Wednesday, January 31, 2018

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR: Blu-ray reissue (UA, 1968) Kino Lorber

How do you get the man who has everything? Faye Dunaway attempts to demonstrate in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) – a modish heist caper, noted film critic, Roger Ebert once panned as the most “over photographed movie of the year”. Perhaps, ole Roger was missing the point of the exercise; Jewison, exploiting Haskell Wexler’s uber-mod cinematography to illustrate the superficiality of our supremely wealthy protagonist. Thomas Crown (played to perfection as the cynical scam by Steve McQueen) is rich but unhappy; or perhaps ‘bored’ is more to the point. He toils not, but merely counts the zeros in his bank account, leading a supremely cultured existence – yet, all of it predicated on a lie: that money alone can buy you happiness. Crown is a beacon of the community, yet deprived of the one essential necessary to make his world go ‘round – love. As silly as it sounds, Crown isn’t much without satisfying this thirst. Generally speaking, love equates to lust and a quick bump and grind; merely another disposable way to pass the time; that is…until he meets and begins to fall for siren, Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway).
Alas, Vicki is an enterprising insurance investigator, hell bent on using her rather perversely dynamic feminine wiles (and a killer wardrobe designed by Theadora Van Runkle) to outfox and seduce the deceptive and devilishly handsome millionaire. The Thomas Crown Affair is the story about the one that got away. It’s also a tale of two temperaments; or rather – four: Crown vs. Vicki and Dunaway vs. McQueen. By all accounts the shoot was a pleasurable one for director and stars. But McQueen was not above occasionally getting impatient with Dunaway – a chronic procrastinator, who infrequently delayed the shoot by either arriving late on the set or simply forgetting to come out of her dressing room when called. Indeed, when viewing the film today – particularly the now famous ‘chess as sex’ scene – one is immediately struck by the mileage Dunaway and McQueen get from a gesture and a glance; cranking up the kink factor without ever uttering an erotic syllable or exposing any supple limbs.
Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is paramount to the film’s success – its use of the multi-dynamic image technique, first exhibited at Expo 67, creates kinetic traveling montages within a single frame to reveal various angles of the same event simultaneously. What is also evident, though perhaps only in retrospect, is how much of a time capsule The Thomas Crown Affair has become since its debut. Depending on one’s point of view, Robert Boyle’s iconic art direction and Theadora Van Ruckle’s costume design have either dated very badly or remain the quintessence of what swingin’ sixties fashion and frolicking was all about. My vote is for the latter, and in this regard, The Thomas Crown Affair is immeasurably blessed by the presence of McQueen and Dunaway as these clothes horses; two of the hippest cool cats from their generation, skulking about Bostonian backdrops with an air of ultramodern confidence. Again, it’s all very superficial; deliciously so, a testament to style over substance, as the premise of this classic caper is rather one-dimensional at best and fraught with possibilities for failure.
The Thomas Crown Affair is not an easily digestible picture. You either buy into the implausible premise wholesale or it completely falls apart: a bored millionaire employing thug muscle to pull off the ultimate bank robbery, simply for the sheer satisfaction of getting away with it. The money – an impressive $2 million – is incidental to the crime. But it does matter very much to the bank incurring the loss. And so, the chase for the man with the gold-plated lifestyle begins. The Thomas Crown Affair is superbly scored by Michel Legrand, who toys with the enigma that is Mr. Thomas Crown Esq. The now famous, oft repeated, though never equaled, Oscar-winning Noel Harrison rendition of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ perfectly encapsulates the jigsaw puzzled romance between Crown and Vicki. “Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel” these two feral cats embrace the moody physicality of their impossible daring, all the while knowing it is doomed to extinction just as “the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair.” One can debate the illogical nature of both the song and the relationship it references, or simply run with the notion its poetic convolution has perfectly pegged the mystery behind two very troubled and confrontational people. Crown wants Vicki until he learns her secret. Too late to make a difference, this competitive Miss desperately realizes she could almost forgo another feather in her Halston, if only the man in question would take her in his arms for an eternity without fail or question. Alas, within the imperfect machinations of sixties cinema, neither gets personal satisfaction from this ‘affair’ in the end; the man turning cold, aloof and vanishing into thin air; the woman, left to her own accord and rebuke in frustrated tears.
Our story begins in a seedy motel room with the arrival of Erwin Weaver (Jack Weston), the last to be hired by a partially concealed Crown for his bank heist. Crown floods the room with some high wattage photog lamps to shroud his identity; a microphone distorting his voice as the proposal is made: $15,000 for a few minutes work, driving the getaway car filled with several heavy bags of money stolen from a downtown depository. Weaver is nervous, but accepts the terms and the payoff. He buys a ‘woody’ station wagon with Crown’s money and waits for his cue. Crown telephones Weaver and the other accomplices – who have never met one another or Crown face to face, a single word setting their plans in motion – “Go!” Descending on the bank, Crown’s mercenaries don their dark glasses, effortlessly blending into the crowd until the moment of action. Their ambush goes off without a hitch. However, as Weaver hurries away, his path is momentarily obstructed by a truck unloading fresh eggs to market. Every second counts, and director, Norman Jewison manages a few tense moments along the way, with Weaver eventually making it to Crown’s prearranged drop off – a metal ash can along a grassy knoll in a remote part of Cambridge Cemetery. Moments later, Crown arrives in his Rolls-Royce to collect the loot, hiding it inside his trunk, and later, flying across the Atlantic in his private plane to Geneva where he deposits it under an anonymous numbered account.
Back in Boston the police are absolutely baffled. In fact, detective Eddie Malone (Paul Burke) is downright frustrated. The bank commissioners send in their own private investigator, Vicki Anderson, offering her a handsome percentage for its recovery. Already suspecting an inside job, Vicki surveys the crime scene, perusing a series of photographs quelled from the bank’s surveillance dossiers. Almost immediately, she pegs Thomas Crown as her man. Malone, who harbors some sort of twisted attraction to Vicki, whom he otherwise cannot abide, misperceives her fascination in Crown as purely sexual. Indeed, it seems that way to Crown too – at first. Vicki is flirtatious during an auction of antiquities and later shows up unexpectedly at a polo match, presumably to adoringly photograph him on horseback with her handheld movie camera.
Crown, who has spent a lifetime exorcising his chronic boredom with every possible diversion a man of his wealth can exploit – including dune buggies and flying his glider at dangerous altitudes – has found his next conquest. It isn’t going to be easy. He knows what Vicki is up to and she knows he knows. The trick is in not caring about the reality of their situation, but playing the odds cagily against the house. Who will seduce who? The lure could so easily go awry. To expedite Crown’s capture, Malone places a police guard at Crown’s front gate. Malone and Vicki also take out an ad in the local paper that reads “Be A Fink for $25,000” an inducement to flush out Crown’s accomplices. If only they had something to tell. Unfortunately, none can claim to have ‘met’ the man in person. Tagging Weaver as one of Crown’s stooges, Vicki has a couple of officers steal his station wagon and later abduct his young son. Reuniting the boy with his father, Weaver reluctantly admits his complicity in the crime, but is quite unable to pick Crown out of a line up as the brains of the operation – not even when Vicki and Malone stage an ambush at the police station in which Weaver and Crown sit mere feet away from one another.
Now, the romance between Vicki and Crown kicks into high gear. She is bitterly determined to get to him no matter what, perhaps still unaware of her truer feelings already begun to turn in his favor. Inviting Vicki back to his home, Crown wastes no time igniting the obvious friction between them during a relatively platonic game of chess. He deliberately locks onto her gaze. She sensually caresses the various chess pieces to suggest what her fingers would rather be fondling. After Vicki wins the match, Crown paces for a moment or two, finally suggesting “Let’s try another game.” The two become locked in an immediate and very passionate embrace – a panoramic kiss lasting mere seconds that, in actuality, took five days to film. The next day, Crown takes Vicki on a perilous trek across the windswept beaches in his dune buggy. The violent abandonment with which he skirts a certain roll over is designed to shake Vicki from her complacency, but also to do more than hint she is skating on some very thin ice in their ‘relationship’. Sensing she desires more than simply perfecting the art of the chase, Crown tempts Vicki with the promise she may have all of him if she desires; alas, at a sacrifice to her reputation as a professional insurance investigator. Either way, it will be she who makes this judgment call – not he; as ice-water runs through Crown’s veins in ways as yet completely unanticipated by Vicki.
