Tuesday, June 27, 2017

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT: Blu-ray (RKO. 1949) Criterion Collection

With the emphasis of Charles Schnee’s screenplay squarely situated on the hopelessness of young love torn asunder by circumstances beyond their control, director, Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1949) must rank among the most innovative, cynical, bleak, yet queer and tenderly fragile cross-pollinations of film noir meets Hollywood romance from the postwar period. Ray, who later in his career, would more fully deconstruct and exploit the imperfections of that euphoric elixir we laughingly call ‘love’ in movies like In a Lonely Place (1950) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is working with some very fine material here that he diligently helped to craft for Schnee; also, under the auspices of RKO – a studio noted for taking chances on unknowns and producing some exceptional ‘film noir’ (gritty, cheaply made melodramas later lumped together as such by French film critics). Yes, it’s still an archetypal ‘youth on the run’ yarn, unexpectedly told with atypical subtlety and finesse by Ray with an uncanny grasp of his lovers’ ‘destin funeste.’ The vitality of Ray’s expressionist-documentarian style has not aged even a smidgen since; the tone of this, his earliest chef-d'oeuvre, offering us a prelude into his formidable tenure; constantly in flux from daringly dark and apocalyptic to gently uncertain, and, with an overriding arc of sadness as its main staple. Ray makes no apology for They Live By Night’s lack of a saleable – even a redemptive - ‘happy ending’; steadily advancing with his ‘of the moment’ camera-eye precision on an already inevitable and inexorably sorrowful fait accompli sans compromise. Moral judgement set aside – our empathy is riding shotgun with the likes of a common hood because he is both young and handsome, Ray’s delicate balance in crime vs. compassion possessing all the merits of intense dynamism and extreme moderation; his command of cinema space as well as cinema language awe-inspiring, even at a glance. Lest we remember – this is his first movie in the director’s chair.
It has oft been noted we are all a product of our times and upbringing and, at least in hindsight, They Live By Night offers hints and flashes of the Norwegian-born Ray’s impassioned livelihood in New York’s radical theater; his anti-establishment railing clear-cut, decisive and divisive when considering his card-carrying membership in the Socialist/Communist movement (oddly to have gone virtually undetected by HUAC in the 1950’s). After aspirations to become an architect were dashed, Ray succumbed to a sort of fractured artistic Bohemianism, his intuitiveness, intelligence and sensational energy creating a synergistic quality on the set that translates spectacularly; a sense, not only of the damned, but immediacy for this motley, though hardly hard-hearted ensemble of prison escapees, rummies and otherwise socially disenfranchised and morally wounded creatures of habit. There is no escape for our lovers, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) and Bowie (Farley Granger), much as they would wish for it in some alter-reality. Alas, within the scope of theirs, perpetual squalor, struggled, bitterness and heartache are the only quantifiables. Glimmers of something better flicker within the peripheries of the screen. Yet these shimmering mirages of the mind’s eye are perhaps the cruelest temptations of all because they lure, yet ultimately never satisfy.    
We have a chance meeting with John Houseman to thank for They Live By Night; Houseman and Ray striking a kinship with formidable advantages to both for many good years yet to follow. Testing his prowess in radio, in 1946 Houseman encouraged Ray to pursue author, Edward Anderson’s novel ‘Thieves Like Us’. Ultimately morphing into They Live By Night, Ray’s contributions to the screen adaptation would go largely unnoticed (and never credited as such) though at least half the ideas in this movie are his. Houseman heavily promoted Ray and under producer, Dore Schary’s auspices, Ray was allowed to prosper artistically as, arguably, he never would again; crafting They Live By Night largely to his own likes without studio intervention – even in the final cut. With its groundbreaking cinematography, George E. Diskant employing the first ever overhead helicopter shot, and the potency of Ray’s creative pistons firing in unison, this picture ought to have gone over like gangbusters. Alas, They Live By Night was to become the unwitting bastard child of some very bad timing; Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO delaying its official release by nearly two years in America; its Euro-debut, playing in only one theater in the U.K., if to rave reviews.
Ray’s fatalism evolves into an incandescent dance of despair as our twined lovers are perennially plagued by an even more all-pervasive kinetic misery, perfectly encapsulated in Albert S. D'Agostino and Al Herman’s Depression-era art direction. Within it, Ray typifies the ephemerality of the moment and life itself; painting a grotesquely unflattering portrait of the American experience in a landscape dotted by makeshift shanties, decaying backwaters overwrought in wild creepers, lonely, dusty bus stops and derelict rural communities having seen far better days. To this milieu, Ray introduces two archetypes: the mousy autist and the unrefined convict; each, already marginalized within a world that has moved on, or perhaps, more accurately, is limping in the opposite direction. Keechie and Bowie know better. They just cannot afford it. Their achingly naked (metaphorically speaking) affair is thus predicated on a mutual awakening to basic human need, rather than the matured sexual frustration Ray would investigate more astutely in 1950’s bone-chilling, Born to Be Bad. Ray’s particular bent in quixotic resignation herein is rife for multiple interpretations; our paramours systematically dealt delicate blows, gradually eroding their innocence one thin layer at a time, repeatedly dulled, then at last, obliterated.  
They Live By Night is the antithesis of ‘the road picture’ – popularized and usually frothy/light in American movies coinciding with the introduction of the automobile and perhaps best indulged by Frank Capra’s iconic and Oscar-winning, It Happened One Night (1932). In Ray’s movie this pride of ownership is subverted almost immediately as the three prison escapees, Bowie,  Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) brutalize, then leave for dead the poor young farmer (William Phipps) whose jalopy they have just commandeered; the car, as catalyst for their speedy getaway from the law. Ironically, Bowie and Keechie spend a good deal of the plot traveling from outpost to outpost while never actually getting anywhere. Even as they plot to cross the border into Mexico, the trajectory of their plight begins to coil into ever-tightening concentric circles of inescapable doom. Ray is blessed to have Cathy O’Donnell and Stewart Granger as his leads: two fresh faces – good to look at – but more important, as yet unknown to audiences even as each had already appeared on the screen: she, as Wilma Cameron, the empathetic/devoted fiancée to Harold Russell’s disabled war vet in The Best Years of Our Lives (1948), and, Granger only slightly in the lead with two undistinguished Lewis Milestone war flicks to his credit: The North Star (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944). And although Granger would achieve ‘lasting fame’, playing first a neurotic killer, then amiable hero respectively in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), then Strangers on a Train (1951); neither he nor O’Donnell would go on to have ‘great’ careers; a sad waste of each actors’ talent.
In his 1955 article for Cahiers du cinema, noted French film critic, François Truffaut concluded, “Ray’s very great talent resides in his absolute sincerity, his acute sensitivity.” He also called They Live By Nightunmistakably (Ray’s) best film’, as much a part of the noir movement as in many ways marking an absolute departure from the precepts of all those ‘then’ contemporary detective-driven melodramas classified under the same umbrella. Also atypical, Granger’s Bowie – arguably, the picture’s male protagonist – is not cut from the world-weary ilk of a Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer. Instead, he is a wet-behind-the-ears frightened and desperate boy, falsely accused of murder, yet repeatedly weak, particularly when suffering from an angst-propelled acute attack of conscience; chronically manhandled by T-Dub, and, finally, horrendously mangled in the movie’s climactic botched getaway. They Live By Night may not have inaugurated the trend in rural noir (1945’s Detour, the earliest contender, as most noir before and since takes place within a dystopian landscape of lower west side urban blight and decay or moodily lit nightclubs where the elite go slumming with high class B-girls, gamblers and mafia hoods). But it nevertheless refined this split from the norm, laying its curious commentary about ‘the simple folk’: hicks in the sticks who are just as morally bankrupt and greedy as their urban-dwelling counterparts.
Farley Granger would later recount how he came to be cast: a casual party guest at Saul and Ethel Chaplin’s home, noting Nicholas Ray from across the room, knocking back a few too many while favoring him with a penetrating stare. Inquiring about Ray’s ‘odd behavior’, Granger was promptly informed by Ethel that the director was in something of a snit over his latest picture and had, after some consternation, practically decided to offer Granger the part. When John Houseman arranged for the screen test, Granger was again approached by Ray to pick an actress he felt comfortable with as his co-star; Granger pointing to Cathy O’Donnell who had made the test with him. Both Granger and O’Donnell were under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, hence a little finagling was in order to secure their services. At one point, studio brass attempted to discourage Ray from casting either actor because of their lack of experience. But this only deepened Ray’s resolve to secure their contract loan outs. It also appeared as though RKO contract player, Robert Mitchum would be cast as Chickamaw. Desperate for the role, the actor even shaved and dyed his pate black, as Chickamaw is a Native American in the novel. Alas, Mitchum had already made a splash in pictures – deemed too high profile to be featured in such a minor role. Hence, Howard Da Silva stepped in, having already proven his mettle in The Cradle Will Rock (1937) produced by Houseman. Other cameos went to ‘friends’ Ray knew from his tenure in the New York theater: Marie Bryant as the nightclub chanteuse, Curt Conway, a dapper fellow inside the night club, and, Will Lee, as the jeweler.
They Live By Night opens with our introduction to Bowie, in prison since he was a teen and unfairly sentenced for a murder he did not commit. Bowie has just escaped from a Texas penitentiary (the novel uses Huntsville, the film does not comment) with two seasoned cons, Chickamaw and T-Dub. After abusing and leaving for dead the poor farmer whose jalopy they have stolen in their getaway, the men abandon the overheated vehicle in a nearby field and hurry on foot to their shanty town fill station rendezvous where they are met by T-Dub’s sister-in-law, Mattie (Helen Craig); a bitter hag who demands they become embroiled in a daring bank robbery to help her barter for her own husband’s release from prison. Bowie agrees to these conditions, hoping to use his share of the loot to pay for an attorney to fight for an overthrow of his prior murder conviction. Chickamaw, the craziest and most volatile of this threesome, promises his brother, Mobley (Will Wright) has stashed enough money somewhere to meet all the expenses of their pending heist. Wounded in his escape, Bowie is left by his cohorts and told to lay low behind a roadside billboard until they can return for him under the cover of night. Instead, the men send Mobley’s teenage daughter, Keechie. Although professing a sort of world-weary contempt, she is almost immediately attracted to him by instinct, identifying another essentially kind soul and kindred spirit, despite Bowie’s self-professed arrogance towards her.
Keechie has spent most of her life watching over Mobley; a rummy – easily swayed and as easily taken advantage. Without parental guidance she desperately yearns to be understood. Conversely, Bowie shields his more tender intelligence beneath a thin veneer of braggadocios criminality, merely to get by in the company he keeps. Miraculously, the bank heist goes off with narrowly a hitch; well…almost. Unable to leave well enough alone, Chickamaw and Bowie go on a spending spree. Chickamaw indulges in strong drink, causing Bowie to wreck his car on a busy street in the quiet hamlet of Zelton. When a suspicious policeman arrives to investigate the accident Chickamaw fires his pistol, then speeds away with an unconscious Bowie in the backseat. Chickamaw abandons Bowie to Keechie’s care and goes to join T-Dub in another town. Used to tending to wounded things, Keechie nurses Bowie back to health. To illustrate his gratitude, he gives her a watch he bought in Zelton. Genuinely affected, Keechie confides to Bowie that she loves him. The two decide to run away together. Alas, newspaper headlines scream that Bowie’s gun and fingerprints have been identified in the abandoned car. He is a wanted man and a cop killer. He cannot go to Oklahoma as originally planned. Instead, he and Keechie conspicuously board a bus together and, on an impulse, are wed inside a grungy roadside chapel by the very shady ‘justice of the peace’, Hawkins (Ian Wolfe), who also sells them a ‘hot’ convertible.
The young couple drives to an isolated mountain resort where Keechie once stayed as a child; setting up house inside the ramshackle cabin where they naively daydream about the hour when they can simply live together without reprisals. All goes according to plan - briefly; Keechie and Bowie skulking into town, easily fitting into the backdrop of this bucolic society undetected. However, as Christmas approaches, they are paid an unexpected, and very undesirable visit by Chickamaw. Having gambled and boozed away his share of the money, Chickamaw bullies Bowie into helping him and T-Dub rob another bank. Overcome by dread, Keechie gives Bowie his Christmas present – a watch she bought for him; begging him not to partake of this second heist. But it’s no use. Bowie must comply with his former cohorts or face being exposed by them and framed as the sole perpetrator of their crimes. Alas, the trio’s ‘good fortune’ from the first crime does not carry over. T-Dub is shot dead in a police ambush and Chickamaw is badly wounded. The press have a field day, running on the misguided notion Bowie – nicknamed ‘the Kid’ – is the gang leader, triggering Chickamaw to boil over with covetous ferocity.
