Tuesday, September 29, 2015

THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (Warner Bros. 1950) Warner Home Video

Joan Crawford topped out her Warner Bros. career with Vincent Sherman’s The Damned Don’t Cry (1950); at times, an absorbing melodrama about a common frump who aspires to the good life and gets it with reprisals and regrets served up in equal portions along the way. For Crawford fans, The Damned Don’t Cry is quite simply a deliciously over-the-top amalgam of everything about the actress and her movies made famous throughout her lengthy career; with Crawford already, arguably, past her prime, still clawing her way to the top, using unsuspecting average Joes and high-profile thug muscle gangsters to get ahead; lying, conspiring and nearly dying her way to the inevitable conclusion faced by all unrepentant gold diggers and forced into redemption before the final fade out. The Damned Don’t Cry is, among its many other attributes, a wickedly amusing, ripped from the headlines, thriller/mystery with Crawford as its most ravishingly unromantic and fiery enigma; Lorna Hanson Forbes…or is it Ethel Whitehead?; that birth name always reminded me of a pimple about ready to pop.
In all likelihood, Joan Crawford could see the writing on the wall at Warner Bros. by the time she made The Damned Don’t Cry. It had been a fabulous run; beginning with her Oscar-winning turn as Mildred Pierce, five years earlier, followed by an uninterrupted string of screen smash hits – and this at a time when the studio’s own diva, Bette Davis was severely faltering in her career. It must have stuck in MGM’s L.B. Mayer’s craw, he had unwisely assessed Crawford as all washed up and very prematurely cut her loose from her indentured contract after a nearly twenty year reign as his shop girl makes good. Jack Warner was a gambling man, however, and offered this seemingly exiled Hollywood royalty a follow-up contract. In hindsight, Crawford and Warner Bros. were tailor-made for one another. Whereas Crawford at MGM had been the glamorous clothes horse and mannequin, stylized all out of proportion and perpetually cast as the struggling working class gal who makes good, Crawford at Warner Bros. became the deceptively enterprising gal who triumphed over adversity in a string of incredibly dark and brooding, noir-ish melodramas. Crawford had but one request for Jack Warner before the ink had dried on her contract, “No more goddamn shop girls!”
Warner would honor that request. The Damned Don’t Cry doesn’t take Crawford quite so far back to the shop. But it does start her off in the sticks of some near-forgotten mining town, married to the rather uncouth blue-collar boob, Roy (Richard Egan), and put upon by her brutally embittered father, Jim (Morris Ankrum).  After the death of their only son, Tommy, killed by a passing truck while riding the bicycle Ethel bought for him against Roy’s strenuous objections, Ethel decides to leave her husband. After all, what is there to keep her perpetually aproned and chained to this little life any longer? “Let her go,” Jim cynically tells Roy, “She’ll find out what it’s like out there,” to which Ethel equally as cruelly replies, “Whatever it’s like, it’ll be better than what’s here!” And indeed, for a brief wrinkle in time, what Ethel finds is better. She gets a job modeling clothes for dress manufacturer, Grady (Hugh Sanders), who also tries to pimp her to the out of town buyers. It’s a no sale, at first. But then, Ethel is taken under the wing of fellow ‘model’ – Sandra (Jacqueline deWit) who informs her there is plenty of extra cash to be made by being ‘nice’ to these buyers after hours. Pretty soon, ‘being nice’ hardens Ethel to the ways of the world. She discovers Sandra has been skimming off the top of the moneys made as prostitutes and decides to even the score; taking a bigger cut on their last outing before dissolving the partnership once and for all.
All is not lost, however, as Ethel affixes her star to Grady’s accountant, Martin Blankford (Kent Smith) who also cooks the books for bigtime organized crime leader, George Castleman (David Brian). Seeing no future in keeping her self-respect (“Self-respect is what you tell yourself you’ve got when there’s nothing else!”), Ethel decides to trade up for one of Castleman’s hotheaded goons, Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), who is going places - or so he thinks - and destined to double-cross and take over Castleman’s underworld empire. It all gets a lot seedier as Lorna sets up digs as a fashionable socialite in Arizona; ‘marketed’ by the wealthy society matron, Patricia Longworth (Selena Royale) and newly rechristened as Lorna Hanson Forbes. Giving lavish parties for Nick and his buddies, and making the rounds, no more as the gal most likely to succeed, but as the grand diva of this maison, Lorna gets reintroduced to Castleman who is now operating in Vegas as Joe Caveny. Things heat up, at least sexually, between Joe and Lorna even as she continues to two-time him with Nick, who is planning to wipe Joe off the face of the earth. But Joe isn’t one of her rubes. Indeed, he isn’t about to let either Lorna or Nick get away with murder. 
It’s really rather delicious to watch Crawford, who was having an on again/off again affair with her director throughout the making of The Damned Don’t Cry, chew up and spit out her male counterparts in this movie – the ravenous man trap or queen bee to whom all are subservient and disposable. Martin is a congenial enough fellow. But he utterly lacks the gumption to transform himself into the sort of money man Ethel craves. She tries Castleman on for size but gravitates toward Nick because underneath his slick façade he’s just a scrapper like her; the veneer of new money and a new name as thin as ice and just as cold. The Damned Don’t Cry is based on a story – Case History by Gertrude Walker, slightly ‘cleaned up’ to satisfy the Hollywood code of ethics by screenwriters, Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman and very loosely based on gangster moll, Virginia Hill’s complicated romance with real-life Vegas mobster, Bugsy Siegel. So, how long will it be before Castleman discovers Lorna and Nick’s affair? The blood stained carpet, unearthed by police at the start of the picture and inside the fashionable desert bungalow Ethel/Lorna shares with Patricia Longworth seems to suggest he has already exacted his revenge. But then a mysterious body turns up in the desert and the police begin to suspect perhaps the elegant Ms. Forbes is more the culprit than the patsy.
Only the ending of The Damned Don’t Cry is unsatisfactory; as a moderately repentant Lorna slinks back to the mining shack she once shared with Roy, hiding out and proving Jim was right all along, at least until Castleman can track her down, with good guy Martin belatedly coming to her rescue; saving Ethel, both from Castleman and a complete slippage back into the muck and mire from whence she emerged not so very long ago.  Crawford is at the top of her game in The Damned Don’t Cry. In just a little over 90 min. she effortlessly morphs from besieged martyr and matriarch to enterprising femme fatale, and finally, into the remorseful ‘good girl’ that, arguably, she used to be before marrying Roy. But it is really kind of sad to recall how she all but toppled from this god spot at Warner Bros. shortly thereafter; the studio investing in some high-profile properties that failed to gel or reinvent Crawford’s reputation yet again – the net result, the cancelation of her second studio contract and another move; this time, over at Columbia for an unstable series of hits and misses.  Although the screenplay to The Damned Don’t Cry runs the gamut of occasionally contrived plot devices, scenarios borrowed from nearly every Joan Crawford hit from the forties, there is enough original snappy dialogue to fuel the picture as a stand-alone. The Damned Don’t Cry is hardly a cheat. It also contains the most startlingly un-Crawford-esque brutalization of its star, as Castleman, having confronted Lorna about her affair with Nick, ruthlessly pummels her to a bloody pulp.
Director, Vincent Sherman is a master at this sort of woman’s picture - but with a twist. Arguably, no one ever man-handled Joan Crawford. Thus, after Sherman openly admitted he would not be leaving his wife for her, Crawford gave Sherman a well-deserved slap. He reciprocated by popping her one in the mouth with his fist, sending her careening to the floor with a split lip. These backstage sparks seem to have spurred Crawford on to greatness. As with all Crawford’s movies, her performance in The Damned Don’t Cry drives the story and she proves unequivocally to be in command from the very first to the last frame. Joan Crawford has always rated very high marks for being a peerless professional. Here was an actress so attuned to her own emotions, possessing an uncanny faculty to manipulate them to suit the scene, she could cry salty tears on cue and even control out of which eye the water flowed. Too much of what has been written and debated about Joan Crawford post her adopted daughter’s hatchet job, Mommy Dearest, has revolved around the branding of Crawford as the maniacal and superficially preening barracuda; presumed the soulless abuser of children and unrepentant viper who ran through husbands as easily as she deprived herself of any lasting happiness in life.
True and fair enough: Crawford likely was never happy with her station in life – either personally or professionally. Neither was her childhood nor her youth idyllic; the latch key kid who lived with her impoverished and unstable mother behind a laundry. Fame – first as the darling of the dance halls, then later, as a movie star, brought Crawford the sort of lifestyle she desperately craved. But it also unearthed the demon of her competitive nature, arguably, her most self-destructive quality.  Considering how successful she was at establishing her own ‘brand’ in Hollywood, Crawford’s misfires in private seems minimal, and yet, ever more tragic. Happiness eluded her, despite her best efforts. In the years since her death, and, following the publication of Mommie Dearest, Crawford’s reputation has remained tarnished by this image of the impressively Janus-faced gargoyle, despite Crawford’s two other adopted children - Cathy and Cynthia - both denying the claims as made in Christina’s tell-all as complete fabrications. In reviewing The Damned Don’t Cry shades of the Joan Crawford depicted in Christina Crawford’s scathing biography begin to emerge and further blur the lines between fiction and reality. Crawford on celluloid, and particularly in The Damned Don’t Cry, could be a ruthless and destructive force of nature. But is this really Joan Crawford as she was?
In 1953, Crawford elected to have dinner at the Brown Derby, simultaneously conducting an interview for Variety to countermand a rather brutal article recently published in Confidential Magazine (the National Enquirer of its day). At the table were three of Crawford’s former spouses; Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone and Phillip Terry – each, apparently harboring no ill will against their ex or one another as they smoked, ate, drank and cajoled into the wee hours. Clearly, Crawford had left an impression as something better than the filthy harridan depicted in Confidential and later exorcized in the book, Mommie Dearest.  Viewing The Damned Don’t Cry today is far more telling about where Christina Crawford might have gleaned at least part of her inspiration when penning her accounts of life with Joan. Indeed, parts of this picture seem to run a parallel course to whole chapters in the biography that, only more recently has come to be regarded as more fiction than fact. Crawford never – at least until the very end, when she became a veritable recluse in her apartment – ever surrendered the impression she was a ‘star’ – first and foremost. “When I leave this apartment, I am Joan Crawford first and foremost,” she once explained to a reporter, “If you want the girl next door – go next door!”     