Desiring to shake Vicki loose of her obvious infatuation with Crown, Malone tells her that during their down time, Crown has continued to see Gwen (Astrid Heeren), an elegant playgirl from his own social caste. It is unclear whether Vicki becomes jealous after hearing this, but it certainly motivates her to press Crown into more explicit foreplay, hopefully to lead to his imminent incarceration. Inside a steam bath, Vicki lays all her cards on the table. She tells Crown she can temper the repercussions of his involvement in the theft, a decision flat out rejected by Malone. Determined to know whether or not Vicki is on his side once and for all, Crown decides to set another robbery into motion. He even tells Vicki when and where the heist is to occur. But the game comes with a new set of rules. If she allows him to get away for the second time, even as she possesses all the information necessary to apprehend him right now, then he will know she has chosen him over her reputation and he promises to make plans for their escape together to Europe without reprisals. If, however, the whole point of her seduction has been nothing more than a greedy means to play him for the fool, Crown assures Vicki she will be the one left holding the bag. Can she trust him? More apropos, does she want to?
The second robbery is set in motion. Unable to entirely shed her duty, and also possessing the stained prerogative of all women who believe they can have their cake and eat it too, Vicki attempts to play both sides against the middle. She has Malone assign all his available men for a massive sting operation. After one of the robbers places the money bags in the same ash can as before, Vicki and Malone nervously await Crown’s arrival. A few excruciatingly long moments pass before Crown’s Rolls-Royce appears on the horizon. Only this time it is being driven by an errand boy who promptly presents Vicki with Crown’s farewell telegram. In this high stakes’ gamble of love vs. duty Vicki has managed to lose everything. The film ends with a close-up on Crown, indeterminably pleased and/or disappointed with Vicki’s penultimate decision to sabotage their one chance for a genuine love affair over money; a commodity he has always regarded as utterly trivial and disposable.
The Thomas Crown Affair is perhaps the greatest example of cinema style trumping substance. Indeed, the whole story could have been pitched to the studio in four sentences or less. And truthfully, without the tangible screen sizzle between McQueen and Dunaway there is not much to go on. The visual trappings – the modish glam-bam and cavalcade of clothes and bouffant hair-dos, the backdrop of power-brokering uber-wealth beyond most people’s wildest dreams, the audiences’ chance to mingle with this untouchable class; all these enticements prove heavy icing on an extremely thin cake. That such an elegant edifice never caves under screenwriter, Alan Trustman’s wafer-thin plot is a minor miracle and undeniably a credit to Jewison’s prowess behind the camera. Here is a director capable of making style substantive to the telling of his fanciful yarn. Why do we believe in the affair? Because Jewison frames it in a sort of iniquitous chic; the moneyed playgrounds enough to hold our attention during the interminably long stretches where the screenplay has exceptionally little to offer except more of the titillating same.   
The other strength of the picture is undeniably its cast. Steve McQueen’s screen appeal has always been universal – as intoxicating to men (who wished they could be like him) as to women (who wanted to be with him). Many today forget The Thomas Crown Affair afforded McQueen the rarest of opportunities to break out of his already well-established mold as the roguishly handsome cowboy or tough scrapper who, invariably, did not even own dress pants, much less a whole suit. But draped in three-piece finery herein, a pocket watch fastened to his plaid vest, his sandy tresses immaculately quaffed, and a flash of petty larceny transmitting from those inimitable and brilliant blue eyes, McQueen is as very much ‘at home’ in his fancy duds, exuding a not entirely quantifiable aura of dapper masculinity. In a career cut too short by his own vices, McQueen in his prime was, and remains a riveting performer, precisely because he does not quite fit into this ultra-chic backdrop; denying the complacency that comes from being privileged. Long ago, this ought to have eroded any sense of pleasure for Thomas Crown. Instead, McQueen plays Crown as though he were more to the manor ‘broken in’ than born; still the scrapper, but also a guy’s guy, lacking any compunction to exploit the virtues of studliness as well as the vices only the truly moneyed can afford to indulge in without guilt or reprisals.
As for Fay Dunaway, she slinks across the screen as though the devious femme fatale from a noir thriller. Her insurance investigator is a delicious and manipulative minx. Using sex like a fly swatter, she comes down hard on any man deemed worthy of her fickle affections. Cribbing from the playbook of a Hitchcock cool blonde, Dunaway exudes amoral authority that is both possessive and yet devil-may-care; a contradiction between smarts and sensuality that leave both Malone and Crown bemused and bewitched. Dunaway’s Vicki is precisely the girl someone of Crown’s ilk desperately needs to make his life whole. Regrettably, Vicki is too brash and wholly unscrupulous for her own good. But what is it all for? Escapist to a fault and exuding more fun than narrative ferocity, the film endures because of its two stars. “Like a circle in a spiral, never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel…” the lovers in The Thomas Crown Affair cling to each other as better than its story and this continues to make us feel as though something sinfully enjoyable has just occurred or is about to happen – even if it is only in and of the moment. The film’s mystique is impossible to bottle, as others have tried and the 1999 remake/misfire costarring Pierce Brosnon and Rene Russo painfully wore out its welcome with disastrous results.  As with most cases, it’s the original that counts. With McQueen and Dunaway at the reins, how could it be otherwise…“like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind.”
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is mercifully an improvement over the disastrous MGM/Fox Home Video Best Buy ‘exclusive’ from nearly five years ago. Then, I argued MGM/Fox had spun pure gold into abysmal second-rate tin. And, sincerely, the first hi-def incarnation of The Thomas Crown Affair looked as though it had been fed through a meat grinder. Colors then, were severely faded with piggy pink flesh tones and an unacceptable reddish tint adding a ruddy/muddy texture to everything. The first few reels were also slightly out of focus with fine detail generally wanting throughout. The gimmicky multi-dynamic traveling mattes failed the worst, with their inevitable ‘heavy’ grain looking harsh and digitized rather than indigenous to its source. There was also a barrage of age-related drivel to wade through, and a mono soundtrack that, at times, screeched with strident chords to test not only one’s sound system, but also one’s ears. Badly done.
I reiterate all these shortcomings as a counterpoint to advertise how far Kino Lorber’s new to Blu has come. Ultimately, the source is still from MGM/Fox. Only now, it has been remastered in 4K before being dumped in 1080p. Speaking in generalities, this re-issue blows the original release out of the water. Is it perfect? Well…no. There are several moments of chroma bleeding that distract, and the occasional (very occasional) speckle to be noted. But wow, do colors improve, as does contrast and fine detail throughout. Prepare to be dazzled by textures in Dunaway and McQueen’s wardrobe, and flesh tones that look so real you could reach out and touch the makeup applications. The extensive use of the multi-split-screen in montage reveals a slight ‘dupey’ quality that is not only anticipated, but alas, part-in-parcel of that technique’s trickery and shortcomings. I suppose a complete recompositing of the original elements (in essence, recreating all the montages by reassembling each from restored and remastered hi-def clips of the individual shots that comprised them) would have corrected this ‘problem’. It also would have cost a small fortune. So, no. Not feasible. And truthfully, unnecessary too. It looks as good as it should and that is good enough for most.   
