Sunday, April 30, 2017

A FAREWELL TO ARMS: Blu-ray (Selznick/2oth Century-Fox 1957) Kino Lorber

Let’s face it, by the time veteran producer extraordinaire, David O. Selznick undertook the Herculean task to remake Ernest Hemingway’s immortal tale of love and war – A Farewell to Arms (1957) he hadn’t made a picture in nearly nine years. It shows - the creakiness in Selznick’s scope and candor negatively impacting an already popularized work of fiction, regarded by many in the same reverence and hushed tones as The Holy Bible (or Gone With The Wind…); Selznick and his favorite screenwriter, Ben Hecht doing their utmost to add girth, stature and cinematic merit to Hemingway’s prose (not needed) but perhaps occasionally wanting, given Hemingway’s approach to the novel. Indeed, so much of the epic quality of the novel occurs in the reader’s mind; Hemingway calculatingly structuring the high water marks in his prose around a series of decisions and plot points merely inferred rather than spelled out with interminable descriptions. Astutely, this makes A Farewell to Arms exceptionally fine literature, open to interpretation – both vast and peculiar; more than a dollop of both these un-endearing qualities on display in Selznick’s weepy. Only this time it’s the critics left to their handkerchiefs and hand-wringing. Realistically, all Selznick and Hecht have done is re-interpreted Hemingway their way. It doesn’t work, chiefly because the choices made are teetering on the verge of that same crying gag I once made while studying the book in my second year English class – A Farewell to Arms, an introduction to legs…other appendages optional. It didn’t go over well then and sure as hell does not fly in the face of Hemingway’s literary auteurs, even by 1957’s melodramatic standards. Lest we forget, ’57 was the year of Peyton Place, An Affair to Remember, and Raintree County; MGM’s gala days in Dixie Southern reply to Selznick’s more fondly recalled Southern masterpiece.
In 1918 Ernest Hemingway went off to war. In 1929 he published a book about it. In only his second work, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms spoke to a generation still reeling from the aftermath of WWI. Critically, it was a blistering account of separation and personal sacrifice. Selznick’s reconstitution of it makes valiant strides to bottle this fragile thread bareness of love turned asunder by fate and the unanticipated tragedies of war.  But the real problem with the movie - Selznick isn’t so much interested in re-making A Farewell to Arms as in recapturing the glories of GWTW, right down to this picture’s main title sequence; bold, emblazoned script dramatically trailing from left to right across the Cinemascope expanse, set against a background of stills and location footage shot by his second unit, in and around the Italian Alps. Selznick’s other blunder is casting his second wife, Jennifer Jones as the tragic heroine, nurse Catherine Barkley. Indeed, he was more blind than usual regarding Jones' participation herein. When Hemingway learned of this casting decision, and was equally informed by Selznick he would receive a $50,000 bonus from any profits derived from the picture, the Nobel Laureate wired back his considerable disdain, adding, “If, by some chance your movie, which features the 38-year-old Mrs. Selznick as 24-year-old Catherine Barkley, does succeed in earning $50,000, my suggestion to you is that you take all the money to the local bank, have it converted into nickels, and then shove them up your ass until they come out your mouth."
Ever since Selznick had wooed Jones away from her first husband, Robert Walker in the mid-1940's, he had plotted with Svengali-esque precision to will a career for her on par with the great ladies of the movie screen. It never happened, and this despite Jones’ first time out Oscar win for 1944’s The Song of Bernadette. Selznick saw Jones as the perfect putty by which he could create a star. Alas, Selznick’s folly was his devotion to Jones; his elephantine western, Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948); expensive blunders meant to add cache to Jones’ career and name as an ‘above the title’ star of the first magnitude, rife for money-making loan outs elsewhere.  And while Jones would continue to appear in such high-profile movies as Madame Bovary (1949), and, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1953 and likely her best), she never found her footing on such hallowed earth already occupied by the likes of other divas who had done it all on their own. Selznick left Paramount in 1932, just as the studio was preparing its own expensive production of A Farewell to Arms. Perhaps this accounted for his verve now to top director, Frank Borzage’s minor effort then, costarring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. Alas, the rights to the property since were held at Warner Bros.; the studio desperate to release their own 1954 remake of Selznick’s original non-musical, A Star is Born in the foreign markets. As Selznick still retained the copyright for ‘Star’ a deal was struck, whereupon WB would relinquish rights to A Farewell to Arms in trade for Selznick’s release of the rights to A Star is Born in Europe. In retrospect, the really big problem for Selznick is Jennifer Jones: thirty-eight and looking at least six years older – and ‘in Cinemascope’; hardly the ingénue whom Hemingway describes as naïve, dynamic and beguiling. At times, Jones can look like her head’s been used for a punching bag; her whisky drawl as though some well-intended diction coach has just inserted too many marbles into her mouth for the recital. It’s rather embarrassing to watch Jones leaning over a shirtless Rock Hudson splayed across his hospital bed, whispering sweet nothings in his ear, one high-heeled foot lazily rocking back and forth like the stocking-sheathed pendulum of a clock; meant, I suppose to convey at least a hint of the couple’s ardor.
As for Rock Hudson; by 1957 he had miraculously established himself as a cut above the other ‘young finds’ of the 1950’s; firm hunks du jour with more chiseled sex appeal than craftsmanship behind their bods. Hudson had, in fact, delivered high caliber performances in Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Giant (1956), the latter for which he received an Oscar-nomination as Best Actor. And Hudson would continue to hone his craft well into the 1960s, even after his ‘stud factor’ began to cool; a testament to other drawing powers at the box office. Alas, A Farewell to Arms does Hudson no favors. For one thing, the character of Lt. Frederick Henry is immobilized almost at the start of our story; gallantly wounded in both legs by shrapnel, leaving Hudson to emote some of his most ardent love-making from a horizontal disadvantage. Worse, Selznick and Hecht have concocted an utterly idiotic ‘screwball’ moment to set up this second act; Henry carted off to the military hospital, repeatedly dropped, dumped and otherwise manhandled by a semi-lucid/semi-drunk orderly; bounced from stretcher to elevator, and finally, to bed; Hudson enduring the indignation with a few scripted bitter outbursts that neither ingratiate his character to the audience nor create a sense of legitimacy for the times and severity as inferred throughout Hemingway’s novel. Hudson’s ambulance driver is the least convincing cardboard cutout of the lot, incapable of adding any emotional dimension to these windswept and war-torn landscapes, the real drama of war neither reflected in his eyes or mirrored in any of his actions. One can almost hear director, Charles Vidor shouting through a megaphone as though he were directing a silent movie, “Okay, Rock. Now you want to cry. But you don’t. You run for the bridge. Run, Rock, run!”
It is possible Selznick had already tired of the project even before a single strip of film was shot; his passion understandably dampened after his first choice of director, John Huston, refused to kowtow to his essential demands. Even before that, Selznick had undergone the humiliating experience of having to beg for sponsorship to the majors. In his prime, Selznick would have merely snapped his fingers at MGM or simply taken the reins at Selznick International; finding financing from partner, Jock Whitney to write the necessary checks. But MGM, while generally interested in the property after losing the bidding war to make Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was in the death throes of yet another corporate management shake-up. Without L.B. Mayer to point to as his arch nemesis, Loewe’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenck quickly learned from his stockholders the real blame for Metro’s dwindling cash flow now squarely rested at his shoulders. Depending on the source consulted Schenck either ‘retired’ or was quietly asked to ‘resign’. Either way, MGM’s interest to finance A Farewell to Arms abruptly ended with his departure. Selznick then turned to 2oth Century-Fox, having already put their money behind Darryl F. Zanuck’s indie-produced movie of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1957). Only now it was John Huston wasting a good deal of Selznick’s preliminary budget tinkering with Hecht’s script (it needed it); also, with plans of doing ‘something else’ with what he had been offered.  If Selznick’s zeal for A Farewell to Arms had waned, then his usual caustic nature to stand his ground on matters of good taste did not. Firing off a lengthy memo to Huston – essentially to force him off the project – Selznick went after Charles Vidor to replace him. And although Vidor and Selznick worked well together back in the day, their relationship on the set of A Farewell to Arms was acrimonious at best.      
Determined to add stature to his $4,353,000 opus magnum, Selznick insisted on shooting the picture half-way around the world on location in the Italian Alps, Venzone in the Province of Udine in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, and Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Yet, for all his endeavors to achieve verisimilitude on the screen, Selznick would quickly discover not even all those dramatically blood-stained, burning, muddy and snow-capped Alpine peaks could detour the viewer from recognizing both the script and central performers were trivial, apathetic and mortifying; not only to the reputation of the novel, but their own, as purveyors of better art seen to its best advantage elsewhere. Worse, the picture relied almost surreptitiously on the audience having already read the novel to help fill in the blanks between infrequent fades to black – the emotional significance of whole chapters in Hemingway’s novel left open-ended on the screen or worse, substituted with scenes of less dramatic ballast and intensity to help trundle out, but then betray their memories held dear, though never to materialize on the screen. 
After its faux GWTW main titles, set to Mario Nascimbene’s rather sour and nondescript underscore, A Farewell To Arms settles on the return of Lt. Frederick Henry (Rock Hudson); an American officer serving in the ambulance corps for the Italian Army during World War I. Henry’s a scamp, attested by the lusty glances he gets from prostitutes leaning out of the upstairs windows above the local saloon; also, from the adoring, almost homoerotic gazes he receives from, Major Alessandro Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica) who openly wishes to possess, or at least feed off of the stamina, looks and youth Henry currently possesses in spades. Nevertheless, Rinaldi is a pretty wily bastard in his own right with a string of conquests as long as his…well…we’ll leave that to providence, and, much to the amused chagrin of Father Galli (Alberto Sordi). Rinaldi shares his latest discovery with Henry, a gorgeous Brit-born nurse, Catherine Barkley, newly arrived to commit herself to the cause. The men make their short sojourn to the hospital where Henry becomes almost immediately smitten with Catherine. She is seemingly less than interested in him; exalting the memory of her dead fiancée and later, throwing a rather awkward temper tantrum, slapping Henry’s face as he makes his advances, apologizing profusely for the insult, then suffering a minor breakdown during an impromptu thunderstorm. She hates the rain – go figure. Henry is called to drive his ambulance up a perilous winding road along the Alpine ledges to tend to the wounded and dying fighting not so very far off. Instead, the enemy launches a counteroffensive; one of the mortar shells landing nearby and severely wounding him in the legs. Henry is rushed into surgery and later tended to by Catherine who finds him suddenly more attractive than irksome. A clandestine romance begins to blossom, right under the nose of hospital matron, Miss Van Campen (Mercedes McCambridge) and ably abetted by fellow nurse, Helen Ferguson (Elaine Stritch in a sort of Eve Arden-styled ‘His Girl Friday’ part – tucking bottles of wine into her uniform and playing devil’s advocate with the stringent Van Campen).   
Despite the rules, Henry and Catherine are clandestinely wed, though not before Van Campen catches the pair in their duplicity. Vindictively, she signs papers attesting to Henry’s full recovery. And while he is not exactly invalided, Henry is far from ready for active duty. Nevertheless, he is forced to the front; Van Campen seeing to it Catherine is ousted from her position at the hospital. Catherine reveals to Ferguson she is carrying Henry’s child. Living obscurely, Catherine waits for news of her beloved’s survival – or otherwise. Alas, in her fragile condition and during their separation, Catherine comes to believe Henry might have taken the easy road and abandoned her for good. Following the hellish and demoralizing Battle of Caporetto, Henry and Rinaldi do all they can to assist the fleeing locals. The exodus is fraught with casualties; people beaten into the mud and to the point of extinction. At some point, Rinaldi begins to lose his grip on reality, chanting vial retribution for those allowing these brutalities to go on. His dissention is duly noted, and, before long, Rinaldi is ushered into a military-styled tribunal and court-martialed without even being allowed to plead his case. Appalled by Rinaldi’s execution by firing squad, Henry attempts to broker favor with the tribunal. He too is sentenced to death, but manages instead to create a disturbance and flee to relative safety by jumping off a bridge into the frigid muddy waters far below. Wanted for desertion, Henry manages to reunite with Ferguson as the hospital is preparing its own evacuation at the train depot. Alas, Van Campen’s hatred for him has not mellowed with time. She attempts to call Henry out as a deserter. Once again, Henry manages a narrow escape, eventually resurfacing at Catherine’s apartment door.
Ecstatic to find him alive, Catherine bundles her beloved off to a lakeside resort bordering Italy and Switzerland. Yet, even here the authorities will likely search for him. And so, Catherine persuades Henry to steal a rowboat under the cover of night. Through a hellish rainstorm and near capture by the Italian boat patrol, Catherine and Henry manage their daring escape, resurfacing at a tiny resort on the Swiss side. Their fears of being sent back are allayed when the local constabulary, upon examining their passports, welcomes them as ‘tourists’ rather than refugees. Catherine’s pregnancy progresses. For a brief wrinkle in time, the couple’s bliss seems assured. She gives birth to what appears to be a healthy baby boy under Dr. Emerich’s (Oskar Homolka) kindly care. But only several hours later, Henry learns his newborn son has died and Catherine too now hovers on the edge of death. Powerless to prevent the inevitable, Henry remains at his wife’s bedside until she expires; departing the room with a look far more shell-shocked than anything ever experienced in war. As he wanders aimlessly through the empty streets at dusk, Henry recalls the few fleeting moments of happiness they shared together. Such is life, the dream remembered, and the promises of more never to be.
A Farewell to Arms really ought to be considered more of a belated ‘farewell to David O. Selznick’ or rather, a bittersweet goodbye to that mantel of quality for which the producer, both at Selznick International, and the various other studios where he created movie magic, was best known.  Ironically, there is nothing in A Farewell to Arms to even hint at Selznick’s fastidiousness, nor even his verve to succeed and will from the ruins another golden epoch. Selznick sold distribution of the picture for a cool million to Fox. But he was greatly depressed by its underwhelming performance at the box office. It made money – just barely. With the loss of his mother in 1959, Selznick turned his attentions toward adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night for Fox. He owed them another picture. But the project stymied after Cary Grant delayed, then reneged on accepting the role of Dick Diver. Meanwhile, Spyros P. Skouras, then in charge, further informed Selznick that due to his most recent snafu with British exhibitors, he would not be allowed to progress any further beyond preparing the screenplay for Tender is the Night; a deal ironed out for his services thus far and the loan out of Jennifer Jones to costar. Reluctantly, Selznick agreed. But he never entirely forgave Skouras this intervention. In the fall, Selznick elected to attend a special ‘anniversary’ screening of GWTW in Atlanta, along with Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. Their joyful reunion was marginally offset by Clark Gable’s untimely death. But Selznick was greatly invigorated by the prestige of the evening and resounding applause and notoriety that followed the screening – a sort of vindication his particular brand of entertainment had not lost its ability to remain perennially fresh and relevant with audiences.
But for Selznick, the worst was yet to follow: Tender is the Night proving a disaster. And although Richard Zanuck pledged to make a sequel to Gone With The Wind, affording Selznick his usual level of involvement, it was by now clear to Selznick the time had come for him to face semiretirement with dignity. The mood in Hollywood had remained optimistic during the early sixties; the decided chill brought on by Fox’s titanic $40 million dollar investment in Cleopatra (1962) yet to attain its full fiscal fallout. And Selznick, having grown exceptionally weary of the industry he neither toiled in successfully or even, for that matter, was entirely certain he understood anymore, reluctantly sold off the last of his controlling interests in Gone With The Wind to MGM; the studio wasting no time to reformat the picture for a brand new ‘widescreen’ revival. On the surface, Selznick and Jones portrayed a couple at leisure and at peace. But behind closed doors they were fast becoming broke; job offers for the actress practically nonexistent and Selznick already having burned through most of the moneys paid to him for GWTW’s licensing. On June 22, 1965, Selznick, greatly buoyed by the success of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (a moment to vindicate his own ambitions to make yet another frothy/glossy entertainment he loved best) began talks with Henry Luce in New York regarding ‘possible ventures’. It was too little too late; Selznick, suddenly departing from their discussion, complaining of chest pains and rushed to Cedars of Sinai Hospital where he died at 2:30pm. He was only 65 years old.
In the years since Selznick’s passing many an entrepreneurial spirit has come and gone through the Hollywood gristmill; some sporting the same temperament and level of ambition as a David O. Selznick; others, arguably, an analogous parallel of his genius – though never both qualities embodied in one man simultaneously. It ought to be pointed out it takes both virtuosity and showmanship to produce a classic. Selznick, often bashed today as a meddlesome interloper who ‘prevented’ talents superior to his own – like Alfred Hitchcock - from triumphing in their own particular soil of good taste, is as absurd a notion as to suggest Gone With The Wind could have been made at MGM or anywhere else without Selznick’s daily – sometimes hourly – investment of tireless energies to rein in the creatives, keep them motivated, but also keeping them honest and focused. Lest we remember, MGM tried to resurrect the legacy of a GWTW with Raintree County – a colossal misfire; ditto for television’s ambitious stab at a sequel to GWTW with Scarlett – the 1994 miniseries attempting to pick up where ‘the wind’ had left off. And Selznick, who had toiled longer, harder and with far more reasons to fail than succeed on ‘Wind’ only to prove his most ardent detractors wrong in the months following its triumphant Atlanta premiere and Oscar-sweeping success, had taken his message to the streets – or rather, the University of Rochester in 1940 where he spoke not only about the intangibles faced within the film-making process, but also his innate love for it, the passion to see good films being made in Hollywood and as positively received and revered around the world.
A Farewell to Arms is undeniably not among this cherished back catalog of Selznick memories – nor does it deserve to be. What a downer! What a shame! But its lackluster appreciation should never negate the high praise, and even loftier hopes for the future Selznick imparted to the graduating class on that sweltering hot afternoon: “To you, who feel the burning urge to influence the modes and manners, the social and political ideologies of the future through the medium of the motion picture…I say, Here is a challenge. Here is a frontier that is and always will be crying for the courage and the energy and the genius of American youth. Here is the Southwest Passage to fame and fortune and influence. Here is the El Dorado of the heart, the soul and the mind.” And so it has remained, of the millions of miles in celluloid exposed, a handful of stories, men and women, destined to be remembered for as long as youth endures and people are left to remember them. I miss the likes of a David O. Selznick - terribly so. For there has been virtually nothing like the man on Hollywood’s horizon since. Perhaps, his like shall not pass this way again. More’s the pity then, as now, for the days ahead and we who continue to dream in, of, about, and, for the Hollywood that was, never was, or rather, might possibly come around, if only the dreams we dared to dream really did come true.
A Farewell to Arms has supposedly received a new 4K restoration. At least, that is what Kino Lorber’s back packaging of the newly released Blu-ray suggests. But the results are regrettably far from perfect. For starters, I do not see signs that any sort of substantial color correction has been applied to nurse these elements back from a fairly deplorable state of vinegar syndrome. Flesh tones are the most egregious transgressors throughout; rarely looking anything close to natural; at times, adopting a garish orange palette while at others looking fairly jaundice. A Farewell to Arms was shot in Cinemascope with color by DeLuxe. Even so, it should not look half this anemic, especially since the picture has rarely been taken out of mothballs since its theatrical release. Yet, overall, the image suffers from a muddy palette of colors; reds appearing more brownish/orange than true red, grey leaning to a dull grey/beige, and blues often more grey or even blackish than blue. Every so often, color snaps together for a brief moment or two. We get some suggestion of what the Alpine landscape must have looked like, with bold green foliage on display. But even the white snow-capped mountains appear dull and dirty in this transfer. The hot searing flames as Caporetto is burned to the ground look more flat pinkish/orange than yellow and bright. Curiously, film grain appears to have been slightly homogenized. Contrast is weaker than anticipated. The image is free of age-related artifacts, but at this point who really cares? What is on display here is flat, pasty and unappealing from start to finish, the candlelit subtleties in Oswald Morris, Piero Portalupi and James Wong Howe’s cobbled together cinematography wholly obscured by this uninspiring visual presentation. The 2.0 DTS audio is satisfactory, if never remarkable; dialogue front and center and Mario Nascimbene’s orchestrations achieving considerable bombast and, occasionally, impressive clarity. There are no extra features included. Bottom line: pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

HOW TO STEAL A MILLION: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1966) Twilight Time

Generally speaking, it is never a good idea to begin any movie review with gushing praise. After all, where is the incentive for reading beyond the byline? But I cannot help it. I absolutely adore the movies of William Wyler; an extension of my admiration for the man himself. The word ‘artist’ gets bandied about so often these days it has all but lost its potency as a signifier of ‘genius’. But Wyler was quite simply that; intuitive and methodical, exacting, yet precise, earning him the nickname ‘40-take Wyler.’ Yet, for all his magnitude as an artiste, Wyler’s methods for achieving such diverse cinematic greatness often left his actors nonplussed; Wyler, intensely focused behind the camera, listening with pricked ears, only to mutter “again” or “it stinks!” as the voice of…ahem…‘encouragement’. Even so, actors never resented him. “The only answer I have,” Charlton Heston once speculated, “…is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it. Your faith in his taste and what it will do for your performance is what makes casting a Wyler picture a cinch...doing a film for Wyler is like getting the works in a Turkish bath. You darn near drown, but you come out smelling like a rose.” Chuck likely knew of whence he spoke, having taken home the little gold bald guy for his titanic performance in Wyler’s multi-Oscar-winning Ben-Hur (1959).
Now, personally, I put very little weight in the annual Oscar horse race. Too many great talents have never been honored. Nevertheless, over the course of his illustrious career, Wyler was bestowed the accolade of twelve nominations for direction, thirteen for Best Picture. Fourteen actors have won Academy Awards under his direction; a record perhaps only rivaled by Wyler’s ambition to always reinvent and challenge himself, making at least one movie in virtually every genre except ‘horror’, while keeping the core values of his film-making technique close at hand. As Wyler, who by 1966, the year he made the erudite romantic caper/comedy, How To Steal a Million was entering the emeritus years of a long and industrious career, could look back upon his Hollywood tenure with rose-colored glasses; a potpourri as richly varied as it was soon to reap universal praise from both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as the American Film Institute. Yet, there was little about Wyler’s arrival in Los Angeles in 1923 to suggest he would become renowned for box office-bankable literary adaptations and wartime melodramas of the highest order.
Indeed, hired by Universal Studios, basically as a grunt, Wyler was fired for frequently cutting out to play pool and organizing poker games on the company’s time. Yet, Wyler’s 3 Oscar wins as Best Director of three as noteworthy Best Pictures (Mrs. Miniver, 1943, The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946, and the aforementioned Ben-Hur, 1959) still holds a record. Hence, by the time Wyler settled in to shoot How To Steal a Million, he had lived and learned a lot about his technique and people; his volatile affair with Bette Davis – the leading lady whom he coached and coaxed through three of her most memorable outings (Jezebel, 1938; The Letter, 1940 and, The Little Foxes, 1941) leaving no lasting scars or bitter remorse for his admiration of the star. “It was all Wyler,” Davis would later offer, “I had known all the horrors of no direction and bad direction. I now knew what a great director was,” she reflected in 1971, “…and what he could mean to an actress. I will always be grateful to him for his toughness and his genius.” Almost miraculously, Wyler remained humble and circumspect about his own contribution to making movies. “It’s eighty percent script,” he once explained, “…and twenty percent great actors. There’s nothing else to it!”
