Wednesday, March 26, 2014

SABRINA: Blu-ray (Paramount 1954) Warner Home Video

Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) remains the quintessential modern day derivative of Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale, Cinderella brought surreptitiously to life. The film is, of course, more directly based on Samuel A. Taylor’s lushly quixotic Sabrina Fair – the pluperfect romantic comedy about a waifish wallflower desperate to be recognized by a flamboyant heir to the manor born. In supplanting the traditional Gothic European castle for a moneyed Long Island estate Taylor’s acclimatization of Perrault’s literary genius has lost none of the original’s zeal for glamorous wish fulfillment. Moreover Taylor has tweaked the formula enough to yield a refreshing, utterly joyous – and slightly unpredictable – ‘feel good’; the discovery of our ‘happily ever after’ this second time around in the arms of an unlikely stranger.
After all, the prince in this story isn’t exactly the budding young stud in cod piece and tights or even the rakishly handsome, platinum tress playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) whom the princess in rags – in this case, the chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) -has been mooning over and pining for ever since she was old enough to recognize the differences between boys and girls. David knows about this difference too. Only he just can’t quite see the proverbial forest for the trees in Sabrina; the girl who lives right over his garage. No, Dave’s into debutantes – superficial, flaxen-haired goddesses with trust funds who frequent the elegant parties his family gives during moon-lit warm summer nights. These mannequins have no staying power. Then again, David isn’t particularly interested in them either…at least, not for too long. He’s much too self-absorbed to take life or love seriously; the pleasures of privilege having corrupted his sense of both chivalry and commitment to anything outside of having a good time.
David’s ‘what me worry?’ complacency isn’t exactly embraced by his father Oliver (Walter Hampden). But it is rather cynically abhorred by his elder brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart) who has assumed control of the family’s empire from a front office in downtown Manhattan and/or shouting orders to his secretary on a Dictaphone from the backseat of his chauffeur-driven limo. Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman’s brush up of Taylor’s prose play upon the social sacrifices Linus has made in order to pick up David’s slack.  “Look at me,” Linus muses with a chronic sadness, “Joe College with a touch of arthritis!”
Bogart was, in fact, much too old to play even the elder son in this lithesome romantic fantasy. Moreover, he was already in poor health and even more ill-spirits by the time production began – a last minute replacement for Cary Grant. It’s unknown exactly why Bogart took such an immediate aversion to his co-stars. But he most definitely did not get on with Audrey Hepburn – the pair frequently at odds once cameras stopped rolling. Ironically, and thankfully, the malaise of their backstage bickering never seems to affect their on-screen chemistry. Bogart is at his best as the self-deprecating mature man caught unawares by Cupid’s arrow after his initial plan to merely buy off the chauffeur’s daughter to avert a nasty – and frankly, expensive – scandal goes hopelessly awry.  And Hepburn manages to probe a softer side to Bogart. The two just feel comfortable and natural in each other’s arms, unexpectedly so, proving a genuine surprise to the audience, though arguably never to Bogart who continued to carry around a certain animosity.
Asked by a reporter to qualify his working relationship with Audrey, Bogart is rumored to have said, “It’s alright if you don’t mind doing twenty takes.” As for Holden, Bogart was singularly unimpressed by the actor’s approach to his craft. Holden had been considered something of a has-been when Billy Wilder cast him as the unscrupulous screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard (1950). The 1950’s would prove to be the zenith of Holden’s movie career – much sought after and appearing in many high profile movies throughout the decade. Holden’s approach to acting was arguably as legitimate as Bogart’s. But Holden never took himself seriously. “For me,” Holden explained in an interview, “…acting is not an all-consuming thing, except for the moment when I am actually doing it. Movie acting may not have a certain kind of glory as true art, but it is damn hard work.” As for Holden’s opinion of Bogart, years later the actor exclaimed, “I hated that bastard.”  Bearing in mind that the reality of Hollywood is far greater than its mythology, Wilder found himself playing ringmaster between these three artistic temperaments to sooth the behind-the-scenes bickering. And Bogart did eventually come around to Hepburn at least, choosing to play Linus as a true cynic unencumbered by any romantic notions with just a hint of his trademarked glibness seeping through his performance.
Wilder opens his movie with some sumptuous stock footage of, among other locations, the Doheny/Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills subbing in for the Long Island abode of the Larrabees. We’re introduced to the family, Oliver, Maude (Nella Walker), Linus and David gathered together for a family portrait, ironically posed beneath another taken when both Linus and David were just boys. Not much has changed in the interim, except that David has traded in his fascination for fast rides (he’s depicted on a rocking horse in the portrait hanging over the fireplace) for even faster and more disposable, casual affairs. Currently David’s courting a very flashy socialite, Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer) whom both families hope he will eventually marry – since the Tysons could prove a very fruitful alliance in Oliver’s latest venture into plastics.
This of course has led to a particularly unhappy circumstance for Sabrina who has worshipped David from afar all of her life and is heart sore over his relationship with Elizabeth now. In a moment of fitful romantic angst, Sabrina decides to commit suicide by starting all of the Larrabee’s vehicles in the closed garage and waiting for the fumes to overtake her. The plan is thwarted when Linus inadvertently discovers Sabrina lying in between two cars.  She lies about having been told by her father, Thomas (John Williams) to check the exhausts in order to avoid Linus’ suspicions. Sensing that his daughter needs grounding, Thomas decides to send her away for a culinary education in Paris.  While attending her classes Sabrina meets the kindly middle-aged Baron St. Fontanel (Marcel Dalio) who takes a paternal interest. Time passes and Sabrina returns to Long Island as a lady of culture, imbued with a newfound grace and inimitable class that sparkles like a diamond – in short, a woman much too good for the philandering David. However, as luck would have it, David is now very much interested in Sabrina. But so is brother Linus; not for love, but to steer her away from his pending plastics deal so that David and Elizabeth can marry.
To get David out of the way, Linus arranges for a minor accident to occur. During another Long Island party David sits on a pair of glass champagne flutes he has tucked into his waist band in the hopes of seducing Sabrina on the family’s indoor tennis courts. After the chards of glass are plucked from his backside and the stitches are in place, Linus goes to work on Sabrina, firmly believing that she is simply after David for his money. What he quickly discovers is a lonely and introspective girl who bears no such enterprising and manipulative designs on his brother. Still, Sabrina stealing David away from Elizabeth would ruin Linus’ carefully orchestrated plastics deal with Liz’s father (Francis X. Bushman). But as Linus diligently finagles his way into Sabrina’s heart he unearths unexpected feelings of his own towards her.
Upon his recovery, David challenges Linus to plumb the depths of his affections for Sabrina; this, after Linus has already confessed to Sabrina that he only pursued her to get her away from David. Having completely soured her on the Larrabee family, Sabrina departs for Europe on the Queen Elizabeth. David encourages Linus to take the ferry with all speed to meet the ship already pulling out of harbor. This leads to reconciliation between Linus and Sabrina.  David effectively assumes control of the boardroom and sees the Larrabee/Tyson merger through to completion.
Sabrina is by far Billy Wilder’s most eloquent and frothy romantic comedy. Charles Lang’s sumptuous B&W cinematography lends a moody gloss to the proceedings, as do Hubert de Givenchy’s stunning array of suits and cocktail party dresses that forever solidified Audrey Hepburn’s reputation as one of the undisputed style icons of the 1950’s and 60’s.  As an interesting aside: Givenchy’s initial meeting with Audrey was hardly fortuitous. Told by his secretary that he would be meeting ‘Ms. Hepburn’ for an afternoon fitting, the designer mistakenly believed it was ‘Katharine Hepburn’ who was on her way to his atelier. Hence, when Audrey arrived Givenchy paid her little attention, instructing her to make selections off the rack. However, once the misunderstanding had been cleared up Givenchy graciously apologized. Arguably, he had found his muse for designing clothes. For in the years that were yet to follow the collaboration between Audrey and Givenchy established trendsetting glamor that remains as idolized today as it is continuously and most readily copied and/or evoked by other designers.  
Sabrina is, of course, about much more than the clothes; the romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart quite palpable and engaging, even if they were considerably at odds with one another behind the scenes. William Holden is a devilish rapscallion, oozing a sort of unapologetic, yet wholly likeable disrespectability that quite convincingly remade his movie image into one of the male beefcake/pin-ups of the decade. Given all of the backstage animosity, Sabrina sparkles as few romantic comedies before or since – its intangible qualities immeasurably married to Hal Pereira and Walter H. Tyler’s stylish production design and Friedrich Hollaender’s lush orchestral adaptations of time-honored and pop songs of the day, blended into a frothy confection of uber-chic full scale classiness. “Isn’t it romantic?” By God – yes!
Sabrina makes its North American debut on Blu-ray via a sparkling new transfer that significantly differs from the European release almost a year ago. For starters, this 1080p transfer has been ‘reframed’ in 1.78:1. All previous incarnations of Sabrina on home video have been in the Academy standard 1.33:1. A bit of history: Paramount ‘officially’ began masking their standard movies in 1.66:1 to compete in the widescreen revolution, prior to the debut of their own patented (and photographically superior) VistaVision in 1954 with the release of White Christmas. There are archived studio memorandums to suggest Sabrina was originally shown theatrically in both 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 aspect ratios, depending on the capabilities of the theater. Regardless, 1.78:1 is NOT the ‘original’ aspect ratio and it is a little perplexing why Paramount via Warner’s distribution deal would go to added lengths to reimagine the image for this Blu-ray – except, merely to accommodate the proportions of present-day hi-def video monitors (which should never become the standard!).
Sabrina doesn’t look cramped in this new transfer, but it does look decidedly different from what we’ve become accustomed to, and that occasionally remains problematic. I found myself remembering the ‘open matte’ release and wishing to see ‘the rest’ of the image. This transfer does, however, greatly improve on the European release which suffered from an abundance of DNR. The image herein is no longer waxy or ‘scrubbed’, but exhibits a refined grayscale and exceptional tonality throughout; plus, the added benefit of some gorgeous grain. There is a hint of digital noise during the darker scenes, but overall, what’s here looked fairly ravishing. Age-related artifacts that were occasionally quite obvious on the European transfer have been eradicated for the most part on this new transfer.  
As for the audio, it appears to be the identical 2.0 mono DTS featured on the European release, with exceptional clarity. Good stuff. Even better, all of the extras excluded from the European Blu-ray, but that were part of Paramount’s Centennial Collector’s Edition DVD, including a featurette on Glenn Cove and the decline of the rich estates where Sabrina supposedly took place; another where contemporary fashion designers waxed about the Audrey/Givenchy style alliance and two others on the making of the movie - plus Paramount’s output in the 1950's - all have been reinstated for this new Blu-ray. Bottom line: the cropping of the image in 1.78:1 is marginally suspect and takes some getting used to. Otherwise, Sabrina looks rather lovely on Blu-ray this time around. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN AND THEIR FLYING MACHINES: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1965) Twilight Time

Can we just all agree that the early era of aviation was a lot more dangerous and a lot less fun-filled than what’s being depicted in Ken Annakin’s Those Magificent Men and Their Flying Machines – or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes (1965): a candy-flossed, occasionally exuberant, English farce, owing its pedigree to the big, bloated sixties roadshow. Curiously, this one plays more like the fat man put on a crash diet – its ‘all-star’ roster lacking the truly ‘big’ names a la Stanley Kramer’s thoroughly unhinged, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) or even Blake Edward’s rambunctious, The Great Race (1965). Once again, it’s the race that is the real ‘star’ of this show – from London to Paris (will we never tire of this predictable route?); the men in the aforementioned title, more manic than magnificent, their fandangle apparatuses, decidedly contraptions rather than machines.
The whimsy of it all is that these claptraps on display are, in fact, real models from a period in our not so distant evolution when man’s desire to conquer the skies truly exceeded his reach, or – in some cases – even his fanciful grasp on reality. It is a very brave fool who can strap himself into a flimsy assemblage of wooden dowels, wire cables and metal rods, with nothing more ambitious for safety’s sake than a thin leather strap to hold him in, before flying off into the proverbial ‘wild blue’; free as a lark and just as absent-minded - that he might as easily kiss the earth with a resounding thud as touch the hand of God. Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is therefore a story of ego; of the independently wealthy ‘feet on the ground’/’head in the clouds’ bon viveur, chasing any old diversion to satisfy his restless heart.
Here is a film tailor-made for the commitment-shy/stunted adolescent adventurer, more at ease dangling 10,000 feet above the ground in a rickety biplane than comfortably nestled in the arms of the women who so obviously adore them. Director Ken Annakin spins his yarn like an over-eager kitten drunk on catnip; Christopher Challis’ stunning cinematography expected to carry the weight in our amusement. Regrettably, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is nothing more than a one-act gag tricked out in the allure of Thomas N. Morahan’s superlative vintage production design and Osbert Lancaster’s sumptuous Victorian costumes.  It all makes for a very eye-popping pretty picture in Todd A-O 70mm and color by De Luxe. Yet the movie remains very much like that day-old cake one decides to take a gamble on at the bakeshop because it’s on sale; hacking into the stale icing and congealed heavy cream, only to spoil our appetites for richer delights never discovered from within. 
Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is leadenly scripted by Annakin and Jack Davies; given monumentally absurd flourish by a truly annoying march composed by Ron Goodwin. It’s been two days and I still cannot get it out of my head. The screenplay is meant to be a cross between ribald English farce and classic Hollywood screwball/slapstick. Lamentably, it’s neither, weighed down even further by the heavy-handed performances uniformly bloodless, and, without guile or joy. Apathetic Stuart Whitman is top-billed as American flyer, Orvil Newton. But actually, he plays second fiddle to James Fox and Sarah Miles; respectively cast as Richard Mays and Patricia Rawnsley – the two betrothed…well, sort of. Rich is more interested in his plane than a love affair. In fact, it is his gentile prodding of Pat’s pap, Lord Rawnsley that gets the real show underway; a daring £10,000 prize money challenge to the first flyer who successfully crosses the English Channel into France.
I seem to be chronically regurgitating my ‘foodie’ references in visualizing the memory left behind by Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines; perhaps, because on this outing the old adage of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’ seems apropos. All-star casting ruined many a lightweight and turgidly scripted screen spectacle made throughout the 1960’s. There are plenty of both misfires to disqualify Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines from taking the blue ribbon. What’s lacking here is discipline; the comedy never refined, rather prone to silliness, the trivial romance between Patricia and Richard a very gooey affair indeed. Supporting players like Gert Frobe’s portly and Teutonic, Colonel Manfred Von Holstein or Terry-Thomas’ sneering and scheming, Sir Percy Ware-Armitage run off with the show; socially inept misfits from every ethnicity, shape and size - all of them suffering from a pea-sized brain and too much disposable cash and ambition to be crowned king of the absurd and eccentric. What Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines ultimately becomes is something of a testament to history just for laughs; Annakin’s preoccupation with a cherished childhood memory (a chance meeting with aviation pioneer, Sir Alan Cobham) given practically free reign under studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s watchful eye.
Lest we forget Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, despite its extravagances, was a mere two years removed from 2oth Century-Fox’s debacle on Cleopatra (1963); a film that had nearly bankrupted the venerable Hollywood institution. Determined never again to repeat those sweaty-palmed expenditures, Zanuck was only superficially interested in Annakin’s pipedream, though perhaps ever so slightly critical of his aspirations to lavishly spend on period recreations; that is, until the director illustrated for the mogul his association with RAF Air Commodore Allen H. Wheeler, who could provide all the necessary vintage aircraft required to make the picture; albeit, each one a recreation. Wheeler supervised the construction of these vintage aircraft; monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes and even a 20-wing multiplane outfitted with stronger engines to ensure their safety as flown by a series of stunt pilots. SFX designer Richard Parks also concocted an ingenious rigging, capable of suspending the stars some 50 ft. above the ground, thus giving the illusion they were, in fact, inside the cockpits.
Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines did, of course, have the luxury of perfect timing; the public’s appetite for grandiose fluff aptly whetted, thus ensuring the movie turned a profit – and a handsome one at that: over $31 million domestically. Yet, viewed today, the movie doesn’t hold up quite so well. It is, to be sure, quite spectacular in its spectacle; soaring above and beyond the clouds in the gorgeous expanses of hi-fidelity Todd A-O; sets and costumes sparkling as they should when a budget of $5,600,000 has been correctly spent. Despite the incongruity of its narrative timeline (it takes longer to go from London to Paris in a gas propelled/engine-driven biplane than it took to go around the world in 80 days in a hot-air balloon) our enjoyment of Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is distilled somewhat by Annakin and Davies insistence in populating their movie with some truly horrendous stereotypes. These, of course, are meant to be funny. But they’re not. They’re simply odd.
