Wednesday, August 30, 2017

YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH: Blu-ray (Columbia 1941) Twilight Time

When Fred Astaire left RKO in the fall of 1939, effectively retiring the greatest dance team partnership in screen history, it was not without misgivings; the old adage about Ginger Rogers having done everything he expected of her, “backwards and in heels”, suggesting to Astaire his tenure in Hollywood might be at an end. Nearly a decade before, Astaire’s inauspicious audition at RKO had yielded the absurd assessment, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little…balding.” Astaire’s Hollywood debut in 1933 at MGM, opposite Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady, did not allay his fears or manage to spark a long-term contract with the Tiffany of all studios. But that was then. Besides, at the cusp of 1940, Astaire had found himself back at MGM, cast opposite their leading lady of tap, Eleanor Powell and given a big ‘build up’ for Broadway Melody of 1940 (the last in Metro’s lucrative film franchise begun in 1929). Despite its success, L.B. Mayer again did not encourage Astaire to stick around. This likely suited Astaire just as well, as freelance work at Paramount would keep him very busy throughout most of the 1940s. And while Ginger would effortlessly segue into a career intermittently as a comedy/dramatic actress, she would never dance again with another partner as memorable as Fred. By contrast, Astaire’s future in showbiz seemed inextricably linked to his discovering ‘the next Ginger’. It was never to be. For although Astaire would kick up a storm with some of the most proficient and prolific dancers of their generation (everyone from Cyd Charisse to Gene Kelly), by his own design, he never again wished to be ‘partnered’ for any duration.
Immediately following Broadway Melody of 1940, Astaire received an offer from Columbia Studio’s president Harry Cohn to appear opposite their fledgling starlet Rita Hayworth in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), a war-themed comedy of misdirection, scripted by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano, directed by Sidney Lanfield. In hindsight, it remains the lesser of the two movies Astaire would make with Hayworth – their follow-up, 1942’s You Were Never Lovelier, infinitely more delightful all around. Barely considered as one of the ‘poverty row’ production houses until latching onto director, Frank Capra in the early thirties; whose legendary tenure there resulted in some of the greatest threads for the common man comedies of all time, Columbia was now looking for new ways to redefine itself. Capra had moved on and so had Cohn – eager to establish a reputation to rival MGM’s supremacy in musical motion pictures. Alas, in an era of ‘in-house’ production design, Columbia struggled to refine its position as a viable purveyor of movie musicals. The hiccups of this adolescent period of adjustment are woefully on display in You’ll Never Get Rich. Although the picture yields some superb examples of Astaire’s musical agility, moreover, his immediate chemistry with Hayworth on the dance floor, You’ll Never Get Rich mostly sinks under the weight of its vignette-structured screenplay. Fessier and Pagano give us scene after scene of Vaudeville-esque comedy skits, sandwiching the musical numbers whenever the pranksters have momentarily run out of steam.
While no one could ever classify You’ll Never Get Rich as ‘joyless’ – it remains decidedly unevenly paced and very clumsily strung together. The Astaire/Hayworth dance highlights, set to some of master composer, Cole Porter’s weakest compositions, bear brief discussion; beginning with a virtuosic ‘rehearsal’ tap routine. It’s an early spark of absolute magic, regrettably ne’er to be reincarnated with such blissfully sublime perfection later on; the leggy Hayworth matching Astaire tap for tap under some strenuous paces. Astaire’s sweat-less elation upon their finish leads directly into the Boogie Barcarolle – Porter’s exceptionally transparent attempt to reincarnate the vigor and tempo of Robert Russell Bennett's Waltz In Swing Time from 1936’s Fred and Ginger vehicle, Swing Time. Despite its similarity to the aforementioned, the ‘BB’ is electric; yet another example of that graceful prowess and finesse both Astaire and Hayworth bring to their terpsichorean opportunities; too few and scattered about thereafter. After an interminably long period in which Fessier and Pagano work like hell to set up the movie’s thimble of a plot, we get Porter’s Shootin' the Works for Uncle Sam – a patriotic song with little opportunity for Astaire to do more than perform a ‘march-like’ time step, backed by a scantily clad chorine army.
The specialty number involving neither Astaire nor Hayworth is ‘Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye’ – arguably, the one outstanding song in the catalog, debuted herein by The Four Tones - an African-American quartet comprised of Lucius ‘Dusty’ Brooks – the lead vocal, Leon Buck, Rudolph Hunter, and John Porter. The rest of the numbers in You’ll Never Get Rich are a mixed bag at best: ‘March Milastaire’ (a.k.a. A-Stairable Rag), Porter’s second attempt at a march/jazz rhythm, this one married to a positively electrifying tap routine performed by Astaire. ‘So Near and Yet So Far’ is Astaire’s first Latin-American ballroom pas deux, the number arguably inspired by Hayworth’s Latin dance pedigree. Here, Astaire and Hayworth float effortlessly about the dance floor without ever putting their full abilities to the test; Lionel Banks’ uninspired art direction, basically consisting of a painted stucco wall and sky backdrop with one incongruously situated fake palm tree – smack-center - around which this happy couple bounce and frolic. The finale is as misguided: ‘The Wedding Cake Walk’, featuring Liltin' Martha Tilton’s vocals and a chorus of military men and war brides bounding about the stage, at times almost eclipsing Astaire and Hayworth, who eventually escape this gyrating throng to the top of a huge art deco tank.  
Given Astaire’s box office cache at RKO, it is more than a little off-putting to discover, despite his costar-billing, he is decidedly subservient to a plot repeatedly attempting to isolate him as either a straight foil for comedian, Robert Benchley (cast in a role that would have – and usually did go to RKO’s resident fop, Edward Everett Horton), or as the tap-happy appendage to Hayworth’s supple charms. The picture opens with Benchley ordering his driver (Emmett Vogan) to slow down as they pass billboards and sign posts touting the movie’s title cards.  Benchley is Martin Cortland, theater proprietor/financial backer and notorious scamp where women are concerned. At present, his desired sexpot du jour is Sheila Winthrop (Rita Hayworth); a chorine in the new show helmed by his stage manager, Robert Curtis (Fred Astaire). Sheila does not share in Martin’s affections. Indeed, she prefers Robert, who is virtually oblivious to her flirtations.  Martin buys Sheila an expensive engraved bracelet, but only a Chinese back scratcher to mark his own wedding anniversary to Julia (Frieda Inescort). Sheila and Julia cross paths for the first time in Martin’s outer office; the wily old codger ushering Sheila out, presumably with her present, moments before Julia’s arrival. What Martin does not know is that Sheila has deposited his gift back into his coat pocket. Thus, when Martin suggests to Julia her anniversary gift is waiting there, she inadvertently discovers the bracelet instead.
Informing Martin he has gone ‘too far’ this time, Julia departs with the veiled threat the next time they speak it will be in front of ‘twelve men’ – a.k.a. – a jury at their divorce trial. This would ruin Martin. After all, everything he has is because of Julia’s money. And so, Martin concocts a lie to rectify his deception; ordering Robert to woo Sheila and thus present her with the same bracelet he bought for her, presumably on Robert’s behalf. The ruse turns sour – first, because Julia does not buy it for a moment, and second, because Sheila, wounded from being passed between Robert and Martin – decides to plant her hurt on Robert’s cheek in a series of overtly sexual kisses; hence, playing the part of the whore and making Robert decidedly ashamed of it. Now, Sheila doubts Robert’s sincerity. At the same time, she is practically engaged to army captain, Tom Barton (John Hubbard). With Tom’s complicity, Sheila and her Aunt Louise (Marjorie Gateson) play a fowl trick on Robert; Tom, presents himself as Sheila’s southern gentry brother, hell-bent on either forcing Robert into a shotgun wedding to his ‘sister’ or shooting him dead for defiling her honor. Amused when Robert flees the apartment in hysteria, Tom next invites Sheila and Louise to visit him and his mother (Ann Shoemaker) at the army base.
Too coincidentally, Robert has since been drafted, despite being five pounds under the legal weight class. What follows is a drawn out comedy sequence: Robert pushes a fully clothed Martin into the shower to prevent him from following him, before hurrying off happily to join the fight, loading the rim of his hat with weights to pass the army’s physical exam. Conveniently stationed at Tom’s base, Robert is put under the rigorous command of a Top Sergeant (Donald McBride). He also swiftly befriends two fellow draftees, Swivel ‘Swiv’ Tongue (Cliff Nazarro) and Kewpie Blain (Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams). Life in the army is not all Robert anticipated. Frequently he finds himself in the guardhouse for infractions. On one such occasion, Robert practically collides with Sheila who is startled to see him. He lies to her about a promotion to Captain and later steals an officer’s uniform to further promote this subterfuge; exposed when Sheila re-introduces him to her fiancé and the man whose captain’s garb he has stolen. At the last possible moment, Sheila takes pity on Robert and affords him a graceful exit. Nevertheless, it’s the guardhouse for Robert again, along with Swiv and Blain, who helped him plot the disguise.
Desperate to have his top man back on Broadway, Martin resurfaces on base to promote a show for the enlisted men that Robert will help to choreograph. Robert agrees to these terms, provided he is allowed to use Martin’s bachelor pad Manhattan apartment as his base of operations to woo Sheila. It makes no difference to Martin. He has already moved on, and, in hot pursuit of another chorine, Sonya (Osa Massen), alas, and to whom he has promised the starring role. Time is running out for Robert. Tom has since learned he is to be stationed in Panama and asks Sheila to be his wife. Distressed, Robert hurries to retrieve the engraved diamond bracelet Martin purchased for Sheila. Regrettably, Martin has already had the inscription changed to give it to Sonya. Once again, Sheila is turned off by the prospect of accepting another woman’s jewelry. She makes the impromptu decision to marry Tom instead and withdraws from the show. Now, Robert invites Julia to the show’s rehearsals, raising her level of suspicion to effectively oust Sonya from the cast. Without a leading lady, the show will surely be canceled. There’s only one solution. Get Sheila back. Unbeknownst to anyone, Robert gets a real Justice of the Peace (Frank Ferguson) to perform the wedding ceremony in the play costarring Sheila and him.  Nevertheless, Sheila is all set to walk out on her ‘new husband’ until Martin effectively confesses his machinations to her. Realizing Robert’s love for her is genuine Sheila confides she has always loved him too. Rather magnanimously, Tom allows for Robert’s early release from the guardhouse for their honeymoon. Unaware of this, Swiv and Blain make an inept attempt to break Robert out and are apprehended for their efforts – presumably, destined to spend some time there themselves.
