Wednesday, November 30, 2016

HOWARDS END: Blu-ray (Merchant-Ivory 1992) Cohen Media Group

The brilliant film-making triumvirate of producer, Ismail Merchant, director, James Ivory and screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala marked their 30th anniversary in picture-making with Howards End (1992); a sublime masterpiece about the waning English Edwardian aristocracy. If only more costume dramas sparkled with such eclectic vibrancy, were as astutely nuanced and as precisely crafted as this, there would be more costume dramas being made today. It is no overstatement to suggest Howards End kicked off a minor renaissance for literary classics coming to the big screen; a project for which Merchant could find virtually no American backers, except Orion Pictures, offering more ‘moral support’ than financing, and, leaving the enterprising producer to seek his moneys elsewhere; roughly forty-five percent coming from a consortium of Japanese investors culled by one admirer of Merchant-Ivory’s previous efforts (1987’s Maurice a huge critical and financial success in Japan) with the rest cobbled together from Merchant’s personal contacts in Britain. Based on E.M. Forester’s intellectual deconstruction of Britain’s rigid caste system, Howards End – the stately country respite owned by the affluent Wilcox family – is Forster’s metaphor for the demise of an England forcibly divested of its once seemingly indestructible ‘ruling class’ sovereignty, overtaken by the gaining attitudes and financial independence of its middling and lower ranks.  As in Forester’s novel, Howards End – the movie – concludes with this bucolic oasis, built to cater to refined tastes, inherited by the illegitimate son of a deceased, London-based insurance clerk.
It should be noted that apart from his own literary idealism, Forester harbored virtually no real passion for the lower classes; bent to suggest that if only these self-imposed barriers of class distinction were abolished, the social indifferences facing the nation could finally melt away to reveal the truest moral integrity of its peoples. In adapting the novel for the screen, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala would jettison James Ivory’s favorite scene; Margaret Schlegel’s leap from a moving automobile after the callous Charles Wilcox has run over a cat, refusing to go back to see if the animal has, in fact, been mortally wounded. According to director Ivory, this scene was filmed, though almost immediately discarded. Initially, Prawer Jhabvala brought Howards End to Ismail Merchant’s attention. Ivory had read the novel twice in his youth, but found nothing to consider it might make a good movie, while Merchant later openly admitted, “it was very slow going for me!” In the final days of the editing process, Ivory confessed his belief the picture lacked something; a sentiment concurred by the screenwriter. “Well…” Ruth reportedly told him, “It is what it is.” And yet, how utterly wrong two artists can be about their own work. From the luxury of hindsight, Howards End is perhaps Merchant-Ivory’s greatest achievement; a place for first, tied only with the release of their subsequent farewell to period costume drama; another visually arresting cerebral masterpiece - The Remains of the Day (1993). Both movies evoke an articulate uber-wit and sophistication to thoroughly contradict the budgetary restrictions imposed on each at the time of their making.
Howards End was made for around $8 million, to put this sum into perspective, roughly what it costs today to shoot a sixty second Super Bowl commercial. Even in 1992, the average movie budget in America was twice as much; Ismail Merchant keeping very tight reins on his investor’s dollars, photographing the entire movie on location and concentrating his hard-won moneys on hiring exactly the right cast and crew to flesh out the period details. First to be cast was Anthony Hopkins, chiefly upon a recommendation made to Ivory by actor, James Wilby (who had played the titular and tragically flawed title character in Maurice, and would costar again in Howards End as Charles Wilcox). We must recall: in 1992, Anthony Hopkins was all but an unknown quantity in America, having squandered his early start in the international picture-making biz by the late seventies, suffering a terrible tumble into alcoholism. But now, Hopkins seemed rife for a comeback and on the verge of rediscovery by the public, having just completed principle photography on Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, ironically, a movie also being made for the beleaguered Orion Pictures. As Ivory was involved in final edits on The Slaves of New York, working only a stone’s throw from where Hopkins was doing dialogue redubs for the aforementioned picture, Ivory simply elected to pass along a copy of the script via a mutual go-between; thereby undercutting all the red tape of having to consult with agents. Almost immediately, Hopkins warmed to Howards End and without hesitation agreed to partake.
Ivory also elected to hire Helena Bonham Carter for the pivotal role of the impetuous Helen Schlegel. Bonham Carter had appeared to solid effect as the ingénue, Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With A View (1985), despite, by her own admission, being in “my own Foresterian muddle. In fact, I wasn’t even all that interested in getting the job…which I suppose is a real lesson in life. You walk in another direction and the part comes to you.” Owing to her success in that part Bonham Carter also found herself thrust into a cameo in Maurice; a frantic last minute substitute for a walk-on part yet to be cast. “I liked that she was all action, impulse, passionate and pretty flawed,” Bonham Carter later explained about Helen Schlegel, her greatly expanded role in Howards End; “Utterly thoughtless, but nevertheless quite appealing. I always find fanaticism funny. It’s disturbing too, but sometimes when people are so single-minded, I find it humorous on some level.” And indeed, Bonham Carter brings a sort of deliciously light screwball element to Helen Schlegel; a marginally obtuse quality, rife for the polite wink and nudge; the Edwardian’s equivalent to today’s slap n’ tickle.
The pivotal role of Helen’s sister, Margaret, had yet to be cast when Merchant and Ivory met Emma Thompson; then, chiefly known in England as the wife of Shakespearean actor, Kenneth Branagh. Ivory recalls, “…she read from the novel rather than the script…intelligently, and I just knew I had found Margaret. There couldn’t be anyone else to do it.”  Nevertheless, Ivory hesitated, perhaps owing to Thompson’s lack of cache in the business. Some time passed as the creative duo concentrated looking at other actors to fill the remaining roles. Fearful her first impression may have cooled since, Thompson sent Ivory an ardent note, in essence stating “…this is such a wonderful project, wonderful script, that my heart is in it and if you should decide to use me I will do justice to it.” That did it. Thompson was in. In retrospect, her performance dominates as the graceful centerpiece of a very intricate mobile of interlocking relationships; the actress giving an almost lyrical performance as the intellectually stimulated and outspoken Margaret; all evidence to the contrary on Oscar night when, upon winning the Best Actress statuette presented to her by Anthony Hopkins, a very giddy Thompson gave one of the most charmingly glib acceptance speeches in more recent Academy history, in part saying “…to E.M Forster for writing Margaret Schlegel…to James Ivory for asking me to play her and to Ismail Merchant – for paying me to play her which, at this moment, seems highly unnecessary…I think I might have to give the money back…and particularly to Sir Anthony Hopkins for – like this – being the Knight of my life…”
Others in the cast were eventually culled from personal recommendations and a bit of inspired kismet. Actress, Felicity Kendell, who had appeared for Merchant-Ivory in Shakespeare Wallah (1965) suggested up-and-coming actor, Samuel West for the pivotal role of Leonard Bast; the impoverished clerk who, having taken to wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett), a former prostitute and one-time mistress of Henry Wilcox, meets with an untimely end at Howards End. As West’s mother was Prunella Scales, an accomplished English actress in her own right, Ivory also cast Scales as the Schlegel’s pert, yet dotty, Aunt Juley. The one role not left to chance was Wilcox’s first wife, Ruth. From the beginning, Ismail Merchant had desperately wanted and sought out Vanessa Redgrave to play this part; repeatedly plying the actress with compliments and, over a period of several months, resubmitting the screenplay for her consideration. Redgrave, whose globe-trotting itinerary usually led to delays and distractions, remained noncommittal. Hence, as the time drew nearer for the start of production, she had yet to sign on the dotted line. To sweeten the deal, both Merchant and Ivory invited Redgrave to tea at the Waldorf; Ismail putting all his cards on the table. Anticipating indecision, Redgrave bluntly asked for her salary to be doubled, to which Merchant, without a moment’s hesitation, agreed. “If she had asked for the moon I would have found a way to get it for her,” Merchant later confessed, to which Ivory, shaking his head, simply added, “…a very bad precedent!”
One of the hallmarks of a Merchant-Ivory production is its meticulous preplanning; often months in advance and usually long before even the moneys have been accrued to begin making any definite plans. Indeed, Ismail Merchant would make one of his most fortuitous decisions by adding Production Designer Luciana Arrighi to his roster of ‘behind-the-camera’ talents. Arrighi, who possessed an unimpeachable eye for elegance and refinement would describe how, two years before actually being hired to partake on Howards End she received a telephone call: “My name is Ismail Merchant…it is serendipity that we work together…” Arrighi, who was working on another project at the time, but was thoroughly charmed by Merchant’s bombast, and, had adored the novel as a young girl, began casually scouting locations in her spare time, mostly on her own, keeping a mental scrapbook of the logistical possibilities for Howards End. The picture’s seamless continuity, the cobbling together of various locations to recreate Forster’s fictional world, included stints at Fortnum & Mason Department Store, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, and Peppard Cottage, a flat-fronted country estate with peaked porches and dormers, uncannily reminiscent of Forster’s own Rooksnest, on which the author had based his descriptions of the fictional Howards End. It helped that Roger and Caroline Shapland, the current owners of the cottage were also Arrighi’s friends; the family remaining steadfast in their quarters at the back of the estate, allowing the film-makers their ‘occupancy’ of the property for several months; even affording them the luxury to redress, repaint and properly age whole portions of the house’s interior. “You get the (Johannes) Vermeer lighting just right,” Arrighi explains, “No sets, which is also cheaper, but you also get that look of the present, subtler conditions brought on by a manipulation of the natural light.”         
