Wednesday, February 22, 2017

BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING: Blu-ray reissue (Columbia 1965) Indicator/Powerhouse

From its haunting main titles, scored by Paul Glass and illustrated in title-master extraordinaire, Saul Bass’ visual assurance for telling mini-stories - both impressionistic and imaginative - to its bone-chillingly understated cameos from Noel Coward (as a lecherous drunkard), Martita Hunt (her Miss Havisham from David Lean’s Great Expectations ominously transposed; locked away as the dotty ole clairvoyant, living like a recluse in the upstairs attic of a children’s private school) and Anna Massey (kitten-faced school teacher, Elvira Smollett, repeatedly berated for incompetency), to Denys N. Coop’s moodily magnificent and offbeat pseudo-noir cinematographic bravura, permeated by Otto Preminger’s dynamism, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) hails as gossamer grand guignol; its velvety sheen turning swingin’ London asunder; herein, recast as simultaneously menacing and deliciously remote.  It seems no one in our story (co-written by then marrieds, Penelope and John Mortimer and based on the best-selling novel by Evelyn Piper- alias Marryam Modell), save our protagonist, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) is particularly interested in what has become of this titled tiny tot; if, in fact, she ever existed. Bunny has gone. Or was she ever there? At once, Bunny Lake is Missing is deceptively feather-weight yet densely packed with titillating bits of misdirection.
Preminger’s last major work of both substance and style, Bunny Lake is Missing is not a ‘who done it’ per say, but a psychosomatic exploitation piece, spinning its’ web of deceit in ever-constricting circles around a disconcertingly incestuous relationship. Steven and Ann Lake (played with sporadic credibility by Keir Dullea and Carol Lynley) are brother and sister – not husband and wife. But Preminger does his best to delay the audience from this realization, Steve’s smarmy, headstrong and overly protective nature the first bit of ill-advised query Preminger indulges in. For the better half of the picture, we are deliberately led down the primrose by Preminger to believe Ann is suffering from an infantilized psychosis, unable to rid herself of a childhood imaginary playmate, also named ‘Bunny’ – the nickname she has since given her ‘real life’ daughter, Felicia (Suky Appleby).  An even more macabre foreshadowing comes tumbling forth when Ann suggests to Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier, top-billed, though decidedly never over the top as the methodical cop) both she and Steven eventually came to the decision their fictional playmate needed to die, or rather, be killed off in a ritualized Buddhist ceremony in which all of Bunny’s worldly possessions were burned, her ‘memory’ buried along with these charred remains.
If the premise behind these past regressions seems alarmingly peculiar, it utterly pales to the menagerie of eccentrics who populate the present.  Bunny Lake is Missing is inhabited by some inexplicably curious and spurious characters; not the least, Ann’s landlord, Horatio Wilson (played with aberrant relish by Noel Coward); a despicably charismatic, if craven old coot who, at one point, encourages Newhouse’s right-hand man, Andrews (Clive Revill) to accost him with his own cat-o-nine-tails (rumored to be a relic of the Marquis de Sade), one can assume by Horatio’s jovial insistence, to achieve some fetishistic arousal earlier denied him his oily advances on Ann. “I play a perverted old queer with sadomasochistic tendencies,” Coward reportedly told a friend upon finishing the picture, before glibly adding, “Please…no jokes about type-casting.” Coward could afford such tongue-firmly-in-cheek pellucidity. By 1966, he had become an instantly recognizable crustacean in the British pop culture, largely famous for being famous; an openly gay bon vivant and irrefutable connoisseur of the pleasures of life, to say nothing of his legendary status as playwright, director, producer and star of stage, screen and television; an all-around sophisticate and worldly genius.
The other outstanding ‘character’ part belongs irrefutably to Martita Hunt’s Miss Ada Ford; the elder reincarnation of that aforementioned Dickensian loon, not nearly as mad as she initially reports herself to be; warmly amused by Bunny’s disappearance, coyly calling out her name as she navigates through the labyrinth-like backstairs catacombs of the school; catching Steven in a lie and thereafter quite capably relaying it to Newhouse; himself an amiable enthusiast and admirer of such clever wit in setting traps with expertly laid out bait. Hunt is so obviously – supremely – an old ham – she knows exactly how to ply her craft for maximum effect without becoming clumsily ensnared as a loathsome attention whore. When she is on the screen she quite simply commands it, yet almost by accident, with a self-assured quaintness that is never boastful or intrusive to the other players in the scene. But perhaps the signature performance in the picture is Laurence Olivier’s laidback superintendent, most fascinating of all for its complete absence of ingrained ‘theater’ training for which a good deal of Olivier’s later film work is painfully aware; Newhouse, biding his time rather than actually sleuthing for the truth. At one point, when pushed by Lynley’s frantic mum to identify his modus operandi for solving the case, Newhouse casually reclines in his chair, simply saying, “I’m waiting.” 
Bunny Lake is Missing is a fairly ghoulish affair; some of the horror taking place behind the camera: perhaps not surprising, given Otto Preminger’s predilection for testing the boundaries of screen censorship with subversive and taboo subject matter. Initially, Preminger expressed little interest in the treatments of the novel prepared by his first choice in screenwriter, Ira Levin; his intrigue later peaked only after Penelope Mortimer suggested altering the novel’s original villain from a deranged school teacher to ‘the brother’ – a far more intimate betrayal; Preminger picking up on the incestuous angle and running with it to nerve-jangling effect.  The duality of Otto Preminger bears mentioning; a seemingly cultured and cordial European when met under casual circumstances, contrasted by a streak of unbridled sadism and cruelty on the set of his pictures, telescopically focused on his actors in particular – or rather, those he fiendishly hand-picked for their easily manipulated vulnerability. Stories of Preminger’s relentless browbeating of Carol Lynley, and to lesser extent, Keir Dullea, are legendary; Lynley frequently brought to the brink of nervous jitters and/or reduced to frightened tears. Arguably, Preminger’s venom helps inform and shape Lynley’s emotional responses; less the actress and more of a ‘sex kitten’ – her previous work in Blue Denim (1959) – a tale of martyred teen sexuality and its psychological fallout – proving irresistible to Preminger’s own perverse intuitions about human frailty.  
In life, Otto Preminger was as much a contradiction as he proved something of a rank egotist; envious, yet respectful of director, Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation (this, arguably, he sought to emulate) while chronically bent on striving to reconcile his classical training as a film-maker with the more modish accoutrements of the British ‘new wave’. Yet, catching up with the times would ultimately tarnish Preminger’s reputation in his emeritus years. He was, after all, a classically trained film-maker. But in private, Preminger was decidedly a bastard, his numerous extramarital affairs resulting in an illegitimate child with stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee and some high profile suicides of other leading ladies and/or paramours (Dorothy Dandridge, Maggie McNamara, Jean Seberg – to name but three). What Otto Preminger ought to be remembered for is his technical prowess; a master of the long take, even more impressive herein when one considers virtually all of the key sequences in Bunny Lake is Missing are on location and usually shot within very confined quarters; Preminger’s omnipotent widescreen aperture maneuvering with glycerin effortlessness through some very claustrophobic hallways inside The Little People’s Garden School, or descending into the steamy bowels of St. Child’s Asylum. It is an almost invisible style, one Preminger has honed throughout the course of his long career, laying dolly track as though he were building a railroad and arguably trademarking the smooth tracking shot better than anyone else. Perhaps, Preminger, whose in-camera cutting bears a striking resemblance to another brilliant filmmaker’s work - Billy Wilder – took his cue from an apocryphal story in which Wilder is rumored to have deposited his film reels on the desk on his editor, exclaiming, “Here…join the ends together.”
Bunny Lake is Missing is a difficult picture to peg, perhaps because, like all good thrillers, it unexpectedly denies us our level of safety with perverse unease; its epicenter of moral gravity obscured by the Mortimer’s cleverly plotted twists and turns; also by Preminger’s ability to convince us for more than half of its run time Ann Lake is his ‘mad woman of Chalot’ – driven to wild distraction by an unfulfilled maternal instinct, since run amuck with devilish and wild-eyed stories of the daughter she never had. And, indeed, this seems quite plausible as Ann is unable to provide Newhouse with even a photograph of the missing child, explaining that most of Bunny’s things from America have yet to be unpacked. Given Ann is newly arrived in England, this seems plausible - and yet, in an instance, highly suspect too. It does not help that Ann is unable to locate a witness – anyone – who saw her with Bunny on the bus, at the school, shopping for toys along the street. Is there no one in the whole of London who will testify to the fact Bunny Lake is real? Yes, there is – Steven Lake – who builds upon his sister’s protestations – while adding a few of his own – and bolsters her confidences, presumably, as any good brother should. Not until late in Act III, when Steven willfully saturates Bunny’s favorite doll in kerosene before lighting it afire – destroying the last shred of evidence Ann might have taken to Newhouse as proof of her daughter’s existence, do we suddenly come to the most sinister and dreadful conclusion: Steven Lake is madder than a hatter and twice as certain up to no good.