You’ll Never Get Rich is silly, idiotic and, in spots, effervescently charming. The picture’s strengths are decidedly Astaire and Hayworth, and, to a lesser extent, Benchley – always disarming as the scamp. The Pig-Latin byplay frequently indulged in by Blain to get him either in or out of a jam, wears thin after a while; although, it is brilliantly reciprocated by Astaire’s Robert – catching the master con at his own game, as it were – in a scene that still holds up remarkably well today. The most disappointing aspects of the movie are, first and foremost, that none of these characters ever go beyond two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Astaire plays the same marginally insolent and infrequently harried and/or befuddled innocent we have seen him appear as in all nine of his pairings with Ginger Rogers. Rita Hayworth is decorous and sassy; a persona she would cultivate to perfection in her greatest role ever as Gilda (1946). Benchley is as Benchley was – a loveable ‘cooked’ ham. But none of these principals ever distinguish themselves as real people we can root for or call out as our favorites. They are merely present and accounted for as stock characters within the standardized – and in this case, homogenized Hollywood musical mélange.
The last regret is Cole Porter’s to bear. His score is basic at best and very subpar for Porter’s talent.  Apart from the aforementioned ‘Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye’, a standard for some years thereafter and covered by many an artist successfully, the songs and dances in You’ll Never Get Rich are as disposable as they are mediocre. None distinguishes itself, despite Astaire and Hayworth’s awe-inspiring polish to provoke our renewed interest. You’ll Never Get Rich did make money for Columbia. As a matter of fact, it also made a star out of Hayworth; quickly re-teamed with Astaire for the infinitely superior, You Were Never Lovelier (still MIA on Blu-ray along with far too many other Columbia classics like The Talk of the Town, Holiday, Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth, etc. et al). But the score to You’ll Never Get Rich is woefully spread much too thin across its meager 88 min. runtime. In the end, it’s not a movie for the ages, but rather one that has not aged all that well in the interim.
Twilight Time gives us the first B&W Astaire musical on Blu-ray. For shame to Warner Bros. – custodians of the Astaire/Rogers catalog, yet with seemingly zero interest to release any of it to Blu in the foreseeable future. TT’s release of You’ll Never Get Rich is a bit of a disappointment, however. I suspect there are no surviving original elements to go back on this deep catalog release. And Sony, presently under the inspired tutelage of Grover Crisp, I will equally assume have done absolutely everything in their power to resurrect this movie in 1080p. Nevertheless, contrast is weak – decidedly so – everything falling into a sort of mid-register mire of tonal grey with no distinct blacks and very often whites teetering on the verge of being blown out. Fine detail is lost except in close-ups and grain appears to have been marginally scrubbed. The overall texture here is soft and, intermittently slightly out of focus. The DTS mono audio is adequate, if unremarkable. TT’s only extra is an isolated score with effects. Bottom line: You’ll Never Get Rich is for Astaire or Hayworth completionists only. It’s not a great musical, and at times, gives very real pause to reconsider it as menial and unprepossessing. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

HOPSCOTCH: Blu-ray (Avco Embassy 1980) Criterion Collection

There is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose; as Ned Beatty’s baboonish CIA director, Myerson is about to find out when he prematurely retires his number one operative, Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) to a desk job, merely over their personality conflict. Director, Ronald Neame’s cheeky would-be spy thriller/comedy caper, Hopscotch (1980) is regrettably more snooze than sleeper; intermittently charming, but oft idiotic; redeemed only by the presence of Matthau in comedy genius mode, and the inimitable and delicious Glenda Jackson who, despite appearing only sporadically for a total of 25 minutes throughout, nevertheless manages to permeate the ennui of this lumbering ‘chase flick’ with her sultry smarts as Isobel von Schoenberg – a retired MI6 field agent, living obscurely in the Tyrolean countryside. I suspect the chief problem with Hopscotch is it’s left author, Brian Garfield’s shrewdly written and deadly serious spy novel to molder in the dollar ninety-nine book bin (despite Garfield’s involvement in co-authoring the screenplay with Bryan Forbes); trading literary stealth for a tastefully executed, though leaden twist and pursuit of hyperactively tragic comedy vignettes.
The novel’s Kendig was disenfranchised, sullen and vengeful, redirecting his formidable dexterity to outfox and unsettle the CIA’s best efforts to silence him. Matthau’s reincarnation devolves Kendig into just some good-time Charlie out on a lark and a spree, belting his favorite operatic arias off key with a ‘take this job and shove it’ attitude towards his former employers whom he thoroughly delights in taunting.  In hindsight, it’s the audacity of Kendig’s actions that lead to whatever minor chuckles are to be gleaned from his globe-trotting romp; the chutzpah in conning Jacquelyn Hyde’s thimble-headed local realtor and Myerson’s own dipsy wife (Anne Haney) into renting the couple’s summer home, simply to lure Myerson to its location and subversively force his overzealous yahoos to shoot it up. Yet, deprived of these cleverly strung together vignettes, Hopscotch has very little to whet the appetite or effectively maintain either its’ high stakes cloak and dagger antagonistic byplay between Myerson and Kendig or the charmingly obtuse, if highly cerebral love affair between Miles and Isobel.
The thimble of a plot is set into motion when Kendig defies direct orders while on assignment in Munich during Oktoberfest, letting KGB operative, Yuri Yaskov (Herbert Lom) off the hook in a bit of espionage involving a bait and switch of some nondescript microfilm from an East German spy. Yaskov and Kendig regard one another in the highest esteem. Indeed, they are two sides of the same Janus-faced coin; men of integrity, just doing their job for their respective government spy agencies. Too bad for Kendig, Myerson does not see it that way. Withdrawing Kendig from the field, Myerson delights in reassigning him to a desk job; seemingly destined to remain chair bound until Myerson can figure out another way to force Kendig to permanently retire. Kendig’s replacement is Joe Cutter (Sam Waterson); a middling agent who, nevertheless, admires Kendig’s prowess as exactly the sort of seasoned agent he could never hope to become. Kendig wastes no time shredding his personnel files before flying to Salzburg. There, he and Isobel rekindle a former flame. A bit of badinage ensues under the watchful eye of Isobel’s devoted Doberman and blundering CIA agent, Follet (Douglas Dirkson). Yaskov resurfaces for a clandestine meeting with Kendig, offering him a job with the KGB. It’s tempting, though hardly lucrative. Besides, despite Myerson being a royal pain in the backside, Kendig could never be disloyal to the good ole U.S.A.  And so, on Yaskov’s thinly veiled suggestion, Kendig instead elects to write his memoirs, exposing nearly thirty years of dirty work, tricks of the trade and general incompetence within the CIA. Surely, such an exposé will become a best seller. Just as assuredly, publishing one will sign Kendig’s death warrant.
Isobel thinks Kendig utterly mad. Nevertheless, she agrees to mail his completed chapters, one at a time, around the world to various spy agencies in the U.S., Russia, China, France, Italy, and Great Britain; in effect, giving them a ‘heads up’ on the truckload of manure about to hit the proverbial fan. Myerson is outraged, as his blunders and misfires feature prominently in Kendig’s manuscript. At the same time, Kendig approaches publisher, Parker Westlake (George Baker) with the ‘exclusive’ rights. As Kendig predicts, Myerson sets up a not so covert operation to have him assassinated before he can mail out his final chapter, forcing Kendig to go into hiding. Kendig, however, is supremely amused. Myerson has fallen for his bait. Hiring expert forger, Leroy Maddox (Severn Darden) to create a complete dossier of three fake I.D.’s, Kendig assumes the personas of James Butler, Mr. Hanaway and, in his most brazen incarnation, Leonard Ross (the field agent closest to Myerson) to engage them in a globe-trotting game of ‘hopscotch’ – using his alternate identities to travel freely back home; perversely setting up his temporary base of operations inside Myerson’s unoccupied Georgian summer retreat. Deliberately leaking his address, Kendig delights in the firestorm he manages to bring down on Myerson’s home, using time-delayed firecrackers to simulate gunfire and force the CIA operatives to retaliate in kind with bullets and teargas.
Momentarily taking field agent, Leonard Ross (David Matthau) as his prisoner – another defensive maneuver - Kendig next charters a plane to Bermuda. Eventually, he turns up in London to offer Westlake the last chapter and first dibs on publishing his memoir. Fearing the book will equally incriminate him, Yaskov and Cutter exchange information in the hopes of isolating Kendig. But the wily Kendig is already three steps ahead of his competition. Using Ross’ I.D., he purchases a small biplane, outfitting it with a remote control for his final plan of action. In the meantime, Myerson bursts into Westlake’s offices, threatening an injunction to stop the publication of Kendig’s book. Westlake is un-phased by Myerson’s coercion, countermanding it with his own bullying tactics. That evening, as Myerson, Cutter and Ross begrudgingly retire to their hotel rooms to cogitate Kendig ambushes Cutter in his room; binding and gagging his old pal as he quietly reveals the chase is nearly over for all concerned. He also reveals his plans to fly out from a small airfield across the English Channel. This too is a master stroke of misdirection. Meanwhile, Isobel gives Follet the slip and hurries across the Channel by hovercraft for her prearranged rendezvous with Kendig. Regrettably, on the way, to the airfield, Kendig suffers a flat tire and is momentarily incarcerated by the local authorities, who have in their possession a bulletin attesting to his stature as an internationally ‘wanted man’.  