Fans of Crawford need never go ‘next door’ to get their fix with movies like The Damned Don’t Cry still readily in circulation, thanks to Warner Home Video. Still, it would be prudent of the studio that made the latter half of Crawford’s second coming so successful to reconsider giving us more of her catalog on Blu-ray. For now, we content ourselves with DVD transfers like this one; occasionally below par and desperately in need of a new 1080p repurposing. The B&W elements used in this transfer toggle between relatively attractive to downright grainy and suffering from lower than anticipated contrast levels; also, a slightly greenish tint. While few scenes appear free of age-related artifacts, most exhibit moderate to heavy film grain, looking marginally digitized, and a lot of dirt and scratches that, at times, distracts from the overall storytelling. Yes, The Damned Don’t Cry is imbued with the noir style. But portions of this transfer are incredibly dark and grainy as to obscure the performances being given. Fine details are hopelessly lost during darker scenes. Whites are fairly grungy throughout and the overall image is ‘thick’ as opposed to refined, with matte process inserts appearing even more glaringly obvious. The audio is mono, but adequately represented. Extras include a brief featurette on Crawford, another on the making of the film and a running commentary by Vincent Sherman that is well worth the price of admission. The Damned Don't Cry may only be 'second tier' Crawford, but second tier Crawford is usually better than first tier anybody else. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Friday, September 25, 2015

NIXON: Blu-ray (Hollywood Pictures/Cinergi 1995) Buena Vista Home Entertainment

On the heels of his controversial JFK (1991), director, Oliver Stone tackled an even more ambitious, and, unfairly maligned presidency, with Nixon (1995); at times, critical, though, arguably a fair and intermittently compassionate likeness of an extremely complicated individual and his impact on the American political landscape. In the years since Watergate, the game of politics has grown uglier and more ruthless, Richard Nixon becoming a celebrated piñata for the liberal left to bash at will and whim with affected glee; the highest office in the land tainted by a third-rate burglary. And yet, spying has been almost a prerequisite of politics since its inception. Would it make the ‘liberal left’ cheer as loudly – if at all – to recall such deities from their camp as F.D.R., J.F.K. and current President, Barak Obama are guilty of similar offenses? But back to Richard Milhous Nixon:  am I defending the man or his methods? Certainly not – and there is little to deny if Nixon had it to do all over again he likely would not have endorsed, then feigned zero culpability for the disastrous break-in at the Democratic headquarters in Washington.  Miraculously, Oliver Stone casts no aspersions on Nixon – the man. Nor does he shield him from his failings, both as a President and as a human being.
I suspect the chief difficulty most critics had with Nixon – the movie – is that it wasn’t JFK. There is no ‘Magic Bullet’ theory to debunk, no assassination coup to resolve, no mystery being explored this time around. Or is this entirely true? For Nixon was as complex an enigma if ever one held public office. His resignation in the face of almost certain impeachment created a stain on the presidency unlike anything before or since. It also left a perpetual bullseye on Nixon’s back for the rest of his life and far too many unanswered – or perhaps, unanswerable questions. Why, for example, install tape-recording devices in the White House if what was being recorded was never meant to leave 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?  Could the President truly have been so naïve or hell-bent on ego he failed to see how anything discussed, even casually and unrelated to matters of ‘national security’, could – and would – be misconstrued by the mainstream press and his political opponents as clandestine plotting? And who tipped off security at the Watergate Hotel about Howard Hunt and his cronies burglarizing the Democratic offices?  No, those who would dismiss Watergate and Nixon as mere addendums – nee, blemishes – in history, as inescapably painful as Kennedy’s thought-numbing assassination on some level - though for different reasons, eventually incurring anger in place of remorse – would have overlooked a fundamental truth about Richard Nixon that Oliver Stone exposes with his inimitable clairvoyance as investigatory pseudo-history; that Nixon could never be quantified or dismissed as a mere embarrassment, if for no other reason, than much of what he had put into place during his presidency has since given rise to an era in politics appropriately known as ‘the age of Nixon’ with consequences and fallout far-reaching within the political machinery to this very day.  
Nixon – the movie – is a fascinating, ambitious, probative and ultimately heart-breaking critique of an equally as flawed, passionate, and, single-minded political creature. No one can – or should – chide Nixon on his accomplishments in foreign affairs. Yet, he constantly lived in the shadow of Jack Kennedy and, increasingly, allowed self-doubt, fear and pity to color his political thinking. For this, and other indiscretions unearthed in Stone’s brilliantly conceived film, Richard Nixon paid the ultimate price; sacrificing his reputation and opening himself up to endless public humiliation, effectively to shatter whatever legacy remained. Ultimately, it also broke the man down to bedrock. Even today, generations of Americans misguidedly regard the Nixon presidency as little more than a national discomfiture and a very sad epitaph to a man who ‘had greatness within his grasp’, only to be emasculated and watch it all slip away. And yet, in his emeritus years, Nixon rose like a phoenix from these ashes to become Washington’s honorary – if closeted – statesman to whom virtually every president since his time, until his death in 1994, consulted for advice on international diplomacy. There is no denying his prowess as a political strategist. Few presidents have had more raw instinct and moxie than Richard Nixon.
And praise too, to Nixon’s formidable achievements in foreign policy, working closely with Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger to bypass all the ‘red tape’ and improve relations with both China and the Soviet Union; in the process, heralding a new era of Sino-American relations. Indeed, Nixon shocked the nation with the announcement he would visit communist China in the winter of 1972. In a spirit of ‘full disclosure’, publicly Nixon used TV to bring this message of diplomacy to light. In private, it immensely pleased him to deny print journalists similar access to his agenda. Indeed, the then reigning mandarins in print media had had it in for Richard Nixon even before his presidency, and would continue to unapologetically, and without much integrity to their own canon of journalistic ethics, spew open contempt for the man and his methods. Nixon’s detractors would be the first to pounce on his record in Vietnam, a quagmire that, but for an untimely Presidential assassination, would have been Kennedy’s cross to bear. Instead, Nixon was chronically blamed for the staggering 300 American G.I. deaths per week. While Nixon abhorred the protestors against America’s involvement in the war, regarding them as slovenly and disrespectful, he nevertheless made the impromptu effort to engage a contingent of these same draft dodgers and hippies, who viewed him as a virtual anathema to their message of free love and flower-powered peace, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.     
Many also forget Nixon’s secret bombing campaign of the North Vietnamese in Cambodia (a campaign that, by some accounts dropped more bombs than the Allies did during WWII) was an extension of a policy already begun under Lyndon Johnson; Nixon hardly its architect, and also, for a brief moment thereafter, championed as a ‘bold, decisive move’ by the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, it is far too easy to simply condemn Richard Nixon for following this ensconced protocol of his era, rather than going his own way – as though, it were that easy to reroute the direction of international affairs with the wave of a hand. And Nixon was not easily swayed, and could be intractable, particularly when forced into a corner; a personal failing that would crest during the Watergate incident. But in response to the floodgates of protest at home, Nixon did attempt to broker a peace between South and North Vietnam, gradually replacing the U.S. military with a North Vietnamese presence.  To some extent, the first crack in the Nixon presidency was the publication of the leaked ‘Pentagon Papers’ – detailing a web of deceit spun primarily by prior administrations and providing a timeline for the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. Convinced by Kissinger the leak was harmful to his own presidency, Nixon tried to suppress their publication in the New York Times and Washington Post, but was overruled by the Supreme Court – the inference being, Nixon had something else to hide. The press had a field day.  What other secrets was the President hiding under the guise of ‘national security’?
At the same instance, another part of Nixon’s past continued to haunt his present; his backing President Kennedy’s decision to initiate 1961’s Bay of Pigs; also, his support during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. In truth, the Soviets sincerely feared Nixon would jeopardize this tentative peace established by Kennedy and Kurshchev. And yet, it can almost safely be said Nixon, while loyal to the Cuban exiles community, always had his eye on the grander positioning of America’s supremacy on the world stage. Therefore, another potentially crippling crisis in Cuba was not worthy of his time or efforts.  Instead, Nixon sought to escalate his negotiations with the Soviets on nuclear disarmament, out of which two landmark ‘arms control’ treaties were signed. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Nixon avoided direct U.S. combat assistance, while greatly increasing arms sales to Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a direct result, the Arab coalition attacked Israel and Nixon ordered an airlift to resupply Israeli casualties, taking personal responsibility for the fiasco. In the famed superpower crisis that grew out of this incident, Nixon engaged in a somewhat dangerous game of chicken with the Soviets, resulting in Soviet leader, Brezhnev eventually backing down.
I may seem to be delving too deeply into history for ‘art’s sake’, but it often becomes an occupational hazard when discussing Oliver Stone’s movies; particularly those dedicated to two of the most high-profile American presidents in U.S. history.  And Stone, while touching upon virtually all of the aforementioned snafus swirling around the Nixon White House, is rather disinterested – at least directly – in their politicized outcomes and fallout; instead, intensely focused on the personal consequences impacting the man making these heady decisions. Nixon is about the man, the genuineness of his sacrifices and his absorbingly fatal flaws that make him all too fallible and easily ascribable as one of history’s most notorious scapegoats. Nixon’s triumphs have been all but eclipsed by Watergate; Stone addressing the scandal head on, though not necessarily as the story’s centerpiece or focus; rather, using Watergate as bookends to regress the audience into the not too distant past; the impoverished boy of a green grocer from Whittier, California, who toughs out the loss of two brothers to tuberculosis, and, arguably, lives in the shadow of his mother’s stringent piety with the constant belief he has failed to live up to her Quaker principles in the political arena. 