Some of the aforementioned narrative and pictorial aspects of the piece might have easily typecast Bunny Lake is Missing as an assiduous police procedural melodrama, a noir-ish crime story or just another archetypal ‘woman in peril’ piece, with the underpinnings of a psychological thriller a la Gaslight (1944). But Preminger never remains focused on any of these variables for more than a moment’s glance, effectively mixing them up as he moves in and out of their exclusivities that could, but never do earmark his movie’s domain. Preminger’s Act I is compelling for its varied cameos; Olivier’s coy and cryptic policeman, playfully re-framing Steven’s allegations; that Newhouse is trying to ensnare either him or Ann in a lie. This contention is superbly staged as a slightly traditional game of cat and mouse; Preminger inveigling and insulating his brother/sister tag team with an insidiously benign, though completely captivating menagerie of some of Britain’s finest acting talents. Hence, Anna Massey’s obtuse and oddly defiant teacher is followed by Martita Hunt’s bemused and pixelated lady in the attic, the introduction of Olivier’s calming detective, and so on. Aside: I understand somewhere in this cavalcade is a fleeting glimpse of Oliver Reed, poking his head into the frame as a bobby. If you can spot him you have better eyes than yours truly. We can almost forgive Preminger this who’s who that mollycoddles the central cast because Preminger has fulfilled his Michael Todd-ish mandate with a roster culled from the most instantly recognizable British talent, thus adding drama as well as flavor that anchors his movie in a sort of sixties time capsule.
With such a peerless sendoff, the second act of Bunny Lake is Missing occasionally falters; Preminger racing through the particulars of a more clinical police procedural melodrama; Carol Lynley’s wild-eyed young Miss rapidly deflated and whimpering to distraction, her innocent protestations countermanded by Steven’s stiff britches and veiled threats to stir a tempest in a teacup if he does not immediately get his way with the law. The needless reappearance of Noel Coward’s lascivious rake, undoubtedly good for it as a delectable bit of theater, otherwise creates even more latent impatience to be redirected back into the central narrative. Without question, Preminger’s tour de force is his Act III abduction of Ann Lake; her probative investigation and gullibility in sharing her next move with Steven resulting in a fate temporarily worse than... From the moment Carol Lynley’s artless lass barges into the morosely half-lit and incredibly cluttered Doll Hospital overseen by an 89 year old wheelchair-bound, Findlay Currie (in his last screen appearance), Bunny Lake is Missing acquires both the impetus and frenzied momentum of a careening car inside the proverbial ‘dark ride’ at an amusement park; unsurpassed in its suspense and comparatively, a real Hitchcockian moment; Preminger transforming seemingly innocuous – even gay surroundings – reinvented as a truly monstrous nightmare.
There is a real ‘haunted house’ quality to this elaborate set piece, the Doll Hospital, an eerie purgatory of frozen faces, blankly staring back at Ann with ‘dead eyes’ caught in the dim afterglow of a kerosene lamp as she navigates below stairs through a tomb of toys, miraculously discovering Bunny’s doll amongst the sea of clones, only to be unexpectedly thwarted in her ambitions by Steven, now absolutely gone off the deep end. Preminger brings Act III to a crescendo with Ann’s forced admittance into St. Child’s Hospital; intercut with a few superbly played bits of necessary exposition from Olivier’s Newhouse, still tracing Ann and Bunny’s past and unearthing even more half-truths inside the shipping offices. Unable to confirm the date of the pair’s arrival via the steamship’s passenger list from America, Newhouse realizes Steven Lake has been lying to them all along; his suspicions confirmed when Andrews intercepts a bulletin about a young woman suffering ‘an accident’, now heavily sedated and interned at St. Childs – her name: Lake!
Interestingly, Newhouse does not proceed posthaste to the hospital to confirm Ann’s institutionalization but rather, rushes back to No. 3, Frogmore End; the rented home where Steven and Ann have been temporarily staying. He is the last to arrive; Ann having quietly sneaked out of hospital after changing back into her clothes inside the animal laboratory in the basement, before skulking towards relative safety via an unlocked door in the maintenance cellar. The confrontation between brother and sister that follows is somewhat anticlimactic. Ann nervously observes as Steven retrieves Bunny’s lifeless – though only drugged – body from the boot of his sports car. Has the girl been fast asleep inside the trunk ever since her abduction shortly before noon?!? To quell Steven’s brooding and possessive concerns, that he and Ann can never be close as they were as children so long as Bunny lives, Ann engages her demented sibling in bizarre recreations of some of their favorite childhood past times; the manic lunacy of a frantic ‘hide and seek’ seguing into a verse and chorus of ‘Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’ before culminating with a nail-biting diversion of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’, ended only after Ann, first attempting escape, then to hide Bunny from harm’s way, suddenly suffers the immense dread in realizing her secret hiding place – the dilapidated greenhouse – has already been anticipated by Steven beforehand, who now takes Bunny in his arms, determined to either strangle or set her afire before burying her in an unmarked grave already dug in the backyard.
At some point, one has to simply accept this highly implausible denouement at face value; Newhouse, Andrews and a small contingent of London’s finest descending on No. 3 in the nick of time, but only after Ann has lured Steven away one last time to a nearby swing, where she commands him to push her ‘higher and higher’ up to the sky. Thus, Bunny is spared her fate, having fallen asleep in the open grave, clutching the remains of her burnt doll. Rescued from this pit by a tearful Ann, mother and daughter share in a brighter future: Newhouse’s penultimate acknowledgement that Ann is not mad, her daughter is real, and, their lives may begin anew without Steven’s epic insanity to dog either of them, is perhaps too sudden and too perfect a finale. But again…as Hitchcock would say…it’s only a movie and in this case, a damn good one at that.
Ann’s nightmare begins innocuously, as an American single mum dropping off her daughter at The Little People’s Garden preschool. Unable to find the school’s administrator, Ann leaves her daughter in the ‘First Day’ room; the school’s rather benign cook (Lucie Mannheim) more engrossed in her junket than worrying about this new arrival. A little time passes – alas, enough for Bunny to disappear without ever having met the school’s administrator or any of her teachers or classmates; Ann horrified by both Elvira and Ada Ford’s complacency. In short order, Ann telephones Steven, who wastes no time raising hell, admonishing Elvira for her incompetence and grilling Ada about her purpose at the school, long since having retired as its headmistress and co-founder. Into this frantic mix enters Superintendent Newhouse; a somewhat infuriatingly calm, though steadily calming influence on Ann. Steven remains unconvinced the police are doing enough to locate Bunny. In point of fact, Newhouse later tells Ann he is merely ‘waiting’ for a lead to develop; one that will break the case wide open. In the meantime, Steven begins to play both ends against the middle; seemingly genuine in confiding to Ada Ann’s imaginary playmate; in hindsight, wanting her to relay this discovery to Newhouse and thus ‘accidentally’ stumble upon the planted information that may lead the detective to concur Ann is not a very stable woman. Could she have made everything up? No, especially since Steven too professes there really is a Bunny Lake. But Steven is much too clever, perhaps even for himself. When Newhouse learns Bunny’s tuition has never been paid, Steven suggests the school lost his deposit and is now covering up what has quickly degenerated into their full-blown scandal, showing Newhouse a check stub properly dated.
We meet Ann’s disturbingly libidinous landlord, Horatio Wilson; first, casually strolling into Ann’s newly rented flat, suggestively implying she might find some time for him, then later, to return with even more transparent and ominous intentions of possibly raping her in his ever-so-slightly inebriated state; both times, thwarted in his plans by the arrival of the police, come to search the flat and question Ann further about her whereabouts earlier that afternoon. When Ann returns from her first interrogation, she discovers someone has taken all of Bunny’s things – clothes, toys, etc. – an ill-omened foretaste that perhaps the child is already dead or her abductors (if they exist) have no intention of ever returning Bunny; even for a ransom. Steven haughtily threatens Newhouse with a public scandal. But Newhouse in un-phased by these threats and bides his time.
