Wednesday, February 28, 2018

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: 4K Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 2017) Fox Home Video

Kenneth Branagh’s retread of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is funereal and not altogether a successful affair. Okay, we will try to forgive Branagh his transformation of Christie’s beloved – though hardly ‘lovable’ – Belgian super sleuth, Hercules Poirot into a rather austere fusspot suffering from bouts of manic/depressive clairvoyance. With his absurdly overgrown handlebar moustache, Branagh, appears far more the clumsy knock-off of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in 1993’s Tombstone than the embodiment of Christie’s fastidious crime solver, still better represented by Albert Finney in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie adaptation of this ensconced and time-honored Christie literary classic, and, best of all, via David Suchet’s monumental shouldering of the role in ITV’s long-running/Brit-born television series – Poirot (1989-2013).
It becomes more of a challenge to digest Branagh’s departures from Christie’s carefully concocted ‘puzzle’ drama. Evidently, Branagh believed the creakiness of the old ‘locked room’ mystery template needed ‘opening up’ and a dash of Hollywood’s PC-friendly liberalism to fire its creative pistons.  So, we get a dramatically staged foot chase across a windswept trestle, a gunfight in a cargo hold, a dramatic avalanche tumbling from a stormy mountaintop, and, Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ alumni, Leslie Odom Jr. grotesquely miscast as Dr. Arbuthnot. In Christie’s novel, Arbuthnot is a Caucasian snooty Englishman, formerly of her Majesty’s Guard and deserving only of the rank of Colonel while valiantly serving the Empire with his regiment in India. But no, this re-incarnation of Arbuthnot is black and bellicose.  I am still trying to unravel the wisdom in this; also, in rewriting the character of Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) as a ‘fight club’ hot head kickboxer whose one big scene is a bar room brawl where he hastily dispatches the paparazzi with his Jackie Chan-styled moves, before being subdued by slinky paramour, Countess Helena (Lucy Boynton).  
Having jettisoned Christie’s prologue, describing the abduction of Daisy Armstrong (Christie’s homage to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and untimely murder), actually the crux for all that will follow, Branagh instead concentrates the beginning of his movie on another episode excised from Christie’s novel, only briefly mentioned therein, but herein, elevated into an almost James Bond mini-adventure set against the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, circa 1934. Screenwriter, Michael Green’s contrivances inveigle Poirot in the theft of a Holy relic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Branagh using the occasion to evoke a ‘bad joke’ about a Priest (David Annen), a Rabbi (Elliot Levey) and an Imam (Joseph Long) – each wrongfully suspected of the crime; the episode apparently meant as a preamble to whet the audiences’ appetite for Poirot’s superior intellect and methodical deconstruction of an unrelated crime to have otherwise baffled everyone else.  Christie’s novel began with Poirot boarding the Taurus Express for Istanbul (nee, Stamboul at the time Christie wrote her novel) while Lumet’s 1974 film created a tabloid-esque preamble, depicting Daisy’s untimely disappearance before picking up the story on a ferry crossing to the European side of the city, and, where Poirot observes Arbuthnot (then, played by Sean Connery) with his paramour, Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave).  
It is rather pointless to go on with comparisons between Christie’s literary triumph and the various big and small screen adaptations to have endeavored invariably to do it justice.  Suffice it to say, Branagh’s latest stab plays with only marginal flashes of fidelity to its source material. Taking a tip from the ’74 Lumet classic (still MIA in region 1 on Blu-ray…what a sham!) Branagh has jam-packed his roster of ‘usual suspects’ with some marquee-grabbing talent; albeit, none capable enough to eclipse the memory of their predecessors; especially when Green’s screenplay makes short-shrift of each of their more detailed contributions fleshed out in Christie’s novel, cut down in Lumet’s version to satisfy time constraints, but herein remade as mere cardboard cutouts to satisfy Branagh’s verve for making Poirot the self-indulgent focus of the piece instead of the case. 
So, Arbuthnot gets heavily rewritten to satisfy Hollywood’s need for ‘the token minority’ in a story that does not warrant such an inclusion. Necessary aside: it is neither racist nor ethnocentric to point out that some stories were conceived from a period when racial diversity was not considered a part of the collective heritage. Accepting such tales at their face value as cultural artifacts from a ‘perhaps’ less enlightened period in human evolution is the way to go here. Amending the record is to bastardize the period, taint the chronicle with an untruth, but also to deny history itself under a misguided pretense the past either did not exist or to promote it now as radically different.  Badly done and enough said. Redgrave’s Mary also gets a rewrite (ineffectually played by Daisy Ridley herein, teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and, pity the doe-eyed and fragile little flower – yuck!). Josh Gad gives Hector McQueen a spin (a role originally played with more frenetic finesse by Anthony ‘Psycho’ Perkins); Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard, contractedly cruelty, compared to Lauren Bacall’s gum-chewing and talkative prig in ’74); Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff, beady-eyed but less frosty than the caustic rum pot played by Wendy Hiller), and, Johnny Depp (Samuel Ratchett, envisioned with less crass pomposity, though far greater menace by Richard Widmark).  
Branagh elects to increasingly interrupt his main story with inserted B&W flashbacks depicting the Armstrong abduction and its tragic fallout. Director Sidney Lumet’s more succinct summation of these same events at the beginning of his version does this far more effectively however, and all at once; allowing the audience to wholeheartedly invest in a more linear timeline thereafter, as well as the crime of murder, and, Poirot’s fastidious deconstruction of the facts as they unfold. Even if we set aside these alterations to Branagh’s artistic license, the one inexcusable oversight is his shifted emphasis away from the crime, incidental to Poirot – the man; his obsessive/compulsive tendencies (Poirot’s hard-boiled eggs must be perfectly sized, his instruction to any gentleman is to straighten an offset tie, etc. et al) and Poirot’s briefest reflections on a previous romantic dalliance with a woman known only to us as ‘Katherine’; superficially referenced by Poirot, carrying her pocket-sized head shot in a decorative silver frame, shattered during the train’s derailment. These episodic glimpses into Hercules Poirot neither ingratiate us to his idiosyncratic behaviors nor draw us deeper into the central narrative. Furthermore, Agatha Christie remained rather circumspect throughout Poirot’s entire literary reign, divulging as little as possible about his past and/or personal character, beyond the obvious super-intelligence burrowing within all those ‘little grey cells’. So, why bother? Christie’s Poirot remained an enigma. This was, in fact, part – if not all of his ‘charm’.
For all its flaws, this version of Murder on the Orient Express remains a rather stylish affair, Branagh showing off Jim Clay’s cut glass and mahogany production design in the train’s interiors, contrasted with dramatic CGI depictions of the bleak winter landscape just beyond its frosty windows, all of it lensed by Director of Photography, Haris Zambarloukos, and, set to Patrick Doyle’s occasionally intrusive – though largely effective – musical underscore. We get some histrionic and un-selective crane shots of the train pulling out of station, racing through the cluttered streets of Istanbul (an almost James Cameron Titanic-inspired departure with cheering crowds gathered on all sides), followed by as comparatively breathtaking vistas of the Alps as our ill-fated sleeper winds its way between some steep and snowy inclines, heading higher and higher into the mountains. It all looks quite good, in a Polar Express sort of way – yes. The point is, or rather ought to have been, it’s all rather pointless: filler shots to distract and take the audience out of these otherwise claustrophobic surroundings. Anyone who has traveled by train for more than a day can attest to the uncanny ‘cabin feverish’ quality of the experience. Herein, however, it gets repeatedly – and needlessly – diluted.
Ditto for Branagh’s brief digressions into ‘action’ set pieces – the avalanche, the gun and fist fight between Poirot and Arbuthnot, his trestle chase after the oafish McQueen, etc. Branagh is, in fact, at his best and most at home with Poirot’s two penultimate bits of soliloquizing. These effectively reveal far more about the character’s world-weariness with humanity and, not surprisingly given Branagh’s theatrical background, take on an almost Shakespearean tone. We know Branagh is a great actor. This is a given. His sad-eyed summations are the stuff of riveting theater. He can – and does – completely hold an audience spellbound without any further manipulations. But Agatha Christie was such a clever authoress. She knew where to draw the line and end an already ‘good’ scene. By contrast, Branagh’s actor’s instinct here is to gild the lily with even more great words orated into the ether. He almost seems to be wary Christie’s reputation can still stand on its own merit in an age where the definition of entertainment itself has morphed into the sort of ‘in your face’ assault on the senses. This, I suspect, Christie would have found appalling; Branagh, pandering to today’s impatient popcorn munchers, eager only for either a good car chase or sex scene to juice things up. As neither is likely forthcoming in a movie set aboard a train and decidedly about seemingly disparate strangers sleeping in separate compartments, Branagh’s decision to ‘liven’ the show with some rather obnoxious ‘hurly-burly’ moments, further attenuates the picture’s whodunit nucleus. We get fitful vignettes inserted into an otherwise old-fashioned goulash that never build, much less bottle a distinguished head of steam.
