, Mamie and Ike Eisenhower; inserts of the reigning Miss America, and, some fashion pixies, showing off their elegantly absurd swimwear; boxing champion, Rocky Marciano, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, and finally, that ultimate sex symbol who would go on to an immortality all her own - Marilyn Monroe.
Yet, something is off; Sinatra’s effervescent lyrics increasingly at odds with the images evolving on the screen. Inserts of the Rosenbergs – Julius and Ethel – who, as American citizens, were tried for espionage, convicted and executed, illustrates an America blindsided by its fear of communism. We see plane loads of bombs falling from the sky, glimpses of submersible tanks ominously rising out of muddy troughs; a wounded soldier coddling the face of his fallen comrade on the battlefield. The disjunction between these genuine moments caught on camera and the orchestrated fabulosity from this ‘modern age’ concludes with inserts of the maimed, crippled and emotionally scarred, given their disconsolate homecoming by aged parents and teary-eyed girls they left behind. No…this is decidedly not what they signed up for when they joined the war effort; not ‘those fabulous fifties’ given to froth surface sheen, and, lip service in films like Bye Bye Birdie, American Graffiti and Cry Baby.  
We regress to a seedy little café where cashier/bookie, Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is reading the racing form, unexpectedly delighted by the appearance of an old friend, Alfred Miller (the sadly underrated and underused, Michael Murphy). Miller, a one-time successful television writer, confides in Howard that he has been blacklisted for suspected communist activities. Over a game of chess the two old friends concoct a plan; Miller to write scripts and Howard to pass himself off to the networks as the writer, taking ten percent off the top for his complicity in the charade.
Howard willingly agrees to this scheme until he is introduced to winsome Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci); the producer of the TV series, Grand Central Station. He also meets the show’s hammy narrator, Hershel ‘Hecky’ Brown (Zero Mostel). Both Hecky and Florence are about to play a more integral role in Howard’s life. Immediately smitten with Florence, Howard coaxes her into going out on a date. Howard’s flirtations bring out her gentler qualities, though she admits to being star-struck by his innate talent.  Despite his arrangement with Miller, Howard can’t seem to make ends meet, relying on his brother, Meyer (Marvin Lichterman) to extend him loans. It isn’t working. Howard owes everybody, even the green grocery (Danny Aiello). 
So Howard comes up with an even bigger fraud. He’ll pinch hit scripts for two more of Miller’s blacklisted friends; Phelps (David Margulies) and Sam (Joshua Shelley). Taking ten percent from each, Howard’s thirty-percent allows him to live comfortably and pay off all outstanding debts. It’s all rather good, except that the head of the Freedom of Information Services, an austere character by the name of Hennessey (Remak Ramsay) has taken a particular interest in Howard’s increasing popularity in primetime – that, and the way he incomprehensibly manages to write several noteworthy teleplays at a time, seemingly without writer’s block despite burning the proverbial candle at both ends.
Hennessey recalls Hecky to his office, threatening him with the blacklist for a relationship he fostered with a young girl nearly two decades earlier who just happened to belong to the Young Communist’s League. But getting Hecky to spy on Howard proves problematic; particularly after Howard befriends the old ham after he is fired from Grand Central. Hecky asks Howard to drive him out to one of the summer retreats in the Catskills. Hecky’s reputation precedes him, the hotel’s guests thronging to get his autograph. The hotel’s owner, Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) had promised Hecky $500 for this weekend engagement; a venue he used to command at $3000. The price has since been knocked down to $250.
Demoralized, but desperate to survive, Hecky pleads for $300. Harry placates Hecky by offering to get up a collection from the boys in the band and the stage hands. However, after Hecky has raised the roof inside the hotel’s ballroom, getting a standing ovation no less, Harry quietly informs him $250 is still the going rate.  Pushed to the point of self-destruction, Hecky instead lashes out at Harry; the crowd shocked by their confrontation. Howard hurries Hecky away while Harry continues to spew diatribes about Hecky being a communist fink.
Back in town, the romance between Howard and Florence reaches an impasse when she decides to quit her job as a show of solidarity against Hecky’s firing.  Howard is stunned by her impetuosity; dismayed, actually. He makes it clear to Florence he is very disappointed she has thrown away her promising career on what he considers a whim. Wounded by Howard’s lack of support, Florence breaks off their relationship.
A short while later, Howard is informed by Grand Central’s producer, Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) that he has been ordered to testify before HUAC in a closed hearing. Howard is terrified, confiding in Miller, Phelps and Sam; each advising him to do something different. Miller wants Howard to walk away, while Sam hopes he will plead the Fifth Amendment.  Phelps urges Howard to submit to the committee’s questions to save his own skin.  At first, Howard decides to do just that. Why not? And why sacrifice his newfound prosperity, and for what? Principles?!?! You can’t eat on principles.
Ah, but then comes the deal breaker – Hecky. Admitting his career as an entertainer is finished, the deflated comic quietly rents a flashy hotel room at the Ritz. He orders champagne and tips the porter before quietly popping the cork, taking a sip and then opening the balcony window to jump to his death. Director Martin Ritt’s handling of Hecky’s suicide is, frankly, poetic; a tour de force done almost entirely as pantomime; Zero Mostel’s dolefully expressive eyes unable to hide behind his Cheshire grin as he stuffs wads of cash into the porter’s vest pocket, quietly locking the door behind them, and sauntering about the suite of rooms with bittersweet amusement.
Cinematographer, Michael Chapman’s camera suddenly allows Mostel to move out of frame, followed by the unassuming sound of a window being opened, a blast of air and then, the right side of the frame suddenly filling with billowing drapes; the camera slowly panning over to the open pane, with not a sound heard from the street far below. It’s a bone-chilling moment – expertly played by Mostel – the grand tragedy derived not from a flashy display of emotions, or some cinematographic bravado, but the startling lack of anything beyond abject silence to mark this sad little moment of lonely farewell. This is how the world will end, dear friends…not with a bang, but a whimper.  
The next day Howard, still fearful to show his allegiances, quietly observes Hecky’s funeral from a distance, noticing Florence as she openly comforts his widow. Later, Howard arrives at Florence’s humble upstairs apartment to make his confession. He isn’t a writer. He’s a hack – ‘a front’ – for blacklisted talent. Florence is at once outraged, disenchanted and bitterly shaken; Howard pressing her on the point that she only cared for him because she was in love with ‘the writer’ – a figure she has utterly romanticized all out of proportion. Upon learning Miller is in the hospital suffering from an acute ulcer, Howard elects to change his plan of action.
We now move into the film’s magnum opus; the specially convened HUAC committee hearing; Howard doing everything possible to infuriate the already unsmiling committee members, exposing their absurdities but without incriminating himself; his nervous attorney (Norman Rose) attempting damage control to avert a disaster; as it turns out – unsuccessfully. Howard tells the committee to go fuck themselves and proudly exits the room. As a reprise of Sinatra’s Young at Heart swells to engulf the soundtrack, we see Howard and Florence at the train station - in love once more; embracing on the platform. As Miller, Sam and Phelps cheer, Howard is carted off by an FBI G-man, presumably to serve out his prison term for refusing to name names.
It would be improper to suggest The Front’s happy ending does not diffuse the more sinister aspects of its story. In fact, the ending confirms, rather than denies the lyrics in Sinatra’s ballad. Fairytales do, indeed, come true for Howard and Florence – in love and presumably, soon to be reunited once Howard’s term of imprisonment has been served. In losing his career – which wasn’t his to begin with – not only has Howard struck a blow for true love, but more importantly, for the civil liberties every American citizen has the right to claim, currently denied a select group of artists under McCarthy’s reign of interrogation. More important, however; Howard has grown into his own man; no longer sponging off rich relatives or plagiarizing loyal friends – albeit with their complicity and for a stipend.