How to Steal a Million stars another Wyler favorite; Audrey Hepburn, who had already won her Oscar in another Wyler masterpiece, Roman Holiday (1950). And although Hepburn is as always, rather luminous in ‘Million’, there is little here to suggest she is on her way to another Academy Award for this performance. Even so, Audrey positively glows as Nicole Bonnet; a winsome and fashion-savvy ingénue, immaculately tricked out in stunning sixties mod-chic haute couture, exclusively designed for her by Hubert de Givenchy. In retrospect, How To Steal a Million is deceptively featherweight; a candied bon-bon of the romantic comedy with the great Peter O’Toole (as Simon Dermott) trading his usual severity for being ‘a serious actor’, instead taking a rather handsome and jaunty spree as the amiable romantic fop, increasingly in love with the daughter of a fraudulent art dealer (played with jovial aplomb by Hugh Griffith).  Wyler’s pacing throughout How To Steal a Million is palliated to downright glacial, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, owing to the sublime chemistry between his two stars, who first ‘meet cute’ under the cover of night; she, in a sexy slip, after being spooked from reading Hitchcock’s bio and he, in a tuxedo no less, about to steal a paint sample for analysis from one of her father’s forged Van Goghs hanging in the parlor; Wyler gets precisely the uber-elegance and poise he wants and needs to concoct his class ‘A’ sexy screwball.       
Based on a story idea by George Bradshaw, Harry Kurnitz’s screenplay is an exercise in urbanity; the wry witticisms laid end to end that, in Hepburn and O’Toole’s competent care and diction, fairly ooze highborn sex appeal. Told by Hepburn’s Nicole, after she has already inflicted a flesh wound with one of her father’s vintage pistols, that he is not very brave, O’Toole’s Simon quips, “I’m a society burglar. I don’t expect people to rush about shooting at me. Besides…I’m the one who’s bleeding.” Atypical of the screwball, Nicole gives as good as she gets, the stichomythic badinage, delicious, enthralling, and quite simply, fun for a listen. As when asked by Simon to ‘take off her clothes’ in readiness for their grand caper, she smirks, inquisitively, adding, “Are we planning the same sort of crime?”; he, even more smarmily bats back with an in-joke, “You’re quite safe. It’s dress rehearsal time. That’s why we bought all this lovely junk…for one thing…it gives Givenchy the night off.” Adding that her scrub-lady’s attire makes her feel positively sixteenth century, Simon’s smug inquiry, “Where were you precisely in the sixteenth century?” and, with sassy charm, Nicole replies, “I don’t know, but that’s not how I was dressed!”
I have read quite a few reviews suggesting Wyler takes too long to ‘get to the point’ of his story; critics, I think, utterly missing the point of the story, devoted to slick, sly and subversive banter, the crime – or rather, ‘crimes’ – incidental to out-and-out unimportant to the plot; an implausibly good-natured, elegantly tailored grand amour between a cordial cad and enterprising Parisian socialite, far less innocent than she pretends.  Neither O’Toole nor Hepburn overplays their hand; the result, spectacularly evasive repartee to whet both theirs and the audiences’ palette for sensual love-making of the old school Hollywood ilk, where passions – oft unrequited – occasionally are allowed only a smolder before the camera pans to the grate of a raging fireplace. Wyler does, in fact, hail from this not altogether distant epoch, but realizes he cannot hold tight to its vestiges of good taste in the swingin’ sixties. In lieu of ‘go for the crotch’ flashes of skin, Wyler instead has O’Toole and Hepburn play up their intentions in a sort of saucy spank; each clobbering the other with hot-to-trot one-upsmanship in eruditeness.  
Immediately following the picture’s main title sequence, showcasing Wyler’s love of framed art, set to John Williams’ ebullient score – itself all playful and full of bounce – we digress to a fashionable auction house in Paris where art collector, Charles Bonnet is auctioning off his perfect knock-off of a Paul Cézanne to unsuspecting wealthy patrons. The portrait fetches a cool half million, its announcement on the radio causing Bonnet’s daughter, Nicole to hurry home in her expensive candy-apple red Autobianchi Bianchina Special Cabriolet. She chastises dad for his chutzpah. After all, forgery is a crime. The stakes are much too high. Momentarily, the wisdom of Nicole’s logic appears to bear itself out; a small police brigade descending on their villa. But no – the gendarmes have not come for Charles; rather, to escort a loan-out of his beloved Cellini Venus to the Kléber-Lafayette Museum in Paris where; the planned centerpiece of an important new exhibition.  One problem: like all other ‘masterpieces’ in the family’s possession the Cellini too is a fake, forged in 1908 by Nicole's grandfather, who used her grandmother as his muse and model. Nevertheless, the Cellini would easily fail even the most basic forensic test to establish the date of its materials and creation. Charles has no fear – and, no shame, as it were. After all, no such tests are forthcoming by the gallery’s curator, Monsieur Grammont (Fernand Gravey), who treats the statuette with an absurd amount of caution and reverence.
Prior to the exchange of the Cellini, Charles was laboring over a newly forged Van Gogh, presently hanging in his living room. Now, as he attends the museum’s triumphant premiere of his Cellini, a dark and shadowy figure is making its way to his seemingly unprotected villa. Nicole, who has elected to remain cozied up to a Hitchcock bio in lieu of attending the spectacle, hears a noise. Dislodging one of her father’s vintage pistols from its wall mount, she tiptoes downstairs, and, at the most opportune moment holds the would-be thief of the Van Gogh at bay. The man, Simon Dermott, feigns innocence, claiming simply to have been enamored with a glimpse of the painting he replaces back on the wall as Nicole looks on. To avoid a police investigation of her father’s fake masterpieces Nicole suggests she will let Simon off ‘this time’, but unexpectedly, the gun in her hand goes off, wounding him in the arm. It is a superficial graze. Nevertheless, after momentarily fainting at the sight of his blood, Nicole dutifully cleans the wound in the kitchen with a bottle of peroxide; then, under duress, agrees to drive Simon back to the Ritz in his equally as sport, lemon yellow Jaguar E-Type; hardly an inconspicuous mode of transportation for the common thief. Asked to explain it, Simon merely suggests like everything else, the car is stolen. “I can’t drive a stolen car!” Nicole exclaims, to which Simon casually explains, “Same principle, four gears forward, one reverse.”
In the courtyard of the Ritz, Simon takes even more liberties, planting a fairly passionate kiss on Nicole’s lips before ushering her into a taxi. As luck would have it, Simon is hardly a thief – common or otherwise, but actually a private investigator hired for insurance purposes by DeSolnay (Charles Boyer). Meanwhile, Nicole informs Charles not only of the foiled crime, but also she presently has a date with American tycoon, Davis Leland (Eli Wallach). Unaware of Leland’s maniacal obsession to own the Venus statuette, Nicole nevertheless becomes highly suspicious of her beaux. However, after Leland confides the real reason for their dinner engagement, Nicole is not only relieved, but rather casual about fluffing him off. The Cellini is not for sale. Of course, this only amplifies more Leland’s desire to possess it. The next day, Kléber-Lafayette’s insurance clerk (Eddie Malin) arrives at Charles’ villa to gain his signature on a million-dollar policy for the sculpture. Only after Charles signs it does he realize that as part of the process the Cellini will be subjected to a highly technical examination to ensure its authenticity. Frantic to spare Charles a lengthy query once the statuette is found out to be a fake, thus placing the legitimacy of all his other masterpieces in question, Nicole hires Simon to help her break into the museum and steal back the Venus. Unable, as yet, to reveal his true identity to her, Simon reluctantly agrees to partake of this venture.