Utterly disgusted with his viciousness, Bowie dumps Chickamaw by the roadside, hurrying back to the cabin. There, Bowie learns Chickamaw was shot dead for attempting to break into a liquor store. He also discovers Keechie is pregnant. Fearing capture, Bowie and Keechie head east. After several long nights of travelling the backroads undetected, they begin to relax. Alas, the lovers are identified by a gangster (Curt Conway) in a nightclub, forcing them into retreat once again. In tandem, Bowie’s plan to carry them to Mexico are foiled when Keechie becomes ill, driving Bowie to seek asylum inside a seedy motel run by Mattie. Naively believing Hawkins will be able to help them cross the border, Bowie has underestimated Mattie, who plots to turn Bowie over to the police in exchange for the release of her own husband. As Hawkins thoroughly refuses to aid in their escape, Bowie elects to go it alone, beseeching Mattie to look after his wife and unborn child. Having already set Bowie up for an ambush, Mattie encourages him to write Keechie a farewell note. Knowing the police will be waiting for Bowie at the cabin, Mattie awaits the inevitable. Bowie is gunned down and Keechie, having discovered his note, rushes to her slain husband’s body, reading aloud the words he could never say to her whilst he lived: “I love you.”
A little too Romeo and Juliet-ish in its denouement, especially for a left-winger like Nicholas Ray, They Live By Night is nevertheless as persuasive, edgy and philosophical as Ray’s later movies would ever get; a real testament to his clear-eyed vigor to make a picture as close to his own precepts as possible, if not true to Edward Anderson’s original novel, on which several artistic liberties under Hollywood’s Code of Censorship have been ‘liberally’ applied. In the novel, Keechie and Bowie are never married. And her acknowledgement of his love at the end of the movie, part requiem/part defiant mourning, is a bit of closure never expressed in the book. Forced to abandon his plans to shoot Bowie’s initial prison break with T-Dub and Chickamaw, Ray concocted the even more ingenious opener; daring – and first of its kind – overhead helicopter tracking shot.  Ray’s desire to use the novel’s original title, Thieves Like Us was also vetoed by the Code, who suggested no honor among thieves was possible, or rather, should be implied. Indirectly, the film’s title went through several permutations; Your Red Wagon, The Twisted Road, and finally, They Live By Night. The end result is a far more streamlined and refined narrative, taunt and very much a subliminal commentary on HUAC’s blacklists and witch-hunting practices Ray absolutely abhorred. There is nothing in the historical record to suggest Nicholas Ray became an informant for HUAC – ‘naming names’ – outside of a thinly veiled ‘confession’ he is supposed to have made to Jean Evans. True, or pure conjecture. We may never know. Whatever his sins, Nicholas Ray would carry them to his grave. Arguably, he also paid dearly for them while he lived.
They Live By Night arrives from Criterion via their continued alliance with Warner Home Video. Aside: I sincerely hope Criterion gets more Warner/RKO/MGM product from the thirties, forties and fifties to fatten out the rather tragic void that persists for classics on Blu-ray; particularly as Warner’s formidable girth of true classic movie-land magic has yet to be properly mined in 1080p, with their most recent focus on B-grade filler coming mostly from Warner’s own archive. Can it really be the middle of 2017 with still no hi-def plans for bona fide classics like The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Dinner at Eight (1933), National Velvet (1944), Marie Antoinette (1938), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) among far too many others?!?! But I digress.
Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio in a new 2K transfer derived from a 35mm safety fine-grain positive made from the original camera negative, They Live By Night looks resplendent on Blu-ray. To be fair, there are minor fluctuations in density, clarity, shadow delineation and depth. But overall, the image looks very fresh and as appealing, with darker sequences boasting superb nuances in gray scale and contrast.  This is 1080p done right, folks, and we champion Warner’s efforts in conjunction with Criterion; a very clean image with zero traces of edge enhancement and narrowly a speck of dirt to be found anywhere. It has been a long time since a movie of this vintage has so impressed me on Blu-ray. Criterion gives us a PCM mono audio, nicely cleaned up with inherent limitations perfectly preserved. Dialog is always crisp with occasionally minor and largely forgivable variations. Extras include Eddie Muller’s audio commentary: a Q&A with star, Farley Granger recorded for Warner’s old DVD release. New to Blu is a twenty minute interview with film critic, Imogen Sara Smith, fairly in-depth and covering much more than just the movie.  We also get a 1956 audio only interview with producer, John Houseman, and, the rather disappointing video essay, The Twisted Road, barely clocking in at just over five minutes, with film historians, Molly Haskell and Glenn Erickson, filmmakers, Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists, Alain Silver and James Ursini. If ever there was a sound bite junket produced with thrift instead of integrity, this is it.  Last, an enlightening printed pamphlet analysis by film scholar, Bernard Eisenschitz.  Bottom line: They Live By Night remains a potent and evocative noir masterpiece. Nicholas Ray’s unorthodox approach to the material and the performances throughout, highlighted by Stewart Granger and Cathy O’Donnell result in a shockingly frank and tragic love story as timeless as those ‘other’ popularized immortal lovers from Shakespeare’s time. While extras left me wanting, the Blu-ray presentation of this feature is practically flawless. Very highly recommended!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, June 24, 2017

UNFORGIVEN: 4K Blu-Ray/Blu-ray Combo (Malpaso/Warner Bros. 1992) Warner Home Video

“Respect your efforts, respect yourself. Self-respect leads to self-discipline. When you have both firmly under your belt, that's real power.” 
– Clint Eastwood
Even after all these years, and with copious work to illustrate the point, I find it difficult to refer to Clint Eastwood as ‘a director’. This is not to suggest Eastwood has not excelled in his ‘other’ vocation. In point of fact, he has…over and over again. And yet, his iconography as a western anti-hero and all-around tough guy, gleaned mostly from impressions made during a formative part of his transitional career as the only actor who could – by his own joking admission – say ten lines in as many movies and typify the solitary loner of either urban or rural landscapes; Eastwood has long since become an ingrained part of our collective movie-goer’s pop culture that to cleave his reputation from these legendary performances is about as easy as peeling a turtle. Eastwood, for me, will always be a star first/director second, even though and undeniably he has made some very engaging, and on occasion ground-breaking movies. Personally, I think Eastwood is most in his element when he wears two hats – as star and director. So, in some ways 1992’s Unforgiven is the epitome of this triangulation of star, director and western anti-hero converging on a grizzly, post-postmodern epitaph, not only to close the door on a certain kind of Hollywood western film but also Eastwood’s place within its legendary pantheon.
Unforgiven is imbued with a world-weariness few westerns have embraced so completely or successfully and with such emotional clarity and content of character; our ‘hero’ – Will Munny (Eastwood) – a craggy, careworn relic from an era that refuses to remain bygone, revived by The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) solely to erode what little salvation Munny has left as a notorious murderer, thief and all-around bad guy. Lanky, forlorn and stoic to a fault, Will has managed to purge himself of those frustrated youthful impulses to be a hell raiser extraordinaire with the aid of a good woman he wed and by whom has sired a pair of children he now almost willfully abandons with the best of intentions – to return to them a richer man – monetarily, if not in spirit – than all his failed attempts as a farmer have thus far managed to procure for the family. None of it would be possible had Munny’s sainted wife not died of small pox three years before; the first of his recompenses for having lived as no man should, by the blood of others, some undeserving of his particular brand of frontier wickedness. Huddled around a campfire with his one-time partner in crime, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Will confesses that more recently memories of his despicable behavior have surged with a vengeance to keep him up at night. Eastwood gives us Will Munny warts and all: a deadly assassin whose nerve has dimmed – not dulled.
Scripted by David Webb Peoples, Unforgiven is, in fact a story, not of the glories of the old west nor even its affirmation or noble declaration to echo any sentiment that might suggest a necessity to fight and kill for what is a man’s place in the world. Will Munny once killed for sport and pleasure. He enjoyed decimating anything that walked, leaving a bloody trail of conquest behind and a notorious reputation long endured after his retirement. Only now, Will has developed a crisis of conscience. He did not do it alone. But once discovered, no purge of the past is possible. Will is a fractured soul, a broken man and a lost cause; not because he has found goodness, but rather, because knowing it, no amount of it can expunge this record of a past imperfect. Will’s one revelatory act is not avenging the ‘wrong’ done to the whore, Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson) in this desolate outpost of Big Whiskey, Wyoming (for which Will has come and expects to be paid handsomely for his time and ‘art’), but rather his parceling off a few well-fermented nuggets of wisdom to the Schofield Kid; the novice who fancies himself a real ‘killer’ in Munny’s vein without first having weighed the consequences yet to emerge from his misguided notions of rugged masculinity.  The true merit of a man is not in gun slinging; nor in his implacable resolve to remain the last man standing after many a brutal confrontation betwixt the stark skies and tumbleweed; rather, within the strength of kindness that escaped Will’s sensibilities in youth, now come to haunt and taunt him in the twilight’s last gleaming of his craggy middle age.
Unforgiven is grandly edifying: history without the legend, or rather, scraping beneath the surface of ‘legacy’ to reveal a warped, sad and infinitely tragic little thing is ‘fortune and glory’ achieved at the point of a pistol. Thievery and murder are the lowest aspirations. They serve only personal greed while satisfying no master. They erode common decency and strike at the heart of an ingrained moral code that cannot be expunged; hence, Peoples’ almost Shakespearean arc of misfortune is brought to bear on a deliciously sad and sobering tale of one man, lost and friendless; shamed, yet perennially angry and determined to outlast his competition. Such is Will Munny. Unforgiven is exceptionally well cast; Eastwood’s beady-eyed and thoroughly weathered isolationist, flanked by two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman; the latter, as Little Bill Daggett, a disreputable lawman with an ax to grind and the props to maintain his one-man show of force in Big Whiskey, despite the odds. Hackman’s is the showier part; Freeman’s the more short-lived (literally) yet, unexpectedly sustained – even after his character as died. Both actors are at the top of their game. Also augmenting the cast are Frances Fisher, as the whore, Strawberry Alice, Saul Rubinek (as fair-weather biographer, W.W. Beauchamp), and finally, in a brilliant cameo, the late Richard Harris (exuding equal portions silken smooth culture and deviousness as the cold-blooded assassin, English Bob).
Unforgiven opens with what appears to be a prologue in wide aperture; actually more an epitaph to the tale that will follow it: a stark sunset set against the silhouette of a cabin, a single sparsely decorated tree and a man facing the tombstone of his late wife - a brief recap of a mother’s disappointment in her daughter’s willful marriage to William Munny; a man considerably older than she and of no account, except for his positively tarnished repute as a professional killer. We learn Will’s wife, Ruth has died of small pox, leaving him to rear their two children: Will Jr. (Shane Meier) and Penny (Aline Levasseur). Long ago, Ruth reformed her husband – curing him of the evils of strong drink and his other wicked ways. Nevertheless, even her blind devotion has not managed enough to make Will a successful pig farmer. The shack he calls their homestead is a mess; the hogs, more recently infected with ‘the flu’.  And Will, pretty much at the end of his rope and resources, is urged to reconsider – if nothing else – the profitability of his former days as a gunslinger for hire by the Schofield Kid. Seems The Kid is hell bent on emulating Munny's reign of vengeance, this time to collect on a $1000 reward to be paid to anyone who will avenge the disfigurement of the prostitute, Delilah at the hands of one of her drunken clients.
The Kid professes ‘a reputation’. Unfortunately, that is all it is. So he enlists Will’s help. Initially turned down, Will decides to stake a claim on his children’s’ future. Delayed in his departure by an obstinate pony, Will rides off to a neighboring farm to second his friend and one-time partner, Ned Logan to the cause. Logan is a very reluctant participant, not the least because his Cheyenne wife, Sally Two Trees’ (Cherrilene Cardinal) is displeased. After all, they have achieved modest success in farming. Why should Ned risk it all now. For old time’s sake?  Nevertheless, Ned follows his ex-partner on the desolate, many days journey to Big Whiskey. In the meantime, word of the avenging ransom money has spread far and wide, attracting the attentions of the assassin, English Bob and his biographer, W.W. Beauchamp. The saloon keeper, Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) is outraged. After all, there is sure to be trouble in town once the hired guns discover the whores have yet to raise the thousand dollars needed for the big payoff. So Skinny wastes no time informing Sheriff Little Bill Daggett, who, in turn, vets English Bob’s flamboyant arrival in town. To prove his point – that violence of any kind will not be tolerated in Big Whiskey - Little Bill ambushes and pummels English Bob to the point of unconsciousness in the middle of the town’s square; imprisoning Bob and his biographer as a warning to all other gunslingers.