Let us be clear: The Front is not a Woody Allen picture. By separating it from Allen’s own amassed works, it is more than possible to admire The Front on its own terms. Screenwriter, Walter Bernstein and director Martin Ritt – both blacklisted for a time – have pooled together some very astute observations about the Red Scare and its impact on private lives; infusing their story with caustic wit and a far grittier counterattack. It’s still a comedy, just not a ‘funny’ one in any conventional sense.  But there’s both style and substance here; a winning combination that appears to have thrown most critics for a considerable loop.
Perhaps the real problem here is Woody Allen. Although Allen’s performance is irritably resplendent it cannot escape that indelibly ingrained public image collectively thought of as Woody Allen; an entity unlike most any other, instantly identifiable, but, regrettably, more so as his own brand than as an actor.  Still, Allen proves himself worthy in The Front. Setting aside most – if not all – of his ingrained mannerisms, he gives us a portrait of someone who starts out looking out for number one, but gradually comes to the realization life is a contact sport in which the player must be willing to take on the team and grow from his experiences as a human being.
It is a sincere regret actor Michael Murphy gets lost in this shuffle. After his Alfred Miller instigates the plot, he is all but relegated to mere cameo as the story takes off in a different direction. For the most part, the Bernstein screenplay is tightly interwoven, most of its narrative threads admirably sustained throughout the duration of the film. As example, even after we lose the physical presence of Zero Mostel, his Hecky Brown is never farther than arm’s reach, particularly within Howard’s struggling social consciousness. And revisiting the film’s again, hats off to Bernstein and Ritt for their tight maneuvering through these narrative complexities without ever weighing down the story. In the final analysis, The Front is compelling; as waggish about the ever-unraveling calamity that is the human condition as it remains dead-pan serious regarding perhaps our most ridiculous pursuit of all – to discover everlasting happiness. Go ahead, quantify happiness. I dare you.   
Sony’s Blu-ray transfer, released as a limited edition via Twilight Time, leaves something to be desired. Sony has, in fact, done all they can. The results, however, reveal some residual softness in the color sequences immediately following the spectacularly crisp B&W montage. Scenes shot under low-lighting conditions suffer a slight blurriness with exaggerated levels of film grain. That said; these shortcomings (if one chooses to regard them as such) are all inherent in the organic film-based elements – not a flaw in the remastering. Flesh tones – always a solid barometer in gauging color fidelity - have been accurately rendered and color, on the whole, is nicely saturated, though not eye-popping. This, of course, is as it should be. Contrast is very strong and fine detail is extremely impressive, particularly in close-up.
The 1.0 DTS audio is surprisingly aggressive; Sinatra’s ballad, in particular, sounding very robust. Extras include an isolated score – not so hot, since what’s here really isn’t a score per say, but a few all too brief cues by composer David Grusin; a big band swing motif spread over three transitional cues, a pensive piano solo – again, brief – and a kernel of a ‘love theme’ – just extemporaneous tinkling, seemingly without a thread of actual melody. More richly rewarding is the audio commentary featuring TT’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, here affectionately waxing with the film’s co-star, Andrea Marcovicci, who provides wonderful insight about her working relationships with Woody Allen, Zero Mostel and others in the cast. Aside: I’ll just go on record here, having listened to my share of woefully bad commentary tracks, to point out that Twilight Time’s have never lacked in either integrity or information. The Front’s audio commentary is no exception. Again, Kirgo gives us discerning liner notes. Great stuff. Break out your wallets. The Front is another must have from Twilight Time!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, February 24, 2014

CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS: Blu-ray (Orion 1989) Twilight Time

Today, regrettably, it is a great distraction to revisit any Woody Allen movie without first immediately being drawn to the director/actor’s personal Catch-22 being played out as tabloid fodder. Renewed allegations of child sexual abuse are, of course, serious (if proven true) and – if not overshadowing Allen’s ingenious back catalogue of stellar work committed to film – then definitely something of a clouding influence on our collective impressions of his frequent interactions with children (particularly young girls) in his movies. Thankfully, Allen’s penultimate cinematic offering from the 1980’s, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) does not lend itself to too much contemplation on that score; its rather transparent nod to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment serving as bookends to an otherwise fairly engrossing and, at times, deadly serious (no pun intended) examination of the impossibly flawed interactions between gravely troubled human beings.
Woody Allen’s movies are infrequently misinterpreted as simple tomes to New York. And fair enough; a goodly number of them take special delight in exalting the virtues, as well as the absurdities to be mined from this narrow strip of congestion running from the Bronx to the Battery. But Crimes and Misdemeanors is quite different – at moments, darkly provocative, unquestioningly cynical, yet undeniably tempering the director/writer’s usual zeal for self-deprecating, acerbic wit with far more ecclesiastical epiphanies and self-reflexive scrutiny. In some ways, Allen’s filmmaking repertoire pays homage – collectively - to Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Allen’s movies are, after all, more talkative than visually arresting/‘telling’ more than ‘showing’; the one obvious exception - Allen’s own Manhattan (1979); a visually resplendent digest of the affluent, the haughty and the exclusive. Ten years separate the Manhattan in Manhattan from the one briefly glimpsed as mere backdrop in Crimes and Misdemeanors. In this interim, Allen’s opinion of humanity in general, and New York society in particular seems to have soured, or perhaps grown more variegated from his own enthusiastic contempt for modern, cosmopolitan civilization.
It isn’t only the callous murder of Dolores Paley - a spurned lover (played with uncharacteristic bite by Anjelica Huston) that makes us rethink the cold calculations brewing beneath that very thin veneer of our seemingly placid, though decidedly unfulfilled protagonist, Dr. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau); only the discouraging revelation made by one of Rosenthal’s patients, Ben (Sam Waterston, as a benevolent rabbi who offers Rosenthal some fairly sound – if hypothetical - advice, quite unaware a murder has taken place); only Woody Allen’s sardonic documentarian/anthropologist, Clifford Stern contemplating marital infidelity in his impossible pursuit of the fairly frigid movie producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), her eyes decided fixed on a much bigger prize – her boss, Lester (Alan Alda): an utterly arrogant pinhead given his comeuppance by Cliff (who does a hack job editing some raw footage to effectively compare Lester to both Benito Mussolini and Frances the Talking Mule). The aforementioned are, of course, the superficial - if necessary - ingredients that make Allen’s existentialist milieu go bump in the night.
However, Crimes and Misdemeanors does not place its most unnerving existential crises squarely on Woody Allen’s shoulders. Indeed, many of Allen’s most famous alter egos are drowning in their own implausible disorientation; smothered, as it were, almost to the point of extinction by an apparently insignificant and irrational world), Herein, the graft – or rather, angst – is evenly spread around; a congenital malady enveloping the entire ensemble. And Allen, at least in this movie, cannot even claim status as the film’s deus ex machine; a role fulfilled by Professor Louis Levy (Martin Bergmann); a deeply prophetic Jewish intellectual who, unfortunately, commits suicide before Clifford can immortalize him on film. Throughout Crimes and Misdemeanors it is Levy’s omnipotent voice emanating from the Movieola in Cliff’s editing room, his benevolent evaluations of humanity caught in its most primal – if defective – pursuits that serves as the greatest informant about life.