The audio is still DTS 2.0 and, in several spots, suffering from over-modulation. But the overall ‘scratchiness’ that plagued the entire soundtrack on the MGM/Fox release is gone. Mono has its limitations. So, nothing to get overly excited about here. I would have loved to have heard The Windmills of Your Mind remastered in true stereo. But I’ll forgo this luxury again and simply pull out my old 45 rpm vinyl for a spin. Kino regurgitates Norman Jewison’s commentary, that was included both on MGM/UA’s old DVD release, and later, the MGM/Fox Blu-ray. In addition, we get a ‘brand new’ interview with Jewison, another with title designer, Pablo Ferro, and the 1967 featurette ‘Three’s A Company’ – containing invaluable on set interviews with cast and crew.  Finally, there’s an audio commentary from historians, Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, plus the badly worn original theatrical trailer. Of these extras, the interview with Jewison and the Dobbs/Redman commentary are the undisputed winners. Great to finally have a semi-comprehensive account of this stylish caper on home video. So, give thanks and shop Kino for this release today! Well worth your time and coin.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
MGM/Fox Blu-ray 1
Kino Lorber Blu-ray 4
MGM/Fox Blu-ray 1

Kino Lorber Blu-ray 4

Sunday, January 28, 2018

NOT AS A STRANGER: Blu-ray (UA, 1955) Kino Lorber

There is a moment in Stanley Kramer’s Not As a Stranger (1955) when shut-in rummy, Job Marsh (Lon Chaney Jr.) tells his big-boned son, Lucas (Robert Mitchum) he doesn’t think he has what it will take to make a good physician. Never mind Lucas has just discovered his old man has squandered the monies his late mother set aside for him to continue medical school. Now, this teary lush looks upon his offspring with such sad-eyed contempt, it’s all that Lucas can keep from knocking Job silly. It’s tough enough forging one’s way in the world when familial compassion for our dreams and aspirations is at our side.  Without it, we step into a very bleak abyss indeed. And in essence, the remaining 2 hr. and 15 min’s of Not As a Stranger will be a litmus test of Lucas’ struggle to crawl out from under this anvil of parental disappointment. It won’t be easy. Lucas has built a wall around his heart – actually, more like a fortress – to keep even his well-wishers, like fellow resident, Alfred Boone (Frank Sinatra) and soon-to-be wife, Kristina Hedvigson (Olivia de Havilland) at bay. Not As a Stranger is based on Morton Thompson’s posthumously published, best-selling potboiler. In addition to several volumes of short stories, the author was also the ‘inventor’ of the Thompson turkey – a moniker I could easily apply to this movie adaptation of his work.
For although cribbing from Edna and Edward Anhalt’s screenplay (effectively to divide Thompson’s sprawling prose into two distinct acts, each with a rather lackluster denouement) Stanley Kramer's strides to balance the drama of a doctor’s ‘life and death’ calling to cure the sick with his highly personal – and fast unraveling nightmare on the home front – Not As a Stranger steadily devolves into precisely the sort of pulpy trash fiction that could make even the likes of Elinor Glyn blush with ‘oh please’ embarrassment.  I suppose we can forgive the otherwise forthright and legendary Kramer his film maker’s faux pas herein. It’s his first picture, and while hardly his best, Not As a Stranger is not without merit. Chiefly, we doff our caps to the cast; Frank Sinatra – fresh from his rebound after his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953), playing the noble conscience of the piece; Olivia de Havilland, almost pulling off this old maid Swede (although I confess, at times I expected her to burst into a Rose Nylund-styled ‘back in St. Olaf’ yarn) and Bob Mitchum, at times unable to entirely shed his legendary ‘noir’ anti-hero/tough guy trappings to be wholly believable as this driven Albert Schweitzer.
Three notable bit parts round out our viewing pleasure. First, is Broderick Crawford’s caustic Dr. Aarons – constantly pulling in the reins and cracking the whip over the heads of these pupils of medicine, reminding the young, aspiring and uncharacteristically cynical that to be great they must first set aside both ego and avarice. The patient’s the thing, gentlemen! That’s good advice for today’s students of medicine too. Next, is Charles Bickford’s benevolent country gent, Dr. Dave W. Runkleman; a true physician who lives by the Hippocratic Oath, serving the constituents of rural Greenville. Finally, in the thankless part of town slut, Gloria Grahame manages the most of Harriet Lang – a rich widow and notorious man trap who has her way with every man. The widow Lang’s big seduction of Dr. Marsh is laughable; Kramer, juxtaposing inserts of Harriet’s frisky filly and Marsh’s fiery stallion breaking through their fenced barriers as Lucas takes Harriet into his beefy arms for a full-throttled and totally out of focus sloppy wet kiss. Oh, what hoops (and poops) the Production Code used to make of film makers aspiring to express such unbridled passion!
Our story begins in Lucas’ second year of medical school. His is a brilliant mind, but as Job fears, a heart as black as the night. Lucas is not evil – just unfeeling; quite unable to appreciate human frailty as anything but a sinful weakness to which he absolutely refuses to succumb. Hence, when Lucas discovers his derelict father has spent all the monies his late mother allocated for his schooling on booze and gambling, Lucas is incensed and confrontational. He stops just short of smacking around his old man; instead, to leave the drunk ruminating in self-pity inside his squalid little apartment. Without tuition, Lucas will be forced to quit school and get a real job. Not the worst thing that could happen to a young man, though devastating and hateful to his own ego nonetheless. Begging for the necessary funds to continue, Lucas is reluctantly given a small stipend from Dr. Aarons, who sternly cautions him that perhaps a time away from the college will build his moral fiber and character. Instead, Lucas plays a cruel wild card. The older nurse, Kristina ‘Kris’ Hedvigson has had her eye on him for some time and Lucas knows it. She does not appeal to him sexually at all. But now, Lucas sells himself romantically to this elder Florence Nightingale. Reluctantly suspecting he is likely after her money to continue his education, Kris marries Lucas anyway. Wealthy student, Alfred Boone his disgusted by this grotesque turn of events. Kris is a good woman and a dedicated professional. She deserves better. She deserves true love.
For the moment, Lucas plays his cards close to his chest. The marriage, while perhaps not ideal, is nevertheless pleasant, minus all the fire and music newlyweds ought to exercise on their first time out. Kris is not entirely naïve, and yet she cannot bring herself to realize the man she has married is not in love with her. Despite their middle-class affluence – afforded entirely on Kris’ hard-earned savings – Lucas grows increasingly displeased with Kris and his home life. The couple increasingly quarrel over Kris’ desire to start a family. Upon graduation, Lucas elects to move the couple to the bucolic hamlet of Greenville where he can begin his practice as a big man in a small hospital, alongside Dr. Runkleman. The offer made to Lucas has included a modest home and a car. Having given up her job to become Lucas’ wife full-time, Kris discovers she is even more isolated and alone. Lucas spends long hours at the hospital; Kramer, effectively running through several cleverly executed montages that illustrate Runkleman and Lucas’ daily gauntlet of ailments to be met with their discretionary remedies.
Lucas in introduced to the sultry widow, Harriet Lang, presently dating blowhard attorney at law, Ben Cosgrove (Jesse White). Sparks immediately fly. But Lucas suppresses the urge to act upon his more dishonorable intentions…at least, for the moment. After a long day’s practice, Lucas, Kris and Dr. Runkleman retreat to a local club for dinner and dancing. Alas, Harriet is also there with Ben, and, upon joining their party, Ben – more than slightly inebriated – gives Lucas an earful about doctors. Kris senses Lucas’ attraction to Harriet. But without proof, all she can do is look on as Lucas and Harriet share an innocuous spin around the dance floor. Later, Kris pitches the idea once again: it is time Lucas considered starting a family. Instead, Lucas feigns being exhausted from a long day’s work and goes directly to bed – alone. As far as he is concerned, there will be no pitter-patter of little feet about the Marsh household any time soon – if ever. Kris confides in Alfred. She is already pregnant with Lucas’ child. Alfred is sympathetic and encourages Kris to tell her husband about the baby post haste. But Kris has wisely deduced this would end any waning chance they may have for happiness.