This Murder on the Orient Express begins with the aforementioned ‘bad joke’ caper at the Wailing Wall. Having exposed the real culprit responsible for the theft of a priceless religious artifact, Branagh’s compulsive crime solver next boards a ferry for Istanbul; encountering former governess, Mary Debenham and Dr. Arbuthnot, each pretending to keep their love affair a secret. We segue to the Hotel Tokatlian; witness Count Andrenyi’s quick-tempered dispatch of the paparazzi, the arrival of the spurious Edward Ratchett with his entourage; errand boy/number cruncher, McQueen and personal valet, Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi – a Branagh favorite in a part originally played by Sir John Gielgud in the 1974 movie). In the hotel’s kitchen, Branagh’s Poirot is reunited with M. Bouc (Tom Bateman, rewritten in ‘74 as Signor Bianchi and played by Martin Balsam). Bouc is an old friend and the Director of the line. He arranges for Poirot’s passage on the Orient Express after his vacation plans are cut short by an urgent telegram from London.
The slightly disheveled Bouc, emerging from a backroom, is toting a young woman (Kathryn Wilder) whom Poirot wisely reasons to be a prostitute. She openly admits it too in a scene rather adorably played out strictly for laughs. Alas, it seems all available first-class births are accounted for on the train, leaving Bouc to pull rank and demand the porter, Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari) make temporary accommodations for Poirot to bunk with Mr. McQueen. At the station, we also meet the rest of our suspects, including feisty missionary, Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz, in a part originally scripted as Greta Ohlsson and played with Oscar-winning perfection by Ingrid Bergman in the ’74 movie). Unlike Bergman’s backward religious frump, Cruz’s hot-blooded Pilar is not above beating off a potential pickpocket at the depot. And so, our journey begins; Michael Green’s screenplay wasting little time in allowing each of the principals one or two lines, presumably to establish their characters for the audience. The Princess Dragomiroff instructs her lady-in-waiting, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) on what to order for dinner, as example. On board, we barely glimpse Willem Dafoe, masquerading as racist German prof, Gerhard Hardman (a role with no counterpoint in Christie’s novel or the ’74 version). He refuses to sit with Arbuthnot because he is black. We also find Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Biniamino Marquez (a part so inconsequential it barely bears mentioning). After Ratchett’s murder has been committed, Green’s screenplay makes its flimsiest stab at political correctness yet; Bouc insisting Poirot take the case, despite his reservations, for the local constabulary will surely convict either Marquez or Arbuthnot based solely on racial profiling.
Next, we are introduced to boorish ‘businessman’ Edward Ratchett – an art dealer (Johnny Depp, channeling his inner Al Capone). Ratchett offers Poirot a position as his personal bodyguard during their three-day journey. Earlier, Ratchett received a death threat, confronting Masterman as to its origins, but to no avail. Independently wealthy, Poirot refuses the offer and calls out Ratchett for being a man of spurious means and talents. Sometime later, as Poirot prepares for slumber he hears strange noises coming from Ratchett’s compartment. Peeking into the hallway, Poirot is assured by Michel there is no need for concern. But only a few moments thereafter, another noise in the passageway causes Poirot to open his door yet again, this time, witnessing the back of a woman in a red kimono darting down the crewman’s passage. At this juncture, Branagh cuts to some high angle exteriors (all CGI) of an electrical storm triggering an avalanche. The rush of cascading snow derails the engine, leaving the passengers stranded in the middle of nowhere on a precarious trestle.
The next morning, Masterman is unable to stir his employer. Suspecting foul play, Poirot breaks the lock on Ratchett’s compartment with his silver-tipped cane and discovers him maliciously stabbed multiple times in the chest while he lay in bed. The positioning of the wounds confounds Poirot, more so when Arbuthnot confirms each appears to have been inflicted by either a right or left-handed assailant. At this point, Caroline Hubbard admits to ‘a man’ in her compartment the night before; Poirot remembering the previous day Hubbard and Ratchett had flirted. As Bouc assures his passengers nothing can be done until the rescue party from Brod arrives to dig them out, Poirot next unearths a partially burnt note that ties Ratchett to the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong. Ratchett is, in fact, John Cassetti, the abductor/murderer of Colonel John (Phil Dunster) and Sonia Armstrong’s (Miranda Raison) baby girl, blackmailing the couple for ransom. Not long thereafter, Daisy’s body is discovered strangled in a field. As a result, Sonia gave birth to a stillborn before dying from grief on the operating table. John committed suicide and the family’s devoted nursemaid, Susanne (Hayat Kamille) was wrongfully accused of the crime, hanging herself while in police custody. 
Poirot unearths more evidence; a bloodstained handkerchief lying near Ratchett’s body and a button from a conductor’s uniform in Mrs. Hubbard’s compartment. Helena insists she saw another conductor – other than Michel – in the crewman’s passage the night before. As Poirot knows there is no ‘other’ conductor aboard the train, he now reasons a more sinister deception is underway. Conducting a search of all the compartments, Poirot finds both the uniform with the missing button and the red kimono neatly tucked into his own belongings. The killer is mocking him. Now, Poirot really puts on his thinking cap. He deduces many of the passengers aboard the Orient Express have direct ties to the Armstrong family. Before he can begin to piece together the events, Mrs. Hubbard is stabbed in the back – the wound, superficial.  Poirot elects to interview each suspect. Deflecting his plans, Mr. McQueen makes a clumsy break for the trestle, slipping from its rickety wooden platform and tumbling to the ground far below, mercifully – unharmed. Brought back aboard, McQueen sheepishly admits he managed his employer’s books as part of Ratchett’s scene to defraud his buyers: selling worthless goods at a premium to fatten his coffers. Alas, while interrogating Mary in the luggage hold, Poirot is shot by Arbuthnot in the shoulder. Arbuthnot makes the most erroneous claim: that Poirot is the murderer. But he is prevented, presumably from finishing the job, by Bouc. Now, Poirot takes stock. Arbuthnot, a former army sniper, would surely not have missed. He never really meant to kill Poirot. 
Poirot gathers everyone in the nearby tunnel as the Brod rescue crew arrives to free the derailed locomotive. He offers the curious gathering two alternate theories of the crime. The first is straight-forward: someone, disguised as a conductor, secretly boarded the train and murdered Ratchett as he slept before escaping into the night after the derailment. Alas, this scenario is a little too neat and tidy for Poirot. His second hypothesis is far more complex. Virtually everyone aboard had cause to murder Ratchett. Mrs. Hubbard is exposed as Linda Arden – a former stage actress who is, in fact, the late Sonia’s mother; the Princess Dragomiroff, little Daisy’s godmother; Arbuthnot, Colonel Armstrong’s wingman during his years of army service. Hardman (whose real name is Cyrus Bethman) is an ex-P.I. and Suzanne’s lover, powerless to prevent her wrongful conviction, though instrumental in her later exoneration – too late to stop her from suicide. Linda confesses. She planned the revenge killing and hired the others to partake in the execution; each, stabbing Ratchett with the same dagger to avenge the original crime. Pierre stabbed Ratchett because the wrongfully accused Susanne was his sister. Arbuthnot deliberately wounded Mrs. Hubbard to convince Poirot of his ‘lone killer’ theory.
Placing Ratchett’s revolver before the group, Poirot insists he must turn them in once they arrive at their destination, suggesting their only escape now is for one among them to shoot him dead. Bouc, after all, can – and will – lie. But not Poirot. His entire life has been slavishly devoted to order and justice. Mrs. Hubbard seizes the gun. But she aims its barrel at her own head and pulls the trigger. Having anticipated as much, Poirot has emptied the bullets beforehand. The trigger snaps back, leaving Caroline reduced to tears. With the train back on track, Poirot pointedly concludes justice has already been served. For his unspeakable act, Ratchett deserved death. Poirot will have to live with a lie, solemnly declaring “There are no killers here.” Disembarking at Brod, Poirot informs the Yugoslavian police of his ‘lone assassin’ theory, suggesting the suspect escaped on foot into the mountains. The Orient Express departs, Poirot observing the blank faces of the others staring back at him from the windows, their futures quite uncertain. If justice has been served, the victory is moot and unfulfilling. For little Daisy Armstrong’s murder continues to haunt these wounded souls.  Suddenly, Poirot is approached by a British military officer (Tom Hanson), whose instructions are to accompany him immediately to Egypt. There has been a death on the Nile…hint, hint, and sequel in the works.
Murder on the Orient Express is a timeless literary masterpiece, five-times removed from its source material with Branagh’s latest adaptation. Personally, I prefer the 1974 version for its blindingly all-star characterizations and its overall fidelity to Agatha Christie’s novel. Sean Connery vs. Leslie Oden Jr. Vanessa Redgrave vs. Daisy Ridley. Michelle Pfeiffer vs. Lauren Bacall. Anthony Perkins vs. Josh Gad. Ingrid Berman vs. Penelope Cruz. You get the picture. The former contained a roster of iconic legends appearing in memorable cameos. This latest incarnation merely stuffs the Christie’s candy box with serviceable actors on the downswing. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Kenneth Branagh. Though he presents us with a Hercules Poirot unlike any to endear us to Christie’s, and light years removed from Albert Finney’s superb evocation in Sidney Lumet’s movie, it is nevertheless Branagh’s chops as an actor that salvage this Poirot from an otherwise largely mediocre movie. Soliloquizing Poirot as a man of anguished confidences and vexed dark spots, kept mostly hidden under his Teflon-coated persona as a peerless crusader for the truth, Branagh gently peels back several layers of rawer human emotion (a quality Christie’s Poirot lacks). And Branagh, as both star and director, evolves Christie’s story into a far more fascinating character study of the man behind the crime-solving; perhaps, even more efficiently than Christie herself ever managed in all of Hercules’ 66 novelized adventures. 
Murder on the Orient Express was originally slated to go into production in 2013. For one reason or another, delays occurred until June, 2015 when it was formally announced Kenneth Branagh had agreed to partake both in front of and behind the camera. Branagh’s shift from a dandified Poirot to a man obsessed with order is not seismic, but it bodes well for yet another interpretation on this time-honored character we only thought we knew. Indeed, and apart from this role, Branagh has emerged as one of the latter-day 20th century’s consummate pros; legendary for his cinematic Shakespearean outings (his best, likely Hamlet, 1996 – an extraordinary experience). Branagh is also famous for his stormy marriage to actress, Emma Thompson (who left him for Greg Wise, her costar in Sense & Sensibility). Yet, perhaps Branagh’s greatest gift to the movies has been his ability to understand the language of cinema from both ends of the house; his prowess as an actor effortlessly married to a mastery of his camera eye, once seated in the director’s chair. Though not the first to assume these dual responsibilities, Branagh is nevertheless one of the premiere advocates living and working in movies today whose films, though arguably unevenly ranked, continue to unearth something genuinely fascinating about the creative talent behind them.
Fox Home Video’s 4K debut of Murder on the Orient Express is truly a cause for celebration. This combo pack comes with a Blu-ray version. And while the Blu-ray offers stunning image quality, and several choice extras to be discussed herein in just a moment, the real revelation here is the 4K edition, yielding unparalleled crystal clarity to the nth degree. As stated earlier, Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography – shot on 65mm film – achieves a mostly somber mood, thanks to its subdued color palette and low lighting conditions. On the 1080p Blu-ray these virtues are nicely resolved in a way that, while pleasing, absolutely pale to the 4K edition’s ability to resolve minute textures and ever-so-slight tonal variations in deep and enveloping greys, browns and blacks. As Zambarloukos’ has used a rather muted palette, the exposure of such subtleties becomes even more obvious and impressive in 4K. Flesh tones appear quite natural regardless of the version.  
The 4K release also bests the Blu-ray with a Dolby Atmos 7.1 multi-dimensional soundtrack. I have read too many articles criticizing Atmos as just another home video fad and/or ‘gimmick’ (a la 3D), and destined, quite soon, to cool in its popularity to the point of obsolescence. Perhaps. Only time will tell. For certain, there are, as yet, not enough of us out there who have retooled our home set-ups to take full advantage of its perks. For this, I turned to a close friend and early adopter whose system is ‘state of the art’ (at present), and afterward, immediately went home to re-watch the movie again on my more modest 5.1. What a difference; the ambient acoustic touches of grinding pistons, howling wind and echoing ambient noise during crowd scenes. Superb! Utterly and completely. Now, I will say this: had I not experienced Murder on the Orient Express first in Atmos, the 5.1 DTS track would have sufficed just fine.
Extras include featurettes on Agatha Christie, the making (or rather re-making of this property), deleted scenes and an audio commentary from Branagh and Michael Green. Only this final extra is included on the 4K edition. The rest are housed exclusively on the Blu-ray. These junkets are quite adequate, if generally unremarkable. Bottom line: for Christie completionists, this version of Murder on the Orient Express will likely garner mixed reviews. It possesses a visual eloquence the 1974 movie could only guess at, but lacks the spell-binding array of artisans that illuminated the Lumet classic. In the end, it’s a loss: the sacrifice leading to plenty of gloss, but lacking one collective soul from its disparate participants. They act a lot, emote too little, and wind up in support of Branagh’s inquisitively unique take on Hercules Poirot. While I cannot in good conscience state I enjoyed this version more than Lumet’s, it was a largely enjoyable outing. The 4K rendering is absolutely perfect. The Blu-ray will also impress for those yet to have switched to a 4K setup. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4K – 5+
Blu-ray – 4.5


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

THE LION IN WINTER: Blu-ray (Avco Embassy, 1968) Kino Lorber

The age-old axiom about ‘art imitating life’ has been exercised so often it has acquired general legitimacy as a means for one craft to successfully mimic the other. History on celluloid has provided entertainment fodder far more captivating than any textbook written by legitimate historians, and this – at least, in hindsight – seems to be a constant source of sour grapes and bitter lament for those who diligently do the real archaeological legwork. Over the last hundred years, Hollywood has mined – and arguably, bastardized – virtually every period in man’s evolutionary l’histoire. Not even The Bible has escaped the movie’s delicious fermentation into popularized flights of fancy. And it remains a genuine oddity about mankind that what is presented to us in visual terms is frequently mis-perceived as derived from fact – even when we know better: art eclipsing life, as it were, to become its surrogate or even its canonized substitute in the long run.
Such is the case of William Goldman’s superb 1966 play, The Lion in Winter reporting to be a dramatization of the headstrong conflict enveloping the court of Henry II. In truth, The Lion in Winter bears no earthly claim to history itself. Virtually all of the dialogue and situations depicted are complete fabrications spawned from Goldman’s fertile imagination. There was no Christmas court at Chinon in 1183, and, no evidence to suggest Alais, the half-sister of France’s Philip II Augustus, was Henry’s lover. By contrast, the real Eleanor of Aquitaine had been imprisoned by her husband for plotting his overthrow, using their three sons as pawns in a diabolical game of botched succession. The Lion in Winter cleverly mangles this latter historical truth, using it as the crux of another palace/political intrigue-laden scenario. As it stands, we can either fault or excuse Goldman for his ‘artistic license’ because The Lion in Winter is so damn exasperatingly ambitious in concocting its faux history as a stand-in or parallel to the truth. We can also forgive Anthony Harvey his 1968 film adaptation, perhaps even more since, not only has he assigned screenwriting duties to Goldman (allowing him to further improve upon and embellish his own stagecraft in cinematic terms) but also, because Harvey has assembled a superb cast for what is essentially a fascinating – if slightly wordy- two-person battle of wills.
The supporting parts, few and far between (for Goldman has chosen to remain relatively faithful to his play), are filled by some fantastic ‘new’ talent, including Jane Merrow as Alais, future James Bond, Timothy Dalton – her steely-eyed brother, Philip II, Nigel Terry (Henry’s preferred heir apparent, John), John Castle (the overlooked and malicious middle son, Geoffrey) and finally, future fava bean eater, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, the eldest of the offspring and Eleanor’s definitive choice for the throne. In the leads originally fleshed out on the stage by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, director Harvey has set forth for consideration two of the most prominent acting talents of the twentieth century: the formidable, Katharine Hepburn and consummate actor’s actor, Peter O’Toole.  In hindsight, O’Toole’s is the more impressive performance, particularly when one considers he was a mere 38 years old at the time, sufficiently aged to compliment Hepburn’s 61-year-old wily matriarch. It’s the verbal sparring between these two tigers of stage and screen that proves so perfect a counterpoint to this discordant tale steeped in deceit, lies, manipulations and insults.