If only Nixon had been a hit with audiences, we might have had more politically-driven masterpieces from Oliver Stone. Indeed, in tone alone, Nixon is superbly evocative and engrossing as a classic Median tragedy. Alas, and despite a big marketing push, the film only took in a paltry $2.2 million in 514 theaters on its opening weekend – an embarrassing gross by any barometer; its final tally of $13.6 million falling well below the $44 million it cost to produce. As with JFK, controversy dogged Nixon almost from its inception; although, unlike JFK, the negative press did not convince the public to run out and see the picture. Stone was heavily chastised for representing both the President and Pat Nixon as chronic alcoholics; Nixon, also shown abusing prescription medications; incidents Stone based on research acquired from a book co-written by Stephen Ambrose, Fawn Brodie, and Tom Wicker. The Nixon family also took umbrage to Stone’s insinuation Nixon’s private life was a shambles almost from birth; a man who, through a series of middle-age reflections, suffers from crippling bouts of paranoia, tinged with Oedipal anxieties. For his part, Stone defended his movie, claiming it was never meant as a definitive statement and/or history on either the man or his presidency; rather, “a basis to start reading…investigating on your own.”
If any criticism can be ascribed Nixon – the movie, it squarely rests on Anthony Hopkins’ performance; problematic and unconvincing at best. Full of hunched posturing, too manic and insincerely prone to mimicry, it neither effectively captures the timbre of Nixon’s baritone nor his mannerisms as anything better than hackneyed affectations, nor does it transcend the iconography of Nixon – as characterization – into to a solid piece of ‘movie acting’ beyond the psycho-manic highs and depressively subjective lows. In retrospect, it is no real surprise to learn Hopkins felt ill at ease almost from the moment his signature had dried on the contract; his own anxieties boiling over after co-star, Paul Sorvino reportedly told Hopkins he was “doing the whole thing wrong”, that “…there was room for improvement” but that he - Sorvino – was precisely the pro to pull Hopkins’ proverbial bacon out of the fire. To cull Hopkins fears, Oliver Stone cajoled, complimented and eventually convinced his star to stay the course – a misfire from which Nixon arguably never recovers.
I adore Anthony Hopkins. But Nixon is decidedly not his finest hour; regrettably so, since any appreciation for this carefully-crafted non-linear political epic is inextricably derived from our ability to buy into Hopkins reincarnation. As this becomes increasingly difficult to digest, we are left to the satisfaction gleaned from the movie’s awe-inspiring roster of supporting players; some more successful at aping their counterparts; the most exquisite of the lot, Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon, and, Paul Sorvino’s chillingly on point recreation of Henry Kissinger. There are others who do their part; Bob Hopkins – a wily and grumbling, J. Edgar Hoover; Sam Waterson – foreboding, as CIA director, Richard Helms, Powers Boothe (a very stoic, Alexander Haig), David Hyde Pierce (congenial as attorney to the President, John Dean), and, James Woods, forgoing his usual afflictions as a fairly credible, H.R. Haldeman.  But these are reoccurring cameos at best; undeniably, solidly crafted, though subservient and often left dangling about the Nixonian mobile of political intrigues that form the centerpiece of Stone’s exposé.  
Nixon went through an arduous incubation period. Former speechwriter and staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eric Hamburg pitched the idea to screenwriter, Stephen J. Rivele, and, Oliver Stone simultaneously. At the time, Stone was busy developing two other projects: a movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and his own biopic about Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega. When Stone could find no funding for either project, he turned his attentions to Nixon, initiating a pitch to Warner Bros. Eventually, Hollywood Pictures – a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. – would take over, fund and distribute the movie, resulting in yet another obstruction. It seems Stone had agreed to a three picture deal with Regency Enterprises under producer, Arnon Michan. Stone would eventually deliver three movies as promised to Regency; JFK, Heaven and Earth and Natural Born Killers. On the success of ‘Killers’ alone, Milchan renegotiated Stone’s commitment so that he owed an additional three pictures (four in total). Regrettably, Milchan showed little interest in Nixon. Reneging on his promise to commit to any Oliver Stone movie under $42.5 million, Milchan now agreed to finance Nixon up to $35 million. Rather than debate the point, Stone simply chose to shop the project to Hungarian financier, Andrew G. Vajna and Cinergi Pictures who, along with Disney Inc. agreed to put up the necessary $43 million.  With egg on his face, Milchan threatened to sue for breach of contract. He would later withdraw, but only after Stone reportedly paid him off.
Meanwhile, Stephen J. Rivele and his collaborator, Christopher Wilkinson hammered out the details in this high-stakes drama, with Oliver Stone helping to infuse a more ominous undercurrent; the President gradually becoming subservient to the dictates of secret money men and the military-industrial complex: a ‘system’ comprised of unseen corporate and state-sanctioned rogue elements, manipulating the political process with the complicity of the media in order to protect the status quo and its ownership; a system that, by design, Stone clearly saw as “…grind(ing) the individual down.”  During pre-production, Stone flew to Washington to interview surviving members of Nixon’s inner circle, including lawyer Leonard Garment and Attorney General, Elliot Richardson; also, Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson. Stone added cache to the project by hiring Alexander Butterfield, John Sears and John Dean as his consultants. Butterfield’s involvement proved particularly fortuitous as he had been the go-between during the Watergate scandal. Stone also encouraged his actors to reach out to their flesh and blood counterparts; Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Sorvino all taking Stone up on his advice to dig deeper into their characterizations. Only J.T. Walsh abstained, and only after the real John Ehrlichman threatened a lawsuit, fearing a ‘hatchet job’ was in the works. Former CIA director, Richard Helms would follow a similar path, forcing Stone to excise all of the footage featuring Sam Waterston before the movie went into theaters. Ironically, these scenes were restored for all home video releases without further incident.
Nixon opens with the Watergate burglary; E. Howard Hunt (Ed Harris) preparing his men for this third-rate burglary, destined to topple the presidency. Hunt’s cohorts include Frank Sturgis (Robert Beltran), Gordon Liddy (John Diehl), Bernard Barker (Lenny Vullo) and James McCord (Ronald von Klaussen); Oliver Stone intercutting with ‘breaking news’ reports of the scandal to expedite the particulars of the incident without giving us a blow by blow. We cut to Gen. Alexander Haig arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., helping an inebriated Nixon load his reel-to-reel tape recorder; Nixon’s own words coming back to haunt him. Now, Stone regresses us to the first of many flashbacks; Nixon in a heated debate with his top White House aids, including Ehrlichman, Dean and Haldeman, who warns the president his house of cards has already begun to crumble. In times of stress, Nixon retreats into his cocoon; recalling the 1960 presidential debate with Jack Kennedy that cost him the election. Pat encourages her husband to give up his political dreams. They could be happy if only he would only concentrate on practicing law and allow them to live their lives out of the public spotlight. At one point, Pat even threatens divorce.
We regress even further into Nixon’s past; a very painful childhood in Whittier, California (Nixon intermittently played at 12 years by Corey Carrier, and, as a 19 year old college student by David Barry Gray) saddled with a stern and uncompromising patriarch, Frank (Tom Bower) and even more devoutly religious mother, Hannah (Mary Steenburgen); the family forced to endure the loss of two brothers, younger, Donald (Sean Stone) and elder, Harold (Tony Goldwyn) to tuberculosis. Nixon vows to become the pride of his family. He follows the straight and narrow. But his thirst for political conquest eventually leads him to cut corners. He becomes a member of HUAC and integral in the Elgar Hiss hearings. He shamelessly turns an IRS investigation of his personal finances into a media event to gain public support for his first stab at the White House. Alas, Nixon is chagrined by Kennedy’s undulating charisma during their televised debate. After Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon is approached by J. Edgar Hoover, who quietly suggests Bobby Kennedy will not stand in his way should he choose to run for President again. Having sworn to Pat he would officially retire from politics, Nixon slyly reenters the ring; backed by a spurious consortium of Texas money men, fronted by the mysterious ‘Jack Jones’ (Larry Hagman).
Nixon sweeps the ’69 elections; a landslide that startles his opponents. But he is unable to enjoy the appointment, growing more distant from Pat and his advisors; becoming increasingly paranoid and guarded in his decision-making processes. On several occasions, Pat reaches out to her husband, but is rebuked for these efforts; Nixon claiming the walls have ears. Nixon embarks upon his ambitious negotiations with China and the Soviet Union. Both Leonid Brezhnev and General Mao are sincerely impressed by Nixon’s chutzpah; also, his international diplomacy. Increasingly, however, Nixon is unable to keep focus on these summits; his mind diverted by an increasing disunion in the American fabric; campus riots and youth protestors picketing the White House because of his bold move to bomb Cambodia. As the Watergate scandal grows more problematic, fueled by conspiracy theories put forth in the media, Nixon discovers he is unable to maintain his composure, even toward his diehard constituents who once believed he could do no wrong. At the height of this malaise, daughter, Julie (Annabeth Gish) confronts her father with the only question that matters. Is he guilty of all the things written about him in the Washington Post? Nixon weakens, but does not break in his resolve, professing his innocence to Julie, who wholeheartedly believes in him.
Meanwhile, Howard Hunt bribes the White House for hush money – Dean confronting Hunt on a lonely bridge in an attempt to learn just how much longer he intends holding the president hostage for Watergate. Hunt warns Dean it is only a matter of time before Nixon begins cutting his losses; pointing the finger at various scapegoats to ensure the cover-up never infiltrates his own inner sanctum. Dean is reluctant to buy into Hunt’s allegations. But only a short while later, Nixon accepts Haldeman and Ehrlichman’s resignations; going on television to profess his innocence in the Watergate scandal. Dean is asked by the president to go to Camp David and put the whole incident in writing. But Dean tells Nixon he will not be his next scapegoat. Not long thereafter, Dean turns against the White House, offering full disclosure to clear his good name of all charges. Amidst the chaos, Nixon hosts several galas at the White House, including Julie’s marriage to David Eisenhower, and, a tribute to the brave soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Nixon is also led to believe Henry Kissinger is leaking top secret information to the Washington Post. Eventually, Nixon has nowhere to hide; the Post unearthing the discovery of a secret taping system in the White House. Nixon absolutely refuses to surrender his tapes to the Special Prosecutor assigned to investigate the case. He also has transcripts of these tapes heavily censored under the guise of ‘national security’.  Unable to refuse handing over the tapes on legal grounds as a public figure, and facing various articles of impeachment, Nixon instead resigns. Under the law he is allowed to keep the tapes as a private citizen. As the helicopter departs from the White House front lawn, stunned onlookers quietly observe as the man they all looked to for guidance departs 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in utter disgrace.