I am not adverse to stereotypes, per say – particularly if they continue to hold more than an ounce of validity astutely observed from a distance. But the characters in Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines are little more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts; Stuart Whitman’s congenial to a fault hayseed hick; Gert Frobe’s by the book (literally) model of German efficiency (or inefficiency, as it were. He cannot take off, fly, or land his aircraft unless he’s diligently perusing his manual at all times); Alberto Sordi’s opera-singing/spaghetti-eating Italian Count Emilio Ponticelli; Jean-Pierre Cassel’s oversexed Frenchman Pierre Dubois, with a hottie in every port – all of them played by Irina Demick (a bad in-joke as Demick was then Zanuck’s own belle du jour); Terry-Thomas’ beady-eyed villain, et al. No, despite its lavish outlay of both time and money, the characters populating these elaborate backdrops suffer the indignation of being too plain and plainly obvious for their own good. They’re not enjoyably identifiable as clichés of humanity, but somehow embarrassingly transparent as clumsy archetypes.
Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines begins on a silly/sour note; an oration by no less commanding authority than James Robertson Justice, extolling man’s enduring ambition to fly; portrayed from the stone age onward in various incarnations from the ancient world – all of them featuring a very goofy Red Skelton, committing himself to some silent dumb show. From this rather inauspicious opener, we move into 1910; an era of intrepid birdmen dedicating themselves to the pursuit of aerial navigation in some very flimsy contraptions. Ardent suffragette, Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles) races in a motorcar toward her dashing military officer/fiancé, Richard May (James Fox) who has just made another successful landing in his home-made biplane. Pat desperately wants Rich to take her flying. She insists. He resists. But Richard makes his beloved a promise to at least ask her father’s permission; both to marry her and take her into the stratosphere. Alas, Pat’s pap, stuffy but moneyed British newspaper magnate, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley) absolutely forbids it…well…the flying, at least. However, he does entertain Richard’s plans for bringing together all aspiring aviators from around the world to glean their knowledge – presumably to Britain’s advantage. To sweeten this deal, Rawnsley decides his newspaper will sponsor a race from London to Paris with a handsome £10,000 reward to the victor of the skies.
News of the challenge is as far-reaching as America and Japan; a delegate from each country (Stuart Whitman and Yûjirô Ishihara – as Yamamoto respectively) arriving in England to partake.  The first third of Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is dedicated to the queerly amusing camaraderie and predictably patriotic antagonisms that arise from so many flyers from such diverse backgrounds descending on England’s Brookley Motor Racing Track all at once. With his monocle as tightly pressed into his flesh as his ego, Prussia’s Colonel Manfred von Holstein (Gert Fröbe) is the very model of Germanic efficiency. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the spontaneous Italian Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), whose carefree test flights wreck one aircraft after another. There’s also lusty Frenchman Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who can always find time to seduce a buxom waitress or farm maiden in a haystack (all of them played by Irina Demick).
Eventually, the rivalries boil over. An absurd duel in a hot-air balloon between Dubois and Holstein is but one glaringly bad example of director Annakin’s notion of ‘good clean fun’; the chronically nefarious spying of buffoonish baronet Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas) and his bullied man-servant, Courtney (Eric Sykes) is another. Sir Percy sabotages two aircraft, has Courtney drug a pilot, and then cheats by having his plane shipped across the channel on a boat. Alas, it’s to no avail; Sir Percy getting his comeuppance after his plane inadvertently lands on top of a moving train; the craft dashed to pieces after the train goes through a narrow tunnel. The most tedious of the lot is Stuart Whitman, cast as the rugged yahoo, Orvil Newton, who wastes no time falling for Patricia, thus forming the impetus for a not terribly convincing lover’s triangle.
A false start kicks off the race, as one by one all fourteen competitors experience their own setbacks – mostly chronic engine failure and premature crashes.  Only four of the competitors actually make it to France. With the finish line clearly in view, Orvil sacrifices his solid chance to take the lead, to instead rescue Ponticelli from his burning aircraft. His valor is observed by Richard, who wins the race for Britain. Magnanimously, Richard insists on sharing both his glory and prize money 50/50 with the penniless American. But Orvil has won Patricia’s heart and Richard knows it. Anyway, it would have never worked out for him and Patricia. Richard loves flying more than the girl. But as Orvil and Pat prepare to kiss their romantic pas deux is interrupted by a thunderous roar overhead; the movie’s timeline advancing to 1965 as six English Electric Lightning jet fighters zoom into the clouds. James Robertson Justice’s voice over reiterates for the audience how advanced technologies pioneered by these brave aviation novices has resulted in the luxury of commercial air travel, taken for granted in the present. We now see Red Skelton again; this time as a harried commuter whose flight from Britain to France has been delayed by heavy fog – the poor old sod still unable to fly under his own power, even as it has long since perpetuated man's free spirit and conquering of the skies.
Viewed today, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is quaintly amusing pure escapism. Yet, its purpose seems neither to entirely educate nor entertain. It’s just clumsy and clunky and full of ravishing images lensed by Christopher Challis; a veritable showcase for Todd A-O’s crystal clarity. But it’s a genuine shame the plot rarely comes together as anything more substantial than a predictably heavy-handed mélange of forced merriment and myrrh.  Despite its top-heavy roster, this isn’t a character-driven comedy/drama so much as it remains a fickle gibberish of circumstances into which some heavy-hitting name-above-the-title talents have been unceremoniously dropped. The ‘look who’s here?’ cameo status of the actors evaporates under the weight of the action. After all, it is a little difficult to have dialogue scenes between actors when they’re all independently airborne.
The last act of Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines thus devolves into a series of sight gags loosely strung together by the screenplay’s singular and overriding principle; to get everyone over the English Channel and to safety on the ground in Paris. This might have worked if the comedy in these vignettes were better. Alas, it’s merely serviceable and occasionally less than; leaving the audience to ogle and otherwise, bask in the vast expanses of Todd A-O.  On that superficial level, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is, at least, agreeable, if not the exemplar of the travelogue movie driven to extremes.  
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via a consummate 1080p transfer from 2oth Century-Fox will leave you breathless. Visually, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is stunning and this hi-def transfer perfectly captures Christopher Challis’ luxurious imagery. Colors are rich and vibrant. The image is superbly crisp without being artificially enhanced. Contrast is bang on and film grain has been accurately reproduced. There are one or two fleeting though noticeable instances of edge effects; mostly on the roof of the hangars where the vintage aircraft are being housed. But otherwise, this is a near reference quality transfer that will surely not disappoint. Neither will the audio; a robust 5.0 DTS that can rattle today’s most advanced sound systems with remarkable spatial separation and clarity. Better still, Twilight Time has given us Ron Goodman’s score on an isolated track, plus director Ken Annakin providing us with a thorough audio commentary. We also get several theatrical trailers and TV spots. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of this movie, this Blu-ray is definitely the way to appreciate it.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, March 24, 2014

BATTLE OF BRITAIN: Blu-ray (UA 1969) Fox Home Video

In movies, as in life, timing is everything. Case in point: the real Battle of Britain. By spring 1940, Adolph Hitler was rather garrulous about thumbing his nose at the rest of the world. His blitzkriegs and Anschluß had succeeded in devouring the whole of middle Europe with but two enemies remaining to be conquered: Russia and Great Britain. Britain was a more pressing thorn in Hitler’s side as they had been open in their condemnation of his daydreams for world domination, and had, in fact, made the very declarative statement to resist Nazi encroachment at any and all costs. As America quietly observed this brewing of a spectacular clash between two stalwart rams – Hitler and the U.K.’s Winston Churchill, the latter was extremely conscious that Germany’s military might outnumbered his own forces roughly four to one.
Herein, the English Channel proved Churchill’s salvation; a disruptive body of water that had prevented virtually all other warring influences throughout history from conquering their tight little isle. Undaunted, Hitler amassed his air forces in Normandy, plotting an invasion by sea as the second assault, while assuming a guaranteed victory in the skies. He was mistaken – severely – the Battle of Britain lasting from July 1940 to May 1941, inflicting great casualties both in its physical destruction of London and the human toll. Ultimately, the Nazis were unable to penetrate the resolve of the British people. Moreover, Britain’s RAF – while relatively diminutive in size – was nevertheless extremely well-trained and able to disrupt, intercept and engage the aerial invasion on its own terms. By October 1940, it was painfully clear to Hitler he had misjudged the British in their stubborn capacity to endure suffrage. Instead, Hitler was forced to postpone – then withdraw – from his plans for Operation Sea Lion. The tide had suddenly begun to turn against him. 