Goldman is nothing if unapologetic about making Eleanor and Richard contemptible, often repugnant usurpers of each other’s authority; this aged hen and rooster, fighting for the same scrap of waning power neither is likely to possess in their own lifetime. It remains a tribute to Goldman, and the performances of both Hepburn and O’Toole neither character ever devolves into a filthily unlikeable hag or horror, each carefully weighed with deliciously vial and impertinent things to say, expertly timed outbursts to challenge and defile the other’s reputation while, miraculously, never tainting their own. We can empathize with every last horridly imperfect barb; the aging King who has no viable heir apparent to bequeath his throne; the empress of these ineffectual male offspring, forced to concede her part in their bungled rearing as this motley brood of scheming reprobates. The Lion in Winter is essentially a familial tragedy where personal domestic crises threaten to topple a nation; the tale of one man’s legacy doomed to molder and decay after his time because he has failed to prepare himself and his kingdom for his own inevitable decline from this life into the next.
Having avoided his truer duties as husband and father, Henry is now faced with a bitter decision to either choose the least effective and worthy of his sons – John – to succeed him on the throne, or whittle this triage out of their divine rights altogether by secretly having Alais, whom Henry has already betrothed to Richard - but since taken as his lover - bear him another offspring, presumably with the intent to raise it differently in preparedness for the future. Alas, time is not only of the essence, but seemingly has run out. Henry is old; his three children by Eleanor already of an age to succeed him on England’s throne and put a decidedly definite stop to his future ambitions. As Alais points out, any chance for their – as yet unconceived – sons supplanting Richard, John or Geoffrey can only be made concrete if these aforementioned are either put to death or imprisoned for the duration of their natural lives. Despite her misgivings, Alais is hardly bitter. She is, in fact, a loyal and devoted lover – compassionate too, making it all the more difficult – if not entirely unbearable – to despise her.
On the flipside is Eleanor, her one ace against Henry’s plan to make John King her retention of the Aquitaine, a strategically important region Henry desires to possess, but Eleanor holds dear and intends to bequeath to Richard instead, thereby insuring a future power struggle between her two sons. Of course, the wrinkle herein is neither is fit to rule; John, the slovenly and pimple-faced stunted adolescent, easily swayed by his misguided devotion to Geoffrey – who is loyal to no one except himself – and Richard, whose keen militaristic intellect and stern maturity bear the scars of a wounded childhood. This continues to haunt and slowly erode his sanity. Neither would make a good King for obvious reasons. Determined he should work out the kinks to his plan during the pending Christmas holidays, Henry commands his trusted advisor, William Marshal (Nigel Stock) to gather his scattered progenies to Chinon.
The first few scenes in Anthony Harvey’s masterpiece are devoted to establishing the psychological complexities of these three potential heirs; John, who is steadily improving in his swordsmanship under Henry’s expert tutelage; Richard, narrowly spared the torturous decision to decapitate a foe after rendering him useless during a jousting tournament, and Geoffrey, ever satisfying his lust for conquest by setting up bloody battles between rival forces on the windswept beaches. Alais questions Henry’s devotion. She loves him dearly, but is plagued with concern the memory of a former mistress, Rosamund Clifford – recently deceased – has not abated. Alais also worries about the influence Eleanor may exert over Henry’s heart. By his panged silence, Henry confesses a minor lingering attachment to Rosamund’s ghost. But he openly refers to Eleanor as ‘that bitch’ and ‘gargoyle’ who occupies no residency apart from her imprisonment in Salisbury Tower.
The Christmas reunification of these warring factions under one roof at Chinon is destined to rupture these fragile familial bonds. Almost immediately, Eleanor pledges Henry a rough time of things. John, willy-nilly and blinded by his allegiance to Geoffrey, is both acrimonious and confrontational toward Richard. Eleanor, however, calls each of her sons out in tandem, exposing their deficiencies to one another. You can’t fool mama, I suppose. And Eleanor is, after all, most interested in goading her excommunicated husband with insidious anecdotes; how she first bed his late father, and throughout their marriage was passionately intertwined with some of Henry’s most ardent detractors and closest friends; forcing him to reconsider his loyalties at court. Mere lies or cynically unvarnished truths, exposed at last and much too difficult to digest? Who can tell? Eleanor is a devious hellcat, conniving one moment, tenderly affectionate the next, employing soft-spoken intellect to weed out the darker veracities concealed deeper within. 
Henry refuses to bend from his cause. At one point, stalking the abandoned castle by night in a rage, he commands its inhabitance to stir and make ready for the instantaneous marriage of Alais to Richard. While Alais is crestfallen, Richard is stunned – and suspicious. What could daddy be up to? Much to Henry’s chagrin, at the last possible moment he cannot bring himself to cast off his mistress, revealing far too much of his own devotion to her. Later, in a private moment, Alais will confess a great relief to Eleanor, also her enduring admiration for Eleanor and her desperate love for Henry. Try as she might, Eleanor cannot fault, condemn or despise Alais for her legitimate affections. Into the thick of things arrives Alais’ brother, Philip of France; a young and ambitious monarch with decidedly definite ideas of where Henry’s loyalties ought to ally; in a pact made between Henry and Philip’s late father, and Alais; cementing an alliance between England and France with Alais’ proposed marriage to Richard. Regrettably, in the interim since accepting – and spending – Alais’ dowry, Henry has fallen hard for the girl himself and lost all interest in preserving this tenuous alliance or to make Richard the future King of England.
The Lion in Winter is not particularly interested in resolving any of these plot points in any concrete way. Henry briefly entertains the clumsy notion to free the Queen from Salisbury Tower; the price for her freedom the relinquishment of all rights to the Aquitaine. It is an offer fraught with incalculable dangers and uncertainty – particularly for Eleanor, who is bitter and starved for the opportunity to be free of her confinement once and for all. Alas, Henry has proven to be a fairly ineffectual King; fickle in his decisions: first, to imprison his boys in the dungeons of Chinon for the rest of their natural born days in order to satisfy Alais’ request to marry and procreate. Seizing the opportunity to bribe a guard, Eleanor skulks off to the dungeon to free John, Richard and Geoffrey, instructing her sons with knives to rise up against their father. Too bad, blood proves far thicker than water. Henry’s arrival at the dungeon is met by temporary conflict. Enraged, Henry challenges his boys to take up arms against him. But even Richard is unable to finish the job. Coward that he is, John flees, followed by Geoffrey. Richard is disillusioned, startled perhaps to discover his own conscience, and storms off in a huff. Alais now realizes her dreams of marrying Henry can never be. His heart, indeed – if begrudgingly – belongs to Eleanor. At the movie’s bittersweet finale, nothing is decided. Eleanor departs on the royal barge and note of queer satisfaction for her return to Salisbury Tower with Henry promising her release for Easter.  
Referencing its title from the latter period in Henry II’s reign, The Lion in Winter is an extraordinary medieval soap opera. It rarely devolves into fits of subjective pique. James Goldman’s erudite screenplay is occasionally slavish in its politicized platitudes. But these are counterbalanced by an even wittier spate of salacious barbs situated in a place of less than cerebral palace intrigues; also, by the expertly nuanced performances put forth by the film’s superior cast. Goldman has taken every human frailty, the malicious and the fractured, and condensed its sincerity and sinfulness into a compendium of as compelling and unbridled ambition and greed. The joy and the magic to be derived from this consolidated exercise is almost exclusive to the hurly-burly between Hepburn’s queenly harridan and O’Toole’s curmudgeonly liege, more emasculated pussycat than teething lion.  Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography captures the bleakness in this winter’s tale, both figuratively and literally. 
Oh no…not again. But yes: for nearly six years we in North America have been pensively waiting for a distributor to acquire the rights to The Lion in Winter as a ‘region 1’ Blu-ray offering. Too many U.S. rights holders continue to hold film lovers on this continent hostage, parceling off their richest from these bygone eras without much aplomb or care – disinterested in satisfying, while the European market continues to be saturated with ‘region B’ locked goodies and quality affairs most of us (who do not own a region free player) cannot access. Region-locking deep catalog titles ought to have been abolished by now. But no. So, apart from a careworn ‘region free’ bootleg in hi-def, The Lion in Winter only emerged from Spain’s ‘Creative Films’ in 2014. Kino Lorber’s announcement last year, that it would become the custodian of a new 4K image harvest for this beloved classic, had everyone giddily excited. So, it is with more than a modicum of disgust to report the resultant disc is, in fact, not much better than its bootleg Spanish import. In fact, it looks as though the very same flawed elements were used to ‘remaster’ this disc – marginally cleaned-up and with ever-so-slightly better color balancing applied.