Nixon is so palpably Oliver Stone’s fanatical effort to get under the hood of the Nixon presidency that, at times, it does begin to take on the flavoring of a ‘caper/heist’ drama. And yet, Stone has cleverly anchored his investigation in an even more probative quest for the truth behind Richard Nixon, incorporating fact and speculation to paint a fascinating and, at times, unflattering (though I would argue) fair portrait. Gradually, Stone’s impressions of the man begin to take precedence as the movie steers us into the darkened recesses of Nixon’s soul; his desperation to keep the world at bay and whitewash his public persona in a series of ill-timed political gestures that culminate in ‘the madman theory’; roughly translated in the movie as Nixon’s callous, though ultimately effective, bombing of Cambodia that ended the Vietnam war. Alas, as Pat had predicted earlier in the movie, her husband’s unquenchable thirst for power, his failure to effectively harness and maintain it once appointed to the highest office in the land, and even more critically, his overall inability to enjoy and build upon what little popularity he occasionally gleans from the mainstream press, ultimately creates a vicious political whirlpool – some of it instigated by Nixon himself to his own detriment. This eventually swamps any chances Nixon has for the sort of legacy all presidents reach for and aspire to, though too few ultimately achieve during their tenure inside the White House.
What the movie does spectacularly well is to weave these various imperfect threads, dedicated to the man and his malaise, into an impeccably crafted tapestry of melodrama - intense, and at times, genuinely disturbing. To his pundits, Oliver Stone will always be regarded as a rank conspiracy theorist. Yet, as with JFK, in Nixon, Stone illustrates not only a passion for history, but also his copious abilities to assimilate a mountain of facts into a persuasive – if slightly fictionalized – entertainment with the impression of being a more impervious truth. Stone is marginally hampered by the fact Richard Nixon was neither heroic nor noble. Pardoned by future President Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon would go on to write several important political memoirs and be a silent advisor to many more Presidents occupying the White House in times yet to follow. The public never quite forgave him Watergate. Realistically, the media wouldn’t let them. Yet, Stone’s movie never vacillates in picking the puss from this chronically festering scab, nor is Stone similarly interested in propagating the notion Nixon was clumsily evil. 
What Oliver Stone has done is to give us the first intelligent and unbiased – if speculative – portrait of Richard Nixon as a candidly faulty, occasionally injudicious, though always authentically passionate champion of the America he sought to reshape during some of its most turbulent times. To a large extent, Nixon did exactly that, not only during his presidency, but ultimately, for all time; the ripples from his time in the White House resonating long after his misfires and worthy triumphs had been laid to rest. Stone’s movie, like his subject matter, is imperfect; regrettably so. Although Stone never stumbles in his quest for quality, the integrity of the piece is hampered by Anthony Hopkins’ incapacity to grasp at a performance with anything more compelling than superficial gesticulations. Hopkins is fighting a losing battle in Nixon, his actor’s prowess utterly failing him. He delivers his lines with a sort of perpetual and extremely petulant brusqueness; his own insecurities about the part showing through. He just cannot seem to get a handle on Richard Nixon and, in lieu of peeling away the layers of the man, Hopkins falls back on a sort of grotesque mime of the personality, without ever unearthing the person hiding behind it. Arguably, the real Nixon shared such a character trait – always drawing a veil or shadow across the public image he wanted the American people to believe in as their leader. But such secrecy doesn’t bode well for Hopkins’ performance. He doesn’t allow us a hint of what’s going on inside, even if the thought processes are more himself than his alter ego. The net result is a vacuous and unfulfilling caricature that – here and there – crackles with hints of his better work to be done, but ultimately betraying Oliver Stone’s ambitious plans for a more heartfelt impression of the man.
In his final address to the nation, Nixon allowed the world to see a side of him rarely shared; the fallen, though arguably, undefeated man, stripped of his cynicism. Wisely, Oliver Stone lets Richard Nixon’s farewell address stand on its own; the president thanking all who served under his administration and would continue to diligently lead by their own examples afterward, expressing pride in the nation and accepting full responsibility for ‘mistakes’ made along the way, though never meant for personal profit. In his concluding remarks, Nixon returned, perhaps not surprisingly, to Whittier California for his most unguarded summation of what life in general - and his more particularly - had taught him, saying “I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, common man…but he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt, regardless of what happens….and nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother -- my mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying of tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own. Yes, she will have no books written about her. But she was a saint.
We think sometimes when things happen that don't go the right way; we think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think…that the light had left forever. Not true. It is only a beginning, always… It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you. But the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain…Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.
And so, we leave with high hopes, in good spirit, and with deep humility, and with very much gratefulness in our hearts. I can only say to each and every one of you, we come from many faiths, we pray perhaps to different gods -- but really the same God in a sense -- but I want to say for each and every one of you, not only will we always remember you, not only will we always be grateful to you, but always you will be in our hearts and you will be in our prayers. Thank you very much.”
Nixon was released on Blu-ray in November 2012, ironically to coincide with the second presidential election of Barak Obama. The Blu-ray rectifies a myriad of sins committed on DVD and, in hindsight, seems also to have marked an end to the Walt Disney Company’s last spate of live-action catalog releases in hi-def. It’s rather sickening to consider the company that gave us so many important movies unrelated to its formidable cartoon kingdom, has all but discarded the possibilities of ever making any of these available to the public. I mean it’s 2015 and we don’t even have a proper release of the restored Bedknobs or Broomsticks as yet, the original Parent Trap, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Happiest Millionaire and, so many others (not even advertised as Disney ‘exclusives’, or, cribbing from the vast Touchstone library, an incredible assortment of ‘forgotten catalog’ with such high profile titles as Pretty Woman, Splash, Can’t Buy Me Love, Hello Again, I Love Trouble, The Horse Whisperer, While You Were Sleeping and Deuce Bigalow among the MIA. (Aside: some of these titles are available in region free offerings from Europe, but to date, most have failed to mark a debut on this side of the Atlantic!)
Nixon on Blu-ray is a vast improvement, showcasing cinematographer Robert Richardson’s vintage ‘look’; Stone utilizing both 35mm and 16mm film stocks to achieve a sort of aged Kodachrome and B&W ‘archival’ appearance, adding yet another stylization to his visual storytelling. Colors are clear and distinct if slightly muted, although I suspect this is in keeping with Stone’s approach to creating the pseudo-documentarian ‘time capsule’ impression. When Nixon had its debut on DVD no one thought to enhance the picture for widescreen televisions. The Blu-ray is, of course, utilizing all of its 1080p technology. We mercifully lose the macro-blocking, crushed blacks, video noise and edge enhancement that were decidedly not a part of the theatrical viewing experience, but plagued the DVD. The Blu-ray is exceptionally clean and satisfying. We get to choose between either a lossless PCM 5.1 sound mix or 5.1 Dolby Digital. Under ordinary circumstances the PCM would illustrate the best option.
But Nixon’s sound design has been deliberately constructed to appear flat and/or warped during its ‘vintage’ press materials. Also, it is primarily a dialogue-driven movie. There are subtle differences and improvements on the PCM, but you have to strain to notice them. For once, Disney’s penny-pinching has taken a backseat. We get a second Blu-ray showcasing nearly an hour of deleted scenes, with or without Oliver Stone’s commentary; also a half-hour ‘Beyond Nixon’ documentary that isn’t all that comprehensive, but nevertheless offers an addendum of sorts to the movie; plus the original theatrical trailer and two independent audio commentaries by Oliver Stone; intensely comprehensive and definitely worthy of a listen. Bottom line: while Nixon is not a perfect movie, too much of it is riveting entertainment. It’s not a movie you can just casually put on as background. But it does come across as an engrossing – if slightly failed – political epic, worthy of reinvestigation. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

THE BIG COUNTRY: Blu-ray (United Artists 1958) MGM/Fox Home Video

For sheer grandeur, few westerns rival the scope and stark beauty of William Wyler’s impeccable masterpiece, The Big Country (1958); a visually resplendent super colossus, thundering across the screen in Technirama. Franz Planer’s cinematography is simply stunning, capturing the vastness of an untainted American west in all its breathtaking clarity. But Wyler’s epic is more than just a lovingly crafted picture postcard to a way of life long since blown into the prevailing winds as the tumbleweed. It is an intimate portrait of the ties that bind and those other corrupting influences that can tear us apart. At a glance, it is far too easy to misconstrue The Big Country as just another bloated fifties Hollywood mega-western, and indeed, the vastness of its superb and sprawling cinematography might have sunk the more intimate familial saga at the heart of the picture. But The Big Country is immeasurably blessed by some exceptionally strong performances; chiefly from Gregory Peck – once again typecast as a paragon of virtue (perhaps, because in life, Peck exhibited similarly immaculate character traits), and, Charlton Heston – rough around the edges and not yet as established in his career, despite having portrayed Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments two years earlier. Alas, between that towering achievement and this one, Heston’s career had experienced an unexpected hiccup. Instead of offers flooding in, almost immediately the well had run dry, relegating Heston to TV work until Wyler’s decision to cast him as Steve Leech, the noble savage/foreman rechristened his big screen image as the ultimate he-man.