Little Bill would be a decent lawman if he were not so unscrupulous in his enforcement of the law. At some base level, the more cowardly Beauchamp fawningly admires such men, switching horses in mid-stride by suggesting he and Little Bill collaborate on the unvarnished account of his memoirs. Little Bill sends English Bob packing on the next stagecoach out of town. Now, Munny, Logan and The Kid arrive in Big Whiskey. Systematically brutalized by Little Bill and his posse, Munny is taken to a safe haven by Delilah where he is nursed back to health. The Kid is disgusted by how easily Munny was defeated and goads Logan into reconsidering their three-way split of the money for assassinating the cowboys; suggesting he and Logan go it alone. Ned refuses. Autumn turns to winter, then spring and Munny, on the mend, gathers his resolve to continue the hunt. Only now it is Logan who has second thoughts. Gun slinging is in his past and he is determined it should remain there. Departing the group to return to his land, Logan is captured by the cowboy posse and taken into town where Little Bill repeatedly whips him until he confesses the true identity of his cohorts. Meanwhile, Munny and The Kid shoot one of the cowboys dead as he proceeds to use an outhouse behind their log cabin hideout in the woods. The other cowboys pursue Munny and The Kid but are unsuccessful. Skinny informs Little Bill of the ambush and, in turn, Little Bill exacts his revenge on Logan.
As a director, Clint Eastwood respects his audience enough to spare us the grotesque cruelty that must have followed, as we, and Munny, later learn from Little Sue (Tara Dawn Frederick), the tearful prostitute come to payout the reward money for the job, that Logan has since died from injuries sustained; his corpse, propped in a coffin outside the Big Whiskey saloon with a sign reading, “This is what happens to assassins” as a warning to any and all who may wish to follow in his footsteps. Munny’s vengeance shifts from the rest of the cowboys to Little Bill. Alas, in regaling Munny with this information, Sue also gives an account of Logan’s forced confession; that Little Bill has been forewarned Will Munny is the meanest, craziest son of a bitch that ever lived; a man who murdered women and children on a train simply to steal the loot inside, and who indiscriminately killed men for the pleasure in it. The Kid, who has thus far lied through his teeth about his reputation as a hired gun, only having achieved his first kill (the cowboy in the outhouse) that afternoon, and who regarded Will as something of a relic, now suffers from a bout of crippling anxiety. Gun slinging is not for him. Attempting to drown his nerves in a bottle of booze, The Kid, in an attempt to offset his own guilt, now suggests, “He had it coming,” to which Munny coolly replies, “We all got it coming.”
The Kid bows out. He wants neither the money nor the notorious reputation Will has achieved. The crisis of conscience is decidedly not worth it. So, Will goes it alone in the pouring rain; back to Big Whiskey, past Logan’s open casket, and, marching into the saloon where Little Bill has gathered the remaining cowboys and his own men in preparation for a ride out in search of Will and The Kid.  Without batting an eye, Will clears the room of potential ‘heroes’; shooting Skinny dead first, then the rest of the cowboy posse, and finally, Little Bill, as the whores and Beauchamp look on in abject horror. Mounting his horse just outside, Munny declares his name and the purpose of his visit to Big Whiskey, encouraging anyone frisky or dumb enough to take a pot shot at him right now. There are no takers. In a bellowing voice he further instructs that unless Logan is given a proper burial at the first opportunity he will return to Big Whiskey to murder every last citizen until the town is wiped off the map. As his reputation has preceded him, we assume the citizenry will follow through with his request post haste. In an epilogue, virtually the mirror of the prologue, we learn Munny pulled up stakes after Big Whiskey and left his farm. Hence, when Mrs. Feathers, the mother of his late Ruth came in search of her daughter, she found only her grave site, providing no sense of closure or explanation as to why such a good woman should have married this very bad man. The epilogue also suggests Munny moved his family to San Francisco, hanging up his pistols for good and perhaps even prospered as a merchant in dried goods.  
With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood illustrates, as though proof were needed, he has evolved as one of the finest all-around talents ever to work in the picture biz. With very few exceptions, Eastwood has excelled in every field of his endeavors (we’ll overlook his woefully bad performance in 1969’s as bizarrely idiotic Paint Your Wagon). Even so, Eastwood had the strength of his convictions; in Unforgiven’s case, also the legacy of his alter-ego/on-screen persona gleaned from those fabulous Sergio Leone westerns. Eastwood’s Will Munny is very much cleaved from this particular limb of the actor’s tree of expertise. Herein, Eastwood delves into the solitary temptations eviscerating a man’s soul, compelled to sin, but perhaps also to satisfy – or at least, placate, the rage from within he merely suspected lay dormant. It goes without saying, Eastwood possesses rare and elusive ‘star quality’ too oft professes by lesser talents. But he also knows his way around good solid story-telling. Possessing an eye for composition, editing, writing, casting and yes, directing, Clint Eastwood can visually convey a good yarn almost single-handed with the finesse of his own guiding principles at the forefront to achieve an end result. That he graciously shares the screen and the credit with other artisans toiling behind and in front of the camera is a testament to not only his intuitiveness and good nature, but magnanimity towards others besides.
At 87 years young, Eastwood today is one of Hollywood’s most admired and respected elder statesmen; of late, the victim of yet another cruel celebrity death hoax. Were that he was in his prime to point that oversized Magnum pistol at the culprit responsible for it and utter the infamous retort, “Go ahead…make my day! Do you feel lucky, punk? Well…do you?” In essence, Eastwood does just that in Unforgiven. It is a delayed reaction however, brought on by Munny’s discovery the best friend he cajoled into partaking of their assassin’s creed has paid the supreme sacrifice that ought to have awaited him instead. Eastwood is triumphant as both star and director in Unforgiven, his actor’s sensibilities better informing his directorial decision-making and vice versa. There is an almost mathematical certainty to the way Eastwood effortlessly breaks the third wall of his proscenium; the ten gallon and six-shooters traded for a can of celluloid and a viewfinder; then, back again. If it all looks effortless, it isn’t; Eastwood, wringing a performance on both sides of the camera with a lot of blood, sweat and tears poured into every last shot. “I've always felt that if I examine myself too much, I'll find out what I know and don't know, and I'll burst the bubble,” Eastwood once commented, “I've gotten so lucky relying on my animal instincts, I'd rather keep a little bit of the animal alive…the one advantage an actor has of converting to a director is he's been in front of the camera. He doesn't have to get in front of the camera again, subliminally or otherwise.” Unforgiven is likely Eastwood’s opus magnum in a career of many highlights.
It has been ten years since Warner Home Video bowed its first Blu-Ray incarnation of Unforgiven. Then, the results were a very mixed bag; an image with markedly improved image clarity over its DVD counterpart, but also quite a bit of built-in instability and, worst of all, a PCM Surround Stereo audio that left a lot of fans flat. This reissued Blu-ray is simultaneously a cause for applause and some consternation. I’ll explain. It may be sacrilege, but I prefer the newly remastered 1080p Blu-ray release of Unforgiven to its HDR Ultra Hi-def 4K remaster. Now, I should preface my comments by suggesting that if memory serves me correctly, the 4K Blu-ray, with its decidedly bleak, desaturated and subdued color palette, and eye-squinting dark contrast is probably a lot closer to what my theatrical viewing experience of Unforgiven was back in 1992. The 1080p Blu-ray offers an entirely different visual presentation; richer, warmer hues but with less than fully saturated black levels. Even so, fine detail pops more on the Blu-ray than its 4K counterpart. The 4K visuals can only be appreciated in a completely darkened room. The Blu-ray allows for ambient light sources to be present and still achieve a level of pleasing overall image clarity. So, is the new 4K disc truer to Unforgiven theatrically? Hmmm. I have to say, it’s different than the Blu-ray Warner has also remastered for this 2-disc reissue. Was I blown away by the uber-clarity of 4K as directly compared to its Blu-ray counterpart? Not really. In fact, I would suggest my first reaction herein was ho-hum ‘disappointment’. 
So, which version will I likely be inclined to watch again. Probably the Blu-ray. Regrets. In both instances, the soundtrack has been remastered in 5.1 DTS. As far as I am concerned, and save a few noteworthy exceptions, the aural discrepancies between these two tracks are virtually unknown without, again, straining to focus on the particulars. I realize this isn’t saying much for the 4K format – at least not where Unforgiven is concerned. For now, I will wait in the hope of better transfers of some of my other favorite movies to follow it. Extras are all ported over from the 2-disc DVD and include an extensive reflection by Eastwood on the making of the film, plus 3 additional featurettes on Eastwood, his career and the afterlife of this movie. We also an episode of Maverick, Richard Schickel’s audio commentary and a theatrical trailer. If you are buying this combo reissue of Unforgiven for the Blu-ray copy, then this disc comes very highly recommended by yours truly. If you are looking forward to it as your foray into 4K (as I was) you may be left wanting. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Blu-ray – 5
4K Blu-ray – 3.5


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Blu-ray (Disney/Mandeville 2017) Disney Home Video

In 1988, Oscars’ Master of Ceremonies, Chevy Chase took it upon himself to deviate from the scripted monologue to poke a bit of caustic fun at movie critics, suggesting all we ever do is spend two minutes dismantling two years of creative blood, sweat and tears put forth by hundreds of artisans; topping off his assessment with “…but never mind about the critics. Where would they be without us…we certainly know where we’d be without them!” Even so, it is times like these I feel a slight twinge more inclined to agree with Chase’s summation of our profession; as I am about to tear into director, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, a 2017 remake of the much beloved Disney animated and Oscar-nominated Best Picture from 1991. Condon’s movie is a more elaborate, yet oddly, not more accomplished one; a queasy amalgam of scenes excised almost verbatim, although inserted herein with far less finesse or even ‘animated’ integrity in performances given throughout; also, gleaning moments from the Broadway redux, and finally, lumbering about with more than a hint of creative license from screenwriters, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. There is a bizarre disconnect working against the lithe and lyrical magic so effortlessly on display in the 1991 version; Tobias A. Schliessler’s gorgeous cinematography, finessing Sarah Greenwood’s as sumptuous production design, and deliberately glossy CGI, repeatedly sabotaged by Condon’s desire to dip the whole artistic mélange in a sort of faux gilding of political correctness.
God forbid we should have a story set in 1740 rural France and not cast a handful of non-Caucasians in non-essential token parts scattered throughout its backdrop, merely to be fair to Hollywood’s faux sanctimoniousness these days regarding ‘diversity’, if cruelly out of step with history itself and every previous movie incarnation made from the Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s classic fairy tale, including the 1991 version! Sorry folks, but if blacks were not allowed in the court of Louis XV via France’s Code Noir then I really do not see the point of pretending otherwise in a movie supposedly set in the same era. This is not my biggest pet peeve with this Beauty and the Beast: merely, one of many. And I should point out I feel the same way about listening to rap music inserted into Baz Luhrmann’s bastardized version of The Great Gatsby (2013) or suffering through an endless hit parade of pop music infecting virtually every frame of Sophia Coppola’s badly bungled reincarnation of Marie Antoinette (2007). Film makers: stay true to period – please! You do neither ‘diversity’ nor history any favors by rewriting it to suit this prevailing strain of diseased liberalism that has simultaneously professed tolerance even as it ruthlessly stamps out any opinion deviating from it, while sucking virtually all of the joy out of movies in general and going to the movies in particular. Our movie culture has increasingly become vacuous and antiseptic; something I cannot abide: a lot for the eyes, but precious little for either the heart or mind. And lest we observe that to illustrate intolerance – via tolerance for tolerance sake – is decidedly quite different from this all-pervading left wing determinist strain since indoctrinated the audience purely for politicized purposes that have little, if any genuine place in good solid storytelling.
But back to Condon and this version of Beauty and the Beast. Despite Herr Director’s claim to have re-envisioned the movie for ‘contemporary’ tastes, what he has actually done is to cobble together a rather awkward rendition from multiple aforementioned source materials, while veering almost tragically beyond the ingeniously structured scope of the author’s original work. Okay, we get it. Condon’s not particularly interested in Barbot de Villeneuve or 1740’s rural France. But he is also troubled by his adherence to the Disney animated legacy from whence his interpretation draws most of its strength and a good many of its shortcomings. Animation forgives a lot of structurally unsound narrative decisions, particularly when the cast includes such heavy hitters as Angela Lansbury, the late Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers; a winsome and iconic vocal rendition of an as fetching female protagonist, voiced by newcomer, Paige O’Hara; a killer Howard Ashman/Alan Menken score, and…oh yes, that little sprinkle of pixie dust for which Disney in its prime under Walt’s tutelage and during their mid-eighties artistic renaissance (carrying over for nearly a decade thereafter) are best known and renown. This Beauty and the Beast packs on the A-list names: Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson, seconded to infuse ‘life’ into the beloved characters of Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts respectively. Yet, it paints each of these characterizations – concealed behind ornately achieved special effects – in a rather insincere light as garish and cartoony recreations of the former rather than as stand-alone flesh and blood derivatives that possess and can offer us something refreshing.