We begin with Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist at the end of a disastrous love affair with flight attendant, Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). After it becomes brutally clear to Dolores that Judah has no intention of dissolving his marriage to Miriam (Claire Bloom), Dolores methodically plots her revenge. She’ll tell Miriam everything, wreck Judah’s seemingly perfect world and force him to accept her as his only alternative. Dolores also makes it clear to Judah that she intends to expose certain spurious financial deals he’s made.  How could these two have ever been in love…or lust, as the case may be?
To ease his conscience, Judah confides his infidelities to one of his patients – Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi stricken with the rapid deterioration of his eyesight.  Ironically, even with the pall of blindness dangling over him, Ben sees the situation more clearly than Judah. He advises kindness, openness and, above all else, honesty with Miriam; letting the chips fall where they may.  Judah, however, has fallen into that trap familiar to most philanderers, defending his toxic relationship with Dolores and suggesting any discovery of it would completely destroy Miriam. Judah’s faux altruism doesn’t really fool anybody. He is merely concerned about the impact the affair will have on his own reputation - both private and professional.
In a moment of desperation, Judah contacts his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach); a ne’er do well with spurious connections to that seedy inner city underworld operating outside Judah’s cloistered upper-class suburban fool’s paradise.  Judah’s panged insistence, brimming with faux piety and self-serving motivations – prostituting his peccadillos for abject sympathy – leads Jack to suggest a hit man to put a definite end to all his problems. It doesn’t take much for Judah to agree. However, almost immediately he begins to have second thoughts. These, of course, come too late for Dolores, who is quietly murdered in her low rent apartment by the hired assassin. Jack telephones Judah to confirm the kill; Judah excusing himself from a dinner party to rush to Dolores’ apartment and see the results for himself. Sure enough, Dolores is lying on the floor of her living room in a pool of blood, her death’s head stare condemning the man she once loved from beyond the grave as he cleans her apartment of all sentimental mementos given to her during their affair.
Overwrought with guilt, or perhaps more fear that the religious precepts from his childhood upbringing will come back to smite him – “God is watching…he sees everything” – Judah becomes despondent; suffering outbursts that alarm and perplex both Miriam and his daughter. He even threatens Jack about going to the police. But then a strange thing happens. Time passes. Judah returns to the home of his late father, now owned by someone else (Francis Conroy), reliving a particularly pointed dinner conversation between his dad, Sol (David S. Howard) and Aunt May (Anna Berger), the latter harboring latent Marxist tendencies. The liquidity in Woody Allen’s narrative timeline affords Judah a rare opportunity to address this familial gathering from his past, already caught in a spirited debate about the spiritual ramifications for a man who has knowingly committed murder. While Sol chooses the more conventional approach – eternal damnation – Alva is rather empathetic, suggesting that if anyone can get away with murder, and be able to justify it in their own head, then more power to them.  More time passes. We see Judah settled back into his routine; growing more confident and complacent about his complicity in Dolores’ demise.
If you’re waiting for that clichéd moment in most movies when the police suddenly piece together the evidence and burst in to cart Judah off to prison – think again. Crimes and Misdemeanors is not about retribution – divine or otherwise. It never succumbs to the cinematic hyperbole ‘crime doesn’t pay’, falling into that oft’ exploited gray area referenced in movies as kismet, fate, bad karma…call it what you will. No, Crimes and Misdemeanors is all about getting away with it in this life. The ramifications to be hatched in the hereafter are something Woody Allen leaves unexplored. After a brief period of sleepless nights, buffeted by a few choice flashbacks - Dolores and Judah in happier times - life returns to normal for our ruthless protagonist. He’s gone back to the man he used to be, or rather, the one he rather pompously always assumed himself to be; Miriam and his family none the wiser, the police obtusely pinning Dolores’ murder on somebody else.    
Running a parallel course to this story is the less dramatic, though no less painful, journey of self-discovery facing Clifford Stern (Woody Allen) – by all accounts a failed artist whose days are spent dodging the barbs of his sexually despondent wife, Wendy (Joanna Gleason), entertaining his prepubescent niece, Jenny (Jenny Nichols) with afternoon trips to a local theater where classic movies are run, and playing nursemaid/therapist to his train-wreck of a sister, Barbara (Caroline Aaron) who, in one of the few lighter moments in the movie, confides that her most appalling taste in men has resulted in a perverse encounter with a guy who tied her up in bed, then defecated all over her.
If that sounds extreme, it rather palls to the mess that is Cliff’s life. He’s caught in a whirlpool of loveless iniquity, burgeoning with sexual frustrations, leading him to pursue movie producer, Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), currently working for Wendy’s brother – the highly successful, though utterly narcissistic misfit, Lester (Alan Alda). While Cliff measures his success – or lack thereof - by a yardstick in personal integrity (or so he says), Lester equates the true measure of a man most readily by the dollars in his bank, of which he has many.
Coaxed by Halley into doing a documentary on Lester – presumably with the promise she will help Cliff finance his dream project – a movie about philosopher, Louis Levy (Martin Bergmann), Cliff pursues a thoroughly faulty romantic entanglement with Halley to ease his nerves; one she aptly resists, although even she acknowledges their similar tastes and opinions on life and entertainment. When Cliff learns Halley intends to fly to Europe for several months he decides to submarine his documentary on Lester – giving the pontificating boob a taste of his own medicine. Outraged, Lester fires Cliff from the project.
A short while later Cliff suffers two setbacks – one personal, the other professional. It seems Professor Levy has committed suicide, thus thwarting Cliff’s ambitions to produce a documentary on the man. Cliff also discovers that Lester flew to Europe to be with Halley, the two since returned to New York and become engaged, thus putting a definite period to Cliff’s aspirations to be with Halley instead of his wife. What a mess – an absolute implosion, actually – and where does Cliff go from here?
By happenstance, Cliff and Judah meet at the wedding reception of Rabbi Ben’s daughter (Grace Zimmerman). Removing themselves from the others, each exchanges seemingly hypothetical contemplations about Dolores’ murder. Judah confides in Cliff that what seemed like a heinous act at first, gradually gave way to a lesser moral quandary until any crisis of conscience he once felt had entirely left him. Still suffering the angst of having lost Halley to Lester, Cliff glumly assesses that, regardless of a man’s feelings his soul is forever doomed to bear the burden for his ‘crimes and misdemeanors’. Unable to reach a mutual consensus in their discussion Judah, now callously contented in his life, and, regardless of what fate might have in store for him in the hereafter, thanks Cliff for his opinions. The two men part company, perhaps neither grasping the significance in their exchange of ideas.
In retrospect, Crimes and Misdemeanors represents Woody Allen’s cinematic genius at its most refined and perversely morose. Sven Nykvist’s brooding cinematography proves the perfect complement to this rather iniquitous tale of people’s abject surrender to their darker impulses. Yet, the movie clings to its own fascinating moral conscience.
 “You will notice that what we are aiming at when we fall in love is a very strange paradox,” Professor Levy meditates via a spool of 16mm film Cliff runs through his Movieola for Halley, “The paradox consists of the fact that, when we fall in love, we are seeking to re-find all, or some, of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted upon us. So that love contains in it the contradiction: the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past.”
Even for Woody Allen, these are fairly weighty contemplations. It’s also Allen’s uber-clever way of getting into the movie’s meatier innards; deconstructing life’s perennially evergreen perplexities rarely – if ever – given meditation in the movies.  Allen coats this rather large pill for us to subconsciously absorb into our systems with his usual showcase of pop standards from another bygone era in American music when love songs really were about love and not sex. But the music serves a much grander purpose than mere nostalgia. It punctures the balloons of hypocrisy and punctuates the ironies endured by our long-suffering characters. Allen also shares his innate love of classic movies herein – poignant reminders of a blissfully obtuse era in pop-u-tainment utterly oblivious to such penetrating moral evaluations.   