In one of the movie’s most comforting moments – a welcomed respite from all the frenzy and fear otherwise mounting – Newhouse decides to take Ann to a local pub. After all, she has not eaten since the abduction. Pale and weak, Ann begins to confide portions of her past to the detective, perhaps unaware all the while he is piecing together a back story from the clues she is providing him. If Bunny Lake is Missing does have a weak scene, it is this interpolated act of benevolence; Preminger, repeatedly cutting away to a 20 inch television hanging over the bar to showcase three songs from the then popular British band, The Zombies (incongruously billed in the credits above Noel Coward). Curiously absent from this American Bandstand-styled intrusion, the Zombie’s No. 1 hit, ‘She’s Not There’ – perhaps a bit too ‘on the nose’ for Preminger’s tastes in its foreshadowing. The Zombies preeminent screen credit is also an oddity as they neither appear in the movie – except on this TV broadcast – nor serve as integral to the plot, Preminger, perhaps, attempting to tap into the zeitgeist of their fleeting fame; the ruse only serving to deflect from the importance of the scene and deflate its dramatic impact. Mercifully, Preminger quickly regains his toehold on the moment; Steven barging in and accusing Newhouse of baiting his sister to incriminate herself.
Ann refuses to believe this. She really is a trusting soul. But only moments later, Newhouse has apparently had enough of both the Lakes, electing to go home. Ann and Steven return to their rented house. Herein, Preminger stages one of the most unsettling and kinky moments in the picture, almost as a toss away; Ann casually seated on the edge of the bathtub while her brother bathes, a little amateur deconstructing of the minutiae and possible motives behind whomever took Bunny in the first place. Piper’s novel contained no such hints of family incest. Yet, this is exactly the angle that appealed mostly to Preminger upon reading the Mortimer’s outline and finished screenplay. The bathtub scene is undeniably shot in ‘good taste’ and from a very low angle to reveal absolutely nothing of Keir Dullea in all his presumed nakedness, not even his nipples. Nevertheless, the scene is extremely off-putting in its implication these two siblings are more than comfortable observing one another in the raw; Ann suddenly realizing she gave Steven one of Bunny’s favorite dolls to have repaired at a local doll hospital and toy shop.
Earlier, Ann had been quite unable to locate any snapshots or even Bunny’s passport to prove to Newhouse she actually exists. The chit from the doll hospital would at least prove the girl’s missing things existed. So, Ann blindly rushes off in the dead of night, discovering the front door to the establishment ajar and finding its benevolent owner still working on his labor of love – restoring old toys to their original glory. The shop keeper tells Ann her doll is finished and awaiting pickup in the basement. She finds the doll and hurries to pay for its repairs, confronted by Steven who sets fire to the evidence; then, knocks Ann unconscious before admitting her to a nearby mental hospital for observation, lying about her injury being self-inflicted.  After Ann is wheeled upstairs into a darkened – and very spooky ward – presided over by a benevolent nurse (Kika Markham), Ann manages a rather daring escape, descending the backstairs into the janitor’s quarters, animal laboratory, and finally, maintenance room, before slipping out the back way undiscovered.
Meanwhile, Newhouse has not retired for the night as he promised, but rather, with Andrews help, has gone to the shipping offices to learn when Ann and Bunny arrived from New York. Misdirected by Steven about the time and day, Newhouse nevertheless manages to unearth the particulars of their transatlantic crossing. There was a child and mother aboard ship. So Ann is not suffering from some miscarried hallucinations as Steven suggested earlier as an alternative theory of his sister’s mental state. Armed with the realization Ann has been telling everyone the truth, Newhouse and Andrews arrive at Frogmore End, just in time to prevent Steven from murdering his niece – and quite possibly, Ann too.  As mother and daughter tearfully clutch one another, walking toward the camera, Preminger implies their sordid nightmare is at an end; the mysterious ‘hand’ - a part of Saul Bass’ opening credits, tearing strips of paper to reveal the main titles - instead restoring a cutout of a little girl, thus blackening the entire image onto which the end titles are projected.
Sandwiched somewhere in between Hitchcock’s own affecting thriller, Psycho (1960), the exquisite grand guignol on display in Robert Altman’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and, its less delicate follow-up in Altman’s Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Bunny Lake is Missing remains a definitive masterpiece in Preminger’s illustrious career, if for no other reason, because it both caps off and typifies that mid-sixties predilection for perverted familial relationships; in Psycho’s case, between a boy and his dead mother; in the latter two examples, between sisters, and/or female cousins; and in this movie, springing from a superficially inoffensive bond between brother and sister.  While no one could confuse Preminger’s efforts as ones made by the ‘master of suspense’, Preminger does get an incredible amount of mileage from his ‘horror story’ despite its plausibility ranking somewhere close to that proverbial nursery rhyme about the ‘cow jumping over the moon’. And yet, Preminger can – and does – make all of it quite credible. Bunny Lake is Missing feels genuine in the moment; the audience lulled into believing its incredible story until perhaps they have had a few moments afterwards to reconsider its utter ridiculousness.
Arguably, Preminger’s two weakest links are Carol Lynley and, particularly, Keir Dullea, whose strikingly angular features occasionally obfuscate or at least provide for marginal compensation of his rather perfunctory delivery of some of his lines.  The way Preminger shoots Dullea’s big reveal as the nut job, engrossed in the flicker of a burning doll’s head drenched in kerosene, is truly memorable in exposing Steven’s utterly distorted mind.  In the final analysis, the virtues of the production far outweigh its shortcomings; the heavy-hitters in the cast, particularly Laurence Olivier’s tantalizingly analytical inspector, run rings around the material, selling this increasingly fanciful – if psychologically grim – yarn as a very stylish, and ultimately successful mystery-thriller. Very great stuff and fluff that dreams are often made of; though, on this occasion, it’s the evocation of the nightmare that counts.  
Bunny Lake is Missing gets the ‘bells and whistles’ treatment from Indicator/Powerhouse, a U.K. distributor, via a stunning 1080p hi-def Blu-ray transfer from Sony Home Entertainment. Indicator’'s region free disc is a marginally different transfer than the one provided to Twilight Time in the U.S. – slightly darker but sporting better overall contrast. Once again, Grover Crisp’s overseeing of the old Columbia catalog has yielded an exemplar in Blu-ray mastering. Were that every other competing studio had such a champion of the classics in their midst. I have repeatedly doffed my cap to Mr. Crisp for his monumental efforts on even, arguably, lesser B-grade catalog. Bunny Lake is Missing is an A-list production from top to bottom and herein, Denys N. Coop’s lush and moody cinematography gets its due. You are going to love, LOVE, this disc. It is reference quality to say the least. Watching movies like this one reminds me of exactly how much has been lost in present-era Hollywood’s frenetic pace and chop-shop styled editing practices. Preminger and Coop have taken great pains to give us the lay of the land, and this hi-def rendering never once allows any of their meticulous planning to go unnoticed. The gray scale is absolutely marvelous. Age-related artifacts have been completely eradicated. The image is smooth, razor-sharp and sporting a light smattering of film grain indigenous to its source. I could not be more pleased with the effort put forth herein. This is a perfect home video presentation of a decidedly good thriller.
The 1.0 mono is more than adequate, restored and remastered, again to levels of perfection Sony seems to effortlessly ascribe to virtually every release created under their auspices.  Indicator far surpasses Twilight Time’s Blu-ray in the extras department; a very comprehensive assortment that veers into Criterion territory; starting with a pair of interview featurettes, one with actress Carol Linley, the other with actor, Clive Revell. Cumulatively, its forty plus minutes of bonuses and capped off by a limited edition exclusive booklet featuring a thorough essay by Chris Fujiwara. Also present are all of TT’s extras; three very unique – and occasionally – laughable trailers; also, an isolated score showcasing Paul Glass’ sparse score. But the absolute best extra is the audio commentary, offering copious amounts of back story; hosted by Nick Redman with Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs weighing in for good measure. Bottom line: Indicator’s release is the one you want.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


TO SIR WITH LOVE: Blu-ray reissue (Columbia 1967) Indicator/Powerhouse

Sidney Poitier capped off his meteoric rise as the cinema’s #1 box office draw with To Sir With Love, one of three major motion pictures in which he starred in 1967 (the other two: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and, In The Heat of the Night). Indeed, Poitier had scored an unlikely coup in Hollywood at a time when black performers were still expected to play second fiddle to their Caucasian counterparts. In hindsight, there was nothing about Poitier that ought to have pegged him for such greatness; nothing – except talent – and, arguably, timing. Talent alone rarely equates to stardom. But Poitier had distinguished himself in Darryl F. Zanuck’s No Way Out (1950); his big screen debut – creating a template for the forthright man of color, repeatedly forced to grapple with abject racism.  Five years later, Poitier resurfaced as the incorrigible youth in Blackboard Jungle (1955); in retrospect, a tantalizing precursor to his role as Mark Thackeray in To Sir With Love; the pupil now sufficiently aged and morphed into the educator with progressive ideas, but a gentle heart. 