Offering the police officers (Christopher Driscoll and Michael Cronin) Ross’ fake I.D. as proof he is not the man they are looking for, Kendig makes a daring escape by short-circuiting an electrical socket and then stealing one of their police cars. Arriving at the airfield, Kendig is just in time to witness Myerson, Cutter, Ross and Yaskov descending in a helicopter. Hurriedly, he pretends to board his biplane and take off. Myerson takes dead aim and hits Kendig’s plane in the gas tank as it sails over the cliff-side in its attempt to cross the Channel. The tiny aircraft explodes into a million pieces; fiery wreckage strewn into the rolling surf far below. Stunned by what Myerson can only consider his ‘good fortune’, Cutter is more circumspect as he grumbles, “He better stay dead” – an acknowledgement of Kendig’s endgame plans to escape custody. Indeed, Cutter’s assessment is right on the money; Kendig, resurfacing from a nearby abandoned watch tower to destroy the remote control he used to operate his unmanned biplane. Meeting up with Isobel shortly thereafter, the couple departs for the south of France. Months later, Kendig’s explosive memoir hits the stands – a best seller by any barometer.  In Sikh disguise, Kendig amusingly goads a local book seller, plying her with information about the author.   Isobel hurriedly pulls him aside, admonishing his fitful intrigues. Kendig and Isobel depart the shop with a copy of his memoirs tucked underarm for posterity.
Hopscotch is desperately mediocre; a genuine shame since poster art for its general release borrows quite heavily on Bob Peak’s memorable design for Roger Moore’s Bond outing; The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), right down to the hand-drawn profiles of Walter Matthau (in a tuxedo he never wears in the actual movie) and Glenda Jackson, legs similarly splayed in a form-fitting gown a la Barbara Bach’s Agent Triple X. This is where any and all similarities to that iconic Bond flick end. Hopscotch is very second rate even as a comedy caper. Trying to imagine Walter Matthau as the CIA’s equivalent to Bond is next to impossible. He’s more Inspector Clouseau than Bond, if never entirely shaken or stirred from his ‘matter-of-fact’ complacency about leading central intelligence ‘superiors’ (in name only) half way around the world and back again on a wild goose chase; on the whole, very puerile and not altogether entertaining. Matthau and Jackson have good ‘on screen’ chemistry. But she is utterly wasted in this ‘His Girl Friday’ part. Ditto for Ned Beatty, reduced to a clumsy and cloddish lump of nothing. Exactly how he became a director of the CIA remains an even bigger mystery than the one exposed in Hopscotch’s enfeebled plot.  
I am not entirely certain how Hopscotch rates inclusion into what the Criterion Collection calls its “continuing series of ‘important’ classic and contemporary films” since Hopscotch neither started a trend or helped to re-establish an old one. Nevertheless, this Avco Embassy Production has found its way to their Blu-ray catalog in a not altogether satisfying 1080p transfer; advertised as sourced from a new 2K transfer with literally hundreds of age-related dirt, scratches, etc. removed during the clean-up process. Despite the remastering effort, Hopscotch looks quite thick and grainy on Blu-ray. Colors are never natural. The main title opticals are disappointing soft and blurry with very muddy colors. Afterward, the palette favors some vibrant greens and the occasional smatter of red. But flesh tones frequently appear ruddy orange or piggy pink. Whites are never white, but suffer from a slight blue tint. Outdoor sequences are better resolved. But Arthur Ibbetson  and Brian W. Roy’s cinematography always appears wan and wanting for better resolved grain and fine details. Grain is not only thick, but on occasion, almost adopting a slightly digitized appearance. I get it. Hopscotch was not a high key-lit, studio-bound production. Even so, its overall visual presentation here is mediocre at best. Audio is PCM mono – adequate for this movie, if unremarkable by most any standard. Extras: Criterion is getting decidedly thin on the goodies again. We get an excerpt from an interview Walter Matthau gave on The Dick Cavett Show, and a brief – though informative – interview piece with Ronald Neame and Brian Garfield. Curiously, we also get the TV broadcast audio version of this movie; sans profanity to preserve the virgin ears of impressionable kiddies and those Puritanical pundits past puberty who refuse to acknowledge four letter words do exist; though exactly why either should be watching Hopscotch in the first place is beyond me. Bottom line: Hopscotch is disposable and dull. Having seen it once I do not expect to ever revisit it again. Criterion’s Blu-ray is as close to bare bones as the company has dared in a long while. Not impressed. Not by a long shot.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE LONG, HOT SUMMER: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1958) Twilight Time

Just in time for the end of summer comes Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer (1958); a reminder of what used to pass in American movie houses as quaint ‘erotica’; the sight of a taut and rippling Paul Newman, poured into his sleeveless and sweat-soaked undershirt or – even better – shirtless, casually clutching a pillow as his alter ego, enterprising grifter and hunk du jour, Ben Quick mercilessly goads a sexually repressed Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) from the veranda adjacent her bedroom, likely sent electric impulses to quicken the pace of female theater patrons’ hearts. There are parallels here between Quick and Brick Pollitt, the character Newman played in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also released in 1958); also, Chance Wayne, the notoriously flawed Lothario he would reincarnate to perfection for 1962’s Sweet Bird of Youth. The latter two characters are cut from the earthy Southern Samson loincloth of playwright, Tennessee Williams who, perhaps better than most, understood how best to tastefully upset the potency of pent-up male/female sexual frustration. Sex – fundamentally basic, yet in Williams’ prolific career, broodingly – almost perversely – agitated by man’s (and woman’s) fears of inadequacy and/or ruminating denial of the impulse, unhealthily re-channeled into other misguided pursuits, detoured flagrante delictos, and arranged/unhappy marriages.
Paul Newman’s great gift to the movies has always been a seeming ambivalence towards his own testosterone-pulsating allure, married to an ability to cold filter it through his inimitable brand of insolence, effortlessly translating into raw animal magnetism at a glance. Point blank: Newman just exudes sex appeal without even trying. Considering his formidable acting chops, the art of the tease comes naturally to him and he uses it to wrap the audience around his little finger. In The Long, Hot Summer, Newman’s tart-mouthed Quick roils with uninhibited carnal charisma; both as a counterbalance and an anathema to Clara’s Victorian prudery, and, a real elixir for her sister-in-law; the loose and liberated Eula (Lee Remick). We would, of course, be remiss in not exuding the charms of Remick; that luminous honey-haired sweetheart who, like Newman, could as easily reveal smarmy sensuality as frolicsome sincerity with barely a raised eyebrow. Remick’s screen persona in the fifties played up the ‘liberated’ angle, teetering dangerously close to that unattractive vantage known as ‘slut city’. And yet, Remick is never cheap – despite her déclassé and ‘come hither’ glances; her exuberant and attractive frame form-fitted into projectile braziers, pasted over in stretch fabrics to exaggerate all those natural perky curves.  We said goodbye to Lee Remick much too soon, claimed by liver and kidney cancer at the age of 55 in 1991. Since her passing, her reputation as a consummate pro has only continued to ripen with age. In The Long, Hot Summer she is decidedly subservient to the Newman/Woodward on again/off again flint of romantic antagonism. Yet, she manages with considerable ease to hold her own as ‘the third wheel’. And she is delicious to observe, even as background wallpaper in scenes dominated by her costars’ combative volatility.  
Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.’s screenplay for The Long, Hot Summer is, of course, a reworking of three works by another imminent writer, William Faulkner: Spotted Horses, a 1931 novella, Barn Burning – a short story published in 1939 and 1940’s full-fledged novel, The Hamlet: the movie’s title gleaned from ‘Hamlet’s Book III – minus the ‘hot’. Nevertheless, the picture owes much of its success, and sensuality to Tennessee Williams; Ravetch and Frank influenced by MGM’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and shifting the movie’s focus from the novel’s Flem Snopes and his family to the more rakishly handsome and notorious Ben Quick. Indeed, except for retaining names and thumbnail plot points from all three Faulkner masterworks, there is precious little Faulkner in The Long, Hot Summer, transparently predisposed to Tennessee Williams. As Newman had already shot Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (released several months after The Long, Hot Summer) he was well acquainted with the slow burn (pun intended) of his rough and tumble upstart, herein pitted against the rigid morality and bigoted code of a small, and seemingly inbred clan; wealthy land owners, since made relics on their decaying and isolated plantations.  As Will Varner, the ‘Big Daddy-esque’ purveyor of all he sees – though not necessarily all to his liking – director, Martin Ritt cast the formidable Orson Welles; enhanced with prosthetics to exaggerate his slovenly physical girth. Yet, its Welles indomitable spirit that sets the tone for Will Varner’s imposing stature; that and Welles’ superior command of the southern drawl (often, inaudible without fully pricked ears). In later years, Welles’ real life obesity would overshadow and blur the lines between fiction and fact.
By 1958, Welles was already considered persona non grata in Hollywood thanks to a series of high profile misfires and outright flops. Producer Jerry Wald had his misgivings about hiring him; sentiments echoed inside 2oth Century-Fox’s front offices. Nevertheless, Ritt was insistent on Welles’ casting, a decision he would come to rue when Welles began making demands on the production; remaining in character even when the cameras were not rolling and fairly intimidating much of the cast. Only co-star Angela Lansbury found Welles amusing; his refusal to memorize lines forcing Ritt to re-dub much of his dialogue in the editing room during post-production. The on-set altercations between Ritt and Welles escalated daily, culminating in ‘the incident’ that garnered media attention. The location shoot for The Long, Hot Summer was besought by inclement weather. A good portion of the picture was shot in and around Clinton and Baton Rouge, Louisiana in Fox’s patented Cinemascope with DeLuxe color. But the heat, frequent delays from torrential rain, and the stifling humidity conspired to try everyone’s patience. Hence, on an afternoon when the weather did cooperate, Ritt was to discover Welles as yet not ready to shoot his scene; but rather indulging in a Spanish newspaper. Unruffled, Ritt simply prepared the next scene, virtually ignoring Welles for the rest of the day. Humiliated, but more inwardly ashamed than outwardly perturbed, Welles sheepishly hurried along his preparations. To be upstaged by Ritt again would have signaled a level of un-professionalism Welles would never entertain. Nevertheless, when production wrapped, director and star had nothing but conciliatory things to say about each other in the press. But neither ever forgot this moment; Ritt earning the reputation ‘Orson tamer’ in Hollywood because of it.
