Monday, January 23, 2017

BELLS ARE RINGING: Blu-ray (MGM 1960) Warner Archive Collection

Director, Vincente Minnelli brought nothing new or even fresh to his big screen adaptation of Bells Are Ringing (1960); the Broadway smash that endeared Judy Holliday to theater audiences in 1956 and would – again, for the movie – charm us with her effervescent and irresistible joie de vivre. Miss Holliday, it ought to be noted, is today one of the most grotesquely underrated (and underexposed) comedian/raconteurs of her generation; a bon vivant who could play the blonde ditz like nobody’s business, yet as equally stir monuments of empathy and pathos as propriety and the part demanded (see her performance in the drowning scene from 1952’s The Marrying Kind as proof…if you can find it anywhere on home video!). In hindsight, Bells Are Ringing is a better-than-average example of the Broadway to Hollywood hybrid that briefly flourished in the mid-fifties, and would again be resurrected with modulating degrees of success throughout the 1960’s; not so much ‘adapted for’ as almost literally ‘transcribed’ on celluloid with unerring fidelity to its source material. At a then staggering cost of $3,246,000, ‘Bells’ irrevocable loss of nearly $1,800,000 at the box office, at least, in hindsight, spoke more to the overall audience shift away from such slickly packaged entertainments, rather than any artistic flaw inherent in the picture itself. And MGM was hardly in a position to buffer the costs of producing a big n’ splashy musical extravaganza in 1960. Hence, what we have here (despite the promises made in a breathtaking aerial intro to the isle of Manhattan – in Cinemascope) is a studio-bound effort, more at home in the isolated trappings borrowed from virtually every Metro musical (and a few non-musicals) made at that studio from the 1940’s; given a fresh coat of paint (but precious little else), if ever so slight a rearrangement to camouflage its ‘hand-me-down’ effect. Hence, it is saying a great deal of the stars of this movie, also Minnelli’s direction, that the resultant film – despite its many shortcomings – is an effervescent gem, even if the many delays incurred along the way had allowed the glowing memory of the Broadway original to fade from public consciousness by the time the movie came out.
As was the case on stage, Judy Holliday is the movie’s raison d’etre - extraordinary in every way; blessed, as all truly gifted comediennes are, with an unexpected depth and affecting quality. She could as easily entertain us with a hearty chuckle as unexpectedly tug at our heartstrings.  In a memorable career, cut far too short by the breast cancer ultimately to claim her at the gentle age of 43, Holliday gave us dizzy dames and daring madcaps, each blessed with an inimitable blend of endearing and blissful sorrow. And to her credit, Holliday never seems transparent in this hallowed resolve to surprise with unexpected nuggets of wisdom. It has oft been said it takes a very smart person to play a total idiot. Holliday’s heroines are dumb only on the surface - a seemingly essential prerequisite for being ‘born yesterday’…or, at least – born blonde. But she is as astute in her views of the world as thoroughly infectious as the innocent, put upon by cads lurking around every corner in Manhattan’s cosmopolitan jungle. Make no mistake, in virtually all her screen appearances it’s this little lost lamb that ends up taking a considerable bite out of the wolves. And yet, Holliday, who would have preferred a career as a writer, and harbored the deepest admiration for good writing, was quite cynical about acting in general and her place within its theatrical firmament. “Acting is a very limited form of expression,” she once said, “…and those who take it seriously are very limited people. I take it seriously. But I hated the idea of being an actress. I used to throw up before every performance and cry afterwards. I thought I was learning about show biz. The more painful it was, the more important I thought the experience must be, and hating it, I convinced myself it must be invaluable. In repose my face looks as though I’ve gone through some terrible ordeal in the last five minutes. So, I have to disguise that expression and get a glassy-eyed looked…something I learned from my dog!”
We ought to sincerely thank the mutt. And so, we arrive at Holliday’s Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing; just a disembodied voice in ‘a perfect relationship’; working the lines of a lower east side telephone answering service and giving every client the individual attention their fragile egos crave. She can play Santa or silly and find truer meaning in loving her fellow man through her work. Her boss, Sue Summers (Jean Stapleton) thinks she is nuts. Moreover, Sue isn’t about to waste her time kissing up to the clientele. They are a paycheck and that’s all. On stage, Bells Are Ringing was mostly a one woman show; Holliday sustaining the piece with her sheer stage presence and comedic magnetism. The movie ever so slightly divides our interests between Ella and the object of her affections: playwright, Jeffrey Moss (affectionately fleshed out in all his gin-soaked glory by everyone’s favorite drunk, Dean Martin). Today, we take alcoholism seriously; but in Martin’s era he not only made a career out of elegant inebriation, but charmingly poked fun at the greatly exaggerated public persona of a chronic booze hound that helped to make him an enviable star, interjecting quips like, “I once shook hands with Pat Boone…my entire right side sobered up” or “…the reason I drink is because when I’m sober I think I’m Eddie Fisher!” Martin also claimed in a tuxedo he was a star; in plain clothes – a nobody. Point well taken in Bells Are Ringing, as Dean-o rarely appears out of that celebrated form of men’s attire, and when he does, his on-screen persona is of a ‘failed writer’. Throughout Bells Are Ringing, the chemistry between Martin and Holliday is first rate; their repartee on par with the great romantic screen teams of yesteryear; as a couple, they possess a genuine William Powell/Myrna Loy quality. If not for Holliday’s looming illness and untimely death, we might have seen more of this pair in subsequent movies.
In Bells Are Ringing, Holliday is Martin’s social conscience and moral compass. Boy, does he need one! Not only has Jeffrey Moss fallen on hard times – creatively – but, like the old joke about RKO Studios, he hasn’t had a hit in years. At one point, Ella – known only to Jeffrey as someone he chooses to call ‘mom’, illustrates what a crime it would be for him to give up writing.  She inspires him to put down the bottle and pick up the typewriter. Without ever meeting, these two are already in love.  He, in turn, brings out Ella’s sex appeal, frustratingly suppressed beneath her giddy façade, but eventually unearthed by his tender and burgeoning devotion to this woman who, in the flesh, he knows under the pseudonym, Melisande Scott.  It’s a joyous ruse, one initially perpetuated by Ella to ease Jeffrey back into his groove after ‘mom’s’ coaxing has already failed. Really, Ella loves Jeffrey that much, and, in this steel and concrete abyss of fair-weather friends, Jeffrey can use all the sincerity Ella/mom/Melisande can offer him. Alas, in faking her identity, Ella comes to realize she is no better than Olga (Valerie Allen), the vacuous tart who sees Jeffrey only as a handsome meal ticket to escort her to the races.
Bells Are Ringing was produced at the tail end of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reign as the purveyors of top-flight musical entertainments. In some ways, the property fit MGM’s idea of mass entertainment better than its’ direct competition on Broadway then; Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, eventually snatched up by Warner Bros. At a time when Broadway had virtually eschewed its own conventions for putting on a show – razzamatazz traded for highbrow morality set to music, a la the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein – scenarists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green had dared to pen an unapologetic homage to all those Tin Pan Alley yarns of yesteryear with barely enough plot to link together Jules Styne’s ebullient cacophony of toe-tapping hit tunes. Bells Are Ringing was, in fact, chastised by the hoity-toity critics for its straightforward and threadbare plot. Yet, in hindsight, the play resurrects and revitalizes that woolly-headed frivolity presently lacking, and even more desperately missed, in the American theater; just a simple story about simple people, other simple people can root for with a smile. Still, bringing Bells Are Ringing to the screen was hardly a joy galore for Vincente Minnelli. In fact, the project was repeatedly stalled, first – to satisfy contractual obligations pertaining to its Broadway run, then by a sudden disinterest afflicting Comden and Green, who had been paid handsomely to adapt ‘Bells’ for the big screen. The pair, alas, was involved in preparing a Broadway retrospective of their work. Their first draft for the movie version of Bells Are Ringing mildly incensed producer, Arthur Freed; a script for a nearly three hour feature MGM had neither the time, ambitions or budget to make. Comden and Green’s second crack was more compact, but seemingly made off the cuff and lacking cohesion.
In the end, Bells are Ringing would come off a decidedly scaled down affair; Arthur Freed urging the show’s lyricist, Jules Styne to pen three new songs (only two ultimately used). The rights to produce it had cost Freed just under a cool half a million. To manage costs further, only the main title sequence would be shot on location in New York, the rest cobbled together from obvious sets and brief exteriors employing Metro’s own free-standing New York street back lot facades; easily identifiable to anyone who has seen more than, say, three MGM movies in their lifetime. Remarkably, none of this penny-pinching affects the film’s lighter-than-air atmosphere, perhaps because Vincente Minnelli has wisely focused his camera on the performers instead of the scenery. Even so, Bells Are Ringing is not Minnelli’s best work; at least, from an inventive standpoint. Minnelli, who could usually be counted upon to be deliciously ‘out there’ in concocting his musical fantasias, herein stays pretty close to his source material. There are no ‘dream sequences’, no clever camera angles or romanticized uses of color and/or color filters to draw undue attention or elevate the overall impact and mood of any particular scene. Instead, we have a facile evocation of the stage play, ever so slightly ‘opened up’ for the expansive Cinemascope screen. Again, none of this hurts the film.