On the eve of their planned heist, Leland makes an impromptu visit to Charles’ villa, proposing his hand in marriage, merely to gain access to the Cellini as a family heirloom. Unable to dissuade him from his cause, Nicole hurriedly accepts Leland’s engagement ring before excusing herself to rush off to the museum. Meeting up with Simon, the pair hides in a nearby utility closet until the museum closes. Afterward, Simon repeatedly sets off the alarm system, slicing through the invisible beams that surround the statuette with a boomerang acquired several days earlier. After several false alarms cause the museum to go into complete lock-down mode, the guards become complacent about investigating the area, instead suspecting a complete malfunction of the system itself. Simon reveals to Nicole he knows the real reason why she wants the Cellini stolen. Furthermore, he shares with her that his participation in the heist is predicated on nothing more than his feelings for her. Moving stealthily between the guards, Simon makes his way into the museum forecourt and steals the Cellini, hiding it in a cleaner’s bucket. Dressed in her drab attire as one of the nondescript cleaners, Nicole quietly skulks off with the Cellini concealed and the two make their daring escape through the basement just as guards discover the statuette has disappeared for real this time. The next morning, Simon achieves his greatest coup; convincing Leland he has stolen the Cellini on a spree, offering to give him the statuette if he will dissolve his engagement to Nicole and immediately leave Paris. Naturally, Leland agrees and the exchange is made.  
After Leland’s departure, Nicole joins Simon at his table to celebrate their robbery. Only now, Simon has one more surprise in store. He finally reveals himself to be college-educated art expert and investigator hired by the world's largest galleries to strengthen security and uncover forgeries. However, he intends to say absolutely nothing about any of the events that have recently transpired; his pledge of ‘good faith’ predicated on Nicole’s acceptance of his proposal in marriage. With the Venus safely out of the country, no investigation regarding its legitimacy is possible. Relieved, Charles agrees to Simon’s terms; to officially retire from forgeries.  Alas, as the newly wedded couple depart Charles’ villa for the last time, they spy South American art collector, Senor Paravideo (Marcel Dalio) hurriedly coming up the walk to admire Charles’ Van Gogh. Has Charles changed his ways? Hardly. Does it matter? Not really. Love has triumphed as Nicole and Simon drive off to begin their legitimate lives together as man and wife.
How To Steal a Million is an expertly played farce, lent its intercontinental charm by veteran cinematographer, Charles Lang; Paris, and its reasonable Fox facsimiles recreated for virtually all of the interiors, sparkling with cosmopolitan sophistication; Alexandre Trauner’s Production Design a visual treat for the eye.  The picture may lack William Wyler’s usual attention for delivering a more intimate affair (in point of fact, it does), but Wyler’s focus herein is primarily – and wisely situated on the pseudo-antagonistic chemistry between O’Toole’s stiff-britches investigator cum thief, and, Hepburn’s magnificently coiffured young Miss of this catered affair. As this détente never fails to enthrall, How to Steal a Million emerges with some good solid acting, countless exchanges of debonair dialogue, and, with the added plus of seeing the portly and playful Hugh Griffith, and, frenetically charged Eli Wallach as the wily ole fraud and dementedly wealthy art lover respectively.  This is the sort of diamond tiara-styled rom/com Hollywood has not made in decades, and furthermore, would not even know where to begin concocting today. It serves the material well the cast is culled from an alumni of the very best the industry then had to offer. I sincerely have no idea who could be cast today if any such fool notion was to be applied. Nevertheless, How To Steal a Million continues to stand as a prime exemplar from this bygone era when stars were stars and shone beyond the footlights with a thousand kilowatt stardust in unabashed professionalism that, like the era from whence it came, now seems as lost to us as the ghost flowers of yesteryears vintage in Teflon-coated talent.
No regrets with Twilight Time’s new to Blu release of How to Steal a Million. It’s mostly dreamy with a few minor caveats to consider. Fox has provided TT’s boutique label with another quality affair; eye-popping colors, accurately represented grain, good color balance – mostly – and spot on contrast. There is a brief moment during the scene where Nicole treats Simon’s flesh wound in the kitchen, where the image briefly – and inexplicably – falters; as though it were cobbled together from several dupes inserted: even the camera’s perspective jump cuts – twice – to a closer, then closer still re-framing of the exact same shot while the action taking place seamlessly continues. There are also a few very brief scenes where colors lean toward a queer green bias. Case in point, Nicole driving Simon back to the Ritz. Although this sequence is shot at night, there are no genuine blacks, but tonal variations of a muddy grey/brown with an ever so slight bilious wash applied to everything. Again, it’s a brief interruption in an otherwise immaculate visual presentation. A tad disappointing; the audio remains 2.0 DTS mono; John Williams (billed as Johnny Williams in the credits) main title score sounding strident and slightly distorted. Mercifully, TT gives us an isolated track of the complete score in 5.1 DTS, showing off these orchestrations to their very best advantage and ‘wow’ do they sound good. The other extra of noteworthy merit: Biography’s Special on Audrey Hepburn. It’s presented in SD and, at times, suffers from the limited source materials and edge effects inherent in old TV broadcasts. But it is still worth the viewing. Finally, we get an audio commentary from Eli Wallach and Wyler’s daughter, Catherine. This was recorded for the 2003 DVD release of How To Steal a Million and I have to say it is disappointingly sparse. Bottom line: How To Steal a Million is vintage Wyler, Hepburn and O’Toole. The Blu-ray takes a quantum leap forward from the tired old Fox Studio Classics DVD. This is a ‘must have’ purchase. And, with only 3000 copies available, I would not waste any time ordering yours today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Friday, April 28, 2017

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1964) Criterion Collection

From cinematographer, Jean Rabier’s creamsicle-colored palette, to its ground-breaking (if not trend-setting) use of Michel Legrand’s pop-opera score (a haunting potpourri and outpouring of unfettered human emotion), director, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) continues to resonate, pulsate and throb with the gloss and gilt of a bittersweet, and highly personal memoir about the miscalculations of youth, the missteps made when lovers are parted by circumstance and fate, and ultimately, the tragedy of life-learned and careworn regrets that befalls us all with the inevitable passage of the years. It isn’t only that the lovers of this piece, the impossibly winsome, precocious and perpetually pouty (but in a good way) Catherine Deneuve, and even more unbearably drop-dead sexy as hell, Nino Castelnuovo are the epitome of a Barbie and sport n’ shave Ken doll match (it always helps a movie if its central cast are beautiful to look at), and, on this particular outing (even when dubbed) can act rings around most of their breed with practically a flick of an eyelash or slightly raised brow. No, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg continues to raise the bar extremely high for anyone attempting this sort of ‘rock opera’ (later to become Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bread n’ butter) because it lacks any deliberate beguilement, and, as such hypnotizes the audience almost by accident; an happy surprise for all, though I suspect, particularly producers, Mag Bodard, Gilbert de Goldschmidt and Pierre Lazareff who rather reluctantly agreed to finance the project. The film’s runaway international success would prove a total vindication of Demy’s faith in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Moreover, it has remained his masterpiece these many years since its theatrical release. 
Demy, whose ambition it was to make an ‘operetta’ that neither sounded or looked like all those traditional exemplars (these, he frankly found stilted and despised) eventually tapped composer, Michel Legrand for counsel, encouragement, advice and, of course, for his expertise in the field of composition. Legrand took one look at Demy’s rough draft screenplay and concurred, the idea had merit, though not without many pitfalls and challenges to be faced along the way. No one other than Legrand seemed to share this view; Demy, persistent to a fault as he continued to refine his concept and shop the property around to various distributors – all of whom turned him down. What likely worried the money men most then (as it continues to contribute to sweaty palms and closed doors now) was the notion that smack-dab in the middle of the French New Wave, virtually – and retrospectively, slavishly devoted to the intellectual deconstruction of humanity as perennially fragmented and disillusioned – was that Demy had dared to propose a lithe and lyrical ode to love, as deliberately, if deceptively structured into three distinct acts, the entire mobile tenuously dangling around the tried and true ‘boy meets girl’ scenario; the lovers in question neither teeming in angst or perpetually emerging from half-life, half dressed…quel dommage, and, shocking! As is often the case with ‘firsts’ (though ‘Umbrellas’ does, in fact, owe its core inspiration to all those operettas of yore), Demy’s pet project would come under considerable scrutiny in France, even as the movie has since evolved into one of the irrefutable cornerstones of the movement and the decade; its cross-cultural contamination actually shedding international light on the Cahier du Cinema; that witty troop of French auteurs ostensibly led by Francois Truffaut who, a decade earlier, vehemently rebelled against French cinema’s ‘tradition of quality’ , perceived as an aping of the American style inundating French movie houses after the Second World War.