Of course, the real trick of any Woody Allen movie is how to get the audience to think for themselves without any of the aforementioned appraisals and/or life’s lessons devolving into rhetorical grandiloquence. Ah, but here too Woody Allen has proven himself the master storyteller. Never do his astute annotations weigh heavily on our fundamental joy of experiencing his craftsmanship; neither do they veer into abject tedium. If enlightenment is the order of the day then its’ absorption is practically through some collective osmosis based in our amusement.  We see ourselves in a Woody Allen movie – occasionally at our best, though more often as exemplars of these lesser attributes; the least favorable qualities we seek to keep buried deep within and/or mask from the world. 
As Professor Levy astutely concludes in the movie’s epilogue, “We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions - moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most are on lesser points. But… we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably - so unfairly - human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
In an era when most movies neither challenge, nor even consider their audiences as intelligent, beyond the mere inundation of mind-numbing CGI, Crimes and Misdemeanors is, arguably, Woody Allen’s most provocatively cerebral excursion; encouraging us to partake in this experiment we laughingly refer to as ‘life’ – accepting on its universal terms, and ultimately serving as a queerly unsettling reminder of our own relative insignificance in its ever-unraveling tapestry.
Crimes and Misdemeanors gets a modest transfer from Fox/MGM via Twilight Time. The image is fairly rich in detail and color saturation. The original moody magnificence of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography notwithstanding, flesh tones are still way too orange – veering from pumpkin to tangerine and never remotely appearing natural. Woody Allen’s cinematic style can best be described as minimalist, but I am fairly certain not even he would approve of a transfer marginalized by age-related nicks and chips. They’re not prevalent, so I suppose this is a minor quibbling on my part.  But in hi-def everything matters. Worse – everything shows!  I can’t help but point out the obvious in this remastering effort.
Pluses are as follows: fine detail looking fairly impressive and a good solid smattering of indigenous grain looking as it should – natural. The DTS 1.0 audio is in keeping with Allen’s abhorrence for what he considers superfluous bells and whistles. Stereo…who needs it? Actually, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a fairly articulate affair. No car chases, ricocheting bullets or roller coaster rides here. So mono suits the subject matter just fine.  Extras are limited to an isolated score/effects track and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Crimes and Misdemeanors is a movie to make you think. While the transfer falls considerably short of my expectations, you really shouldn’t think twice about owning this one on Blu-ray. A must have.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, February 23, 2014

THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY: Blu-ray (Columbia 1956) Twilight Time

George Sidney’s The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) is sophisticated film-making of the first magnitude: a lush and gushing ‘biopic’ made to order for the post-war generation’s kinship with frothy and fabulous A-list entertainments. Warner Bros. had begun the musical biopic cycle at the cusp of America’s involvement in the war with its tribute to George M. Cohan - Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). But it was MGM who popularized this subgenre throughout the mid-1940’s with movies like Till the Clouds Roll By (1946, reportedly Jerome Kern’s life story, though hardly) and Words and Music (1948, an even more egregious fictionalization of Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart). By all accounts these were glowing – if highly sanitized – fabrications of their famous subjects; the scripted melodrama concocted to neatly fit between a series of spellbinding production numbers showcasing the studio’s formidable and eclectic roster of stars.  
The classic ‘biopic’ is therefore a lie, the public’s implicit acceptance of them rewriting history forever. Arguably, biopics continue to serve a purpose – our need to believe in people more perfect than the rest of us; extraordinary, colorful lives we might aspire to emulate. Arguably, after the war the biopic took on more ballast. Despite their speciousness, biopics were a retreat for audiences in general, and American audiences in particular, the latter desperate to recall, with pastel fondness, another more innocent time when life had a more even, refined and gentile cadence. 
The sheer joy of these movies then – as it endures today - is not to be unearthed in truth, but as well-dressed reminders of dreams remembered – misty and rose-colored that - for all intent and purposes - never happened.  So, perhaps in retrospect it’s no great surprise that while the Hollywood-ized treatment of Eddy Duchin’s life gets most of its major points right, it equally takes some celebrated artistic liberties along the way. These may not reveal the whole story, but ultimately they fulfill our collective needs in more satisfying ways.
Eddy Duchin was undeniably one of the great musical stylists of his generation; something of a pioneer of a technique Duchin himself coined as ‘sweet’ to distinguish its smooth and silken sound apart from the popularized jazzy riffs of his day. By all accounts, Duchin’s piano playing was hardly as accomplished or proficient as, say, Liberace’s; his laid back charm, congeniality at the keyboard, and, preference for playing cross-handed (try it sometime) belying the fact he had absolutely no formal musical training.  Of course, in Eddy Duchin Hollywood recognized a near perfect sure-fire box office appeal; retelling a real-life tragic love story laden with its own inimitable brand of schmaltz.
Bittersweet is always better than just plain sweet, and Duchin’s life was hardly the proverbial bed of roses. He lost the love of his life, enterprising New York designer, Marjorie Oelrichs from complications immediately following the birth of their son, Peter, and Duchin would himself prematurely succumb to acute myelogenous leukemia at the age of forty-one.  Between these bookends, the real Duchin story held so many inequitable hard knocks, heartbreaks and misfortunes that it is, frankly, remarkable screenwriter Samuel Taylor was able to discover any lightness to counterbalance the dark. At the crux of his story, Taylor’s creative license strives to extol the indomitable human spirit of a man repeatedly slapped down by the cruel hand of fate, yet resisting to surrender to it with every fiber in his being.  
Eddy Duchin died in 1951 – five years before George Sidney’s celluloid tribute. In the interim, the traditional Hollywood musical – all bubble and bounce - had begun to experience the first inklings that its once galvanized popularity was on the wane. Post-war cinema tastes were rapidly changing, while television had quickly become the preferred venue for showcasing musical acts in variety hour programming. Ironically, the musical biopic was hotter than ever; the 1950’s embarking on a string of impeccably crafted tomes to the likes of Bix Beiderbecke (Young Man with A Horn 1950), Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story 1954) and Benny Goodman (The Benny Goodman Story 1956).
More than their predecessors, these movies all share a triumvirate of common threads. First, they are about band leaders and/or musicians struggling to carve their niche in the great American pantheon of popular music. Second, each film dedicates equal, if not - in fact - more, run time to its dramatic back story rather than its score. While music is still integral to telling the tale, it isn’t the whole show.  Finally, each of the aforementioned movies features a dramatic – rather than musical - star at its helm; the likes of a Kirk Douglas, James Stewart or Steve Allen replacing bona fide musical talents like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Van Johnson.  
Not coincidentally, Eddy Duchin was reborn on the big screen as a showcase for the electric styling of another truly outstanding pianist/band leader, Carmen Cavallaro. The two actually share an uncanny physical resemblance, and, it is a genuine pity Columbia Pictures did not see it, or even consider the possibility of casting Cavallaro as the movie’s doppelganger. Instead, we get Tyrone Power – somewhat past his prime as the one-time all-American hunky heartthrob, promoted in the trades as a valiant successor to Rudolph Valentino’s great lover.  Time and hindsight would illustrate another tragic parallel between Duchin’s life story and Tyrone Power; the latter dying of a heart attack at the age of forty-four, just two years after this movie’s release and only three years older than his alter ego.  