Poitier’s screen persona is, in essence, largely an extension of the man himself; the noble free thinker, governed by a built-in intuitiveness and moral compass positioned just this side of sainthood. In an era buffeted by volatile civil right demonstrations across the still segregated south, Poitier’s men of action spoke to a new perspective on ‘black power’; the gentlemen’s ‘gentle man’ who could debate his way out of any situation using superior deductive reasoning. Sandwiched somewhere between this bronzed – if reconstituted – view of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman and the traditional tough guy with a Teflon-coated veneer of ethnocentric congeniality, Poitier’s own humanity was allowed to periodically shine through. Poitier’s champions are heroic in less obvious ways; the caretaker who looks out for a refreshingly innocent flock of nuns (Lilies of the Field, 1963), or the conqueror of prejudice, in search of the unvarnished truth to solve a hate crime (In the Heat of the Night 1967). His shy educator in To Sir With Love is thrust upon a hard knock neighborhood in London’s east end; a dangerous place for most, but particularly Poitier’s Mark Thackeray, who isn’t about to take any guff from his current class of lazy slackers.
James Clavell directs from his own screenplay, overusing the chart-topping title song, sung by Lulu (who also has a small part in the film as Barbara ‘Babs’ Pegg), but he gets considerable mileage out of Poitier’s ability to convey a stern wisdom and eagle-eyed pride without either quality ever becoming boastful. Mark Thackeray is no push over, as he proves at some point by standing up to and putting down class bully, Denham (Christian Roberts); who fancies himself cock of the walk around these parts and aims to keep up his territorial rights. In their few rounds of fisticuffs its brains, not braggadocio that win out. And Thackeray knows his audience. Reason and cooler heads will follow, even if Thackeray isn’t above knocking them together. The two-way street of respect is left decidedly uncluttered after their bout. Now, the real work can at last begin. To Sir With Love hails from a long line of dramas in praise of a favorite teacher. In some regards, E.R. Braithwaite’s novel is an update on James Hilton’s classic read, ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’; introducing a relatively shy man whose own convictions break through the bureaucratic nonsense and get the job done despite seemingly insurmountable odds.      
Educator and author, E. R. Braithwaite based his novel on personal experiences – or perhaps, those merely embellished – accrued while teaching in London’s East End. Upon publication, the book met with heavy criticism. Noted critic and reviewer, F. M. Birbalsingh called To Sir With Love a ‘glowing tribute’ to Braithwaite’s ‘own image’ as a ‘rather talented and thoroughly civilized black man’, bashing the savior-esque qualities of its protagonist as a ‘sordid demonstration of the author’s own vanity’. To be fair, there is something of the martyr in Braithwaite’s prose. At times, he does everything except conjure the image of a gallant astride his magnificent charger, crusading for the enlightened mind, while conquering with a benevolent heart. In hindsight, the book is tailor-made for the movies; even more perfect as a star vehicle for Sidney Poitier, perhaps, because Poitier never falls into the obvious trap of playing the ‘perfect’ man toiling under decidedly imperfect conditions to affect social change. His Mark Thackeray is not a man who always believes in himself. But he is someone who fervently has faith in this ragtag flock he believes can be brought around to do better. So, exactly how does one thank someone who has taken them from crayons to perfume?
To Sir With Love opens with Lulu Kennedy-Cairns’ (abbreviated to Lulu professionally) infectious rendition of the title song, co-written by Don Black and Mark London. In 1967, the song remained #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts for nearly a year; a pop phenomenon even more of an oddity, considering it did not even list in the Top 100 in the U.K. – released there as the quickly forgotten B-side to ‘Let’s Pretend’.  As an interesting aside: Lulu would have even greater success with 1974’s title track for the James Bond movie, The Man With The Golden Gun. For a while, it appeared as though Lulu’s fame might rival Petula Clark. In the end, only Clark had the longevity of an intercontinental career. We catch our first glimpse of Mark Thackeray, an unemployed engineer, disembarking a London bus for his first day of school. The novel took its time to evolve a back-story for ‘Ricky Braithwaite’ – the author’s not-so-fictional alter ego; detailing his exploits as a British/Guiana-born engineer who worked on an Aruban oil refinery, but returns to Britain at the cusp of WWII. Distinguishing himself in the RAF during this global crisis, afterward, Ricky quickly discovered mounting anti-black sentiments to prevent him from finding suitable employment in his chosen field. Very reluctantly, he takes a position as an educator at London’s Greenslade Academy.  As scripted by James Clavell, none of this preamble appears in the film; the whole premise updated to ‘then’ present day, making the circumstances ironically even timelier with the racial divide taking place in the U.S. Deep South. 
Thackeray has come to his teaching post second best. A defeated man, he perhaps believes the task of motivating young minds beneath him, though nevertheless, an easy way to make some money while he quietly goes in search of future job prospects elsewhere. Caught in the crossfire of some harmless, though brazen, flirtations made by a pair of old crones aboard his bus, Thackeray is in for a most unwelcome surprise upon his arrival to North Quay Secondary School near the London Docks. The building looks more like a reformatory than a place of higher learning; Thackeray’s first encounter with one of the pupils, Tich Jackson (Gareth Robinson) a pale glimmer of the adversarial outlook he is about to encounter. Indeed, his classroom resembles the general tenor of an 18th century asylum, the gaggle in chaos and disrespectfully oblivious to his purpose among them. Thackeray’s students are, in fact, tart-mouthed reprobates who, having been repeatedly expelled from other schools would rather spend their free time smoking or carousing than partaking of his expert tutelage. About half are semi-literate, the rest disinterested in making the effort to stay afloat in their studies so they can make something from their lives upon graduation. Thackeray tries to win favor with this motley crew, but quickly realizes conventional wisdom will not be enough to convince them of their dead-end paths.
Headmistress, Grace Evans (Faith Brook) is a welcome sight, as is another new recruit, Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendell). Both could tell Thackeray a thing or two about the quagmire he’s stepped into; his first teaching assignment promising to be something of a trial by fire. Thackeray’s introduction to fellow educator, Theo Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon) is an ominous precursor of things to come. Weston refers to Thackeray as the latest lamb, fit for the slaughter.  Gillian is more circumspect, but astutely comments there is something simultaneously ‘frightening’ and ‘challenging’ about North Quay. On his first day, Thackeray makes rather a bad enemy of Denham. Assessing the reading comprehension skills of his pupils proves a minor tribulation until Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson) reads a lyrical passage from her textbook with great conviction. It’s the first, and arguably, last bit of promise revealed to Thackeray so soon in his assignment.
Thackeray is given the lowdown on his predecessor, Mr. Hackman, who made a hasty departure after several valiant – but failed – strides to befriend his students. They won’t respond to kindness, having so little in their own home lives, and therefore regarding it as a terrible weakness amongst the educators to be exploited at every possible opportunity. In the meantime, Weston takes cynical pleasure in explaining to Thackeray the pointlessness of their positions as educators of the ‘great unwashed’. Thackeray is apt to side with the plight of his pupils, a perspective Weston finds quite laughable and Thackeray will soon discover for himself is a thoroughly misguided approach. The next morning, Thackeray nearly takes a tumble after the front leg on his desk gives out. Inspecting the break, he quickly realizes it was neither a natural malfunction from the age of the wood, nor an honest accident; the leg deliberately sawed at its joint. After school, Thackeray confronts one of his pupils, Seales (Anthony Villaroel) in the courtyard. Seales’ melancholy quickly pivots to rage as he reveals a general contempt for his brutish father and emasculated empathy for his ailing mother. Thackeray is frustrated. He desperately wants to be of help, yet cannot bring himself to the task, suddenly realizing there are more dire issues at stake for these kids than mere studies in math and English.