From top to bottom, The Big Country is cast with exceptional players; Burl Ives, shedding his ‘Lavender Blue, Dilly-Dilly’ congeniality, in a breakout, Oscar-winning turn as the unscrupulous, Rufus Hannassey; Charles Bickford, as his devious counterpart, Maj. Henry Terrill – who is just as spiteful, though masking it behind his contrived reputation as a gentleman; Carol Baker, the Major’s Scarlett O’Hara-esque daughter, Patricia – enterprising but self-destructive; Jean Simmons, as independent prospector/school marm, Julie Maragon, and finally, Chuck Connors – a deliciously callow baddie, Buck Hannassey. These, among other supporting players, are very fine actors. And yet, in a William Wyler production they seem to acquire something more – something better – more vibrantly visceral and truer still to life; arguably, doing their best work for the man in the director’s chair who today, sadly, requires something of an re-introduction to younger audiences.   
One of the most eclectic directors of his or any other generation, William Wyler began his career determined to explore virtually all aspects of the film-maker’s craft. Directors of Wyler’s caliber were rare, even during his lifetime. They have all but vanished from our present-era of story-tellers. Wyler’s strengths, his proficiency and keen artistic eye, his ability to morph his particular style to suit virtually every genre, made him much in demand during Hollywood’s golden age.  A quick glance at his achievements illustrates a mesmerizing diversity; even more impressive when one considers how often he hit the bullseye with exacting precision. Frankly, it boggles the mind to reconsider how many of Wyler’s masterpieces have gone on to attain the status of certifiable classics: Jezebel (1938 – and winning Bette Davis her second Oscar), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver (the Best Picture of 1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture, 1946), The Heiress (1949 – winning Olivia DeHavilland her Best Actress Oscar), Roman Holiday (1953 – Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar win), The Big Country (1958), Ben-Hur (Best Picture, 1959 and Charlton Heston’s Oscar for Best Actor), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Funny Girl (1968 – Barbra Streisand’s Best Actress Oscar) to name but a handful. If a commonality does exist between these masterworks, it is Wyler’s ability to tell highly personalized stories on a larger-than-life canvas; something that, in later years, would become affectionately known as ‘the Wyler touch’.
The Big Country greatly benefits from ‘the Wyler touch’ – the movie’s vast canvas of craggy mountains and sobering flat vistas spreading for as far as the eye can see, easily brought to heel in the presence of a marvelously crafted screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett and Robert Wilder; itself based on the novel by Donald Hamilton. It’s still the tale of a blood feud between rival land and cattle barons; the Major and Rufus Hannassey struggling to gain everlasting control of ‘the Big Muddy’ – a parcel of fertile land, wedged between their properties, with a small sump and a few trees, desperately desired by both men, but inherited by Julie Maragon, who aims to keep it until such time as she can decide for herself who will make better use of such a bequest.  To this clash of wills, Wyler telescopes our interests in a lover’s triangle between James McKay (Gregory Peck); a lanky Northerner, unaccustomed to the unbridled and lawless edicts of the western frontier, (the proverbial fish out of water – literally, in these sparsely populated plains) his stubborn-headed bride to be, Patricia, who would prefer her man sacrifice a little of his own integrity merely to gratify her misconceptions about the mettle of true manhood, and, Julie; the schoolmarm with the proverbial heart of gold, sought by the boorish reprobate, Buck to be his bride. Destiny, of course, has other plans for all concerned, James eventually coming to realize he has made a grave error in judgment by falling in love with Pat, openly desired by the ranch’s muscular foreman, Steve Leech.
Leech is the jealous type – sort of – unable to recognize what Pat sees in James. He can’t fight worth a damn and doesn’t ride – at least, not ole Thunder, the fiery stallion from which he is repeatedly and embarrassingly thrown at first, but later, through blind perseverance, tames much to Leech’s dismay. In one of the movie’s smaller ironies, Leech’s admiration for James exponentially grows in proportion to Pat’s sudden loss of interest in him. Pat and Julie are best friends. Now, she attempts to shake some sense into Pat’s fool brain about her fiancé. Jim – not Steve - is the real man; the fellow who can think his way out of most any situation, employing his fists only as a last resort. That moment is played out away from the ladies: Steve and Jim in moonlit fisticuffs that leave both men panting on the ground. Jim may not have grown up rough n’ ready in these wilds, but he has proven his adaptability to some of the harshest conditions and obstacles placed in his way. Steve is impressed. Perhaps, he ought to consider Jim, not a rival, but a good man to know in a pinch and have around as his friend.
There is some fairly intense 'bro-mantic' chemistry brewing throughout The Big Country; Steve’s undying devotion to the Major, whom he regards as something of a father figure, challenged by Terrill’s determinist expedition to wipe the Hannasseys clean off their land, and preferably, off the face of the earth, just a tad too blood-thirsty a vision quest for Steve to wholly partake in the end. Interestingly, Steve’s contempt for Jim morphs into admiration after Jim refuses to surrender to his principles. Clearly, actions speak louder than words. Finally, there is Rufus Hannassey, misperceived at the start of the picture as our no-account villain, exploiting three shiftless sons, Buck, Rafe (Chuck Hayward) and Dude (Buff Brady) to terrorize the Terrill clan. Actually, it is the other way around; the Major and Pat increasingly conspiring to break the Hannasseys; Pat willing to sacrifice Jim to her caprice for a knock-down, dragged-out fight that reaches its own unanticipated climax when Jim rides into the Hannassey’s heavily fortified canyon on horseback alone to rescue Julie, who has been taken hostage by Buck under the pretext he intends to marry her and thus, gain control of The Big Muddy. Rufus agrees to Jim’s request to settle their score with pistols at twenty paces; Buck, deviously endeavoring to gun down his adversary before the count is finished. He misses and Jim, waiting for Buck to run true to form, refuses to fire his pistol in rebuttal; instead, allowing Rufus to see his son for what he truly is – a yellow coward.
With the exception of Gregory Peck’s newcomer, all of these menfolk are variations on a theme of untamed masculinity; Charlton Heston, epitomizing the solitary man of the west; broad-shouldered, straight, tall and square-jawed – in short, ruggedly handsome.  However, Peck’s James McKay is the more fascinating to watch; selfless, noble and unaccustomed to the more physically robust challenges of this uncharted wilderness; occasionally derailed in his pursuits because, unlike the others, he does not immediately wear his passions on his sleeve. Culture may separate the man from his instincts, but it does not take the place of satisfaction derived from a primal display of chest-thumping machismo. Yet, even during the fistfight with Steve, or the duel against Buck, Peck’s northerner shows remarkable restraint, or rather, a genuine ‘thinking’ man’s ability to employ wits as well as brawn to effectively bring about a resolution. Like most every western of its era, The Big Country would have us believe in the mythology that these vast spaces were ‘civilized’ without the influence of a good woman…or even a wayward one.
The two female leads featured herein are basic representational femininity at best: Pat – the slightly tomboyish daughter of a wealthy land owner, with a wild streak that can only be tamed by brute force (in short, the girl who would have liked to wear the pants in the family if only she had been born a man), and Julie – self-made, strong-minded, but appropriately feminine; contented to love a man as a woman should – whole-heartedly and for the virtues he already possesses, rather than the one’s Pat so desperately desires Jim to cultivate.  Why Pat never fell for Steve remains one of the oddities of The Big Country, because their temperaments are conveniently alike. Instead, she has thrown herself at the head of a man who neither desires to possess nor dominate her, but would bend to satisfy her every wish; all except one.  It has always been a convention of Hollywood’s that men of intellectual value are somehow more tepid lovers; hampered in their more cerebral satisfactions, leaving the hot, sweaty love-making to their Neolithic counterparts, who lurch about with penetrating stares and their meaty fists perpetually clenched. Heston’s thug muscle, however, is matured by his exposure to Jim’s ‘other kind’ of manly grace, as is Jim’s mutual regard for Steve. They may never be drinking buddies, but each has come to favor the other with more than a modicum of genuine respect and, even perhaps, an ounce of envy for the type of man they can never be.   
The Big Country opens with an exhilarating main title sequence; a stagecoach streaking across these unadorned plains to a thunderous ovation of horses hooves galloping into the dust, memorably underscored by Jerome Moross. Arriving at a small outpost in the middle of this landlocked nowhere is retired sea captain, James McKay (Gregory Peck) who has been anticipating his reunion with fiancée, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) for many months. The stage is met by Steve Leech (Charlton Heston); the beefy, but embittered foreman of Latter Ranch; the most prosperous homestead in these parts, overseen by the superficially congenial, though utterly ruthless, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford); Pat’s father. Leech has lusted after Pat since they were teenagers, even making crude romantic overtures readily dismissed by the lady of the house. Upon returning home from her trip to San Francisco, Pat informed the family she had decided to marry McKay. Now, Leech utterly despises a man he has never met before. His animosity is abundantly clear from their first casual introduction; McKay’s unassuming congeniality only serving to fan the flames of Leech’s imperishable jealousy.
Pat meets McKay in town at the modest home of her good friend, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons); a good natured school teacher put upon by the unwanted affections of Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors). There is a genuine spark of friendship between McKay and Julie that goes unnoticed by Pat, who has idolized McKay all out of proportion to fit her own warped sense of manly grace. But these self-imposed myths are about to rupture when McKay and Pat’s carriage is ambushed on the open road by Buck and his two brothers, Rafe (Chuck Hayward) and Dude (Buff Brady). The brothers make a mockery of McKay’s gentile good nature, simultaneously incurring Pat’s wrath and shame. She cannot understand why McKay will not fight these ruffians. Back at the ranch, Pat informs the Major of their run in with the Hannassey brothers and this prompts Terrill to order an ambush of the Hannassey’s canyon hideaway, despite Jim’s strenuous objections.