On Howards End, Arrighi worked closely with Costume Designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright whose association with Merchant-Ivory dated all the way back to 1984’s The Bostonians and included an Oscar win for A Room With A View (1987). Beavan instantly got on with Arrighi, their tastes and temperaments in perfect symbiosis. However, she was most impressed with the way actor, Anthony Hopkins could put on his various attire, immediately to ‘inhabit’ his character as by some magical osmosis. Meanwhile, Arrighi and Art Director John Ralph set about creating a slightly unkempt rural glamor from the natural landscape. One aspect in need of virtually no embellishment was the forest of bluebells located not far from the cottage; an exotic carpet, in tandem with the superb interplay of shadow and sunlight filtering through the trees, captured by cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts in registering shades of Palatinate, Federal and Majorelle blue for the scene where Leonard Bast suffers his agrarian daydream.  To achieve a ‘look’ for Howards End unlike anything Merchant-Ivory had yet attempted, Pierce-Roberts switched from the company’s tried and true Fujifilm to a then newer brand of Kodak-Eastman stock, exhibiting ‘punchier’ colors. Pierce-Roberts also elected to photograph Howards End in Super 35mm from which 70mm widescreen prints could be struck. These alterations lent the picture an expansive lushness; outdoorsy verdure, tastefully contrasted with the distinctly muted colors employed throughout the various interiors, typifying that claustrophobic bric-a-brac of period Edwardian opulence.
Ruth Prawler Jhabvala’s screenplay for Howards End is a masterclass in structured drama; the way she builds tension and comedy in tandem, shifting her focus ever so slightly on the intertwining associations involved in this clash of castes; usually, centralized on pairs of people within a scene, pitted against, or at least playing off, other pairs similarly situated. While we can sincerely doff our caps to James Ivory’s direction, meticulously paced and later, for his input in the editing process, it is from Jhabvala’s carefully contrived wit (never appearing as such) that the real bloodline of Howards End pumps life-giving arterial nourishment into the very soul of these characters; the picture enduring beyond a series of mere ‘pretty scenes’, however expertly stitched together. Ivory always considered the character of Margaret Schlegel as Forester’s alter ego putting forth the author’s ideologies. To offset this tedium, Jhabvala’s script also allows Margaret her more intimate thoughts with Helen; the pair frequently finishing each other’s sentences. Because all of the actors in Howards End are seasoned professionals, one can easily forget how budgetary restrictions precluded all of them to gather for more than one complete run-through of the entire script. “I’m not one of those directors who plots an entire film in shots from beginning to end in my head,” Ivory explains, “I take actors concerns under advisement and I listen. What they bring to the scene is really their gift to the film and I only intercede if I think they’re headed in the wrong direction. If I can’t cajole or get them to see it my way, then I find a way to shoot the scene so I can get rid of what I don’t want in the editing process and still preserve the integrity of the moment. But really, it’s about letting the actor find themselves in the part and then letting them run with that assessment. A lot of wonderful things can and do happen when you let things develop on their own.”    
Howards End begins with one of the most memorable main title sequences in recent screen history; a disturbing clash from Richard Robbins’ well-modulated underscore, the alphabet sporadically appearing to spell out ‘Howards End’ in decorative jet-black calligraphy against a half-lit background; the screen parting down the middle as Robbins’ score diminishes into a languid piano forte and we see the heavy grey-blue pleated train of Ruth Wilcox’s evening dress lazily dragged through the tall grasses that surround Howards End. Tony Pierce-Roberts’ luminous cinematography, in the wane of twilight, gives us the lay of the land surrounding this pivotal property around which so much of the plot’s interplay and tragedy will soon come to revolve. Removed from her family; husband, Henry, daughter, Evie (Jemma Redgrave), sons, the elder, Charles (James Wilby) and Paul (Joseph Bennett), Charles’ fiancée, Dolly (Suzie Linderman) and their guest, Helen Schlegel, Ruth absorbs the quieter sights, sounds and fragrances of this country retreat; inherited from her family and made a part of her dowry in marriage to Henry, although he does not own it per say.
The Wilcoxes are of the upper strata. Charles in particular has adopted his father’s rather priggish air of entitlement.  Surely, he will inherit when the time comes. For now, Charles must be contented with Dolly, or rather, moderately endure a woman who likely suited him once, but now, as with the rest of the family, is only to be tolerated with gritty contempt. After their ‘after dinner’ parlor games, Paul leads Helen to a nearby secluded spot out near the adjacent garage where she permits him the indiscretion of making love to her. Remember, this is Edwardian England; so passion is straight-jacketed to a few well-timed kisses about the nape. Misinterpreting his intensions, Helen sends a telegram to Margaret professing their love affair. Margaret, along with their brother, Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty) is staying with their Aunt Juley who finds the prospect of such unapologetic amour very unladylike to say the least. Alas, by dawn’s early light things look much different to Paul. He neither desires to continue the affair nor even pretend what little there was meant anything better than a momentary diversion. Helen is unmoved. Evidently, she has been down this primrose path before. Realizing her telegram will likely inspire Margaret to come to Howards End, Helen sends another to explain the current situation. Alas, this follow-up arrives too late to stop Aunt Juley from pursuing the matter, mistaking Charles for Paul and thinking he is on the cusp of proposing marriage to her niece. When Charles crudely admonishes the pair as ‘damned fools’, he also incurs Aunt Juley’s ire. She arrives at Howards End in a flurry of petticoats to comfort and take Helen away from this shameless debacle.
Time passes. Helen appears at a recital inside London’s Ethical Hall – a lecture on ‘music and meaning’ also attended by Leonard Bast. Although neither is aware of the other at first, Helen inadvertently inveigles their ‘cute meet’ when she accidentally takes Leonard’s umbrella and hurries home before the end of the concert, forcing Leonard to scurry along in a downpour to retrieve it. Leonard tails Helen to Wickham Place, the Schlegel’s ancestral home; unsettled by the frankness of both Margaret and Helen as they make attempts to extend to him all their social graces. Realizing they have overpowered him, Margaret extends her calling card to Leonard before sending him on his way. His return home, to a decidedly less than affluent London neighborhood, is attended by his wife, Jacky, eager to please and patiently awaiting his return. Jacky’s playful sexuality is more of a distraction. Regrettably, it has also alienated Leonard from the rest of his family. Evidently, even the poor have standards. Leonard is a poet and a scholar, trapped in a dead end clerk’s position at the Porphyrian insurance company.  To escape the monotony of his job, Leonard reads literature smuggled in under his bookkeeping ledgers and openly plays silly little tricks to amuse himself, like balancing his ink pen on the tip of his nose.
Given the rocky start the Schlegels have had with the Wilcoxes, Margaret nevertheless endeavors to befriend Ruth while Helen is away at Aunt Juley’s. Meanwhile, Charles and Dolly are wed. Ruth is enchanted by Margaret; her refreshing frankness on all matters and her willingness to let bygones be bygones. Ruth is in frail health and seemingly left for long stretches alone – and lonely – while her husband takes care of matters of business. In this interim, Margaret and Ruth establish an almost sisterly kinship; Margaret inviting Ruth to one of her luncheons attended by some of the more progressive literati and politically-minded intellectuals. Ruth inadvertently casts a pall on their conversation when she suggests she is only too happy not to have the vote, but rectifies her position by illustrating that all war could be averted if only the women went off to war, thus leaving no one at home for the menfolk to defend or return to at war’s end.  As the Christmas holidays approach, Margaret elects to help the greatly enfeebled Ruth with her shopping duties. Informed by Margaret of a new city ordinance to cast them from their beloved Wickham Place, Ruth reminisces about Howards End, describing it in great detail. Her vivid recollections are followed by the impromptu decision to make a pilgrimage by train this very evening; a trip narrowly averted when Margaret does not immediately show the same level of interest, then delayed when Henry and Evie unexpectedly meet Ruth and Margaret at the depot, thus indefinitely quashing her plans.
Flash forward again; Ruth, hospitalized and dying, bequeaths Howards End to Margaret in a handwritten will. Learning of this endowment, Henry gathers the family at Howards End to discuss their options. Indeed, he does not want the Schlegels to occupy the house, not because his family would prefer to remain there themselves, but more on the principle Margaret’s ‘class’ has no business gaining absolute control as the landowner. After some debate, Evie seizes Ruth’s will and burns it in the kitchen fireplace; the family sequestered into silence on the matter forever more…or so it would seem. Within a few weeks, Henry and Evie arrive at Wickham Place, guiltily to offer Margaret a ‘token’ perfume bottle Ruth supposedly would have wanted her to have as a remembrance of their friendship. Unaware of how much more this deceased matriarch would have wished for her, Margaret accepts this lowly offering, though Henry is displeased and made to feel even guiltier by Margaret’s overt graciousness. Evie is clearly uncomfortable by this betrayal of her mother’s final wishes. Not long thereafter, Henry begins to court Margaret. While she accepts his kindness and invitations to publicly dine with Evie and her fiancée, Percy Cahill (Mark Payton), the conversation reaches an awkward impasse when Margaret inadvertently strikes a nerve by inquiring whether Henry might let Howards End to the Schlegels while they continue to search for a more permanent residence. Lying to Margaret about the house, presumably already occupied and therefore unavailable, Henry offers instead to act as an agent to secure another house on Margaret’s behalf. Alas, time will prove his intentions more affixed to possessing something greater in return: Margaret’s hand in marriage.