The next day begins with a near miss from a water balloon, tossed out the school’s second story window. Upon his arrival to the classroom, Thackeray discovers one of the girls has placed a soiled sanitary napkin in the heating duct to ferment. The stench is appalling, but more so, the crudeness and mindset of the act; Thackeray ordering the boys into the hall before confronting the girls, admonishing each of them as a filthy slut and demanding an immediate cleanup of their disgusting display before he returns. Thackeray is incensed, set to throw in the towel until he suddenly realizes he has been treating his brood as children when, in fact, in a few short weeks they will be thrust into the adult world as adults and, with all the responsibilities of the adult world suddenly heaped upon them. To this end, Thackeray reenters the room reinvigorated. He informs the students from this moment on, they shall address one another with the essential courtesies as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr.’   All shall refer to him as either ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr. Thackeray’. He also outlines a few harsh facts for the brood to chew on; first, no man, except the worst kind, prefers a slut to a lady for too long; second, real men are never caught dead in public unkempt. Proper hygiene will be observed from now on. Finally, Thackeray elects to toss out the conventional modes of education for the duration of their time together. Instead, the students will engage him in conversations about topics that are interested in; love, sex, death, rebellion, etc. and et al.
Thackeray goes on to explain the rudimentary principles of growing up. Rebellion is a natural part of coming into one’s own. But it is only successful as either a trend or new way of looking at the world if it impacts the culture at large; peacefully, objectively and with the purpose to enhance the social order of the present, even as it leans toward a possible revisionist perspective for future generations who will follow it.  He imparts certain intrinsic wisdoms with pointed clarity. First, marriage is no way of life for the weak, the selfish or the insecure. These early truths become the foundation of his new teaching platform. Furthermore, Thackeray elects to broaden everyone’s horizons with a school trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. If To Sir With Love has a singular flaw, it is the handling of this crucial sequence in the students’ enlightenment; photographed economically via a stilted montage of still images with Lulu’s title track heard for a second time in its entirety. Nevertheless, the trip is a great success.
Based on the exemplary behavior exhibited by everyone on this outing, the school’s administrator, Mr. Florian (Edward Burnham) approves Thackeray for more outings; Thackeray turning to his pupils for advice on where next they would like to go. In the meantime, Thackeray becomes aware Pamela has begun to harbor romantic feelings towards him; an unexpected complication he must eventually deal with in his own time and way. However, when P.T. teacher, Mr. Bell (Dervis Ward) inadvertently causes one of the boys, ‘Fats’ Buckley (Roger Shepherd) to become injured on the pommel horse during gymnasium practice, the mood amongst the male students gets ugly. Because Bell has treated the boys in general, and Fats in particular with callousness and contempt, Potter (Christopher Chittell) now elects to seize the broken wooden leg from the horse and give Bell a good thrashing; a confrontation narrowly averted when Tich bursts into Thackeray’s classroom for help. Thackeray listens to both sides; challenging Bell on his bad behavior. It is an unpopular decision, with Bell as well as the class; Denham exploiting the opportunity to turn everyone against Thackeray after he insists Potter apologizes to Bell for his bad behavior. As Thackeray points out, if Potter makes his recompense out of fear he will still be a boy, not a man.
Amidst this turmoil, Seale arrives late to the class, tearfully informing Thackeray his mother has died. Thackeray rushes to comfort, returning some time later to discover a very different attitude pervading his classroom. The students are against him because of the incident with Bell. Nevertheless, they have valiantly rallied to get together a collection for flowers for Seale’s mother. When Denham suggests Pamela have the order sent to the house, Thackeray questions why not deliver the flowers in person. Miss Peg explains how any girl who would enter the home of a ‘colored’ would be set up to ridicule, rumor and innuendo. It is the film’s first and only attempt to address the racial divide far more prevalently described in Braithwaite’s novel, and its impact carries all the more resonance in Sidney Poitier’s understated reaction. Owing to her lingering affections for Thackeray, Pamela offers to visit Seale’s home with the flowers – having grown up alongside his family since kindergarten. A short while later, Pamela’s mother (Ann Bell) pleads with Thackeray to have a talk with her daughter. An awkward strain runs through their brief conversation, Thackeray sensing some unpleasantness transpired between Pam and her father, whom Mrs. Dare lies about.
Thackeray confronts Pamela with her familial problems, telling her to grow up and give her mother another chance. Pamela is stubborn and wounded by this suggestion, much more so because she suddenly realizes her own romantic fantasies about Thackeray are simply that and destined never to go further. Henceforth, she tearfully refuses to fulfill her commitment with the flowers and storms out of the classroom. Florian tells Thackeray because of the incident with Mr. Bell all future fieldtrips for his class is suspended. Florian also informs Thackeray he will be taking over the P.T. class for the time being. It’s the perfect storm for Denham, who decides to test the class’ growing animosity by forcing Thackeray into a few rounds of fisticuffs with him in the school’s gymnasium. Very reluctantly, Thackeray agrees, holding Denham at bay for as long as he can, even allowing him to throw a few very angry, though well-timed punches before diffusing the situation for good with a quick upper cut to the stomach, leaving Denham winded and sidelined. The bout teaches everyone a lesson, but particularly Denham. Life is about more than the art of self-defense. Thackeray has, in fact, illustrated the more subtle and refined strength of humility. Through Denham, Thackeray wins back the respect of the entire class. He is invited to their farewell party; an invitation he cagily accepts.
On Saturday, Thackeray elects to meet the hearse carrying Seale’s mother on Juniper St., believing he will be the only attendee to extend such a kindness. Instead, he is utterly bewildered, and humbled to discover his entire class, properly dressed and mannered, turned out for the burial. That evening, the students gather for their final dance together; Pamela urging Thackeray to call her by her Christian name just this once and committing him to a slow dance. Weston is amazed by the transformation of the senior class. He even indulges in some homemade food prepared by Miss Peg. Once on the dance floor, Pamela reneges on her promise, forcing Thackeray to bring his dancing skills up to her speed. We hear a third reprise of the title song with slightly altered lyrics, the class presenting Thackeray with a present of their esteem; an engraved silver drinking cup. Overcome with emotion, Thackeray retires to his classroom without telling anyone except Gillian he has already accepted a position as third engineer with a local train manufacturer.  Thackeray’s moment of solitude does not last for too long; a pair of uncouth undergraduates (Kevin Hubbard, Sally Gosselin) bursting in and confronting Thackeray with the knowledge they will be his next educational assignment after the summer’s respite. Thackeray contemplates his future for a brief moment, removing the offer of employment from the train company from his breast pocket and tearing it up. He has found his niche as well as his chosen calling at last.
Fifty years later, To Sir With Love remains an affecting piece of cinema, despite its shortcomings and, primarily, because Sidney Poitier’s central performance is so undeniably heartfelt and sincere. Time has been kind, or perhaps, weathered the saccharine of the exercise, enough to expose its perennial appeal. The film really is all Poitier’s show and he gives us just about the greatest one man charmer of the decade.  In hindsight, the passionate men of integrity Poitier became typecast to play are an obvious bridge from the old ensconced social mores critiquing – and arguably, plaguing – black actors from a certain generation to our own present era, where their proliferation in roles as diverse as their Caucasian counterparts in the mainstream has become equally as commonplace. Poitier is a celebrated figure in this transformation of the cinema arts and rightly so. He reveals so much with just a single raised brow or penetrating stare projected into the audience. Is it any wonder his career soared to new heights in 1967; his popularity breaching racial boundaries?
The film is on less solid ground with James Clavell’s direction; his last plum assignment before effectively retiring; only to periodically resurface with marginal successes on television. In hindsight, To Sir With Love plays very much like television programming than a full-fledged movie; Clavell giving us the cinematic equivalent of an ABC ‘after school’ special. In some ways, To Sir With Love has always played better on television than it ever did inside a big movie house; Clavell’s concentration of static close-ups, indiscriminately inserted whenever and wherever to punctuate an actors’ reactions, a page ripped straight from the ‘how to’ handbook for a TV melodrama.  Paul Beeson’s cinematography effectively captures the grunge of London’s east end, a world apart from the socially affluent, enjoying their pleasures off Tottenham Court Road. In the final analysis, To Sir With Love retains a soft spot in our hearts not so much because we were all young once; rather, because most can recall at least one teacher from these formative years who made such a positive impact in their lives. Poitier’s Mark Thackeray is the right man for this job; the novice who quickly takes his job seriously and becomes entrenched in finding the goodness in his pupils. We all would wish for a Mark Thackeray in our lives.