Actually, the Major is just looking for another excuse to engage the Hannassey’s father, curmudgeonly Rufus (Burl Ives, in a bone-chilling performance) in a showdown to assert his own authority. The Major has Steve and a posse of Latter’s ranch hands go into town. They ambush Rafe and Dude at a brothel and beat the tar out of them in a public spectacle that is bent on humiliation. But Buck, the ringleader, escapes this assault, cowardly hiding in the back of an open carriage, only to return home and incur the wrath of his father, who already considers Buck a colossal disappointment. To temper their confrontation, Buck lies to his father about having secured Julie’s romantic intentions in a possible engagement. In doing so, Rufus reasons the Hannasseys might be closer than ever to gaining control over ‘The Big Muddy’ – the only fresh water reserve for miles. Julie currently holds the deed to The Big Muddy and has liberally allowed both the Hannasseys and the Terrills access to her sump to water their horses and cattle. Meanwhile, back at Latter Ranch, McKay disappoints his bride yet again by refusing to accept Leech’s public challenge to ride ‘Old Thunder’; a wild stallion no one, not even Leech has been able to tame. Pat misperceives McKay’s refusal as sheer cowardice. But actually, McKay is more determined than ever to break the stallion, only in his own way and good time.
After the others have gone away, McKay repeatedly saddles the violent steed with the aid of stable hand, Ramon Guitares (Alfonso Bedoya). He is as easily thrown many times. Bruised and bloodied, though decidedly undaunted, McKay’s slow but steady approach eventually domesticates the horse. Hence, when Steve and his men return from their lynching of the Hannessey brothers, they find McKay parading about the paddock on Old Thunders back.  Sometime later, the Major invites Julie and a host of guests from the nearby town to his home to announce Pat’s engagement to McKay. But the mood turns sour when Rufus arrives uninvited with his rifle in hand. He informs Terrill he will no longer tolerate raids on his homestead and further challenges the Major to reveal himself to his guests by shooting him in the back to satisfy his obvious bloodlust and hatred of the Hannasseys. This showdown ends peaceably, but McKay has already begun to have second thoughts about marrying into this family, as has Pat about taking him for her husband.
McKay and Julie become chummy after he accidentally stumbles across The Big Muddy while on a solitary exploratory ride through the canyons. Learning of its importance in keeping the strained peace between the Hannasseys and the Terrills, McKay offers to buy the land as a wedding present for Pat, but then breaks off his engagement to keep the land for himself after realizing Pat’s love as irreversibly cooled. Leech decides to confront McKay in a midnight brawl outside Latter Ranch. At long last fed up with having to chronically reaffirm his manhood, McKay meets this challenge and, despite being the physically weaker of the two, refuses to buckle or surrender. His stubbornness earns Leech’s respect. To satisfy the lie he told his father, Buck kidnaps Julie and takes her to the Hannassey’s canyon hideaway. But after questioning Julie, Rufus realizes she has absolutely no intension of marrying his son. When McKay comes to her rescue, Rufus informs Julie she would be wise to send him away to spare his life. At the last possible moment, Rufus has a change of heart, suggesting a more telling redemption; a gentlemen’s duel between Buck and James for Julie’s honor.
Alas, Buck is no gentleman and proves it when he prematurely fires his pistol at McKay before Rufus has had a chance to finish the countdown. His lousy shot misses McKay and Rufus orders his son to stand his ground while McKay takes his clear shot in retaliation. Instead, Buck panics and attempts to hide behind a carriage. McKay deliberately spoils his shot, inferring Buck isn’t worthy of an honorable death. Realizing McKay has upheld his part of the bargain, as well as maintained his honor while Buck has disgraced his, Rufus shoots his own son dead. The echo of gunfire draws the Terrill posse into the canyon. But at the last minute, Leech draws his men back, leaving the Major and Rufus to finish their blood feud as lone adversaries. The men kill each other and Julie and McKay depart the canyon for the wide open spaces, presumably to start their lives anew as man and wife.
The Big Country is a viscerally stirring masterpiece, although at the time of its theatrical release it was regarded as little more than a middling western. Yet, there is something refreshingly primal about the relationships director, William Wyler fosters; the implied sensuality in these shifting male/female bonds, played in sharp contrast to the overtly confrontational and testosterone-infused prowess exercised within the company of men. The most compelling of these adversarial relationships is arguably, Leech and McKay. Both Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston are at the top of their game in this movie; instinctually representatives of the polar opposites in the male animal. Peck, as has already been discussed, is playing to type as the man of integrity – an onscreen persona equally cultivated in his private life. Heston’s performance is the breakthrough, diametrically different from the real man, and, riveting in all its complexity. Even today, Heston’s superior handling of Steve Leech’s raw persona is something of a revelation. It would eventually cause William Wyler to consider casting him as the lead in his epic and Oscar-winning remake of Ben-Hur (1959).   
Conversely, Carroll Baker’s Pat and Jean Simons’ Julie represent two sides of conflicted femininity; the first fundamentally flawed and destined to live perpetually dissatisfied and unhappily ever after; the second the quintessential clear-eyed gal, long matured beyond those childhood fantasies about male heroism. Julie understands human imperfection – male imperfection even better, perhaps. She has had to come to terms with life, coming from nothing and equally values hard work and personal growth, along the way establishing her own creed and mottos by which to live. In many ways, Julie’s the real woman in this big country while Pat, at least intellectually, has remained as the adolescent tomboy from her youth, wearing dresses now, but still very much filling her head with notions of the proverbial white knight astride his steed. She fancies herself the princess of this piece, when time instead will bear her out as a variation on the wicked queen.  It isn’t all Pat’s doing. After all, she is the Major’s daughter and, as such, a woman largely fostered by her father’s pride. What was it they used to say about pride…coming before…?
Finally, we doff our caps to the formidable contributions of both Charles Bickford, as Major Terrill and Burl Ives, in his Oscar-winning role as Rufus. The genius herein is how William Wyler gradually illustrates the startling similarities between these two life-long adversaries; Wyler drawing on basic parallels (ego, drive, and, jealousy) to narrow the chasm of trait disparities between a seemingly upstanding citizen and the curmudgeonly hermit from the hills. Both men are devoted to their families. Each is hell-bent on destroying the other, merely for want of the same thing. In a perfect world, these two might have formed an alliance to rule these wide open spaces. Instead, they have devoted themselves to the willful destruction of everything each has worked so hard to obtain. The Big Country deserves a bigger profile than it currently possesses among critics. I would sincerely rank it as one of the top 5 western movies of all time; just behind The Magnificent Seven (1960), Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956) and High Noon (1952).
Initially, The Big Country had its debut as a Wal-Mart exclusive in the U.S. – an idiotic and now mostly defunct practice. I mean, what were the studios thinking, limiting the availability of a 50+ year old movie to only one vendor and not even promoting the exclusivity as such? Mercifully, The Big Country has long since become a mainstream release, and, it is about time too. MGM/Fox Home Video has done a magnificent job remastering The Big Country in 1080p. The results speak for themselves. There’s no point comparing the image quality herein to their tired old DVD release except to say that in hi-def the image is as near to perfect as we are likely to have without a full-blown restoration being performed. All in all, the Blu-ray is spectacular, sporting razor sharp clarity, vibrant colors, solid contrast levels and an impressive amount of indigenous film grain. The opening main titles have been color corrected to extol their original copper hue (on the DVD they looked almost B&W).  
There are a few very brief instances of gate weave and one fleeting close-up of Gregory Peck, horrendously marred by age-related artefacts (it’s odd, looking almost to have been inserted from second or third generation source materials archived from under a rock).  Otherwise, this Blu-ray is very fine indeed. The DTS 5.1 audio really ratchets up Jerome Moross’ underscore, full of brass and bombast. Dialogue is directionalized and sounds fairly natural, with SFX perfectly integrated. My singular regret is the extras; only a vintage – and badly worn – featurette and TV spots. No audio commentary or new featurette on the making of the film. The Big Country deserves better. But otherwise, this disc comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, September 21, 2015

GRAND PRIX: Blu-ray (MGM 1966) Warner Home Video

In 1966, director, John Frankenheimer debuted one of the most exhilarating and immersive 70mm film experiences in modern screen history. In many ways, Grand Prix (1966) is a departure from narrative movie-making. To be certain, films about racing and its unsung heroes were nothing new. Yet, if race cars appeared at all on the big screen until then, they had been exploited as mere backdrop – stylish, gleaming props, photographed against rear projection with little regard to capture the authenticity of the racing experience on film. With a desire to put his audience in the driver's seat, Frankenheimer's free-flowing tribute to man and his machine would mark the legitimate debut of racing in the movies. And Frankenheimer couldn’t just give us the race as it occurred, shot overhead with a weighty Cinerama camera strapped to the undercarriage of a helicopter. Oh no – not Frankenheimer’s style. Henceforth, we get an almost balletic display of the arduous circuits that make up the celebrated competition; Frankenheimer’s camera placed at the most intensifying angles, the whole impact of these startling wide angle images magnified by title editor, Saul Bass’ extraordinary marriage of movement to sound; the rumbling, blast and echo from steaming tail pipes, multiplied in kaleidoscopic overlays and set to Maurice Jarre’s unorthodox underscore, once heard in six-channel stereo, never to be forgotten. 
At the start of Grand Prix – the movie, John Frankenheimer fills the screen with a compendium of images, collectively representing the high-stakes reality of its competition. He uses legitimate shots of crowds gathered in Monte Carlo and actual F-1 drivers, mechanics and pit crew preparing for the 1966 race. At once, the genius and fascination behind his storytelling is established. As an audience, we are pressed to question; is this going to be a narrative movie or a docu-drama based in reality? Well…Grand Prix is a little of both and very much more than just another movie about male chest-thumping in the world of stock car champions out to test endurance and faith in their machinery with unbridled speed. Grand Prix is engrossing, ambitious, even audacious film-making; so blindingly inventive and riveting in spots that one can easily overlook the rather conventional handling of its decidedly cardboard cutout characters, etched into our collective memory by Robert Alan Aurthur’s ability to write mere linking passages between Frankenheimer’s indulgences behind the wheel.