This Beauty and the Beast cannot stand on its own. It is a movie instead commenting on another made better before it; the ‘tale as old as time’ now much too old because the memory of its predecessor remains far-reaching and resilient against any trampling from this lackluster reboot. Chiefly disconcerting about this remake is Dan Stevens’ ‘Beast’ – forced to wear a rubberized grey suit and walk on elevated platform shoes to give his performance girth in the CGI domain. Alas, Stevens’ tortured soul is less ‘towering’; his one standout, the ballad, ‘Evermore’ effectively sung, but grotesquely marred by Condon’s inability to allow Stevens to simply stand still and remain in frame; Condon’s camera instead swirling around his largely CGI-concocted labyrinth of crumbling buttresses, gloomy towers and spiraling stairwells. There are, in fact, some affecting new songs to augment the original score; ‘Days in the Sun’ and ‘How Does a Moment Last Forever’ full of precisely the heart-tearing pathos of life’s never to be dulled mad inhuman noise. Tragically, it remains the handling of the more time-honored score that sinks the picture; Emma Thompson’s warbling of the title tune in no way coming close to rival the poignancy of Angela Lansbury’s iconic and sigh-inducing ballroom pas deux from the 1991 movie. As if he realizes he hasn’t a leg to stand on here, Condon repeatedly inserts pregnant pauses throughout the iconoclastic Menken/Ashman pantheon of songs, adding a fumbled dance routine to Josh Gad and Luke Evan’s self-effacing and defeatist rendition of ‘Gaston’, and plunging ‘Be Our Guest’ into exactly the sort of gauche, Baz Luhrmann-esque spectacle from which even Busby Berkeley’s razzamatazz would have shied away with blushed incredulity.
Plot wise, we are exactly where we were in 1991; the narrative moving from stained glass windows to brief vignettes showing a rather effete Prince (Dan Stevens) indulging in a hedonist gala, interrupted by Hattie Morahan’s Agathe (a.k.a. – the enchantress). In the incarnation of an old hag, she offers him a red rose he callously refuses. Her punishment is a curse upon the castle and all who dwell there - seems a little extreme for the servant class never harboring any ill will toward her. Nevertheless, a curse is a curse. The years pass. The castle falls into disrepair. Each time a rose petal is shed from her magic flower in the Prince’s possession – a painful reminder of his callousness – the servile occupants who cater to this hideously disfigured monarch, all of whom are presently transformed into various inanimate objects, develop just a bit more rigor mortis in their joints. Without a girl to break the spell they will soon cease to exist. A ray of hope derives from the nearby village: Belle (Emma Watson) – the headstrong ‘odd’ if comely lass, absolutely refusing to marry the most eligible bachelor in town: Gaston (Luke Evans). Despite her clear rejection of his advances, Gaston is determined to wed Belle.
But Belle is utterly devoted to her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) – an inventor of elaborate clocks that depict secrets of his former life with Belle’s mother (Zoe Rainey). As before, Maurice ventures off to a nearby market to peddle his wares (in the 1991 version, it was an inventor’s convention and a wood-chopping device). And although Kline plays Maurice with far more dignity and infinitely less befuddlement than his portly animated incarnation, his ‘inventor with a heart’ still manages to get hopelessly lost in a nightmarish forest landscape instantly turned to chalk under an almost greyish volcanic ash meant to resemble snow – in June, no less. This becomes a woefully silly running gag in the movie. It is curious none of the other townsfolk recall they are living in a valley just beyond where the ancient palace endures. But we are told the enchantress wiped out all memory of its existence. So the town is under a spell too. Presumably, none have ever dared to venture beyond the town in search of their own happiness. Simple things for simple minds, I suppose. Maurice eventually finds his way to the Beast’s castle and after stumbling upon several of its enchanted objects tries his best to escape. Delayed in his promise to Belle – to fetch a single rose – Maurice’s ‘theft’ is witnessed by the Beast who imprisons him in the castle tower. Moving on: Gaston’s right-hand, LeFou (Josh Gad) endeavors to make a diverting party for this nihilistic brute he hopelessly – and rather haplessly admires; drunken revelry interrupted when Maurice – newly freed, bursts in, claiming Belle has traded herself in kind for his release from the Beast’s lair.
Gaston placates Maurice with a search party for Belle’s safe return. But he quickly loses his temper with the doddering old man, whom he now senselessly pummels despite LeFou’s call for restrain. Instead, Gaston elects to bind Maurice with rope to the stump of a nearby tree and leaving him for dead at the mercy of the wolves; a brutal end narrowly averted when Agathe rescues Maurice at the crack of dawn. Maurice returns to the village to accuse Gaston of attempted murder. While the town is momentarily on his side, they quickly revert to following the more imposing bully, despite Agathe’s corroboration of Maurice’s account of events. Back at the castle, the rough start to an affair du coeur between Beast and Belle has segued into a devotion of sorts, not yet true love on her part, but fueled by Belle’s ability to see the lighter side of this creature who holds her hostage; a genuine sense of Stockholm Syndrome creeping into her appreciation. Recognizing her love of books, the Beast bequeaths Belle his formidable library. Asked by Belle if he has read all of the volumes stored within its walls, he sheepishly admits to have ‘missed a few’ and she, later reads Shakespearean sonnets to him across a snowy footbridge while he wistfully gazes onto the domain he openly confesses to ‘seeing for the very first time’. Ah me…what one good woman can do.
Reality – of a sort – intrudes on this idyllic escape into improbable love. Having justly accused Gaston of attempted murder, Maurice is imprisoned in a paddy wagon for his ‘delusions’; the town preparing to screw their courage to the sticking post and storm the Beast’s fortress. Meanwhile, back at the castle, the Beast reveals a magic atlas to Belle that will allow her to travel to anywhere and seemingly any time in history. Shielded from the truth regarding her own mother, Belle now places her hands and the Beast’s paws on the atlas, propelling them both to a desolate windmill in Paris where she witnesses her mother, riddled with the plague, begging Maurice to steal away with their young daughter while she quietly expires in the squalor of their confined bedroom.  Returning in time and place to the castle, the Beast allows Belle to see what has become of her father through yet another clairvoyant device – the magic mirror. This reveals Maurice’s present fate. The Beast releases Belle and she races with all speed to the town square, begging the peasant class for clemency. Since Gaston does not really love Belle he has absolutely zero compunction about tossing her into the back of the paddy wagon while he and the rest of the town march into the woods to kill the Beast and tear down his ramparts. The candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), tea pot, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), operatic wardrobe, Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), piano forte, Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), feather duster, Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and tea cup, Chip (Nathan Mack), along with the rest of the household staff, gird their resolve and launch a counteroffensive.
In the 1991 version, the unnamed wardrobe took into it one of the offending male commoners, releasing him from its bureau of drawers moments later wearing a conga dress, high heels and heavy rope of oversized beads. In this version, Garderobe spews endless miles of multicolored cloth from bolts of fabric concealed within, embroidering three butch peasants with their pitchforks drawn in a decadent display of hooped skirts, bustieres and powdered wigs, of which one of these fellows actually seems to have enjoyed his transgender reformation. Political correctness, again. Gaston confronts the Beast on his balcony. In the ’91 version Gaston mortally stabs the Beast. Herein, he simply uses his twelve gauge shotgun to do his bloody business, repeatedly blasting into the hulking hairy mass. Progressive for the 1991 version, the wound inflicted by Gaston causes the Beast to loosen his grip, thus dropping the evildoer to his fatal plummet. Herein, Condon again delays our satisfaction for the ‘just kill’; Gaston, allowed to indiscriminately riddle the Beast in bullet holes. As the last petal tumbles from the enchanted rose inside its crystal terrarium the castle’s fragile precipices rupture, causing Gaston to do his fatal face-plant of his own accord. The Beast expires in Belle’s arms and the animated objects experience a last hardening of their arteries – truly remade into inanimate objects. Ah, but now the near mute Agathe, who came to the castle with the town’s folk, reveals herself to be the enchantress. Having witnessed the Beast’s love for Belle reciprocated in her plea for him to remain at her side, the enchantress releases him from her spell. The castle is restored to its former glory and the house staff is resurrected in human form. All rejoice at their good fortune. The town folk are lifted from their collective amnesia and return to the castle in peace to aid in this celebration.   
Generationally, Beauty and the Beast has been one of the most resilient and perennially revived fairy tales of all time. So it has taken Condon and company considerable effort to derail its lissome mystery, judicious precepts (learning to love without prejudice) and haunting parallels with life’s infinite wisdom (never judge a book by its cover, lest ye be stuck with a mate outwardly as perfect as a paragon but harboring the heart of a gross pig) into this sort of lifeless Broadway-esque explosion of sound and fury…signifying nothing. The Beast’s castle is not moodily magnificent with repositories of clandestine fascination lurking about every corner so much as it mimics some cruel and desolate Chernobyl-esque archive of self-angst and pity plunged into its own nuclear winter of discontent; the adjacent town, an unrealistically pristine ‘Walt Disney threw up in here’ Color Forms-styled enclave of simpletons denied any purpose beyond blindly following the first unoriginal thought to infest this poor provincial town.
I suppose production designer, Sarah Greenwood and senior art directors, James Foster and Nick Gottschalk have gleaned their aesthetic inspiration from a fanciful combination of Parisian Gothic and more contemporary deviant fantasy creature art work. We must tip our hats to this unusual design, as it remains the singularly ‘all encompassing’ part of the movie that never ceases to amaze. Too bad merely looking at pretty – even pretty odd – things does not – and cannot – act as a substitute for all of the other shortcomings woefully on display. One of the most endearing aspects of the 1991 animated feature was that the castle’s seemingly inanimate objects were all gleaned from the ensconced Disney philosophy to be instantly lovable and attractive at a glance; particularly Jerry Orbach’s wily candelabra, Lumiere: Orbach, cribbing inspired notions of the former grand boulevardier from a superb lampoon of the late and great Maurice Chevalier. Regrettably, from top to bottom, the characters repopulating this reincarnated version of Beauty and the Beast are more wooden than plywood and infinitely less charismatic, or even as convincing as their hand-drawn counterparts. Is it any wonder Emma Watson’s first reaction to Ewan McGregor’s weirdly insect-like Lumiere should be an attempt to crush it beneath a rather large paving stone?
Dan Stevens is an ineffectual and frankly, unprepossessing and scrawny Prince Charming; the Beast, his antithesis, transformed through clever CGI into a cross between a horned goat and lion-esque organism with little resemblance either to ‘beasts’ of yore or anything we might suppose has not escaped the bowels of hell. Mercifully, Emma Watson’s Belle is a woman reincarnated with Paige O’Hara’s spunk and foresight, the very embodiment of the ‘new’ Disney heroine who does not need, but desires a mate on her own – for her own. That makes this Belle and her predecessor in the ’91 version, ‘a very funny girl’ as far as these countrified gentry are concerned. Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Potts lacks Angela Lansbury’s grand-maternal warmth. Only Ian McKellan’s Cogsworth manages to recapture the stodgy good humor of David Ogden Stiers. In the original movie, the castle staff is transformed into inanimate objects befitting their appointments as humans in the castle. Hence, Cogsworth is the Prince’s ‘timely’ advisor; Lumiere, the servant who lights the halls, and Mrs. Potts, the head mistress of the kitchen. This iconography makes perfect sense when extended to Stanley Tucci’s Maestro (a newly created character for this version), reincarnated from the Prince’s pianist into a piano forte. But it remains a bizarre mystery how and why the operatic Audra McDonald, as the Maestro’s accomplice, should suddenly find herself remade as the portly ‘clothes horse’ bureau in Belle’s bed chamber.  Luke Evans is a credible Gaston, exuding equal portions of ego and menace, while Josh Gad’s LeFou is impressively dimensional, even empathetic, especially for a character that, in the 1991 version, began life as mere comedic fop: the dumpy and frequent punching bag of his well-muscled cohort.