It is hardly a bargain, as Henry Wilcox’s staunch conservatism flies in the face of the more outspoken Margaret’s free-spirited resolve. Nevertheless, Margaret recognizes there are sacrifices to be made for the comforts of her own family. Meanwhile Jacky Bast, having discovered Margaret’s calling card in Leonard’s coat pocket, arrives to confront the woman who may or may not be plotting to ‘steal’ her husband. Margaret and Helen are mildly amused by this turn of events. This only causes Jacky to become more sullen and wounded as she storms out of the house. Desiring to improve Leonard’s lot in life, Margaret and Helen learn from Henry the Porphyrian is heavily mortgaged and presumably sure to fail. Taking their advice, Leonard leaves the company prematurely but proves incapable of securing another position. He and Jacky sink deeper into poverty while Margaret and Henry prepare to wed at Henry’s castle in Shropshire. Helen is incensed by their ostentatiousness. Indeed, Margaret appears to have swung to the other side, sacrificing her ideals for position and money. Helen crashes Margaret and Henry’s wedding with the Basts in tow, demanding something be done at once. Jacky gets drunk and inadvertently recognizes Henry as the lover she took to bed as a prostitute in Italy; an amusement turned sour when Margaret makes a similar connection, gets her newlywed husband to admit to as much, but decides to forgive him his past peccadillos.
Margaret informs Helen, Henry and she will do nothing more for the Basts. They are not worthy of their help. While Jacky continues to recover from her stupor at a nearby hotel, Leonard and Helen begin an affair; their passion boiling over into an unexpected pregnancy Helen is determined to keep secret from both families by exiling herself to Germany. After some months of desperately trying to make contact, Margaret agrees to meet Helen at Howards End where all of the Schlegel’s belongings are being stored since the wedding. Margaret drives out to the house with Henry and Dolly, only to discover a very pregnant Helen waiting on the front porch. Margaret convinces Henry and Dolly to return to town while she comforts her sister’s shame and makes the attempt to unearth the identity of this unborn child’s father. Meanwhile, Leonard is haunted by memories of their love affair while knowing absolutely nothing about the pregnancy. Endeavoring to reconnect with Helen, he makes his pilgrimage on foot, wandering through a field of bluebells to Howards End. In the meantime, Margaret endeavors to force Henry’s hand to agree Helen may remain at Howards End indefinitely; or rather, only until she gives birth to Leonard’s child. Henry refuses even this small kindness, presumably as a blemish on his own family honor, and Margaret, angered by his perverse sense of chivalry, presents him with a challenge: “You had a mistress – I forgave you. My sister has had a lover – you drive her from the house. Why can you not be honest for once and say what Helen has done, I have done?”
Incensed any Schlegel, much less one about to bear the stigma of an illegitimate child, should remain on his property, Henry orders Charles to drive out in the motor and force Helen and Margaret from Howards End. Charles arrival coincides with Leonard Bast’s. Making the connection Leonard is Helen’s lover, Charles challenges Leonard on a thoroughly misguided point of honor, striking him with the back of the military sword snatched from the mantle of the fireplace. Unaware Leonard’s heart has been greatly weakened by his sojourn on foot, also his slow starvation, Charles drives Leonard against a bookcase in the parlor; the heavy shelving toppling forward, burying Leonard beneath a cacophony of books. At the informal inquest, Charles makes light of his involvement, but is arrested and tried for the crime. Knowing full and well his eldest son and heir apparent will be convicted of manslaughter and sure to spend the rest of his life in prison, a repentant Henry struggles to regain his composure. He begs for Margaret’s understanding. But only after he bequeaths Howards End to her, making the entire Wilcox clan aware of his intent, that the house remain in the joint custodianship of Margaret and Helen, where the latter will rear Leonard’s child for generations yet to follow, does Margaret superficially forgive Henry his trespasses. Dolly lets it slip about Ruth’s will and Henry, prematurely aged and nearly broken with grief, makes a final confession to his wife about Ruth’s final wishes for Howards End. The bequest having come full circle, Margaret and Henry bid Paul and Dolly farewell as they drive away in the motor, united as they gaze across the waving fields of wild flowers where Helen and Leonard’s son are blissfully at play.
In many ways, Howards End represents the pinnacle of achievement, not only for Merchant-Ivory, but a particular kind of ‘old-fashioned’ storytelling tragically out of vogue in contemporary cinema. That it should have given rise to a decade’s worth of emotionally satisfying literary adaptations, transformed into almost as good period costume dramas (The Remains of the Day 1993, Little Women 1994, Sense and Sensibility 1995, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, and Emma, both released in 1996, An Ideal Husband 1998, Anna and the King, and, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both released in 1999) is perhaps as unanticipated as the picture’s own critical and financial success; earning $25,967,000 in the U.S. alone and nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, winning three: Best Actress – Emma Thompson, Best Screenplay – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration – Luciana Arrighi, and, Ian Whitaker. Quite easily, things could have gone the other way; particularly as, in the eleventh hour of the editing process the team were informed of Orion Pictures implosion; the company in charge of the picture’s distribution having filed for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy. Mercifully, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, two executives from Orion, made the leap to Sony Pictures, establishing another classics division at that studio. As Howards End was considered ‘an asset’ in Orion’s restructuring plan, Barker and Bernard encouraged Merchant-Ivory to persuade the company to sell back their film rights, thus affording Sony the permission to distribute Howards End in America.      
Viewed from twenty-four years passed since its debut, Howards End has lost virtually nothing in its ability to captivate an audience. If anything, as witnessed from our present era in movie-making, overly saturated in darkly-themed and nimble-minded superhero and monsters dreck, Howards End today is an even more refreshingly refined anomaly in the cinema firmament. To classify it merely as ‘period drama’ is doing the picture an injustice. For although Howards End is so obviously impressing upon another time and place, entirely out of step with the crass commercialism of picture-making today, its courtly Edwardian mannerisms and mores - long since acquiring historical weight left to molder in the past - Forster’s central themes, so eloquently brought forth in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, have nevertheless retained their perennially steadfast allure, neither faded with time nor even ever so slightly dishonored as quaint by the passage. From beginning to end, Howards End is a banquet of riches exposed in its own due time; 142 minutes of exquisitely tailored entertainment brought forth by an independent company whose tenure in the industry was undeniably built upon crafting quality under even the most restrictive budgets. “I always had just enough,” Production Designer Luciana Arrighi suggested years later, “…enough to finish what I set out to achieve without feeling the pressure to cut corners.” “I have a lot of admiration for them (Ismail and James),” concurs Helena Bonham Carter, “They made movies according to their own tastes.”     
Cohen Media Group’s much anticipated 4K remaster reissue of Howards End has received the ‘gold star’ seal of approval from both cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts and director, James Ivory. Head and shoulders, it is a major improvement over Criterion’s now retired Blu-ray release, exporting superior amounts of fine detail, minus the atrocious digital anomalies afflicting that aforementioned release. Gone is the disconcerting orange/copper bias previously witnessed in skin tones; hair more henna than brown. Cohen’s remastering effort is, in a word – exquisite. Compared to the Criterion release, colors have adopted a far more earthy naturalness; the lush foliage looking far less like a garish paint box whose child has gone wild with the Crayolas. It’s the subtleties we can recognize more readily now; the built-in textures of the image; minute variances in flesh and hair, also, costuming; the herring bone pattern in Mr. Wilcox’s suit or fragile refinements in Margaret Schlegel’s fine-woven lace.  There are several instances where the image leans ever so slightly toward a teal bias. My recollections of seeing Howards End for the first time in the theater have dulled; perhaps, even distorted slightly from my repeat viewings of the Criterion Blu-ray that possessed a darker, moodier blue effect. The Cohen release is also considerably brighter than Criterion’s while maintaining impeccable levels of contrast, most notably during the opening titles and Ruth Wilcox’s stroll around the grounds surrounding her beloved abode.  The DTS 5.1 audio satisfies; dialogue crisp and clean; Richard Robbins’ memorable score given over to an unusual intensity.  
Cohen Media’s list of ‘extras’ is impressive and again, bests Criterion’s previous effort; preserving a documentary and two featurettes previously available: ‘Building Howards End, a 42 min. candid interview piece chocked full of wonderful reflections from James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Helena Bonham Carter, Jenny Beaven and Luciana Arrigi and, far too brief at under 10 min., Designing Howards End, offering interviews from Beaven and Arrighi. There is also a lovingly crafted piece featuring James Ivory’s devoted reflections on Ismail Merchant who left us much too soon from surgical complications in 2005.  “Some people you meet and part ways,” Ivory suggests, “…but others bond together on a lifelong stream. I guess you could call our relationship destiny.”  Added to the mix are brand new 2016 interviews with James Ivory, and Vanessa Redgrave, a handsomely produced booklet with reflections from Ivory and an essay by John Pym and Luciana Arrighi; a fascinating audio commentary, the 2016 restoration reissue trailer and a 1992 featurette offering snippets and sound bites from cast and crew while production was underway.