We’ll give it to MGM/Fox – the current rights holders – all of the original elements on this indie production, released at the time by Avco Embassy via United Artists, have survived. So, I would sincerely like to know why they haven’t been used – or rather, not given their due herein. Kino’s only fault is to have accepted custodianship of such a flawed transfer; even touted it as a 50th Anniversary 4K remaster, because what is here is anything but solid or gorgeous. Image instability is the big thing; the bouncy-bouncy quality of the entire presentation fairly annoying to say the least. Color is adequate. I mean, the reds in Eleanor’s robes offer some visual flash, though minus the refined detail one readily associates with a 4K image harvest. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. It’s either present or gone; the image, during these latter absences, veering dangerously close to those waxy sins committed during the early days in Blu-ray remastering. On the whole, it just looks soft and dupey. As per the audio…oh, boy. It’s out of sync, ever so slightly, but enough to be frustratingly transparent on any display greater than 50 inches. Blown up to wall-size projection, it’s damn exasperating. We get an audio commentary from director, Anthony Harvey and a brief interview with sound specialist, Simon Kaye; holdovers from another time. Bottom line: The Lion in Winter deserved better. Like too many MGM/Fox releases of late, it didn’t get it and likely never will. Such shortsightedness sickens me.  Judge accordingly and buy with caution – and lower your expectation for perfection…quite a bit. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, February 18, 2018

THE WAY WEST: Blu-ray (UA/Harold Hecht Productions, 1967) Kino Lorber

One has to sincerely admire ‘the pioneer spirit’; that genuine pursuit of happiness outlined in the American constitution, though rarely taken to such heart as during the mid-1800’s when the California gold rush seemed to suggest every living person was on the cusp of becoming a millionaire. Perhaps marginally blinded by the prospect of overnight riches and a better life from the only one presently known, the proverbial ‘they’ (comprised of farmers, cowboys, greenhorns and gamblers, immigrants of every nationality and aspiration) crossed these rugged terrains from east to west, crisscrossing the nation with their ‘can do’ aspirations to ‘civilize’ the American west. This naïve sense of entitlement, alas, was not without many casualties; some, detailed with brutal honesty in director, Andrew V. McLagen’s all-star spectacle, The Way West (1967). Not since 1930’s The Big Trail had a movie aspired to show the harrowing migration of a wagon train, lowering its cavalcade – one horse n’ buggy at a time – down a narrow gorge; just one of the highlights in this occasionally engrossing western saga with more than a few wild surprises along the way.
The picture stars three of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters: Kirk Douglas (as tyrannical wagon train master and former senator, William J. Tadlock), Robert Mitchum (their lonely, well-traveled and world-weary guide, Dick Summers) and Richard Widmark (prospector, Lije Evans, afflicted with a wandering heart, much to the chagrin of his devoted wife, Rebecca – played by Lola Albright). The Way West is as noteworthy for its startling Panavision compositions, photographed by William H. Clothier. This was the second time Mitchum and Douglas appeared together in a movie; their first, Out of the Past (1947) pitted as adversaries after the same woman. Herein, the pair are on the same side – mostly. The Way West also marks the big screen debut of Sally Field as Mercy McBee whose naïve and fickle heart is restless for sexual adventures. The screenplay by Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann, based on A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s novel, is somewhat awkwardly cobbled together.
Case in point, the intrusion of a one-time voice-over narration after we are already fifteen minutes into the plot, merely to state the obvious – that the migration to Oregon has already begun – and also, the inclusion of a title tune, composed (along with the rest of the score, by Bronislau Kaper, with lyrics by Mack David and sung by a choral called The Serendipity Singers). The ditty is rather unceremoniously plastered over scenes that once contained exposition between a few of the central characters, now buried beneath its stereophonic melody. I suspect, the inclusion of a ‘song’ herein is a nod to 1962’s How the West Was Won – a vastly superior and sprawling 3 hr. ‘travelogue’ western, shot in the cumbersome 3-strip Cinerama process.  At just 2 minutes past 2 hrs., The Way West can hardly be considered an epic. And, in spots, even as a travelogue, it falters, as do the performances – given precious little to say or do that does not connect the plot points together in a fairly rudimentary fashion. Along the way, we get a lot of superfluous fussin’ and feudin’; the inevitable ‘differences of opinion’ between our three towering figures of masculinity creating friction aplenty. There is also an accidental killing, a hanging, and a murder to add drama to the piece.
Ultimately, however, The Way West’s greatest asset is its evocation of that ‘pioneer spirit’; this drama, far more involving when the three principles step aside for a moment or two to reveal the harshly lit, careworn and curmudgeonly visages of all those great-looking extras merely inserted as backdrop. Of these three, Douglas’ performance is the most genuine, rich in its bitterness and wounded pride, particularly after the death of Tadlock’s young son (Stefan Arngrim); Douglas, his eyes marred by tears, commanding his slave, Saunders (Roy Glenn) to literally whip the pain from his body. But Widmark’s Lije is a chronically unrefined characterization. A devout family man, he repeatedly and rather selfishly disobeys his wife’s imploring to set-up and keep the various homesteads they have intermittently called home, merely to satisfy his itch for adventure; prone to strong drink but loveably so, yet physically the lesser man in any brawl. This leaves Mitchum’s Summers as the most fascinating performance to watch; Mitchum, appearing wholly out of fashion in his goony haircut and buckskin attire, never quite to break free of his ensconced reputation as a noir-styled anti-hero. Mitchum plays Summers as a man of even less conviction, though sincerely imbued with high ideals and a morality malleable to each new occasion as it arises.
Consider that in minor parts as Preacher Weatherby, the sexually frigid/and later - utterly insane Amanda Mack, unnamed stoic Sioux chief, and finally, love-struck Brownie Evans, bug-eyed Jack Elam, fiery Katherine Justice, passionate Michael Lane, and introspective Michael McGreevey are oft’ more credible and memorable than all the fireworks and fisticuffs afflicting the principals, as well as delaying this fictional party’s arrival to their destination. The Way West was photographed amidst some truly inspired topography in Arizona and Oregon, including Crooked River Gorge for the penultimate carriage-lowering descend. Breathtaking in its scope, and fairly ambitious in its effective use of matte paintings to depict a harrowing thunder storm, The Way West rises or falls on its ability to be appreciated as yet another glossy western yarn, more interested in melodrama than effectively evoking many of the harshest realities afflicting the original pioneer wagon-trains.
Our story begins with the introduction of our three main characters: former U.S. Senator William Tadlock, having departed his constituents in Missouri, circa 1843, headstrong and determined to lead a wagon train of dirt farmers and dreamers west on the Oregon Trail. Widowed, bitter and as ever resolved to make a success of this terrible journey, Tadlock takes his young son and slave along for the ride. Seeking out former tracker and guide, Dick Summers, who lives obscurely in the wilderness near the river, Tadlock goads the reluctant Summers into accepting the work, already recognizing his foot-dragging is predicated on the knowledge he has slowly begun to lose his eye-sight, rather than any lingering angst over the untimely death of his own Sioux bride during childbirth. The wagon train is joined by farmer. Lije Evans, his wife Rebecca and their 16-year-old son, Brownie. Also, among this lot are newlyweds, Johnnie (Michael Witney) and Amanda Mack (Katherine Justice) and the McBee family; Mr. (Harry Carey Jr.), Mrs. (Connie Sawyer) and their sexually-aware, though queerly as naïve teenage daughter, Mercy.
In short order we learn of Brownie’s true love for Mercy – not to be reciprocated, alas; also, Amanda’s frigidness toward her strapping husband, and finally, Mercy’s infatuation with Johnnie. At the outset, spirits run high. Despite Tadlock’s brutish determination to bully everyone onward, and being at least partly responsible for the premature death of a terrified merchant, Mr. Cavelli (Nick Cravat), whose weighted money belt drags him under after his carriage overturns in a heavy undertow while crossing the river, the mood among this aspiring cavalcade is mostly positive. Also discovered as a stowaway is Preacher Weatherby, clinging to the undercarriage of the Evans’ covered wagon. Ordered by Tadlock to return home, Weatherby instead offers his services as a man of the cloth and is embraced by the settlers who declare “we need religion.”