Personally, I have always thought Power did his best work as the slick bon vivant in more contemporary fare like The Eddy Duchin Story, instead of all those period costume dramas Fox persistently cast him in, luridly photographed in blazing Technicolor, though more often succumbing to turgidly scripted melodrama. No such artistic malaise inflicts The Eddy Duchin Story; a unbeatably well-rounded entertainment. Walter Holscher’s masterly art direction and Harry Stradling Sr.'s delicious cinematography utilize every inch of the expansive Cinemascope frame.
By 1959, the Central Park Casino, where Duchin had made his mark early on, was no more (the lavishly appointed Victorian baroque structure razed in 1935 to make way for a rather uninspired playground). But the park’s other famed venue, Tavern on the Green, proves a sublime substitute.  Better still, the performances given by Power and the rest of the cast excel at bringing this bygone era to life. Samuel A. Taylor’s sentimental screenplay never sinks into maudlin mire, but maintains a genuine respect and affinity for the man and his music. Bottom line – this is a quality effort from top to bottom, rolling off the back lot with all the stylish accoutrements of a Duesenberg and sparkling better than most any coveted vintage of pink champagne. The movie plays like an elixir for the world-weary; a Valentine to Duchin’s artistry set against the impossibly handsome backdrop of an uber-decadent, magically magnificent Manhattan skyline, more fabulously an idea spawned from the heads of ‘moon river’ daydreamers than any reality inherent to the city planners.
We begin our journey through this timeless pastiche with Duchin’s arrival in the Big Apple; a fresh-faced kid (well…sort of, as played by the obviously middle-aged Tyrone Power) – all spunk and energy, with starry-eyed dreams of becoming a big shot in the Leo Reisman (Larry Keating) Orchestra. Apparently, Reisman had seen Duchin perform with a band organized by some ‘college kids’ – a decidedly unimpressive effort – but one where Reisman immediately recognized Duchin’s talents as a piano player. Unfortunately, this chance meeting has led to a misunderstanding; Duchin assuming Reisman was offering him a job. Arriving at the Central Park Casino to have this mistaken promise fulfilled, Duchin’s optimistic bubble is burst when both Reisman and his manager, Lou Sherwood (James Whitmore) echo similar sentiments – the Reisman Orchestra doesn’t need two pianists!  It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But Duchin’s number isn’t up…not yet.
Disillusioned, dejected and forlorn, Duchin takes his seat at the piano before the casino opens for business, tickling the ivories and catching the ear of New York designer, Marjorie Oelrichs (Kim Novak, looking somewhat bloated rather than sexy herein). Marjorie comes from a good family – or rather, old money; some of it spent by her benevolent uncle, Sherman Wadsworth (Shepperd Strudwick) and Aunt Edith (Frieda Inescort) to set Marjorie up in business, and this at a time when women – particularly those of culture and leisure were hardly encouraged to exercise their creative aspirations via a concerted work ethic. 
Marjorie can definitely relate to Eddy’s predicament, and thus, an immediate friendship is born. Moreover, Marjorie has clout with the jet set and Reisman, enticing Lou to hire Eddy as fill-in when the orchestra is taking their break. It does not take much coaxing for Reisman to agree, and Marjorie further eases Eddy into the big time by getting up to dance while he plays, thus drawing the public’s attention away from their conversations to take notice of Duchin’s extraordinary talents at the keyboard.
Duchin becomes an integral part of Reisman’s Orchestra, eventually featured with his own specialty numbers. These positively wow the casino’s patrons. Duchin’s immediate success brings him notoriety and modest wealth. But he still is not exactly accepted into high society. Edith and Sherman invite him to one of their lavish house parties, but only as a performer – not their guest. When Eddy learns this he becomes sullen and moody, making glib remarks to Marjorie about ‘his place’ in the world. She replies, “Right now your place is beside me.”  
Marjorie is so right for Eddy it hurts.  So when Eddy invites his parents (John Mylong and Gloria Holden) to the casino to share in his success, their fête is compounded by Marjorie’s impromptu declaration that she intends to marry their son. Miraculously, Sherman and Edith set aside their classicism almost immediately and embrace this union. It all looks like very smooth sailing ahead.
Except that on their wedding night, Marjorie experiences the first signs trouble is afoot. A brewing thunderstorm blowing over the balcony of their Fifth Ave. apartment terribly frightens her. She tells Eddy this is a very bad omen. Refusing to believe it, he tenderly placates Marjorie's worst fears; a prophecy realized a short while later when Marjorie dies of complications from giving birth to their son, Peter (first played by Mickey Maga, age 5, then Rex Thompson, age 12, whom many will remember as Deborah Kerr’s son in The King and I 1956). Eddie is overwhelmed with grief, placing the infant in Sherman and Edith’s care (in reality, Peter was looked after by Marjorie’s close friends, statesman, W. Averell Harriman and his wife, Marie Norton Whitney Harriman) while he embarks on a whirlwind tour – first in Europe, then America – eventually returning to New York at Lou’s grumbling behest. At first apprehensive, Eddy is delighted to see his son. But five long years of separation have made Peter a virtual stranger to him. Father and son go out on a lark. But Eddy is unable to reach the boy through kindness.
Enlisting in the war, Eddy helps liberate a ravaged city in the South Pacific, engaging a destitute child (Warren Hsieh) with his impromptu piano playing inside the bombed out shell of an abandoned nightclub.  Realizing he just might be able to reach Peter through these same musical inspirations, Eddy returns to New York after the war to discover Peter is already quite accomplished at the piano, having collected Eddy’s records and learned to play some of their melodies by heart.
Peter’s governess, Chiquita Wynn (Victoria Shaw) tries to bring father and son closer together. But Peter resists and Eddy becomes increasingly impatient, even going so far as to blame Chiquita’s influences for their inability to bond. Eventually, Eddy comes to his senses. After all, how could Peter love, or even respect a man he’s never really known? In the meantime, Eddy begins to have feelings for Chiquita to whom he eventually proposes. For the briefest of times it looks as though this newly bonded family will survive.
Alas, during a lavish engagement at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, Eddy suddenly experiences crippling pain in his fingers. He withdraws from the piano and shortly thereafter seeks the counsel of a doctor, only to be diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer. Sharing the news with Chiquita is one thing. But Peter…how will he ever explain it to him? Eddy takes his son to the playground where the Central Park Casino once stood, his bittersweet muddling of the facts momentarily befuddling the boy, who becomes angry that his father is ‘going away’ once again. Peter thinks better on his initial dismay, tearfully embracing Eddy. A short while later, Eddy and Peter return to their townhouse; Chiquita encouraging father and son to play a duet at the pair of pianos in their living room.
George Sidney’s masterful handling of ‘the end’ of Eddy Duchin’s life spares us the predictably drawn out deathbed scene (a main staple in these type of ‘life story’ scenarios) – replaced in Samuel Taylor’s screenplay by a tastefully understated moment of farewell. Eddy and Peter are facing one another from the benches of their respective pianos, Chiquita with her arm tenderly resting on Peter’s shoulder. Harry Stradling’s camera slowly rises overhead from Peter’s concentrated efforts, showing us only Eddy’s hands at his keyboard - suddenly shaking, then withdrawn - the camera tilting back to Peter and Chiquita in a slow pull back, now revealing an empty bench at the second piano while Peter continues to play on. Eddy Duchin may be gone, but his legacy endures in that musical protégé (Peter Duchin still very much with us) who also became a celebrated band leader for a time. 