The one unforgivable sin, if one can call it that, is Minnelli’s decision to unceremoniously distill Ella’s marvelous cha-cha-cha into a wan ghost flower of what it had been on the stage. Performed in a decidedly unglamorous back alley with Carl (Doria Avila), the Hispanic boyfriend of fellow phone operator, Gwynne (Ruth Storey), in her red ball gown, a La Traviatta hand-me-down given to Ella in gratitude by operatic sensation, Madame Grimaldi (Marina Koshetz), Judy Holliday manages to meld high art with even higher camp. It’s a delirious lampoon; Carl attempts to teach Ella the dance for her first date with Jeffrey; their seductive pas deux ending on a deliciously cynical note as Carl unexpectedly clasps Ella’s buttocks with a pronounced slap; her fiery elation at having mastered the steps instantly turned into icy desolation and a faraway ‘I can’t believe what just happened’ look of bewilderment caught in her eyes. Yet, all that Minnelli can think of herein is to dissolve to the next scene, his lack of punctuation, more perfunctory than pleasing and decidedly telling of his own ennui on the project. Indeed, Minnelli had moved on, or rather, decidedly away from movie musicals by 1960; perhaps, having twice been nominated, and won the Oscar for Gigi (1958), recognizing the genre and he had come about as far as he was willing to go. “I think musicals will have to deal with more important subject matter,” Minnelli mused, “No more backstage stories…nothing of that sort.” If so, then Bells Are Ringing is, in many ways, the antithesis of Minnelli’s prediction; old-fashion and even slightly campy. It would have been a sensation in 1945, and arguably, a sizable smash in the mid to late fifties. But lest we forget, 1960 was a year dominated by such ‘now’ classic offerings as Psycho, Spartacus, Butterfield 8, and, The Magnificent Seven; ‘Bells’ only significant rival in the musical genre, Fox’s clunky and misguided adaptation of Cole Porter’s Broadway spectacle, Can-Can, that sought to emulate – nee, resurrect, the wonderment of Gigi, right down to casting Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan in transparently familiar roles.
The other great performance in Bells Are Ringing belongs to old-time Vaudeville ham, Eddie Foy Jr., as the deviously slick, J. Otto Prantz, who has completely swept Sue off her two left feet in order to operate his spurious racketeering enterprise right under her nose and the radar of the law; the answering service covering for his already nefarious alter-enterprise – Titanic Records – a false front, placing illegal bets. Like Dean Martin, Foy came to this movie with a fresh pair of eyes; the part originated as ‘Sandor’ on stage by Eddie Lawrence. Unusual for Arthur Freed, Bells Are Ringing retains most of its Broadway’s alumni, including Hal Linden, the stage’s Jeffrey Moss (herein, in a minor role as a nightclub entertainer, belting out one of the lesser songs, ‘The Midas Touch’). From Broadway, Freed also borrowed Bernie West to reprise his misguided dentist/composer, Dr. Joe Kitchell, and Dort Clark, for the comedic and caustic, Police Inspector Barnes.  The last bit of inspired casting went to Frank Gorshin, a superb mimic, doing his fifteen seconds of ‘the great mumbler’; a fractured Marlon Brando knock-off as Blake Barton; a beatnik on the cusp of hitting the big time.
Bells Are Ringing opens with some spectacular aerial shots of Manhattan under its main title credits. By the early sixties, Hollywood had become increasingly more daring in taking their cameras on location, necessitated by audiences’ demands for realism in their entertainments. And yet, MGM chose to buck this trend, particularly where musicals were concerned; two bright and breezy outdoorsy musicals - Brigadoon and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (both in 1954), famously (or infamously) shot within the confines of several sound stages  It is therefore more than a little disheartening to realize all that remains of the Big Apple in Bells Are Ringing, a movie set on the lower east side, are these introductory snippets – Minnelli skillfully avoiding any direct references thereafter, and centralizing his action mostly within interior settings to create – with varying degrees of success – the uber chic look of this East Coast Mecca; the one unforgivable sin, the staging of the movie’s romantic pas deux, ‘Just in Time’ against an obvious papier-mâché backdrop of the George Washington Bridge, later immortalized on its own terms, and to perfection, from an almost identical camera angle (but for real) in Woody Allen’s 1979 classic, Manhattan.  From here, we segue into a charmingly ludicrous montage, featuring a bevy of MGM contract beauties, flaxen-haired and bubble-headed; inquisitively pondering what an answering service can do for their careers and love lives. There is something insidiously charming about Minnelli’s direction as he almost immediately debunks their storied glamour, dissolving to the crumbling brownstone surrounded by vacant lots on the lower east side. Here is the real home office of the fabled Susanswerphone messaging service; its reported army of call-screeners, exhibiting ‘chic good taste’, distilled to three sweaty toilers - Ella Peterson, Sue Summers and Gwynne - in an un-air-conditioned basement flat with unattractive headsets glued to their ears. In tandem, the girls field inquiries for their roster of clientele. It becomes rather obvious Ella is the favorite. She uses the service as a means to disseminate pertinent information on everything from child-rearing to cold remedies to her grateful clients.
Sue encourages prudence. After all, police have been readily cracking down on answering services all over the city after it was discovered a few were being used as fronts for prostitution. Not long thereafter, Susanswerphone is raided by Inspector Barnes and detective Francis (Ralph Roberts). Barnes is gunning for a promotion. When he can find no proof of their complicity in any illegal enterprise, he vows instead to remain vigilant, presumably to catch this trio up to no good. Susanswerphone’s neediest client is Plaza ‘0’ Double-4 Double-3; Jeffrey Moss - a boozing playwright who cannot bring himself to the typewriter without a stiff drink into his hand. One leads to another and before long the highballs outnumber words on the printed page. Ella is convinced all Jeffrey needs is the right muse to inspire him. She adopts a maternal approach to their conversations; then, elects to sneak off to his apartment after becoming jealous of a flirtatious conversation she overhears between Jeff and his unpleasant paramour, Olga. Ella makes short shrift of this sex pot, posing as Moss’ secretary; a ruse he willingly subscribes to, in order to rid himself of an awkward sexual liaison. But afterward, Jeff attempts to pick up with Ella where he and Olga left off. Instead, she admonishes him for his lack of originality and initiative; urging him to consider what shirking his responsibilities now could mean to his future prospects as a playwright.  Through her connections at work, Ella already knows producer, Larry Hastings (Fred Clark) is hunting for a new show.
Sifting in and out of Jeff’s life with the ease of a blithe spirit, Ella also works her magic on a forlorn dentist, Dr. Kitchell, who would much rather spend his time penning lyrics to songs he hopes to peddle along the Great White Way. In fact, Kitchell spends his afternoons composing music on his air hose. Ella also steps into the part of beatnik gal pal to Blake Barton, an out of work actor, telling him if he wants to be taken seriously he has to “cut the blue jeans action” and improve his fractured diction. Ramping up her involvement on Jeff’s play, Ella reinvents herself as Melisande Scott. She agrees to go out on a date but then begins to get cold feet when Olga suggests she doesn’t buy her sweet act for a moment. An impromptu buck and wing in the park with Jeffrey near the George Washington Bridge ends up entertaining a group of casual passersby. But it also solidifies Jeff’s love for Melisande. Eventually, the pair arrives at Hastings’ Sutton Place townhouse to discuss Jeff’s play. Regrettably, this turns out not to be a private meeting but a very elegant house party, teeming to the rafters with the inanely wealthy and socially superficial. Ella is encourage to play along and ‘Drop That Name’; a wicked lampoon of how deals get done by movers and shakers in love with their own navel-gazing charm. In the meantime, Otto has trained Sue how to take orders for Titanic Records; the title of each album code for a particular race track; the speed of the recording, actually the amount of money a particular bookie is trying to bet.
Attending his cronies deep inside the bowels of New York’s public works (a scene vaguely reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s ‘Luck Be A Lady’ from the film version of Guys and Dolls, 1955), Otto explains the intricacies of his ‘Simple Little System’. Too bad for Otto, he knows his horses better than his composers. When Gwynne’s boyfriend, Carl, overhears Ella unintentionally taking a bet for Beethoven’s 10th Symphony, he intercepts the phone call to explain it must be a mistake: Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies during his lifetime. To avoid confusion, Ella decides to correct the order from ten to nine; thus, ruining the bet. In the meantime, Jeffrey inadvertently stumbles upon Dr. Kitchell and Blake Barton in a nightclub showcasing Kitchell’s new song, ‘The Midas Touch’. The song is the same name as the title of Jeff’s new and soon to be produced play. Kitchell adds that his inspiration for the composition was a young blonde, and Barton, who has won the audition to play the lead, also explains his encounter with a blonde. Piecing Melisande’s curious behaviors together with more recollections from Barton and Kitchell, Jeffrey realizes the woman who has come to mean so much in all their lives is one in the same. Moreover, she is ‘mom’ – the disembodied voice of reason Jeff has been listening to over at Susanswerphone. Back at the office, Ella tells Sue she has ruined everything by playing mother in too many people’s lives. Although she has been sincere in her efforts, she has lied to them all and, in the end – and worst of all – has been untrue to herself. She wants no more of it. So Ella has decided to go back to being just a lowly switchboard operator at the Bonjour Tristesse Brazier Company. Alas, in reply to Ella’s accidentally botched ‘bet’, a pair of goons loyal to the mob show up looking for Otto, presumably to break a few bones and collect the monies owed them. Ella detains the pair long enough for Inspector Barnes, who has been lurking outside, to get a clue and save the day. Elated at having busted Otto’s racketeering operation – a much grander foil than a prostitution ring - Barnes loosens his yolk on Susansophone. He reunites the services’ grateful callers, including Jeffrey, with Ella; the two wandering off together, presumably for all time.