Unable to glean any real advice from his own father regarding women, Brownie relies on Summers to guide him in his romantic pursuit of Mercy. Summers confides that a woman must be coaxed into love, and offers Brownie to borrow a ‘good luck’ necklace made of turquoise, the only possession he retained from his late wife.  The introspective Brownie is deeply honored. After the wagon train passes through a hellish thunder storm and, a stifling days’ worth of intense heat, they set up camp for the evening near a clearing; still untainted in their optimism. Eavesdropping on the Mack’s marital problems, Mercy elects to set her cap for Johnnie, who is at first incensed by her inquisitiveness, but later will take full advantage to seduce her by the river. Regrettably, Amanda suspects what has occurred between the two.
The wagon train encounters a Sioux tribe after Brownie, while carving his initials into the side of a granite wall, is momentarily taken prisoner. Summers narrowly averts this catastrophe by taking the Chief’s youngest son hostage, fairly trading Brownie’s life for the boy’s safe return. Later, the Chief demands tribute from the settlers – who trade their alcohol to maintain the peace. At the late night’s revelry, Johnnie and Mercy sneak off to make love. Afterward, however, Johnnie tells Mercy he can never be hers. She runs away ashamed and Johnnie mistakes the youngest of the Chief’s seven sons, disguised in a dark fur skin and rummaging through the dense foliage, as a wolf about to pounce. He shoots the child dead. Haunted by the reality, Johnnie nevertheless keeps the incident to himself, retreating to his wagon.  
Discovering the boy’s remains, the Chief prepares the body in ceremonial attire and parades it past the settlers, shocked and reviled by the spectacle of this powdered corpse. Demanding justice for the killing, Tadlock reasons the only thing that will likely spare the rest of their lives and satisfy the Sioux is a show of force; nothing less than a public hanging of the man responsible for the crime. In lieu of anyone admitting to as much, Tadlock offers up Brownie as a human sacrifice. He then calls upon every man in possession of a rifle to step forward. Unable to see an innocent hanged for his crime, Johnnie reveals the truth to all. Makeshift gallows are erected and Johnnie is hanged by the neck until dead by Tadlock, garnering the Chief’s satisfaction. The Sioux tribe retreat into the hills, leaving the wagon train to proceed onward to its destination. Sometime later, Mercy confides in Brownie she is carrying Johnnie’s illegitimate child. As the wagon train arrives at the Hudson Bay outpost, Fort Hall, Brownie proposes marriage to Mercy, vowing to raise the unborn child as his own. Although she confesses to having no love for him – as yet, Mercy agrees to this sham wedding; the couple nearly called out by Amanda, who is bitter and determined to expose her husband’s infidelities.
Instead, Brownie lies to having seduced Mercy and made her pregnant. The outpost’s manager, Captain Grant (Patrick Knowles), although startled by the news, prepares the ‘happy couple’ an elegant feast to mark their celebration; Weatherby officiating the ceremony as the Evans and McBees tearfully look on. Tadlock’s attempts to disentangle his party from a prolonged stay at Grant’s request proves feeble. His settlers are weary. Besides, the fort offers every luxury they could possibly want. Alarmed after overhearing a conversation between some of his party and a drunken prospector trying to lure his members to the gold nugget-rich hills of California, Tadlock lies to Grant; suggesting one of his troop is stricken with the small pox. Grant is appalled. The last time the plague hit it wiped out a considerable number of the fort’s inhabitants. Tadlock and his troop are immediately cast out of Fort Hall; most, never realizing the reason for their hasty departure.
The next afternoon, Tadlock’s party encounters a terrible stretch of desert. Summers suggests they make their way around its perimeter; a delay of up to a week. But Tadlock is determined to drive on to the brink of exhaustion. Several days later, even he can see the grotesque error of this impromptu decision. Tadlock further compromises their spirits by forcing his people to divest themselves of all their worldly – though needless, and weighty possessions – lest they bog down and waste the horses. Tadlock and Lijes enter into a display of fisticuffs over Lijes refusal to surrender Rebecca’s prized grandfather clock. Indeed, it remains the one asset from her dowry she has taken on all their trips. Tadlock ruthlessly tosses it into the sand, his pitiless rage perhaps predicated more on his earlier romantic overtures to Rebecca denied, behind her husband’s back. Tadlock ruthlessly pummels Lijes, who nevertheless regains the upper hand in the end, narrowly beating Tadlock unconscious before being subdued by Summers.
The settlers, their livestock and horses are now physically drained and in grave danger of succumbing to starvation and/or dying of thirst. Miraculously, Summers leads this beleaguered entourage straight to a sump and adjacent field rich with greenery on which the animals might graze. Tragically, in their race to the sump, the horses pulling Tadlock’s carriage become startled. Tadlock’s son is jostled from his mount, the carriage overturning and crushing the boy to death. Unable to reconcile his pain after the child is buried in an unmarked grave in the sand, Tadlock orders a startled Saunders to whip the anger from his body and mind. Having assumed charge of the expedition, Lije is encouraged to show Tadlock compassion, Rebecca revealing the plans Tadlock had for their new settlement in Oregon. The men agree to work together and see their communal dream to fruition. Arriving at a perilous gorge with nowhere to go but down in order to link up with the road in the Willamette Valley, Tadlock has a makeshift trestle constructed to lower the wagon train, piece by piece, to the valley floor.
The first attempt is disastrous, and Mr. Turley (Paul Lukarther) plummets to his death. After a period of mourning, the settlers begin again and, one by one, they are successfully lowered to ground level. The second to last is Tadlock, who buoyantly declares the dream they have all shared for so long is nearing its destination. Regrettably, everyone has forgotten about Amanda Mack. Never having forgiven Tadlock for publicly hanging her husband, and since driven mildly insane with jealousy over Johnnie’s affair with Mercy, Amanda severs Tadlock’s lifeline as he begins his descend into the valley. He plummets to his death as the settlers look on; an ebullient Amanda declaring from the top of the cliff they are all free from Tadlock’s tyrannical hold at long last. Burying Mr. Turley and Tadlock in adjacent graves, the settlers prepare to follow the river on its last length to Oregon. Only now, they will have to make their peace and purpose without Summers’ help. He intends to setup housekeeping in parts yet unknown, Lije imploring him to reconsider. Summers’ rapidly dwindling eyesight will soon prevent him from being self-sustainable. Although he knows this, Summers has decided to make his peace alone; through with the great migration; his one desire, to live the rest of his years for himself/by himself. Lije, his family and the rest of the settlers board makeshift rafts and sail them down the river beyond the canyon; their destinations unknown as our journey alongside them draws to its close.   
Despite its groundswell reprise of the title track as the camera follows the Evans floating down river, The Way West’s finale is rather unfulfilling. At the very least, it seems grossly unfair to have encouraged the audience to invest in the plight of these men and woman without seeing any of them through to their promised land.  Yes, the ending does justify as a somewhat sad-eyed generational epitaph to this settler class, responsible for ‘civilizing’ the American west. But it also concludes on a note of open-ended dissatisfaction in absence of seeing their journey through. Along with these robust and hearty individuals, we have come much too far to remain so very far away from this dream remembered; the denouement, empty-hearted at best. The merits of the movie are mostly found in its startling and stark visual style. The narrative, however, is weak and bumblingly episodic. There ought to have been more ‘meat on the bones’ as it were; more involvement and interaction between these characters, more details revealed about them to invest us in their sacrifices. Alas, what we get are cardboard caricatures of western archetypes best found elsewhere in other Hollywood-ized western movies made long before and since The Way West.