Time has allowed for Demy’s passionate, colorful art to acquire its just deserts under the hallowed under Cahier’s ‘auteur theory’; a more recent exultation and reevaluation: alas, come much too late for Demy, who died of complications due to AIDS in 1990. In one of those ironies that never fail to appear moronically transparent in retrospect, Demy was to shoot The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Eastman stock; notorious for its rapid decomposition and fading. Hence, almost from the moment the movie ended its theatrical run, prints and the original camera negative began to fall into a state where the likelihood of any resurrection of the original color-rich clarity was thought to be futile to downright impossible. Mercifully, Demy had possessed the wherewithal to also create separation masters; records of the film in yellow, cyan and magenta on B&W negatives, similar to the preservation of 3-strip Technicolor; thus allowing for Demy’s widow, Agnès Varda, to spearhead a project in the mid-1990s to create new color-negatives, resulting in a fully restored print, reissued theatrically in 2004 and, from which Criterion’s 2013 Blu-ray release was created.
In casting The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy went almost entirely against the grain of conventional wisdom, picking great actors instead of great singers to assume roles requiring them to excel at their most woeful deficit, and relying almost exclusively on pros hidden behind the screen (professional dubbers, Danielle Licari and José Bartel assuming the operatic emoting for Deneuve and Castelnuevo respectively). Seamlessly, it works to convey in song what the movie’s stars transmit via their formidable assets in all other regards. And Deneuve and Castelnuevo are, in fact, ideally suited for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; her unassuming innocence perfectly at odds with his uber-naïve and very earthy masculine thirst to possess the only woman to whom the fates will bar; eventually to accept another (Ellen Farner, as the ever-devoted, Madeleine) as his real angel of mercy and penultimate destiny in life. Whether consciously or not, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg really owes a lot to Joshua Logan’s film version of Fanny (1961); another tale of star-crossed lovers separated by the ill-timed winds, reunited in close proximity by another cruel twist. The parallels between these two movies are, in fact, uncanny; both male leads favoring careers in automotive repair; both female leads becoming pregnant and concealing the illegitimacy of their unborn children by marrying another man out of convenience; each, having their course derailed by well-intentioned, though nevertheless misguided parental intervention.
In Fanny’s case, the lovers are brought back into focus by a death in their midst, allowing - presumably – for them to pick up where they left off. Quite the opposite for the lovers of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; umbrella sales girl, Geneviève Emery (Deneuve) and garage mechanic, Guy Foucher (Castelnuevo) given only the briefest of nostalgic dénouements:, she, reflecting with curious ambivalence/he in a sort of self-restrained wounded rage beneath his more glacially cool façade; the camera panning upward into a snow-filled night sky as her car drives away, ostensibly for the last time as their unsuspecting daughter, Françoise (Rosalie Varda) impatiently awaits in the front seat; Guy’s wife, Madeleine and their child,  François (Hervé Legrand) suggesting ‘better days ahead’. Even so, this bitter palette of mirror-cracked romance leaves a potent aftertaste of regrets behind in the viewer’s mind. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg conveys a deceptively simple – and, according the standards of a traditional musical – relatively conventional ‘boy meets girl’ scenario seen at least a thousand times before. And yet Demy brilliantly achieves the ‘new wave’s’ verve for panged existentialism almost by accident; acclimatizing the audience accepting the musical’s tried and true precepts, then critiquing and even deconstructing them for a deeper investment of their time. Here is a tale, not only of young love, but the aftermath rarely discussed on celluloid; that ‘other side’ of the hearts and flowers rarely, if ever questioned within a genre un-originally enthusiastic for its' ‘happily ever after’.   
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg opens rather as expected on an overhead shot of passersby hurriedly maneuvering between the raindrops along the town’s drenched cobblestone streets. We settle on a busy garage whose owner, Aubin (Jean Champion) employs a small army of skilled mechanics to service his clientele. One of this crew, Guy Foucher is about to embark upon yet another clandestine rendezvous with his paramour, Geneviève Emery; a stunningly attractive seventeen year old seller of umbrella’s in her mother’s (Anne Vernon, vocals by Christiane Legrand) boutique. It’s a niche market at best - umbrella selling - and Madame Emery’s establishment is in constant threat of foreclosure, presently drowning in considerable debt. But why speak of money when one is hopelessly/haplessly floating on the euphoric ether of a ‘forever 21’ romance? Madame Emery thinks her daughter a silly little fool. It will come to no good; this secretive and severe case of puppy love. After all, Madame Emery is an old campaigner. She knows her sex and the heartache of falling for a man some years her senior. Guy, however, is a young man with a young man’s proclivities to satisfy urges. Is he sincere and looking for a wife or just a few hours casual diversion? Only time will tell. Meanwhile Guy’s Tante Élise (Mireille Perrey, vocals by Claire Leclerc), an invalid, cautions self-restraint. Her one desire is for Guy to be happy in life, only she fervently believes such bliss will come in the form of another; her patient caregiver, Madeleine quietly pining for just such an acknowledgement, even a bit of encouragement from Guy.
Guy and Geneviève skulk off to consummate their smoldering passion, becoming more meaningfully entrenched in their affair with each passing hour. In the meantime, Madame Emery befriends a young, travelling investor, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, vocals by Georges Blanes) whom she clearly sees as both Geneviève’s and her own salvation. Roland is no fool. Though he recognizes Geneviève’s beauty and her qualities as a young woman are irreproachable, he can also clearly see her heart belongs to another. Nevertheless, Roland is a patient man. Moreover, time and circumstances have decidedly aligned in his favor. Guy is conscripted into the French Army and sent off to Algeria; their tear-stained separation at the railway station leaving Geneviève fragile and wanting. For she has learned, and will presently inform her mother, she is carrying Guy’s baby. Guy knows nothing of the pregnancy; his increasingly sporadically written letters from the front seem to suggest that his interest in Geneviève has decidedly cooled. To save face, Geneviève agrees to entertain Roland. But her heart is not in these cordially orchestrated dinners. Moreover, she refuses to ‘trick’ Roland into a quickie marriage. Before her condition begins to show, Geneviève confesses the delicacy of her condition to Roland. Miraculously, he is not unnerved or even put off by the news and, even more to Madame Emery’s delight, Roland still desires Geneviève’s hand in marriage, promising to rear the unborn child has their own.