In 1996, Peter Duchin published a memoir ‘Ghost of A Chance’ - a largely glowing tribute to his father that nevertheless rectifies the glossed over discrepancies made in The Eddy Duchin Story. Viewed today, The Eddy Duchin Story holds up remarkably well; less of a songbook to Duchin’s career and more the romanticized, though delicate, tearjerker – popularized a la Douglas Sirk in the mid to late 1950’s. This one never fails to tug at our emotional heartstrings.  The strengths of the picture outweigh its narrative lapses. The luminous orchestrations and score, played to perfection by Carmen Cavallaro behind the scenes and convincingly fingered by Tyrone Power in the movie, are just one of the movie’s embarrassment of riches best left to be discovered by the first time viewer.  Despite his lack of youthfulness, Tyrone Power delivers a mostly credible performance, perhaps slipping into overwrought sentiment just once, when Duchin returns to the casino after hours on Christmas Eve to bawl his eyes out over Marjorie’s untimely passing.  
To some extent the movie’s second half is hampered by Kim Novak’s sudden departure – Victoria Shaw, with her brittle, clipped accent, a mere flickering candle to Novak’s genuine incandescence. And Samuel Taylor’s screenplay briefly succumbs to a series of episodic vignettes tracing Eddy’s departure overseas during the war. Yet, if these sequences are less successful than either the beginning or the end of the story, neither do they submarine nor dampen (much) the overall dramatic arc carefully constructed by Taylor and deftly realized in visual terms by George Sidney and Harry Stradling.
This is a marvelous melodrama with music added in for good measure; never top heavy in its moralizations (the way a lot of movies from the 1950’s tend to be) or succumbing to hammy acting and/or overwrought sentiment to make its points about the fallibility and fleeting ethereal qualities of life. What could have so easily played as grand downbeat tragedy, herein has been gently massaged and tenderly reconstituted as one of the most unlikely celebrations of a man’s contributions to both life and that iconic tapestry in 20th century music. While debate continues about the magnitude of Eddy Duchin’s artistry – that it may not have rivaled his contemporaries - none could have wished for a finer epitaph; one ultimately securing Duchin’s immortality in popular music.
Sony Home Entertainment debuts The Eddy Duchin Story on Blu-ray via Twilight Time’s limited edition series in a mostly satisfying 1080p transfer – with minor caveats to be briefly discussed herein. The pluses in hi-def are obvious to anyone with eyes; a razor-sharp image with simply ravishing Technicolor bursting forth, good solid contrast and a smattering of film grain. Sony’s Grover Crisp and his technical wizards had their work cut out for them because the original archived elements were not in great shape. At times, shortcomings remain in evidence; slight nicks, chips and scratches are still present (that ought to have been digitally removed beforehand); some built-in flicker and ‘breathing’ around the edges of the frame (infrequent and not terribly distracting) and film grain (at times, seems on the obvious ‘heavy’ side, belying the movie having been shot in grain-concealing Technicolor). With regards to color – periodically, flesh looks more orange than natural. We also have a few very brief moments of edge enhancement – not a deal breaker in my opinion although present nonetheless.
The 2.0 audio is remarkably resilient, as is the isolated score and effects track. One might have hoped for another comprehensive audio commentary from Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo but we don’t get it this time around; a sin rectified by Kirgo’s comprehensive liner notes. (Aside: it seems almost grossly insulting to refer to Kirgo’s writing as ‘notes’ as she consistently applies her vast storehouse of knowledge on some of the most meaningful mini-essays. No small accomplishment, indeed!) Bottom line: this disc will surely not disappoint. It isn’t perfect, but Sony wasn’t working with elements diligently preserved in the past. Under Grover Crisp’s guidance, the studio’s present day commitments to their library in hi-def remains highly commendable and, arguably, unsurpassed. The Eddy Duchin Story comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, February 22, 2014

THE BLUE MAX: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1966) Twilight Time

Some 39 years separate William Wellman’s seminal, Oscar-winning, Wings (1927) from John Guillermin’s The Blue Max (1966); the latter, a magnificently mounted roadshow war epic in Cinemascope and DeLuxe color, featuring some fairly impressive aerial stunt work to counterbalance its deathly dull back story about an elite force of German flyers. The film never lacks credibility – its’ forgivable cheats on actual period aircraft used in the movie expertly masked by Wilfrid Shingleton’s tremendous production design and Fred Carter’s equally splendid art direction; both first rate and awe-inspiring . These assets have been captured for posterity in Douglas Slocombe’s jaw-dropping cinematography and infrequently interpolated with Jerry Goldsmith’s somewhat imperious underscore, calling out the leitmotif of Deutschland über alles’ without actually playing that song. The movie’s tagline ‘there was no quiet on the western front’ is, of course, a rather obvious reference to another iconic WWI Oscar-winner made by Lewis Milestone in 1930.
In hindsight, The Blue Max is an exemplar of a certain era in movie-making when big, bloated spectacles competed for box office cache. And in many ways, The Blue Max fits perfectly into 2oth Century-Fox’s great pantheon of wartime pictures dedicated to the deconstruction of heroism, viewed from the perspective of its damaged human participants; a tradition begun by production head, Darryl F. Zanuck with Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and carried all the way through to Zanuck’s personally supervised combat epic, The Longest Day (1962); the gloss and gallantry increasingly replaced by a more bitterly introspective realization about the genuine toll, aftereffects and fallout inflicted on the human psyche. Indeed, it was Zanuck who covetously snatched up the rights to Jack D. Hunter’s novel, infusing the screen version of The Blue Max with all the chutzpah of a bona fide testimonial, or perhaps epitaph befitting the ‘great war’.
The Blue Max is undeniably big. But it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi all its predecessors had in spades; particularly Wings. William Wellman’s feats of aerial daring on Wings are unlikely to be surpassed.  In contrast, Darby Kennedy’s stunt coordination in The Blue Max is stimulating, yet only in a class by itself if one hasn’t seen Wings beforehand. Wellman had his stars perform their own stunts with heavy cameras mounted onto their biplanes; a debatably foolhardy endeavor with the real threat of severe injury or death constantly looming from the peripheries of the screen. By comparison, Kennedy’s stuntmen perform some death-defying midair maneuvers in The Blue Max. Regrettably, however, these have been interrupted in the editing process by inserts of the featured cast set against some fairly obvious and terribly unconvincing rear projection; the blue-screen mattes blatantly revealed and diffusing the impact of the genuine footage shot for real in mid-air.
The Blue Max would be an effective piece of period drama – for it provides the only comprehensive visual record of WWI in blazing color and widescreen (neither at the film maker’s disposal between 1914 and 1918); approaching the war from the ‘enemy’s perspective’ and critiquing what ought to have been intricate discernment about the conflicted altruism/abject callousness of these elitist pilots. Too bad the film is marred by an exceptionally wooden recital from its star, George Peppard (refusing to adopt anything like a German accent) as Corporal Bruno Stachel – the haughty and wholly unscrupulous prig whose warped sense of chivalry prevents him from becoming one of the war’s true heroes. The movie’s Stachel is not the character derived from Jack D. Hunter’s celebrated novel. While screenwriters David Pursall, Jack Seddon, Gerald Hanley have retained Stachel’s suppression of deep-seeded insecurities about his modest upbringing, they have jettisoned his chronic alcoholism (a source of empathy for the character in the book) and gone for the more traditional cliché of the ‘ruthless German’; a blonde-haired, and very blue-eyed narcissist; self-assured, yet simultaneously self-destructing under the weight of his own arrogant desire to possess the Pour le Mérite; the highest order of merit afforded any flyer in the German Air Corp. for racking up twenty confirmed kills or more.