Owing to limitations in MGM/Fox’s existing archives, and afforded virtually no restoration in readiness for this 1080 release, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray transfer is a mixed affair at best. The first few reels are very impressive; the Panavision canvass extolling the virtues of William H. Clothier’s cinematography in a palette of rich, bold colors, with stunning clarity marred only by sporadic hints of edge enhancement. The picture – literally – is not quite as promising in the reels immediately following the party’s departure from Fort Hall. I suspect, although I have no way of knowing, these scenes have been derived from either a second or third generation print master or perhaps a poorly contrasted dupe. Either way, and almost immediately, we completely lose fine detail; the palette becoming extremely muddied with blown out contrast levels. Herein, a barrage of age-related artifacts is also present and, in spots, thoroughly distracts. The image does snap together again before the final fade out; but it is sporadically pleasing from here on in; toggling between the near-perfect quality of its earliest reels as previously described and the bizarrely uncomplimentary viewing experience only just mentioned. The 5.1 DTS audio is adequate – mostly – but has a few anomalies too; the stereo rendering of the title tune suffering from problems in spatial separation with voices heard bouncing from left to right to center channels – not directionalized – but awkwardly cutting in and out. The only extras are a badly worn theatrical trailer and several others for more Kino Lorber western-inspired product. Bottom line: The Way West is a movie for die hard fans of Mitchum, Douglas or Widmark. Having seen it once, I cannot anticipate ever wanting to revisit it again, particularly with such an imperfect transfer. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: Blu-ray (Latent Image Co., 1968) Criterion Collection

A film that contemporized ‘zombie lore’, broke with traditional casting edicts and refined commando-styled film-making down to a finite science; George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) remains the ‘go-to’ horror classic for anyone aspiring to make their own indie flick, delving into oodles of social commentary, kept its reputation and that of its flesh-eating fiends popularized in American culture for now more than half a century. Co-written by Romero and John Russo, the picture departed from the common-place practice of casting a white male in the hallowed spot as our ill-fated hero. In his place, Romero ran with the actor who gave him the most intelligent audition; Duane Jones – a noted stage performer, distinguished also as a former university professor in real life. As Jones feared, he would forever be associated thereafter with the role of ‘Ben’ – the comparatively level-headed and resourceful protector of a small group of survivors, trapped in a remote Pennsylvanian farmhouse and surrounded by ominous sub-human wreckage, afflicted by a never-to-be-fully-explained radioactive plague, transforming real people into depraved and monolithic cannibalizing creatures of the night.  
In 1968, Romero was strongly advised against casting Jones as his lead; the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, together with its backlash, on the cusp of lighting a powder keg of raw human emotion on both sides. Romero’s faith in Jones, and the actor’s grippingly genuine performance, however, conspired to elevate this B-grade indie flick into an iconic piece of American cinema; far and away the most visceral and disturbing representation of zombie’s ever put on the screen. Applying crude make-up to the supporting cast – all of them hired from locals in the area – Romero’s minor entourage of effects artists, together with his own ingenious use of light and shadow (almost all of the picture is photographed under the cover of night) conspired to create indelible images, mildly unnatural to downright stomach-churning and grotesque. What Romero and his troop achieved on a paltry budget of $114,000 remains impressive by most any standard; illustrating that a movie need not be expensive – but rather, inventive – to be both artistically and commercially successful; Night of the Living Deads $12 million domestic gross at the box office swamped by another $18 million earned internationally.
Despite the rather laisse faire approach to screen censorship throughout the 1960’s, Night of the Living Dead’s depictions of multiple murders, the devouring of ‘presumably human’ internal organs, and, the depiction of a teenage daughter (albeit, transformed into one of the un-dead) slaughtering and eating her own mother and father, were considered outlandish and morbidly shocking at the time – earning Romero as much disgust and revile as accolades and praise. It is fairly laughable herein to even suggest – as others have – Night of the Living Dead seems ‘tame’ by today’s standards. Almost from the moment the main titles have begun, following a 1967 Lemans carrying youths, callous Johnny Blair (Russell Streiner) and his more introspective sister, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) to the remote grave site of their late father (Romero using canned music cues to achieve uncanny unease), right on through to its devastating finale – Ben, the only survivor, mistakenly gunned down by a member of the posse, come to liberate the farmhouse from its zombie-takeover - Night of the Living Dead maintains its paralytic arc of morbidity and dread. This was, is and will likely always remain a terrifying movie to experience. While special effects have advanced since, as have hand-held film-making techniques, capable of achieving greater clarity and efficiency on a shoestring budget, what Romero has created herein is an American Gothic frontier fright-fest quite unlike any other; its stark B&W photography and obvious ‘stock footage’ sound effects, suggesting a haunting newsreel quality of events ‘as they actually unfolded’ rather than a glossy ‘entertainment’ in the traditional vein of horror.   
Our story begins with the arrival of waspish Barbra and Johnny Blair to a rural Pennsylvanian graveyard, practically concealed by its surrounding underbrush. Johnny coldheartedly laments having to ‘waste’ a Sunday driving nearly 3 hrs. one way to place a cross of artificial flowers on the headstone of their late father at his ailing mother’s request. Evidently, Mr. Blair died long ago while Johnny and Barbra were still very young. Johnny confesses he does not even remember the man.  Insidiously, he preys on his sister’s anxiety, teasing her with the now iconic line, “They’re coming to get you Barbra!” She is dismissive of his juvenile torment. Alas, the two quickly encounter the first of the undead (S. William Hinzman), lanky and lumbering, who viciously assaults both Barbra and Johnny, knocking the latter unconscious on a cement headstone. Barbra retreats back to the car, only to discover the keys are likely in Johnny’s pocket. Releasing the brake, Barbra manages a brief escape by coasting down the country road; unable to steer the vehicle, it becomes lodged against a nearby oak.
Scurrying across an open field, and still being pursued by her zombie tormentor, Barbra locks herself inside a remote farmhouse; discovering the half-eaten remains of the home owner lying at the top of the stairs. The episode leaves Barbra shell-shocked – awaiting either her imminent rescue or fate as night falls. Soon after, Barbra is stalked by another zombie. Her brief flight from the farmhouse is thwarted by the arrival of Ben, driving a truck almost out of gas. Quickly dispatching the zombie by bludgeoning it with a tire iron, Ben ushers Barbra back inside, barracking the doors and windows with any bits of wood he can break apart from the existing furniture. Barbra’s stupor gradually devolves into a nervous breakdown. Ben accounts his tale of terror, having narrowly escaped from a local diner where all the human patrons had already either been transformed into zombies or devoured by those succumbed to the plague. Discovering a radio and a television, Ben and Barbra listen and watch as a local newscaster (Charles Craig) accounts the distorted series of events that continue to startle the nation – mass murders everywhere with the victims being consumed by their assailants.
Quite by accident, Ben and Barbra are startled to discover they are not alone. Inside the farmhouse’s cellar await caustic marrieds, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman) Cooper and their teenage daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon); also, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) – young unmarrieds having taken refuge along with the Coopers after learning of the outbreak. Harry is a conservative blowhard, absolutely refusing to worry about saving anyone’s skin (literally) except his own – and possibly, his family. After revealing their hiding place to Ben and Barbra, Harry reasons the only safe haven is below stairs. Ben disagrees, suggesting that if ‘those things’ get in, there is no escape for anyone from the basement. While Helen and Tom concur with Ben’s assessment of the situation, Helen is driven back to the cellar by her maternal need to care for Karen, suffering from some undisclosed malaise after being bitten by one of the zombies.  Meanwhile, Tom helps Ben secure the rest of the doors and windows.
This huddled group watch the television as an emergency broadcaster reveals a theory about how the recently deceased have become reanimated and are consuming the flesh of the living, creating mass hysteria that, as one scientist suspects, is the result from a Venus space probe’s radioactive contamination. The newscaster also instructs residents to seek shelter at nearby centers set up to handle the crisis. Concerned for their daughter’s welfare, the Coopers grow more weary and impatient, prompting Ben to attempt a harrowing escape plan. While Harry hurls Molotov cocktails from an upper bedroom window to keep the ghouls at bay (they fear the intense light), Ben and Tom refuel Ben’s truck using an adjacent gas pump. They are accompanied by Judy – who fears for their safety. Regrettably, Tom accidentally spills gasoline on the truck, causing it to catch fire. Unable to drive away, the truck explodes into a hellish fireball, killing Tom and Judy, and, forcing Ben to retreat into the house as the zombies consume Tom and Judy’s charred remains.
Ben finds Harry has barricaded the door and refuses to let him in. As the zombies’ advance, Ben frantically breaks down the door and struggles to prevent them from following him inside. Disgusted by his cowardice, Ben beats Harry into submission. Now, the newscaster reports the only way to truly kill someone afflicted with the disease is either to shoot or bludgeon them in the head and then incinerate the rest of the body. But fear not: help is on the way - a posse of armed men are patrolling the countryside for survivors. Suddenly, the farmhouse is plunged into darkness; the ghouls having discovered the outside utility box and breaking through Ben’s barricades. In the ensuing panic, Harry struggles to take away the rifle Ben discovered in a hall closet. The two men grapple for the weapon and Ben accidentally shoots Harry. He collapses in the cellar where Karen, having been reincarnated as a zombie, begins to devour her father’s remains. Unaware of what has occurred, Helen rushes to the cellar, only to be stabbed to death by her own daughter, using a masonry trowel.