The Long, Hot Summer begins with a prologue; a barn going up in flames. Grifter Ben Quick is apprehended by the local sheriff; accused of starting the blaze. Quick remains silent, though already pre-judged as guilty. Unfortunately for the law, there is no proof he is an arsonist. And so, Ben is encouraged to get out of town…or else; the ‘else’ likely a lynching by the embittered townsfolk. We momentarily regress to some picturesque shots of a freighter travelling down the muddy Mississippi, the banks on either side lazily dripping with dense foliage as composer, Alex North’s sublime title tune married to lyrics by Sammy Cahn strikes up; dissonant chords counterbalanced by singer, Jimmie Rodgers silken smooth vocals. At once, director Martin Ritt has perfectly set the tone for this steamy, sex-soaked melodrama. Wading to shore, Ben is picked up by Eula and Clara in her sporty Cadillac convertible. Ben misjudges them as ‘country girls’; an opinion quickly refuted by the more talkative and flirtatious Eula. In town, Ben soaks up the local color. Asked what folks do for a living, he is informed just about everything – including setting up homemade distilleries to market moonshine. Eula is married to Jody (Anthony Franciosa); Will’s son, sensitive and as easily wounded by his father’s stern attitude. By rights, Jody ought to inherit the family’s Frenchman’s Bend plantation; a sprawling complex, built in the antebellum tradition and attending to those principles gleaned from another time and place in the South’s history. Indeed, Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler’s art direction, and, Eli Benneche and Walter M. Scott’s set decoration are dangerously close to plagiarizing wholesale the accoutrements of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.   
It does not take long for Ben to catch the attentions of sexually frustrated neighbor gal, Agnes Stewart (Sarah Marshall). Agnes knows a good hunk of man when she sees it. But Clara is unimpressed by Ben; finding him uncouth and hardly her equal. Indeed, she would likely turn down any man to cross her doorstep; embittered by her father’s playing around with town tart, Minnie Littlejohn (Angela Lansbury). Ben takes a job working on the Varner’s farm. But before he leaves their posh main house he wipes his muddy boots on the handwoven rug in their foyer. Determined to set a standard from the outset, Clara and one of the houseboy’s carry the rug to the ramshackle shanty Jody has agreed to ‘rent’ Ben while he works the land for them, ordering him to clean it before Will’s return from the hospital later that evening. Ben is intrigued, knowing, although Clara adamantly denies it, he has aroused some dishonorable intentions within her. Despite the family’s best laid plans, Will’s homecoming is hardly an occasion to celebrate. The sixty-one year old curmudgeon wastes no time holding court on his veranda; berating Jody for his lackadaisical management of the estate in his absence and giving Clara the third degree about her absence of gentlemen callers. According his outdated view, women are for child-bearing, not reading poetry alone in their bedrooms.  Clara finds this sort of talk revolting. But Jody attempts more diplomatically to suggest respect is at least owed for his competent – if not trailblazing – supervision of the plantation’s daily operations while Will has been recuperating. Too bad for Jody, Will is aware of Ben’s reputation as a ‘barn burner’ and aims to have him run off his land immediately.
Funny thing: Will and Ben hit things off almost from the moment they lay eyes on each other; the ornery overseer, used to having things his way, and the young upstart, not about to be pushed around by anyone; two sides of the same Janus-faced coin. Will decides to give Ben an opportunity, or perhaps just enough rope to hang himself. He asks Ben to sell off some of his fiery stallions at auction; impossible animals he has, as yet, been unable to unload. In short order, Ben proves his merit, using his charlatan ways to cajole even the most stubborn crowd of onlookers into seeing things his way. One by one the horses are sold for a profit. Impressed, Will decides to do things for Ben. Naturally, this does not sit well with Jody who watches from the sidelines as his already tenuous relationship with dear ole dad steadily disintegrates even further. It isn’t long before Ben and Jody become bitter rivals. At a dinner party, Will decides to pick a few scabs; first, Clara’s unrequited affections for neighboring plantation owner, Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson). Today, Will’s veiled insinuations about Alan being close to his overbearing mother, Elizabeth (Mabel Albertson) seem innocuous enough. But by the subliminal code of 1950’s sexual politics, they spank of the inference Alan is using mama as a beard to shield his homosexual persuasions; a point nailed home a few moments later when Alan stands up to Will, claiming he does his duty and Will swats back, “Not around here, you don’t!”
Oversexed and barely able to keep his hands to himself where his own wife is concerned, Jody finds Will’s indictment quite amusing: less so, when Will’s penetrating comments are directed at him. Will informs Jody, not only is Ben to become a regular fixture at their dinner table, but he will also be clerking at the Varner Mercantile General Store in the same capacity as Jody; with the same level of responsibilities and wages paid out. Jody is understandably alarmed. It is just one more indication Ben’s arrival in town is the beginning of the end; Jody’s seemingly impenetrable expectation to inherit everything from his father falling to pieces before his very eyes. On the veranda, a gaggle of sixteen and seventeen year old boys catcall after Eula. She adores the attention, despite the fact it has an obvious emasculating effect on her husband. Afterward, Ben and Will engage in a game of cards, leaving Clara and Alan to contemplate ‘the moon’ and other things on the front porch. It’s no good. Even Alan can see it. Their discussions are leaden and cerebral rather than kinetically charged with a spark of mutual attraction.  
After Alan’s departure, Ben makes his first definite play for Clara. Of course, it is shot down. But Clara’s standoffish nature doesn’t fool Ben for a moment. Later, Will demands to know from Clara what Alan’s intensions are, pointing out that Clara’s mother was eighteen when she married him; furthermore, at twenty-three, Clara is on the fast track to becoming an old maid. If Alan will not propose perhaps Ben Quick can fit into this marital equation without delay. Clara is appalled her father would ‘sell her’ in marriage to a man she did not desire simply to beget the Varner bloodline for the foreseeable future. The next morning Jody lazily comes into work, startled to find Ben already behind the register.  Of privilege and promise comes little, as far as Ben is concerned. Without lifting a finger, Ben is already well on his way to usurping the heir apparent. To quell his own fears, Jody returns to the plantation for a little badinage with his wife. Only Eula has begun to realize she wants a real man, not a boy pretending at being one, at her side. Hence, when Jody tries his usual adolescent seduction tactics on Eula again, she coolly “wishes” he’d “find another form of recreation!”
Perhaps Clara has misjudged Ben. To prove once and for all there is nothing between them, she decides pays a call on her father’s General Store after hours. To Clara’s delight, Ben is more cordial than she anticipated. Before long, however, the two invoke their mutually adversarial relationship. “The world belongs to the meat eaters, Miss Clara,” Ben points out, “…if you have to take it raw – take it raw!” Their caustic exchanges culminate in a defiant slap and one thoroughly passionate kiss. Afterward, Clara is repulsed by her own acquiescence and calls out Ben as a ‘barn burner’. He withdraws and she flees into the night. But Will is nearby and now begins to hatch a plot for Ben to seduce and wed his daughter. To hasten the process, Will has Ben’s things brought into the plantation house. Jody is mortified to have, as Will puts it, “a brother” – competition, as far as Jody is concerned. Clara attempts to coddle Jody’s fears, reminding him of an incident when they were both in school where he defended her honor against a playground bully. What both Clara and Jody fail to acknowledge yet is that it takes more than ‘blood’ to make it in the outside world. It takes heart, guts and determination. While Clara may yet be her father’s daughter, Jody has suddenly begun to recognize Ben Quick is the son Will Varner never had, but always wanted. It is a bitter pill to swallow.
That evening a shirtless and flirtatious Ben attempts to lure Clara from her bedroom; posed and primed on the second story veranda just beyond her open window. She pretends to ignore him, but secretly acknowledges he has aroused her. Sometime thereafter, at the county fair the men of Frenchman’s Bend enviously assess Ben’s swift ascendency into this most prominent family. At the box lunch auction, Ben engages Alan in a bidding war for Clara’s picnic basket chicken dinner. Instead of nickel and diming his way to the prize, Ben simply outbids Alan with an impossible wager of $50. Finding a picturesque spot to indulge in his spoils, Ben soon discovers Clara’s position has not softened one bit. He threatens her with Will’s arrangement. “You are going to wake up smiling in the morning,” he insists. She doubles down on the position that sexual chemistry alone is not enough to build a relationship. Alan intervenes as Ben storms off. Only now Clara makes her demands of Alan. Does he love her? He does – just not in any lasting way to make for the ‘happily ever after’ she had hoped. Disillusioned and ashamed, Clara sets aside her school girl illusions. They have not served her well at all.
The last act of The Long Hot Summer deviates almost entirely from any of the Faulkner stories; producer, Jerry Wald’s predilection for solid box office, predicated on the proverbial ‘Hollywood happy ending’ blunting the drama thus far so expertly concocted. Jody threatens Ben at gunpoint. Astutely recognizing how unhinged he is, Ben leads Jody back to the old plantation house, regaling him with his discovery of loot stashed by the Confederates during the Civil War. As proof, Ben offers up a bag of coins. Seeing his way at last to stand on his own two feet, Jody blindly offers to buy the deed for the rundown house and grounds from Ben for a thousand dollars. Afterward, Jody forgets all about his plot to murder Ben. Instead, he sets to digging all night in search of more hidden treasure. Alas, Will arrives to put a damper of Jody’s euphoria. It seems the bag of money discovered by Jody was planted there by Ben; as proof, Will pointing to the minting date of 1910 – well after the Civil War. Near a nervous breakdown, Jody runs away. Meanwhile, Will believes Clara and Alan have entered into an engagement. He is quickly disillusioned of their wedded bliss by Alan who assures him there will not be a marriage – ever! Returning home, Will learns his favorite mare has only just given birth. However, as he enters the barn, the door is bolted behind him by Jody. Mad with jealousy, and determined to destroy Ben’s reputation once and for all, Jody now sets the barn afire. At the last possible moment he sees to reason and rescues Will from surely burning to death. Incongruously recognizing this as an act of strength, Will declares he has regained his faith in Jody to inherit the family business.