The screenplay also plays fast and loose with several key elements from the original story; chiefly in its penultimate comeuppance for Stachel, tricked by General Count von Klugermann (James Mason) into test-flying the new monoplane. Stachel’s orchestrated crash and burn is witnessed by hundreds of spectators gathered at the airfield during Germany’s steeply declining supremacy in the war. What no one – except the audience – knows is that Klugermann has been informed of a formal inquiry regarding Stachel’s claim of two kills that ought to have gone to fellow flyer, Lieutenant Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) – the general’s nephew. This leaked information comes from Stachel’s spurned lover, the Countess Kaeti (Ursula Andress) who also happens to be Von Klugermann’s wife.
Yet despite Stachel’s unapologetic betrayals of Klugermann’s relations, Klugermann begrudgingly sacrifices Stachel to save face. For it was Klugermann who first recognized Stachel’s unprincipled greed rife for the exploitation, creating a deity in the media from this most unworthy man – thus, giving Germany what it needs (manufactured valor in place of the real thing). At least initially, Stachel was up for perpetuating this great lie. After all, he desperately wants that shiny symbol of freewheeling masculinity – the Blue Max - dangling about his neck…but at what price? In the novel, Stachel actually murders Willi, perhaps out of some implied vengeance perpetuated against his own class - the ‘fat aristocrat’ snuffed out by this lower class upstart and four-flusher. The killing is further justified in Stachel’s mind by his discovery of Willi’s affair with the rather promiscuous Kaeti. The movie is a bit more sentimental about Willi’s demise. He is wastefully lost in a game of airborne chicken with Stachel proven the better flyer – perhaps – though decidedly not the better man.
Honor plays a big part in The Blue Max – or rather, its definition as reconstituted by the less than self-sacrificing. On the nobler end of this spectrum is Stachel’s superior officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (given inner luminosity and weighty distinction by Karl Michael Vogler); a true soldier as it were, setting personal distinctions aside for the good of his country. There is built-in pride to this man, unqualified and pure; utterly disqualified in Stachel, who refuses to abide under Heidemann’s tutelage and dictums.  Honor is more corruptible in Klugermann’s mind – a distinguished military strategist not above misusing Stachel’s egotism to serve a larger purpose – guaranteed to centralize his own stake in this power struggle. Stachel’s lack of honor (indeed, he has only a remedial comprehension of what that word means) is ultimately what gets him killed; enterprising motives blindsided by jealousy and the most undiluted form of raw, self-destructing ambition.  
Yet, The Blue Max takes an interminable amount of time to get to these more lascivious interior motivations. Presumably to establish the movie as an epic, we begin with an extended prologue; a perilous trek across the war-ravaged, barb-wired front. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is the sole survivor of a particularly brutal gas attack in the trenches. Spying his first aircraft sailing overhead, Stachel is immediately stirred by this dream-like phoenix to transfer from the infantry into the German Air Corp. Joining an elite squadron of flyers in Spring, 1918 – the tail end of the war – Stachel is determined to win Imperial Germany's highest military decoration for valor, the Pour le Mérite (a.k.a. Blue Max). But time is running out. The war may be over in a matter of weeks. Worse for Stachel, is his modest background, a chronic source of embarrassment.  His fellow pilots all come from privilege; particularly, Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp), the nephew of noted high-commanding officer, General Count von Klugermann (James Mason).
The squadron is presided over by Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler); an upperclassman of the old school to whom chivalry is an essential ingredient for winning the war. But Heidemann’s integrity conflicts with Stachel’s heartless fortitude. Only one thing matters to Stachel – the Blue Max. He’ll have it by any means at his disposal. Willi’s attempts to befriend Stachel are met with steely resolve (Peppard unable to punctuate his sparse dialogue as anything better than the vaguely absurd petulance of a fairly psychotic loner). Stachel makes it known his idolized hero of the skies is Von Richthofen (a.k.a The Red Baron, and briefly glimpsed in a performance by Carl Schell). Stachel, of course, fails to realize the public relations machinery behind such deified supermen, largely manufactured to help propagandize the cause into victory.
On his first mission Stachel - flying a Pfalz D.III - manages to down a British S.E.5. But this early victory is ignored as an ‘unconfirmed kill’ by the high command because no witnesses were present. Rather peevishly, Stachel berates Heidemann – his personal scoring evidently far more important to him than any investment in the dogfight as an integral part of the squadron. Stachel spends a windswept rainy afternoon and evening scouring the French countryside for the plane’s wreckage to officially document his claim. He is unsuccessful, however, and returns to the base to find Willi in his room with a fresh bottle of brandy.
On his next mission, Stachel goes after an Allied observation aircraft, disabling its’ rear gunner. Instead of downing the vulnerable plane, Stachel signals the pilot to land – presumably to be taken as his prisoner. However, as both planes approach the airfield, the gunner stirs and Stachel has no choice but to finish what he started. He downs the plane in a fiery ball of flame, Heidemann suspecting Stachel simply of committing cold-blooded murder to earn his first ‘confirmed’ kill. While the mood between Heidemann and Stachel will increasingly becoming strained from this moment on, word of mouth reaches Klugermann, who has arrived at the base to award Willi the Blue Max. Klugermann is a wily politico. Sensing that Stachel’s greed can be manipulated to suit his own purpose, the manufacturing of yet another hero to help propagandize the war, Klugmann superficially befriends Stachel. At the presentation ceremony, Klugermann’s wife, the Countess Kaeti takes a passing interest in Stachel – unrequited at first, her rather transparent affair with Willi obvious to everyone present.
Stachel’s next moment of military distinction is quite accidental; shot down after defending a Fokker Dr.I attacked by a pair of British fighters. Back at the airfield, Heidemann introduces Stachel to the man he inadvertently saved; none other than his idolized war hero, Manfred von Richthofen (Carl Schell) – the Red Baron. Von Richthofen is congenial, offering Stachel a place of distinction in his squadron. It’s a plum role, and one any of the other pilots would not hesitate to accept.  Perhaps wisely deducing that under Von Richthofen’s command he would forever be overshadowed by the legacy of such a legend, Stachel politely declines this offer, electing to ‘improve himself’ at his current post instead. Temporarily sidelined with a superficial wound, Stachel is whisked away to Berlin under Klugermann’s auspices, briefly introduced to Heidemann’s wife, Elfi (Loni Von Friedl); a nurse who poses with Stachel for staged photographs. In private, Elfi confides in Stachel wishes for her husband’s retirement from the Air Corp.
Klugermann arrives just in time to preside over the gaggle of sycophantic reporters he has hired to capture this fictitious moment for posterity. Stachel doesn’t care much for this exploitation. But Klugermann sweetens the deal by inviting Stachel to his estate for a grand party hosted by his wife; quite aware Stachel is to be Kaeti’s latest sexual conquest. The ‘love’ scenes in The Blue Max are tantalizingly eerie; director Guillermin and cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe conspiring to evoke a queer, devouring and chaotic pas deux. Kaeti and Stachel’s renewed sexual détentes incorporate obscure lighting and severe tilt-pans, suggesting more voracity in their shared appetite for debauchery than any mutual affection.    