Beauty and the Beast ought to have been a tale as old as time. And yet, Condon and his cameraman, Tobias A. Schliessler have endeavored to add some decidedly ‘of the moment’ staging likely to date their adaptation in decades yet to follow; the frenetic, chop-shop way the action sequences are Ginsu-ed, the artificially created ‘hand-held’ look in complete juxtaposition to the high-styled formality of the period; the vignette-orchestrated fades to black that tediously occur whenever Condon cannot figure out more finessed connective tissue to string two scenes of emotional disparity together.  In all, these willful decisions to transform a classic adventure/romance with a moral center into a careening roller coaster ride with glamorous, if anesthetizing special effects renders the storytelling a rather moot point. We know how this one ends. Hence, the focus herein ought to have been on getting to know these characters more intimately beyond a sound bite or the anticipated ‘song’.
Like its predecessor, this Beauty and the Beast is a pop-operatic explosion of tunes gleaned from the grandest heritage of the Hollywood musical. Alas, it neither aspires to be more or better than its 1991 antecedent; but a retread and more of the same. There is a fine line of distinction between homage and copycatting and this movie crosses it on more than one occasion, regrettably to its own detriment. What is missing this time around is the joie de vivre and certain je ne sais quoi that only the animated retelling of Barbot de Villeneuve’s timeless classic can completely satisfy. While no one can deny Condon’s achievement (a co-production between Disney Inc. and Mandeville Films, shot almost entirely at Shepperton Studios in England employing an ingenious blend of full scale sets and green screen matte work) as technically robust and visually encompassing spectacle with scores of heavily pancaked and preening extras swirling about in lavish set pieces, the ambitiousness is all for not since we are deprived the story’s tender core of a love, depressingly absent, constantly relegated to the back cupboard in favor of more grandiloquent production values. Pretty to look at, though deadly dull, this Beauty and the Beast cannot hold a candle to the 1991 version. I suspect, Orbach’s Lumiere would wholeheartedly agree.
Beauty and the Beast looks predictably solid in 1080p, digitally pristine and with a consistently sharp image bathed in eye-popping brilliant colors. Contrast is bang-on accurate. It’s nice to see a movie of more recent times where the overall spectrum of color design has not been tinted down to reflect that post-post modern exaggerated blue/teal tint for night scenes (there is, after all, a myriad of other ways to photograph them). Indeed, the hallmark of this visual presentation is an explosion of color; brilliant blue skies, lush emerald green summer foliage, and a plethora of intricately woven fabrics and hair styles that positively glisten in the dawn or full noonday sunshine, equally to impress when it twinkles under the pallor of romance-inducing moonlight.  Blacks are very deep and absorbing and flesh tones, thoroughly accurate, with fine detail always brought to the forefront. No complaints here, nor with the 7.1 DTS audio, offering up clarity and spaciousness with a smoothly enveloping posture. Extras are confined to typical junkets we have come to expect from Disney: a music video, making-of featurette and some very brief snippets excised from the final cut (aside: I think these should have been more accurately labeled as ‘outtakes’ and/or ‘trims’ rather than ‘scenes’ as they barely play at a minute a piece and, in most cases, for far less). Bottom line: this Blu-ray disc presentation of Beauty and the Beast is flawless and satisfying. Were that the movie could boast as much!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, June 17, 2017

THE PINK PANTHER FILM COLLECTION: Blu-ray (UA 1963-1982) Shout! Factory

I have a great affinity for British actors; from Albert Finney to Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins, Cary Grant, Basil Rathbone and Roger Moore, Margaret Rutherford to Emma Thompson: point blank – the Brits just know how to train their talent. That a good many of their formidable stars (plus a girth of others it would take an entire review simply to list) have migrated into American pop culture, trickling into our subconscious to achieve hallowed, even beloved stature, marketed apart from the oft’ thinly-veneered fame and ‘flash-in-the-pan’ public notoriety for which any boob aspiring simply to hit the target as a ‘one hit wonder’ can undoubtedly achieve and equally stake a claim, speaks rather bluntly to the cause and rather diametrically to the sad state of today’s ‘talent’ on tap in Hollywood. While increasingly America – with Simon Cowell’s aid no less – has had to tout its ‘got talent’, the unimpeachable fact is Britain has never lost sight of this fact or advertised itself abroad otherwise. Had WWII not intervened in the natural evolution of their homegrown ventures it is a fairly safe bet London’s West End and film industry would have given Broadway and Hollywood a genuine run for their money.   
One of the nation’s most indelible imports remains Peter Sellers; an extraordinary chameleon, and, despite questionable health that dogged the most prolific part of his career, an utterly urbane bon vivant, whose mesmerizing sense of comic genius knew no bounds. Asked by a reporter in 1979, “I understand you’ve had some heart attacks . . .” Sellers was quick to interject with typical self-effacing charm, “Yes, but I plan to give them up. I'm down to two a day!” From the time he first gained international notoriety, playing virtually the entire populace of a fabulously fanciful Grand Fenwick dukedom in The Mouse That Roared (1959) right until his final appearance in the ferociously flubbed, Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) Sellers’ yen for convincingly – and with seeming effortless aplomb to morph into character(s), proved astonishing and humbling in tandem. Sellers once suggested, “As far as I am aware, I have no personality of my own whatsoever. I have no character to offer the public. When I look at myself I just see a person who strangely lacks what I consider to be the ingredients for a personality. If you asked me to play myself, I wouldn't know what to do.”
With all due respect to the late Mr. Sellers, his modesty herein precariously teeters along the border between grotesque understatement and absurd inaccuracy.  Peter Sellers was an original – period! Born to a pair of Brit Vaudevillians in 1925, Sellers learned the trade from the ground up; by the age of thirteen, already a talent contest winner. After a stint in the Royal Air Force, he became a popular attraction on England’s radio ‘Goon Show’; his segue into films, again, lending to the illusion of ease that was, in fact, the payoff for his Herculean investments of time and energies, honing his craft.  Described as something of a hopeless romantic (with the emphasis on ‘hopeless’) Sellers easily fell in and out of love at the drop of a hat; unhappily wed four times while proposing grand amour to actresses, Sophia Loren and Liza Minnelli – who discretely turned him down. Arguably, Sellers took the ‘booby’ prize when, after only an 11-day courtship, he married Swedish star, Britt Ekland on the advice of his psychic (who told him he would meet someone with the initials B.E. that would change his life). He might have first considered those initials equally applied to Blake Edwards – the director/creator of his soon-to-be most celebrated screen incarnation: Inspector Clouseau. Shortly after his first marriage, Sellers suffered a harrowing heart attack. Doctors had to revive him repeatedly. He barely survived.
In retrospect, I find it a somewhat painful experience to watch Peter Sellers reincarnated as his most famous fop, Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté nationale in the movies that followed his eleven year hiatus from the franchise. With each subsequent installment Sellers looks distractingly more delicate and ailing. One sincerely wonders if a little less of his breakneck schedule would have extended his stay on this earth; his untimely passing at only age 54 causing Blake Edwards to posthumously speculate, “One always lived with the realization Peter could go at any time. He was a very courageous man who refused to let his heart problems interfere with his personal life.” The Clouseauian incarnation of Peter Sellers was not immediate. Indeed, the French accent he sports in The Pink Panther (1963) is quite different – more refined and cultured – than in subsequent films; Seller’s reinvention of Clouseau spurred by a chance encounter with a French concierge at his hotel who spoke in precisely this fractured dialect; surfacing for the first time in 1964’s A Shot in the Dark and forever thereafter unraveling into a more inarticulate blend of broken English and downright gibberish. Considered something of a ‘sequel’ to The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark was actually a Broadway farce starring Walter Matthau. The Mirisch Brothers, having taken their gamble on the first movie – and reaped the richly deserved benefits when no one, not even Walter Mirisch had faith in the project – were aiming high for another successful collaboration between Sellers and director, Blake Edward. Yet neither felt A Shot in the Dark was worthy of their time or efforts. Eventually, the pair lit upon the idea to rework the property, as Edwards would later suggest, “…to do another Clouseau;” the results, arguably, as memorable as the original movie. The overwhelming box office success of both The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark ought to have marked the start of the ‘Panther’ franchise. Instead, Sellers’ poor health and his commitment to various other projects, where be basically appeared in little more than cameos, forced Inspector Clouseau off the screen for the next eleven years.
Today, it seems rather absurd to think of anyone but Peter Sellers inhabiting this role. And yet, Sellers was not Blake Edwards’ first choice. Meanwhile, Walter Mirisch was rather unimpressed with Edwards’ decision to make The Pink Panther in the first place; a movie he regarded as a light and frothy ‘little comedy/caper’. But Mirisch had faith in Edwards as a director; just come off two startlingly different box office smash hits: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Days of Wine and Roses (1962) – each, a testament to Edwards’ versatility. Still, and at least in hindsight, Edwards’ desire to cast Peter Ustinov as Clouseau seemed ill-fated as what followed it: the project moving ahead with Ava Gardner slated to co-star as Clouseau’s wife, Simone. Mercifully, Ustinov’s shaky commitment for the lead had already begun to show. Ultimately, Gardner would be the first to withdraw from the project for undisclosed reasons; Edwards, almost immediately coming up with the exotic Capucine (then, carrying on with Edwards’ agent, Charles K. Feldman). Capucine, born Germaine Lefebvre in Saint-Raphaël, Var, France, adopted her more exotic trademark (French for the Nasturtium flower) during her early days as a runway model where she met and became a lifelong friend of fellow model, Audrey Hepburn. Arriving in New York out of a self-professed ‘case of boredom’, Capucine immediately caught the attentions of John Wayne and Feldman at Manhattan’s fashionable le Pavilion. Wayne was married. Feldman was willing.
Circumspect about the power of her own beauty, Capucine once commented, “…men look at me like I am a suspicious-looking trunk, and they are customs agents.”  Despite her formidable presence and charm, Capucine’s movie career was short-lived. As her patrician Nefertiti-esque looks faded, she became increasingly morose and reclusive. On March 1990, in a state of utter despair, she leapt to her death from her eighth-floor apartment window in Lausanne, Switzerland. Edwards has since gone on record – and on the defensive – to explain that casting Capucine was not influenced by her relationship with Feldman, who likely would have championed the notion. And yet it does appear as though the director came to this decision after his own chance meeting with the exotic flower; later, semi-regretted when the actress’ personal demons intruded upon, and infrequently delayed his shoot. “She was a pain in the ass,” Edwards admits with a queer empathy, adding, “…but a sweet pain in the ass.”  He was less conciliatory towards Peter Ustinov, who basically bowed out of The Pink Panther just weeks before shooting was to commence. Unusual for Ustinov, ever the professional, his last minute withdrawal prompted The Mirisch Company to file a lawsuit. However, when The Pink Panther proved a runaway smash hit, Walter Mirisch was encouraged by his attorney to drop the suit, as no ‘damages’ could be proven from Ustinov’s withdrawal.
Despite his success in Britain, Peter Sellers was then very much a dark horse in Hollywood. Edwards had only seen him in one movie: 1959’s I’m All Right Jack, in a role that left him singularly unimpressed.  Reluctantly agreeing to meet the actor, Edwards quickly discovered a kindred spirit in Sellers; the two bonding immediately over their mutual love and appreciation for the great comedians of the silent era. Concurring The Pink Panther could use more ‘sight gags’, Sellers and Edward endeavored to ‘find’ Clouseau together, and thus, began inserting moments of slapstick into the rather straight forward screenplay Edwards had co-authored with Maurice Richlin; Sellers seizing the proverbial brass ring of inspiration and running with it, adding even more bits with Edwards approval and admiration for his new star. In hindsight, The Pink Panther is perhaps the most delightfully obtuse sleuth/comedy caper ever conceived for the movies. Certainly, it is one of the most visually elegant, what with Philip H. Lathrop’s lush cinematography the veritable icing on an already well-frosted edifice of European sophistication, and, Henry Mancini’s sexy, sax-driven underscore, capped off by Fran Jeffries’ thoroughly feline rendition of ‘Meglio Strasera’. Asked to quantify his reasons for literally stopping the plot to feature Jeffries’ song, Edwards would later admit, “I don’t know…it just felt right.” And indeed, it is; the song adding flavor and finesse to the exotic Cortina backdrop with the hour-glass shaped Jeffries in her stylish stretch pants, hip-swiveling to an adoring crowd and Sellers’ infrequent missteps as she engages him in her conga line.