Flash forward to 1969 and Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain: a gallant attempt to celebrate this decisive victory on celluloid. Alas, timing remained everything. In the interim, the world had grown weary of war; the public’s perceptions having shifted away from its magnanimity. Yesterday’s noble heroes were today’s war mongers. Hence, not even producer Harry Saltzman’s amassing of a veritable entourage in vintage WWII Spitfires and Hurricanes, or director Hamilton’s stockpiling an impressive array of international stars could salvage the movie’s abysmal implosion at the box office. On a staggering $12,000,000 budget, Battle of Britain made back less than one third its’ outlay. Critically, the movie was on even shakier ground; eviscerated as pure hokum of the war-time propaganda ilk, made even more desperate and silly by the producers’ decision to infuse the production with ‘look who’s here’ cameos; a star-studded approach gleaned from Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), later carried to the height of absurdity in Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Unfortunately, by 1969, this once seemingly indestructible era in glamorous film-making had run its course as audiences clamored for grittier realism on their movie screens. Battle of Britain is undeniably elegant movie-making; the last of a dying breed. So obviously a throwback, particularly in its cataloguing of time-honored clichés from just about every war movie ever made, Battle of Britain maintains its unswerving fidelity to that stiff upper lip, ‘Rule Britannia’ way of life that had once typified the morality, as well as the mentality of these loyalists to the crown. One can either choose to fault or praise the movie’s adherence to this patriotic fervor and sentiment. But no one can deny Battle of Britain has merit and exceptional entertainment value. For starters, there’s Maurice Carter’s exquisite production design; managing to recapture the gallantry as well as the immense scope of the conflict. Also for one’s consideration are Freddie Young’s sumptuous cinematography and Ron Goodwin’s rousing musical underscore; not to mention Ray Caple, Cliff Richardson, Glen Robinson and Wally Veevers’ special effects; all but a handful recreating the horrors of the blitz and perilous aerial maneuvers.
If one were to provide a complete list of the behind-the-scenes talents responsible for Battle of Britain’s meticulous verisimilitude, it could very well encompass a review of its own. Ditto for the cast roster; a veritable who’s who of talent – most of them arguably wasted (or rather, underused) as the James Kennaway/Wilfred Greatorex screenplay struggles to find its emotional center amidst a multi-layering of subplots and back stories. In point of fact, Battle of Britain does waffle in its storytelling, with an interminable seesaw effect factored in; ricocheting between shabbily constructed melodrama and inserts of airplanes flying overhead and/or being shot down in a trailing plumage of grayish/white engine smoke. 
At the time of its release, more than one critic pointed out that the aerial footage assembled for these action sequences is recycled throughout the movie; the same dogfights, crashes, et al. ever so slightly reassembled in the editing process to get more mileage from the basic raw footage. I can’t deny it. I think I saw the same Stuka hit the water three or four times. Still, the impressiveness of the aerial stunt work in totem outweighs whatever ‘looping’ was done in the editing room; the dogfights even more impressive when one considers no models or CGI were used to complete the effect. These sequences alone are largely responsible for Battle of Britain’s ballooning budget. And the movie’s screenplay, if something of a patchwork (loosely based on Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book ‘The Narrow Margin) is nevertheless more than capable at passing the time. We are never bored and/or visually starved for something to appreciate. In fact, the integration of melodrama with these action sequences is, on the whole, admirably achieved.
Responding to Harry Saltzman’s request for one hundred vintage RAF aircraft to employ in these battle sequences, Bomber Command Group Captain, Hamish Mahaddie achieved something of the impossible, amassing an impressive array of 109 aircraft to be photographed on the ground. Regrettably, only twenty-seven were well-preserved and less than half still airworthy. So, Saltzman and Mahaddie fudged the details…just a little…Mahaddie negotiating the use of six Hawker Hurricanes - three viable in the sky; a North American B-25 Mitchell, plus the use of various Spitfire Mk I and II models, adapted with minor modifications to mimic the vintage look. As for the German air force; Saltzman gathered together Heinkels, Junkers and Buchons; again with a few minor modifications, transformed into the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, in addition to seventeen actual Messerschmitts still in flyable condition.
Battle of Britain was photographed in the U.K., utilizing existing and well-preserved wartime operations rooms; also, Aldwych’s ‘tube’ station (which had served as an air-raid shelter during the war), plus Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's original office. Saltzman was also given permission by the London government to shoot sequences for the blitz around St. Katherine Docks; allowed to burn and otherwise destroy various buildings as they already had been slated for demolition to make way for future housing development. Exteriors were primarily shot in Kent, Duxford, Debden, North Weald and Hawkinge, with additional sequences lensed in Spain and Malta, after weather conditions in Britain proved unmanageable. To director Guy Hamilton’s credit, these obvious shifts in local are imperceptible in the final edit.
Battle of Britain involves a lengthy prologue; actually beginning with the Battle of France in May 1940: Squadron Leader Colin Harvey (Christopher Plummer) given the briefest of warnings before an assault by the German blitzkrieg decimates his remaining planes on the ground. We segue momentarily to Switzerland, to the home of British Minister, Sir David Kelly (Ralph Richardson). A cordial visit from Baron von Richter (Curd Jürgens) sours almost immediately when Kelly informs Richter that Britain shall not be dissuaded from a confrontation with the Nazis, regardless of what Hitler has presumed as his own military supremacy. From one office to another; the movie now introduces us to RAF Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) who, realizing the imminence of an invasion, stops deploying aircraft to France immediately. We return to France; Freddie Young’s camera sailing over the deserted beaches of Dunkirk as we hear Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s declaration that the battle of France is over…the battle of Britain, about to begin.
Immediately following the credits we are introduced to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (Peter Hager), inspecting one of the Nazi strongholds in France, with hundreds of Heinkel bombers lined up and readied for action. But von Richter is stunned when the Führer informs him the British are not their ‘natural enemy’ and delays his planned invasion, hoping instead for a diplomatic settlement. In England, commanders use this valuable time to build up their strength and continually train their pilots for counterattacks. Eventually, the Luftwaffe receives orders from its high command to prepare for the first assault of what is essentially a sea-borne invasion. Operation ‘Eagle Day’ begins at dawn, systematically eliminating the RAF before they have time to launch their Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. But the Luftwaffe pilots question this strategy, suggesting it would be more prudent to engage the British in the air where they can be more easily shot down. Nevertheless, Eagle Day is a success; toppling two of Britain’s crucial radar stations and decimating several of their airfields.
The RAF is also being eroded from within; an internal conflict between commanding officers Air Vice Marshals Keith Park (Trevor Howard), and Trafford Leigh-Mallory (Patrick Wymark). Leigh-Mallory is tasked with protecting Park’s airfields. Instead, his fighters are nowhere to be seen. Dowding’s inquiries into their repeated absence are met with viable excuses. It’s not tactics, but a critical shortage of pilots, impugning Leigh-Mallory’s ability to protect the skies. Dowding agrees. Furthermore, he is of the opinion that unless new pilots and planes can be amassed in a very short time the cause cannot be won in their favor. It’s a paralytic realization for both Parks and Leigh-Mallory; one that heightens the overall immediacy of Britain’s peril in this crucial conflict.
If Battle of Britain has a shortcoming, it remains its departure from this initially competent set-up to instead, intermittently, focus on several tertiary characters who devolve the central narrative into pulpy soap opera: like Section Officer Maggie Harvey (Susannah York), a love interest for Chris Plummer’s rakishly handsome, though impetuously short-tempered flyboy; or cynical Squadron Leader Canfield (Michael Caine) whose dog is the last ‘person’ to see him off before he dies in a hideous plane crash. Exemplary talents like Robert Shaw (cast as curmudgeonly Squadron Leader Skipper) and Kenneth More are utterly wasted in thankless walk-ons; More as Group Capt. Baker, who is merely a comforting shoulder for Maggie to cry on after she has casually met Jamie (James Cosmo), a badly burned pilot; a bit of unnecessary foreshadowing in the Kennaway/Greatorex screenplay, signifying the ominous future awaiting Colin; one Maggie will be unable to manage – or even comprehend.
Arguably, the movie’s visuals never disappoint, although some sequences seem quite pointless, except to show off the gigantisms in Claude Hudson’s production design: as with Rolf Steifel’s not altogether successful Adolf Hitler, glimpsed only from the back or in extreme long shot, during an elaborately staged Nazi pep rally.  We can applaud Battle of Britain for such grandiosity, but not for its’ repeated mangling of this pivotal chapter in world history. Ultimately, director Guy Hamilton has gone for the gusto a la Michael Todd; Battle of Britain devolving into a series of ‘Todd-onian’ vignettes as the movie progresses to its’ inevitable flag-waving conclusion. The turning point in the narrative occurs after a squadron of German bombers becomes lost in the night fog, dropping their payload (intended for another military installation) on unsuspecting London instead. In retaliation, the RAF launches an attack on Berlin. Casualties are negligible. But Hitler is incensed and publicly orders London to be razed. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Hein Riess) confidently supervises these air raids, skirting the RAF and decimating the city by night.