In hindsight, it is perhaps easier to see why Bells Are Ringing failed to catch the zeitgeist in popular entertainments then; either for its ilk or period. While admirers of the Broadway original were quick to illustrate how Vincente Minnelli had adhered, rather obsessively, to the precepts and pacing of the stage show, detractors were more likely to point out that in doing so, Minnelli had all but deprived the two numbers that book-ended the movie; ‘A Perfect Relationship’ and ‘I’m Going Back’ of their thematic bravado as bona fide cinematic climaxes. There is something to this. Both numbers are showstoppers, playing on the strengths of their stage-bound predecessor. For all intent and purposes, Minnelli’s camera remains stationary; cinematographer, Milton Krasner lensing Judy Holliday as she cavorts in full figure, the camera only moving when absolutely essential to keep her in frame. A lesser performer might have succumbed to the dreaded elephantiasis of filling these static peripheries with plausible action. But Holliday, voice booming and charismatic in her grand gestures, manages to capture and hold our attention.  When she is on the screen, she is impossible to ignore – and Holliday is on the screen for virtually all of the movie’s run time.
Bells Are Ringing has other assets too: Preston Ames and George W. Davis’ production design retains the stage show’s artifice, newly expanded to complement the elongated proportions of Cinemascope. No one could ever confuse their antiseptic facsimile of the George Washington Bridge, all back lit with flickering kilowatts of Hollywood stardust to simulate traffic, for the real thing. Nor can we suspend our disbelief in the magic of MGM’s New York Street as a viable substitute for the thriving theater district, herein cluttered with automobiles and foot traffic direct from Central Casting. Still, such artfulness remains in service to the musical genre itself and the MGM musical in particular, where cast members are expected to spontaneously burst into song, accompanied by a never seen, though always heard, full-bodied hundred piece orchestra.  Such is the fantastic world of the movie musical and best left to its unattainable perfection far removed from the realities of life. Better still, under conductor, André Previn’s baton, the MGM studio orchestra bursts forth in 4-track stereo with a sonic ambiance that is impossible to top. Bells Are Ringing looks and sounds the part of a vintage forties MGM musical, perhaps the last example where all the pieces seem to fit so neatly together.
And then, of course, there is the Jules Styne score to recommend; Arthur Freed retaining all but a trio of original songs and hiring Styne to replace them with, arguably, even better examples of his song-writing prowess; in particular, ‘Better Than a Dream’ – a boisterous competition number where Dean Martin and Judy Holliday overlap their lyrics as counterpoint to the burgeoning emotions each has begun to already feel toward the other. Dean Martin is given the exuberant bachelor’s declaration ‘I Met A Girl’; a song to stops traffic – literally – while Eddie Foy Jr. toddles along with effete charisma, explaining ‘A Simple Little System’ to his cronies. Denied the luxury of shooting these numbers in authentic New York locations, Vincente Minnelli approaches each from a high angle, filling the Cinemascope frame with cluttered throngs of humanity instead. Arguably, the best song in the score is ‘Just In Time’, even though the rather sad-eyed, ‘The Party’s Over’ was already the most celebrated and covered by popular songstresses at the time. The potency in this pair of ballads is closely met by the gregariously obtuse enthusiasm of ‘Drop That Name’ – arguably, the most Minnelli-esque moment in the movie.
The song is a time capsule of fifties celebrity culture, featured in rhyming couplets; names like Barney Baruch and King Farouk, Alistair Cooke, Lizzie and Eddie; Lucile Ball and Lauren Bacall, Vivien Leigh, Roz Russell and Freddie all thrown into the hopper for consideration. Surrounded by Jeffrey’s fair-weather friends, Ella – a.k.a. Melisande – tries to carve a plausible niche; stepping in and out of conversations without much success until she resigns to discovering names she can rhyme with Rin-Tin-Tin; the only star she is able to recall with any degree of certainty. When the name Ali Khan is thrown her way instead, Ella merely changes her reply to Ron-Ton-Ton. Aping a pair of mannequins she has overheard elsewhere in the crowded room, Ella strikes an awkward pose, declaring “I like things from Kleins…I do all my shopping there with Mary and Ethel.” Asked to clarify which Mary and which Ethel, Ella concedes, “Mary Schwartz and Ethel Hodgekist,” two obvious nobodies in lieu of the other Marys (Astor and Martin) and Ethels (Barrymore and Waters) being bandied about. Holliday employs both kinetic and verbal wit to sell this song as authentically amusing rather than mere silly shtick. And it works – surprisingly well; Minnelli’s entourage of catty courtiers bedecked in a resplendent assortment of Walter Plunkett’s costumes; Ella shedding, then shredding the lower half of her Traviata ball gown to produce a decidedly more streamlined and spangled ensemble in fire-engine red.
At least in hindsight, the best to be said for Bells Are Ringing is that it remains the least pretentious, and arguably, most fun-loving of MGM’s latter spate of Cinemascope spectacles, typically prone to glossy grandiloquence in ‘glorious Technicolor’ and ‘stereophonic sound’. There is none of this in ‘Bells’ - most of its action set against the unremarkable, and otherwise uninteresting backdrop of Susanswerphone’s dowdy, cluttered and dusty basement apartment offices; a perfectly nondescript and colorless backdrop for Judy Holliday’s larger-than-life screen presence to thrive. Yet, Bells Are Ringing is something of a sad epitaph to a particular way of making movies – and movie musicals in particular – particularly at MGM. Arguably, no one could have foreseen this would be the last collaboration between Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed – or that Judy Holliday, who so embodied the role and would go on to revive it again on Broadway afterward, would be dead a scant five years following the picture’s release.  But like the shifting sands of time and tastes already to have eroded MGM’s ability to make musicals with any degree of consistency or success, Bells Are Ringing gave audiences a final glimpse into what the studio was capable of when the right creative personnel could still be assembled at a moment’s notice – all of them under contract, the pistons firing in unison to create cinema art. Wow! It really did happen… ‘just in time’!
The Warner Archive (WAC) Blu-ray release, produced from a Metrocolor (a.k.a. Eastmancolor) IP of Bells Are Ringing is most welcomed. Predictably, this disc is up to WAC’s usual high standards; colors vibrant, contrast bang on, a light smattering of grain and oodles of fine detail throughout. The main titles, shot under less than studio-controlled lighting conditions have a slightly softer quality; the plum-colored titles razor-sharp and glowing.  While not as rich as traditional Technicolor, Metrocolor is nevertheless quite eye-popping. Dissolves between scenes exhibit transitional amplification of grain in tandem with loss of color density, but this is to be expected.  Contrast is on point: blacks - rich, deep and solid; whites, clean and bright, though never blooming. Ella’s red Traviata ball gown is a wowser – saturation maxed out with some startling detail to boot. The newly remastered DTS 5.1 outperforms anything we have heard in the past: Andre Previn’s lush orchestral scoring sounds great and vocals are particularly clean and bright. The one disappointment is extras.  “Just in Time” is an all too short featurette, providing little more than an overview of the production. We also get two deleted musical sequences, including Judy Holliday’s ‘Isn’t It A Crime’; another bombastic set piece for Holliday to mug for the camera: too theatrical for my tastes and quite unnecessary within the context of the film. Finally, the original theatrical trailer gets an HD upgrade. Bottom line: Bells Are Ringing on Blu-ray from WAC comes very highly recommended. You’ll want to snatch this one up…just in time!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, January 21, 2017

PINOCCHIO: Signature Edition Blu-ray (Walt Disney, 1940) Disney Home Video

Walt Disney’s initial flourish of success with Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) shocked Hollywood; a town not easily stirred or even as readily used to such welcomed surprises. Indeed, given the picture’s financial windfall and the accolades bestowed upon it – including a special Academy Award with seven miniature statuettes – Walt ought to have been sitting pretty immediately following the premiere. Alas, Disney was not one to rest on his laurels; his ambition knowing no limits, and thus, the period to follow became fraught with varying artistic and financial crises. While Walt concerned himself with building a campus-styled studio in Burbank to dwarf his cluttered Hyperion Ave. facilities, his thoughts had already shifted to several valiant successors to Snow White; his next animated project, the idealistically mounted Pinocchio (1940). If Snow White provided Walt with his finest moment of personal satisfaction (dismissing the critics’ cynical preludes predicting his imminent folly), then Pinocchio would almost affirm their pessimistic outlook; that Walt had bitten off far more than he could ever chew. In time, Pinocchio would rightfully be regarded as Walt’s most technically proficient and artistic masterpiece. Alas, the luxury of time itself was against Disney in 1940. Believing the kinks ironed out while feeling his way through the making of Snow White could only benefit and fast track Pinocchio into a more streamlined schedule and budget, regrettably, work on Pinocchio progressed at an excruciating snail’s pace, adding unanticipated costs and stalemates to its rocky gestation.    
With its very adult and sophisticated themes, in many ways Pinocchio proved to be a much closer cousin to James Whale’s horror classic, Frankenstein (1932) than a valiant successor to Snow White; the story by Carlo Collodi, a harrowing nightmare about the harshness of humanity pitted against a creature not of this world. In this case, the outcast is a little boy whose soul is trapped within the whittled wooden shell created by a skilled woodcarver’s tools. Like Frankenstein, virtually all of the antagonists in Pinocchio are adult male authority figures – each more devious, divisive and threatening. Walt generally thrived on adversity. But in the preliminary stages of Pinocchio he quickly felt his animators had strayed too far from Collodi’s original concept for this figurative and literal ‘little wooden head’. The project was put on hold while Walt rethought his concept. Eventually, it was decided the character’s design should lean considerably toward camouflaging its puppetry. As such, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’ draftsmanship abandoned Pinocchio’s angular features; the character made more child-like and naïve. The other character to cause immediate consternation among the Disney artisans was Jiminy Cricket; in Collodi’s book, taken at face value as an insect. In agreeing Jiminy ought to survive in the movie (he is callously squashed by Pinocchio in the book), Walt took it under advisement a cricket, in its literal form, was not at all appealing to movie audiences. Moreover, it was difficult to animate. Henceforth, a great deal of time and effort was spent refining Jiminy’s insect-like features; the head, smoothed out, retaining a light greenish pallor; his antennae, now more hair-like; his body recreated in miniature human form; with fingered hands and feet replacing the scaly and elongated talons of his species.