In a moment of quiet desperation, Geneviève agrees to this arrangement. She and Roland wed and move away from Cherbourg. Upon Guy’s return he discovers Madame Emery’s shop closed and learns that his one true love has married another. Bitterly, Guy suffers the post-war depression of a returning veteran. He loses his job at Aubin’s garage after becoming flippant with a client, and vows to live off his pension while quietly drinking himself into a stupor. Madeleine is patient but not about to sacrifice herself to a man who cannot even look after himself. Presently, Élise dies, leaving Madeleine without a purpose at the apartment. Guy pledges himself to Madeleine, vowing to reform his ways and never again look back. She accepts his promise at face value and invests herself in becoming the perfect mate for him, inspiring Guy to open his own garage. The couple has a child – François and, once again, a period of time passes uneventfully. However, as the Christmas holidays approach, Madeleine and François (now five) hurry to the toy store in search of gifts, leaving Guy to tend to his newly established garage. As fate would have it, Geneviève pulls into the station to get gas, immaculately coiffured and as surprised to discover Guy. Alas, time has cast a pall upon their memories and in unsuspecting ways; she, clearly still in love with him, confesses that the daughter waiting in the car is their child; he, refusing to be properly introduced, or even get a better look at Françoise, perhaps suspecting his emotions might get in the way. Instead, Guy’s heart is momentarily hardened. Reservedly, he bids Geneviève farewell, presumably for the last time. Madeleine and François return from their shopping. Guy embraces his wife and son with renewed happiness as the camera pulls back on the snowy scene in front of the station. Love – in a way – has triumphed, in spite of those rose-colored memories from another life turned asunder with the passage of the years.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is such a ‘lump-in-your-throat’ kind of movie. Demy’s libretto gets under the skin and, more earnestly still, burrows deep into our collective subconscious (Michel Legrand’s musical arcs marking crescendos to the crestfallen in the audience); Demy’s leitmotif of young love lost forever, acquiring a velvet-gloved, tear-stained patina, true-to-life that goes well beyond the cheap dime store sentiment of all those traditional boy-meets-girl movie musical tributes. Yes, we are faced with the same stereotypes here; the girl of modest means and the boy who would be king, if only in her heart; the nattering elders on both sides with their sage ‘wisdom’ about what fate has in store, should the fates allow, or perhaps, disavow; and finally, the transparently perfect suitor and his second best. Uncannily, especially for a musical, second best wins this tortoise and hare race; the perfect pair elementally Shakespearean in the general trajectory of their failed romance, and definitely in their wounded farewells. The simplistic narrative and one-dimensional characterizations are arguably ‘window dressing’ for Bernard Evein’s startlingly rich Production Design and Jacqueline Moreau’s sublime costuming (an extension of Evein’s eye for evoking genuine pools of emotion from the artifice of this prominently colorful environment. And, you would be hard-pressed to discover a more stunningly handsome set of love birds than Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo; she, with dyed blonde tresses, an astonishingly exuberant portrait of innocence lost; he, using those dark and flashing eyes to penetrating effect. In the end, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg survives as Jacques Demy’s masterpiece, not so much for any individual elements gone into its construction; rather, for the symbiosis of all these finely wrought components coming together in the most unusual and very satisfying ways. Mon amour, mon amour…these umbrellas are shiny and glistening with the tears of star-crossed lovers everywhere: a bittersweet valentine to all whom the gates of passion were once thrust wide open, then just as unceremoniously slammed shut before the white hot intensity was allowed its natural allotment of time to cool. Great stuff – and truly – faultlessly, memorable.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg gets its single disc Blu-ray release from Criterion nearly a full two years after the Jacques Demy box set. For those only interested in Demy’s work as far as this opus magnum goes, it has been well worth the wait. Culled from the same 2013 restoration, the 1.85:1 hi-def image is mostly stunning with some minor caveats. For starters, a few key sequences appear rather softly focused, or rather, slightly out of focus with a sudden and inexplicable loss of fine detail and homogenizing of film grain. Mercifully, these instances are few and far between and what bookends is a cornucopia of razor-sharp, eye-poppingly colorful and richly saturated images, surely to please. Colors are ‘wow’ spot on; flesh looking very natural; film grain, sparkling and indigenous to its source and contrast as true as it can be. You will not find much to complain about here. The original monaural sound mix gets a new DTS 5.1 presentation. It’s fairly subtle, or rather, subtly done; most of the vocals dead center with only minor reverb trilling from the side channels.  Extras are rewarding: beginning with the nearly hour long retrospective, Once Upon a Time …The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; a 2008 documentary featuring vintage footage of Demy with more recent reflections supplied by Demy’s widow, Agnes Varda, Michel Legrand, Catherine Deneuve and Marc Michel. It’s in French with English subs – naturally. We also get a half hour video essay from scholar, Rodney Hill; a little over ten minutes of a Cinépanorama Interview from 1964, another half hour’s reflections from Michel Legrand and an audio-only interview, again with Legrand from 1991. Deneuve contributes another ten minute audio-only interview, this one from 1983. Last, but not least, there is a six minute ‘restoration’ discussion piece and extensive liner notes from film historian, Jim Ridley. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

36 HOURS: Blu-ray (MGM 1964) Warner Archive Collection

An oddity of the WWII counterintelligence/espionage melodrama, director, George Seaton’s 36 Hours (1964) takes the somewhat intriguing – if overblown and improbable premise (the kidnapping of a high-ranking American military officer just prior to the D-Day landing, in order to glean top secret information about the looming Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy) as a springboard to stage a rather elaborate hoax...and not only on the hero of our story. That the screenplay (also by Seaton, based rather loosely on Roald Dahl’s ‘Beware of the Dog’, reconstituted by Carl K. Hittleman and Luis H. Vance) devolves into a terribly predictable and pedestrian ‘chase/thriller’ in its third act somewhat negates the built-upon tautness of the piece; James Garner, then, movie-land’s most popular hunk du jour, lending his ‘star’ wattage, but precious little else to a role that, at times, he almost seems to be playing as a colossal gag. After all, it is rather silly to think that in the waning hours of their tenuous toehold on Europe, the Nazis would have the time, energies, might, wherewithal or even the intellectually superior intent to construct an entire ‘American Hospital’ on German soil somewhere near their Alpine boarder with Switzerland, populate it with literally hundreds of participants, trained and disguised as rehabilitated U.S. military and medical personnel, simply to trick one hostage into believing he has lost six years of his life in an amnesiac’s coma and thus, to divulge Eisenhower’s secret plans for D-Day; especially when more tried and true, cruder methods of torture could expedite this process and achieve similar results.
Be that as it may, 36 Hours is moderately effective in spots, largely due to Garner, as Maj. Jefferson Pike. He incredulously awakens from some ‘spiked coffee’ a mere 72 hrs. later, appropriately aged by a small army of Nazi cosmeticians; shipped in his unconscious state from Lisbon to Germany in a twenties-styled funeral hearse to a base of operations somewhere deep in the picturesque Black Forest (actually, the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite National Park). Pike’s faux amnesia is orchestrated by Maj. Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor, as the manipulative, though ultimately empathetic egghead, briefly in charge of this ornate prank), reluctantly abetted by concentration camp survivor, Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint, briefly suffering from a badly bungled attack of Stockholm’s Syndrome). For appropriate menace we get Werner Peters as Otto Schack, an’ SS agent of no mercy, and, for comic relief - John Banner (TV’s bumbling Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes), herein amusedly the wolf in sheep’s clothing right under the High Command’s turned up noses; the unlikeliest of nondescripts, who assassinates Schack in the eleventh hour of Pike and Anna’s daring escape and thereafter helps smuggle the couple to relative safety across the Swiss border. In just a little under two hours 36 Hours densely packs in a lot of absurdity and adventure into an otherwise hokey and mawkish artistic mélange, where the uber-cleverness of mounting twists and turns never goes beyond the hook and worm stage as potential bait for the audience; promising a ‘coming attraction’ never to follow it.
It’s all for not – or rather mostly – as the audience is completely in on the ruse from the beginning. Personally, I think 36 Hours would have been far more effective if we, like Pike, were completely fooled into believing that the war had ended six years earlier and, like our titular hero, slowly were allowed to unravel the truth through ingeniously plotted clues. Instead, 36 Hours opens with a fairly standardized prologue; newsreel footage under the main titles and Pike’s final debriefing of the Normandy Invasion.  Suspecting a plot afoot inside the Nazi high command, Pike’s superiors, Gen. Allison (Russell Thorson) and Col. Peter Maclean (Alan Napier) send him on a fact-finding mission to Lisbon on June 1, 1944; presumably to intercept and confirm their suspicions from a known informant. Too bad the joke is on the Allies; an insidious chain of insiders, comprised of unlikely Brit-born sympathizers, helping to sabotage Pike’s arrival; either to confirm or deny the Allies’ misdirection about a never-to-be invasion at Pas de Calais. Pike suspects his contact in Lisbon of being a double agent. Yet even he cannot imagine the lengths to which the Nazis will go to unearth the truth. Too late, Pike realizes the coffee he has just enjoyed at a local café has been laced with a powerful narcotic. Unable to return to his hotel, Pike collapses in a darkened alley; his lifeless body hurriedly placed inside a casket, then a hearse, shipped by plane to an elaborate makeshift U.S. Army Hospital deep in the Black Forest; an equally fictitious tale leaked to the press about his untimely death from a heart attack to throw off Allison and Maclean.