Barbra, who has remained wholly useless throughout this ordeal is terrorized to learn her own brother is now among the marauding zombie hoards. Dragged into their midst, Barbra presumably suffers a similar fate. Ben retreats down to the cellar as the zombies overtake the upstairs. He destroys Karen and is forced to also shoot both Harry and Helen, who have since become reanimated. Mercifully, dawn crests over the tree tops. The zombie apocalypse subsides and Ben is stirred by the sound of gunfire as the advancing human posse exterminates the retreating ghouls, one by one. Tragically, Ben is mistaken for one of the zombies, shot through the head as he emerges from the farmhouse, his body dragged to a nearby pile of corpses to be torched in an adjacent field. These last moments in Night of the Living Dead elevate the picture to an almost Shakespearean epic (everybody dies) and are eerily reminiscent of southern-styled Ku Klux Klan mob lynching’s; Romero, employing still images to depict Ben’s lifeless body being unceremoniously paraded through a crowd of gun-toting white onlookers, eager to dispose of the evidence.  
Earning a profit of roughly 150 times its initial budgetary outlay, Night of the Living Dead was undeniably destined to become a cult classic. That it has since entered the popular consciousness as a cultural touchstone in zombie lore is quite something else, and likely, was unanticipated at the time Romero was preparing his opus magnum for general release. Ultimately, it inspired no less than 5 legit sequels, made by Romero between 1978 and 2010, as well as two badly botched remakes; the least offense, directed by Tom Savini in 1990. Today, Night of the Living Dead endures as a horror classic with some very unsettling subtexts and social commentary – certainly relevant during its time, yet perennially disturbing to contemporary audiences.  The picture’s B-budget and C-grade visuals never sacrifice the quality of the story-telling; Night of the Living Dead, produced for The Latent Image – a company co-founded by Romero and John Russo on moneys Romero made while producing TV commercials and industrial info films. Ultimately, a partnership was created between Latent Image and Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, the president and vice president of Hardman Associates Inc.; a Pittsburgh-based industrial film firm. From here, a budget for their enterprising project was cobbled together: $6,000 invested from the ten members who made up the fledgling production house, each investing $600 for a share of the profits, and ten outside investors also coughing up $600 a pop.
Perhaps unaware of the iconography being created along the way, Romero and Russo began the writing process with a misguided first draft, entitled Monster Flick – about the misadventures of a pair of adolescent aliens who visit Earth and befriend their human teenage counterparts. By the second draft, the tone of the piece had decidedly shifted to the macabre; depicting a runaway stumbling upon a field of rotting human corpses: the food source for a small army of cannibalizing aliens. Herein, Russo contributed two sparks of genius: first, the victims were ‘fresh kills’ and second, the stalkers were ‘flesh-eaters’; concepts dangerously near to plagiarizing Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend (a decade later to be transformed into the movie, The Omega Man 1971). Romero greatly admired Matheson’s book, even going so far as to suggest Night of the Living Dead was far less homage than crude rip-off, tweaked from vampirism to zombies, with Duane Jones having his input about the character of Ben along the way. Originally crafted in a lowborn/backwoods dialect, Jones suggested the antithesis of this stereotype, playing Ben as a book-read, moral and highly intelligent man of action. For the rest, Romero encouraged improvisation; co-star, Judith O’Dea reflecting the speaking parts were pretty much left to their own ad-lib and improvisation.
Interestingly, the word ‘zombie’ is never uttered in the movie; Romero, keen to veer far from the Haitian zombies depicted in Val Lewton’s classic, I Walked with A Zombie (1944). As high-key-lit production values were entirely out of the question, Romero went in the complete opposite direction, shooting on the fly in and around Evans City, Pennsylvania, and rural Butler County. Night of the Living Dead also shot in an abandoned farm house slated for demolition. Making it more cheaply in B&W afforded Romero some convincing trickery; chocolate syrup substituted for blood and roasted ham and entrails donated by the local butcher an alternative to human flesh and entrails. Mortician's wax, liberally applied, suggested wounds and decaying flesh, while most of the extras wore their own clothing to play their parts.  First conceived as Night of Anubis, and then, Night of the Flesh Eaters, Night of the Living Dead’s guerrilla-style film-making took on the flavor of a wartime newsreel.
Night of the Living Dead premiered on October 1, 1968 – billed as a matinee fit for pre-teens and adolescents used to enjoying a modest and cheap fright from the latest ‘horror movie’. What they received instead was an unabashed assault on their senses, plunged into a visceral and alarming spectacle of the grotesque. Night of the Living Dead transgressed from enjoyably creepy to unanticipatedly cruel and bone-chilling. Outraged critics misperceived it as ‘an orgy of sadism’ or merely dismissed it as a ‘junk movie’. This only made the paying public want to see it more and, as it turns out, more often; subjecting themselves repeatedly to its white-knuckled and perverse depiction of a society gone utterly insane.  Today, removed from all its hype, Night of the Living Dead still packs a considerable wallop. Time has neither aged nor withered the picture’s intrinsic fear factor.  Once seen, Night of the Living Dead’s gruesome terrors are impossible to expunge entirely from the mind; the tag line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” burrowing deep into the subconscious and refusing to let go.
When a movie becomes this big it is rife for ridicule and parody, but also, untoward tinkering, unintended by the film makers. Night of the Living Dead suffered the first indignation in 1986 with a truly ‘horrific’ attempt at colorization; later, redone in 1997, then again in 2004. Mercifully, each new bastardization failed to entirely catch on; the public preferring the original in its stead. With reverence due and paid, Criterion offers us a newly restored 4K B&W edition of Night of the Living Dead on Blu-ray; a quantum leap from all those bottom-feeding VHS and DVD incarnations. This one has been sourced from the original 35mm camera negative, with minor substitutions from a fine grain print – both meticulously restored by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with The Film Foundation. Film grain appears indigenous to its source and contrast is bang on beautiful, with a PCM English mono soundtrack looking and sounding light years younger than its 40 years.
Extras are Criterion’s forte and this 2-disc Blu-ray comes with an onslaught of goodies; easily, the most comprehensive assemblage made available on home video. Two audio commentaries accompany the film; the first featuring Romero, co-writer/producer Karl Hardman, actor Marilyn Eastman, and co-writer John Russo; the other, producer/actor Russell Streiner, production manager Vincent Survinski, and actors Judith O’Dea, S. William Hinzman, Kyra Schon, and Keith Wayne. Both tracks were recorded in 1994. A real treat: we also get Night of Anubis, the 16mm workprint containing an alternate opening title and impressive day-for-night ghoul shot otherwise left on the cutting room floor. Night of Anubis is in fairly rough shape, but it remains a thoroughly fascinating counterpoint to the completed feature.
On Disc 2 we get Light in the Darkness, with contemporary filmmakers waxing affectionately on the picture’s importance. There is also a slew of silent 16mm dailies and alternate takes, vetted by sound engineer, Gary Streiner. Learning from Scratch features John Russo discussing his experiences on the film; plus, a 16mm B-roll shot by newscaster/actor Bill Cardille, the only known behind-the-scenes footage.  Add to this a 2009 documentary, Autopsy of the Dead, and, Tones of Terror – a video essay devoted to scoring the picture, Limitations into Virtues: The Image Ten Style, and finally, excerpts from 1979’s Tomorrow with Tom Snyder. Duane Jones’ 22 min. audio only interviews follow, as does a taped interview with Judith Riley, plus 2 TV spots and an original trailer. Finally, there is George A. Romero: Higher Learning, a discussion piece shot at 2012’s TIFF.  Criterion also offers us a brief essay by critic, Stuart Klawans.
There will be those who poo-poo the absence of such previously available extras as the spoof feature - Night of the Living Bread, liner notes written by Stephen King that accompanied an earlier DVD release and, most noticeably absent: One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead – a feature-length documentary from 1998. As Night of the Living Dead has enjoyed far too many substandard previous home video releases – each appearing ghastlier over the years – suffice it to state for the record, a lot of extemporaneous ‘extras’ have been omitted from this newly minted Criterion release. Bottom line: Criterion cannot license ‘everything’ – nor should they. The extras compiled herein are impressive and as comprehensive as any prized collector would want them to be.  So, judge and buy accordingly. This release comes very highly recommended. Night of the Living Dead may not be Citizen Kane, but it forever changed the horror landscape with its startling frankness and gore. It holds up today – hardly tamed with the passage of the years. Creeeeeepy!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)