Indicator/Powerhouse, a U.K. distributor, trump Twilight Time’s North American release of To Sir With Love; besting with a superior 1080p transfer (it’s slightly darker, but with vastly improved contrast and more accurate colors). There’s no skimping here. I have stated it in the past, but it bears repeating herein: Sony remains the only studio in Hollywood to have consistently maintained a high level of quality for all product released in hi-def. To Sir With Love is yet the latest benefactor of Grover Crisp’s enduring commitment to both the old Columbia library and the Blu-ray format. What a treat to see To Sir With Love looking so vibrant and rejuvenated in 1080p. Curious that TT’s release doesn’t sport the same transfer quality, given that its disc was presumably derived from Sony sanctioned digital files. But Indicator’s disc has better color and contrast. Regrettably, the main title sequence still looks as though it has been fed through a meat grinder; gritty, weak colors and poor contrast. Again, we are at the mercy of originally archived elements. I suspect these did not survive for a restoration. But immediately following the credits the image snaps together with startling clarity and color density. You’ll like what’s here for the most part. Contrast, on the whole is exceptional, and fine grain appears indigenous to its source. Colors are the biggest improvement on this transfer; bold, rich and eye-popping. Flesh tones, always a solid barometer by which to measure the integrity of color balancing, are very natural in appearance. We can see the minutest blemishes on skin, strands of hair and fiber in costuming as never before.
The original mono audio has been faithfully replicated in DTS 1.0; a good solid dialogue-driven track with nothing to complain about. Indicator’s extras are virtually identical to TT’s: an ‘isolated score’, a pair of audio commentaries, the first with Judy Geeson, TT’s founder, Nick Redman and film historian, Julie Kirgo; the other featuring author, E.R. Braithwaite and author/teacher Salome Thomas El. We get a few short subjects too: E.R. Braithwaite: In His Own Words; Lulu and the B-Side; Miniskirts, Blue Jeans and Pop Music; To Sidney with Love, and finally, Principal El: He Chose to Stay, plus the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: To Sir With Love is a great – if flawed – entertainment. This Blu-ray is tops and deserves consideration on everyone’s list of ‘must haves’. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


John Carpenter's CHRISTINE: Blu-ray reissue (Columbia 1983) Indicator/Powerhouse

Christine (1983) is the recipient of two formidable talents working at the peak of their powers: the first is author, Stephen King; the latter, director, John Carpenter, each a master of suspense in their respective medium; Carpenter, an undeniable artisan in crafting the spooky good chill. In an era before horror movies devolved into graphic illustrations of how many gruesome ways one deranged individual could split another deranged individual’s head open with an axe, Carpenter launched a valiant coup in defense of the genre, to prove to its pundits that ‘horror’ could be legitimatized, even elevated, to a fine, spine-tingling art, terrifying without turning off or bathing the front row theater seats in buckets of blood. For too many years before and since, the horror genre has endured unprecedented indignation from the B-meisters of schlock and silliness. After Universal’s initial introduction of the supernatural in the early 1930’s, even the studio that ostensibly ‘invented’ horror for the movies chose to turn simple fright into abject revulsion in order to perpetuate and promote its product. After Val Lewton’s cycle of success at RKO, psychological horror also took a backseat to the Hammer franchises of the late 1960’s; over-the-top grand guignol with a touch of Edgar Allen Poe or H.P Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. But by the early 1980’s, John Carpenter was facing even stiffer competition from the ‘slasher’ vein of horror; audiences tuning into the salaciousness of increasingly bloodier special effects to satisfy their appetite for fright.
Christine is the absolute antithesis of the slasher and quite possibly the last of its ilk, Carpenter holding tight to the precepts established in his Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980); sustained bone-chilling excursions; herein with less obvious, though no less exhilarating scares. Working from a screenplay by Bill Phillips, Carpenter’s changes to Stephen King’s monumental literary shocker are mostly made for concision. We lose the backstory about Christine’s possession; in the novel, the car harbors the evil spirit of her deceased first owner, Roland D. LeBay. But in the movie, Christine is simply imbued with an omnipotent demonic presence from day one of her inception; the only candy-apple red 1958 Plymouth Fury to roll off the assembly line from an otherwise uninspired lineup of ‘buckskin’ beige-finned beauties. As the real 58’ Fury was a rare breed, Carpenter and his Production Designer, Daniel A. Lomino turned to retrofitting 1957 Belvederes and Savoys to portray the malignant Plymouth. In all, twenty cars would be convincingly ‘made up’ to look the part. Only two would survive the many perils put forth by Christine’s arduous shoot.
Christine perfectly illustrates two maxims that most, toiling in the horror genre today, completely overlook; first, what you don’t see, eerily emerging in half-shadow, is far more effective at stirring unease, fear and loathing, than what is graphically revealed from a multitude of frenetically edited angles; and second, mood trumps action any day of the week. Christine is largely a series of impressions made in the editing process to evoke a looming sense of dread; Carpenter actually getting us to believe in an inanimate object with a soul – albeit, a malevolent one. Consider Carpenter’s handling of the murder of teen tyrant, Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), chased down a darkened backroad by Christine, recently engulfed in a hellish explosion at a gas station. A lesser director might have sent this raging automobile catapulting down the abandoned highway, giving us Repperton’s wild screams and a hideous cacophony of breaking bones as the ole girl rolls over her victim. 
Instead, Carpenter plies us with the gut-wrenching dread of the inevitable; effectively phasing out all sound effects except his unnerving, evenly paced and almost monochromatic stalking anthem (shades of Michael Myers’ music cues from Halloween), cutting from the lanky Repperton, fleeing on foot in his tight-fitted jeans and cowboy boots while gradually bringing up the orangey flicker of flames licking at his heels from out of the darkness along the tarmac as Christine steadily advances. She is inescapable; Repperton knows it, and so do we. She gains on him, but at a biding pace, perhaps even with a queerly feline indulgence; Carpenter cutting from a close-up of Repperton’s wide-eyed terrorization to a long shot of Christine casually passing by, the sudden appearance of a corpse emerging from beneath her fireball chaste and quietly sizzling on the asphalt, even more disturbing as she drives off without even so much as a hint of acceleration.  It’s the inexorableness of such sequences – and there are many in the movie – that make Carpenter’s excursion excruciating, if not impossible to sit through without at least a few hairs standing on end. Christine will destroy all who oppose; even more disturbingly, not out of hatred or a perfunctory sense of revenge, but an even more sightless loyalty – nee, love?!? – for her present owner, Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon).
If nothing else, Christine turned America’s love affair with the automobile – and its nostalgia craze for the fabulous fifties – on end; the sentiment given its death knell in the final moments of the movie as surviving cast members, Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul) and Det. Rudolph Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) quietly observe her trash-compacted wreckage exhibiting minor vibrations of life. “God, I hate rock and roll!” says Leigh. What is most impressive about Christine is Carpenter’s cleverly timed and released escalation of these anxious moments, achieved with just a few light touches and very limited special effects; Christine’s miraculous resurrection after Buddy and his motley crew of ne’er do wells have taken their sledgehammers and box-cutters to her, mostly done by shooting the destruction in reverse, then playing the film backwards (very effective) or the scene in which Repperton’s gang-banger wannabee, Moochie (Malcolm Danare) is cornered, then crushed to death by Christine inside a loading dock (staged by having the front end of a mockup strapped to a jitney); the event preceded by a rather blood-curdling moment of realization, as Moochie stumbles upon Christine inside a parking garage, disquieting echoes of Thruston Harris’ ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’ filling the night air as her V-8 engine stirs to a quiet rumble. It’s the build-up that counts; Carpenter intuitively acknowledging, that without it the payoff, - the murders themselves – don’t mean a thing.