At work, pressures begin to mount. Lucas is constantly at odds with the Director of the Hospital, Dr. Clem Snider (Myron McCormick) who infrequently subs in as a fairly incompetent anesthesiologist. The man is a screw up. Everyone, including Runkleman knows it. Lucas has no use for Snider and bears his fangs on several occasions, including an instance where Snider elects to let an elderly patient die, simply because he is old. Lucas calls in his wife to assist and together they save the dying patient’s life. Meanwhile, Lucas and the widow Lang share a clandestine flagrante delicto behind the barn adjacent Harriet’s palatial home. Afterward, Lucas returns to his home, discovering Alfred parked out front. Al has been waiting for Lucas all afternoon and evening. Alfred informs Lucas he is going to be a father. Alas, upon re-entering his home, Lucas discovers Kris has had quite enough of him. She knows where he has been and what has occurred. Lucas begs to be forgiven. But Kris is bitter, calling out him out on their sham marriage. Lucas never loved her. He married her for the money. He isn’t interested in her now either, merely back-peddling from an affair he would rather pursue. He doesn’t want this baby. He wants his freedom to pursue medicine and the widow Lang. “So, go! Here! Now! Take your peccadilloes and your stethoscope and get out once and for all!”
Lucas moves out. Runkleman insists he is making a tactical error. And indeed, almost immediately Lucas breaks off his romantic dalliances with Harriet. Coolly, she is not the least bit miffed or disappointed by the rebuke. After all, she never really wanted Lucas…rather, just to periodically share her bed with him – stud services for a very spirited horse woman with one magnificent seat. Runkleman and Lucas grow closer. As colleagues, they see eye to eye on the follies and foibles of life. And Runkleman admires Lucas’ presumed devotion to his work. Regrettably, Runkleman suffers a ruptured aorta. Acting quickly, Lucas cracks open his friend’s chest cavity to save his life. At first, the operation goes off without a hitch. But then Lucas makes a critical error that causes Runkleman to profusely hemorrhage. He dies on the operating table. Lucas is devastated – not by his inability to save a life – but by the loss of the one truest friend he has ever known. Unable to reconcile the mistakes having brought him to this moment of absolute helplessness, a tearful Lucas finds his way back home, sincerely pleading for Kris’ guidance and understanding. Perhaps realizing Lucas has finally turned a new chapter, Kris willingly takes him back. The estranged couple embraces, each recognizing a newfound strength of character in the other.
Not As a Stranger is a clumsily stitched together claptrap of over-the-top emotions. For the most part, it plays with all the tinny corn of a standard soap opera. Stanley Kramer would find his calling as a director elsewhere, and thankfully so with such important movie classics as 1959’s On the Beach, 1960’s Inherit the Wind, 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, and, 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, among the distinguished lot. Melodrama without a message is decidedly not Kramer’s forte. Not As a Stranger suffers from Kramer’s inability to call out higher moments…even, modestly exalted impressions from life’s struggle and setbacks. The characters here simply go through the scripted machinations as ‘poor me’ wounded individuals, thwarted in love, dissatisfied in their aspirations and bitter about their lack of forward-moving trajectory to obtain ‘success’ (a word of varied interpretations).
The picture’s strengths are purely owed to its stars. In the past, I have delineated the difference between ‘stars’ and ‘celebrities’; the former, afforded respect for their body of work; the latter, largely held in place by the sordid details interminably splashed across tabloid pages. The distinction goes well beyond mere talent too, as there are many in Hollywood today in possession of this stock-in-trade commodity. But stars – real stars - acquire something else; something better, and quite inexplicably without proper definition. What makes a star a star? Presence? A uniqueness in physicality, vocal range and deportment? Well…yes. But, also, that sparkle of something intangible; an incandescence the camera alone cannot manufacture but can recognize without reservation; thereafter to augment, refine and ultimately expose ‘it’ to the world beyond the footlights. Without Mitchum, de Havilland, and Sinatra (three of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters then) – even Grahame, Crawford and Bickford, Not As a Stranger gets a ‘C’ grade for content and impact. It is the cumulative and legendary status of this alumni, then in their full flourish, able to sell even piffle as art (of a kind) that continues to draw our attention away from the imperfections in script and substance.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is disappointing. MGM/Fox Home Video has not afforded this deep catalog release any love: ditto, for restoration. The B&W elements are in rough shape; exaggerated grain looks digitized rather than indigenous to its source. Fine details are oft superb, and close-ups fare better than medium or long shots. There is considerable debris imbedded in the print; dirt, scratches, chips and the occasional tear and hair caught in the lens. The grey scale is adequately realized and contrast appears on point most of the time. But honestly, this is a sloppy job at best. The DTS 1.0 mono audio fares better; well represented with crisp dialogue, never sounding strident. We get an audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth; also, a theatrical trailer looking even more careworn than the movie. Bottom line: as a movie, for diehard fans of its stars only. For quality of 1080p transfer: pass, and be glad you did! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, January 27, 2018

YOUNG MR. LINCOLN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1939) Criterion Collection

Imbued with Henry Fonda’s unassuming portrait of the man before he became ‘the great emancipator’, director John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) essentially humanizes this historic monument and makes genuine the essential qualities and motivations long-since lionized as Lincoln in the hearts and minds of the American public. Lest we forget, 1939 was a scant 74 years since John Wilkes Booth had pulled the trigger at the Ford Theatre, effectively to forever galvanize the 16th President as far better than that polarizing figure who brought an end to the American Civil War and abolished slavery. Ford’s picture is interested, neither in serving as a document for posterity, nor in presenting Lincoln as a lost and tragic deity. Indeed, Young Mr. Lincoln is focused most intently on the early character-shaping events to have transformed a lanky and largely self-educated Kentuckian cum Illinois lawyer from mild-mannered countrified gent into aspiring Whig Party statesman with his eye on the ultimate prize – the White House.
While 2oth Century-Fox mogul extraordinaire, Darryl F. Zanuck and John Ford jockeyed for control over this Cosmopolitan Pictures production (with the caustic Ford threatening to have his name removed entirely from the project), Ford encountered grave reluctance from his star, Henry Fonda as well. Reportedly, Ford sternly informed Fonda it was not a stoic portrait of ‘the great emancipator’ he was after, but an intimate glimpse into the essence of the quiet realist trying to find his way through life. Ford’s anthropomorphized approach to Lincoln appealed to Fonda, who thereafter began his own physical transformation via latex applications. Make-up can only get you so far, however. But Young Mr. Lincoln excels due to Henry Fonda’s subtle artistry; the actor’s innate boyishness, fluently melded with that forthright clarity and pragmatism long-since aligned in the public’s image of ‘honest Abe’.
1939 was a banner year…and not only for Ford. Having just resuscitated the Hollywood western from its B-grade kiddie fodder roots with the release of Stagecoach (1939), Ford dove headstrong into his rose-tinted likeness of Lincoln; Lamar Trotti’s screenplay effectively blurring the lines between truth and fiction, along the way, creating a cohesive narrative to fill in the gaps where truth is decidedly plainer than fiction. Indeed, we can credit Ford and Fonda with creating the mythology of Lincoln other film-makers continuously emulate and rival actors, from Hal Holbrook to Daniel Day-Lewis have since anchored their inspiration to play the part. John Ford would enjoy a healthy working relationship with his Lincoln - Henry Fonda, unlike his caustic and confrontational clashes with John Wayne. Both stars were Ford favorites. Perhaps, it was Fonda’s physical slightness that so appealed to Ford, less threatening when pitted against his own, especially when compared to Wayne’s broad-shouldered imposing presence.