The discrepancy in size – a cricket being proportionately nonexistent in the human world – was resolved by affording Jiminy a good many sequences in close-up; his role as Pinocchio’s ever-present conscience significantly outranking the picture’s central protagonist (increasingly becoming the inquisitive to a fault innocent in chronic need of one); Jiminy given two of the movie’s best songs; Give a Little Whistle, and, the Oscar-winning When You Wish Upon a Star (in decades yet to follow, an anthem to all daydreamers and a reoccurring intro to Walt’s weekly ‘Disneyland’ TV show). The narrative eventually ironed out by Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner and Aurelius Battaglia significantly consolidates Collodi’s sprawling fable, split into three distinct vignettes for the picture: the first, charting Pinocchio’s (voiced by Dickie Jones) abduction by the co-conspiring fox, Honest John (Walter Catlett) and cat, Gideon (Mel Blanc), resulting in Pinocchio’s brief career as an actor in Stromboli’s (Charles Judel) traveling menagerie of puppets. Apart from a few brief moments where the full wrath of Stromboli is revealed, this opening vignette is by far the most light-hearted act in the picture; followed by what may still be the singularly most perverse and penetrating sequence ever visualized in a Disney animated feature. Pinocchio’s naïveté is ruthlessly exploited by the delinquent, Lampwick (Frankie Darro); a ‘real’ boy of his own years whom Pinocchio naturally gravitates toward. The boys are taken by The Coachman (Charles Judel also) to Pleasure Island – seemingly, a land of amusements where they are encouraged to indulge in some irreprehensible adolescent decadence without reprisals. To illustrate the point, given an ounce of encouragement a boy may be corrupted into self-destruction, Lampwick is eventually transformed into the physical manifestation of his ‘spirit animal’ - a jackass. The transformation, largely achieved in silhouette, with a few choice close-ups, is bone-chilling; Pinocchio about to suffer a similar fate before leaping from a steep cliff, to avoid capture by the Coachman, and swimming to safety; retaining a set of mule’s ears and a tail as his own comeuppance.
Pinocchio’s reputation as a bona fide classic today was not so immediately apparent in 1940; many critics and parents feeling Walt had gone too far with this Pleasure Island sequence. There is no denying, nothing quite as monumentally disturbing as it has ever appeared in a Disney feature again. But perhaps Pinocchio’s lack of popularity then, was not to be entirely blamed on this brilliantly conceived, though nevertheless too graphic for most kiddies depiction of past sins coming to bear on future repercussions. For all its technical proficiency, Pinocchio is a fairly cynical tale; its seemingly idyllic Tyrolian backdrop dominated by dark and oppressive male figures (from the bombastic Stromboli to the monolithic Monstro, the whale) who insidiously seek out and nearly do irrevocable harm to the innocent of the piece. While Disney movies, Pinocchio included, would continue to emphasize the strength and endurance of kindness, in Pinocchio’s case, overt sentimentality is wholly absent (there are, as example, no cute and fuzzy woodland animals to gather round and protect; even the solitary and oft fallible Jiminy, repeatedly falters in his duties to Pinocch’ as ascribed by the Blue Fairy); his efforts eclipsed by a more grotesque view of societal cruelties at large. And in the Pleasure Island sequence, Walt distinctly pushes his animators to probe the macabre to its fullest; the tenuous imbalance between goodness and evil exposed, suggesting goodness, by its virtue alone, may not always triumphant over evil and, even more unsettling, when unaccompanied by constant conscious reasoning, hardly proves to be its own reward; a little too pungent and profound a statement for most prepubescent palettes to sample, much less digest.  
In the final sequence, Pinocchio returns home to discover his father, Geppetto (Christian Rub), has been swallowed up by Monstro, a giant whale, while in search of his wayward son. Having inadvertently caused this latest catastrophe, Pinocchio is now presented with a chance to reprieve himself by becoming a catalyst for goodness in the world. Together with Jiminy, he charts a search and rescue operation; perhaps not fully aware of the dangers in this penultimate odyssey or even as determined to overcome them in due course or be damned for trying. The satisfaction derived from this undiluted self-sacrifice is proof enough to the Blue Fairy that Pinocchio has earned the right to become a real boy. He is liberated from the relative shortcomings of wood-carved puppetry, only to endure the more physically fallible form of flesh and blood. Throughout, Pinnochio features some of the highest quality animation ever put on film; making extensive use of Disney’s patented multiplane camera; establishing an uncanny depth in the two dimensional animated world. From its dizzying descend from a twinkling star in the heavens, soaring over tiled rooftops and into Geppetto’s cozily lit woodcarver’s shop, to the writhing tides that sweep briny foam past Monstro’s gaping mouth and leering eyes as he attempts to swallow Pinocchio and his cohorts whole, Walt’s attention to every last detail proved an extremely costly endeavor. One sequence alone, a complex camera zoom over the village lasting barely a few seconds, added $45,000 to the production costs (more than $300,000 in today’s dollars). Another pricey decision: Walt electing to add spectral highlights to Geppetto’s cat, Figaro’s whiskers (in the days before CGI, painstakingly painted frame by frame onto celluloid). Interestingly, one of the most impressive shots in the movie also proved the most economical: a steamer crossing the ocean en route to Pleasure Island, created from a single cell with smoke effects trailing overhead and distorted glass mimicking the ripple of water below; a moment so simply created; yet, it drew spontaneous applause from the audience at Pinocchio’s premiere and remains hugely impressive even today.
To offset the darkness in Pinocchio’s misadventures, Disney artisans were instructed to make Pinocchio a sublime and ravishingly handsome visual experience. This, to be sure, has been attained, though at what price?…certainly, none Walt could afford at the time, encumbered by development on two more ambitious features; Fantasia (also to be released in 1940) and Bambi (1942); also, the construction of his Burbank Studios. In hindsight, while Pinocchio did little except to strain Walt’s coffers, its everlasting salvation remains Jiminy Cricket. In Collodi’s original story, Jiminy is rather unceremoniously squashed by Pinocchio before the real plot even begins. In Disney’s version, Jiminy (voiced with empathetic perfection by comedian/singer, Cliff Edwards) not only survives, but assumes the function of deus ex machina (or The Blue Fairy, voiced by Evelyn Venable, imprimatur); entrusted with our pint-sized protagonist’s salvation from sin. Jiminy is far from innocent. At varying intervals he even suggests a satirical world-weariness (hinted to have been a scamp with the ladies, glibly admonishing actors as lacking a conscience of their own, etc.). As reincarnated by the animators, Jiminy Cricket takes on an almost Chaplinesque quality, inspiring as the altruism of man, woman and child.
At a cost of $2 million, Pinocchio is in every way technically and artistically superior to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; its Oscar-winning ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, earning a reputation as one of the most iconic ballads in screen history. Regrettably, the movie’s intake at the box office was barely $3 million; a colossal disappointment and, given the negative costs to promote and release it, resulting in a net loss of badly needed profits for the studio; eventually recouped by numerous reissues throughout decades yet to follow. In hindsight, what Walt seems to have forgotten with Pinocchio is his audiences were suckers for love stories and romance. Pinocchio lacks amour; its greatest love between a father and his son. Even so, Geppetto and Pinocchio’s relationship is not at the crux of our story either; rather, the impetus to bring about a successful conclusion to its last act finale.  Today, it is perhaps easier to appreciate Pinocchio as a departure from the, by now, oft regurgitated formula inherent in most animated features.  Walt would pay dearly for such ‘experimentation’ when Pinocchio’s disappointing returns were compounded by outright losses on both Fantasia and Bambi; the studio narrowly averting financial ruin, commandeered by the U.S. military to produce wartime propaganda and training shorts; Walt’s permanent retreat into some very familiar fairy tale territory with the release of Cinderella in 1950 assuring historians a more straight forward antiquity to deconstruct in their own time. If only audiences had embraced Walt’s visionary pursuits of perfection then, there is no telling where the art of animation might have gone after Pinocchio’s debut. Instead, Walt found it increasingly impossible, and quite unproductive to challenge his audience, seemingly incapable of embracing the level of artistic genius he had so delicately wrought.
So, here we go again: Disney Inc. re-issuing Pinocchio on Blu-ray as part of their newly re-branded ‘Signature Series’.  Some years ago, I wrote extensively on the end of the company’s self-imposed moratorium marketing ploy, whereupon classic animated features are made available only for a limited time on home video before being retired back into ‘the vaults’ – thus, increasing the hype and need for reissue to a whole new generation six or seven years later.  This worked spectacularly well when VHS was the format du jour. After all, tapes wear out at an alarming rate; especially when overplayed by parents seeking to anesthetize their kids for a few hours in front of the boob tube; even more when manhandled by kiddies with less acumen for their hygienic preservation. The moratorium model was arguably even feasible during the DVD era, primarily as the company seemed to attack all subsequent reissues by topping off the extras; a bare bones release given ‘special’, then ‘deluxe’ treatments. But then came Blu-ray with its promise of perfection the first time out, and, the porting over of virtually all the goodies previously available on other home video formats. Once restored and remastered in hi-def, the criteria for another reissue became not only a challenge (what more via extras could be added to entice a repurchase?) but rather moot, as properly cared for Blu-rays can last for many generations; making the purchase of new discs obsolete.  