Even so, we cannot help but get involved in one of three narratives unravelling behind-the-scenes. Aurthur asks us to affix our star to the passionate Pete Aron (James Garner); considered something of a bad luck charm after his split second ill-fated decision making causes fellow driver, Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) to nearly lose his life. Stoddard has been living in the shadow of his late brother; a scapegoat for the family honor and ruthlessly pushed into the limelight and toward a very public nervous breakdown by his unscrupulous manager, Jeff Jordon (Jack Watson) as Scott’s self-destructive wife, Pat (Jessica Walter) looks on with daggers in her heart. Then there is Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand); France’s great white hope, whose precision and cool-headedness under pressure remain unchallenged, but are soon to be put to the test as Sarti takes up with fashion editor, Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). On the sidelines, though still in the race, is the pompous and womanizing Italian, Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato…we can see where Jr. got his looks and attitude), taken up with the devil-may-care car junkie, Lisa (Françoise Hardy). Rounding out the international cast are Toshirô Mifune and Adolfo Celi as Japanese manufacturer, Izo Yamura and Ferrari company president, Agostini Manetta respectively. After everyone, including Manetta, gives Aron the cold shoulder, Pete gets the opportunity to drive again, this time for Yamura in the pivotal race that will decide the fate of many in this death-defying profession.
At the time Grand Prix was set to go before the Cinerama cameras, it was being touted in the trades as one of MGM’s road show ‘landmark’ movies. Yet, with Grand Prix the studio got so much more, Frankenheimer effectively moving Formula-1 out of its relative obscurity as a niche sport, usually seen only in fuzzy black and white still images and/or newspaper clippings, brought into an extreme and viscerally nail-biting motion picture experience. Grand Prix netted MGM millions, temporarily staving off the studio’s inevitable demise; Hollywood’s premiere production company becoming the victim of a very hostile corporate takeover.  Determined, as he was, to capture the experience of the actual 1966 Grand Prix on film, Frankenheimer was given unprecedented access to the racing circuit, inserting fictional characters into a compelling back story that, for many a racing enthusiast since, has served as a vintage snap shot and time capsule marking the moment when Formula One (F-1) racing left its ‘independent’ roots to become a worldwide commercial phenomenon.
The roots of Grand Prix motor racing are not discussed in the Aurthur’s screenplay, but bear further – if brief – mention in any review of the movie itself. Begun as a fashionable past time amongst the wealthy in France in 1894, the Grand Prix quickly escalated from an extreme test of physical endurance for both driver and car to a heart-palpitating spectacle in the 1920’s, drawing scores of spectators to marvel at the 100mph speeds, readily challenged and broken. Despite these advances, Formula One racing, circa the early 1960’s, had retained an elusive quality as belonging to the moneyed and inbred thrill seeker. Driving vehicles that, by today’s standards are perilously unsafe, with very little control over their brakes and grip – and, at speeds topping 150mph - F-1 drivers were amongst the most daredevil and respected sportsmen. A gregarious brotherhood was born: drawing wild, risk-taking personalities to the forefront and creating its own mythology along the way.
It was the Cooper Car Company’s evolution in racer design – brought on by the relocation of F-1 engines behind the driver’s seat instead of in front – that began a new era in auto racing. Within a few short years, rear engine design was the accepted standard and, by the mid-60’s, the 1 ½ liter engine had given way to a deluxe 3 liter model, adding to the complexity of each car’s engineering. In this pre-commercial epoch of F-1 celebrity, cars were primarily built by individuals – not car companies; Ferrari being the one exception to this rule. F-1 racer, Jack Brabham, as example, built the car that won him the 1966 Grand Prix, the same year the fictional Pete Aron takes home the coveted trophy in the film, Grand Prix. Alas, the lack of uniform fabrication on a mass scale yielded to a virtual litany of guaranteed mechanical failures during every racing season. Some were minor disappointments and hiccups. Many, however, proved near fatal.  The men who designed these vehicles were not established engineers and were interested in only one criteria of performance: speed – in hindsight; a recipe for disaster.
With such disregard for driver safety and the increasingly severe and unpredictable state of racing conditions, F-1 racing practically guaranteed a few drivers would die each season. Those odds exponentially grew for each driver with each season he re-entered the competition and remained accident free. Veterans of the sport had little more than five years behind them. Titans could proudly boast surviving ten years with life-threatening injuries as their badges of courage and honor. Reporters assigned to cover these races often focused more intensely on the casualties. After all, a ‘good’ disaster sold lots of copy. In preparing Grand Prix for its ‘up close and personal’ with the Cinerama camera, John Frankenheimer was well aware of this casualty list as well as the logistics behind pulling off such a coup. But Frankenheimer was buoyed by his own ego and his passion for the sport, his deepest admiration for its victors and his even more genuine humility for the fallen. 
Much of Frankenheimer’s early career had been spent studying film’s ability to bottle up the illusiveness of verisimilitude: reality and fiction running a parallel course. As remarkable as it may seem today, Grand Prix was only Frankenheimer’s eighth movie. By far, it remains his most technically proficient and ambitious. But nothing in Frankenheimer’s early repertoire as a TV director could have prepared him for the tribulations of the real Grand Prix. Overall, he was a congenial sort. But he could lose his patience when he felt he was not getting everything from an actor or crew member. This delicate balance between benevolent collaborator and tyrannical despot set precedence while on location in Monte Carlo. Frankenheimer broke new ground on Grand Prix. But the shoot nearly busted everyone else down to bedrock. Still, the movie not only introduced audiences to the spectacle of F-1 racing; it did so in a tremendous splash of sights and sounds captured in the grandiloquence of 70mm Cinerama; a hi-fidelity motion picture presentation, arguably, never equaled. By 1966, Cinerama’s cumbersome 3-camera setup had given way to this newer and less problematic single-strip precursor to modern-day Panavision. While some Cinerama purists have poo-pooped the transition as not having the same equilibrium-altering effects as its predecessor, when projected onto a massive curved screen, Grand Prix proved every inch the exhilarating ‘you are there’ movie-going experience.
Actor, Steve McQueen had always been Frankenheimer’s first choice for the part of American driver, Pete Aron. Initially, McQueen expressed interest. Unfortunately, for Frankenheimer – he sent assistant, Eddie Lewis in his stead to iron out the contractual negotiations. Reportedly, McQueen took an instant dislike to Lewis, thereafter dropping out of the project. The part of Pete Aron would ultimately go to James Garner instead. Believing he had been foisted onto Frankenheimer by the studio, Garner eventually came to respect Frankenheimer.  Although director and star fell in and out of their syncopated rhythm as shooting progressed, Garner would later muse, “John ran roughshod over most everyone in the cast.” Except for Garner, principles were remanded in the care of Jim Russell’s racing school for an intense 3-week training session to master the hairpin turns for each course in the Grand Prix circuit. Frankenheimer absolutely refused to use doubles for these racing sequences, arguing there had been too many ‘fake’ movies about racing and he was not about to make another one.  Reluctantly, Frankenheimer was coaxed by Russell to use a stand-in for Brian Bedford after the actor proved he could not master the art of shifting gears. As for Garner; he was assigned F-1 champion, Bob Bondurant as his private instructor. The two spent a month at Willow Springs, at the end of which Bondurant gave a glowing appraisal of his pupil’s capabilities - “He can race with the best of them!” And indeed, Garner would do exactly that, with a Cinerama camera strapped to his racer no less, although during one harrowing moment, a ruptured gas line caused Garner’s car to be engulfed in flames; the moment, captured on film as Garner successfully brought his racer to the curb, leaping to relative safety; his pit crew waiting with fire extinguishers in hand.
As cast continued to hone their racing skills, Frankenheimer unintentionally garnered a bit of negative press in Monte Carlo. The director’s penchant for doing things his own way (some would suggest ‘the hard way’), coupled with a certain dispensation for the niceties in his solitary quest for total perfection, circulated the rumor Frankenheimer could be counted on to be utterly demonstrative. In retrospect, this snap assessment of Frankenheimer’s general demeanor seems quite unfair. After all, Frankenheimer was an artist, and artists are regularly allotted a certain margin for temperament. Yet, even prior to stirring this buzz about his reputation, Frankenheimer quickly discovered a genuine and growing animosity amongst the professional drivers.  “Everybody was skeptical about another movie being made about racing,” Frankenheimer confided many years later, “As a matter of fact, Ferrari wanted nothing to do with it.” The rebuke is significant – since without Ferrari’s participation, Grand Prix lacked the authenticity Frankenheimer so desperately needed to legitimize his movie. The only Formula-1 racer on Frankenheimer’s side was Carroll Shelby, who proved the lynch pin in securing other drivers, Dan Gurney and Phil Hill to a two year exclusivity contract. Eventually, pros Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren would also join the cast, adding even more authenticity to the production.
Still, the grumbling continued. After all, allowing Frankenheimer access to shoot key sequences along the circuit just hours – or in a few cases, minutes – before the actual race, meant less time for the real mechanics and drivers to test the course in preparation for the real race.  But the Monte Carlo shoot was even further complicated by a minor snafu between the two ‘owners’ of this coastal principality; as both the Onasis and Grimaldi families refused Frankenheimer public access to portions of the streets necessary to shoot the race on the same day.  For the most part, Frankenheimer kept his cool, although at one point James Garner had unkind words of his own to pass along to one of Monte’s shop keeps. The incident began innocently enough with negotiation between Frankenheimer and a small band of local merchants whose businesses lined the narrow and winding streets. The production unit manger had paid compensation for all of them to stay indoors and keep their doors closed while Frankenheimer restaged portions of the race for the benefit of close-ups and in-car shots. However, upon further consideration, a few of the merchants banded together, feeling more remuneration was in order. Meanwhile, Garner – who had been dunked in the Mediterranean and loaded onto a boat in preparation for another key sequence, was quietly developing a chill. After thirty minutes of stalemate between Frankenheimer and the shop keepers, Garner ordered the boat back to shore, whereupon he made it quite clear, in no uncertain terms, that unless the proprietors cleared their premises immediately, he was prepared to start tossing each and every last one of them into the Mediterranean for an impromptu swim. 