If not for its supernatural elements of chrome-plated demonic possession, one could almost classify Christine as a suspense-laden thriller; Dennis and Leigh’s slow unraveling of the mystery behind the car and its hypnotic sway over Arnie (transformed from geek to sex object seemingly overnight by the car’s possessive jealousy and sycophantic adoration) playing very much like a traditional detective story with a fetishistic slant toward ménage à trois.  Much of Carpenter’s inspiration undeniably derives from Stephen King’s proses; the author’s cerebral descriptions of this possession of the car, a real page-turner. But such literary descriptions rarely equate to affecting competency on the movie screen. And yet, at some primal level, Carpenter manages to invite his audience into Christine’s ‘thinking processes’; the car as much a character as any derived from flesh and blood, and increasingly meant to dominate the movie’s landscapes with an unerring sense of tortuous trepidation. Wisely, Carpenter shoots a good deal of Christine under the cover of night. The effect is uncanny as, when witnessed by day, innocuously parked near the edge of a football field with Arnie, newly reincarnated as a pseudo-fifties greaser, she appears as little more than a very fine piece of vintage machinery from another bygone era in the evolution of the American automobile, when artistry in design counted for something.  It is only after dusk, with her headlamps piercing the perpetual fog loosely hanging in the air; her spooky green-glowing dashboard pulsating in an almost nuclear fission-esque radiance, that we can see – or rather, interpret – something is terribly wrong. This car has a mind and a will of its own.
Unlike Stephen King’s novel, our story begins in the present; high school pals, jock – Dennis Guilder and nerd, Arnold Cunningham having formed the unlikeliest of friendships. Under the extra football padding and cleats, Dennis is just an ordinary guy, empathetic to Arnie’s plight; his inability to fit in or get dates; constantly the brunt of a tortuous initiation by high school tough guy and greaser, Buddy Repperton and his gang of hooligans, who turn every shop class into a nightmare. Arnie is convinced his prospects would change if only he had a sweet ride; a chic magnet. But what Arnie becomes attracted to is Christine; a rotted out shell of a ’58 Fury, rusting in the overgrown backyard of George LeBay (Robert Blossoms). We get the Cole’s Notes overview of the car’s history from George; his late brother, Roland’s mad obsession with the car, even after the death of his wife and daughter inside it; his unerring devotion to Christine until he too was discovered dead in her front seat. It is an ominous precursor and a very bad omen. Only now, will she even start? Dennis doesn’t think so. But against Dennis’ better judgement, Arnie spends every last dollar to buy the car. He is promptly told by his overbearing mother and father Christine can’t stay in their driveway. So Arnie leases a bay at Will Darnell’s (Robert Prosky) Garage; a junkyard overflowing in spare parts Arnie takes advantage of these to restore Christine to her original brilliance. For Arnie, it is a labor of love; one Darnell mildly discourages, unless – of course, the kid is willing to put in some time after school and do chores around the garage.
At the homecoming football game, Dennis and Arnie are both drawn to head cheerleader, Leigh Cabot. Dennis becomes distracted during the final run and, as a result, gets tackled, cracking a few ribs. Meanwhile, Arnie and Leigh become an item. It is not lost on Dennis that Arnie has managed not only to resurrect Christine from the junkyards, but has also morphed himself from four-eyed nerd to a confident greaser with a macho attitude. That evening, Arnie takes Leigh for a ride in Christine to the local drive-in. It is pouring outside. Truth be told, Arnie isn’t particularly interested in watching the movie anyway. But his attempt at a seduction goes badly – or rather, awkwardly. Arnie is sincerely patient. But Christine is severely jealous. So, after Arnie leaves the car to buy some drinks, Christine – through supernatural powers never entirely explained away – attempts to cause Leigh to choke on her burger as Arnie helplessly watches; presumably, mimicking the fates befallen Roland LeBay’s wife and daughter. However, at the last possible moment, Leigh is saved from suffocating by a concerned stranger. Stunned after the incident, Leigh makes Arnie take her home.
However, Buddy Repperton and his boys are not about to let Arnie’s hard work and Christine’s miraculous transformation go quietly into the night. Breaking into Darnell’s Garage after Arnie has gone home for the night, Buddy and his gang lay waste to Christine with their sledgehammers, box-cutters and chains; slashing her carefully restored upholstery, shattering her headlamps, and decimating her transmission and tires. When Arnie arrives to take Christine out for a spin the next day with Dennis and Leigh in tow, he is wounded beyond all consolation either friend can provide. However, a short while later, while still mourning Christine’s loss, Arnie is stirred to notice the car calling to him. In response, Arnie stands before Christine and declares, “Show me.” The car rejuvenates before his very eyes; Christine reborn, only this time with a streak of revenge to exact against all who betrayed her.
A short while later, one of Repperton’s gang, Moochie Welch, is let off near an underpass after hitching a ride on a lonely road. He hears music echoing from a nearby underground garage and notices Christine, in showroom condition, parked nearby with her headlamps turned off. Nervously calling out to Arnie, the car instead revs its engine, pursuing Moochie to an isolated truck loading depot, forcing the front end of her grill into the bay and severing Moochie in half. In the novel, the act is much more vividly described. But John Carpenter has taken his cue, not from Stephen King, or even the Hammer horror films of yore, or even the burgeoning slasher market of ‘then’ today – rather, from the master of suspense; Alfred Hitchcock. We get the implication of a horrific death without actually being forced to squirm through it with blood and guts spewing into our laps. The next day, the school is agog with gossip about Moochie’s death; Arnie callously fluffing it off as just deserts. His cold-hearted pleasure is unsettling to Dennis, who suspects Arnie is perhaps responsible in some way. Challenging his friend, Dennis is somewhat relieved when Arnie confesses he had nothing to do with Moochie’s demise. In point of fact, he probably has not. For Christine is now feeding off of an energy charge more devilish than her obsessive love for Arnie.
Enter Police Det. Rudolph Junkins, suspicious of Arnie and Christine and applying pressure to get a rise out of Arnie. Alas, Arnie has an alibi for the time of Moochie’s murder – much to Dennis’ relief. Junkins isn’t buying it, however. The next night, while Junkins is keeping tabs on Arnie, Christine leaves Darnell’s Garage on her own power and pursues Buddy and his entourage, Richie Trelawney (Steven Tash) and Don Vandenberg (Stuart Charno) as they leave a bar and speed down a lonely highway. At some point, Buddy realizes they are being tailed and attempts to outrun the car, unaware it is Christine. His clumsy escape plan leads them to a dead end at an out-of-the-way filling station. Getting out of his car, Buddy is incensed, realizing the vehicle is Christine. With her windows blacked out, he naturally assumes Arnie is behind the wheel and threatens him with bodily harm. Now, Christine rams Buddy’s car, killing his two cohorts instantly and causing a gas main to rupture. The fuel ignites and the station blows up in a hellish ball of flame. Buddy cannot believe his eyes; more so, as Christine emerges from the firestorm as a ball of flame and pursues him down the open road, eventually catching up to, and running him over.
Sometime later, Christine returns to Darnell’s Garage, smoldering from her near incineration. Darnell witnesses her pulling into the bay. Touching the driver’s side door handle, Darnell is momentarily burned by the heat, but still elects to open the door with the aid of a rag; discovering the interior virtually unscathed by the flames that have blackened the still sizzling exterior paint. He sits in the driver’s seat. Christine’s radio springs to life and Darnell’s body is crushed between the seat and steering wheel. The next day, Arnie discovers Det. Junkins and the police investigating Darnell’s suspicious death; the body still slumped in the front seat, only now, with Christine’s paint job as good as new, showing no ill after effects of her explosive previous night’s excursions. Once again, Arnie cannot be directly implicated in the crime. But Junkins is beginning to formulate a picture of what has been going on. So has Dennis, who informs Leigh of his plan to save Arnie from himself. Christine must be destroyed. The plan set, Dennis and Leigh make their way to Darnell’s Garage where Dennis hotwires a bulldozer he intends to use to crush Christine. The plan is for Leigh to wait in Darnell’s office and shut the loading bay door after Christine arrives. Alas, the car has outsmarted the humans; already present and lying in wait under a pile of camouflaged junk. As Leigh approaches the office, Christine lunges toward her. Leigh barely escapes being run over and Christine smashes her front fender against one of the garage’s sturdy cement pillars. While she rejuvenates, Dennis tries to get the bulldozer to spring into action. His difficulties in jump-starting the vehicle allow Christine a second try for Leigh. She plows into Darnell’s office only moments before Leigh manages an escape. Arnie is thrown from Christine’s windshield onto her hood, seemingly unconscious.