Apart from Sellers immense contributions, The Pink Panther is ably abetted by David Niven and Robert Wagner, as jewel thieves Sir Charles Lytton and his nephew, George respectively. When The Pink Panther was initially cast with Ustinov as Clouseau, it was Niven’s picture. But with Sellers in the driver’s seat this balance of power shifted – happily so, and, with Niven, ever the suave bon vivant, illustrating no malice for having been unexpectedly relegated to co-starring status. Indeed, Niven’s name remains the headliner in the credits. Contracting the fledgling DePatie-Freleng animation studios to create a cartoon ‘main title’ sequence for the picture would prove yet another windfall for all concerned when the stylishly pantomimed ‘pink panther’ became an iconic character all his own; launching a lucrative series of short-subjects and, eventually, a Saturday morning kiddie cartoon franchise. The panther would also resurface decades later as the spokesman for Owens Corning ‘pink’ insulation. The Edwards/Richlin screenplay is a bit episodic, but its juxtaposition of three separate narratives gradually melding together is bonded in the interim by the brilliant eclecticism of the cast. As example: there really is no good reason why Simone Clouseau (Capucine) ought to have married a police inspector when her heart is obviously invested in a life of crime, already wed, as it were, to the devices and seductions of Sir Charles (David Niven). Nevertheless, The Pink Panther is an elegant farce – period: its claptrap of calamity brought on by a very ribald tongue-in-cheek and increasingly frantic race to possess the most fabulous diamond in the world.
The plot is set into motion with a ‘Once Upon a Time’ prologue in some undisclosed Far East principality; the reigning Maharaja bequeathing a fabulous ‘pink’ gemstone to his young daughter, Princess Dahla (played by an undisclosed child actress in this sequence, immediately replaced by Claudia Cardinale as a sinfully attractive adult woman following the main titles). Aside: Cardinale, a major Italian star, was virtually unknown in America and spoke very little English, thus necessitating her imperceptible dubbing by Canadian actress, Gale Garnett. The cartoon main titles that follow this brief opener are a tour de force; the ‘pink panther’, mischievous and pursued by both the police and a jewel thief who continuously foil his frisky plans. We fast track some twenty years into the future: to Rome, where a mysterious cat burglar is carrying off his latest heist. Pursued by the police, an undisclosed figure nicknamed ‘the Phantom’, makes off with a safe-full of priceless jewels, destroying the rope he has used to lower himself from a third story window by turning it into a lit fuse. We cut to Hollywood, where con artist George Lytton (Robert Wagner) fakes a college graduation photo to present to the uncle who has paid for his formal education – such as it is or, in fact, isn’t. Very little of The Pink Panther was actually shot in America; Edwards taking advantage of various locations in France and Italy, also Euro-tax credits, and finally, Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios to shoot virtually all of his interiors.
The plot thickens as the action migrates to Cortina, where George’s uncle, Sir Charles is keeping tabs on Princess Dahla, ever shadowed by her loyal bodyguard, Saloud (James Lanphier). Edwards whets out appetites just enough for the plot to follow while performing a miraculous trot around the globe – next to Paris, where a mysterious woman is seen fleeing the police after exchanging a package with her ‘fence’ on the banks of the Seine. (Aside: the officer in hot pursuit is actually the movie’s cinematographer, Philip Lathrope; a last minute bit of casting when the actor hired for this bit part failed to show up on the day of shooting). The mystery woman manages an audacious escape, performing a quick change in an elevator and eventually revealing herself to be none other than Simone Clouseau (Capucine); the wife of Chief Inspector, Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers). Jacques ineptitude in practically all things makes him a delicious figure of fun, flanked by his marginally savvier cohort, Tucker (Colin Gordon), a particularly faithful sidekick. Unable to fathom his own wife as the ‘panther’s’ accomplice, Jacques focuses his quiet observations on Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven). Meanwhile, Princess Dahla attends several fashionable parties given in her honor by nattering socialite, Angela Dunning (Brenda De Banzie).
Sir Charles is in hot pursuit of the Princess, staging a broad daylight kidnapping of her beloved dog and even more elaborate chase for the man he has paid off to steal it, ending with a feigned sprained ankle to ingratiate himself into Dahla’s inner circle of friends. The ruse played out, Dahla briefly entertains Charles’ sly seduction. Alas, apart from a fleeting evening of inebriated romance that ends with Sir Charles putting the passed out Princess to bed, Dahla is hardly fooled by this aging boulevardier. Nevertheless, she is amused by Charles’ advances, up to a point and finds his company moderately enjoyable and diverting. Charles is reunited with George whom he quickly discovers is as big a scam artist as himself. George has his heart set on a playful flagrante delicto with Simone, whom Sir Charles has already seduced. George pursues Simone relentlessly and with hilarious consequences. Invited to a costume party at the Princess’ villa in Rome, Charles and George, unaware of each other’s intentions, separately set out to steal the ‘pink panther’ diamond, only to discover the fabulous jewel already missing from Dahla’s safe. Jacques discovers both men at the crime scene. Alas, they escape incarceration during the resultant confusion when the planned fireworks display is accidentally set off inside the villa. A frantic car chase through the streets of Rome ensues and after all the vehicles collide, Sir Charles and George are arrested.
Simone appeals to the Princess to drop the charges against Sir Charles. He endeavored to call off the heist rather than go through with it. Dahla reveals to Simone she staged the robbery at her villa herself to avoid surrendering the panther to the new government of her homeland after the World Court has ruled in their favor. Smitten with Charles’ nobility Dahla plots to spare him a prison sentence. At trial, the defense unexpectedly calls Clouseau to testify. The barrister (John Le Mesurier) lays out a series of loaded questions to cast aspersions on Clouseau reputation. Perhaps he is the jewel thief all along. Shaken by this absurd allegation, Clouseau attempts to blot his forehead with a handkerchief, startled to discover the thief’s gloved calling card and the pink panther neatly tucked inside his pocket. Fainting dead away, Clouseau awakens to discover he is being taken to prison, mobbed by a throng of enamored women. From a distance, Simone expresses regret for Jacques’ incarceration. But Charles, already plotting his next big heist with George in South Africa, reassures her Clouseau will be exonerated just as soon as the Phantom strikes again. As the police take Clouseau to jail, the Roman officers flanking him express their envy and admiration, begging to know how he committed these seemingly impossible and elaborate crimes single-handed. Dizzy with his newfound fame, Clouseau replies, "Well, you know…it wasn't easy."
The Pink Panther was a runaway hit almost immediately, audiences flocking to enjoy Blake Edwards’ erudite and glossy comedic gem. Together with the release of Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther launched Peter Sellers as an international star; a celebrity ranking catapulted into near mania with the release of A Shot in the Dark in 1964. Never intended as a sequel, A Shot in the Dark is really the beginning of the Clouseau persona as it would come to be known in all subsequent installments to this franchise: Sellers manic bumbling virtually unchanged, and even further embellished, but his accent, grotesquely mangled by idiosyncratic gibberish. The picture is also noteworthy for the first appearances of long-suffering co-stars, Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk; both, yet to become main staples as Clouseau’s psychologically unstable boss, Commissioner Dreyfus and ever-devoted man servant, Cato respectively. Adapted from Harry Kurnitz’s stage play, itself an adaptation of the French stagecraft, L'Idiote by Marcel Achard, A Shot in the Dark was assembled with breakneck speed – if not ease – and put into theaters literally months after The Pink Panther.
Although Peter Sellers’ name was immediately attached to A Shot in the Dark, his verve was distilled by a genuine dislike for the Alec Coppel/Norman Krasna screenplay and the Mirisch Co.’s decision to hire Anatole Litvak to direct. Sellers asked for Blake Edwards instead. But Edward was as unimpressed, unless the plot could be heavily rewritten and embellished as ‘a Clouseau’. Ironic for the follow-up, the cartoon ‘main titles’ for A Shot in the Dark do not feature the iconic ‘panther’, but rather, ‘the inspector’ – a Sellers-esque Clouseauian incarnation in hot pursuit of a three-headed assailant that DePatie-Freleng would later transform into their own lucrative franchise of cartoon short subjects made between 1965 and 1969, also incorporating a few bars of Henry Mancini’s ‘theme’ from A Shot in the Dark.  Granted permission to rework, and in most cases, thoroughly rewrite the screenplay, Edward engaged Sellers to help him improvise A Shot in the Dark’s comic scenes. Alas, Sellers and Edwards did not see eye to eye on practically every detail. Where Edwards had relented – even, expressing gratitude for Sellers’ unique ability to ‘invent’ bits of business that endowed their first collaborative effort with sparks of commercially sound genius - herein he increasingly grew to resent Sellers’ inferences in his vision for the picture, knowing more about the character and the making of this movie than presumably Edwards. At the end of shooting, Sellers and Edwards were barely on speaking terms; each, vowing never again to work for the other. Four years later, however, they would iron out a détente of sorts, enough to collaborate on The Party (1968), and three more installments in The Pink Panther franchise.
A Shot in the Dark begins in earnest with a pre-title sequence, Fran Jeffries (this time heard, rather than seen) warbling Mancini’s angst-ridden ‘Shadows of Paris’ (lyrics by Robert Wells) as we follow the mysterious comings and goings of various individuals skulking about the moonlit rooms of a chateau; illicit lovers locked in each other’s arms, and then, a fatal gunshot piercing the stillness of the night. After the titles, Clouseau is summoned to the estate by millionaire, Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders) to investigate the murder of his chauffeur, Miguel Ostos, having an affair with one of the house maids, Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer). It seems Maria broke off their affair. Ostos attacked her…and then…hmmm.  While Maria is discovered over her former lover’s body with a smoking pistol in her hand, she claims no first-hand knowledge of the murder, having been knocked unconscious. While there is little to suggest someone else as the killer, Clouseau is devoted to proving otherwise because of his own immediate infatuation with Maria.
At first unaware the bungler has been mistakenly assigned to this high-profile case, Commissioner Dreyfus has Clouseau reassigned and personally takes charge of the Ballon criminal investigation. Dreyfus has Maria arrested on suspicion of murder. Meanwhile, dejected, Clouseau retires to his flat, awakened in the wee hours by an apparent attempt on his life from a Chinese assassin. However, when the telephone rings, this mano a mano struggle suddenly ceases and we learn Clouseau’s assailant is actually his noble valet, Kato (Burt Kwouk). Miraculously, Clouseau is reinstated to the Ballon case. His first bit of business is to have Maria released from prison. Clouseau suspects Maria is shielding the real killer from prosecution and equally begins to formulate new evidence Ballon is the murderer; perhaps, also in love with his upstairs maid. From here, Clouseau becomes embroiled in a string of murders on the estate; the household staffs dropping like flies while he refuses to accept the evidence repeatedly pointing to Maria as the killer. Humiliated by Clouseau’s incompetence, Commissioner Dreyfus is nevertheless unable to have him removed from the case because of Ballon’s political influences. Frazzled by Clouseau’s ridiculousness, Dreyfus suffers a series of nervous breakdowns. Determined to put an end to Clouseau’s craziness by actually killing Clouseau, Dreyfus instead manages to accidentally murder several innocent bystanders, thus causing more notoriety to swirl around the case.
Now, Clouseau gathers his ‘unusual suspects’ in Ballon’s great hall in a ridiculous bid to flush out the killer. Miraculously, the wile works – even more spectacularly than planned when it is revealed to all Ballon, his wife, Dominique (Tracy Reed), and three additional members of their staff are equally guilty; each, having murdered at least one of the earlier victims to conceal their crimes of passion and subsequent blackmail efforts. As Clouseau initially suspected, only Maria is innocent. Exposed in their diabolical plotting the killers are afforded an escape when the room goes dark; Ballon and his entourage piling into Clouseau’s waiting car and driving off. Too late they realize a bomb on board, planted by Dreyfus to kill Clouseau. Instead, the device is detonated, killing the killers. Foiled in his madness, Dreyfus is carted off to prison utterly insane and Clouseau and Maria embrace: their moment together foiled by Kato launching into his latest ‘sneak attack’.
A Shot in the Dark may not be as globe-trotting glamorous as The Pink Panther (truly, its sets are intermittently and rather woefully transparent), but it is nevertheless enjoyably effervescent and farcical. Owing partly to the professional rift between Sellers and Edward, but also due to Sellers’ failing health, the two would not collaborate on another ‘Pink Panther movie for the next eleven years. Four years after A Shot in the Dark the Mirisch Company endeavored to relaunch the franchise with a reboot – Inspector Clouseau (1968), starring Alan Arkin as the infamous Inspector. Although Edwards refused to direct it, he did collaborate on the screenplay. For better or worse, it was not a success and, at least in hindsight, appeared to put a period to the franchise. But then, in 1975, Edwards and Sellers were ready to patch up their differences and embark upon another ‘panther’ movie together. Even as early as 1970, Edwards had drafted a 20 page outline for The Return of The Pink Panther (1975) that producer, Walter Mirisch absolutely loved. The problem was thus; first, that Peter Sellers had been out of circulation due to health issues for quite some time and second, Edwards’ cache as an ‘A’ list director had gone into steep decline. Henceforth, United Artists refused, either to fund the project or arrange for its distribution.  In an industry increasingly predicated on the art of the deal, Edwards found a kindred spirit in indie Brit producer, Lew Grade, who agreed to fund two movies in exchange for Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews appearing in a TV special for him.