Setting aside the time, money and Herculean effort it would take to stage such a baroque and clandestine deception (recreating newspapers, obituaries, radio channels, calendars, etc. to mimic a date six years into the future), to say nothing of the months – if not years – in planning to coach a small army of stock company players into pretending all these various parts, 36 Hours delves whole-heartedly into its second act swindle; completely fooling the disorientated Pike into believing he has somehow mislaid six years in an amnesiac’s stupor; suffering multiple breakdowns/rehabilitation along the way. His behavior is intricately mapped out by psychiatrist, Walter Gerber, who feigns benevolence but preys upon Pike’s disorientation, inserting his own alternate theories to account for the missing chapters in Pike’s personal history. It all sounds highly plausible – at least to Pike, who cannot ‘recall’ from memory his marriage to Anna or his numerous relapses, presumably to have brought him to this present state of convalescence. The proverbial chink in the armor is Anna; an ambivalent survivor of the concentration camps, appointed by Gerber to be Pike’s 24 hr. Florence Nightingale. Anna plays the part beautifully.  And her ears are pricked toward any hint of a leaked secret Pike might divulge as part of his ‘therapy’ sessions; chiefly, the location, date and time of the anticipated ‘June 5th invasion.  Unaware, as yet, he is not out of harm’s way; Pike casually reveals the Allies’ plans for D-Day to Gerber and Otto Schack, introduced to him as the proprietor of the local ratskeller where Pike and Anna had their wedding reception.       
As with most ‘well laid plans’ and ‘best kept secrets’, this one goes completely awry when Pike notices a barely invisible paper cut on his index finger he acquired the day before boarding the plane for Lisbon. Determined to get confirmation of his suspicions, Pike tricks the MP Sergeant Guard (John Dennis) at the Army Hospital’s gate into an impromptu snap to attention. The guard does everything but ‘Heil Hitler!’ Now, Pike casually returns to his cabin, confronting Anna about the real time and date. Forcing her into submission, Pike learns it is actually June 2, 1944. Pike is incensed for having been duped. He manhandles Anna, severely slapping her to illicit an appropriate response; instructing her to exit his room, screaming to anyone who will listen, how he is quite aware of the ruse; or rather, was…even before divulging the particulars about Normandy over Calais. Schack, who has had his doubts about Gerber’s methods of interrogation – but had been as impressed by the results gained earlier – now believes Pike’s lie; that he knew all along he was being taken advantage and set about to play the game of cat and mouse beautifully to misdirect his captors.  
However, Gerber is quite certain Pike is lying now. To prove his point, two hellish days of more conventional interrogation ensue; Anna too put under this microscope when it is revealed she tried to help Pike commit suicide by slipping him her cyanide capsule. While Schack revels in the news the invasion will be at the Pas de Calais, Gerber conducts one last experiment to prove his point; setting the clocks ahead to June 5th. Believing the invasion has already happened, Pike gloats to Gerber that his mission has failed; Gerber, coolly explaining how his quick thinking, and an unforeseen delay in the weather has actually conspired to give the Nazis the upper advantage by two whole days. Gerber sends an emergency dispatch to Wehrmacht headquarters. Too bad Schack, too eager to discredit Gerber, buries this communication, ordering for Gerber’s immediate arrest. Realizing Schack will kill them all, if only to save face after the invasion goes according to plan, Gerber turns coat, handing over his research notes and a concealed pass key to Pike, who wastes no time escaping along with Anna from their castle dungeon. When Schack discovers this treachery he cannot wait to exact his pound of flesh from Gerber’s hide. But Schack is too late even for this; arriving to find Gerber administered his own lethal injection. Schack pursues Pike and Anna across the wilderness. The pair make their way to ‘the minister’s’ house; met at the door by the portly double agent’s sympathetic wife, Elsa (Celia Lovsky), who encourages the weary couple to take refuge in the basement beneath the church.
In the dead of night, Pike and Anna are awakened by Ernst – an unscrupulous guard who, for the cheap bribe of a wedding band and gold watch, hurries Pike and Anna under the cover of night, deep into the forest just beyond the village. Ernst gives the wedding ring to Elsa; an ill-timed bit of generosity, revealing of the fact the escapees have come this way when Schack arrives to find the housekeeper alone and still wearing the ring he clearly remembers as belonging to Anna. With only a few hundred yards to freedom, Schack suddenly appears with his gun poised to put a period to Pike and Anna’s escape. Instead, he is shot to death by Ernst, who stages the corpse so it appears Schack attempted his own escape over enemy lines; a desertion deserving of execution. Safely ushered across the border, Pike and Anna are put into separate cars; Pike to be whisked back to the U.S. Embassy; Anna, detained in a refugee camp until such time she can be safely repatriated to her homeland. Earlier, Anna made a point to Pike about the extremely brutalities endured while inside several concentration camps, at one point being repeatedly raped by SS officers, thus having drained her of all human emotions. But now she willingly weeps tears of gladness, knowing her ordeal is at an end.
36 Hours has Philip H. Lathrop’s luminous B&W cinematography to recommend it; Edward C. Carfagno and George W. Davis’ ingenious and cost-cutting ‘art direction’ utilizing free standing sets and interiors from MGM’s back catalog of glamor (the Nazi High Command Strategy Room, actually Molly Brown’s elaborate foyer from 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown; the exteriors of ‘the castle’, the baroque architecture first built for 1948’s The Three Musketeers, later on display in 1952’s Scaramouche, and, The Prisoner of Zenda, 1954’s The Student Prince, and, soon to make yet another appearance in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen).  Commendable too, the sparsely orchestrated score from Dimitri Tiomkin. The 1960’s could hardly be considered Metro’s ‘golden age’; the studio going through its last gasps of financial entrenchment, soon to put a period to its film-making empire. But 36 Hours’ premise, fanciful at best, is equally as insincere, and far too clever for its own good. If this is the Nazis’ idea of ‘building a better mouse trap’ to learn the enemy’s secrets, then it serves only to amplify the cinema clichés ascribed to German-born smug egotism, marketed over the years and in countless movies, as the penultimate Achilles Heel of everyone’s favorite villain we love to hate. 36 Hours is not a bad movie. It just isn’t a particularly fine one - a shame; given Garner and Saint’s participation, and, co-star, Rod Taylor, who trumps them both in the credibility department. Director, George Seaton has obviously done his homework. And yet the movie suffers immensely from a queer grandiloquence and stultifying theatricality. The real ruse here is that the audience should think the Nazis more clever than smart; more boorish than brutal, and ultimately, less evil than ingenious in their insidiously intricate plotting. 36 Hours achieves its very obtuse belly flop on the screen, mostly because it fumbles to concoct a narrative only the ‘mad scientist’ ilk of the audience would find either realistic or absorbing.
Perplexing is the word I would use to describe Warner Archive’s (WAC) release of 36 Hours on Blu-ray. I am going to go out on a limb here to speculate this hi-def transfer is culled from digital files that are at least as old as the DVD release; this 1080p transfer suffering in the same spots from untoward edge enhancement as its predecessor; intermittent shimmering of fine details in door frames and intricate material patterns, some smothered and homogenized pixelization of the indigenous film grain, and an overall inconsistency in sharpness and clarity. Contrast is weaker than anticipated, with obvious boosting causing the mid-range to virtually disappear. I have read a number of reviews attesting to this disc being ‘perfect’. Respectfully, I disagree. Either the elements have not aged very well in the interim, or we are dealing with dupes inserted into an otherwise healthier than average IP. Either way, 36 Hours looks just a shade better than average, and far – very far – from outstanding. The audio is 2.0 DTS mono and adequately represented with Tiomkin’s score the real star of this show. This is a ‘bare bones’ release from WAC with only a theatrical trailer to consider as bonus material. Ho-hum. Not impressed. Not inordinately unhappy, either. Just mildly unnerved. Is WAC stepping back from its usual pristine and very high standards? Hmmmm. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)