To supplement their own Commonwealth forces, the RAF recruits exiled foreign pilots, mostly Poles who struggle with their English-language skills, making any sort of unified communications between squadrons virtually impossible. On one such training mission, a free Polish squadron inadvertently encounters an unescorted group of German bombers. Against their British commander’s strenuous objections, they peel off and engage the enemy, downing several of their aircraft. As far as the instructor is concerned, the exercise has been a total disaster. But Park rewards the Polish recruits with operational status; Dowding doing the same with the Canadian and Czech factions under his command. Park and Dowding’s evaluation of Hitler’s decision to repeatedly bomb London has afforded Park the necessary time to repair his airfields. Dowding concludes that, in choosing to bomb the city Hitler’s decisive has become the ‘German's biggest blunder.’
Prepared to meet the challenge of another bombing raid, Wing Commander Willoughby (Robert Flemyng) engages large groups of RAF pilots in a dogfight, overwhelming the Nazi forces and breaking up their formations. Outraged, Göring orders his fighters to remain with the bombers; an ill-fated strategic move, resulting in mass casualties on both sides. The climactic air battle on Sept. 15, 1940 is a spectacular display of valor as British ground control, under Churchill’s watchful eye, orders every squadron into the skies. Intense combat results in heavy losses. But the RAF has proven their metal once and for all. Unwilling to sustain further casualties, Hitler promptly cancels Operation Sea Lion; the decision capped off with a reverse shot of the French port once teeming with Kriegsmarine vessels and landing barges, now utterly deserted. Battle of Britain concludes with a famous quote by Churchill writ dramatically across the wild blue yonder, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Interestingly, this quote has been altered for the DVD and Blu-ray releases to another by Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Battle of Britain is an engaging movie in spots. But it fails as cohesive storytelling; the back story soap operas involving the principle cast eventually overpower its combat footage. Is this a tale of personal heroism or national pride? Hmmm. We’re never entirely sure. Screenwriters Kennaway and Greatorex are unable to successfully amalgamate what they so obviously perceive as two separate narratives running a parallel – though never intersecting - course. Battle of Britain’s formidable cavalcade of stars is, regrettably, not complimentary to the story being told. We expect more from talents like Edward Fox, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave and Barry Foster and are bitterly disappointed when each appears merely as token faces meant to stand out in relief from the rest of the nameless many who populate this movie.  Even those afforded the arguably ‘larger’ parts, as Christopher Plummer’s Colin Harvey, are unceremoniously discarded by the end of the movie – sacrificed to the overreaching arc of action. Refocusing on the battle - and not the private lives impacted along the way - suddenly becomes much too grandiose; the purpose of such a distinguished roster of talent to tell this tale rendered preposterous and ineffectual.    
Not surprising, Battle of Britain’s lavish production was an arduous affair for all concerned. Director Guy Hamilton is no stranger to such lavish film-making, keeping tight reigns on his multi-faceted shoot that, nevertheless, went over budget. Perhaps nowhere is the weighted stress of the movie’s incubation more immediate than in UA’s corporate decision to yank the original patriotic score written by Sir William Walton (and conducted by Malcolm Arnold); a judgment call made without the luxury of seeing the score married to picture, and predicated on nothing better than the fact Walton’s compositions failed to meet the disingenuous criteria of filling up two sides of an LP recording, meant to pre-market the movie to audiences.  Eventually, composer/conductor Ron Goodwin was hired to re-score Battle of Britain; an executive decision that outraged Sir Laurence Olivier – who also threatened to have his name removed from its credits. As a result, some of Walton’s underscoring remains in the finished film; particularly his ‘Battle in the Air’ cue – played without sound effects during the climactic dogfight and attaining an awe-inspiring, almost poetic quality unlike any other moment in the movie.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray of Battle of Britain is decidedly disappointing. At 133 min. this lengthy excursion ought to have been dual-layered to take advantage of Blu-ray’s higher bitrate. Instead it’s single-layered and sourced from an obvious print rather than original camera negatives. Although relatively clean, we still get dirt and minor scratches throughout. There’s also some annoying gate weave. This could have easily been eliminated. Colors are mostly accurate; flesh tones very solid – if slightly too orange on occasion. There’s also a hint of edge enhancement and some artificial sharpening at play; most scenes grainier than necessary; the indigenous film grain looking slightly digitized in spots. Battle of Britain was one of Fox’s earliest Blu-ray releases and they really need to go back to the drawing board on this one for another HD master. The 5.1 DTS fares better, although it is a sincere regret Fox has not taken the option exercised on their Region 2 DVD to present both the Walton and Goodwin’s scores for the viewer to appreciate. Finally, there are NO extra features. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of a 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, March 23, 2014

THE BIG COMBO: Blu-ray (Allied Artists 1955) Olive Films

Torture, sex, lust, desire, murder, crime; all par for the course of the classic, classy film noir, readily on display in Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955); a steamy, sin-laden, B-grade detective melodrama given to A-list perfection by Lewis’ light-handed direction, a competent screenplay from Philip Yordan that moves like gangbusters, and, cinematographer, John Alton’s iconic visual flair. The Big Combo is a vintage textbook of style trumping substance. It delivers a one-two punch as a penetrating noir thriller, not so much because all the pieces fit so neatly together – in point of fact, some elements of the plot never do – but rather because the central performances rise to a level well beyond mere competency. 
Fifties congenial beefcake, Cornel Wilde reinvents his trademarked muscle-flexing cock-of-the-walk, grinning from ear to ear, herein recast as Police Lt. Leonard Diamond; a careworn, dower, honest cop (not unlike Dana Andrews’ jaded Mark McPherson in Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944) who goes after a seemingly unconquerable mafia kingpin; the autonomous ‘Mr. Brown’ played with cynical perfection by a glib and gloating Richard Conte. Wilde’s good, though arguably not great. Bogart or even Dick Powell could have done more with this role. It’s nevertheless fascinating to watch Wilde step outside his comfort zone, passing off the one shirtless moment in the film to – of all people – Lee Van Cleef, playing one half of Brown’s stooge squad, Fante; the other fifty percent – Mingo – fleshed out with convincing sycophantic devotion by Earl Holliman.
Wilde is at his most substantial when he abandons this carefully crafted persona; as when his heavy-lidded, droopy eyes well up with fresh tears after learning his partner, Det. Sam Hill (Jay Adler) has taken a couple of slugs meant for him. Wilde isn’t a great actor, though he gets an A+ herein for doing his damnedest to make us forget his appeal in the movies is mostly centralized from the neck down to his belt buckle; biceps and magnificent torso on display. And Wilde does achieve an alternate reality to this He-man image crafted for him in movies like At Sword’s Point and The Greatest Show On Earth…sort of. But the deflated ‘tough guy’ act doesn’t really suit Wilde, who was always better in movies where his own ego was allowed to ride shotgun.
Richard Conte’s Mafioso with the mysterious moniker ‘Mr. Brown’ is all about ego – and well-tailored suits. Conte gives us a bone-chilling read on this malignant overlord, never splenetic on the surface; his sadism all the more unsettling because he somehow manages to convey a blank slate onto which most any evil can be grafted. The sequence where Mr. Brown inserts a hearing aid borrowed from his stoolie, Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) into Diamond’s ear, then cranks up its reception while proportionately adjusting the volume on a radio to deafen the detective, is played with an absence of pleasure. Brown is impervious to almost every emotion. Even his love-making scenes with suicidal plaything, Susan Lowell (the rather tepid, Jean Wallace) are exercises in bloodless conquest. Conte’s puppet master is therefore something of a shark; neither sneering nor venomous, thereby amplifying the real danger he emits. The Big Combo belongs to Conte and he devours its scenery even as he elevates the material above some fairly pedestrian plot entanglements.