The first of this two picture deal, The Tamarind Seed turned a tidy profit, but soured for Grade when he claimed his share agreement with Edwards and Andrews deprived him of sufficient payback. Grade tried to buy Edwards out of his contractually obligated ‘second’ picture, defeating Edwards’s plans to shoot Rachel and the Stranger in Canada. Instead, Grade suggested ‘another Pink Panther’, provided Peter Sellers’ commitment could be arranged up front. The wheeling and dealing continued as UA relented to allow Grade to make The Return of the Pink Panther in exchange for world-wide distribution and a share of the profits. Although Grade offered UA full partnership on this deal it was refused in nervous anticipation the picture could – and would likely be a flop. Henceforth, Grade would retain full rights on ‘The Return’.  As DePatie-Freleng were overwhelmed with commitments to other cartoon projects for television, Richard Williams, who would later serve as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) worked on the animated main titles and closing credits for both this picture and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), with an assist from Ken Harris and Art Babbitt.
The Return of The Pink Panther is arguably the last truly great installment in the franchise, not the least for Geoffrey Unsworth’s moody and evocative cinematography; a ‘return’ not only of principle cast, but to form, content and the stylish accoutrements first established in the original movie. The tone of the piece is less flashy and more focused on sight gags. Despite Sellers looking considerably older and more fragile his performance suffers not one iota. The plot, co-authored by Frank Waldman and Edwards sets its premise in the fictional principality of Lugash where the fabled Pink Panther diamond is once more stolen by the mysterious ‘phantom’, having left his white-gloved calling card behind. Knowing of only one man who could possibly restore this fabulous gemstone to his archives, the Shah of Lugash requests Inspector Clouseau of the Sûreté. Temporarily demoted to beat cop by his boss, Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus is forced to bend to the will of the French government and employ Clouseau to get the diamond back. Clouseau is overjoyed to be ‘back in service’, casually taking the phone call for his new assignment as he wards off yet another faux ‘attack’ from Kato. Examining the crime scene inside Lugash’s national museum, Clouseau manages to destroy several priceless antiquities before concluding the glove implicates Sir Charles Lytton (this time played by Christopher Plummer). After several catastrophic mishaps that nearly topple Lytton’s manor house in Nice, Clouseau begins to suspect another as yet unidentified assassin is plotting to murder him. Clouseau trails Sir Charles' wife, Lady Claudine (Catherine Schell) to a resort hotel in Gstaad and typically manages to wreck everything in sight, this time with the aid of an overly powerful vacuum cleaner.
The wrinkle? Sir Charles is innocent of the crime; retired and sincerely concerned someone is trying to implicate him in this new round of jewel robberies. Arriving in Lugash to clear his name, an attempt is made of Sir Charles’ life before being whisked away by the secret police with the complicity of his long-time associate, the ‘Fat Man’ (Eric Pohlmann). Managing a daring escape, Sir Charles returns to his hotel suite, only to discover Police Colonel Sharki (Peter Arne) waiting for him. Feigning cooperation, Sir Charles cannot conceal his reaction when museum surveillance tapes clearly identify Claudine in disguise stealing the diamond. Skirting around another insidious plot propped up by the Fat Man and his treacherous minion, Pepi (Graham Stark), Sir Charles departs Lugash. He is pursued by Sharki, who still believes Sir Charles is guilty. Still in Gstaad, Clouseau receives a cryptic phone call, presumably from Dreyfus, ordering him to arrest Claudine. But when Clouseau telephones back to clarify these instructions he is informed Dreyfus has been on vacation for some time. Now, Sir Charles confronts his wife. Claudine admits she committed the infamous heist to spice up their lives and Sharki barges in, plotting to murder them both and reclaim the diamond. Instead, Clouseau bursts into the room unannounced and Dreyfus – the mysterious assassin who has been trying to do away with Clouseau from the start, instead accidently murders Sharki. Having once more recovered the Pink Panther, Clouseau is promoted to Chief Inspector.  Sir Charles decides to resume his former career as a jewel thief with Claudine’s fate left open-ended. A change of scenery: to a Japanese restaurant where Kato unexpectedly attacks Clouseau, triggering a massive brawl. We learn of Dreyfus’ fate: gone completely mad, straitjacketed and committed to an asylum, vowing bloody revenge on Clouseau.
The Return of The Pink Panther may not be a ‘great’ installment in the franchise, but it remains an exceedingly pleasant one nonetheless. The absence of a decade illustrates that both Edwards and Sellers have lost none of their collaborative verve for slapstick comedy and, in fact, the picture proves most unaffectedly satisfying when it tickles our funny bone. The plot is ludicrous, but the characterizations are genuine; enough to sustain the impossible and add more than a drop of merriment to these proceedings. Unexpectedly, at least as far as executive logic inside UA was concerned, The Return of the Pink Panther was a hit, prompting an immediate sequel in the works. Alas, The Pink Panther Strikes Again is one of the least engaging and, in hindsight, fairly insincere ‘rush jobs’ to capitalize on the reputation of the franchise as well as its predecessor’s success. ‘Strikes Again’ picks up precisely where ‘Return’ left off. In the interim, Blake Edwards had intended to launch a Pink Panther TV series, the plot for ‘Strikes Again reworked from this concept. Ironically, the machinations of its plot, once again co-written by Edwards and Waldman, have absolutely nothing to do with the famed diamond. If ‘Return’s’ plot was superficial at best, ‘Strikes Again’s’ is practically nonexistent to a fault. Due to Sellers increasing fragility, stunt double Joe Dunne was hired to perform virtually all of the more strenuous ‘action sequences’. There are many and Dunne’s complicity – despite his uncanny resemblance to Sellers, both in deportment and mannerisms, is rather transparent on more than one occasion.
The Pink Panther Strikes Again is a real stylistic mash-up, jettison of glamour and, ironically, a good deal of laughter too. By now, director and star were barely on speaking terms; Edwards possessing a modicum of empathy for Peter Sellers whose mental and physical acuity had so horrendously deteriorated, Edwards would later surmise, “If you went to an asylum and you described the first inmate you saw, that's what Peter had become. He was certifiable.” To liven up the movie, Edwards employed Julie Andrews to dub for the female-impersonator Ainsley Jarvis (Michael Robbins). In retrospect, the nightclub sequences featuring Jarvis’ echo those Edwards and Andrews would later create magic together in the infinitely more successful, Victor Victoria (1982). Initially, the part of Russian assassin, Olga Bariosova was cast with Maud Adams. But Edwards was so displeased with her performance she was almost immediately replaced with Lesley-Anne Down; herself, a surrogate when Edwards’ second choice for the role – Nicola Pagett – proved unavailable. The picture also features Tom Jones warbling the Oscar-nominated, ‘Come to Me’ and Omar Sharif, uncredited as ‘the Egyptian assassin.
There is a fine line of distinction between ‘homage’ and ‘rip-off’ and The Pink Panther Strikes Again crosses it more than once, with shameless spoofs of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, King Kong, The Sound of Music, Dracula AD 1972, Singin' in the Rain, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sweet Charity. There is even an unapologetic cheat of the Novocain/tooth-pulling sequence in Bob Hope’s memorable comedy, The Paleface (1948). While one may argue the case for imitation being the cheapest form of flattery, this did not impress French comic book writer, René Goscinny, who felt compelled to sue Edwards for plagiarism, citing an unusual amount of similarities between the film’s screenplay and ‘Le Maître du Monde’; a script he had submitted to Sellers in 1975. With Goscinny’s untimely passing in 1977 this suit was quietly dismissed. After assembling a 124 min. rough cut, Edwards elected to pare down the final edit to 103 min. incurring Peter Sellers extreme displeasure; enough for him to openly chastise his director for ‘misusing’ his talents; an impasse marginally remedied by creating a co-creative credit for their subsequent – and final – collaboration, Revenge Of The Pink Panther (1978).
The plot begins at a psychiatric hospital where Dreyfus is almost entirely rehabilitated of his obsession to murder Jacques Clouseau. Alas, on the day of his planned release, Clouseau arrives to speak on Dreyfus’ behalf, driving him insane once more. Carted off to his cell, Dreyfus promptly escapes and makes another attempt on Clouseau’s life by planting a bomb in his apartment. While Cato is injured and the domicile virtually destroyed, Clouseau is unharmed.  Now, Dreyfus enlists the dregs of London’s seedy underworld in his latest fiendish plot to do away with his nemesis. He kidnaps nuclear physicist, Professor Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) and his daughter, Margo (Briony McRoberts), forcing the professor to build the ultimate ‘doomsday weapon’ in exchange for his daughter’s safety. Clouseau’s investigation of Fassbender’s disappearance leads to the total destruction of virtually anything he touches.  Ineptly, he interrogates Jarvis, the professor’s cross-dressing butler, resulting in Jarvis’ murder by the real kidnappers to keep him silent. Acting on a hunch, Clouseau resurfaces at Oktoberfest in Munich. Meanwhile, Dreyfus employs Fassbender's diabolical weapon to literally dissolve the U.N. in New York, holding the world leaders hostage under threat of total annihilation, including the President of the United States and his Secretary of State, hoping to take out a world-wide contract on Clouseau. Instead, many of these nations secretly instruct their operatives to kill all the other assassins while biding their time to gain Dreyfus’ favor. As a result, Clouseau manages to escape liquidation; the assassins, picking off one another except for the Egyptian and Russian operatives.
The Egyptian assassin (Omar Sharif) inadvertently kills one of Dreyfus' henchmen, mistaking him for Clouseau, but is then seduced by Russia’s Olga Bariosova who makes the same mistake. When the real Clouseau turns up he is perplexed by Olga's affections, unearthing Dreyfus’ secret location in Bavaria. Dreyfus is elated at Clouseau's apparent demise, but suffers from a toothache allowing Clouseau, disguised as a dentist, to sneaks into his hidden fortress unrecognized. Now, Clouseau proceeds to intoxicate Dreyfus with nitrous oxide. Alas, realizing this deception Dreyfus plots to destroy England with Fassbender’s doomsday device. Instead, Clouseau foils these plans by employing a medieval catapult to launch him atop the device. Malfunctioning in the extreme, the doomsday weapon destroys both the castle and Dreyfus who, in a state of absolute despair, plays a fractured rendition of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ on a pipe organ before being wiped out by his own wicked plans. Back in Paris, Clouseau is reunited with Olga. But their tryst is twice foiled: first, by Clouseau’s idiotic inability to slip out of his own clothes, and then, by Cato, plotting another faux attack to test Clouseau’s agility. Clouseau, Olga and Cato are forcibly ejected from Clouseau’s reclining bed and into the Seine. The movie ends with Clouseau resurfacing and swimming for shore as a cartoon caricature of the pink panther, morphed into Jaws, is seen pursuing him.  
Revenge of The Pink Panther is frankly, an embarrassment to both Sellers’ and Edwards’ collaborative verve and such a sour note to conclude their alliance as master and mate of the same double-edged caricature. Clouseau is so grotesquely distilled into rank caricature herein there is virtually nothing left of the lovably bumbling bon vivant we first encountered in the original movie. The farcical elements that so elegantly tapered into refined comedy, kept in tandem with the plot, herein has completely taken over and to the point where nothing is delightful or funny but instead, inordinately idiotic and overdone with a twinge of sadism. Edwards and Sellers could not have more completely wrecked the memory of their illustrious creation had they chosen to blindly spill turpentine on the original camera negative and set it afire. As if to rub salt into an already festering wound, UA and Blake Edwards would make yet another trip to the well, ironically a full eighteen months after Peter Seller’s untimely passing. Trail of The Pink Panther (1982) has to be one of the most insidious and absurd cases of grave-robbing on record; the picture cobbled together from outtakes of Peter Sellers’ other Clouseauian performances and ‘hosted’ by David Niven who, suffering from ALS, had to be dubbed by impressionist, Rich Little in post-production.