Meanwhile, Ben and Clara reconcile on the plantation’s front porch. He regales her with his family’s history; his father, the only real firebug who professionally burned barns for the insurance money and despite risk to life and limb. Clara is empathetic and comforting. “You could never tame me,” Ben admits, “But you taught me.” The townsfolk are not nearly as convinced Ben had nothing to do with the latest blaze. But now Will, in a moment of impassioned festiveness, pointedly lies to the mob, claiming he started the fire by accidentally dropping his lit cigar into one of the brittle haystacks.  The rabble, only seconds before, ready to lynch Ben Quick, now inexplicably take Will at face value. Nevertheless, Ben bids Will goodbye. They have come to a parting of the ways. “I get preached to on Sundays,” Will insists. “Yeah, but you don’t listen,” Ben reasons. “I’ll break you,” Will threatens. “You’ll miss me,” Ben astutely suggests. Clara is most amused. Ben has finally come around to the sort of man she would wholeheartedly marry. Relenting to her declaration of love, Ben agrees to stay. Will declares to Minnie he loves life so much he just may go on living forever.
The Long, Hot Summer was a successful picture for 2oth Century-Fox. Despite the daily warring between Orson Welles and director, Martin Ritt, and Clinton, Louisiana’s inclement weather and stifling humidity casting a pall upon the work conditions, it was another unimpeachable effort from producer, Jerry Wald – then, something of an unstoppable zeitgeist with his fingers effectively feeling the pulse of the average American movie ticket buyer to the tune of $2,853,700 on a $1,500,000 budget. Paul Newman, then a Warner Bros. contract player on loan to Fox, benefited the most, winning high praise and a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. I’ll profess a bias herein. I have never understood Joanne Woodward’s appeal. Next to her husband’s inferno of raw male machismo she almost vanishes, ever more the easily flustered shrinking violet with barely an undisturbed petal; even as the proverbial wallflower. She can play pert. She can even exude a modicum of empathy of the prime Suzie Cream Cheese ilk that can translate into the sort of tenderness a certain type of male might wish to find in a potential mate. But her rigid exterior remains remote and goddess-like; smooth, cool and antiseptic at best. Not so much here for the male star gazer if you ask me; Woodward – stern and occasionally sassy, but pinning her motto in a place where no janitor would ever think to look, much less find it. Finally, The Long, Hot Summer did much to revitalize Martin Ritt’s sagging career after being branded a communist sympathizer during the McCarthy witch-hunts.  Viewed today, The Long, Hot Summer is an exemplar of that last vintage flowering in studio-bound film-making; Joseph LaShelle’s uber-lush cinematography capturing the moonlight and magnolia atmosphere of this family-owned backwater, thickly scented in raw and occasionally panged animal lust.
The Blu-ray release of The Long, Hot Summer is long overdue. Thanks to Twilight Time’s ongoing alliance with Fox Home Video, we get a quality hi-def release in gorgeous 1080p with no untoward tinkering of the vintage DeLuxe color palette. I had feared – and with good reason – another teal-tinted disaster, or worse, slapdash mastering effort a la previous Fox fiascos like The Blue Max, The King and I, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Wild RiverDesk Set, Garden of Evil, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Best of Everything and/or Anastasia (1956). If someone at Fox is listening, then the aforementioned are overdue for a reissue, either in 1080p or (choke!) 4K with ample color remastering and, in a few instances, image stabilization in desperate need of application. Fox has proven it can do good – nee, great – work when it commits the necessary funds to its catalog. The proof is in this Blu-ray release of The Long, Hot Summer. Not only is the DeLuxe palette simply sumptuous, but the image is razor-sharp, sporting excellent clarity, a modicum of film grain indigenous to its source and superior contrast. We get two audio options; ‘scope’s’ original 2 channel stereo and a remastered 5.1 that accompanied the original Fox DVD release from some years ago. The 5.1’s only real selling feature is in bringing Alex North’s underscore to life; also, the title tune, sounding rich and enveloping. TT has afforded this release its usual isolated score; plus the extras that came with the aforementioned DVD – a Fox MovieTone newsreel and episode of Hollywood: Backstory – in 22 minutes, detailing the making of the movie. Bottom line: this is a reference quality effort from Fox of a vintage Cinemascope release. We doff our caps here and champion Fox and Twilight Time for releasing it with gusto. The Long, Hot Summer on Blu-ray belongs on everyone’s must have/must see/must own list. As we prepare to leave summer behind, it is a potent reminder of the promise and full-bodied bloom of love under the sun. There are only 3000 copies available. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, August 26, 2017

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER: Blu-ray (Columbia, 1959) Twilight Time

When it was released at the tail end of December, 1959, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called director, Joseph L. Mankewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summera malignant masterpiece – a horror picture for adults”; Variety – the showbiz Bible, adding “by far, the most bizarre motion picture ever made by a major American company.” Indeed, in years to follow there have been very few movies of any generation to so completely rattle the brain – literally and figuratively – in a visual and aural repose of absolute human terror. It can safely be said Katherine Hepburn’s wealthy benefactress, Violet Venable, ‘democratically’ descending from ‘on high’ in her Byzantine-esque elevator, thereafter periodically slipping into lugubrious daydreams of her son, Sebastian and incestuously referring to themselves as ‘a couple’, is one of the most markedly evil representations of motherhood in cinema history. Only one other comes immediately to mind, Angela Lansbury’s supremely wicked Eleanor Iselin from 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Like Eleanor, Violet is ‘devoted’ to her offspring – or rather, his downfall; an enabler/procurer, feeding into and off of his self-destruction. Violet’s flawed remembrances of their even more insidiously unsettling and curious trip to the Galápagos Islands, where she and Sebastian witnessed ‘flesh-devouring’ birds turning over newly hatched baby sea turtles to peck apart their soft stomachs, creates a riveting impression; also, a bit of foreshadowing, and furthermore still, to Vi’s overbearing gargoyle of a matriarch; interpretations remade into fact, meant to obscure what actually occurred ‘suddenly’ last summer.  But exactly what did happen? Is the integrity of her dead son, the fantasy of their ‘loving’ relationship, or an even more brutally dishonest secret, worth destroying two lives? Or can it liberate and restore one life, even as it has so completely decimated the other?
As a movie, Suddenly, Last Summer should have been a more intensely shocking experience; what, with Tennessee William’s play, its acidic subject matter eluding to repressed incestuous frustrations, homoerotic cannibalism, and, the threat of lobotomizing a frightened young innocent, merely to silence the nightmarish truth sprung from a seemingly innocuous respite on a beach in Cabeza de Lobo – the movie version had a lot to feast upon (pun intended, for those familiar with the outcome). And director, Joseph Mankewicz certainly knew his way around such stagecraft; his movies, literate, sobering revelations on human foibles. Alas, Mankewicz was hampered in several ways as to prevent the complete and complex maturation of its subject matter; the Catholic League of Decency weighing in, and Hollywood, not yet willing to loosen its yolk on screen censorship. The movie’s biggest asset is undeniably Katherine Hepburn as the disturbing – and disturbed – matron of the maison; Violet Venable about as grotesque and devouring as the Venus flytrap she favors in Sebastian’s primordial paradise; a garden populated by oversized dense foliage straight out of the Cretaceous period, decorated by winged skeletal statuary; its’ centerpiece, Sebastian’s shuttered artist’s atelier.
We never meet the deviant heir apparent to this decaying labyrinth of artistic decadence; the man closest to Violet’s heart, if indeed she possesses one – the boy wonder/poet with a weak heart for whom she selfishly allowed a husband to die alone at home while they frolicked abroad in Europe; Sebastian (Julián Ugarte), only briefly glimpsed from behind in a regressed ‘flashback’ recalled by cousin, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor). Even so, Sebastian’s presence permeates virtually every frame of our story. Even the crisp white linen suit, greedily pulled from his closet by Catherine’s brother, George (Gary Raymond), lingers with Sebastian’s essence, thanks primarily to Tennessee Williams’ infectious dialogue. Were that Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (Oscar-nominated, no less) could hold a candle to his prose. While praised at the time for her acting chops, Taylor really does not dig beyond the surface of this part; her pantomimed reactions as she observes her cousin being consumed by the urchins he patronized (and, so it is only hinted within the context of the film, though openly spelled out in the play, exploited for his own sexual sadism) more of a lampoon of fear than a genuine reaction to the carnage on display.
When it opened on Broadway, Suddenly, Last Summer was paired with another one-act play by Tennessee Williams; Something Unspoken – the two given the overall title, Garden District. On stage, Suddenly, Last Summer is basically two stark and lyrical monologues, Williams incorporating tragedies endured in his life, with a minor exaltation of his idol and muse; the poet, Hart Crane. According a rumor, Suddenly, Last Summer is the manifestation of Williams’ desire to rid himself of his own homosexuality through artistic expression after undergoing psychoanalysis. The truth is far more complex; Williams suffering from lifelong – and occasionally lengthy bouts - of paranoia, depression and anxiety that caused him to drink to excess. These transparencies between Williams’ life and the play prove compelling; even the superficial naming of the compassionate Dr. Cukrowicz (played by Montgomery Clift), an obvious ‘homage’ to Dr. Lawrence Kubie who, in 1957, was renown as a leading authority in American psychiatry, specializing in a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. There is little evidence to suggest Williams took Kubie’s advice to heart. Indeed, he never gave up sex or play-writing; Williams’ sessions with the famed psychiatrist resulting in one of the most fruitful creative periods of his career.