This repackaged release of Pinocchio, while sporting new cover art, appears to contain the same 1.33:1 pristine image of its hi-def predecessor; Pinocchio last having appeared on retail shelves in 2009. Then, as now, the image has been effectively scrubbed of virtually all its indigenous grain and age-related artifacts. A lot was made of the fact Pinocchio now does not resemble what Pinocchio looked like in 1940. While I have to agree a lot of digital tinkering and pixie dust have generally taken the film-esque quality away from this presentation; it has nevertheless been replaced by a flawless - if ever so slightly homogenized - image that is pretty hard to resist; vibrant colors, exquisite levels of contrast and fine detail, in some cases revealing brush strokes in the original painted backdrops. Age-related artifacts are nonexistent. It all looks very good indeed, particularly for audiences accustomed to our present era of razor-sharp video vs. film stock. The 7.1 DTS audio is also a revelation; the film’s score benefiting the most from this upgrade. It should be pointed out that apart from the last act, Pinocchio’s showdown with Monstro, there is very little need or use of the expanded sound field; dialogue front and center with only the subtlest hints of spatial separation in orchestral underscore and SFX. For purists, we also get the restored DTS 1.0 mono.
As before: Pinocchio can be viewed 3 different ways: (1) in its original theatrical version (2) or with its black pillarboxing bars replaced by Toby Bluth’s artwork (DisneyView), and finally, (3) in Sing-Along mode with subtitled lyrics during the songs. New to Blu: The Pinocchio Project: When You Wish Upon a Star: a behind-the-scenes look at a new music video featuring Alex G, Tanner Patrick, and JR Aquino. There’s also Walt’s Story Meetings: Pleasure Island in which Pixar director, Pete Docter and Disney historian, J. B. Kaufman discuss Walt’s process in refining this sequence (originally titled ‘Boobyland’). Finally, we get In Walt’s Words; an assemblage of archival recordings and interviews from 1956. The rest of the extras are holdovers from the original 70th Anniversary release, and it is gratifying to see the Mouse House did not jettison these as they had previously done on virtually all the vintage extras for their Beauty & The Beast: Signature Edition reissue. Badly done, in my opinion! Herein, we get the nearly hour-long No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio, a comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at this Disney classic; ten plus minutes of deleted scenes; a six minute featurette on Walt’s refining process, and, interviews with toy makers who have a strong kinship to Geppetto.  There is also the ‘reference footage’; almost ten minutes of live action film used to help the animators get into their characters. Add to this a new ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ music video, several trailers and promos for Disney’s pending releases of the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Moana and there it is. For those who already own the previous Blu-ray of Pinocchio, I really cannot see the point in this upgrade. However, if you never bothered to pick up this superior example of Walt’s high-classic animation style, then it is high time to add Pinocchio to your collection with the company’s ‘Signature series’ reissue. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, January 19, 2017

WAIT UNTIL DARK: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1967) Warner Archive Collection

It was a stroke of genius casting Audrey Hepburn in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967); a psychological thriller, far more engaging for its winsome ingénue than its trio of would-be brutes, intermittently succumbing to lugubrious apoplexy between bungling their relatively straight-forward interception and recovery of a certain porcelain-faced doll into which several packets of heroin have been stitched. By happenstance, the doll is misdirected to the basement apartment of a blind woman who, quite simply, refuses to surrender to the plotters and is smarter than all three of these embryonic assassins put together. Wait Until Dark is, of course, based of Frederick Knott’s Broadway play, itself problematically structured around the long-suffering Suzy Hendrix (Hepburn); newly blinded and thus still learning how to cope with her condition. Suzy’s husband, Sam (Erfem Zimbalist Jr.) is empathetic to a point, yet determined his usually independent-minded and free-spirited wife re-gain the courage to be self-reliant. Brit-born Knott, who only wrote three plays in his lifetime, two made into memorable movies (this, and the other being, Hitchcock’s adaptation of Dial M for Murder 1954) always regarded Wait Until Dark as his chef-d'oeuvre. Despite enough holes in the plot to put a block of fine-aged Swiss to shame, Wait Until Dark clung together spectacularly on the stage with Lee Remick in a Tony-nominated lead on Broadway in 1966, and Honor Blackman (my favorite Bond girl, Pussy Galore), reprising it for London’s West End. Yet, as fine as each lady is (at least, elsewhere in their respective movie careers), in viewing this picture today, it is virtually impossible to consider anyone except Audrey Hepburn as the terrorized victim; her frozen stares (the result of Hepburn’s fine-tuning an approach to convey blindness by attending a school for the visually impaired, and learning Braille to augment her reflections), utterly convincing of the affliction, while still managing to emanate appropriate pathos and tension in tandem as propriety, the script, and this venomous game of cat and mouse perpetuated by Roat (Alan Arkin), by far the most lethal and psychotic of the cohorts, permits.
Wait Until Dark hails from a long and oft distinguished traditional of ‘women in peril’ to have made and popularized martyrs out of some of the biggest glamour queens in show biz; Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry, Wrong Number 1948), Joan Crawford (Sudden Fear, 1952), and, Doris Day (Midnight Lace 1960) among them. Wait Until Dark is, in fact, the final jewel in Audrey’s crown; her farewell to the movies for almost a decade to focus more astutely on aspects in her life that mattered more; the rearing of son, Sean (the offspring of her marriage to actor, Mel Ferrer – who produced Wait Until Dark and whom Hepburn would divorce a year after the picture’s release) and charitable work for which, arguably, Audrey is as fondly remembered today. “I suppose people could blame me for ending Audrey Hepburn's career,” Sean has admitted, “She knew her potential. If she had kept working, the parts were there for her, and her success professionally would have continued at a high level for years. But she wanted to be with her family. She wanted a private life. And she couldn't bear the thought that she might fail as a mother. It was too important to her.” With the exception of Marilyn Monroe and perhaps Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn’s iconography remains the most resilient and readily resurrected by today’s spate of leading ladies in Hollywood (desperate to cash in on her inimitable loveliness, alas reconstituted as mere affectation without actually being gracious themselves) and wannabe daydreaming teenage girls who perennially submit to the worship of her recurrently salubrious and never dating sophistication. Wait Until Dark strips away the superficiality of Hepburn’s trademarked stardom; the clothes, as example, are off the rack Parisian cast offs (Hepburn spends most of the picture in cozily frumpish outfits); not the uber-chichi, head-turning runway apparel of Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy for whom it can justly be said each had become the other’s muse by the late 1960's.
Wait Until Dark is undeniably Hepburn’s movie, despite the fact she does not appear in it for the first 21 minutes. Even so, the entire plot is built around her character’s increasingly nerve-jangling isolation and burgeoning resourcefulness against a trio of would-be assassins come to call one dark and stormy night. Yet, Alan Arkin manages a minor coup; to distinguish himself in relief from his cohorts with a decidedly delicious bit of ‘out of the box’ acting. Interestingly, producers had a hell of a time trying to cast this part; firstly, because none of the actors approached wanted to be known professionally for having brutalized the beloved Audrey Hepburn; even in play-acting jest. Alan Arkin would later quip how easy it was for him to get the part. And from our first introduction to Harry Roat, Arkin establishes a rare, unsettling quality along the lines of Shakespeare’s classically derived declaration – “he that smiles may smile and be a villain”. There is a slithery decadence to his nasally annunciations as he tempts and taunts con artist, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and his disgraced cop/cohort, Sergeant Carlino (Jack Weston) into accepting his terms and conditions in the doll’s recovery; a wicked sense of the theatrical after he dons several disguises (rather pointless, considering Suzy is blind) to cajole, then intimidate her into divulging the doll’s secret hiding place. As a pledge of good faith, or rather to prove he means business, Harry Roat lets Mike and Carlino discover the body of their New York contact, Lisa (Samantha Jones), left to hang in Suzy’s apartment closet. Arkin’s breed of villainy is not immediately apparent; not until he quietly encourages Mike and Carlino to put their weapons on the table while refusing to relinquish rights to ‘Geraldine’ – a stylish, jade-handled switchblade whom Roat suggests will serve as mediator in their negotiations.
Throughout most of Wait Until Dark Arkin gives every indication Roat is an exacting sadist; a real monster to be reckoned with and never to be crossed. Yet Arkin resists the obviousness built into the part. There is something decidedly tantalizing about him; magnetism not usually ascribed the villain. Only during the picture’s last act does Arkin’s perverse ne’er-do-well revert to the precepts – nee clichés – of pure and undiluted screen evil; leaping from the darkened recesses of the room and spewing menace as Suzy retaliates by dousing him in gasoline, threatening to ignite the spark that will send his wickedness up like a tinderbox. The oft overlooked performance in the picture belongs to pint-sized 10 year old child actress, Julie Harrod as Suzy’s upstairs neighbor and uber-smart moppet, Gloria. After some initial jealousies, the girls establish a bond; Gloria becoming devoted to Suzy and, in fact, taking possession of the doll while Suzy prepares for a little cloak and dagger with her arch nemeses. Harrod, who quit acting after only one other appearance, and went on to champion environmentalist causes in San Francisco, herein plays the seemingly unloved and abandoned ‘homely’ girl nobody except a blind woman would want to be friends. It’s the camaraderie between Suzy and Gloria that generally raises the stakes and the tension in Wait Until Dark’s third act; Gloria, innocuously maneuvering in and out of the brownstone right under Roat’s nose.
We tip our hats to Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington for their screenplay, a vast improvement on Frederick Knott’s rather weighty one-act premise, superbly divided into three herein. Wait Until Dark opens with a prologue in Montreal. Succinctly, we are introduced to Lisa (Samantha Jones), a drug courier nervously waiting for her handler, Louie (Jean Del Val) to finish stitching heroin packets into the slit back skirts of a child’s antique doll. Under the credits we follow Lisa on her flight from Canada to New York City, sensing something gone terribly awry as Lisa spies a mysterious man waiting for her at the airport. By coincidence, she befriends fellow passenger, Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) whom she implores to look after the doll until such time as they are reunited in the near future. Given the curiosity of their ‘cute meet’, Sam willingly – and almost unquestioningly – agrees to keep the doll safe. He might have first inquired what an adult woman is doing, protectively coddling this Victorian antique in the first place. No sooner has Lisa handed over the merchandise then she is manhandled and taken into custody by the mystery man. We follow Sam back to his brownstone on the lower east side; our first introduction to Suzy – the champion blind lady, still acclimatizing herself to the permanent loss of sight caused earlier that year by a horrific auto accident. A photographer by trade, Sam is called away on assignment, leaving Suzy to fend for herself.