The one unforgivable sin committed in The Big Combo is its absence of a bona fide femme fatale; a main staple in just about every noir thriller. Jean Wallace’s platinum vixen isn’t evil or even all bad. In fact, Susan repeatedly tries to escape her hopeless situation – as much Brown’s victim as Diamond’s fair-weather gal pal, Rita (Helene Stanton); first, by running away from Fante and Mingo, then later, consuming a bottle of pills in a botched suicide attempt, and finally, by turning on Conte’s rat, made frantic and trapped inside a foggy warehouse during the movie’s penultimate showdown between Mr. Brown and Diamond. Diamond has his own romantic woes; having inexplicably fallen for Susan while courting the whisky-voiced seemingly ‘bad girl’ stripper – Rita, who just happens to harbor a soft spot in that proverbial heart of gold. She pays the ultimate price for her loyalty to Diamond. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
From the beginning, Philip Yordan’s screenplay plunges the audience into peril. After some overhead shots of New York at dusk, seen under the opening credits and brilliantly married to David Raksin’s jazzy rifts of an underscore, The Big Combo wastes no time zeroing in on some moodily magnificent, chiaroscuro-lit shots of Susan Lowell fleeing Fante and Mingo. With her blonde tresses backlit like an angel’s halo, Sue races for her life through the brooding back allies and dimly lit bowels of a stadium on fight night. But in her high-heeled shoes and gossamer-threaded black strapless evening gown she is unable to escape her pursuers.  Sue should know better. She’s tried this route before and it’s no use. She belongs to Mr. Brown; bought and paid for, owing her pretty little neck, as well as the earrings that drip from those shell-like ears, to the city’s most notorious underworld kingpin.
We move ahead to the police precinct where Lt. Leonard Diamond is in a heated tête-à-tête with his superior, Capt. Peterson (Robert Middleton). Diamond’s spent far too much of the city’s budget and time pursuing Mr. Brown. It’s gone beyond mere duty as an honest cop. In fact, it’s become a personal obsession, one predicated as much on Diamond’s desire to have Brown locked up as it is on his own fixation with Susan – the poison he just can’t get out of his heart or mind. Diamond is convinced that if he can turn Sue against Brown he can get everything he wants; certainly a lot more satisfying than his meager pension and gold wrist watch at retirement.  But Brown’s organization is tighter in its security than Fort Knox. No one’s talking, either out of loyalty or fear. What’s a forthright guy like Diamond to do? Well, perhaps wait and bide his time.
As it turns out Diamond won’t have very long to wait. For Fante and Mingo, unable to convince Susan to return to Mr. Brown’s side at the fights, instead decide to humor her request to go out for dinner at one of the more fashionable restaurants. There Susan meets an old friend from her past who she encourages to take a spin around the dance floor, suddenly becoming ill and confiding she has swallowed an entire bottle of pills. Rushed to the hospital to save her life, Susan is placed under police surveillance by Diamond. It’s exactly the moment he’s been waiting for. Brown threatens Diamond and vice versa. However, as a semiconscious Sue is wheeled away on a stretcher she manages to mutter the name ‘Alicia’; raising Diamond’s apprehensive curiosity and Brown’s ire respectively.  Diamond now pours all of his time and energies into locating this mysterious woman from Brown’s past.
Diamond also manages to locate a former associate of Brown’s, Audubon (Roy Gordon) who is in hiding and in constant fear for his life. Their conversation reveals few clues, but it’s enough for Brown to send his second-in-command, McClure and Fante and Mingo to kidnap Diamond for questioning.  Diamond is beaten in the back alley behind Rita’s burlesque theater, before being taken to an underground safe house where Brown tortures him for answers. Diamond says nothing and Brown forces a bottle of alcohol-based hair tonic down his throat, leaving Diamond severely inebriated and hallucinating. Diamond stumbles to Capt. Peterson’s apartment, collapsing in the hallway. After sobering up, Diamond relays his ordeal to his superior. As a result, Peterson decides to back up Diamond’s investigation of Alicia.
Diamond recalls Audubon told him Alicia was Brown’s wife; presumably exiled by Brown to Sicily where she has since become the kept woman of another elusive, and even more powerful mob boss, Grazzi. The rumor is that Alicia was murdered off the coast of Sicily, then tied to the anchor of Grazzi’s yacht and left on the ocean floor to be eaten by the fishes.  In short order, Diamond tracks down the former skipper of Grazzi’s vessel; a Swede named Nils Dreyer (John Hoyt) who now operates a rather lucrative ‘legitimate’ antiques business – actually, a front bought and paid for with Brown’s money. Or is it to secure Dreyer’s silence in Alicia’s murder? Diamond gets nowhere with his interrogation of Dreyer who is cordial and facetious to a fault. Nevertheless, Brown isn’t taking any chances. A short while later Dreyer is murdered by McClure, despite orders to the contrary given by Brown.
Brown confronts McClure, accusing him of betrayal. Despite McClure’s protestations - that he acted in Brown’s best interest by eliminating Dreyer, and, that he has neither the skill nor the stomach to run a crime syndicate - Brown instinctively knows McClure believes he was shafted by Grazzi when Brown was appointed the de facto godfather of the New York operations. In one of The Big Combo’s most pensive moments, Brown asks McClure for his gun – the same one he used to murder Dreyer; McClure slowly removing it from his coat pocket and momentarily pointing the loaded weapon at Brown before, in fact, handing it over to him. Brown then tells McClure the reason he can never been a ‘big man’ in the ‘combo’ is because he utterly lacks the guts to rise to the top by eliminating the top guy – him. For several moments, it looks as though Brown will murder McClure to prove his point. Instead, he lets McClure live with the humiliation he is a very weak man.
But Diamond is getting much too close to a truth that could ruin Brown. So, Brown orders Fante and Mingo to air out Diamond’s apartment and put a definite period to his problem. Alas, Brown isn’t home when the pair arrives with their machine guns blazing, riddling the door with bullets and killing Rita instead, who has been waiting for Diamond’s return on the other side. Realizing he is partly responsible for Rita’s death, Diamond redoubles his efforts to make Brown’s life as uncomfortable as possible. Sometime later, Brown reveals to Susan a concealed vault he’s had installed behind the closet in her apartment where he keeps a considerable stash of money and a small arsenal of weaponry. She confronts him about Alicia and Brown finally confesses that Alicia is his wife.
In the meantime, Diamond discovers a more up-to-date photo of Alicia in Audubon’s apartment, presumably taken in Sicily. However, magnifying the image reveals it was taken not far outside of New York. Diamond now fits the pieces together; convinced Alicia is still very much alive and that Brown actually murdered Grazzi to take over the New York operations in his stead. Diamond tracks down Alicia (Helen Walker) who has been kept in a sanitarium under another name and asks for her help. McClure decides the time is right for an ambush; plotting with Fante and Mingo who he believes can be easily swayed to murder their boss with the promise of money. But McClure has underestimated the pair’s loyalty to Brown. After pulling off the initial confrontation and revealing his true stripes, McClure is gunned down by Fante and Mingo as Brown casually looks on.
Diamond whisks Alicia away to police headquarters, intent on having her testify against Brown. But Brown is once again two steps ahead of the game, showing up with a writ of habeas corpus to prevent her. After McClure’s body is discovered, Diamond goes on a manhunt for Fante and Mingo. Tying up loose ends, Brown arrives with a large box at the secret safe house where the pair is hiding out.  Presumably, the box is filled with cash for their escape to parts unknown. Pretending he is grateful for their devotion to him, Brown instructs Fante and Mingo to divvy up the cash after he has gone. But when Fante opens the box he discovers it is booby-trapped with dynamite. The bomb explodes killing Fante and mortally wounding Mingo. As he is about to die, Mingo confesses to Diamond that Brown is responsible for all the murders and Diamond puts out an APB for Brown’s arrest.
As Susan is under house arrest, Brown arrives at her apartment packing heat, shooting Sam several times in the stomach and kidnapping her for his planned escape. Alicia helps Diamond figure out where Brown is most likely to take Susan; to a private airport where Brown has already ordered his getaway plane. Only the flight has been delayed due to a dense fog bank rolling in. Brown now finds he is cornered inside the airplane hangar; involved in a shootout, ending only after Susan shines the squad car’s search lamp on Brown.
The finale, with Susan and Diamond dematerializing into the fog as they exit the hangar is considered an iconic moment in the history of noir thrillers. Yet, The Big Combo is a movie rich in vintage noir lore; superbly crafted in its middle and last acts to yield big dividends in stylish suspense. Philip Yordan’s screenplay may meander at the start – in point of fact, the first few scenes in The Big Combo are rather clumsily strung together. But once the plot crystalizes and the characters become ensconced as archetypes of the noir movement, the movie takes off with jet-propulsion in mostly unpredictable twists and turns. 
Again, the real star of the piece is Richard Conte. There is nothing quite as menacing as a man who doesn’t have to advertise how powerful he is. Conte’s Brown is a powerhouse without moving a muscle; his slight intonations, the way he quietly modulates his silken voice through some lengthy speeches Phil Yordan’s screenplay affords the character, takes on a threatening underlay far more foreboding than any overt body language could suggest. Quite simply; Conte steals the show.