Ford allows Fonda to ‘find’ his character. It’s not Abraham Lincoln either is in search of, per say, but a reasonable facsimile in moving portraiture onto which Fonda and Ford can graft their impressions and delicately feathered in sentimentality. Finding these moments together, they most certainly re-shape Lincoln in their own image. Fonda’s Lincoln is unassuming yet passionate; his self-taught intellectualism counterbalanced with an almost too genteel compassion for humanity. What can I tell you? John Ford, for all his acerbic sternness was, at his heart, a rank sentimentalist. Not only could Ford find, but intrinsically he understood basic human needs, wants, desires and dreams. If he suppressed this compassion for the human spirit beneath a cloak of curmudgeonly, oft crude grousing to get his way, then it was entirely in service to telling of a good story and, decidedly, for the making of an as equally great picture. Ford’s augury for humanity at large is always appealing because it suggests more faith in, than cynicism for, the nobility and longevity of mankind in general and the American people’s ability to sustain hope and promise, to forge its brightly inspired future in particular.    
By 1939, John Ford had already cemented his reputation in Hollywood; having won the first of four Oscars as Best Director. Ford, for all his outward severity was, I suspect at his core, a very sensitive and broad-humored man. Undeniably, he suffered a streak of sadism, intermittently to get the better of him. But Ford’s compassion for men and women, particularly those worthy of his honorable distinction, is evident in the seamless tapestry that is Young Mr. Lincoln. The spellbinder’s weave of Lincoln’s spirit, the mythology of a new nation on the cusp of redefining the world, and, Ford’s own infallible sense of visual style conspire herein to rewrite history, with Lincoln as Ford’s noble animal among the otherwise God-fearing though occasionally grief-stricken beasts of burden. Consider the moment when Fonda’s Abe, aware an angry lynch mob is preparing to hang two innocent boys for the crime of murder without a fair trial, intervenes on the steps of the county courthouse.
Lincoln’s initial threat, to take on any man who dares step up to his challenge, is diffused by a more intuitive and subtler moment of clarity. Lincoln now appeals, not to the collective, but rather by singling out members from the mob with his reminders of their moral goodness, presently masked by the mob’s misguided group motivations. It is the delicacy with which Ford and Fonda unearth this inherent virtue, illustrating how good men are brought to do terrible things, that strikes a finer chord of resonance (particularly in 1939, with the free peoples of the earth wearily teetering at the cusp of another World War, yet perhaps even more eerily germane today, because of our seemingly aimless trajectory to define – rather than reinvent – the essence of what it means to be a true patriot in 2018).  Long after this moment has passed we can feel the weight of shrewd reckoning from this solitary voice expressing reason, justice and mercy for all, ultimately to prove far more potent than the blind-sided bombast of the advancing masses.  Glory, glory, hallelujah – indeed!
As good as it is (and it is very good indeed), Young Mr. Lincoln is not quite the exalted masterwork many critics of their day and many more since have cited over the years. Chiefly, it lacks the absolute refinement of sentiment Ford would mine only a few short years thereafter to perfection in movies like The Grapes of Wrath (1940, again with Fonda), The Long Voyage Home (1940), and, How Green Was My Valley (1941). Young Mr. Lincoln possesses the director’s confidence of purpose; also, his sarcastic perceptiveness of small-town hypocrisy while exorcising its mythologized patriotism made justly famous. Yet, somehow, the picture fails to complete the circle of Ford’s compassion for the constituents Lincoln has chosen to serve. This shortcoming is undeniably offset by Ford’s lyricism, his fable-ized truth in lieu of reality and, without question, by Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller’s sumptuous cinematography, extolling the bucolic exquisiteness of a nation as yet not fully formed.  And then, of course, there is Henry Fonda to reconsider; looking appropriately at home in suspender-raised overalls or, later on, wearing Lincoln’s trademarked black suit and stovepipe hat as he rides into town on a mule to set up his law practice. 
Ford and Fonda’s Lincoln is not ‘the great man’ per say, but rather, just a reluctant guy on the tip of discovering all the good he can achieve with a little homespun sincerity and a lot of common sense. ‘Right or wrong’, is Lincoln’s reasoning, ‘That’s all there is.’ We get a real sense of this clear-cut affinity for the law almost from the moment the main titles fade and we meet a nondescript blowhard political campaigner (Frank Dae) in the sticks of New Salem, Illinois. For contrast, we are presenting almost immediately with the young Abraham Lincoln. Ford immediately cuts from a blustering windbag to the antithesis of it: an unprepossessing and gangly creature, casually stretched across his front porch, book in hand. Lincoln’s first address to his constituents is as laconic as it is laid back, Ford’s camera reverently anticipating Fonda’s physical cues; an awkward placement of his hands into his pockets before raising one arm to comfortably rest upon the solid wood beam supporting his front porch. 
Ford and Fonda’s synergistic approach to introducing this character is undoubtedly amplified by the almost waxworks and certainly tableau-esque representations of Lincoln’s early successes and missed opportunities; the brief introduction of his beloved Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), as example, barely glimpsed before fatally stricken by typhoid at the beginning of our tale. Ford’s tightly controlled compositions, Glennon and Miller’s lighting, and, Alfred Newman’s economical music cues ply the viewer with a sort of promise for a more enveloping entertainment not entirely realized by the final fade out, but remarkably to transform Henry Fonda into a major star of the first magnitude thereafter. 
It’s this ‘plain Abe Lincoln’ who solemnly declares “if elected, I shall be thankful...if will all be the same” that Ford and Fonda want us to fall in love with; an unassuming genuineness that cannot be faked, obfuscated or otherwise fused into the political machinery without the impact of Lincoln’s own magnanimity felt far and wide. Immediately following his speech, Abe trades the Clay family – settlers all – some dry goods for a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries. The Clays – mother Abigail (Alice Brady), her two sons, Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam (Eddie Quillan) and Adam’s wife, Carrie Sue (Judith Dickens) are pioneers en route to better lives. It will not be a smooth journey however, as Lincoln will later be called upon to defend these boys against a charge of murder.   
The likes of an Abraham Lincoln are a rarity in these isolated parts; literate, yet able to balance innate intellectualism with a pure heart. He is encouraged in his studies by teenage sweetheart, Ann Rutledge. Alas, she will tragically succumb to typhoid fever not long thereafter. Her death propels Lincoln’s relocation to Springfield, Illinois where he quickly establishes himself in a law practice with an old friend, John Stuart (Edwin Maxwell).  During the town’s Independence Day celebrations Abe is introduced to Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), eventually to become his wife (though not in this movie), and Stephen Douglas – a formidable future political opponent (again, not in this movie). Lincoln is also reunited with the Clay family. Carrie Sue receives unwanted advances from Scrub White (Fred Kohler Jr.); the town’s n’er do well, prone to strong liquor and a mean streak.
John Ford loved America, and herein we get just enough of a glimpse into its idyllic white picket fence incarnation; a flag-waving/crowd-cheering parade, pie-eating, tug o’ war and rail-splitting contests – partaken by Lincoln with amiable results. Alas, the evening’s festivities, culminating in a bonfire, are tainted by a confrontation in the woods between the Clay brothers and Scrub White. Earlier, Carrie Sue had been the unwitting victim of Scrub’s unwanted advances, incurring Matt and Adam’s ire in tandem. But did they really hate Scrub enough to stab him in cold blood? White’s fair-weather friend, J. Palmer Cass (Ward Bond) seems to think so.
Without sufficient evidence, save a knife recovered from Scrub’s lifeless body at the scene, Matt and Adam are carted off to jail to await trial. The boys defend one another under questioning. Alas, when interrogated by Cass, Abigail refuses to point a finger at either of her sons. Outraged, an angry mob elects to take matters into their own hands. They gather at the courthouse with timber, pitchforks and fiery torches raised, determined to see Matt and Adam hanged. Lincoln intervenes, subtly using sound judgment to shame certain otherwise upstanding members of the community misled by this mob mentality. It is enough to diffuse the situation. Now, Lincoln turns his concentration toward the trial, applying even more basic homespun logic during the jury selection process. Moved by the quality of his mercy, Mary Todd invites Lincoln to an elegant house party. Regrettably, his folksy charm is out of step with the more cultured class. He is misinterpreted by this nobler gentry as quaintly naïve and decidedly out of his depth.