Despite having been killed in ‘Revenge’, Herbert Lom resurfaced too, accompanied by a host of cameos, including Graham Stark, Burt Kwouk and Capucine. From archival footage it was also possible to glean snippets and sound bites from Robert Wagner, Julie Andrews, and, Claudia Cardinale. The thimble of a plot involves an overzealous reporter, Marie Jouvet (Joanna Lumley) in a search for Clouseau; gone missing at the start of the picture. Upon its release, critics savaged Trail of The Pink Panther and for good reason. Despite Edwards dedication to Sellers as ‘the one and only Clouseau', the actor’s fourth wife, Lynne Frederick sued UA for $3 million and actually won $1 million in damages; citing Sellers’ own veto power against using outtakes of any kind – a contractual obligation she argued was meant to extend beyond his death. Indeed, much of the footage included in ‘Trail’ comes from Edwards’ 3 hr. rough cut of his grand experiment to make ‘Strikes Again’ a road show picture en par with his own The Great Race (1965). When UA forced Edwards to pare down ‘Strikes Again’ to 124, and finally 103 minutes, all of this shelved footage was scheduled for re-insertion into ‘Revenge’; a decision vetoed by Sellers who began the process of crafting another Clouseau anew from scratch.   
Artistic haranguing aside, ‘Trail’s’ real problem stemmed from Sellers’ death and UA’s badly bungled quest to woo Dudley Moore into assuming the role of Clouseau in the never-to-be realized sequel, written by Sellers beforehand: Romance of the Pink Panther. Perhaps recalling how 1968’s first effort without Sellers, Inspector Clouseau, had miserably failed at the box office, Moore refused to commit to any homage unless Blake Edwards was onboard, and, only as a tribute to Sellers to officially cap off the franchise as Sellers had intended to retire from the role after ‘Romance’. Too bad UA’s premise for the new movie was to relaunch the series with Moore as its continuing star. After Arthur (1980) catapulted Dudley Moore to super stardom he absolutely refused to entertain any commitment to the Pink Panther franchise. Meanwhile, Edwards came up with the idea of formulating an almost Citizen Kane-like narrative, flagged together from outtakes from not one, but three of their previous collaborative efforts, citing an unusual amount of comedic material left on the cutting room floor from ‘Return’, ‘Strikes Again’ and ‘Revenge’. In what can only be described as a case of extreme short-sightedness, the newly amalgamated MGM/UA absolutely refused to pay ITC – the rights holder of indie-produced ‘Return’ – for the bulk of this ‘wasted’ footage, forcing Edwards to rethink his narrative and confining his use of outtakes mostly to snippets excised from ‘Strikes Again. The studio also slashed into Edwards’ original budget, hampering his ability to concoct another all-star glossy entertainment. In the end, Trail of the Pink Panther regrettably failed to live up to its potential as a fitting epitaph to Sellers’ legacy.  
Its plot once again focuses on yet another jewel heist of the infamous gemstone; Chief Inspector Clouseau called in to investigate the crime despite strenuous objections from Chief Inspector Dreyfus. Complicating matters this time is the Mafia, trailing Clouseau to London where he intends to interrogate Sir Charles (David Niven) and the ex-Mrs. Clouseau, Simone/now Mrs. Lytton (Capucine). Rather idiotically, even for Clouseau, he blows up his own car while endeavoring to fix a pop-out lighter. To throw off suspicion, Clouseau disguises himself in heavy bandages for the flight. This too creates ‘issues’; Clouseau finally arriving at Scotland Yard where he learns Libyan terrorists have marked him for death. What?!?! At his hotel, Clouseau has multiple run-ins with the front desk clerk (Harold Berens) while trying to retrieve a message from Dreyfus. On route to Lugash, Clouseau’s plane mysteriously disappears over the ocean, leaving TV reporter, Marie Jouvet in search of ‘the story’ from those who knew Clouseau best. The rest of ‘Trail’ is basically a badly mended series of flashbacks as Jouvet interviews familiar faces from better days in the Clouseauian adventures: Dreyfus, Hercule Lajoy, Cato Fong, Sir Charles and Simone.
These ‘interviews’ segue into extended outtakes from The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Revenge of the Pink Panther). The film also introduces Richard Mulligan as Clouseau’s father, who provides Jouvet with some insight into Clouseau’s childhood (the prepubescent Clouseau played by Lucca Mezzofanti, the adolescent, rather ineffectually by Daniel Peacock). Casting Peacock allows Edwards some leeway to indulge in a more involved ‘flashback’; the trail illustrating Clouseau’s young failed romance and near suicide; also, involving him in a botched detonation of a bridge as part of the French Résistance during WWII. Now, the intrepid Jouvet questions Mafia don, Bruno Langlois (Robert Loggia), all but implying Clouseau’s disappearance is his fault.  Unsatisfactorily, ‘Trail’ ends with Jouvet’s blind conjecture and televised speculations Clouseau has somehow survived the plane crash and made his way to the United States. We cut to a seaside cliff, presumably in California with Clouseau (shot from the back and played by John Taylor) staring blankly at the horizon as a seagull overhead defecates on his sleeve. The animated ‘panther’, wearing similar attire is revealed in place of Clouseau, opening his trench coat to showcase a montage of clips from the other movies in this franchise as this movie’s end credits roll.
There is no denying that over time, and definitely when ‘binge-watched’ chronologically The Pink Panther franchise is embarrassingly formulaic. What a joy it would have been to have Sellers’ Clouseau invested in some more original content along the way. Arguably, after A Shot in the Dark it’s all downhill for this infamous bumbler, his comic genius kept alive – just barely - in fits and sparks; the subsequent plots, hokey and rudimentary at best. The real problem with the franchise is that it never endeavored to expand or expound upon its initial premise; Blake Edwards and his collaborating screenwriter, Frank Waldman merely content to have Sellers don idiotic costumes and indulge in some truly absurd natural catastrophes along the way. Tragically, what was good – even great – in 1964 increasingly begins to appear threadbare and careworn, as regurgitation by the time of Revenge of the Pink Panther; excluding ‘Trail’, the absolute least entertaining of the lot. What the series might have become had Sellers been in better health and spirits, and, continued with it immediately after A Shot in the Dark (rather than disappearing for an eleven year hiatus, only to be reborn less funny, animated and/or inspired) we will never know.  I realize a lot of Peter Sellers fans, among whom I count myself, will think it sacrilege to suggest Sellers’ genius was on the wane – overtaken by his idiosyncratic and erratic behavior and self-inflated ego during these latter Clouseauian adventures. But one simply cannot help but notice the artistic strain between Sellers and Edwards as the franchise wears on and, more regrettably, gets stretched very thin.
It’s taken long enough to get The Pink Panther franchise in hi-def. The original movie was remastered for Blu-ray back in 2008 when MGM/Fox Home Video actually had a passion for such things. But then, like virtually all formats gone before it, the studio seemed to lose immediate interest in releasing any title not made prior to 2009! So, deep catalog was first, virtually ignored; then, unceremoniously farmed out to third party distribution with narrowly a care for remastering of any kind. A lot of mid-grade plunk from MGM/Fox with decade’s old transfers dumped on the market; a trend, since evolved as a way for the majors to ‘legitimize’ their own short-sighted attitude towards deep catalog classics they have neither the inclination nor interest to preserve.  Yoo-hoo, boys. Your reputations and your profits were not built on yesterday’s blockbuster. Were those the likes of a Louis B. Mayer or Darryl F. Zanuck were still alive to see this day. They would have mined their riches with style. But I digress.
The original Pink Panther looks fine. It’s still the same 2008 transfer we get herein from Shout! Factory, for the most part, meticulously preserved and remastered with a splashy color palette. Contrast is bang on perfect and grain is capably represented, albeit, with a hint of DNR applied to homogenize it. One caveat to consider: The Pink Panther was shot in Technirama – Technicolor’s utterly gorgeous 8-perf wide gauge film format. This Blu-ray has not been remastered from this element but a 35mm reduction print, presumably because the state of the original Technirama elements was not for salvaging…at least, not without a Herculean investment of time, effort and money. Nevertheless, what’s here is impressive if not ideal. Short-sightedness has prevailed for the audio. Despite sporting a memorable score by Henry Mancini, The Pink Panther was originally released in mono in theaters. We should have had the stereo stems to remix this movie to 5.1. Alas, no. Not all of the score – most regrettably, Fran Jeffries’ sultry rendition of Meglio Strasera – has survived. So, what we do get is a re-channeled 5.1 DTS revealing more readily the lack of spatial separation in SFX, dialogue and score.  
As this Pink Panther Film Collection represents the first time all of the UA titles considered ‘legitimate Clouseau’s’ are under one banner, Shout! Factory, the present custodians, has elected to add one new extra to this disc: An Italian Indian: a new interview with Claudia Cardinale. It’s rather short and not terribly prepossessing but otherwise good to have as an addendum to the other extras included on this disc; all of them carry-overs from the 2003 and 2008 reissues on DVD and Blu-ray from MGM/Fox Home Video: including Blake Edwards’ somewhat meandering and dull audio commentary, The Pink Panther Story, Behind the Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon, A Conversation with Robert Wagner: Coolest Cat in Cortina, Diamonds: Beyond the Sparkle, and finally, Tip-Toe Life of a Cat Burglar: A Conversation with Former Jewel Thief Bill Mason. We also get a theatrical trailer and stills gallery.
Better news ahead: A Shot in the Dark derives from a brand new 4K scan of the original interpositive. It looks marvelous; richly saturated colors, velvety blacks, a modicum of film grain properly preserved and virtually no age-related artifacts. Many will recall Shout! Factory had announced this anthology for release back in March, but then pulled it from their schedule to acquire better elements and add new extra features. We have them to thank for due diligence here and a very fine presentation of this much beloved follow-up to the original movie. It looks almost as good as The Pink Panther with one or two brief instances where color seems a tad faded. Shout! has stocked this disc with two new extras: the featurette: Back to the Start - The Origin of the Pink Panther – an interview with Walter Mirisch, and an audio commentary from Jason Simos of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society. Simos commentary is infinitely more pleasing and comprehensive than Edwards’ on the original movie and one sincerely wishes he had been allowed to contribute fresher thoughts to augment that disc too. Herein, we also get a vintage Dick Cavett Show with Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews and trailers and more photo galleries.
The Return of The Pink Panther appears to have been sourced from a surviving print. Colors are not as refined and fine detail gets lost under an unhealthily soft patina. But contrast is still fairly solid, even if film grain tends to look slightly exaggerated or, shall we say, far less refined than on the previous two discs. We get two new featurettes: Bit of Passion and Lots of Laughs: an interview with actress, Catherine Schell, and an interview with production designer, Peter Mullins, plus another superb commentary from Simos and a vintage 1975 featurette, more trailers, TV and radio spots and stills.  Image quality is better resolved on The Pink Panther Strikes Again; advertised as a new 4K scan of the interpositive and looking very good indeed: rich colors, gorgeous grain, solid contrast and superb textures throughout. Again, another Simos’ commentary, and again, two new featurettes: Panther Musings: with actress, Lesley-Anne Down, and, A Cut Above: Editing the Pink Panther Films with editor, Alan Jones; plus another vintage 1976 featurette and ‘rare’ teaser trailers, TV and radio spots and another stills gallery.
The last two installments: Revenge of The Pink Panther, and, Trail of The Pink Panther look about the roughest of the lot – especially ‘Trail whose original camera negative was cobbled together from B-negatives, trims and outtakes along with ‘newer’ footage.  In both cases, colors are dull to pallid and image quality teeters between passably sharp to downright fuzzy soft. Both movies get an audio commentary from William Patrick Maynard. Each is actually very good at contextualizing the folly and back story of the making of these final installments in the franchise. We also get trailers, TV and radio spots. As all of these movies were originally released in mono, what we get here is a 2.0 DTS effort that doesn’t strain the mix as originally intended. Nothing to write home or complain about. No harm/no fowl, I supposed. Parting thoughts and bottom line: The Pink Panther and all of its sequels is a very uneven and mixed bag – artistically speaking. The Blu-rays too offer these vintage flicks in alternating impressive and just middle-of-the-road visual/aural presentations. Shout! has gone the extra mile to add comprehensive extras. I have to sincerely admit, it is the extras that sold me on this release. Aside: I would have hoped for Shout! or Kino Lorber to release the original DePatie/Freleng classic Pink Panther cartoons in tandem with this anthology. Those great cartoons are sorely missed herein. Given Kino did a real bang-up job on releasing virtually every other franchise in the DePatie/Freleng archive, the absence of the slinky Pink Panther thus far remains a genuine mystery and a sincere disappointment yet to be remedied by this Blu-ray anthology. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Pink Panther – 5+
A Shot in the Dark – 5+
The Return of the Pink Panther – 4
The Pink Panther Strikes Again – 3
Revenge of the Pink Panther – 2.5
Trail of the Pink Panther – 2


The Pink Panther – 4.5
A Shot in the Dark – 4.5
The Return of the Pink Panther – 3.5
The Pink Panther Strikes Again – 3
Revenge of the Pink Panther – 3
Trail of the Pink Panther – 2.5