Upon Stachel’s return to the base, Willi jealously confronts him about Kaeti; Stachel unable to conceal his satisfaction with a grin and a chuckle, believing his cock of the walk has surpassed Willi’s prowess in the bedroom. The next afternoon, Stachel and Willi volunteer for a reconnaissance mission. Once in the air, they are attacked by a squadron of British fighters. Stachel’s guns jam. But Willi dutifully picks off a pair of British flyers, then another in hot pursuit of Stachel’s plane. The other fighters quickly disband. But Willi now engages Stachel in a game of aerial chicken; repeatedly dive-bombing between the stone pillars a narrow bridge and encouraging Stachel to do the same. These low passes place them precariously close to the trees and nearby, half-bombed out tower. Unable to resist the dare, Stachel matches Willi dive for dive, anteing up the stakes by flying between an even narrower span, thus forcing Willi to do the same to prove his stealth.  Tragically, Willi clips the tower with his landing gear, loses control and crashes into some nearby trees. 
At base, Stachel reports Willi’s death to Heidemann, but takes credit for the two downed enemy aircraft Willi dispatched, despite an investigation of his plane revealing only forty rounds used before his gun’s jammed. Suspecting foul play, Heidemann refuses to file Stachel’s report. Instead, he goes to Klugermann with his suspicions about Stachel. Klugermann is sympathetic, but explains to Heidemann that Stachel’s kills will be confirmed. Heidemann refuses to be a part of this charade, resigning his commission and pleading with Klugermann to appoint him to a desk job. At Willi’s burial, Stachel and Kaeti exchanged panged expressions that ominously register both fear and excitement. Later that evening, Stachel and Kaeti meet again to indulge their sexual whims, Stachel quietly confessing to her that he lied about Willi’s kills.
On his final tour of duty with the squadron, Heidemann orders Stachel not to engage nearby enemy flyers. But Stachel, nearing the magic number of twenty necessary to secure him the Blue Max, defies these direct orders. As a result, half his squadron is lost in the perilous dogfight that ensues and Heidemann places Stachel under arrest. Once again, Klugermann intercedes on Stachel’s behalf, telling Heidemann that the people demand a hero – particularly since the tide of the war has turned against Germany. Sensing the beginning of the end, Kaeti elects to run off to Switzerland, encouraging Stachel to abandon his dreams and join her instead. Stachel’s rebuke of this offer incurs Kaeti’s wrath. Going above her husband’s authority, Kaeti leaks information about Stachel’s dishonesty to Germany’s high command; his entire record suddenly brought into question and slated for an official inquiry yet to follow.
Klugerman expedites Stachel’s awarding of the Blue Max by Germany’s Crown Prince (Roger Ostime) in a highly publicized event on the airfield. Too late the Field Marshal telephones Klugermann to cancel this ceremony. Making his own inquiries as to how the reported information was leaked, Klugermann is informed that Kaeti is the instigator. It now becomes clear to Klugermann what sacrifices will have to be made in order to spare the Air Corp its reputation, but also to save his own skin. Klugermann instructs Heidemann to test fly the new monoplane – an aerial assignment that ought to have gone to Stachel, immediately following the award’s presentation.
Heidemann reluctantly complies, flying the unproven aircraft. But he is barely able to make his landing; informing Klugermann that the plane is a ‘death trap’. Klugermann now encourages Stachel to do ‘some real flying’ in the unsafe aircraft. Unaware of the plane’s deficiencies, Stachel’s ego takes over. He takes off into the wild blue yonder from which Klugermann understands he will likely not return, performing a series of death-defying aerial maneuvers high overhead. Tragically, Stachel is unable to land the monoplane. He crashes off in the distance in a hellish ball of flames as the terrified crowd rush toward the wreckage; Klugermann calmly taking his wife by the arm and ushering her into a nearby car, coldly explaining to her that they will be late for dinner.
The Blue Max is impressively mounted, but a rather stodgy big screen experience to get through. Ironically, its’ dower ending isn’t the problem. Rather, at 156 minutes, the movie tends to outstay its welcome whenever any of the aforementioned fly-boys feet are firmly on the ground. The screenplay isn’t entirely to blame. Another actor might have made something more of Lt. Bruno Stachel than George Peppard’s starched-britches psychopath. It really is a one-dimensional and fairly ugly performance we get from Peppard and it’s a tough sell from the moment we are introduced to his wholly inscrutable though utterly devious schemer right up until the penultimate moment of his mind-numbing fireball impact with terra firma.
The outstanding performances herein belong to Karl Michael Vogler, as Heidemann, and to a lesser extent, Jeremy Kemp’s Willi Von Krugermann.  The death of Willi almost immediately following the movie’s intermission leaves Volger’s noble man of action to do the heavy lifting – at least, from a dramatic standpoint. Volger is more than up to the challenge. Except that the screenplay negates Heidemann’s importance shortly thereafter to very minor support in the second half, leaving the audience to grapple with the peculiar lover’s triangle of Stachel, Kaeti and Gen. Krugermann – the latter, what nature – or at least, the movies – abhor: the enervated failure of masculine virility.  
When excised of their rather hammy inserts shot against a blue screen, many of the flying sequences are quite impressive. Douglas Slocombe’s camera soars into the clouds with stealthy precision, capturing a bird’s eye view of these aerial theatrics designed to enthrall – and they do. Still, for authenticity I prefer ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman’s sepia tinted and B&W sequences in Wings to the expansive Cinemascope footage shot for The Blue Max. Call it a bias. But I’ll take Wellman’s classic to Guillermin’s overblown melodrama any day of the week.
2oth Century-Fox’s hi-def transfer on The Blue Max via Twilight Time is generally a cause for celebration. The 1080p transfer is sharp and finely detailed with exceptional clarity throughout – proof that when the studio wants to, it can remaster a catalogue title to yield rather stunning results. What is less acceptable is the overall teal bias. A goodly number of Fox’s Cinemascope movies transferred to Blu-ray have adopted this unsettling color imbalance. Early sequences in The Blue Max appear to suffer more so from this grossly over-saturated teal hue. Even the whites of Peppard’s eyes and his teeth have adopted a slightly bluish tint. I’m not certain whether this is an issue of improper color balancing during the hi-def mastering process or a case of early vinegar syndrome plaguing the original camera negative.  
Either way, it’s problematic; the Germans grey trench coats are greenish/blue. Flesh is ever so slightly leaning toward the orangey palette, while reds appear greatly muted. This transfer favors blues, greens and beiges. Again, it isn’t a question of color-fading, but of an inaccurately balanced spectrum.  Never having seen The Blue Max in theaters I cannot state for certain this isn’t how the movie looked back in 1967; although I can’t imagine so heavy a slant toward teal ever being a part of The Blue Max’s original presentation.  
Despite my concerns herein, the odd color isn’t a deal breaker in my opinion. It just looks off, occasionally to the point of distraction. On the plus side is the remastered 5.1 soundtrack, showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s superb score. Wow – and – ‘thank you’! Just fantastic. Ditto and kudos to Twilight Time for providing us with an isolated track. Herein, we also get another treat: a second isolated track featuring alternate music cues with insightful commentary provided by historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. Great stuff! Finally, Kirgo once again fleshes out the movie’s backstory in Twilight Time’s much appreciated liner notes – treasured tidbits other studios seem to have entirely given up on providing with their Blu-ray releases.
Bottom line: The Blue Max isn’t an exceptional war movie in my opinion. But it has been hand-crafted with a high level of competence and an undeniable stellar degree of historical accuracy. As Kirgo’s notes point out – the movie has inspired scores of film makers toward mimicry of its stylistic elements. It should equally impress most war buffs, aficionados and the layman merely looking for a good solid way of passing a few hours in front of the TV. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)