It’s therefore somewhat disconcerting, and more than a tad disheartening, to observe as all this bravura evaporates during the movie’s penultimate showdown; Yordan’s tacked on ‘crime doesn’t pay’ scenario true to the precepts of the detective/crime story genre, yet somehow at odds with all that has gone before it. If The Big Combo were remade today, I have no doubt the ending would go along the lines of Brown escapes. Susan dies at Brown’s hand, but in Diamond’s arms, thereby forcing him to relive the regret and personal angst that nearly consumed him after Rita’s murder.  Ultimately, the good girl – turned bad – but redeemed at the last possible moment by a man who shakes her loose from her own complacent spiral – fits the bill, marginally more attractive to audiences back then who still wanted something along the lines of a ‘happy ending’ from their cinema stories. Regardless, The Big Combo delivers with fast-paced melodrama and some solidly scripted action sequences. It’s a gutsy noir thriller with few equals.
We could have done without Olive's usual lack of care on this release; advertised as 'restored' by UCLA Film and Television Archive in association with The Film Foundation’. I’ve seen a goodly number of titles restored by the Film Foundation. But The Big Combo doesn’t look like one of them. The image is riddled throughout with dirt, scratches and specks. There’s even a brief instance where one can spot a hair caught in the lower left-hand corner of the frame. There’s also some slight edge enhancement happening in this transfer; not terrible, though nonetheless obvious. The B&W image can exhibit solid tonality and mostly razor-precise sharpness, although on occasion contrast is ever so slightly boosted.
John Alton’s evocative deep focus cinematography ought to have looked fabulous in 1080p. Instead, we are increasingly distracted by the barrage of age-related artifacts that really dampen our enjoyment of the visuals. The damage is heavier during the first third of the movie, but more than evident throughout its 86 minute run time.  No, this one won’t win any awards and that’s a shame. I can get more excited about The Big Combo’s lossless DTS 2.0, celebrating David Raksin's brassy underscore with perfect pitch bombast. But I’m more than a little disappointed such an important noir hasn’t even rated an audio commentary, much less a short featurette or even theatrical trailer.  Bottom line: I’d really like to recommend this disc because the movie is fantastic. The transfer, however, is regrettably sub-par. Pass.

FILM RATING (out of 5 -5 being the best)




Thursday, March 20, 2014

GHOST SHIP: Blu-ray (Dark Castle/Village Roadshow/Warner Bros. 2002) Warner Home Video

The horror movie generally gets a bad rap – most of the criticism heaped upon it, justly deserved. For those aspiring to become the new 'sultan of shudders', the allure is as real as the danger to simply cast subtlety aside and go for the all-out special effects laden gore-fest. The temptation to succumb is, of course, predicated on, what is by now, the audience’s well-honed response to terror. What scared us yesterday very likely will not have quite the same effect on us today; our inevitable desensitization inextricably linked to more jaded expectations to see something new – or rather, more repulsive than perhaps we even imagined. Hence, Hollywood’s catering to the lowest common denominator begins. 
In some ways, Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship (2002) is a prime example of the horror movie gone wrong, but for all the right reasons. The movie’s premise can be summed up in one line: a present day group of salvagers are lured by a mysterious stranger to inspect the Antonia Graza; a luxury liner that disappeared under spurious circumstances back in the early 1960’s. Predictably, they get more than they bargained. Yet Ghost Ship defies all of the abject negativity critics too readily, and with wild abandonment, heaped upon its poop deck fourteen years ago.
Fair enough, the mayhem concocted by Brian Cox and his SFX team leaves little to the imagination, especially during the fairly gruesome flashback used to explain how the great ship came to be a mass mortuary. But Ghost Ship never forgets itself in this carnage; perfecting its theater of the grotesque with a not-so-subtly plied entanglement that can still, at times, shock, revile, disgust and yes – even entertain; with its uber-clever mix of grand guignol and suspense. Too few horror movies simply indulge in too much of the former while tossing away the latter. But Ghost Ship manages a tenuous balance between the implacably grisly and marginally less offensive good solid chill.
It is a very brave director who can start us off with a few champagne-inspired bubbles rising from the sea and a sweeping crane shot over the Antonia Graza at the height of her luxurious trans-Atlantic crossing, with a glittering assemblage of the ultra-chic and infinitely wealthy on board; then rattle our collective senses to their core by having the passengers suddenly cut in half by a metal mooring cable torn from its rigging, after being deliberately stretched too tight. In this brief setup, Steve Beck has given us the two halves of a perilous tale that will truly come to haunt our select group of salvagers. On the surface, Ghost Ship has no subtlety to it at all; its narrative drenched in the sort of blood-soaking sadism I usually cannot abide. But somehow Ghost Ship is different; or rather – my response to it remains unexpectedly dissimilar. I realize I am between Scylla and Charybdis in this opinion of the film. Most critics eviscerated Ghost Ship as a derelict bit of super-schlock and nonsense already run aground.
So, what are its merits? Well, for starters, we could recommend the cast fronted by Gabriel Byrne and Julianna Marguilies; a pair of pros who could do better, or even more, elsewhere, though nevertheless remain contented herein to sell their wares convincingly enough. Also a nod to Ron Eldard and Desmond Harrington; again, better than their material, yet able to sustain our respect for the craft even when the dialogue and/or maggots issuing from their lips lets us down. We’ll also tip our hats to Francesca Rettondini as the sultry chanteuse, warbling ‘Senza Fine’ with a killer voice and curves; a real femme fatale who flirts with danger and gets ‘hooked’ into more than she realized. Yeow…she sizzles!
Beyond the stars and…uh…titillation factor, we should also pause to give notice to Gale Tattersall’s opulent cinematography; Graham ‘Grace’ Walker’s phenomenal production design and Richard Hobb’s sterling art direction; all of them conspiring to truly resurrect another more glamorous period in travel about to go horribly awry. Ghost Ship’s production values really are commendable. Finally, to director Steve Beck who insisted, wherever possible, to commit the film to visual effects done live – using CGI only as a last resort to ‘stitch’ together the seams and augment what had already been captured in camera.  I’ve said it before, so once more won’t hurt: there really is no substitute for full-scale film-making. As good as it has become over the last twenty years, CGI cannot compete because it never manages to fool the human eye for more than a few seconds at a time.
Let us be clear about one thing: Ghost Ship won’t win any awards for high art. But it can be compelling in spots; its gut-gushing visual effects let loose during the penultimate flashback sandwiched two thirds of the way into Mark Hanlon and John Pogue’s expertly timed screenplay.  That the script doesn’t really advance beyond its first act premise in any sort of meaningful way does not negate the interesting setup or sustained trepidation that permeates the entire movie from start to finish.  
We begin in 1962, the Italian luxury liner, Antonia Graza on another routine voyage with wealthy passengers aboard. On deck, a lonely young girl, Katie Harwood (Emily Browning) quietly observes the elegantly quaffed and dressed adults sashaying around the dance floor, sadly lamenting the fact she has no one with whom to partner up.  The first officer (Adam Bieshaar) gives Katie a scrabble toy to amuse, and soon the Captain (Robert Ruggiero) invites her to the floor. It’s a perfect moment on an idyllic moonlit evening. Alas, something is remiss; a mysteriously gloved hand pressing down on a lever that recoils a thin wire cord around its spool, the tension snapping like a blade across the dance floor and bisecting the revelers.
In slow motion, we witness their horrified disbelief as one by one each passenger separates at the waist, their bloody entrails strewn about the deck. Only Katie has been spared, the captain having bent down to shield her from the wire that has torn through his face; the top half of his head separating at the mouth.  Initially, Brian Cox had designed the sequence so that all the passengers would be decapitated. At the last possible moment, upper management at Warner Bros. nixed this idea, presumably nervous that it might be too much for audiences to handle.  
Katie’s lone scream of terror amidst these wriggling corpses kicks off the film’s present day narrative. Some forty years later, we are aboard the salvage vessel, Arctic Warrior, captained by Sean Murphy (Gabriel Byrne); the tug’s operations overseen by Maureen Epps (Julianna Marguilies). Also aboard are Greer (Isaiah Washington), Dodge (Ron Eldard), Munder (Karl Urban) and Santos (Alex Dimitriades); rugged individualists hard at work. It isn’t going well, but teamwork pulls the group through, and, to celebrate their victory over the elements everyone retires to a familiar watering hole. The mood is jovial until they are approached by Canadian weather service pilot, Jack Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) who claims to have discovered a mysterious derelict adrift in international waters in the Bering Sea. Suggesting a 50/50 split of whatever they find on board, the temptation for riches proves too great for Murphy and his crew to resist.