 Lost in transition is The Wandering Company; an almost hour-long documentary covering the first twenty odd years of Merchant Ivory Productions, capped off by their pending release of A Room With A View. Alas, a comprehensive documentary has yet to be made, covering the last two pictures in Merchant-Ivory’s fruitful alliance; Howards End, and, The Remains of the Day.  We really need to give Cohen Media a much deserved nod for not only restoring Howards End to its original brilliance on home video, but also for padding out this Blu-ray release with some very comprehensive and meaningful extras. This new to Blu has obviously been produced by people who feel Howards End in their bones and have immense respect for Merchant-Ivory as a company; proof confirmed by an insert included in this release advertising the pending release of 21 Merchant-Ivory productions currently in the works, including 1984’s The Bostonians and 1987’s Maurice (two long neglected masterpieces from the company); also, 9 shorts and several documentaries. Frankly, we cannot wait for these to hit the street. As for Howards End – Cohen Media Group's care and attention paid to detail makes this one a no-brainer purchase. You must own this disc! It’s that simple. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

ONE-EYED JACKS: Blu-ray (Paramount 1961) Criterion Collection

Marlon Brando once said of his opus magnum, One-Eyed Jacks (1961) that it failed to achieve what he had set out to do. Yet, the oddity of this claim ought to be called into question, since even Brando was not entirely certain what he was doing throughout the shoot, employing improvisation techniques to add dialogue and scenes not in the original script, and using every cheap trick in the actor’s guidebook to will a performance from his inexperienced leading lady, Pina Pellicer. Given a viewfinder on his first day as director by his cinematographer, Charles Lang Jr., Brando famously held the piece up to his eye, looking through the wrong end of its lens; portending of the arduousness in many trials and tribulations yet to follow. By then, One-Eyed Jacks had already been through the gristmill of development and pre-production; a purgatory begun on Brando’s bright-eyed optimism in the summer of 1956, only to emerge with a leaden thud at the box office five years later, truncated and severely watered down.  Brando’s initial statement issued to the press suggested he intended to make a picture that would prove a “frontal assault on the temple of clichés (then) permeating the traditional Hollywood western.” Yet, the finished product does not entirely reflect this vision. Some critics of the day argued far from it. While One-Eyed Jacks did respectable business, by the time of its release the budget had ballooned from $1.6 to $6 million; an investment Paramount Pictures could never hope to recoup.
For decades, the infamy of Brando’s directorial debut has only served to obscure its merits as a competently made, oft engaging piece of entertainment; albeit, one never to test, much less assail the time-honored traditions of the Hollywood western. There are flaws to be sure; starting with Paramount’s eleventh hour decision to remove Brando from the executive decision-making process; paring down Brando’s rumored five to eight hour rough cuts, complete with intermission, to a 141 minute pseudo-epic, missing whole portions from its methodically plotted narrative structure. It is rumored Brando exposed over a million feet of film by the time One-Eyed Jacks was in the can and ready to be cut; a process Brando, who had assumed the duty at the outset, described as nightmarish and impossible. The core of Brando’s reputation as a difficult artist is implied to have begun on the set of One-Eyed Jacks. But actually, Brando’s standing had already suffered with back-to-back box office flops. One-Eyed Jacks failure to recoup its negative costs was compounded by the disastrous returns on Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), released one year after One-Eyed Jacks to rank criticism and mediocre box office. There is little to deny Brando’s repute as an oft caustic perfectionist, impatient with others who did not share in his vision, was impacted by the release of this picture. It is reported he banged on a Chinese gong to get director, Stanley Kubrick’s attention; becoming increasingly incensed when Kubrick repeatedly failed to see things his way.
For a first-time director, Brando’s high concept for One-Eyed Jacks is remarkably and refreshingly solid, if hardly prophetic. One-Eyed Jacks was conceived in blind chaos in 1956, the apex of Hollywood’s rekindled love affair with the big-budgeted western. And in some ways the resultant, if delayed, release five years later serves as a sort of postmortem for a genre that had outstayed its welcome by 1961. In hindsight, Hugo Friedhofer’s score is just a little too genial in a sort of plush shag mainstream fifties sentiment, belying some of the other post-production conventionality Paramount imposed upon the picture; forcing Brando to iron out the contemplative aspects of his character, intermittently referred to as either ‘the Kid’ or ‘Rio’. Paramount also ordered Brandon to make his character’s competition, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) the irrefutably villain of the piece; a part, Brando had originally envisioned as possessing more variance and tonality in his modus operandi. Using Louie L’amour’s novel, To Tame a Land as his initial template, Brando hired Niven Busch (the author of another infamous western, Duel in the Sun) to adapt the screenplay. But only two weeks in, Brando had Busch fired; a chain-reaction to afflict virtually all of the ill-fated writing talent that would come then go as the handmaid’s work passed from Robert Buckner to Robert Parrish, then Rod Serling, Sam Peckinpah, and finally, Brando himself.
The story eventually ironed out by these varied contributors is serviceable; though hardly breaking with the traditions of the classic Hollywood western. The picture opens with a daring holdup in Sonora, Mexico; Dad Longworth, Rio and a third accomplice, Doc (Hank Worden) stealing two saddlebags of gold from a local bank. Brando lightens a young senorita of her family ring on the way out, a prize he attempts to use to seduce another unsuspecting virgin at a nearby cantina. This latter sequence is played strictly for laughs, as Rio takes liberties, is slapped in the face for his efforts, but then is encouraged by the girl to call again when his passion has cooled. Dad, Rio and Doc elude the Mexican Rurales, who eventually track them to a nearby brothel. Doc is easily dispatched by the Captain of the Guard (Rodolfo Acosta). But Dad and Rio manage a clumsy, if daring escape across the wasteland. Cornered on a high plateau, Rio and Dad draw bullets to see who will make the escape for fresh mounts to a jacalito in the neighboring canyon. Rio fixes the deal to afford Dad his opportunity. But Rio’s faith in the man he has looked up to as a mentor or sorts is shattered when Dad elects to take all of their stolen plunder as his own, leaving Rio to face retribution from the Rurales. Captured, Rio learns of Dad’s betrayal and vows bloody revenge.
Flash forward five years. We see Rio and another man, Chico Modesto (Larry Duran) escaping from prison across these same barren plains. The two are partners, sheltered by Modesto’s friends and given food, new clothes and lodgings. Rio allies himself with Bob Emory (Ben Johnson), a bad man he believes he can exploit to his own advantage by promising to help him and a partner, Harvey Johnson (Sam Gilman) in their daring holdup on the bank in Monterey. Rio’s venom for Dad has only intensified during his incarceration; more so when he discovers Dad, now married to Maria (Katy Jurado) – having adopted her illegitimate daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer) – has since used his ill-gotten gains to set himself up as the pillar of law and order in Monterey. Presumably, Maria knows nothing of Dad’s past, or rather, only part of it. She is concerned for her husband’s safety - at first. But Rio slyly pretends not to have been in prison these last five years; to have lived obscurely and now merely come to this belated reunion as a friend in search of a long-lost acquaintance. Dad lies to Rio too, suggesting when he arrived at the jacalito there were no horses available; thus, no way to come back for him. Knowing this to be a lie, Rio nevertheless plays along and is invited by Dad, first, to dine with the family and later, to partake of the town’s fiesta.  Rio sees a way to exact his revenge by stealing Louisa’s virtue. Unaware his intentions are not honorable, and strangely attracted to this man she has only just met, Louisa naively allows Rio his indiscretions, only to be disillusioned in her post-coital bliss by Rio’s sheepish confessions. Louisa returns home, sadder but wiser.
Early the next morning, Dad is informed by his Deputy Sherriff Lon Dedrick (Slim Pickens) Louisa spent the night with Rio. Dad tries to make his stepdaughter confess to being deflowered, but only after he has left the room dissatisfied by her reluctance, does Louisa reveal the true extent of her previous night’s behavior to her mother. Maria elects to keep the incident a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Rio is captured and taken into the town square where Dad makes an example of him for all to see; binding and whipping Rio to the point of collapse before mashing the fingers of his gunslinger’s hand with the butt of his rifle. Rio and his accomplices are driven out of town; Dad vowing to shoot them dead on sight if ever they are bold enough to contemplate a return. Meanwhile Dedrick makes repeated attempts to seduce Louisa. She resists and eventually confides in Maria she is carrying Rio’s child. Held up at a remote seaside bungalow to allow his wounds to heal, Rio contemplates forgoing his vengeance against Dad. He will instead sneak back into town to take Louisa away with him. Alas, Emory has grown restless of waiting for the riches promised. When Modesto attempts to thwart his and Harvey’s plans to continue, Emory leaves Modesto for dead on the outskirts of a fishing village. Alas, their bank heist goes awry; bank teller, Carvey (Elisha Cook Jr.) making a valiant, but botched move to defend himself. In a hailstorm of bullets, Carvey and Emory shoot each other dead, killing an unsuspecting young girl caught in their crossfire. Despite his lack of participation, Dad blames Rio for the crime and, with his posse, takes Rio prisoner, vowing to see him swing from the gallows after a ‘fair trial’.
Louisa attends her lover in jail with a ‘last meal’ presumably baked by Maria. However, when Dedrick investigates he discovers a small revolver buried inside the meat pie. Dedrick forcibly removes Louisa from the prison. But he leaves the gun on a nearby table and Rio hurriedly and skillfully manages to drag it across the floor using his belt, only to discover its chambers are emptied of bullets. However, Dedrick does not know this. Hence, when Dedrick returns, Rio holds him at gunpoint, forcing Dedrick to unlock his cell door. Rio then beats Dedrick into submission and gains control of his loaded pistol, locking Dedrick inside and hurrying to make his escape out of town. Having learned of Louisa’s pregnancy from Maria, Dad is confronted with another unholy surprise from his wife; she has suspected all along he has been plotting to destroy Rio out of his own shameful guilt.  Charging into town on horseback, Dad is confronted by Rio; the two men exchanging gunfire in the square with Rio gaining the upper hand. Louisa witnesses her stepfather being shot to death by the man she loves. Emotionally torn, she nevertheless elects to follow Rio to the outskirts. Realizing Rio is a hunted man already wanted in Mexico, Louisa bids him goodbye; Rio, planning to retreat to Oregon but return in the spring for the birth of their child.  As envisioned by Brando, the original ending to One-Eyed Jacks was quite different and far more somber; one of Dad’s stray bullets killing Louisa; she sacrificing herself to save her lover. As she lies dying in the streets, Rio avenges her murder by killing Dad, coddling Louisa’s lifeless body in his arms.