As the actual Grand Prix got underway, Frankenheimer found yet another form of opposition brewing from the local officials in Monte Carlo. His cameraman, John Stevens had been outfitted on a rig inside an Alouette-3 helicopter for aerial photography. But the pursuit of cars around the difficult terrain and winding streets necessitated the copter swooping down on crowds at very severe and dangerous angles. Publicly, Frankenheimer instructed the pilot and Stevens to remain more removed from the action – then, in private commanded them to come as close as possible to the spectacle: the result, some of the most breathtaking aerial racing footage ever captured on film. To stage the initial horrific accident that cripples fictional character, Scott Stoddard, Frankenheimer and special effects man, Milton Rice came up with the inspired notion of removing the engine from one of the cars, creating a mockup with a dummy on board; then, firing the car from a hydrogen canon. The final effect proved startlingly real.
However, there is a postscript of irony pertaining to this staged wreck. During the planning stages for this catastrophe, Frankenheimer had walked the Monte Carlo course with F-1 driver, Lorenzo Bandini to make inquiries as to where on the actual circuit such an accident would most likely occur.  Bandini prophetically directed Frankenheimer’s attention to ‘the Dog Leg’; a perilous twisting stretch of road that would claim his life two years later under an almost identical set of circumstances as depicted in the film.  Immediately following wrap up on the Monte Carlo shoot Frankenheimer rushed to complete what would ultimately become his ‘minor miracle.’ Frenetically cutting together the first thirty minutes of his movie, including all of this racing footage, the director telephoned the head of the Ferrari Corporation with an invitation to a private screening.  Although receiving a very frosty initial reception, the director of the Ferrari Corporation eventually relented to Frankenheimer’s request. But any apprehensions Frankenheimer may have had going into the screening were immediately quashed after the house lights came up. Not only was Ferrari on board with its participation on the project from this moment on, it would also grant Frankenheimer unprecedented access to its manufacturing facilities where several crucial sequences were ultimately filmed.
Robert Alan Arthur's screenplay for Grand Prix weaves a threadbare fictional narrative in between Frankenheimer's peerless racing footage. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a rivalry between American F-1 racer, Pete Aron (James Gardner) and his former racing partner, Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford). Pete races for the love and thrill of it. But his split second decision to allow Scott to pass him on the narrowest of stretches during the Del Monaco race results in a near fatal accident. Upon his recovery, Stoddard, an introspective and insecure Englishman, living in the shadow of his dead brother, teeters on the verge of mental collapse. He suffers from night sweats while his marriage to sultry American model, Pat (Jessica Walter) successively crumbles. After the accident, racing manager and notorious sponge - Jeff Jordon (Jack Watson) dumps Pete from his roster – erroneously sighting incompetence as the culprit for Scott's accident. In reality, Jordon is backing Scott because his family has the funds to keep him solvent. Meanwhile, Pete approaches the head of the Ferrari Company, Agostini Manetta (Adolfo Celi) for sponsorship; alas, to no avail. Instead, he is relegated to the press corp. But a reprieve of sorts comes from Japanese manufacturer, Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) whose deep admiration provides Pete with a new opportunity to drive.
Meanwhile, French racer and champion, Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is contemplating an extra-marital affair with American fashion magazine editor, Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint) – a miscalculation that will end in tragedy. Finally, we are introduced to Italian racer, Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) whose characterization of the suave Lothario is very much an overplayed stereotype boiling into cliché. The beauty or perhaps the curse of the Grand Prix circuit is no two courses are alike, presenting Frankenheimer and his crew with a set of unique and occasionally dangerous challenges to overcome, not the least, an impromptu thunderstorm that caused many of the racers to veer off course or smash into sandy embankments, all of it caught on film and later used in the final edit.  As the qualifying meets unfold and tension builds for the final race, Pete realizes he will be in direct competition with his old partner. Anxiety gets the better of Scott. But the unexpected casualty of the last race is Sarti, having swerved at a high velocity to avoid a wreck and suddenly forced off the elevated highway to his bloody death on the tarmac far below.
Louise is driven mad by the recovery of his body, but perhaps more so when, at the finish line, she briefly encounters, Sarti’s wife, Monique Delvaux-Sarti (Geneviève Page) who, in death, if not in life, lays claim to her husband’s remains. Grand Prix’s most sobering moment follows. Having been foisted upon the shoulders of his new backer and pit crew for winning the race, Pete Aron now surveys the aftermath to this exercise; the bandstands emptied of their leering/cheering crowds; the marching band retired and all the cars put away for another season; the track empty, except for the littered debris left behind by its revelers, who have probably already forgotten his name and the victory. Pete turns away from the camera with a shrug, walking off into the distance as the piercing sound of revving engines begins to echo yet again – real or imagined – reminding the viewer of a time-honored maxim: “all fame is fleeting.”
While many racing purists criticized and even denounced Grand Prix as sensationalizing the dangers of Formula-1 racing, the truth is Frankenheimer had meticulously researched F-1’s history. The recreated wrecks in his movie were actually ripped from sports newspaper clippings, interviews and relayed accounts from real drivers, some of whom had watched helplessly as their colleagues slipped into that margin of error and lost their lives as a result.  As though to prove the point, on April 7, 1968, F-1 racing lost one of its most enigmatic personalities, Jim Clark, in a horrific accident – ironically played out on an inferior F-2 course in Germany. Later attributed to mechanical error, Clark’s demise sent shockwaves throughout the sport. Considered an ‘untouchable’ at the pinnacle of his career, Clark’s death impacted F-1 racing considerably.  Most immediately, it forced engineers to redesign the width and separation of tires on all racers and standardize the adjustment as a pre-qualifier for anyone wishing to partake. Until Clark’s time, tires were apt to fly off when pressed into service under extreme mechanical duress. After Clark’s death, all F-1 racers were required to have their tires bolted to their suspension. In the wake of Clark’s loss, another driver, Jackie Stewart emerged as the unsung crusader for more advanced safety measures. In fact, Stewart would make it his personal manifesto to rid the sport of such unbearable calamities. Initially, he met with vehement opposition from his fellow racers. Eventually, Stewart was successful in getting the Sport’s Commission to accept more stringent safety measures, such as security barriers and seatbelts; since a part of the accepted racing standard. 
Today, Formula-1 racing is arguably no longer the sport of true daredevils. While the very real risk of injury still exists, fatalities have been greatly reduced and are rare. And the days of the independent are long gone too; given way to corporate sponsorship by mainstream automotive companies gearing up to out-flex one another’s engineering muscle. The likes of Ferrari have been met with competition from Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda; revolutionizing automotive design; the bygone rickety creations now supercharged, high-tech ‘billboards’ for their companies.  In reflecting on the movie, Grand Prix today, this aforementioned transformation pegs Frankenheimer’s movie as decidedly a time capsule from the 1960’s. But Grand Prix remains as compelling and as exhilarating as ever. Undeniably, the skillful editing of Saul Bass, diverse performances from the international cast and Maurice Jarre’s melodious orchestral arrangements immensely contribute to Grand Prix’s timeless allure.
But Grand Prix is far from more deserving than of the moniker foisted upon it by some critics as just another soap opera wrapped in the enigma of an action movie. Grand Prix’s legacy is enriched by Frankenheimer’s dedication to making the most authentic movie about the profession ever, as yet, attempted. Yet, at its core, there is really only one name to which all of the credit for the picture’s success must go - John Frankenheimer. In his dedication to really getting down to the nuts and bolts of Formula-1 racing, his unforgiving and telescopic focus, occasionally misconstrued as belligerence rather than perfectionism, Frankenheimer’s perseverance as a film maker has since stamped Grand Prix with the mark of excellence that few movies – racing or otherwise – can lay claim. In a sea of imitations depicting life behind the wheel, Frankenheimer’s remains the one true testament to the greatness of the sport, and, as time goes by there is little to suggest another will be forthcoming to better his efforts. “When I look back…” Frankenheimer mused years after the thunder and roar had ceased to echo in his ears, “…I don’t know how the hell we ever did that film!” Almost fifty years later, racing enthusiasts and film fans alike remain eternally grateful to Frankenheimer – that he dared to try. Gentlemen…start your engines!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a checkered flag winner through and through. One aspect of Grand Prix that ought to be addressed before continuing is the confusion over aspect ratios. The opening credits portend the film as being shot “in Cinerama” (presumably the single camera derivative). Yet, just a few credits later, we get an insert announcing it has been photographed in Super Panavision 70. These two processes are irreconcilable. Whatever the case, the image is wide gauge widescreen, in aspect ratio, mimicking the proportions of Todd A-O. Grand Prix has decidedly NOT been photographed in Todd A-O. But I digress. On Blu-ray, Grand Prix roars to life with colors that are deeply rich and vibrant. This is to be expected since the original camera negative whether Cinerama or Super Panavision has a lot to offer hi-def and/or vice versa. Colors, particularly reds and greens, really do pop. Flesh tones look quite natural throughout and there is a startling amount of fine detail in hair, fabrics, background foliage, etc. to digest and appreciate. Occasionally, interiors can appear just a tad washed out or, shall we say, less vibrant than exterior photography. But age-related artifacts are non-existent for a very smooth and compelling visual presentation.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital – alas, no DTS for this catalog title. At the time of its theatrical release, Grand Prix’s sound mix was considered state of the art. Today, there is still much to admire in the multiple overlays of effects layered to suggest a total immersion of the racing experience. Despite these advances, dialogue never sounds natural but thin and occasionally strident. The Blu-ray's digital tracks accurately capture these dated characteristics. Extras include ‘making-of’ featurettes that are engrossing, with interviews from real racers and film stars alike as well as several other informative featurettes on the racing culture and featuring the late Frankenheimer schmoozing about his contributions on the film. We also get the original theatrical trailer. All of these extras were included on Warner's 2-disc SE DVD from some years ago. Nevertheless, Grand Prix in 1080p comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)