The next afternoon, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston), Lisa’s contacts in the Big Apple, arrive at the Hendrix apartment, mistakenly assuming it to be Lisa’s. Picking the lock and letting themselves in the pair can find no trace of the heroin doll; their frantic search ambushed by the arrival of the sinister, Harry Roat Jr. (Alan Arkin). Roat enjoys toying with them. Clearly, he has the upper hand. Casually, Roat encourages Mike and Carlino to continue conducting their search while suggesting the doll is not among these belongings. Roat lays out a scenario; an exchange, actually – offering to cut Mike and Carlino in on a percentage from the sale of the heroin. To prove he means business – Roat directs the men’s search to the bedroom closet where Mike makes the grisly discovery of Lisa’s remains zipped into a semi-translucent carry-on bag hanging on the door. After a few taut moments, Mike and Carlino strike a truce with Roat. But the particulars of their arrangement are cut short when Suzy returns to the apartment unexpectedly. Although her sixth sense immediately kicks in, hinting she is not alone, Suzy is too trusting to comprehend she has just stumbled into a den of cutthroats. After Suzy has gone, Roat blackmails Mike and Carlino into disposing of Lisa’s body under the cover of night.
The next day, Roat sets into motion his plan to case the apartment, sending Sam on a dead end photographic assignment in Asbury Park in New Jersey. As he will be gone for quite some time, Roat now launches into his intricate plan to get Suzy to confess to the whereabouts of the doll. Mike poses as an old friend of Sam’s, ingratiating himself to Suzy. Implicitly, Suzy comes to trust Mike and he begins to harbor a modicum of sympathy for her, particularly after he coaxes Suzy to admit Sam brought the doll back to the apartment from the airport. She explains how a woman later telephoned to make inquiries about the doll but that when both she and Sam began to look through his luggage for it, the doll had already mysteriously vanished into thin air. Mike believes Suzy’s story. Now, Carlino applies less subtle pressure to get Suzy to divulge the whereabouts of the doll. He asks if Suzy has heard about the murder of a woman and the discovery of her body in a nearby abandoned field. Carlino then connects the dots, suggesting the doll as a vital clue in the case; Sam’s last chance to be cleared of the suspicion of murder. Finally, Roat stages an elaborate hoax, donning several disguises and pretending, first to be an old man, and later, his as erratic son. Roat puts the fear of God into Suzy who wastes no time telephoning Carlino to report the incident.
Mike returns to find Suzy terrorized and alone. Presumably as a comfort, he gives her the number for the phone booth across the street, claiming it as his own; then, falsely forewarns a police car is already stationed outside, waiting to nab Sam upon his return home. Alas, daylight has begun to glimmer for Suzy. She now suspects Carlino and Roat are in cahoots. In the meantime, Gloria – a lonely girl living upstairs in the brownstone – and Suzy’s only real contact with the outside world, confesses to having stolen the doll earlier from Sam’s luggage. Remorsefully, she returns it to the apartment. Grateful, Suzy asks if the police cruiser Mike told her about is still stationed outside. Gloria explains no police car was ever outside the apartment, thus elevating Suzy’s paranoia. The girls work out a code, Gloria to quietly observe the phone booth across the street and send a signal to Suzy if it is in use. After Carlino makes yet another impromptu visit to the apartment, Gloria sends a signal; then, another after Suzy has telephoned Mike to inform him of her recovery of the doll. Realizing too late Mike is also in on the con, Suzy hides the doll. Thus, when Mike hurriedly arrives to collect it, quietly trailed by Roat and Carlino, Suzy lies about it being at Sam’s studio. To ensure Suzy cannot contact anyone else while they are gone to investigate her claim, Roat severs the telephone wire. Roat and Mike leave for Sam’s studio, leaving Carlino to stand guard outside the building. Now, Suzy hurries Gloria to the bus station to forewarn Sam, due home this evening.
When Suzy discovers the cut telephone wires she prepares for a showdown, breaking all the light bulbs in the apartment and thus plunging everyone into the discomfort of her own blindness. She pours some of Sam’s photographic chemicals into a large bowl. When Mike returns he suddenly realizes Suzy has unearthed the truth. He demands to know the whereabouts of the doll. But Suzy refuses to cooperate. Having spent more time with her than the others, Mike has come to admire her fortitude and craftiness. In a last ditch effort to win Suzy’s confidence, Mike admits they are all working together as she suspected. He implies her only hope of surviving is to give him the doll. Besides, he has already taken steps to do away with Roat; Carlino waiting in the abandoned parking lot across the street to finish him off. Alas, both men have underestimated Roat, who easily kills Carlino by running him over, before doubling back on foot to knife Mike in the back just as he is about to momentarily leave Suzy’s apartment. Intent on acquiring the doll, Roat chains the door shut and pours gasoline on the floor, setting a piece of newspaper on fire. Suzy feigns surrender until Roat has extinguished the open flame. Now, she douses him in the bowl of photographic chemicals at arm’s length and desperately unplugs the one remaining light in the room. Roat lights a match to see what has become of Suzy, but is visibly shaken when Suzy, having discovered his canister of gasoline, begins indiscriminately splashing its contents everywhere.
Roat discovers the one light in the room Suzy has overlooked, propping the refrigerator door open to guide him to her. Having lost the struggle, Suzy relinquishes the doll to Roat who now leads her to the bedroom, presumably to rape her. Instead, she reveals herself to be in possession of a knife taken from the kitchen, severely injuring Roat. He lunges and begins to claw his way back to her. These final moments prompted Warner’s publicity of the day to issue a gimmicky press release regarding the dimming of all lights in the theater to enhance the ‘terror’ of a blind woman’s eternal blackness. In a theater the effect was appropriately uncanny; a little less so when viewing the movie at home, even in a completely darkened room. What does endure are the relentless and seminal performances given by both Hepburn and Arkin; the former, filled with enough heart-palpitating panic to quicken more than a few pulses; the latter, doggedly teeming with rage, the full breadth of his psychotic venom on display as Roat, grimaced and dying, tries to plunge the knife recovered from his own wound into this screaming blind girl, claustrophobically wedged between her fridge and the wall. We hear a blood-curdling cry as Suzy unplugs the fridge, pitching the rest of us into the murky darkness; followed by an interminable silence. Sam, Gloria and the police predictably arrive too late to have an impact one way or the other; relieved to discover a shell-shocked, though otherwise unharmed Suzy sobbing in the corner with Roat’s body lying nearby.  
Wait Until Dark continues to hold up spectacularly well despite some truck-sized loopholes in its plot; chiefly, why Roat should fear no reprisals in applying pressure to two small-time, though nevertheless seasoned cons, yet endures Suzy’s cat and mouse games that drag out the inevitable discovery of the doll. Also, Roat donning not one but two disguises to ‘fool’ Suzy is more than a bit overplayed. Remember, he had no compunction about rather crudely doing away with Lisa. But Suzy is, after all, quite blind and therefore unable to appreciate all of Roat’s theatrical efforts at camouflage. Masterfully, it is the performances that keep these feeble-minded twists afloat. The cast is uniformly solid and apart from Arkin’s brief interludes into absurd mania, his Roat Jr. is as well-oiled, bone-chilling and utterly perverse as any screen villain thus far come to our silver screens. I can still hear his velvety smooth and slightly effete inquiry, “Where’s the doll, Suzy?” – Arkin’s unusual, almost sing-song punctuation reaching all the way to the back of the house with a slithery cynicism that damn well means business. Uncorking Roat’s pressurized craziness in act three is slightly deflating. Arkin is far more effective when he skates on the very thin edge of volatility, generating a queer uncertainty in both his contemporaries and the audience at large. Wait Until Dark was a huge hit for all concerned. Produced by Hepburn’s hubby, Mel Ferrer, as a means to restore the foundations of their crumbling marriage, the picture’s popularity would outlast the couple’s vows by several decades; Hepburn and Ferrer separating before the year and divorcing soon thereafter. Viewed today, Wait Until Dark remains creepily enjoyable for a good night’s scare; a real ‘reel’ midnight movie classic. Let’s be immodest here. No time spent basking in the intangible screen luminosity of the ethereal Audrey Hepburn is ever wasted. She trades in the magic of screen glamour herein for guts; a quality the lady herself possessed in spades in life. It’s a fair trade and just as richly rewarding to behold on the screen.