While Brando was off shooting The Teahouse of the August Moon for MGM, One-Eyed Jacks acquired more moss than inspiration; Paramount too grew impatient about the deal they had inked with Brando at the outset. By the mid-1950's the studio system had crumbled to the extent stars were assuming a more proactive part in the reshaping of their own careers. While some became their own free agents, making the rounds from one studio to the next, marketing their goodwill, talent and popularity with audiences on a freelance basis, others chose to invest in their own independent production companies, using the studios merely as a means for lucrative distribution of their product. Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino were among the first to dabble in this newfound freedom; actor-owned indie productions suddenly in vogue. As a tribute to his late mother, Pennebaker became Brando’s company brand. The first objective for this fledgling enterprise was to challenge the industry by making pictures to promote the moral good. But Brando also believed he could shore up whatever rifts existed between him and his father, providing Brando Sr. with an outlet to occupy his time after his wife’s death. Finally, there were tax breaks to consider.
Somewhere amidst the chaos of setting up shop and making other movies on the side to keep the cash flow lucrative, Brando found time to fall in love and marry Anna Kashfi. Ironically, their union would be shorter than the shooting schedule on One-Eyed Jacks.  While off in Japan, making Sayonara (1957), Brando reasoned the only way to gain absolute satisfaction with the screenplay for his pet project was to write it himself. Unhappy circumstance, Brando knew as much of screen writing as he did directing: that is to say, no direct knowledge, his 200+ page draft judged an unwieldy mess. At this particular juncture, Brando considered A.S. Fleischman’s novel, Yellowleg, rechristened A Burst of Vermillion. Brando also broke with tradition by announcing in Variety he intended to direct the movie himself. By now, the executive brain trust at Paramount was both weary and nervous. Their ‘lucrative’ deal was getting very expensive, very fast. Enter producer, Frank T. Rosenberg, suggesting a way around the stalemate; Charles Neider’s The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a fictionalized account of Billy the Kid. Paramount agreed and Rosenberg put Rod Serling on the payroll to pen the script. Again, this proved futile; Serling, fired by Brando and Sam Peckinpah, rapidly making a name for himself, brought in for an additional six months’ rewrites. Interestingly, Brando preferred Peckinpah’s screenplay, affording Rosenberg producer’s credit as a result.
But now, Paramount began to shop the project around to directors, most notably, Stanley Kubrick; then, a rising star in the cinema firmament. Alas, Kubrick did not think much of Peckinpah’s treatment, he quietly undercut Peckinpah's participation by encouraging Paramount to have him removed from the project while he hired Caulder Willingham (who had worked with him on Paths of Glory, 1957) to hack into the screenplay yet again for extensive rewrites. As the summer of 1958 drew to a close, Brando celebrated the birth of his son, Christian. But his association with Willingham quickly soured; the project now flying under the header of ‘Guns Up’ and Brando’s character renamed ‘Rio’. At this point, Rosenberg chimed in with his displeasure about the direction – or lack thereof – of development. Rosenberg hired Guy Trosper to gussy up the prose; a move that infuriated Kubrick immensely. At some point, Kubrick bowed out of the movie, now renamed One-Eyed Jacks; a title, mercifully to stick. Was Kubrick fired or did he quit? Hmmmm. The ‘official’ announcement was Kubrick was preparing Lolita (1962) and could not reconcile this schedule with his commitments on One-Eyed Jacks, forcing him to choose one over the other. However, Kubrick’s career would take another detour entirely, hired to helm Kirk Douglas’ costly epic, Spartacus (1960).
Possibly, Kubrick had foreseen the confrontations yet to ensue on One-Eyed Jacks and decided he wanted no part of it; Brando informing Kubrick he had already cast Karl Malden for the pivotal role of Dad Longworth; a part, Kubrick heavily campaigned to cast with Spencer Tracy. And Rosenberg’s choice of leading lady, Pina Pellicer – chosen for her virginal south-of-the-border exoticism – equally left Kubrick flat. Indeed, Pellicer was sent off to an elocutionist almost immediately to brush up her English. But the novice proved also to suffer from grave and stifling insecurities, eventually to lead to suicide in 1964 at the age of 30. As for Karl Malden and Brando; they had evolved an amicable working relationship during their legendary Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire; a symbiosis refined for 1951’s movie version, and later, rekindled on Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). The two men respected one another immensely. Alas, Malden’s cache and salary demands would cost the One-Eyed Jacks’ production plenty. As one of the first hires, long before cameras began to roll and during One-Eyed Jacks continued rocky gestation, Malden remained on full salary for nearly a year. In the meantime, Brando began to assemble the rest of his cast; including Katie Jurado (as Dad’s devoted Spanish wife, Maria), and professional cowboys cum actors, Slim Pickens (the disreputable Deputy, Lon Dedrick) and Ben Johnson (the thoroughly sinister, Bob Amory). Brando would model his own dialect on Johnson’s authentic twang. He also proved his loyalty to Larry Duran, his stand-in, herein given the plum part of Rio’s devoted sidekick, Chico Modesto.
While Brando continued to grapple with an inadequate and incomplete script, One-Eyed Jacks began to take on a more concrete manifestation on the Paramount back lot as Art Director J. McMillan (Mac) Johnson constructed some fairly elaborate sets to tie in with the actual Monterey location work, including a lavishly appointed town square populated by 300 extras for the fiesta sequence. The production would also utilize preexisting Spanish mission sets built on the Warner Bros. ranch for that studio’s 1939 production of Juarez, costarring Bette Davis and Paul Muni.  Upon Kubrick’s departure (dismissal) from the project, Brando relieved Trosper of his duties as screenwriter. While squibs in Variety suggested a short list of possible directors to helm the picture included Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan, Brando had already made up his mind to share double duty as both One-Eyed Jacks’ director and star; arguably, a hefty load for someone unaccustomed to sharing the dual burdens.  On Dec. 2, 1958, Brando finally called ‘action’ in Monterey; the studio confident that with Charles Lang’s participation; also, that of Cecile B. DeMille’s right hand man, Chico Day, the shoot would come off without a hitch. Their faith was only partly affirmed. Indeed, shooting in Technicolor and VistaVision (Paramount’s patented widescreen process), Lang possessed a true artist’s eye; later confirmed with the release of Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). In hindsight, One-Eyed Jacks is a sumptuous feast for the eye, marginally distilled by a few rear-projection process shots inserted throughout, and some last minute retakes shot months after principle photography had wrapped. Unfortunately, after only five days, Rosenberg estimated the production was already two weeks behind schedule; the result of Brando’s insistent ‘work-shopping’ of the dialogue with a scribe present to incorporate all the ad libs into the as yet incomplete screenplay.
“I tried to figure out what to do as I went along,” Brando would later reflect, “I shot over and over again, making things up by the moment, not sure where the story was going. I also did a lot of stalling for time…for inspiration to hit.” The proof of Brando’s creative stagnancy was revealed to all when he elected to wait nearly an entire day to shoot a pivotal sequence where Rio contemplates his future prospects on the outskirts of town; Brando holding off until the waves crashing against the craggy Pacific Coast were ‘just right’. While Brando knew this scene would have to match up with footage shot previously, the press attending this day’s work on a PR junket took to cover the holdup as merely the idiosyncratic behavior of a navel-gazing amateur too high on his own supremacy as a first-time director. It was the first sting of negative publicity and it sent minor shock waves through Paramount’s front offices while they contemplated their options. And the studio, now more anxious than ever to have a movie ready for release before Christmas 1961, was as unimpressed by another Brando hiatuses, suspending production for Christmas and New Year’s and flying everyone home at his own expense. Possibly, their fretfulness was compounded by the fact the picture was being shot in VistaVision, a cumbersome – if superior – widescreen process that Paramount was eager to retire. By January 1959, One-Eyed Jacks had relocated to the studio back lot on Mac Johnson’s $100,000.00 town square set; Brando staging the fiesta with maximum ostentatiousness in a myriad of explosive colors. PR of the period suggested 300 extras were fed 400 baked potatoes, 100 chickens and gallons of lemonade and barrels of beer while Brando and Charles Lang expertly maneuvered their camera amidst the gaiety and spectacle of the piece. Regrettably, production was once again halted; this time, by a powerful storm laying siege to the set and adding nearly $300,000.00 in damages to the cost of the picture.
As pressure mounted to complete the picture, Brando faced a personal crisis; divorcing Anna Kashfi in April and steadily turning to food as his comfort away from the stresses buffeting him on all sides. Brando’s gourmandizing reached its critical point when he split his pants during a fight sequence and began to show other signs of excessive weight gain, necessitating costume designer, Yvonne Wood constantly letting out his wardrobe. Now Brando turned his attentions to ‘the whipping scene’; a pivotal moment where Dad publicly lashes Rio before smashing his fingers with the butt of his rifle. Unfortunately, Brando dislocated his shoulder while shooting this sequence, creating another delay in the production schedule. Like most movies, One-Eyed Jacks was shot out of sequence; the opening, depicting Dad and Rio’s daring escape across the barren plains near Zabriskie Point shot last; Mother Nature conspiring with yet another postponement; a blindingly powerful dust bowl and staggering 117 degree temperatures – logistically, a nightmare. Doubling for Brando on horseback, stuntman Henry Willis broke his pelvis after being thrown from his horse while riding up a very steep embankment. He was airlifted for treatment.