They set sail for the open waters with Ferriman. A gale picks up and storm clouds move in. The night sky is rain-soaked, misty and foreboding. But the crew remains undaunted; surprised even when the Antonia Graza suddenly materializes directly ahead; Santos narrowly avoiding a collision with the luxury liner. Boarding the Antonia Graza is like stepping into the past. Alas, the restless spirits who populate this ship are unwilling to leave well enough alone for the new arrivals. Greer nearly falls to his death when the balcony he is standing on inside the ship’s grand ballroom suddenly gives way. He is pulled to safety by Dodge and Epps; the latter catching a fleeting glimpse of Katie quietly observing their predicament from below. It can’t be. A little girl alive on this rusty hulk?!? 
Epps keeps her discovery to herself, believing the others will think her crazy. Ferriman helps guide everyone into the ship’s hull where they discover what has always been rumored; that the Antonia Graza was carrying gold bullion in its cargo hold when she disappeared. Elated at their good fortune, the mood turns sour when Murphy finds a digital watch on the ship’s bridge. Its’ discovery leads to a more ominous precursor – the bodies of another salvage crew floating face down in the ship’s flooded engine room.
Endeavoring to get off the Antonia Graza with all speed, Murphy’s attempts to load the gold onto the Arctic Warrior come to not when an invisible force opens one of the gas valves in the engine room, causing the Warrior to combust into flames and sink to the bottom of the ocean with Santos on board. The rest of the crew is now stranded on the Antonia Graza and fated for similar demises. Murphy reasons that their only chance at survival is to repair the ship and sail her into port. But finding viable means to restart its rusty engines means the group will have to split up. In the dilapidated ballroom, Greer suddenly comes face to face with Francesca; the slithery chanteuse who was aboard the Antonia Graza when she disappeared.  Is he losing his mind? No, though he’s about to lose his life. Greer is seduced by Francesca, who resurrects the ballroom to its former glory, populating it with an impressive gathering of moneyed guests, gathered around and bursting into applause.
Meanwhile, Murphy discovers the captain’s quarters and a fresh glass of Scotch awaiting him on the cobweb and dust-laden dresser; catching a glimpse of the Antonia Graza’s sad-eyed captain reflected in a mirror on the wall. The captain explains to Murphy how the Antonia Graza came upon the Lorelei, a sinking cruise ship. Several of his crew managed to save the Lorelei’s stockpile of gold bullion; also a lone survivor whom Murphy is flabbergasted to learn is none other than Ferriman. Realizing they have been lured aboard the Antonia Graza by a specter of some sort, Murphy races to warn the rest of his crew. He is prevented from reaching them by Santos’ ghost; severely charred and menacing at every turn. Thus, when Murphy does manage to break free of Santos apparition, he seems mad and dangerous; subdued by Epps and Dodge who confine him for his own safety – as well as their own – to a very large fish tank emptied of both its fish and water.
In their search for supplies, Dodge and Munder stumble into the ship’s mess, discovering storehouses of food stuffs that apparently have weathered the passage of time with remarkable freshness. However, upon biting into the tasty morsels the boys discover the food is definitely tainted, vomiting up mouthfuls of maggots. Down a lonely crew passage, Epps is suddenly confronted by a series of doors slamming shut, Katie reappearing to her and gently placing her transparent hand across Epps’ shoulder; the glowing limb allowing Epps a vivid look into the past. The Antonia Graza is renewed before her very eyes on the eve she went missing. Epps witnesses firsthand the poisoning of passengers by the ship’s steward (Matthew Wollaston) and purser (Iain Gardiner) after they have already murdered the chefs and kitchen staff.
In the resulting chaos of passengers taking ill, crew members loyal to Ferriman – who is actually revealed to be a demonic spirit, collecting souls – carry out a bloody annihilation of everyone on board; stabbing some, slitting others’ throats and conducting a mass assassination at rifle point inside the ship’s indoor pool. Epps also witnesses Francesca pick off the assassins one by one; presuming her loyalty to Ferriman will be well-repaid. Instead, he releases a razor-sharp hook in the ship’s cargo hold from its winch, the metal catching Francesca in the neck and causing her lifeless body to swing back and forth while she bleeds out; Ferriman burning an imprint into her hand – just another soul he’s claimed for his tally.
Realizing Murphy’s protestations were not the ravings of a lunatic, Epps leaves this blood past behind, racing back to the fish tank. Regrettably, Ferriman has been there first; the tank overflowing with Murphy’s lifeless body still floating inside. Dodge and Munder meet similar fates below deck, their attempts to pump water from the flooded engine room forcing them to dive below and become caught in the rigging one by one. The only way Ferriman can succeed is if the Antonia Graza is restored and sailed into port. So Epps sets out to sink the vessel instead. She plants explosives and prepares to detonate the charges when she is confronted by Ferriman who explains he is the ‘salvager’ of souls earned for his lifetime of sin. 
Because Katie was singularly without sin when the Antonia Graza was ambushed, Ferriman cannot control her soul as he does the others. But the Antonia Graza must not be allowed to sink. It is his eternal trap to keep the tally of spirits constantly growing. Epps refuses to help Ferriman in his evil plans, confronting him in a life and death struggle that ends only when she manages to detonate her charges, thereby sinking the Antonia Graza into silence.  
As Epps swims for her life, the many souls once trapped in this floating purgatory are now set free all around her with Katie’s pausing a moment to sincerely thank Epps for her courage and their freedom. After narrowly surviving the sinking and managing to remain afloat on a piece of ship’s debris for many days, Epps is rescued by another cruise ship passing by and taken safely to port. However, as she is being loaded into the back of an ambulance she sees the all too familiar battered crates of gold from the Antonia Graza being loaded onto another cruise ship by a new troop of men loyal to Ferriman, who boards the ship last with a wicked grin curling about his lips; Epps screaming in vain for the EMS attendants to take heed of her warning.
Ghost Ship marked the end of a very brief collaboration between director Steve Beck and producer Gilbert Adler. The pair had first conspired on the very lucrative remake of Thir13een Ghosts (2001); with Adler also producing a remake of House on Haunted Hill (1999). Ghost Ship’s abysmal reception and weak performance at the box office put an end to Adler’s aspirations to produce more like-minded fare. It also interrupted a period of rather profitable horror reboots – at least, for a few years; the cycle is once again in full swing. I suppose you just can’t keep a good ghoul down! Yet, in retrospect, the vitriol that greeted Ghost Ship seems largely unwarranted. The movie has merit and, thankfully, a cult following that has only grown in the intervening decade.
The genius in the exercise is its casting of A-list talent to headline the story; something rather unexpected. This hasn’t really happened in American-made horror movies since the late 1970’s with The Thing (Kurt Russell), Carrie (Sissy Spacek) and The Omen (Lee Remick and Gregory Peck) among others. Again, Ghost Ship is arguably not in the same league as the aforementioned horror classics. But it is competently made. It delivers some exacting bone-chilling tension along the way. Debatably, one isn’t going to see such movies for their artistic merits; and yet Ghost Ship has this too; its production design quite unique and sumptuous; stylishly photographed by Tattersall, with John Frizzell’s eerie underscore bringing out the devil of the piece long before we are introduced to his advocate, who has been riding with us shotgun all along. Sea evil, indeed!  
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is, of course, solid. Ghost Ship’s debut in hi-def coincided with the launch of Blu-ray and the studio has obviously put its best foot forward on this transfer to show off the ‘then’ new technology. Ghost Ship sports a refined, highly detailed image with eye-popping colors, exceptional contrast and an impeccable representation of film grain. This is 1080p done right and right up there with a reference quality mastering effort. You will love this disc. It’s just that simple; a luscious visual presentation, showing off Tattersall’s gorgeous shimmer and ghostly ambience; top notch kudos, with Blu-ray’s superior resolution maxed out. No artifacting or crushing of blacks.
The 5.1 DTS, while not particularly aggressive, exhibits very subtle nuances to thoroughly compliment the visuals. Extras are limited to several featurettes; junkets that superficially document, though sadly, never detail the making of this movie. We also get an obnoxious music video (avoid this) and the film’s original trailer; plus a rather ridiculous ‘game’ feature where one can explore ‘secrets’ of the Antonia Graza – actually, poorly produced backstories that neither flesh out the story or enhance one’s appreciation for the film. We won’t poo-poo it any further. So much is good, we can overlook the faux pas. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)