Thanks to the Warner Archive we no longer have to ‘wait until dark’ to enjoy this minor masterpiece. WAC has gone to the mat again, with a remastered image derived from an interpositive. How does it look? In a word – glorious! One of the most worthwhile aspects of our present ‘digital age’ has been re-experiencing the past we only thought we knew, or perhaps never knew (if we were not old enough to see these flicks theatrically), represented in hi-def with clarity to rival – and occasionally even surpass – what we might have seen in theaters. Wait Until Dark on Blu-ray sports a clarity and crispness surely to be appreciated. Film grain appears indigenous to its source and colors are so subtly nuanced and accurate, watching this disc up-rezed at 4K gave me the illusion of looking through a pane glass window into the Hendrix’s dingy little flat where very bad things are about to occur. Flesh tones are appropriately wan, given its New York in winter, and the sparsely employed bolder colors register as they should. Tonality and contrast are superb. The mono audio has been lovingly preserved in DTS 2.0. Extras are limited to a vintage featurette with Mel Ferrer and Alan Arkin; too brief but welcomed nevertheless and theatrical trailers. Bottom line: Wait Until Dark is a treasure soon to be rediscovered on Blu-ray by film lovers everywhere. Another winner from WAC. Permit us to worship and give thanks…many, many thanks!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, January 16, 2017

TWO FOR THE ROAD: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1967) Twilight Time

Few romantic comedies treat their adult subjects as adults; fewer still, willing to go out on a limb and explore what happens after the wedding bands have been properly affixed to the appropriate fingers. For one reason or another, Hollywood has always suffered from the chronic fairy tale affliction and myth that suggests ‘…and they lived happily ever after’ once the bloom of love has progressed from ‘cute meet’ to wedding chapel. T’ain’t necessarily so, according to Stanley Donen’s magnificent (and at least in its own time, stupendously underrated) Two For The Road (1967); a unique and wholly refreshing take on the slow, often morose disintegration of these fanciful notions about love and a life. Two For the Road is, at least in hindsight, a breakout movie; using the nonlinear narrative to chart the course of a pair of reluctant lovers who meet neither cute nor with their fifty shades of lust generally ascribed to the proverbial ‘hot-blooded’ romance; the narrative, juxtaposing a veritable potpourri of snapshots from their awkward first encounter to penultimate struggle in re-discovering meaning from their meandering and occasionally severely bungled lives. Each has an extramarital affair along the way. Ultimately, however, despite whatever differences, disappointments, elation and sins come their way, here are two for the proverbial road of life; perfectly mated if imperfectly matched.
The project has the mark of Stanley Donen’s originality to recommend it; also the ideal casting of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as Mark Wallace and his wife, Joanna; a superb score by Henry Mancini and Oscar-nominated screenplay from Frederic Raphael. In hindsight, the pieces seem to fit so succinctly, it is shocking just how close the picture came to never being made. Donen’s clout in Hollywood was considerable; a visionary in the director’s chair, who had begun innocuously as a contract dancer, brought from Broadway’s cast of Best Foot Forward by MGM; his services eventually picked up by star, Gene Kelly and graduating with seeming effortlessness from choreographer to director, along the way creating some of the studio’s most beloved musicals, including On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Funny Face (1957, and made at Paramount). When musicals fell out of fashion, Donen simply applied his craftsmanship to other genres; most notably, the light romantic comedy, but also showing off his creativity in a startlingly good Hitchcockian thriller, Charade (1963). Still, Donen could find no takers in Hollywood to produce Two For the Road. Worse, early on it looked as though Audrey Hepburn would not commit to the picture, despite having enjoyed working with Donen on the aforementioned Funny Face. Evidently, she believed the concept – as pitched by Donen over the phone long distance - and before Raphael had actually completed his script – simply would not work.
Donen was undaunted – I would suggest ‘relentless’ – in his pursuit of Hepburn, even flying to Switzerland to implore her the movie could only be done with her participation. At this point, Donen had already secured a tentative arrangement with Universal Pictures; the deal eventually falling through and leaving Donen perplexed and frustrated until Richard Zanuck and David Brown agreed to back the picture over at 2oth Century-Fox. Mercifully, Hepburn loved the script and her cache, along with Donen’s provided the impetus for Fox to push it on ahead. In casting Albert Finney, Donen made a risky choice. Although Finny had carved a name for himself in his native England immediately following the release of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) he was an unknown quantity in America, more so as he would be expected to play an American. Two For the Road’s narrative structure is slightly gimmicky, though eloquently reformulated in the editing process to provide the audience with an ingeniously stitched together travelogue through this marital relationship, complicated by waning love and missed opportunities, nearly torn asunder by lust, boredom, frustration and periodic feuds over money, lack of intimacy, child-rearing, etc. Donen begins his sojourn in the middle of this multifaceted, if unsatisfactory partnership; then grows the story out in all directions, finding causal links in Raphael’s narrative passages to provide us with visuals that are completely logical as excised in the nonlinear progression.  
Life is undeniably a succession of events from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. But the luxury of memory often clouds this chronology with regressions – fond and otherwise – from the not so distant past; haunting the peripheries and bringing everything to the present with a considerable amount of convolution, afterthought, and occasional clarity. In visualizing Raphael’s story, Donen’s imperative was every moment in the picture should be viewed as the present; in other words, despite the TripTik through various snapshots from this knotty love affair turned occasionally harsh, then exuberantly romantic, Two For the Road’s métier would illustrate each segment as though it were happening right now for the audience. Miraculously, the effect is never jarring or off putting; the stars sufficiently aged and/or regressed in their actual age to play younger than they are. In some ways, Two For the Road is a tragedy, while in others, an enthusiastic test of endurance for this couple, put through the paces of the proverbial thick and thin (in sickness and in health…for better or worse…yada, yada, yada) taking the curves and roadblocks in stride. In essence, it’s a ‘road picture’. Nearly all of its action takes place in a car – or rather – ‘cars’, as Mark’s affluence as a budding architect begins to take hold – the couple on a perpetual and ever-evolving holiday drive through the south of France.
We only ever see Mark and Joanna in their spare time, unencumbered by the grind of a nine to five. Curiously, they are largely friendless; Mark relying on his work to keep him focused and occupied/Joanna maintaining the façade of a doting wife and mother, while increasingly unhappy in either lot in life. Alas, this journey is anything but a lark and a spree. There are two reoccurring motifs in the picture; the first, Mark perpetually mislaying his passport, inevitably never too far from Joanna’s grasp. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an efficient woman,” he bristles with coyness, rarely with affection, and usually to suggest contempt. The second motif actually begins the film, as a brusque Mark and disenchanted Joanna wait inside an airport terminal.  "What kind of people can sit across from one another and say nothing to each other?" a forlorn Joanna inquires. "Married people," says Mark sternly. Joanna telephones home to check in on their daughter, Carolyn (Kathy Chelimsky); Mark so absorbed in his portfolio he momentarily is unable to connect with the name as Joanna hands him the telephone to say something nice to their child. Two For the Road is revelatory in the way it analyzes these awkwardly mated individuals. There is no judgement call. Neither is entirely to blame for what follows; the yin and yang in their turbulent follies never suggesting a ‘head over heels’ affaire de coeur; the arc in their emotional evolution from passing strangers to convenient lovers and finally, frustrated marrieds, creating a naturalized friction that anyone in any relationship for more than six months will instantly be able to recognize and relate to on a multitude of levels.
Donen intrudes with his first carefully-timed vignette: the first time Mark saw Joanna aboard a ship bound for France. His passing fascination as she shoots him a somewhat accusatory stare from a lower balcony is later compounded when he panics over his mislaid passport. She comes to his aid, discovering it all in his knapsack.  It is an inauspicious beginning. But sometime later, their paths cross again; Joanna now a part of a travelling girls’ choir, catching a glimpse of Mark from the back of their VW bus, lazily bumming a ride on the back of a hay wagon. Distracted by Mark’s good looks, the bus’ driver, Pat (Judy Cornwell) veers off the side of the road, leaving Mark to come to their rescue; hardly a gallant gesture. At first, he almost willingly ignores their dilemma with amusement, before convincing the wagon’s driver to hitch his tractor and tow them from their rut. In return, the girls give Mark a ride into town, the new designated driver, Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) becoming immediately attracted and flirtatious. Too bad the entire troop is stricken with chicken pox; everyone except Mark and Joanna, who have already had it as children. Mark would have preferred to spend a few ours alone with Jackie over Joanna and she knows it. He lacks imagination.  Now, his wandering feet itch to move on. Kismet: Joanna endeavors to become his travelling companion.
Mark really isn’t up to it. However, unable to come up with at least one good reason why they should not continue on together, Mark instead decides to make their journey as marginally unpleasant for Joanna as he can; cracking oversimplified sexist statements about a woman’s ambitions for a man and casting generalized responsibility for all men’s unhappiness squarely at the high-heeled shoes of all women, to which Joanna astutely comments, “Who was she?” Indeed, Mark has been wounded by a previous amour. He is bitter with a sizable chip on his shoulders; his defenses and his dander up: hardly any woman’s ideal. Still, there is something refreshingly affecting about him. The pair pauses in a small town so Mark can photograph the exquisite architecture of a century-old church. Joanna is oblivious to the fact Mark doesn’t want her in the picture – figuratively and literally. Simultaneously, both assume correctly what the other is thinking, Mark explaining his camera has been designed to document three dimensional objects. “I’m three dimensional,” Joanna coyly persists. “I meant buildings,” Mark insists. “Well, I’m not a building,” she begrudgingly admits.
A short while later, Mark and Joanna come to a parting of the ways. Mark suggests the reason they have not been successful at bumming a ride is because they are together. A passerby is much more apt to pick up a hitchhiker if there is only one. Reluctantly, Joanna agrees and very quickly she manages to land herself a ‘ride for one’ along this open road. However, she takes pity on Mark, appearing from behind a construction sign post a short piece up the road and quite suddenly earns his respect. After all, she has sacrificed her own comfort to be with him. This too will be a reoccurring theme in the plot, Joanna’s increasing unhappiness, mostly inflicted by Mark’s burgeoning career with wealthy builder, Maurice Dalbret (Claude Dauphin). But first, we are introduced to Mark’s old flame, nee – the girl who done him wrong back when, Cathy Seligman (Eleanor Bron), now married to a level-headed/philosophy espousing accountant, Howard Maxwell-Manchester (William Daniels). Embracing the child-rearing liberalism of Dr. Spock, the two have a thoroughly spoilt daughter, Ruthie Belle (Gabrielle Middleton); a little monster who dictates the particulars of their tension-riddled road trip shared with Joanna and Mark. The brat tosses the keys out the car window, repeatedly embarrasses Howard with her accusatory line of questioning and enjoys pinching Cathy to the point of inflicting pain. “You still want to have a child?” Mark mutters beneath his breath. “Yes, I still want a child,” Joanna insists, “I just don’t want that child!”