However, as Leigh approaches, Arnie suddenly rises up to grab her by the hair. Only then, do both of them realize Arnie has been mortally impaled on a protruding shard of glass from Christine’s windshield. He dies and Leigh, believing the ordeal is at an end, stumbles from the office toward Dennis and the bulldozer. However, Christine is now angrier than ever and determined to kill both Leigh and Dennis. Her attacks are thwarted as Dennis manages to get the bulldozer up and running. While pinning Christine in her place, Dennis rides over her with his heavy treads, effectively crushing the Fury to death. We cut to a shot of Christine emerging from a compactor at Darnell’s junkyard, crumpled and compressed into a cube. Alas, as Arnie, Leigh and Det. Junkins look on, a loose piece of metal begins to creak and separate from the cube, perhaps suggesting Christine is not finished with her reign of terror yet.
At its core, Christine taps into our fundamental curiosity and need to explore the realms of anthropomorphism, once traditionally ascribed only to other living creatures, but more recently accredited to non-animate objects in our modern and post-modern world. Christine’s closest cousin is actually TV’s utterly silly and short-lived sitcom, My Mother, The Car (1965-66); highlighting the possession of a 1928 Porter by the new owner’s late matriarch. Interestingly, the parallels between Christine and My Mother, The Car goes eerily beyond this mere reference; the male protagonist in both instances, inexplicably drawn to a dilapidated vehicle rusting away in a junkyard, taken over by a decidedly overbearing female presence who then proceeds to create havoc in his life. In the case of My Mother, The Car, the situations derived are strictly for laughs, perhaps, only mildly unsettling to the man’s romantic ambitions. In Christine’s case, the car’s female presence will not rest until her male owner has been absorbed and destroyed by her jealousy.
I have read far too many movie reviews about the implausibility of Christine. In its defense, lest we forget it is a horror movie. Name me a single offering from this genre that makes sense; the bulk of our post-modern mangled horror movies perversely relying on the over-simplified premise of scantily clad college coeds and/or oversexed teens fit to be Ginsu-ed by a homicidal maniac with a knife, a power drill, a sledgehammer, a chainsaw…yada, yada, yada; take your pick of flesh and bone dislocating implements. As such, I have the deepest admiration for John Carpenter’s early works in general, and Christine in particular. If nothing else, it is a welcomed departure from the norm. With Christine, Carpenter bucks a trend he ostensibly started with Halloween, The Fog, and, The Thing (1982). Carpenter’s vintage horror is always far more intelligently conceived, emerging with allegoric undertones that most critics casually – and rather callously – overlook, perhaps, because it is too easy – and even more fashionable – to simply dismiss horror in totem as gauche. Yet, in Christine we get a rather ominous foreshadowing of man’s dependence on technology; his inability to conceive evil in a form he, himself, has willed out of steel and spark plugs on the assembly line; the master unknowingly at the mercy of the machine he has created – shades of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?!? For what is a car, if not stitched and soldered together from spare parts?
And Carpenter has managed to give the twenty some inanimate automobiles used in the filming of Christine a singular and wicked comportment. To do this, he needs an audience able to project menace filtering from Christine’s glowing headlamps; our capacity to sense her demonic soul lurking beneath the hood, almost whispering in hypnotic tongues and voices from under the revving hum of her V-8 engine. Yet, only part of Christine’s manifestation can be credited to our own imaginations. Rather, it is Carpenter who plies us with a rather terrific and fairly concrete sense of some otherworldly apparition trapped within this metal shell. His ability to define evil in tangible terms; to parcel it off in deliberate properties with calculating menace while maintaining equilibrium and legitimacy, is enviable; both to Stephen King’s novel, even as it taps into our collective fear of the unknown. Hitchcock similarly took a flock of innocuous and commonplace seagulls in The Birds (1963) and made them appear as the epitome of our own dread and transgressions against nature. With Christine, Carpenter illustrates a similar template for man’s casual disregard of the classic American automobile, herein simply a hunk of metal with seats and a steering column to get us from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. To this inoffensive and utilitarian vehicle by design, Carpenter applies Stephen King’s intangible precepts of demonic possession in such a way as to allow the invisible to become fairly translucent – if not, entirely solid – on the movie screen. Why do we fear Christine? It’s still just a car with brighter than average headlamps and a slight bit of steam emanating from under the hood. Why is this scary? Perhaps, because Carpenter, unlike King in all his lurid prose, has lured the intangible improbability of demonic possession from its shapeless and darkened recesses. The car lives, is dangerous and hell-bent on controlling the hand that built it.
There is also a sexual underlay to this prospect, as yet undiscussed; the buffing, waxing, caressing that goes into a true car aficionados’ primary care; the proper feeding of its internal combustion with the right oil and premium gas; the implied sensuality achieved with the turning of heads to admire a well-looked after roadster, cruising smoothly down the boulevard.  Carpenter gives us all of these fetishistic amours that most any guy, even one casually interested in fast cars, can instantly relate to with the vehicle of his choice. The trick is in tearing all that fastidiousness and respect for an elegant ride asunder; Carpenter affording us the minor rumblings of something more hellacious afoot before unleashing the terror in parceled off increments that steadily ratchet up our loathing for even the concept we could ever ‘become attached’ to a car – as though it might one day be able to turn around and love us back. With Christine, love turns to obsession with a twist of the key in the ignition. In Christine, change equates to death and murder and obsessive lust – the car warping its human element to satisfy…what? A need? Again, what does a car need except the occasional wash and wax, and, frequent trips to the gas pump and lube station to keep her roadworthy? In Christine’s case, there remains a highly unconventional attachment to the strong hand at the wheel; or rather, a weak hand easily manipulated into believing in its own authority, long enough to be exploited by the car to her own purpose. In this revelation, Carpenter’s Christine is as much an exploration of one-sided control in any relationship and the unhealthy exertions that result when one partner is unwilling to let the other go without a fight to the finish, or in Christine’s case – the scrapyard.
After finally come around to giving North American audiences a main stream release of Christine in 1080p in 2015, U.K. distributor, Indicator/Powerhouse Films has bested virtually all previous incarnations of Carpenter’s classic with a new Blu-ray release. Why? Because Indicator’s reissue is ‘region free,’ has all the goodies imported from previous Blu releases and is NOT a limited edition. Dirty little secret: this ‘newly minted’ 1080p Blu-ray sports the same hi-def transfer as all of its predecessors, but with the added bonus of containing an isolated score, denied Sony’s mainstream release, but previously available on Twilight Time’s region A locked disc that was out of print practically from the moment it streeted. In North America, Sony inexplicable went the route of licensing this popular catalog title first to third-party distributor Twilight Time as a ‘limited edition’ in the fall of 2013 where it rapidly sold out. Rumors then swirled, TT would get a second bite at the proverbial apple. But Sony reneged and did the deed themselves. Now Indicator is poised to steal everyone’s thunder.
Inexplicably, and many review sights advertise this reissue as Region B. It’s not. It’s ‘region free’. Not only do I own the disc, but I have conferred with a rep from Indicator who assures me all future releases by them will also be ‘region free’. And so, Christine comes to Blu-ray with a much wider and infinitely more cost-effective general release that will certainly please. Bottom line: you’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with Christine on Blu-ray; the image supports some excellent detail, clarity and depth. The early scenes, presumably set in the sweltering summer of 1958 when Christine was born, were shot on Fuji film stock to take advantage of its richer sepia tones. The sequences photographed by Donald M. Morgan at night tend to look a little less than superb, marginally flatter than anticipated; I suspect, owing to vintage 80’s film stocks and not the fault of this transfer.  The 5.1 DTS audio mix provides a subtler upgrade to the original 2.0 DTS – both included for consideration herein. Dynamic range is excellent regardless of which option is chosen with Carpenter’s atmospheric underscore and George Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’ the real beneficiaries. Dialogue is clean and crisp. Finally, there are the extras to consider: a trio of informative featurettes, all of them ported over from Sony’s old SE-DVD. 

We get interviews with cast, crew and Carpenter. These featurettes have appeared on virtually every hi-def incarnation of Christine since, as well as a rather engaging audio commentary with Keith Gordon and Carpenter. Bottom line: Christine holds up. Since it was always somewhat leaning toward a ‘period piece’ – what, with Carpenter’s affinity for the fifties, using pop tunes from that decade as affecting backdrop – not much about the movie has dated since 1983; even the clothes and hair styles remaining analogously true to the decade, yet not slavishly so. Well, okay – maybe the track shoes and gym socks with the red stripes. Otherwise, Christine revs up as a solid night of chills without the bloodletting. Carpenter did his homework back then. Thirty-plus years into the future, and time has not diminished his contributions. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)