Undaunted, Lincoln rides to the Clay’s log cabin in the woods to appeal to Abigail. She must speak at trial, either to exonerate of confess the truth about her boys. But no; a mother’s love runs painfully deep and true. Carrie Sue understands the severity of the situation they face. Despite Lincoln’s belief in Matt and Adam’s innocence, the boys may very well be hanged, leaving Carrie Sue a widow with a young child to rear alone. The next afternoon at trial, Lincoln’s unassuming nature proves potent, incurring the displeasure of his more bombastic opponent, prosecuting attorney, John Felder (Donald Meek).  Felder’s fruitless badgering of Abigail on the witness stand reveals nothing further about the crime. Indeed, neither Lincoln nor the jury are amused.
But J. Palmer Cass’ testimony is damning. He insists he saw Matt Clay stab Scrub White. Turning to the Farmer’s Almanac, Lincoln proves Cass could not have witnessed the murder as described in great detail since there was no moon on the night Scrub died. Recognizing Cass has more to hide, Lincoln presses the matter to the point where Cass wearily confesses he murdered Scrub after Matt and Adam had merely roughed him up. Emerging victorious from the courthouse, Lincoln is congratulated by Mary and Douglas. With grave humility, Lincoln climbs to the top of a nearby hill where an impromptu thundershower breaks across his noble brow; the scene dissolving to a painted backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial with the penultimate strains of The Battle Hymn of the Republic heard as backdrop.
Young Mr. Lincoln is a glowing epitaph to a true populist. Fonda's palpable unease effortlessly translate into Lincoln-esque fortitude and grace; primed, unearthed and elevated to uncanny acceptability as Lincoln – the man none of us could claim to know from life. With confidence, Ford and Fonda remake Lincoln in their own image, effectively having generated the template by which all other incarnations of the man – either before or after greatness was foisted upon him – have since been studied and critiqued. And Fonda’s mythological recreation perfectly fits into Ford’s thick slice of Americana. Clearly, Ford saw Lincoln as a man for all seasons, Tiffany-set within a watershed moment in the collective nation-building phase of a great country.
And yet, at almost every turn Ford and Fonda shy away from depicting Lincoln as anything but genuine, level-headed and real; a fair-hearted reformist/farmer/philosopher, devout in his black and white delineation of right and wrong – the only sensible and clear-eyed criteria all American jurisprudence need to be effectively governed. It’s not a very original mantra, though it nevertheless unfurls like a banner or sign post for an America that never was, except in the movies of a John Ford or Frank Capra. Even as fantasy, Ford does not give us a parable wrapped in the enigma of Lincoln so much as he anoints the myth of Lincoln with an even more impressive magician’s sleight of hand that Fonda performs by transferring his formidable actor’s talents into the embodiment of this typified presence.  While Young Mr. Lincoln rightly commands its classic status it also manages its escape from that epoch-shaping moment in American cinema history; gone well beyond its time capsule elements. It is as probative about the sage wisdom and enduring spirit of humanity today as it remains optimistically quizzical in its prologue then: “If Nancy Hanks came back as a ghost, seeking news of what she loved most, she’d ask first where’s my son? What’s happened to Abe? What’s he done?”
Young Mr. Lincoln arrives on Blu-ray via Fox Home Video’s sporadic alliance with the Criterion Collection and in a bright and shiny new 4K transfer that gives sincere hope the recent Twilight Time debacle on Forever Amber was just a fluke and not generally the direction the studio’s executive brain trust is taking with their future deep catalog releases. While it remains to be seen, what is here is quite simply ‘stunning’ and ‘gorgeous’; signifiers I wish I could ascribe to all Fox Home Video releases. But I digress. Sourced from a properly curated 35mm nitrate print, held by MOMA, Young Mr. Lincoln’s vibrant B&W cinematography sparkles with crispness and clarity arguably unseen since its theatrical debut.
Minute details are evident in hair, skin and clothing. Even master shots look relatively immaculate with no signs of age-related wear and tear, and, with the added bonus of a light smattering of indigenous grain registering as it should. Wow, and thank you! The PCM mono audio is, of course, unremarkable, but competently rendered. It sounds thin in spots. Criterion predictably pads out this release with some noteworthy extras: an Omnibus Special on John Ford (only Part I, I’m afraid), Henry Fonda’s appearance on British talk show, Parkinson from 1975, a pair of audio only interviews conducted by John’s grandson, Dan with his famous grandfather and Fonda, plus a radio dramatization, and finally, a pair of essays from Geoffrey O’Brien and Sergei Eisenstein. Nicely packaged/nicely done!  Bottom line: Young Mr. Lincoln is a winner on Blu-ray. We need more like this – pretty, and pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, January 14, 2018

THE PAPER: Blu-ray (Universal/Imagine, 1994) Universal Home Video

By my assessment Ron Howard has never made a movie to manipulate his audience for the sake of a good pop-u-tainment. Indeed, Howard does not make ‘puff pastry’ from popular culture; nor does he get mired in the particulars, though concentrated as he can, and usually is, on extolling the details of everyday life. Instead, Howard illustrates a startling command of complex issues, clearly seeing through to the heart and soul of each character populating his movie’s milieu. I suppose this alone is the hallmark of a truly gifted cinema story-teller. And there are far too few working in Hollywood today. So, let us set aside the Opie/Ritchie Cunningham references that, particularly at the start of his career, seemed rather condescendingly to suggest another ‘failed’ TV star was making a clumsy segue into some fairly disposable feature films. And while we are on this subject, I respectfully doff my cap to the likes of Penny (Laverne) Marshall and Rob (‘meathead’) Reiner. It seems 70’s sit-com training came in very handy for this trifecta of story-telling geniuses.
But back to Ron Howard, whose directorial career has been peppered in mega hits of varying creative merit. Virtually none are a total waste of time. But when he hits the bull seye, it’s with the telescopic range of sure-fire box office. Hence, the work is always rife for rediscovery and future appreciation.  I confess: I missed The Paper (1994) on its theatrical release; the idea of ‘another’ valediction of journalistic integrity run amok holding little interest for me then. Lest we forget, 1994 was the year of Pulp Fiction, and, Four Weddings and a Funeral; also, True Lies, The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Little Women, Leon: The Professional, Legends of the Fall, Clear and Present Danger, Maverick, Speed, Reality Bites, I Love Trouble, and, The Santa Clause…to name but a handful; all of which I did see in a theater. The Paper ought to have appealed to me too. I adore Glenn Close and believe Robert Duvall to be one of the greatest actors of our time. In hindsight, I think it was the ‘coming attractions’ trailer that killed my interest in The Paper; misguidedly zeroing in on the drama while virtually dumping all of the screwball elements Howard had toiled so craftily to counterbalance, yet queerly augment these histrionics with zap-dramatic intensity and razor-biting irony feathered in for good measure. But no, the trailer for The Paper played like a wafer-thin and somewhat cartoony attempt at melodrama at best, charting the rise and fall of forgettable bitchy, socially-frustrated outcasts on the verge of plucking each other’s eyes out or suffering one collective nervous breakdown. The curiosity is, in many ways, The Paper still fits this descriptor to a tee with one crucial distinction.
It is a far more engrossing and enveloping critique of the newspaper biz than virtually anyone, apart from a handful of critics of their day, had given it credit. Billing The Paper as a ‘dramedy’ is like calling the Hoover Dam a nice little wall that holds some water. In spots, The Paper is deliciously funny and cynically dark; Howard, able to take incongruent narrative elements and weave his master stroke as unapologetic and eviscerating as a street fight between two junkyard dogs. Top cast is Michael Keaton as Henry Hackett – as his moniker suggests, part mild-mannered every guy/part-con (or ‘hack’) editor of The New York Sun; a rag tabloid teetering on the brink of extinction. Keaton infuses his role with a sort of arresting, devilish charm. He is fairly disreputable: stealing story ideas right off the desk of Paul Bladden (Spalding Grey); rival editor at The New York Sentinel (who has just offered him a cushy job, no less), repeatedly standing up his very pregnant and emotionally fragile wife, Martha (Marisa Tomei), and, engaging his managing editor, Alicia Clark (Glenn Close) in a knock-down/drag-out fist fight during the picture’s climax. 