Williams’ sister, Rose, a schizophrenic, committed to a state asylum for her sexual babbling, had suffered the fate proposed for the play’s fictional Catherine Holly; a lobotomy at the instigation of their domineering mother. The operation left Rose incapacitated and institutionalized for the rest of her life. Mercifully, Williams spares his ‘Miss Catherine’ this surgical emasculation by revealing a truth Violet does not wish to be exposed; arguably, Williams’ revenge on the parents he never quite forgave for Rose’s fate. Williams even incorporates an incident from life, in which Rose accused their father of rape, into the play’s narrative; Catherine alleging an elderly caretaker has made improper advances while she was convalescing at a convent; the rumors – unsubstantiated, and never believed by even Catherine’s mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) – prone to her own fretting and fuss. There is little doubt the symbols of predation employed within the play’s narrative – and marginally tweaked (nee, watered down, in the film) are derived from Williams’ psychoanalytic experiences.  Yet, in the intervening decades, Suddenly, Last Summer has been misread as the weak-kneed pleas of a ‘self-loathing queer’, despite the fact these heterosexuals who populate this bizarre pantheon are far more perverted, immoral and monstrous.
In spite of the revelations we discover about Sebastian Venable – that he ‘used people’ via an intoxicating charm, as readily meant to consume as to ostracize any individual from his social clique once he was through with them – the real demigod of this piece is Sebastian’s mother, Violet; a demonstrative gargoyle, pledging her warped sense of maternal love to this offspring eager to exploit her beauty and wealth merely to satisfy his own appetite for desperate young men. Violet knows what her son is and cannot stand it. Insidiously, however, she is fervently committed to feeding his predilections without admitting to their existence; her possessive nature wounded, but unbroken, after Sebastian makes a new travelling companion of Catherine, who is younger, prettier and therefore, more likely to draw the right kind of attention Sebastian requires to satisfy his own homoerotic proclivities. As such, Violet’s doggedness to see Catherine’s lobotomized is never an act of altruism intended to ease this troubled girl of her haunted mind. It may not even be about maintaining Sebastian’s secret, best left buried in the past; but rather, a menacing and malignant retaliation against Catherine for being the new ‘woman’ in Sebastian’s life. 
At its crux, Suddenly, Last Summer was never intended to be a play about homosexuality, despite its mobile of plot entanglements dangling loosely about the dead gay man at the center of its story. Tennessee Williams is far more fascinated with scrutinizing the exploitation of the natural world; how all living things – in one manner or another –  ‘devour’ to survive. Unlike Mankewicz’s movie, the play begins with a tour of Sebastian’s prehistoric garden; Violet Venable, the docent of this somewhat clinical back story, indulging Sebastian’s Venus Fly Trap with live insects and thus, establishing Williams’ central theme. Mankewicz retains this vignette for the movie, but only after a fairly lengthy prologue involving Dr. Cukrowicz, a brilliant Chicago neurosurgeon, coaxed to practice medicine and perform his experimental surgeries at New Orlean’s Lion’s View state asylum. Cukrowicz is somewhat confrontational towards the asylum’s chief of staff, Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader (Albert Dekker), especially over the deplorable lack of funding and less than acceptable working conditions. It seems Hockstader has promised Cukrowicz the world, without actually being able to deliver; an oversight to be corrected, should Cukrowicz comply with Violet’s request to perform a lobotomy on her niece, in order to ‘relieve’ her of these frightening sexual rants.
At Hockstader’s insistence, Cukrowicz agrees to interview both Violet and Catherine regarding the particulars of the case. What he quickly realizes is this grand dame of New Orleans society has some rather deviant quirks of her own; an almost lionizing passion for her late son, disturbingly isolationist carnal attraction. Violet considers their mother/son relationship from the stance of the ‘perfect couple’ and center of attention; the outside world melting away whenever they entered any room together.  Whether intentionally realized or not, Violet’s insistence Sebastian was ‘chaste’ – an artist, who, having seen the ‘face of God’ on the Galapagos Islands, considers people only as they might satisfy his craft as a poet – paints a rather psychopathic account of her son, dismissive of all human foibles; a prig, perhaps – though not a wanton – whose purity is beyond reproach, but maybe masking a deeper ‘imperfection’ he could not have suppressed for much longer. Sebastian’s death has therefore spared him his reputation – at least, insofar as Violet is concerned. Alas, the fly in this ointment is Catherine: present at the time of Sebastian’s demise, and the one person who can dispel Violet’s claim he died of a heart attack brought on by the intense heat. Interestingly, Williams has given the dead Venable heir the name of a famous martyred saint; Sebastian’s impression completed by Catherine’s monologue, fleshing out the image of a doomed martyr – impossibly shy and fairly neurotic – using Violet as ‘bait’ to procure young men for his leisure.
In the play, Violet has suffered a mild stroke; the facial tick left behind forcing Sebastian to forsake his mother’s companionship for a new beauty capable of luring prospective contacts into his den of iniquity. To satisfy the conventions of a major motion picture, and one heavily censured by Hollywood’s self-governing body no less; but also, to flesh out what is essentially a forty minute oration into a two hour movie with character development, director Mankewicz turned to openly gay writer, Gore Vidal for inspiration. Vidal’s contributions are seamless and greatly expand upon the character of Dr. Cukrowicz, only of marginal importance in the play. The movie opens far away from the terrifying glamor of Sebastian’s garden; inside a makeshift operating theater at the state asylum where Cukrowicz is performing a lobotomy on a nondescript patient under the most primitive working conditions. A balcony railing breaks loose and a failing generator causes the overhead lights to momentarily fail. Cukrowicz is disgusted by these surroundings, informing Hockstader he is ‘not a witch doctor’.  Hockstader is sympathetic, but presses Cukrowicz to perform the lobotomy on Catherine Holly, primarily because it will secure a badly needed grant of a million dollars; in 1937 (the period, in which the play is set), enough to build Cukrowicz his state-of-the-art facility where he can carry on with his work.
Unlike the play, basically taking place in Sebastian’s garden and an adjacent veranda, the film version of Suddenly, Last Summer takes us inside the Venable estate; a sprawling complex with adjacent buildings framed by the garden, and later – in flashback, with an overlapping dissolve into montage, to Cabeza de Lobo, where we witness (partially) Sebastian being torn apart and eaten by his avenging boy toys.  Undeniably, Vidal’s greatest ‘contribution’ to the picture is confirmed in this altered finale; Catherine’s regression under the influence of truth serum, revealing the particulars of what happened ‘suddenly, last summer’; cross-cutting between the present and the past; photographed in overlapping images of Sebastian, fleeing the urchins in his immaculate white linen suit; driven through the cobblestone streets to an isolated hilltop where he is sacrificed by the ‘gobbling’ hoards; Vidal, quite unable to resist adding sympathy and restraint to the end of the picture. In the play, Violet storms out of the garden after ordering Cukrowicz to tear out this salacious memory from her niece’s mind; an indomitably determined and rather demonic presence to the very end. The movie provides us with a more avenging finale that nevertheless, and rather strangely, allows Hepburn’s venomous mother her moment of redemption; Catherine’s exposure of what really happened at Cabeza de Lobo liberates her mind from its repressed quicksand of madness. Alas, it also sends Violet into a tailspin and a retreat into the imagined ‘perfect’ past – or rather, her impressions of Sebastian before last summer; a purgatory from which she will likely never emerge. To this penultimate conclusion, Vidal rather clumsily concocts a ‘romance’ of sorts between the antiseptic Cukrowicz and Catherine; periodically fleshed out within the story by Cukrowicz ability to show Catherine unaffected kindness – the only character to do so. She repeatedly throws herself at his head; passionately kissing him twice, to which he playfully suggests “it was a friendly kiss”.
In life, Montgomery Clift, whose earnestly expressive fine-boned features, for a brief wrinkle in time, branded him the ‘hot’ young stud in Hollywood’s famed stables of masculine stars; posthumous rewritten as a gay icon, and, Elizabeth Taylor, the screen’s sultry and violet-eyed vixen, were life-long friends; she, knowing early on he was gay but keeping it a secret; the two romantically paired in George Stevens’ magnificent, A Place in the Sun (1951), and later, the ill-fated (and costly epic) misfire, Raintree County (1957); Taylor utterly devoted to Clift after his good looks were irrevocably destroyed by a near-fatal car wreck while leaving her home in 1956. It remains fascinating to watch their loosely quixotic byplay in Suddenly, Last Summer, void of the more obvious overtures played out in either of the aforementioned movies; Taylor mashing her glossy lips against Clift’s rather brittle and stiff doctor – the moment unrequited (one could infer, out of Cukrowicz’s respect for doctor/patient privilege), except the undercurrent of these stars’ enduring friendship remain plainly on display during such exchanges; Clift, grateful and humbled by Taylor’s backstage devoutness to him (indeed, he was no longer being considered for leading parts, the effect the accident had on his ego and social life even more devastating and, arguably, escalating his sad death at the age of 45).