On June 2, 1959, after an extensive six months shoot, One-Eyed Jacks ‘officially’ wrapped; hardly a cause for celebration as the real challenge for Brando now lay in the whittling down of this raw footage into a cohesive narrative with a manageable run time. Turning to ace editor, Archie Marshek, Brando endeavored to achieve his vision on the screen. But Brando had already committed to Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind (1961) in New York. Unable to delay that schedule and fearing ‘breach of contract’ proceedings if he refused to appear, the net result was Brando would spend the bulk of his summer working for Lumet from Monday to Friday in New York before taking the red eye back to the West Coast, editing One-Eyed Jacks from sun up till sundown, Saturday and Sunday; a breakneck pace effectively to sour Brando on the editing process. Brando would later label the cutting room “the most monstrous place on earth.” Indeed, in distilling his footage into a rough cut, Brando was to make another ‘monstrous’ discovery; he had forgotten to shoot a pivotal transitional sequence depicting Rio’s rakes’ progress. Re-assembling cast and crew, Brando lensed this final bit of necessary conjoining footage in early January 1960, almost six months to the day he had officially ended principle photography.
But Brando’s rough cuts, rumored to have run eight, then five hours, and shown exclusively to Paramount’s top brass, failed to impress. Indeed, the executives were appalled by the subtleties of the piece; insisting Brando recut Karl Malden’s performance so he now appeared as a more clear-cut villain.  Perhaps either from exhaustion or simply to see the damned thing to completion, Brando complied; but later, he regretted this decision, suggesting Malden’s character was far more fascinating in tonal areas of gray than the black and white-washed portrayal that exists in the movie today. As Brando was now committed to beginning principle photography on Mutiny on the Bounty, Paramount seized upon the opportunity to relieve him entirely of his post-production participation on One-Eyed Jacks. They had waited two and a half years for Brando’s magnum opus and were not about to release a five hour cut of the movie. In Brando’s absence, the picture was recut; pared down to its 141 minute runtime and given a hasty premiere on March 30, 1961. Brando was still in Tahiti working on ‘Bounty’ when One-Eyed Jacks began receiving its mixed critical appraisal, calling it “one of the sizable efforts of my life.” Ultimately, neither Paramount nor Brando was vindicated by the final outcome. Though One-Eyed Jacks earned a respectable $4,300,000 in the U.S. alone, this figure was eclipsed by the production’s $6 million investment. And Brando was hardly pleased by the cuts made to his masterpiece in his absence.
It should be noted One-Eyed Jacks, while skillful in its storytelling, does contain some rather glaring omissions; chiefly, the depiction of Rio and Modesto’s time spent in prison together, presumably where there bond of friendship was first established. Also lost in transition are the motivations for Luisa’s love for Rio. There is also the anomaly of Rio’s character – or lack thereof – to grapple with; Brando’s performance occasionally teetering on rather insidious sadism. Rio is not simply misguided in his motivations, or even cruel as a classically drawn desperado from the Hollywood western guidebook, but a bundle of contradictions; a real gross pig of a human being where women are concerned, preferring, and even deriving pleasure from, the ruination of as many ‘innocent’ young girls to the creature comforts of ill-mannered/lustful Spanish whores meant to procure such diversions. Rio’s seduction of Louisa is thus bittersweet and ironically passionless; more venal and destructive in fact, until Rio is suddenly brought to heel by Louisa’s uncompromised goodness. Though scarred by his post-coital confessions, Louisa nevertheless refuses to surrender her love for this man who has taken her virtue. Her decency, virtually unknown in any of the male/female relationships fostered by Rio thus far, reforms him; another cliché, not only of the movie western but also its dramas and romantic comedies; a good woman and a bad man making their beautiful music together.
Arguably, Paramount’s tacked on ending, allowing Louisa her ambiguous survival as the fallen women, affords One-Eyed Jacks its reprieve from the existentially depressing and morally ambiguous finale Brando initially planned to conclude his movie. It’s still not a ‘happy ending’ as Hollywood then always favored, nor, arguably, is it faithful to the story itself. Given that One-Eyed Jacks premiered at the beginning of the 1960's, and would go on to enjoy a brief theatrical reissue in 1966, the height of the anti-heroic western revival, it would have meant so much more to have Brando’s cut preserved for posterity. Alas, in the intervening decades, the picture would all but vanish from public view; occasionally revived on late night television, further truncated in its runtime to accommodate commercial interruptions; its glorious VistaVision aspect ratio chopped to fit the 1.33:1 TV dimensions. For decades, One-Eyed Jacks survived only on cheaply manufactured VHS tapes, culled from the original VistaVision negative, but without any care applied to preserve either the quality or content of its presentation.
Now, Criterion has released a stunning new Blu-ray, the result of an extensive restoration put forth by Universal Home Video (the custodians of the archival VistaVision print master) and with financial assistance from The Film Foundation. The results are mostly pleasing and light years ahead of anything this movie has looked like anywhere since 1961. I have one sincere bone of contention to pick with this release, and it is Universal, in their infinite wisdom (or lack thereof) have elected to lop off the original Paramount VistaVision logo preceding the main titles; also, the Paramount studio logo that ought to have concluded virtually all studio releases from this particular vintage. They have replaced the former with their own Universal logo and the latter with a laundry list of credits attesting to those involved in restoring One-Eyed Jacks for this home video presentation. In the first place, One-Eyed Jacks was never a Universal Picture. In the second, the Uni logo preceding the main titles is not even of the sixties vintage, but a newly redesigned logo, slightly altered from Uni’s own 100th anniversary studio logo. As Universal has proven a willingness to release Paramount movies now under their custodianship to hi-def home video with the Paramount logos preserved, even reinstated from previous home video releases and for posterity, its omission herein is not only curious but utterly inexcusable.  
Now, how about the transfer?  Well, for starters, utilizing the original 35mm, 8-perforation Vista Vision negative with extensive color correction performed throughout, and scanned in at 6K resolution (later dumbed down for 1080p Blu-ray) the improvements to overall depth, clarity and image stability are irrefutable. This is a magnificent resurrection of the original theatrical presentation, complete with finite and distinguishable grain structure, ever so slightly tempered by properly applied DNR. A few density fluctuations persist, but have been greatly resolved throughout for a mostly smooth and creamy looking visual experience. Colors are vastly improved, although there appears to be some residual weakness in the blue layer. Skies and ocean surf, as example, do not pop as they should in VistaVision, and reds in particular lack that blood-red punch one might have expected to see, while other hues, most notably browns and oranges (and sometimes yellows) occasionally seem to dominate the spectrum, if not overpower this presentation entirely. There is also a hint of inexplicable edge enhancement cropping up in the scene where Rio confronts Dedrick with his own pistol. VistaVision’s claim of motion picture high fidelity is on display herein. For those unaccustomed to VistaVision in its prime, this disc gives a plausible account of the original theatrical showing with noted variations already discussed herein.  Criterion remains devoted to its LPCM 1.0 uncompressed audio presentations, One-Eyed Jacks sounding quite aggressive in spots with vastly superior depth, albeit monaural.  Extras are rather scant for a Criterion release; a few short featurettes covering the gestation of the project, some audio excerpts from a 1971 Brando interview where he discusses particular scenes, and a trailer. Bottom line: One-Eyed Jacks has never looked better on home video. Is this presentation perfection itself? Sadly, no, but I suspect it comes as close as will ever be possible for this movie. But please, Universal Home Video, for future reference: keep the damn studio logos preceding subsequent releases status quo. We know you own the Paramount library. No need to advertise it!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, November 24, 2016

SUDDENLY , LAST SUMMER: Blu-ray (Columbia/Horizon 1959) Viavision/Madman Entertainment

When it was released at the tail end of December, 1959, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called director, Joseph L. Mankewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summera malignant masterpiece – a horror picture for adults”; Variety – the showbiz Bible, adding “by far, the most bizarre motion picture ever made by a major American company.” Indeed, in years to follow there have been very few movies of any generation to so completely rattle the brain – literally and figuratively – in a visual and aural repose of absolute human terror. It can safely be said Katherine Hepburn’s wealthy benefactress, Violet Venable, ‘democratically’ descending from ‘on high’ in her Byzantine-esque elevator, thereafter periodically slipping into lugubrious daydreams of her son, Sebastian and incestuously referring to themselves as ‘a couple’, is one of the most markedly evil representations of motherhood in cinema history. Only one other comes immediately to mind, Angela Lansbury’s supremely wicked Eleanor Iselin from 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Like Eleanor, Violet is ‘devoted’ to her offspring – or rather, his downfall; an enabler/procurer, feeding into and off of his self-destruction. Violet’s flawed remembrances of their even more insidiously unsettling and curious trip to the Galápagos Islands, where she and Sebastian witnessed ‘flesh-devouring’ birds turning over newly hatched baby sea turtles to peck apart their soft stomachs, creates a riveting impression; also, a bit of foreshadowing, and furthermore still, to Vi’s overbearing gargoyle of a matriarch; interpretations remade into fact, meant to obscure what actually occurred ‘suddenly’ last summer.  But exactly what did happen? Is the integrity of her dead son, the fantasy of their ‘loving’ relationship, or an even more brutally dishonest secret, worth destroying two lives? Or can it liberate and restore one life, even as it has so completely decimated the other?