There is nothing about Keaton’s Hackett to endear him to his colleagues or the audience for that matter. And yet, Keaton wins us over, partly by applying a quirky/gutsy and slightly goofy charisma he has always possessed in spades, able to compensate for his physical shortcomings as a leading man (he’s no George Clooney). Seemingly without effort, Keaton can pull off the proverbial ‘rabbit from the magician’s hat’ trick any time he wants to make us fall in love with such despicable behavior.  It works, time and again; Hackett, the lynch pin in a very potent grenade of opportunities; either, to save the day or screw things far beyond the point of no return. Ingeniously, Ron Howard allows his movie to sail clear over this narrative precipice, and then, as miraculously, make us believe his vessel has been tethered all along; everything pulled back into perspective, both for his oily protagonist and the audience.  Keaton is, of course, flanked on all sides by some very heavy hitters. Apart from Robert Duvall (as The Sun’s caustic and cancer-stricken editor-in-chief, Bernie White), and, Glenn Close’s beady-eyed bitch in heels, we get Randy Quaid as reporter, Michael McDougal, an accident waiting to happen; Jason Robards (The Sun’s shifty boy’s club owner, Graham Keighley), Jason Alexander (as disgraced Parking Commissioner, Marion Sandusky); finally, Jill Hennessy and Lynne Thigpen (both underused, but welcomed nonetheless) as White’s estranged/emotionally wounded daughter, Deanna and Hackett’s pert and ever-devoted secretary, Janet respectively.
We also have to tip our hats to the bit players; ‘real cards’, every last one – whether Roma Maffia’s sassy Carmen, Geoffrey Owens’ quirky Lou, Clint Howard’s Ray Blaisch, Bruce Altman’s philandering Carl, Jack McGee’s sheepish Wilder, or Edward Hibbert’s Jerry - each integral to the flavor of the piece without given very much to do, The Paper’s cast alone (most glimpsed in cameo) has it pegged for greatness. Better still, Howard has not rested on their laurels to carry the load – only, for inspiration -  already investing every second of The Paper in a sort of frenetic verisimilitude and decided verve for the newspaper biz; thanks, in part to the sure-footed – occasionally ribald (and R-rated) – writing style of David and Stephen Koepp. One of the crudest/funniest lines I think I have ever heard in the movies – period – gets uttered by Duvall’s pugnacious pit bull; informed by fellow coworker, Phil (Jack Kehoe) his excessive cigar smoke has resulted in his own urine testing positive for nicotine, Bernie bluntly tells Phil “then keep your dick out of my ash tray!”     
In retrospect, The Paper shares its most transparent influence with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s ground-breaking stagecraft, The Front Page (to be made as a movie under its own title in 1931 and 1974, and, in the interim between, as perhaps its greatest incarnation, His Girl Friday, 1940). Howard here is also gleaning inspiration from his vast appreciation of classic films of the 1930’s and 40’s, oft-set in the behind-the-scenes world of cutthroat journalism. Indeed, the Koepps came to their writing epiphany from this well-versed background; Stephen, as senior editor at Time magazine, collaborating with brother, David – then, riding the groundswell of instant fame for having adapted Jurassic Park (1993). Together, they conspired on a project entitled, ‘A Day in the Life of a Paper’.  Likely owing to David’s success, Universal Pictures happily greenlit this project. Ironically, and unknowing of the Koepp’s efforts, director, Ron Howard – in good standing with Uni’s Imagine Entertainment division – simultaneously expressed interest in doing a movie about the behind-the-scenes chaos of running a newspaper. In an industry where everyone knows everyone, Steven Spielberg pointed Howard to David Koepp. Initially, Koepp and Howard met at something of a cross purpose; Howard, hoping to pitch his own ideas, and Koepp, using the opportunity to praise Howard’s Parenthood (1989) instead. At some point, Koepp’s flattery paid off; Howard, inquiring about his ‘next’ project and, with pricked ears, quickly to learn it was exactly his kind of picture to make. “I liked the fact that it dealt with the behind-the-scenes of headlines,” Howard would later admit, “But I also connected with the characters…desperately trying to find balance in their personal lives…”
Having agreed to work together, Howard began his research with trips to both The New York Post and Daily News; each to provide inspiration for the fictional ‘Sentinel’ and ‘Sun’ in the picture. But Howard’s real spark of brilliance was to have the Koepps change the gender of the managing editor, from ‘Alan Clark’ in their original draft, to ‘Alicia Clark’ in the final edit, without altering a single line of dialogue. As David Koepp would later reason, “Anything else would be trying to figure out, ‘How would a woman in power behave?’ And it shouldn't be about that. It should be about how a person in power behaves, and since that behavior is judged one way when it's a man, why should it be judged differently if it's a woman?” In the meantime, Howard engaged New York’s top newspapermen, including former Post editor, Pete Hamill and columnists, Jimmy Breslin and Mike McAlary (the latter, rumored as inspiration for Randy Quaid), who informed the director of a trick readily exploited to make their deadlines; using a police light to bypass traffic jams. Believing those working for tabloids shared in a sort of sheepish embarrassment, Howard was to have his eyes opened wide when virtually all of his interviewees confessed to ‘enjoying’ their particular brand of headline-grabbing shlock. In Daily News’ metro editor Richie Esposito, as example, Howard unearthed the embodiment of Henry Hackett; a ‘rumpled, mid-30’s overworked, but very articulate bundle of energy.
The Paper opens on the inner workings of an alarm clock and a radio broadcast encouraging its listeners to ‘stay tuned’ because “your whole world can change in 24 hours.” Indeed, the rest of The Paper’s tautly-written 112 min. will bear out the truth in this statement as two unsuspecting black youth (Vincent D'Arbouze and Michael Michael), departing a diner after midnight, accidentally stumble upon a crime scene: two white businessmen, brutally slain – gangland style – in their parked car. Fleeing the scene after being discovered by a passerby, the boys are apprehended and charged with homicide. Meanwhile, across town, New York Sun editor Henry Hackett is stirring next to his very pregnant wife, Martha. She is disgusted to find him still fully clothed, lying next to her. Indeed, Henry’s priorities are severely screwed up. What can we tell you? He is a news hound through and through; the front page more important than the real news going on right before his eyes. Martha is counting on Henry to land a new and better-paying position at rival publication, The Sentinel. She sternly encourages Henry not to screw this one up. They have lives to live, bills to pay, and a new mouth to feed on its way.
Henry feigns understanding. Actually, he is already sorely distracted by the news of the day; The Sun missed out on covering these murders, substituted with yet another front-page devoted to the more recent screw-ups afflicting New York’s traffic authority. The brunt of this piece is an on-going humiliation of the Parking Commissioner, Marion Sandusky, ruthlessly pursued by the Sun’s reporter, Michael McDougal.  In the back of Henry’s mind, he can clearly recognize his own obsessive workaholism fast leading him down a similar path as his editor-in-chief, Bernie White. The curmudgeonly boss is estranged from his adult daughter, Deanne because he always put the work ahead of his family. But now, Bernie has been given his wake-up call; his prostate, the size of a bagel, is cancer already spread to other parts of his body.