By the time Suddenly, Last Summer went before the cameras, Montgomery Clift was already a shell of his former self; tortured by the frustratingly mad downward spiral of his real life. Arguably, this had begun long before the wreck; Clift, embracing Hollywood’s hedonism with a chronic addiction to booze and late nights carousing with hustlers. Yet, there is little to deny the accident as the seminal moment to speed up Clift’s folly, putting an eventual period to his life; the hellacious dismemberment of Clift’s car, discovered along a lonely road by actor, Kevin McCarthy, with Clift lying on its front seat, semi-conscious, half his head missing and two teeth lodged down his throat; Taylor rushing to the scene to wield absolute power over the tabloid press who had already gathered, declaring that if any photos were taken of Clift she would make it her singular mission in life to see none of these men ever worked in Hollywood again. Whatever the truth to these stories, not a single image of Clift’s perilous injuries has ever surfaced. Multiple surgeries and physical therapy rebuilt only a fraction and reasonable facsimile of Clift’s former self. But the reconstruction, coupled by Clift’s abuse of heavy painkillers and alcohol did much to age him well beyond his years; Clift’s death in 1966, later described as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”
It was Taylor who had championed Clift for the part of Dr. Cukrowicz in Suddenly, Last Summer, producer, Sam Spiegel willing to weather the risk to keep his star satisfied. Alas, the results were trying at best; Mankewicz repeatedly grown perturbed with Clift, who could not remember his lines or get through any of the major scenes without periodically losing his train of thought; forcing Mankewicz (who preferred long takes) to split up the action and then cobble together a performance from the various pieces in the editing room. At one point, Mankewicz went to Spiegel; then, over Spiegel’s head, to implore cooler heads remove Clift from the film. But Taylor’s clout proved Teflon-coated. With backing from Katherine Hepburn, Clift remained in the picture – barely – Hepburn taking her outrage one step further; rumored to have spat on Mankewicz at the end of the shoot; a summation of her disgust for the way Clift had been shabbily treated on the set. In reviewing Suddenly, Last Summer again, there is an intangible fragility and poignancy to the Taylor/Clift relationship as it translates into their respective on-screen characters; something about the body language; Catherine’s repeated need to cling to Cukrowicz for support, heartened by Taylor’s need to console, coddle and look out for Clift’s fragile and steadily declining sense of self-worth. She does none of this out of pity, but respect and love for the man she calls her friend; Clift’s tired, careworn and occasionally glazed over look of affection emanating volumes of sad-eyed gladness; a heartrending and ruined thing to behold. That Clift could look to the fictional Sebastian Venable as his counterpoint of sorts, having fallen from grace as the imminent hot shot about whom much had been written, now to a point of pretentious folly, still immaculately attired, but physically waning and emotionally frail, perhaps helped to augment his steady decline. Without question, it makes for an interesting comparative analysis of the film today. 
It must be said screenwriter, Gore Vidal’s artistic license has, for the most part, improved upon the play; shifting Tennessee Williams’ dialogue to different scenes to invigorate its dramatic flow and, when necessary, even ostentatiously accepting the challenge to write in Williams’ tone to embellish a scene.  As example, the moment where Violet descends from her elevator, uttering the playfully delicious lines, “Sebastian always said, 'Mother when you descend it's like the Goddess from the Machine'... it seems that the Emperor of Byzantium - when he received people in audience - had a throne which, during the conversation, would rise mysteriously into the air to the consternation of his visitors. But as we are living in a democracy, I reverse the procedure. I don't rise, I come down” are purely Vidal’s invention; the elevator, while referenced in the play, never actually seen. Vidal also punches up the finale by allowing for the transference of guilt from Catherine to Violet; the former, liberated after expressing these suppressed memories, the latter, unable to challenge the truth, retreating into a fantasy alternative for it – because of it – becoming lost, trapped and destined to remain perversely fantasizing about the fiction that has consumed her life. And Hepburn plays this penultimate surrender for all its worth – subtly – Violet’s hands caressing the empty pages of Sebastian’s notebook; a look of peaceful surrender writ large across her face; mistaking Cukrowicz for her dead son as she gingerly touches his gentle hands.
Was Vidal compelled to alter the ending of the play to satisfy the Hays Code, Breen Office and Catholic League of Decency? Hmmm. Convention of the day promised no bad deeds go unpunished. Sebastian’s comeuppance fits his crime; to be dismembered by the boys whose innocence he has stolen. Violet’s punishment is no less murderously devised; for she surrenders sanity for the sake of a dream best remembered before all these nightmares of the present have set in. That Suddenly, Last Summer was made at all is, frankly, a miracle; Mankewicz ambitiously pursuing one of the most controversial properties in, then, recent times to create a riveting – if marginally convoluted – artwork underscored by Tennessee Williams’ own spark of Southern Gothic brilliance. And Production Designer, Oliver Messel and Art Director, William Kellner have outdone themselves on crafting Sebastian’s garden landscape; moodily lit and photographed in stark B&W by cinematographer, Jack Hildyard. The results are a tad melodramatic, and, as previously discussed, slightly blemished, though nevertheless vividly realized. Thus, and, in the end, Suddenly, Last Summer remains a unique work of cinema art; the visual manifestation of some very impure thoughts.
Nearly two years ago Viavision and MadMan Entertainment released a bare bones Blu-ray of Suddenly, Last Summer; region free (despite being mislabeled as ‘region B’ locked) and looking absolutely gorgeous. As far as I can tell, Twilight Time’s ‘new’ release sports this exact same transfer with one distinguishing feature – an isolated score. Since ‘music’ is not exactly a strong suit of this movie, this feature is negligible at best. The B&W image on both incarnations is quite stunning; exporting superb shadow delineation, exquisite textures, copious amounts of fine detail and some sumptuous grain. There are a handful of scenes appearing marginally softer by direct comparison; possible the result of dupe inserts. But even these momentary lapses are not so far gone as to distract. Better still, there are no age-related artifacts. The DTS 2.0 mono audio sounds quite unexpectedly powerful. Regret again – NO extras. Bottom line: this one is a keeper. As Viavision/Madman possess the rights to legitimately authored impeccable masters from Sony’s classic library and are willing to release them well ahead of anyone in North America it’s a tough sell for me to recommend TT’s reissue – unless, of course you live in North America, are snobbish about ‘region encoding’ and do not already own this movie. Question: what are you waiting for?!?  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Monday, August 21, 2017

MacARTHUR: Blu-ray (Universal 1977) Universal Home Video

The real Gen. Douglas MacArthur once astutely pointed out “old soldiers never die…they just fade away”; regrettably, as is the case for director, Joseph Sargent’s MacArthur (1977); an oft affecting, but only partial biography of this legendary, and some would still argue as ‘infamous’ historical figure. Embodying the role is Gregory Peck; Hollywood’s man of integrity, cast in a part he neither sought nor desired, and, at the outset, actually somewhat detested, along with just about every other aspect of the production. “I admit that I was not terribly happy with the script they gave me,” Peck later recounted, “…or with the production (confined) mostly on the back lot of Universal. I thought they shortchanged the production.” Miraculously, Mario Tosi’s diffused low-key cinematography, married with master SFX artist, Albert Whitlock’s superb matte paintings, and, some reasonably culled together WWII stock footage, manages to mask Universal’s paltry $9 million budgetary restriction. MacArthur is a picture that deserves more notoriety, not the least for Greg’s im(peck)able performance as the caustic, clear-eyed and forthright military man of vision; his long-reaching plans for peace during the Korean conflict cut short by Washington’s entrenched bureaucracy. The point in Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins’ screenplay is politics does not respect men of action, neither their divining and unfiltered heroism; viewing MacArthur’s own precepts of ‘honor, duty and country’ as subservient to their congressional willpower and self-professed authority. Hardly shot on a shoestring, though decidedly lacking the production values one might anticipate, MacArthur made money for the studio in 1977. Yet today, it somehow lacks the staying power of Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1970 masterpiece, Patton; the movie that effectively kick-started a renewable trend for military bio/pics.
As a military strategist, the real Douglas MacArthur’s intuition was both potent and uncanny. Like Gen. George S. Patton, MacArthur seemed to instinctively recognize where the enemy’s pressure points and weaknesses lay and knew best how to distress them to bring about a swift resolve in his favor.  Frequently, he went over the heads of his superiors, including President Harry S. Truman; using his mass appeal and popularity at home to back his efforts. And like Patton, MacArthur suffered from ego, stitching together his legacy as he willfully spent the blood, sweat and tears of many a young private, sergeant and otherwise engaged military personnel serving under his command, never to find their way back home to that thought-numbing ticker-tape parade that greeted MacArthur upon his return to the United States. There are those who consider Douglas MacArthur a legend in his own time…and others to whom his very name is an anathema to peace. MacArthur always said “no one values peace more than the soldier…for only he truly knows the horrors of war up close.” And yet, MacArthur repeatedly found ways to pursue his combat strategies, despite often being asked to reconsider his taciturn approach until cooler heads and the art of diplomacy could have their crack in invested interests.
Gregory Peck’s take on MacArthur is oddly unbalanced; first, by the Barwood/Robbins’ screenplay that zeroes in on platitudes and speeches in lieu of and genuine exchanges in dialogue. MacArthur is brimming with superlative wit, wisdom and pontifications about the futility of war. These excerpts are, in fact, expertly handled by Peck, who occasionally veers into the lyrical strain of a hellfire Sunday sermonizing backwoods preacher. During these orations one could almost imagine his Douglas MacArthur feasting on bullets for breakfast; the sound of roaring canon fire split between his ears and spitting strychnine from his corncob pipe with marksman like precision to poison and cripple his enemies. If only MacArthur were not an intellectual military strategist. The second hindrance to the production is regrettably Peck’s stodgy stoicism; seemingly determined to pay homage to a monument, but queerly mislaying the man of flesh and blood lurking underneath that entire newsreel-gleaned public persona the real MacArthur worked so diligently to craft, maintain and shamelessly promote.   
MacArthur begins at the twilight’s last gleaming of the great man’s legacy; addressing the impressionable West Point cadets during their commencement exercises. We catch glimpses of a sad, faraway look in Mac’s eyes. Indeed, he has been to hell and back, as we quickly regress to 1942, the height of the conflict. MacArthur is embroiled in a miscalculation of American might in the Philippines on the eve it is about to be overrun by Japanese forces. Douglas is not about to give in and beseeches President Roosevelt (Dan O’Herlihy) for the necessary reinforcements and supplies, earlier promised the Filipino and American forces to see through the battle of Bataan near Corregidor Island. Alas, the U.S. stronghold is all but lost. Simultaneously in Washington, General George Marshall (Ward Costello) and Admiral Ernest J. King (Russell D. Johnson) deliver this grim news to Roosevelt.  The President’s hands are tied; too heavily invested in the fight in Europe to spare either supplies or troops to relieve MacArthur.  Concluding that the imminent capture of MacArthur would wound America’s reputation and morale in the war effort, Roosevelt orders his ‘four star’ general to take a commission in Australia – also, in danger of invasion by the Japanese.  Begrudgingly, MacArthur departs the Philippines, along with his wife (Marj Dusay) and young son (Shane Sinutko); leaving Gen. Wainwright (Sandy Kenyon) and a devoted Filipino fighter, Castro (Jesse Dizon) to face the cruelty and capture on their own; vowing “I shall return” and damned determined to do so, despite Roosevelt’s orders.