Before they were married Mark and Joanna had agreed they would not become parents. But now Joanna’s biological clock is ticking and Mark begrudgingly agrees to sire an offspring. Although Carolyn is well brought up and behaved, she nevertheless adds yet another layer of dissatisfaction to their least, for Mark, who by now considers married life a nuisance and detriment to his career.  Mark and Joanna met Maurice and his wife, Francoise (Nadia Gray) while they were struggling to make ends meet; the road trip nearly turned disastrous when Mark’s MG caught fire. Mercifully, Mark and Joanna escaped unharmed, taken into the comfort of the posh country retreat where their car stalled and burst into a hellish ball of flames. Unable to afford both their meals and room, Mark smuggles fruit and canned goods into their suite until the insurance company can square away the details. Not long thereafter, Mark and Maurice become partners, leading to even more time spent away from Joanna: also, an afternoon dalliance with Simone (Karyn Balm) - a playful sex bomb who races Mark along the open road in her convertible, the two eventually meeting at a remote hotel. Mark’s affair is one of the cruelest vignettes in Two For the Road; played as pantomime with Mark’s voice over narrating a letter he has supposedly written to Joanna, proclaiming not only his fidelity, but also how he longs to return to her at the earliest possible convenience.
Tensions brew at Maurice’s estate, Joanna bored and feeling neglected, taking up with one of the couple’s intimate friends, David (Georges Descrières). Mark is wounded by this infidelity. Joanna returns to his side, tearful and chaste, only to be admonished by Mark after a series of passionate and redemptive kisses. “Are you sure you know which one I am?” he coolly inquires. Joanna’s heart is shattered. She races from the room, pursued by Mark who clumsily topples into the pool in his pursuit of her. Not long thereafter, the couple attends one of Maurice’s chichi parties; Joanna momentarily reunited with David and Mark becoming jealous once more; taking up with Sylvia (Dominique Joos); a random girl he grabs off the dance floor. Mark playfully introduces Maurice to Sylvia as his fiancée, insisting he has left Joanna once and for all. But only a few moments later, David and Joanna intrude on the lie; Joanna explaining David is engaged to Sylvia. At this point, Maurice is utterly confused. Indeed, he has his own wrinkles to iron out on a new construction project giving him grief; one he intends to inveigle Mark into yet again, thereby sacrificing his relationship with Joanna. An impromptu power failure provides the perfect escape; Mark and Joanna disappearing in the dark. “I love you Joanna,” Mark confides on the car ride home. “Well, then,” she quietly insists, recognizing that whatever pain each has inflicted on the other, ultimately their bond is marked by a genuine commitment that keeps them coming back for more.
Two For the Road is extraordinary in so many intangibly truthful ways it is difficult to quantify them all with any degree of critical clarity in brief. Any proper analysis of the film would have to begin by deconstructing Mark Wallace; incredibly selfish, driven, obsessed with being successful – at the expense of becoming a mensch – and usually concerned only with his own satisfaction. There is really nothing about this man any woman in her right mind should find endearing. And yet, Albert Finney manages an incredible coup. He wins us over with an undercurrent of conflicted insincerity. Part of Mark’s appeal is Finney’s good looks; blonde and blue-eyed and exuding independently-minded masculine virility; the kind that generally proves catnip to all women, goaded by ego-driven machismo and a turbo-charged engine of self-appointed/testosterone-infused vanity.  Nevertheless, Finney lures us into his court in other unexpected ways. Mark is a fellow utterly misguided in his intent, but ultimately with a soft center buried somewhere beneath his genuinely caustic and occasionally imperious outer shell; his brutal aloofness coming across as a defense mechanism. And Finney, lest we forget, even in his youth, is an actor of rare qualities. While some actors rely on their eyes or vocal capabilities to convey more intimate thoughts and ideas, Finney is using the full-faculty of his free-form body politics to get across and sell the notion Mark Wallace really is not a bad apple or a gross pig of a human being, despite leaning – occasionally with desperation – toward that end of the guy’s guy spectrum. It’s the internalized conflict Finney gives us that translates so intoxicatingly well and salvages our opinion of Mark as just someone stumbling through the emotional content of his character, discovering some unexpected surprises for himself along the way.
Audrey Hepburn’s Joanna is far from the love-struck little lamb or sex-driven viper a la her counterpart, Jackie. Jackie might have given Mark a real run for his money and made his life a complication full of reckoning. Joanna is less resolved to chase after Mark as a woman and far more interested in pursuing him as her equal. She is fascinated by his byzantine struggle to make meaning from a lonely life, perhaps partly because it appeals to her mothering instinct, but moreover, because she too is a very complicated lady of substance and brains. She wants Mark, but not enough to make him want her back. He has to come to this decision on his own and in his own good time. But Hepburn’s Joanna is willing to wait, and not about to let the interim pass without exploring other options along the way. Yet, even her affair with David is not meant to make Mark jealous; rather, to quell a temporary frustration in their marriage. While Mark has used Simone to satisfy this same urge, and later, exploits Sylvia merely to spark some jealousy within Joanna, she takes a lover to pass the time until her husband comes to his senses. Within this milieu of the swinging sixties, such laissez faire sexual attitudes and diversions were perhaps less pronounced. Despite the equal opportunity in these infidelities there is no salaciousness to the exercise itself, and, in the end, the marriage bond is strengthened rather than ruptured.
Stanley Donen would later comment that while most movies about love end in marriage, or with the understanding ‘they lived happily ever after’, Two For the Road is a valiant attempt to illustrate merely that ‘they lived ever after’ – though only occasionally in harmony, often with discord or under a cloud of self-inflicted disillusionment and/or disappointments. The interwoven texture of Mark and Joanna’s tapestry of life is fraught with such frayed threads. But these are never enough to split the couple apart, perhaps because each is stubbornly resolved to make something beautiful from the mess of their lives. Stanley Donen trundles out his series of ingeniously concocted vignettes, made all the more extraordinary by his unconventional editing; creating the very antithesis of the traditional ‘road picture’ as established in films like Frank Capra’s immortal classic, It Happened One Night (1932). It is Donen’s intuitiveness and aestheticism in the editing process that makes the picture click as it should; his juxtaposition of semi-humorous, somewhat tragic and impossibly poignant moments to cumulatively capture the luminosity of this martyred love affair. It all works spectacularly well and such a shame the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not acknowledge Two For the Road as the obvious masterpiece it is; sinful too, audiences failed to make it the smash sleeper hit of the season. In years yet to follow, Donen would recall how he was repeatedly approached by marrieds and new couples alike who found the film’s verisimilitude of this modern marriage in crisis a poignant reminder of their own struggles in love and life; high praise indeed for which Donen has remained extremely grateful.
In fact, he regards Two For the Road as the very best of his non-musical movies…and so do we. What Donen had originally perceived as a relatively inexpensive and presumably ‘easy to shoot’ road picture evolved into an entirely different animal; the menagerie of weighty camera equipment, dollies, cast and crew being trucked around France leading to an ordeal of sorts, one rescued in the editing process; the pieces coming together with brilliant clarity and precision. One curiosity about Two For the Road persists: in two biographies written about Audrey Hepburn there are passages attesting to the actress’ apprehensions to film a ‘skinny dip’ sequence. Although Hepburn does appear – presumably nude – in a bathtub (shot only from the neck up and surrounded by bubbles), with only her exposed back to the camera, and Donen has attested in interviews to Audrey’s intense fear of deep water, reluctantly committing to a sequence in which Mark tosses her fully clothed body into a swimming pool, there is no ‘skinny dipping’ scene in Two For The Road! None was ever even scripted by Frederic Raphael. Today, Two For the Road’s clear-eyed take on ‘modern marriage’ seems even more vatic. The purity of the work itself and the performances given have made it as relevant today; perhaps perennially so.     
It has taken far too long to get Two For the Road released in North America. Twilight Time’s new to Blu appears to mirror the quality of Eureka! Masters of Cinema release from several years ago – which is a blessing. We gain a new audio commentary from Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, also TT’s usual commitment to providing an ‘isolated score’ (and actually, the first time the actual film score has been available anywhere – previous album versions were re-orchestrations done by Mancini). They have also managed to port over Stanley Donen’s originally produced audio commentary for the now defunct Fox Studio Classics DVD. Regrettably, we lose the featurette, Frederic Raphael - Memories of Travelers – 25 introspective minutes with the screenwriter; also, the 36 page booklet with introspective critique by Jessica Felrice, replaced herein by Julie Kirgo’s usually adroit, though too brief 4 page liner notes. I like Kirgo’s writing style, but on this outing I prefer Felrice’s more thorough reflections. When extras like this are cut from intercontinental reissues it is usually due to a ‘rights issue’. Pity that. To my eyes, the new TT is identical to the MoC Blu-ray, everything looking gorgeous; colors eye-popping brilliant and fine detail in hair, skin, clothing and those gorgeously lit location backdrops revealing a startling amount of razor-sharp/picture perfect clarity. The DTS audio is predictably robust. Remembering that virtually all the audio had to be post-sync back at Fox - Jacqueline Bisset actually dubbed by another actress after Donen could not get Bisset back in time to do her own vocals - the Blu-ray seems to handle the limitations of then complicated post sync rather well. Bottom line: Two For the Road via Twilight Time comes very highly recommended. Your old Fox DVD is officially a coaster for your drink while enjoying this classy classic remastered in high def.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)