At work, Henry is acutely aware the balance of power is shifting; Bernie – as irritable as ever, begrudgingly forced to side with The Sun’s owner, Graham Keighley (Jason Robards), who has appointed Alicia Clark to oversee the necessary cutbacks, hopefully to keep everyone afloat. Henry and Alicia are a toxic mix; his glib disgust counteracted by her viciousness, though in fact, control tactics necessary to keep The Sun’s unwieldy core of fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants reporters from completely wrecking these budgetary constraints. On the home front, Henry’s wife, Martha is desperate for him to land a job with The New York Sentinel; presumably, the Cartier of his industry. Its managing editor, Paul Bladden is all set to give Henry the job. Whatever else he may be, Henry has proven himself one hell of a newspaper man. That is, until he rather shamelessly swipes some crucial information about the Williamsburg arrests right off Bladden’s desk during a momentary lull in the interview. Discovering this theft too late, Bladden rescinds his offer of employment. It’s probably just as well. Henry really had no interest in making the cardigan sweater and suspender sect his penultimate career move, despite the fact it would be better for his family.
Nearly nine months pregnant with their first child, Martha’s behavior is…well…typical of a woman with raging hormonal imbalances. Once a reporter for The Sun, Martha genuinely misses the work: her days now spent binge-watching forgettable TV and eating everything in sight. To assuage her guilty feelings of inadequacy, Martha meets up with a close friend, Lisa (Siobhan Fallon) for lunch. Alas, instead of quelling her fears, Lisa amplifies them by casually, and rather cruelly pointing out all the reasons a child will utterly wreck Martha’s chances of ever being a reporter again. Perhaps to prove Lisa wrong, Martha undertakes to do some groundwork on the Williamsburg murders. What she discovers is the murdered businessmen were actually caught dipping their hands in the till of a business fronted by a prominent Mafia crime family. Hence, the likelihood these guys were killed as part of a gangland-styled cover-up is far more plausible than pinning the crime on a pair of black youth walking down the street. Martha arranges for a nice quiet dinner at an upscale restaurant with Henry’s parents, Howard (William Prince) and Sarah (Augusta Dabney). Alas, this too Henry manages to ruin, arriving late, then suffering a panic attack while listening to a child’s temper tantrum at nearby table. Actually, Henry’s mind is not on dinner at all. Because several hours earlier he sent cub photographer, Robin (Amelia Campbell) – practically a newsie virgin – to get a crucial picture of the indicted brothers being hauled off to jail. Robin’s inexperience may have resulted in Henry losing out on the biggest scoop of his career and he knows it.
Mercifully, after developing the proofs, Robin discovers the perfect shot to headline tomorrow’s daily edition. Ditching Martha and his folks, Henry gets Michael to give him a lift to the local precinct where he convinces one of his police informants, Richie (Mike Sheehan) to confide the Williamsburg boys are being held not even on circumstantial evidence. The police need a scapegoat. These boys are it. Armed with this ‘anonymous tip off’ Henry and Michael hightail it to The Sun to stop the presses. Meanwhile, Bernie has arrived at his favorite watering hole, destined to have a philosophical/booze-induced conversation with the disgraced Sandusky, neither aware of the other’s identity. On the other end of town, Alicia attends a newspaper gala at Radio City, self-assured she can leverage her clout with Graham to go over Bernie’s head for a raise. The ruse fails; Graham, calling her bluff and further informing Alicia when her contract is up in eighteen months she is free to field more lucrative offers elsewhere. Spurned and out for blood, Alicia leave the party and heads back to The Sun, shocked to discover Henry rewriting tomorrow’s headline as an exoneration of the Williamsburg boys, even though the paper has already gone to press.  
Vetoing his authority, Alicia and Henry get into a ruthless brawl that ends with Henry bloodying her nose and Alicia firing him. She orders the press operator to continue without the new headline. Alicia, Henry and Michael winds up at the same bar; Henry, desperate to appeal to Bernie to stop the presses. Henry tells Alicia, despite The Sun’s notoriety for publishing ‘silly’ tabloid stories that sacrifice integrity for sensationalism hers is the first headline to have deliberately known better and still published ‘a lie’. Having suffered an acute attack of conscience, Alicia hurries to the phone booth at the back of the bar to stop the presses. Regrettably, at precisely this moment, Sandusky recognizes Michael from across the room; unleashing his full wrath in a rather pathetic drunken brawl. This ends badly when Sandusky manages to gain control of the pistol Michael carries for protection; Sandusky, firing a shot that whizzes past Michael’s head, but penetrates the phone booth. The bullet strikes Alicia; a superficial wound in the calf, it nevertheless sends her into shock.
Across town, Martha, again patiently waiting for Henry to come home, but this time contemplating leaving him for good, suddenly begins to hemorrhage. Her emergency phone call for help comes just as Henry is arriving home. The couple are reunited in the belief they may lose their unborn child and each other; the paramedics rushing Martha into emergency C-section surgery. On another gurney, Alicia makes repeated demands to use the telephone. Refusing to sign her release so the surgeon can operate on her leg, Alicia’s wish is granted and she orders The Sun to run with Henry’s story on the front page. As dawn begins to crest, Henry is informed Martha and their newly born son have survived this ordeal. Henry glances adoringly at his boy lying in an incubator, entering Martha’s room to beg for her forgiveness. They share some tearful kisses and Henry learns The Sun’s early morning edition has run his ‘front page’ story. We conclude with the local radio station proclaiming this latest bulletin, adding “…because your whole world can change in twenty-four hours!” And indeed, for Henry Hackett, it most certainly has.
The Paper typifies the Benzedrine-driven megalomania that is today’s journalism. Using the analogy of birth to illustrate the process by which tomorrow’s headlines are given life today, director Ron Howard puts his audience through the paces of this wild-eyed/wild ride, teeming in furious temperaments and ruthless conniving. Howard’s best movies are ensemble-driven; his motley crew of eager beavers, brewing their disparate temperaments, raging egos and dubious moral ethics into quicksilver intrigues of a dysfunctional ‘family unit’. Henry Hackett has printer’s ink coursing through his veins. He lives, breathes, eats and sleeps The Sun; the real world only worth its weight as a juicy headline. Too many reviews suggest Ron Howard’s finale is too ‘schmaltzy’ for what precedes it. Respectfully, I disagree. As an actor, Howard’s métier was arguably television; a medium that works best when it neatly ties its loose narratives threads together in under an hour with a sort of ‘stay tuned’ approach to next week’s story-telling. While one can debate how well this approach functions for the expanded 2-hr. format of a major motion picture, I would sincerely suggest there is nothing wrong with the proverbial ‘happy ending’. It has become something of the fashion to expect dour, dark and depressing conclusions in today’s movie culture. Personally, I live in reality. I don’t need to see it on the screen. Hence, I have had enough doom and gloom to last at least one lifetime. Besides, a good yarn is a good yarn – period; The Paper, running off one of the most entertaining facsimiles of a ‘hot-off-the-presses’ front page re-conceived for the movie screen. Extra! Extra! The Paper’s a winner.   
I am really not loving Universal Home Video’s recent spate of Blu-ray releases. The Paper has an overly processed video-esque appearance. While colors are bold and, at times breath-taking, the image has been artificially sharpened; DNR also applied liberally to background information. The result: this transfer sports an oft pixelated appearance: digitally gritty without actually exposing the organic structure of indigenous film grain.  Contrast is solid, but we get some intermittent moiré patterns in background information; fine details in plaids and wood grain sporadically to suffer from jitter and those dreaded halo effect. As John Seale’s cinematography rarely settles on any one moment where the eye can study these discrepancies, the overall effect looks like image instability and/or video-based noise; clogging up a visual presentation that ought to have been flawless and stunning. The DTS 5.1 audio is adequately rendered, with dialogue occasionally acquiring a slightly muffled characteristic. As with Uni’s other back catalog Blu-rays, we get NO main menu or chapter search options; subtitles are accessible. Honestly, I wish I could single-handedly convince Universal’s executive brain trust (and I use this term very loosely) that their skin-flint approach to parceling off the studio’s history in barebones ‘exclusive’ editions like this one is a really backwards-thinking approach to home video – period! If a new scan of an old camera negative is worth doing it is definitely worth doing right…n’est pas? Bottom line: recommended for content. The transfer is flawed. In 2018 I would hope for, and expect far better! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)