MacArthur’s PT boat is in constant danger as it sails for Australia under the cover of night, encountering floating mines. Miraculously, no Japanese destroyers prevent its safe passage. But in Melbourne MacArthur learns the bitter truth: there never was a plan to supply him with badly needed relief for the Philippine invasion. Recognizing he has likely left some of his best men to die in the jungle, MacArthur grits his teeth, girds his loins, and addresses the thronging masses in Melbourne. Plotting almost immediately to fortify Australia’s flank by invading the Philippines once more, MacArthur is told Corregidor and Bataan have fallen, leaving 70,000 to imprisonment, starvation and torture. Refusing to believe all is lost, MacArthur launches into a daring campaign across the jungles of New Guinea. His gains are hard won under the most hellish conditions.  To minimize casualties, he evolves an ‘island hopping’ strategy, circumventing the Japanese strongholds and cutting off their supply lines. Two years of tremendous bloodshed in the Southwest Pacific culminates in MacArthur’s ‘invitation’ to meet with Roosevelt and Admirals Leahy (John McKee) and Nimitz (Addison Powell) aboard a U.S. destroyer; a PR junket MacArthur utterly abhors, illustrating his displeasure by arriving late to the gathering.
The relationship between Roosevelt and MacArthur is strained. However, Roosevelt can certainly recognize MacArthur’s passion, as well as his strengths, even as Mac’ calls out the President to remember promises made to these loyal Filipinos who have invested everything to side with America in the face of their own annihilation. In the end, and despite Roosevelt almost having made up his mind to follow a course to invade Taiwan first, the President instead makes the executive decision to listen to MacArthur and prepare for the liberation of the Philippines. US forces stage a daring assault in the Leyte Gulf in October, 1944. In spite of their tenuous toehold on the coastline, MacArthur insists on going ashore with his men, wading knee-deep in water to address the Filipinos by radio, exhorting them to drive out their Japanese oppressors. Accompanied by Filipino President Sergio Osmena, who awkwardly informs MacArthur he cannot swim, MacArthur’s gentle and self-deprecating reply, “That's not so bad, Mr. President. Everyone's about to see that I can't walk on water” gives Osmena, as well as the troops, hope to advance onto victory. As the tide begins to shift in MacArthur’s favor he is awarded his fifth star; taken to a nearby liberated POW camp where emaciated Americans and local freedom fighters, captured by the Japanese, have been tortured and brutalized. There, MacArthur is reunited with a tearful Castro; half-stripped and on crutches, apologizing he is not fit to receive the general. In reply, MacArthur embraces his old friend, suggesting he could have anticipated no finer a reunion. Aboard his ship, MacArthur receives another unlikely friend; Wainwright, fragile and driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown. The men acquit themselves of a tearful reunion. But soon thereafter news reaches MacArthur that Roosevelt has died.
His successor, Harry S. Truman (Ed Flanders) is a reluctant Commander in Chief, authorizing the use of two atomic bombs to bring Emperor Hirohito (John Fujioka) to his knees. MacArthur is opposed to this ‘impersonal’ warfare. Indeed, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki usher a new age in which enterprising war strategists like MacArthur will increasingly discover themselves to be obsolete. MacArthur presides over the articles of surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Now appointed as an Allied military governor in Japan, MacArthur institutes sweeping social reforms and oversees the reconstruction of a modernized nation. Hence, when Russia’s military diplomatist , General Derevyanko (Alex Rodine) coolly threatens to use his forces to occupy Hokkaido Island, MacArthur coyly promises, should any such action even be uttered in hushed debate, the entire Soviet delegation responsible for its consideration will be emphatically thrown into prison. As all know Mac’ as a man of his word, he is taken quite seriously and the occupation of Hokkaido never occurs. While his time spent rebuilding and reshaping the social mores and political machinery of this new Japan prove mostly gratifying, MacArthur grows increasingly restless. Thus, in June 1950, he is given an opportunity by Truman to return to form – and uniform – after Communist North Korea invades South Korea. Appointed Supreme Commander of the UN forces, MacArthur bides his time, plotting a risk-laden amphibious landing at Inchon. For the first time, Mac’ is uneasy about his decision. Nevertheless, it proves sound. North Korean forces are cut off from their supplies and reinforcements; forced to retreat northward in utter chaos.
Despite Truman’s reticence to take the fight to the other side, MacArthur now charges into North Korea causing Communist China to re-enter the fray as North Korea’s ally. UN forces incur heavy casualties and Truman, always exacerbated by his own ineffectualness to ‘manage’ MacArthur from afar decides to lower the boom, recalling Mac home on grounds of insubordination. And just like that, Douglas MacArthur is promptly relieved of his command. Perhaps Truman always feared MacArthur’s popularity. Alas, MacArthur’s bid for the Presidency never quite came off; MacArthur, nevertheless forewarning Truman’s real threat is Eisenhower; the candidate Truman least suspects and fluffs off. MacArthur arrives in New York in 1951, given a hero’s welcome while Truman’s popularity nosedives in the polls. At last given the opportunity to speak his mind, Mac delivers a gripping farewell to the joint session of Congress. He is given a standing ovation by his well-wishers and pundits alike. In the movie’s final moments we return to West Point and Mac’s address to the graduating class of 62’, stressing that a life devoted in military service must stress the principles of ‘duty’, ‘honor’ and ‘country’.
MacArthur ought to have been a more moving tribute to the man of the hour. The picture needed the almost ‘respite-like’ moments of introspection afforded actor, George C. Scott in Patton, where Scott brilliantly allows his audience to see ‘behind the veil’, the flashes and the foibles of a genius in his element and at play. Arguably, true military men have no private soft side. But Scott’s Patton is a renegade with an Achilles’ heel. Peck’s MacArthur is merely an orator who faithfully believes in his own verbiage, come what may. MacArthur might have greatly benefited from the sort of antagonistic buddy/buddy byplay afforded Scott and co-star, Karl Malden as Gen. Omar Bradley. Comparisons between Patton and MacArthur – the movies – are inevitable; each serving as a bookend to the 70’s verve for re-imagining heroism, occasionally with a war-mongering slant. The battle over how ‘free’ freedom is, rages on to this day; conscientious objectors still launching into their protest marches with mis-perceptions about a soldier’s valor. If we are to consider MacArthur – the movie and the man – with a benediction of any sort we must first come to an acceptance of war as that ‘necessary evil’ brought by men from differing socio-political views; a point of embarkation where the only proportionate response is retaliation from the opposing side. Wars are rarely fought for the most altruistic purposes. And history – nee ‘fact’ is always writ from the perspective of the victors. Is this just or even accurate? While some will undoubtedly continue to debate – even lament – this as much as the freedoms we have enjoyed, afforded us by those taken up the cause at the point of a gun, there is little to deny a soldier his/her honor system of checks and balances, beliefs and bravery. We sleep more soundly because others like a Douglas MacArthur accept responsibility for our welfare. Without ever having served, and personal opinion of course, I firmly believe in the military and its might to stand against those who would seek to dismantle our way of life. MacArthur – the movie – offers glimpses into that investment of energies and time afforded one man; a portrait regrettably, without any soft-centered deconstruction of his motivations. It’s not a terrible tribute. However, it remains a very incomplete one at best.
I have sincerely given up on Universal Home Video to do right by their catalog on ANY video format. For one reason or another, the studio’s track record has been among the worst of any major studio pumping out older movies to any disc format. Does anyone at the studio know anything about quality control? Is remastering a word on their radar? Is there no respect for history…movie history, that is? But I digress. MacArthur's 1080p Blu-ray is barely adequate. For starters, the main title opticals are severely faded and suffering from a bizarre color implosion; West Point cadet’s grey uniforms appearing muddy powder puff blue, the sky looking greyish purple and flesh tones veering from piggy pink to ruddy orange. It’s a garish start to an otherwise un-extraordinary presentation. Okay, Uni – let’s get off the pot about advertising ‘perfect HD picture and sound’ on the back jackets of your discs when virtually nothing apart from packaging appears to suggest otherwise! You are dangerously close to ‘false advertising’!
Colors crisp up – marginally – after the main titles. Flesh tonality evens out to a dull, pasty orange. The entire spectrum settles into mid-grade plunk – listless and ugly. Everything from the supposedly lush green tropical vegetation to military khakis appears in an almost monochromatic register. Interiors look even worse. Detail is wan at best, except during close-ups. There is also some very minor, intermittent gate weave.  I am equally amazed Uni has spent the extra coin to offer a DTS 5.1 audio of a movie originally released in 2.0 mono. It’s rechanneled ‘stereo’ of course, exposing the shortcomings in overlapping dubs and only occasionally offering some exotic spread across all five channels – mostly, during the action sequences. Dialogue is very frontal sounding and tinny. My last bit of displeasure: Universal goes the quick n’ dirty route: NO chapter stops, except by advancing at 10 minute intervals. No main menu screen either. Remember when Blu-ray was supposed to offer all the bells and whistles no other home video format could? At the risk of ruffling more than a few feathers – MacArthur on Blu-ray is about as passionless an example of what hi-def is capable of, even at a glance. Abysmal releases such as this are the norm for Universal. There is no good reason to believe their outlook for future deep catalog releases will be any better. Ugh! Frustrating! Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)