As a movie, Suddenly, Last Summer should have been a more intensely shocking experience; what, with Tennessee William’s play, its acidic subject matter eluding to repressed incestuous frustrations, homoerotic cannibalism, and, the threat of lobotomizing a frightened young innocent, merely to silence the nightmarish truth sprung from a seemingly innocuous respite on a beach in Cabeza de Lobo – the movie version had a lot to feast upon (pun intended, for those familiar with the outcome). And director, Joseph Mankewicz certainly knew his way around such stagecraft; his movies, literate, sobering revelations on human foibles. Alas, Mankewicz was hampered in several ways as to prevent the complete and complex maturation of its subject matter; the Catholic League of Decency weighing in, and Hollywood, not yet willing to loosen its yolk on screen censorship. The movie’s biggest asset is undeniably Katherine Hepburn as the disturbing – and disturbed – matron of the maison; Violet Venable about as grotesque and devouring as the Venus flytrap she favors in Sebastian’s primordial paradise; a garden populated by oversized dense foliage straight out of the Cretaceous period, decorated by winged skeletal statuary; its’ centerpiece, Sebastian’s shuttered artist’s atelier.
We never meet the deviant heir apparent to this decaying labyrinth of artistic decadence; the man closest to Violet’s heart, if indeed she possesses one – the boy wonder/poet with a weak heart for whom she selfishly allowed a husband to die alone at home while they frolicked abroad in Europe; Sebastian (Julián Ugarte), only briefly glimpsed from behind in a regressed ‘flashback’ recalled by cousin, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor). Even so, Sebastian’s presence permeates virtually every frame of our story. Even the crisp white linen suit, greedily pulled from his closet by Catherine’s brother, George (Gary Raymond), lingers with Sebastian’s essence, thanks primarily to Tennessee Williams’ infectious dialogue. Were that Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (Oscar-nominated, no less) could hold a candle to his prose. While praised at the time for her acting chops, Taylor really does not dig beyond the surface of this part; her pantomimed reactions as she observes her cousin being consumed by the urchins he patronized (and, so it is only hinted within the context of the film, though openly spelled out in the play, exploited for his own sexual sadisms) more of a lampoon of fear than a genuine reaction to the carnage on display.
When it opened on Broadway, Suddenly, Last Summer was paired with another one-act play by Tennessee Williams; Something Unspoken – the two given the overall title, Garden District. On stage, Suddenly, Last Summer is basically two stark and lyrical monologues, Williams incorporating tragedies endured in his life, with a minor exaltation of his idol and muse; the poet, Hart Crane. According a rumor, Suddenly, Last Summer is the manifestation of Williams’ desire to rid himself of his own homosexuality through artistic expression after undergoing psychoanalysis. The truth is far more complex; Williams suffering from lifelong – and occasionally lengthy bouts - of paranoia, depression and anxiety that caused him to drink to excess. These transparencies between Williams’ life and the play prove compelling; even the superficial naming of the compassionate Dr. Cukrowicz (played by Montgomery Clift), an obvious ‘homage’ to Dr. Lawrence Kubie who, in 1957, was renown as a leading authority in American psychiatry, specializing in a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. There is little evidence to suggest Williams took Kubie’s advice to heart. Indeed, he never gave up sex or playwriting; Williams’ sessions with the famed psychiatrist resulting in one of the most fruitful creative periods of his career.
Williams’ sister, Rose, a schizophrenic, committed to a state asylum for her sexual babbling, had suffered the fate proposed for the play’s fictional Catherine Holly; a lobotomy at the instigation of their domineering mother. The operation left Rose incapacitated and institutionalized for the rest of her life. Mercifully, Williams spares his ‘Miss Catherine’ this surgical emasculation by revealing a truth Violet does not wish to be exposed; arguably, Williams’ revenge on the parents he never quite forgave for Rose’s fate. Williams even incorporates an incident from life, in which Rose accused their father of rape, into the play’s narrative; Catherine alleging an elderly caretaker has made improper advances while she was convalescing at a convent; the rumors – unsubstantiated, and never believed by even Catherine’s mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) – prone to her own fretting and fuss. There is little doubt the symbols of predation employed within the play’s narrative – and marginally tweaked (nee, watered down, in the film) are derived from Williams’ psychoanalytic experiences.  Yet, in the intervening decades, Suddenly, Last Summer has been misread as the weak-kneed pleas of a ‘self-loathing queer’, despite the fact these heterosexuals who populate this bizarre pantheon are far more perverted, immoral and monstrous.
In spite of the revelations we discover about Sebastian Venable – that he ‘used people’ via an intoxicating charm, as readily meant to consume as to ostracize any individual from his social clique once he was through with them – the real demigod of this piece is Sebastian’s mother, Violet; a demonstrative gargoyle, pledging her warped sense of maternal love to this offspring eager to exploit her beauty and wealth merely to satisfy his own appetite for desperate young men. Violet knows what her son is and cannot stand it. Insidiously, however, she is fervently committed to feeding his predilections without admitting to their existence; her possessive nature wounded, but unbroken, after Sebastian makes a new travelling companion of Catherine, who is younger, prettier and therefore, more likely to draw the right kind of attention Sebastian requires to satisfy his own homoerotic proclivities. As such, Violet’s doggedness to see Catherine’s lobotomized is never an act of altruism intended to ease this troubled girl of her haunted mind. It may not even be about maintaining Sebastian’s secret, best left buried in the past; but rather, a menacing and malignant retaliation against Catherine for being the new ‘woman’ in Sebastian’s life.  
At its crux, Suddenly, Last Summer was never intended to be a play about homosexuality, despite its mobile of plot entanglements dangling loosely about the dead gay man at the center of its story. Tennessee Williams is far more fascinated with scrutinizing the exploitation of the natural world; how all living things – in one manner or another –  ‘devour’ to survive. Unlike Mankewicz’s movie, the play begins with a tour of Sebastian’s prehistoric garden; Violet Venable, the docent of this somewhat clinical back story, indulging Sebastian’s Venus Fly Trap with live insects and thus, establishing Williams’ central theme. Mankewicz retains this vignette for the movie, but only after a fairly lengthy prologue involving Dr. Cukrowicz, a brilliant Chicago neurosurgeon, coaxed to practice medicine and perform his experimental surgeries at New Orlean’s Lion’s View state asylum. Cukrowicz is somewhat confrontational towards the asylum’s chief of staff, Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader (Albert Dekker), especially over the deplorable lack of funding and less than acceptable working conditions. It seems Hockstader has promised Cukrowicz the world, without actually being able to deliver; an oversight to be corrected, should Cukrowicz comply with Violet’s request to perform a lobotomy on her niece, in order to ‘relieve’ her of these frightening sexual rants.
At Hockstader’s insistence, Cukrowicz agrees to interview both Violet and Catherine regarding the particulars of the case. What he quickly realizes is this grand dame of New Orleans society has some rather deviant quirks of her own; an almost lionizing passion for her late son, disturbingly isolationist carnal attraction. Violet considers their mother/son relationship from the stance of the ‘perfect couple’ and center of attention; the outside world melting away whenever they entered any room together.  Whether intentionally realized or not, Violet’s insistence Sebastian was ‘chaste’ – an artist, who, having seen the ‘face of God’ on the Galapagos Islands, considers people only as they might satisfy his craft as a poet – paints a rather psychopathic account of her son, dismissive of all human foibles; a prig, perhaps – though not a wanton – whose purity is beyond reproach, but maybe masking a deeper ‘imperfection’ he could not have suppressed for much longer. Sebastian’s death has therefore spared him his reputation – at least, insofar as Violet is concerned. Alas, the fly in this ointment is Catherine: present at the time of Sebastian’s demise, and the one person who can dispel Violet’s claim he died of a heart attack brought on by the intense heat. Interestingly, Williams has given the dead Venable heir the name of a famous martyred saint; Sebastian’s impression completed by Catherine’s monologue, fleshing out the image of a doomed martyr – impossibly shy and fairly neurotic – using Violet as ‘bait’ to procure young men for his leisure. 
In the play, Violet has suffered a mild stroke; the facial tick left behind forcing Sebastian to forsake his mother’s companionship for a new beauty capable of luring prospective contacts into his den of iniquity. To satisfy the conventions of a major motion picture, and one heavily censured by Hollywood’s self-governing body no less; but also, to flesh out what is essentially a forty minute oration into a two hour movie with character development, director Mankewicz turned to openly gay writer, Gore Vidal for inspiration. Vidal’s contributions are seamless and greatly expand upon the character of Dr. Cukrowicz, only of marginal importance in the play. The movie opens far away from the terrifying glamor of Sebastian’s garden; inside a makeshift operating theater at the state asylum where Cukrowicz is performing a lobotomy on a nondescript patient under the most primitive working conditions. A balcony railing breaks loose and a failing generator causes the overhead lights to momentarily fail. Cukrowicz is disgusted by these surroundings, informing Hockstader he is ‘not a witch doctor’.  Hockstader is sympathetic, but presses Cukrowicz to perform the lobotomy on Catherine Holly, primarily because it will secure a badly needed grant of a million dollars; in 1937 (the period, in which the play is set), enough to build Cukrowicz his state-of-the-art facility where he can carry on with his work.
Unlike the play, basically taking place in Sebastian’s garden and an adjacent verandah, the film version of Suddenly, Last Summer takes us inside the Venable estate; a sprawling complex with adjacent buildings framed by the garden, and later – in flashback, with an overlapping dissolve into montage, to Cabeza de Lobo, where we witness (partially) Sebastian being torn apart and eaten by his avenging boy toys.  Undeniably, Vidal’s greatest ‘contribution’ to the picture is confirmed in this altered finale; Catherine’s regression under the influence of truth serum, revealing the particulars of what happened ‘suddenly, last summer’; cross-cutting between the present and the past; photographed in overlapping images of Sebastian, fleeing the urchins in his immaculate white linen suit; driven through the cobblestone streets to an isolated hilltop where he is sacrificed by the ‘gobbling’ hoards; Vidal, quite unable to resist adding sympathy and restraint to the end of the picture. In the play, Violet storms out of the garden after ordering Cukrowicz to tear out this salacious memory from her niece’s mind; an indomitably determined and rather demonic presence to the very end. The movie provides us with a more avenging finale that nevertheless, and rather strangely, allows Hepburn’s venomous mother her moment of redemption; Catherine’s exposure of what really happened at Cabeza de Lobo liberates her mind from its repressed quicksand of madness. Alas, it also sends Violet into a tailspin and a retreat into the imagined ‘perfect’ past – or rather, her impressions of Sebastian before last summer; a purgatory from which she will likely never emerge. To this penultimate conclusion, Vidal rather clumsily concocts a ‘romance’ of sorts between the antiseptic Cukrowicz and Catherine; periodically fleshed out within the story by Cukrowicz ability to show Catherine unaffected kindness – the only character to do so. She repeatedly throws herself at his head; passionately kissing him twice, to which he playfully suggests “it was a friendly kiss”.
In life, Montgomery Clift, whose earnestly expressive fine-boned features, for a brief wrinkle in time, branded him the ‘hot’ young stud in Hollywood’s famed stables of masculine stars; posthumous rewritten as a gay icon, and, Elizabeth Taylor, the screen’s sultry and violet-eyed vixen, were life-long friends; she, knowing early on he was gay but keeping it a secret; the two romantically paired in George Stevens’ magnificent, A Place in the Sun (1951), and later, the ill-fated (and costly epic) misfire, Raintree County (1957); Taylor utterly devoted to Clift after his good looks were irrevocably destroyed by a near-fatal car wreck while leaving her home in 1956. It remains fascinating to watch their loosely quixotic byplay in Suddenly, Last Summer, void of the more obvious overtures played out in either of the aforementioned movies; Taylor mashing her glossy lips against Clift’s rather brittle and stiff doctor – the moment unrequited (one could infer, out of Cukrowicz’s respect for doctor/patient privilege), except the undercurrent of these stars’ enduring friendship remain plainly on display during such exchanges; Clift, grateful and humbled by Taylor’s backstage devoutness to him (indeed, he was no longer being considered for leading parts, the effect the accident had on his ego and social life even more devastating and, arguably, escalating his sad death at the age of 45).
By the time Suddenly, Last Summer went before the cameras, Montgomery Clift was already a shell of his former self; tortured by the frustratingly mad downward spiral of his real life. Arguably, this had begun long before the wreck; Clift, embracing Hollywood’s hedonism with a chronic addiction to booze and late nights carousing with hustlers. Yet, there is little to deny the accident as the seminal moment to speed up Clift’s folly, putting an eventual period to his life; the hellacious dismemberment of Clift’s car, discovered along a lonely road by actor, Kevin McCarthy, with Clift lying on its front seat, semi-conscious, half his head missing and two teeth lodged down his throat; Taylor rushing to the scene to wield absolute power over the tabloid press who had already gathered, declaring that if any photos were taken of Clift she would make it her singular mission in life to see none of these men ever worked in Hollywood again. Whatever the truth to these stories, not a single image of Clift’s perilous injuries has ever surfaced. Multiple surgeries and physical therapy rebuilt only a fraction and reasonable facsimile of Clift’s former self. But the reconstruction, coupled by Clift’s abuse of heavy painkillers and alcohol did much to age him well beyond his years; Clift’s death in 1966, later described as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”
It was Taylor who had championed Clift for the part of Dr. Cukrowicz in Suddenly, Last Summer, producer, Sam Spiegel willing to weather the risk to keep his star satisfied. Alas, the results were trying at best; Mankewicz repeatedly grown perturbed with Clift, who could not remember his lines or get through any of the major scenes without periodically losing his train of thought; forcing Mankewicz (who preferred long takes) to split up the action and then cobble together a performance from the various pieces in the editing room. At one point, Mankewicz went to Spiegel; then, over Spiegel’s head, to implore cooler heads remove Clift from the film. But Taylor’s clout proved Teflon-coated. With backing from Katherine Hepburn, Clift remained in the picture – barely – Hepburn taking her outrage one step further; rumored to have spat on Mankewicz at the end of the shoot; a summation of her disgust for the way Clift had been shabbily treated on the set. In reviewing Suddenly, Last Summer again, there is an intangible fragility and poignancy to the Taylor/Clift relationship as it translates into their respective on-screen characters; something about the body language; Catherine’s repeated need to cling to Cukrowicz for support, heartened by Taylor’s need to console, coddle and look out for Clift’s fragile and steadily declining sense of self-worth. She does none of this out of pity, but respect and love for the man she calls her friend; Clift’s tired, careworn and occasionally glazed over look of affection emanating volumes of sad-eyed gladness; a heartrending and ruined thing to behold. That Clift could look to the fictional Sebastian Venable as his counterpoint of sorts, having fallen from grace as the imminent hot shot about whom much had been written, now to a point of pretentious folly, still immaculately attired, but physically waning and emotionally frail, perhaps helped to augment his steady decline. Without question, it makes for an interesting comparative analysis of the film today.  
It must be said screenwriter, Gore Vidal’s artistic license has, for the most part, improved upon the play; shifting Tennessee Williams’ dialogue to different scenes to invigorate its dramatic flow and, when necessary, even ostentatiously accepting the challenge to write in Williams’ tone to embellish a scene.  As example, the moment where Violet descends from her elevator, uttering the playfully delicious lines, “Sebastian always said, 'Mother when you descend it's like the Goddess from the Machine'... it seems that the Emperor of Byzantium - when he received people in audience - had a throne which, during the conversation, would rise mysteriously into the air to the consternation of his visitors. But as we are living in a democracy, I reverse the procedure. I don't rise, I come down” are purely Vidal’s invention; the elevator, while referenced in the play, never actually seen. Vidal also punches up the finale by allowing for the transference of guilt from Catherine to Violet; the former, liberated after expressing these suppressed memories, the latter, unable to challenge the truth, retreating into a fantasy alternative for it – because of it – becoming lost, trapped and destined to remain perversely fantasizing about the fiction that has consumed her life. And Hepburn plays this penultimate surrender for all its worth – subtly – Violet’s hands caressing the empty pages of Sebastian’s notebook; a look of peaceful surrender writ large across her face; mistaking Cukrowicz for her dead son as she gingerly touches his gentle hands.
Was Vidal compelled to alter the ending of the play to satisfy the Hays Code, Breen Office and Catholic League of Decency? Hmmm. Convention of the day promised no bad deeds go unpunished. Sebastian’s comeuppance fits his crime; to be dismembered by the boys whose innocence he has stolen. Violet’s punishment is no less murderously devised; for she surrenders sanity for the sake of a dream best remembered before all these nightmares of the present have set in. That Suddenly, Last Summer was made at all is, frankly, a miracle; Mankewicz ambitiously pursuing one of the most controversial properties in, then, recent times to create a riveting – if marginally convoluted – artwork underscored by Tennessee Williams’ own spark of Southern Gothic brilliance. And Production Designer, Oliver Messel and Art Director, William Kellner have outdone themselves on crafting Sebastian’s garden landscape; moodily lit and photographed in stark B&W by cinematographer, Jack Hildyard. The results are a tad melodramatic, and, as previously discussed, slightly blemished, though nevertheless vividly realized. Thus, and, in the end, Suddenly, Last Summer remains a unique work of cinema art; the visual manifestation of some very impure thoughts.
Your old Columbia Classics DVD is officially a coaster for your drink. For here is another beautifully rendered ‘region free’ Blu-ray from Viavision and MadMan Entertainment; a disc erroneously advertised as ‘region B locked’ on various websites when, in actuality it will play on any Blu-ray device anywhere in the world. I sincerely wish Viavision would get its own advertising right. Their previously reviewed Lost Horizon (1937) Blu-ray suggested ‘region 4’ encoding. Suddenly Last Summer’s back jack blatantly advertises this disc as ‘region B’ locked. Lies – all lies. But I digress. Once you have seen the near pristine quality of this 1080p transfer, the old Columbia DVD is obsolete. The B&W image herein is stunning; exporting superb shadow delineation, exquisite textures, superb amounts of fine detail and some gorgeous grain. There are a handful of scenes that can appear marginally softer by direct comparison; possible the result of dupe inserts. But even these momentary lapses are not so far gone as to distract. Better still, there are no age-related artifacts to intrude. The DTS 2.0 mono audio sounds quite unexpectedly powerful. Suddenly Last Summer is a primarily dialogue-driven movie, so stereo really is not necessary. One thorough regret – NO extras – not even a trailer. Bottom line: this one is a keeper. Like many classic movie fans living in North America, I have grown sincerely tired of waiting for the major studios to get their act together and release more of their back catalog on this side of the pond. As Viavision/Madman have proven they possess the rights to legitimately authored impeccable masters from the Sony classic library, rest assured what you are buying from them is quality of the highest order. So buy today and treasure forever.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)