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


No comments: