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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Tsai Ming-liang, Lucretia Martel, Mario Bava & more!

Stray Dogs (2014)
Cinema Guild

Stray DogsThere’s talk that Stray Dogs may be the final film from Tsai Ming-liang, one of the undisputed masters of the so-called “slow cinema” school, and it would certainly be a high note to go out on. Even by Tsai’s usual standards, Stray Dogs can test a viewer’s patience, particularly in the film’s final two shots, seemingly endless static displays of emotional and physical decay, minutely realized.

But while Tsai is stretching the limits of your endurance, he’s also stretching the imagination with his unbelievably precise compositions — ever-so-slowly revealing new bits of visual information — and his un-signaled detours into the surreal.

It’s easy enough to decipher the rudimentary bits of the narrative — a father (frequent Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) attempts to provide for his two children by working as a sign holder on a busy Taipei highway. They sleep in various abandoned places and are occasionally joined by one of several different women (or perhaps, the same woman, played by different actresses), and it’s not clear whether we’re jumping back and forth in time or simply seeing different perspectives. Is the woman the kids’ mother? Simply a compassionate acquaintance?

Emotional ties are not explicated, but what appears to be a distant film can turn shockingly emotional quickly, like when the father fashions a companion out of cabbage (a deeply uncomfortable, surprisingly funny and heart-wrenching scene all in one) or a rare close-up where he spontaneously breaks into song. Offering an entirely different audience experience are long takes where the man stands transfixed in front of a mural, connecting with the piece in a way that’s completely sealed off from our comprehension or empathy. That push-pull between alienating and affecting is just part of what makes Stray Dogs an indelible experience.

Cinema Guild’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an impeccable rendition of Tsai’s digital photography and the muted grays of crumbling structures and the bright primaries of consumer products under fluorescent light. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly immersive, planting the viewer down near a packed highway, cars zooming past, or an echo-y abandoned corridor.

Among the extra features is a bonus film, Journey to the West (2014, 56 min), another entry in Tsai’s “Walker” series. Lee stars as a Buddhist monk making his way through Marseille in infinitesimal steps, with Tsai’s framing constantly subverting expectations of where he’ll show up next. This was like pure cinematic dopamine to me, with Tsai’s mind-blowing compositions and super-long takes used to a purely playful effect. The scene in which Denis Lavant shows up to follow up in Lee’s footsteps might be one of my new all-time favorites. The disc is worth the purchase for Journey to the West alone.

Other extras include footage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Tsai Ming-liang Master Class, a trailer and booklet with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 140 min / $34.95

 

La Ciénaga (2001)
The Criterion Collection

La CienagaFrom its first moments, the debut feature from Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel envelops you in a feeling of sweaty dread. This is an extremely tactile film — shots seem to perspire, unease welling as her camera lingers, and the nerve-rattling nature of the off-screen sound design sets you on edge.

Martel’s most recent film, The Headless Woman (2008), established her as a major player in world cinema, and one can see that film’s formal precision and narrative withholding in its nascent form in La Ciénaga, a strong work in its own right.

Malaise has set in on the film’s subject — a bourgeois extended family sprawled out in front of a filthy backyard swimming pool as the film opens. When one of the characters badly injures herself on a broken wine glass, no one can even muster up an attempt to come to her aid. It’s a striking scene — both because of its unpleasant subject matter and Martel’s radical use of space, which uses close-ups and oblique angles to disorienting effect.

In many ways, the opening scene is a perfect microcosm of the entire film, as its thematic concerns about a family stuck in a self-harming cycle of decay and decadence hardly need to be developed further. That doesn’t make any of its subsequent running time less riveting though — you know the spiritual rot will manifest in irreversible physical consequences eventually, and the anxiety mounts across carefully crafted frame after frame.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is based on a new 4K scan, and the level of depth and fine detail is phenomenal. The image is consistently sharp, clean and exceptionally film-like. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track perfectly handles Martel’s vital sound design, delivering crisp audio from all channels.

Extras include new interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andres Di Tella, who discusses Martel’s place within New Argentine Cinema. A trailer and an insert with an essay by scholar David Oubiña are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s La Ciénaga Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
The Criterion Collection / 2001 / Color / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $39.95

 

The Connection (1963)
Milestone Films

The ConnectionIf only every stage-to-screen adaptation had the authorial conviction of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, based on the play by Jack Gelber. Clarke’s film honors its source material, sometimes offering an unvarnished, empathetic look at a group of junkies and jazz musicians waiting around for their heroin dealer in a New York flop house. But Clarke goes a step further, explicitly acknowledging the inherent staginess of the material and offering a metatextual critique of the truth of documentary filmmaking.

A few years later, Clarke would more subtly make many of the same points about the deception of the camera and the uneasy relationship between documentarian and subject in Portrait of Jason (1967), but the sheer forcefulness of her thesis here is completely irresistible. Filmmaker Jim Dunn (William Redfield) — who’s financing the group’s heroin buy so he can film the “reality” — frequently steps in front of the camera, fussily adjusting lights and clumsily directing the men, who range from bemused to wholly disinterested.

Clarke, via Dunn and barely seen cameraman J.J. Burden (Roscoe Brown) — the diegetic film’s secret mastermind — often favors close-up one-shots, almost confrontational, as the various men tell their stories directly into the camera. It looks and feels like cinematic revelation, until it begins to sink in how each man has been transformed into a performer of some sort. Any sense of gritty reality is punctured by the arrival of Cowboy (Carl Lee), the group’s connection to the connection, who confronts Dunn’s camera right back, blasting him for thinking he’s uncovering the truth by “flirting” with them.

Clarke’s films have been given superb treatment on home video by Milestone, and they make no exception for her debut film, granted a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer here that’s been sourced from the UCLA and Milestone restoration. The film-like transfer features excellent levels of fine detail and a very clean image, while the uncompressed 2.0 mono track offers a great showcase for jazz pianist Freddie Redd’s hard-bop score. Extras include behind-the-scenes footage and photos, a brief interview with art director Albert Brenner, a conversation with Redd, additional songs, home movies and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone’s The Connection Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1963 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 110 min / $39.95

 

A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne, 1936)
The Criterion Collection

A Day in the CountryOne might look at the backstory for Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and wonder what might have been. Before production could finish in 1936, Renoir had to leave to work on The Lower Depths (1936), and he never returned, the film completed by collaborators and released a decade later, after Renoir had already been working in Hollywood for a number of years. At 41 minutes, this just must be a fragment, a curiosity, right?

In reality, the film was always planned as a short feature and in its existing form, it’s already a masterpiece — a perfectly constructed bauble of idyllic romance and crushing disappointment, the totality of life’s emotions wrapped up together in a compact package.

A Parisian family escapes the hectic city life for a day by the water in the countryside, and two local fishermen, Henri and Rodolphe (Georges Saint-Saens and Jacques Borel) instantly set their sights on daughter Henriette. Rodolphe settles for a playful pursuit of Henriette’s mother (Jane Marken), while Henri’s casual attraction to Henriette blossoms quickly.

Renoir is capable of communicating a world of emotion with just a few brief shots, so the short running time here doesn’t cause the film to feel rushed. Time is both everlasting and fleeting in this tranquil setting, a paradise away from the world’s concerns where love can develop into something overwhelming, but where there is little hope of permanence. Initially, the film was designed with some cutaways to Paris, but sticking in the same location for its entirety gives A Day in the Country a mythical quality.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 2K digital restoration, and the resulting image quality is very nice, especially in close-ups, which reveal healthy levels of fine detail. Grayscale separation is strong, and damage is almost completely nonexistent. The lossless mono soundtrack handles the film’s dialogue and music just fine.

Those worried about spending full Criterion price on such a short film should be heartened by the slate of bonus features, which include Un tournage à la champagne, an 89-minute collection of outtakes, assembled in 1994 from more than four hours’ worth of material. Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner discusses the film’s unusual production history in a new interview, and Faulkner also examines Renoir’s style in a new video essay. Archival material includes a Renoir intro from 1962, a 1979 interview with producer Pierre Braunberger and several screen tests. An insert with an essay by scholar Gilberto Perez is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, The Criterion Collection’s A Day in the Country Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1936 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 41 min / $39.95

 

Black Sunday (1960, AIP version)
Kino

Black SundayMario Bava’s breakthrough film, Black Sunday, showcases the director’s keen sense of atmosphere and elegant camera work in this pretty hokey tale about a 17th Century Russian witch (Barbara Steele) who’s burned at the stake and returns to wreak havoc two centuries later. Kino already released the film’s original Italian cut on Blu-ray a few years ago, but now returns with a Blu-ray release of the American cut, shortened a bit and presented with a new score courtesy of American International Pictures.

By most accounts, the original cut is the way to go, but Bava fans in the U.S. will be happy to have both versions available in high-def. One might wonder why Kino didn’t simply package both cuts together from the start, but it seems some tricky rights hurdles had to be cleared, as evidenced by the announcement and subsequent cancellation of a Black Sunday/Black Sabbath (1963) AIP double-feature. (Kino will now release the AIP Black Sabbath on a standalone Blu-ray in July.)

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is a bit softer than Kino’s original cut disc, but it’s a nicely detailed presentation, if a bit rough around the edges with various print damage. As usual, Kino has refrained from any excessive digital manipulation, so the image retains a film-like look, though a less-than-sharp image is the norm. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is very clean.

Unfortunately, no extras here aside from a theatrical trailer. This release gets the job done for region-A-locked Bava fans who don’t mind buying two discs, but Arrow Video’s dual-format Region B release is vastly superior, offering both cuts in one package and a ton of extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino Lorber’s Black Sunday Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Kino Lorber / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 83 min / $19.95

 

Bandit Queen (1994)
Twilight Time

Bandit QueenShekhar Kapur straddles biopic convention and something resembling an exploitation film in his telling of the life of Phoolan Devi, a low caste Indian woman who endured endless sexual and physical abuse before becoming a vigilante gang leader. There are flashes of an angry, forceful vision here — the film opens with a defiant Devi (Seema Biswas) looking directly into the camera and declaring, “I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers!” and her climactic revenge against a group of upper-caste Thakurs is brutally balletic.

These moments are rare though; Kapur’s sedate camerawork lingers over the beautiful Northern Indian landscapes with the same apparent disinterest he has in the ugliness of Devi’s humiliations. From her marriage as an 11-year-old to an adult man who rapes her to a gang-rape by bandits to similar treatment from local police, Devi is subjected to one unimaginable horror after another.

Kapur seems to wallow in these moments — they essentially make up the first three-quarters of the film — but there’s a sense that he’s just ticking off biographical boxes, proceeding chronologically through the atrocities until he can get to the point where she has some agency. Despite its bold beginning, this is a film that’s hardly empowering.

It’s pretty apparent that Twilight Time’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is sourced from an older master. Despite a generally pleasing image, colors are a bit faded and fine detail disappears into soft mush at points. Low-light scenes are afflicted with overwhelming grain that renders as video noise, and blacks are crushed pretty badly. It’s an improvement over what DVD can offer, and I wouldn’t count on a new scan for a film like this anytime soon. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack presents the film’s Hindi dialogue cleanly, but some will be disappointed by the forced English subtitles (not burned-in per se, but not removable nonetheless).

Extras include a commentary track from Kapur, carried over from an older release, and an isolated score track. A booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Bandit Queen Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1994 / Color / 1.78:1 / 119 min / $24.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

 

 

Ken Loach camera

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Leos Carax, Shirley Clarke, Orson Welles and more!

Boy Meets Girl (1984)
Mauvais Sang (1986)

Boy Meets GirlThe first two features from post-French New Wave master Leos Carax are clearly devised by a mind obsessed with the allure of movies, from silent film to Carax’s most obvious progenitor, Jean-Luc Godard. However, simply calling these films homages or documenting their numerous textual references would miss the fact that Carax has blazed his own trail with his dazzling formal playfulness and knack for capturing burnished “movie” moments that have instant indelibility.

In both films, Denis Lavant plays a young man named Alex (Carax’s real first name), and one can’t help but see parallels between the characters and the filmmaker’s style. In both films, Lavant is a cynic who ends up succumbing to swooning, unmoored romanticism despite his best efforts, and Carax’s heady, technical formal qualities feature a similar dichotomy.

The Alex of Boy Meets Girl has just discovered his girlfriend left him after cheating with his best friend. Fixated on firsts — first date, first kiss, first murder attempt — Alex has seemingly little use for the repetitive rituals of life that follow, but he doesn’t let that stop his heart from fluttering anew. After becoming infatuated with a suicidal stranger (Mireille Perrier), Alex becomes determined to meet her, and their eventual union sees two troubled souls finding common ground.

Mauvais SangThe Alex of Mauvais Sang coldly abandons his girlfriend Lise (Julie Delpy) when his late father’s associate Marc (Michel Piccoli) recruits him for a job, but his intentionally steeled heart is no match for the charms of Anna (Juliette Binoche), Marc’s girlfriend. An ostensible caper movie with the pounding heart of an aching romance, Mauvais Sang has feeling infused in every frame, Carax’s oblique compositions and sudden giddy moments imparting the feeling of intoxication via celluloid.

Of course, the images in Carlotta Films’ new Blu-ray releases of both films are strictly digital, but these 1080p, 1.66:1 transfers, both based on 2K restorations, are remarkably film-like, especially when one remembers the very underwhelming transfers of the old DVDs. Clarity and detail are superb. The black-and-white images in Boy Meets Girl have a silvery beauty, while the expressionistic colors of Mauvais Sang are bold and stable. The lossless mono tracks on both releases sound great, free of any extraneous noise or distortion.

Extras on Boy Meets Girl include Lavant’s charming screen test, outtakes from the kitchen scene between Lavant and Perrier and the restoration’s new trailer. Extras on Mauvais Sang include outtakes and deleted scenes, two trailers and an entire bonus film — Tessa Louise Salomé’s well-regarded documentary on Carax, Mr. X (2014).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Boy Meets Girl Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Carlotta Films US / 1984 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 104 min / $29.95

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Mauvais Sang Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ****
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***
Carlotta Films US / 1986 / Color / 1.66:1 / 119 min / $39.95

 

Portrait of Jason (1967)
Ornette: Made in America (1985)

POJ_DVDMilestone Films offers up two more essential releases with volumes two and three of their Shirley Clarke series (volume one, The Connection (1962), is scheduled for an upcoming Blu-ray release). Following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Milestone restored Portrait of Jason from its original elements, and the result is a definitive release of Clarke’s mesmerizing one-man show in which her camera focuses on house boy and hustler Jason Holliday as he unspools tales of his ambitions, his flaws and the terrifying reality of being a gay black man in 1960s America.

Reality is relative though, a fact that becomes exceedingly clear as the film progresses and cracks begin to form in Jason’s performance. (No, Jason is not his real name, and yes, this is very much a performance.) Eventually, we see Jason reach a level of almost staggering vulnerability, but how can we be sure of anything we’re seeing? Clarke’s invasive camera work seems to suggest what we’re seeing is the absolute truth, raw and unfiltered, but the film forces viewers to consider the deceptiveness of the form right alongside the deceptiveness of the subject. Is Clarke duping us as well with her so-called documentary?

I might say that Ornette: Made in America is a more conventional documentary portrait, but “conventional” is a really relative term here, as Ornette Coleman’s legendary, boundary-breaking style of free jazz is mirrored by Clarke’s jagged, fragmented multimedia style.

OrnetteBeneath its frenzied surface, Ornette: Made in America is the story of another outsider and his complicated relationship with the United States. Clarke documents Coleman’s childhood in recreated flashbacks with actors, but the point is perfectly made in footage that features the impossibly square Fort Worth mayor presenting Coleman with a key to the city in a bumbling presentation that requires no sardonic underlining from Clarke.

Amid fantastic footage of several of Coleman’s performances, Clarke free-associates Coleman’s connections with figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs and Buckminster Fuller. The portrait of the artist that emerges never attempts to be comprehensive but by virtue of the film’s smartly scattered approached, it does feel like a substantial profile.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer of Portrait of Jason is everything one could have hoped for from this restoration, and what’s on the disc mirrors the theatrical presentation I saw projected last year. A wealth of detail has been excavated from the 16mm images, full of big, beautiful grain and fantastic contrast levels. The minimal damage only reinforces the transfer’s film-like image.

The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer of Ornette doesn’t quite have the same visual punch, given the film’s disparate sources, but the transfer is pleasingly film-like, even when detail and color is a bit soft or faded. The mono track on Jason is pin-sharp, while Ornette’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track offers up a nice showcase for Coleman’s music.

Milestone compiles a copious amount of extras for each release. Portrait of Jason includes several selections of outtakes, including a small bit of color footage, along with interviews with Clarke, a short film, a restoration demonstration and a detailed featurette on the lengths Milestone’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller had to go to find surviving elements. The Ornette disc includes interviews with Clarke, an interview with Coleman’s son Denardo, Clarke’s tribute to Felix the Cat, a trailer and a booklet with notes from producer Kathelin Hoffman Gray.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Portrait of Jason Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Milestone Films / 1967/ Black and white / 1.33:1 / 107 min / $39.95

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Ornette: Made in America Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **1/2
Extra Features Overall: **1/2
Milestone Films / 1985 / Color / 1.66:1 / 85 min / $29.95

 

F for Fake (1975)

F for FakeOf course it’s a shame that Orson Welles struggled and failed to get a number of projects made in the final decade of his life, but the last fully formed film he left us with is a pretty remarkable bookend to a legendary directorial career. The playful, prankish F for Fake delights in opening up trapdoors on its audience, constantly questioning the fundamentally illusory nature of art generally and filmmaking specifically.

In each of its three segments — a look at famed art forger Elmy de Hory, a portrait of his biographer and unabashed charlatan Clifford Irving and a fanciful tale that involves Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar and some fake Picassos — Welles, acting as narrator, interrogates the nature of truth with the flair of a master magician. Formally audacious essay films have a reputation for being challenging, but Welles is such an impishly genial host, F for Fake is also as purely entertaining as almost anything else he made.

Criterion upgrades its 2005 DVD release of the film with a handsome Blu-ray edition. The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer allows the film’s archival material to achieve new levels of clarity and color consistency, but it really shines in the film’s newly shot material, which looks immaculate, super sharp and impressively detailed. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is clean and crisp despite the variety of sources.

The fantastic slate of extras has been ported over from the DVD release and given a high-def boost. Supplements include the essential Orson Welles: One-Man Band, an examination of his legacy and numerous unfinished films, Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a more extensive look at de Hory, interviews with Welles, Irving and Howard Hughes, along with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and an audio commentary with Kodar and DP Gary Graver. Welles’ original 10-minute trailer, made up of footage mostly not seen in the film, is also included, along with an insert with an essay by Jonathan Rosenabum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s F for Fake Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection / 1975 / Color / 1.66:1 / 88 min / $39.95

 

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Los AngelesSpeaking of massively entertaining essay films, Thom Andersen’s hilarious, provocative, insightful and sometimes maddening Los Angeles Plays Itself is one of those rare three-hour films you wish were twice as long. Editing together hundreds of clips from a variety of films, from softcore porn to long-forgotten TV movies to cinematic landmarks like Chinatown (1974) and Blade Runner (1982), Andersen attempts to elucidate the oft-twisted identity of his hometown by sorting through its onscreen depictions.

Andersen and his editor Seung-Hyun Yoo approach the heights of classical editing elegance with their extraordinarily paced amalgam of clips, but the film’s true propulsive energy comes from Andersen’s deeply personal viewpoints, intoned by the ever so slightly sardonic narration of Encke King.

Andersen is a frequently cranky host — he hates the abbreviation L.A. and the way films have misrepresented the city’s geography and architecture — but because he isn’t beholden to a typically aloof mode of criticism, his observations wield a potency that extends to the film’s magnificent final section that examines anthropological and cultural implications of film. (Ironically, Andersen’s work is a bit reminiscent of one of his objects of scorn — David Thomson, a critic whose almost perversely personal observations can be equally enlightening and baffling.)

The film hasn’t been an easy one to see over the last decade, and a home video release often seemed out of reach due to the potential for copyright issues, so Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release almost automatically becomes one of the finest of the year on principle alone. Unsurprisingly, the distributor more than does justice to the film with this package, which offers up a 1080p transfer that is often gorgeous.

The variety of film clip sources means the picture quality is highly variable, but the film has undergone a recent remastering which replaced clips with the best source available, along with a few minor edits here and there. Andersen’s 16mm footage is a nice baseline for how strong this transfer is — perfectly rendered film grain, exceptional color reproduction and strong levels of fine detail. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack handles the variety of material just fine. Extras include The Tony Longo Trilogy (2014), Andersen’s short film that compiles clips from three of the character actor’s films, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Mike Davis and notes by Andersen, who details some of the small changes made to this remastered cut.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Los Angeles Plays Itself Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Cinema Guild / 2003 / Color/Black and white / 170 min / $34.95

 

Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996 to 2013)

MorrisonBill Morrison proves himself to be a skilled curator of archival footage and a visionary avant-garde artist in Icarus Films’ five-disc (1-Blu-ray, 4-DVD) collection of his work. Three of Icarus’ previous releases are presented alongside two new discs, which feature Spark of Being (2010), a re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Highwater Trilogy (2006), a series of meditations on the destruction of the environment using partially destroyed footage.

Warped and decaying celluloid is a major part of Morrison’s aesthetic, used brilliantly in the haunting elegy for film Decasia (2002). As I said in my initial review of the film’s standalone Blu-ray release:

The roiling emulsion and nitrate degradation often overwhelms the image and transforms what may have been a banal scene of nuns dealing with their students or a boxer fighting an opponent or a Geisha sitting in her chambers into something far more urgent. Some scenes last only seconds; some last longer, but not one ever comes to fruition, their modest ambitions swallowed up in a morass of film decay.

Compared to Decasia, some of Morrison’s other feature length works, including The Miners’ Hymns (2011) and The Great Flood (2013), can seem a little repetitive and thematically heavy-handed in their examinations of disaffected or displaced communities. Nevertheless, this collection of 16 works is a treasure trove of artfully assembled found footage and fascinating experimental works.

The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer of Decasia offers a tactile, film-like experience that the other films’ DVD discs can’t quite replicate, but most of the films look just fine in these standard-def, 1.33:1 presentations.

There are no on-disc extras, but the set does include a booklet with several essays and an interview with Morrison.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Bill Morrison: Collected Works rates:

The Films (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Icarus Films / 1996-2013 / Black and white/Color / $49.98

 

Two by Ken Loach: Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993)

Ken LoachYou generally know what you’re going to get when you sit down with a film by Ken Loach, perhaps the premier chronicler of English working class life. Twilight Time collects two of the filmmaker’s advocacy dramas in a fairly unlikely Blu-ray set that is nonetheless quite welcome.

Both Riff-Raff and Raining Stones are shaggy tales about people for whom desperate situations are depressingly ordinary, and both are filled with broadsides both direct and indirect against a British social climate still reeling from the influence of Margaret Thatcher.

Riff-Raff has some shades of conventionality as it documents the fits and starts of the relationship between construction worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle in his first major role) and aspiring singer Susan (Emer McCourt), but the film works better when it sets its sights broader. Scenes of Stevie’s construction crew working in unsafe conditions on luxury apartments have the kind of unassuming naturalism that sets Loach’s best work apart.

Raining Stones keeps the focus on the personal, presenting the economic plight of Bob (Bruce Jones) as emblematic of an entire social stratum. A proud Catholic, Bob is determined to raise the funds to buy his daughter a new dress for her first communion, despite his unemployment and precarious financial state. He takes on a series of demeaning and morally dubious jobs in an attempt to make some money, but his desperate choices could end up costing his family a lot more.

Neither of these films coalesces into an entirely satisfying whole, but Loach’s blend of unvarnished character sketches, didacticism and slapstick comedy (misplaced ashes in Riff-Raff; difficulty slaughtering a sheep in Raining Stones) certainly makes for something interesting.

Twilight Time offers up both films on a single disc. Riff-Raff has a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, while Raining Stones is 1080p and 1.66:1. The 16mm source of Riff-Raff naturally gives it a rougher, grainier look, but clarity and detail are pretty solid. Raining Stones looks excellent, with nice levels of fine detail, despite the fairly drab nature of Loach’s imagery.

The respective DTS-HD mono and 2.0 tracks are both fine, clean, dialogue-heavy tracks, but unfortunately Twilight Time’s lack of subtitles is disappointing given the variety of dialects and accents, some of which are quite difficult to understand to the untrained ear.

The only extras are isolated music and effects tracks and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Two by Ken Loach Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: 1/2
Extra Features Overall: 1/2
Twilight Time / 1991 and 1992 / Color / 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 / 96 min and 91 min / $29.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

Man Hunt Featured

Blu-ray Review Round-up: “Man Hunt,” “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and more!

Man Hunt (1941)

Man HuntIt’s doubtful there are many who would consider Man Hunt to be top-tier Fritz Lang, even if the parameters were narrowed to only his Hollywood films. Still, this noirish propaganda piece is bookended by a couple of harrowing sequences, and even in the saggy midsection, Lang’s expressive photography keeps the mood taut and tense. Isolating the pursued protagonist in shots that emphasize the impersonal blankness of urban and non-urban locales, Lang squeezes every last drop of intrigue out of a plot that only occasionally transcends its anti-Nazi polemic.

Walter Pidgeon stars as Alan Thorndike, a renowned British hunter on a German vacation just before the outset of World War II. He tracks down Adolf Hitler and has him in his rifle sight before being arrested by the Gestapo and placed in the custody of Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders, doing a kind of Erich von Stroheim urbanely sadistic thing). Thorndike insists he had just drawn a “sporting bead” on Hitler and wasn’t actually going to kill him, but Quive-Smith doesn’t buy it and makes the first attempt of what will be many on Thorndike’s life.

Pursued by German forces back to his home country, Thorndike must rely on a variety of sources to evade detection, including a quick-thinking cabin boy, Vaner (Roddy McDowall), and an infatuated young woman, Jerry (Joan Bennett). There’s a high potential for hokey plotting here, but the actors help sell the questionable material, as McDowall is an unusually perceptive child actor and Bennett taps into a place of unvarnished emotion, despite sporting a risible Cockney accent.

The film’s opening sequence is intriguing, and a later cat-and-mouse game in the shadows of the Underground has the elemental brilliance of the pursuits in M (1931), and taken with the generally engaging rest of the film, that makes for one solid piece of agit-entertainment.

Twilight Time has received a strong 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer from Fox for this high-contrast, shadowy film. Fine detail is abundant, blacks don’t suffer from any apparent crush and contrast levels are stable. A little bit of visible grain looks natural in this film-like presentation, which only displays minimal damage to the elements. The lossless mono track is similarly clean and clear.

Aside from the customary isolated score presentation, all the extras are ported over from Fox’s DVD release, including a decent making-of featurette, an audio commentary from Lang historian Patrick McGilligan and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Man Hunt Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: 1/2

Extra Features Overall: **

Twilight Time / 1941 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 102 min / $29.95

 

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Ali: Fear Eats the SoulFollowing closely on the heels of its ecstatically beautiful Blu-ray upgrade of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), Criterion gives the upgrade treatment to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s surprisingly faithful remake/homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf).

Much has been written about Sirk’s subversive criticism of bourgeoisie values rippling beneath his melodramatic surfaces, but there’s a bit of an opposite dichotomy seen in Fassbinder’s take. He shoots the unlikely romance between a 30-some Moroccan immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem) and a 60-some German widow (Brigitte Mira) with a characteristic aloofness, his camera at a distance, peering at the action through narrow doorways and winding bannisters.

And yet, the melodrama creeps through, both through Fassbinder’s expressive use of color (those gorgeous yellows!) and his empathetic, lingering shots of his actors’ faces. Fassbinder and Salem were romantically involved at the time, which may have contributed to the film’s deeply felt looks of longing. Either way, this is one of the cinema’s most exquisite and most honest love stories.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer couldn’t be any better. Sourced from a new 4K digital restoration and supervised by DP Jürgen Jürges, the transfer features exceptional clarity and astounding levels of detail. Fassbinder’s somber color palette, punctuated with flashes of brightness, looks natural and stable, while film grain is rendered beautifully. The uncompressed monaural German audio sounds superb, free of any distractions or imperfections of any kind.

Extras are all carryovers from the 2003 DVD release, including an introduction from fellow Sirk-ophile Todd Haynes, interviews with Mira and editor Thea Eymèsz, a 1976 BBC program on the New German Cinema, a scene from Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short Angst isst Seele auf, which has a prominent connection to Fassbinder’s film. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara are also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1974 / Color / 1.37:1 / 93 min / $39.95

 

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk StoriesOn the included interview in Carlotta Films’ Blu-ray release of Sidewalk Stories, director and star Charles Lane plays down the obvious affinities between his film and Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), insisting instead that his film was primarily inspired by J. Lee Thompson’s low-budget thriller Tiger Bay (1959).

It’s probably to the film’s benefit to get away from the Chaplin comparison, despite the obvious narrative similarities between the films. For one thing, Lane is a reasonably expressive actor, but he doesn’t nearly possess the remarkable communicative abilities of a Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, not to mention his relative lack of physical comedic chops.

For another thing, Sidewalk Stories is certainly a more faithful homage to the silent film than The Artist, but much of the time, this feels like a film that just happens not to have a synced soundtrack — it’s more of a polished version of cinema verité than anything.

Nonetheless, Sidewalk Stories is often very charming in its tale of a street artist (Lane) who begrudgingly adopts a little girl (Nicole Alysia) after her father is murdered in an alley. Living in an abandoned building, the artist barely has enough resources for himself, but he finds a way to provide for the child with the help of a young woman (Sandye Wilson) who falls for the mismatched pair.

The film’s silent-style comic sequences — a skirmish with a fellow, much larger artist over a customer and a playground squabble are both great moments — are a little too infrequent. Lane has an eye for capturing interesting perspectives on marginalized individuals, but the docu-style elements of this hybrid tend to become a little repetitive, especially considering the film’s obvious finale, in which Lane breaks the sound barrier to no great effect.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, it’s a treat to have it presented this beautifully by Carlotta Films, the French company who have recently expanded into the US, with Kino Lorber distributing their discs here. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, is a clean, detailed snapshot of the past that feels like it was preserved perfectly intact. Black and white levels are stable and consistent, with a film-like appearance to the image that is highly pleasing. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack presents a nice showcase for Marc Marder’s eclectic score, which combines traditional piano plinking, bluesy riffs and ambient droning.

Extras include a new interview with Lane and Marder, as well as a commentary track from the pair. A nice inclusion is Lane’s 1977 short A Place in Time, which serves as a kind of prototype for Sidewalk Stories. A trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Carlotta Films US’ Sidewalk Stories Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Carlotta Films US / 1989 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 101 min / $29.95

 

Iguana (1988)

IguanaNo surprise, Monte Hellman delivers another fascinating genre subversion with Iguana, as idiosyncratic a take on the monster movie as Hellman’s versions of the road movie — Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) — and the western — The Shooting (1966), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966).

Iguana stars Everett McGill as Oberlus, a disfigured harpooner whose reptilian facial features has made him the object of ridicule among his fellow sailors on a 19th Century whaling ship. When he escapes the horrific conditions, he sets up his own empire on a remote island, paying back the cruelty done to him tenfold to anyone who dares step foot on land.

Hellman’s atmospheric, disorienting film interrogates both traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, in Oberlus’s absurdly grandiose proclamations and in the character of Maru Valdivielso’s Carmen, a woman whose free sexuality terrifies the men around her. Oberlus takes Carmen as his lover by force, leading to a tragic ending that simply underlines the horror that Hellman allows to unfold over the course of the film.

Raro Video’s Blu-ray release restores several minutes that were cut from the long out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD release, but that’s about the only nice thing to be said about this disappointing disc. While the Blu-ray boasts approval and new color correction from cinematographer Josep M. Civit and Hellman, it’s clear that something went very, very wrong in Raro’s transfer, which is riddled with obvious noise reduction, resulting in frozen grain and disturbingly smooth surfaces. This is an especially bad fit with the dim, raw look of the film, as blacks are frequently crushed and riddled with artifacts. Though I suspect they would look OK in a properly presented transfer, the colors just look sickly here. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack isn’t great itself, but its slightly muddled sound is nothing compared to the onscreen travesty.

Extras include a new interview with Hellman, a trailer and a booklet with a brief essay and a Q&A with Hellman.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Films’ Iguana Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: *

Audio: **

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Raro Video / 1988 / Color / 1.85:1 / 100 min / $29.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

Love Streams

Blu-ray Review Round-Up: “Manakamana,” “Love Streams” and more!

Manakamana

The latest from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, responsible for formally adventurous documentaries like Leviathan (2013) and Sweetgrass (2009), Manakamana (2014) is another mind-expanding, wholly engrossing trip to another world.

ManakmanaDirected by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Manakamana is in some ways the formal opposite of Leviathan, which saw camera placement taken to (sometimes uncomfortable) extremes, turning observation into abstraction. Here, the camera is locked down for 11 shots of almost identical length, as a cable car ascends and descends in Central Nepal. These static shots put us in the position of companion to the men, women, children and others riding on journeys to and from a sacred Hindu temple.

The initial effect is one of repetition, and one might be tempted to assume this is the film’s main formal conceit – sort of a Jeanne Dielman in a gondola scenario – but while the film’s measured pace does contribute to a hypnotic effect, the filmmakers have structured the film in a continuously surprising way.

A figure just out of frame will suddenly make an appearance, causing one to reassess their entire conception of the riders. Some rides play out like mini-thrillers, the suspense mounting as one tries to determine the nature of the riders’ relationship. Others are purely delightful, like a pair of women racing to finish their ice cream bars before the heat dissolves them or three band members taking endless snapshots. Each one is revealing in its own way, about the people or the culture or the history. Time races by. 10 minutes doesn’t seem long enough to spend with some of these people.

And about that formal construction – the film essentially plays out as one long take, the cuts masked by darkness at the end of each trip as the gondola enters the station. Pretty basic stuff, right? Except, these trips don’t necessarily occur in the order one might expect, a playful little dashing of expectations that isn’t even necessarily apparent at first glance.

Cinema Guild has offered up another must-own package, with a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer that beautifully reproduces the Nepalese landscape and the expressive faces of the riders appreciating it. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is appropriately subdued, but punctuated by very loud machinery noise as the cable thunders over certain parts of the track. Extras include a commentary from the directors, 30 minutes of additional rides and behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim and a director Q&A.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Manakamana Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: ***

Extra Features Overall: ***

Cinema Guild / 2014 / Color / 1.78:1 / 118 min / $34.95

 

Love Streams

Consider this an essential addendum to Criterion’s already indispensable John Cassavetes box set. Love Streams (1984) was basically Cassavetes’ last film he directed, and it’s also his final screen performance, and though his contributions behind-the-camera are more renowned, he was also an intensely fascinating performer, especially given the chance to work alongside his wife, i.e. perhaps the greatest actress of her generation.

Love StreamsGena Rowlands and Cassavetes play siblings whose separately self-destructive paths lead them back to each other, and even though they spend the majority of time on screen apart, there’s a tangible connectivity between their patterns of broken relationships and self-deception, fumbling toward love without really understanding what it takes.

Cassavetes always excelled at taking clear-eyed perspectives at his damaged characters, but his camera cuts to the quick in Love Streams, making for a difficult, draining watch. In many of his earlier works, like A Woman Under the Influence (1974) or Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Cassavetes balanced his characters’ dysfunction with optimism for the future – perhaps these people would find a way to be happy. In Love Streams, the future is here, and it’s not very pretty.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, based on a 2K restoration, is as gorgeous as any in the earlier box set. Images are clear, full of stable, well-resolved grain and consistent colors. The film-like transfer is accompanied by an exceptionally clean uncompressed mono track. The bountiful slate of extras includes new interviews with cinematographer Al Ruban and actress Diahnne Abbott and a 2008 interview with Seymour Cassel, along with a video essay on Rowlands, Michael Ventura’s behind-the-scenes doc, a commentary track from Ventura, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim, yet again.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Love Streams Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ****

New Extra Features: ***1/2

Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

The Criterion Collection / 1984 / Color / 1.85:1 / 141 min / $39.95

 

We Won’t Grow Old Together

A good companion to much of Cassavetes’ work is another excruciatingly unvarnished look at relationships from Maurice Pialat, We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble). Jean (Jean Yanne) is a misogynistic, needlessly cruel bully to the younger woman, Catherine (Marlène Jobert), he supposedly loves.

We Won't Grow Old TogetherThe cycle of breakups and reconciliations is emotionally exhausting, but Pialat’s formal construction is absolutely stunning as he elides almost anything that might help the viewer conventionally understand why these two are continuously drawn to each other. Highly charged reunions and disintegrations make up the bulk of their relationship, eventually leading the viewer to a kind of perverse understanding.

Kino brings Pialat’s masterwork to Region A-locked viewers with its solid Blu-ray release, featuring a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There’s a slightly blue-ish, cooler hue to most of the images throughout the film, but it’s a clear transfer with appreciable levels of fine detail and nicely rendered film grain. Extras include a short appreciation from filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, an interview with Jobert, a trailer and an insert with an essay by Nick Pinkerton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Kino’s We Won’t Grow Old Together Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: ***

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Kino Lorber / 1972 / Color / 1.66:1 / 115 min / $34.95

 

Pickpocket

If Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) isn’t the platonic ideal of thrillers, I’m not sure what is. Bresson’s economical caper film, like his previous film, A Man Escaped (1956), can be enjoyed as a white-knuckled suspense picture without engaging with its underlying spiritual or humanistic concerns.

pickpocketRiffing on Crime and Punishment, Pickpocket follows the increasingly dangerous exploits of a young thief (Martin LaSalle) who steals because he can, toying with a police officer and mostly neglecting his ill mother. Bresson will never shake the label of asceticism, and rightfully so in some contexts, but to re-watch Pickpocket with fresh eyes is to see a film of intense feeling, sublimated thrills building to a deeply felt conclusion.

Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray upgrade is a thing of beauty, full of silvery, film-like images and greatly improved levels of clarity and detail above the respectable old DVD release. The copious extras, including an audio commentary from the brilliant James Quandt, an introduction from the heavily influenced Paul Schrader and several documentary programs, are all carried over from the DVD.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Pickpocket Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****

Film Elements Sourced: ****

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: N/A

Extra Features Overall: ****

The Criterion Collection / 1959 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 76 min / $39.95

 

Southern Comfort

Walter Hill makes it clear in Shout! Factory’s new interview on their release of Southern Comfort (1981) that he doesn’t see the film as any kind of statement on the Vietnam War. His dismissal of movie as metaphor isn’t shared by stars Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, but either way, Hill made a hell of a terse, escalating action film in which a group of National Guardsmen piss off some Cajuns in the Louisiana swaps, turning routine field exercises into all-out guerilla war.

Southern-Comfort-Blu-rayHill’s film is, at turns, beautifully atmospheric and brutal, as the peacefulness of the natural setting is decimated by the ugliness of men on both sides. The film’s final sequence plays with that tension, heightening it to a nerve-fraying level before finally relenting at its conclusion.

Shout’s 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer isn’t the sharpest, with some mishandled grain and a few pretty soft sequences. It’s a pretty pleasing transfer for the most part though, with a consistent color palette and solid levels of fine detail. The uncompressed mono track is clean and crisp, handling quiet and chaotic moments equally well. Extras include the aforementioned set of interviews, some stills and a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Shout! Factory’s Southern Comfort Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***

Video Transfer: **1/2

Audio: ***1/2

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

Shout! Factory / 1981 / Color / 1.78:1 / 105 min / $29.93

 

 

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

 

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Savant Blu-ray Review: “The Killers” (1964)

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Here’s a real achievement, a new Blu-ray that makes a feature film look far better than it ever has before, even on a big screen. Eleven years ago the Criterion Collection released an impressive double bill of both film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. The very brief short story was successfully expanded to feature length in 1946, with the use of Citizen Kane- like flashbacks to a highly romantic, fateful story of crime and betrayal. The Robert Siodmak movie made stars of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. I’ve seen the 1964 remake several times, but Arrow Films’ new disc is so much of an improvement that I feel I’ve seen it for the first time.

As a general rule classic films noir resist remake efforts: much of what works about them is endemic to the time they were made. Restage 1945′s Detour in the present, and Al Roberts’ self-pitying pessimism wouldn’t work for a minute. But noir veteran Don Siegel had been a central figure in the evolution of ’50s noir, in pictures like Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957) and The Lineup (1958). The romanticism of noir was breaking down in Siegel’s films, as the level of cynicism and violence steadily climbed.

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Gene L. Coon’s progressive screenplay for Siegel’s The Killers remake flips the original storyline like a pancake. The ’46 version followed an insurance investigator obsessed with finding out why the target of paid killers didn’t make an effort to save himself. Siegel’s version has no reassuring cops tracking down the truth, and instead gives the investigating duties to a pair of chatty Pulp Fiction- like hit men, in search of a big payday that will allow them to retire. Siegel develops the hit man ethos more than any other director: Robert Keith and Eli Wallach in his The Lineup may be the real original protagonist hit men, with quirky personalities.

As opposed to classic noir, The Killers takes place almost completely in broad daylight. Brutal hit men Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) track down their contract target Johnny North (John Cassavetes) to a school for the blind, where he teaches an auto shop class. To their surprise, North passively accepts his fate. Charlie is intrigued by this fact. He and Lee crisscross the country to ferret out North’s backstory, both to quench Charlie’s curiosity and to profit from whatever crime their victim was a part of. As it turns out, North was a promising race car driver until a debilitating accident that may have been caused by the distraction of his flashy new girlfriend, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson). Starting with the testimony of mechanic Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Charlie and Lee learn about North’s involvement in an armored car robbery, for Sheila and her new boyfriend, crook Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). If the hit men can find Sheila and Jack, the loot can’t be far away.

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The Killers rewrites the rules for screen crime. Almost as if the production code no longer existed, “nice” characters are nowhere to be seen, and the cops are mostly absent as well. The obsessed Charlie and the wisecracking health nut Lee are our protagonists. They terrorize innocent people for information, just like Hemingway’s original Al and Max but with an essential difference of of expedience. In the hepped-up, speed-obsessed sixties, Charlie and Lee have no time to mess around. Rudely cornering their prey, they immediately go for the hard sell, whether it means hanging a woman out of a high window, or driving a helpless blind lady into hysterics. They carry their pistols in a valise, as if they were businessmen paying a sales call.

Making the film seem even more modern, Charlie and Lee already display the “look” that dominates hit man characters to this day. They woudn’t be caught dead without the heavy dark glasses that make them look ominous, almost faceless. Director Don Siegel nails a prime visual that’s become an icon: when Charlie points his gun to take a shot, a wide-angle lens frames his oversized silencer in huge close-up. Charlie’s on the trigger but the gun is given equal graphic emphasis.

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Johnny North’s role as an existential loser is basically the same as in the ’46 version. John Cassavetes received a big career boost when he played a twisted juvenlie delinquent back in Don Siegel’s excellent Crime in the Streets (1956) (which incidentally also seems to have influenced the gang action in the play and movie West Side Story). Here Cassavetes is the cocky driver of a Cobra race car. His stomping ground is the former Riverside International Raceway, which had already seen screen time in the violent car race action scenes in 1959′s On the Beach. One of the hottest actresses of her time, Angie Dickinson is the new brand of amoral thrill-seeker. She’s attracted to Johnny when he’s a winner and quickly abandons him when he’s injured. There’s no longer any romantic mystique with this femme fatale, as she immediately goes where the money is. Cassavetes’ North is already defeated when he agrees to drive a vehicle in Jack Browning’s robbery scheme. This part of the movie seems lifted intact from Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Drive a Crooked Road. Just like Mickey Rooney in the earlier picture, North is hired because he can cover a mile or so of twisting country road in less than a minute. Sheila tempts North with a promise of a mutual getaway when the job’s done… a sucker play if there ever was one.

It’s quite a surprise to see Ronald Reagan playing a humorless crook in the picture, his final feature film before becoming Governor of California. Perhaps the man most hated by U.C.L.A. students in 1970-71, Reagan sent in an army of cops to teach a lesson to demonstrators against the invasion of Cambodia. The amazing thing about Reagan’s performance in The Killers is that he has the same permanent scowl on his face that he showed in newsreels when he promised to deal out punishment to Berkeley and U.C.L.A.. A one-dimensional heavy with no redeeming qualities, Reagan is as rigid as a washboard. But his Jack Browning has a jaw-dropping moment of violence when he slaps Angie Dickinson across a room. It’s a classic piece of film, just on content alone: Burt Bacharach’s woman recoils backward, hair flying, and our cool liberal Cassavetes, Machine Gun McCain himself, decks Reagan with a retaliatory right cross. This utterly priceless scene got standing ovations at UCLA; why doesn’t it show up in Oscar montages, I ask you?

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Lee Marvin nails the buttoned-down shark patter that Charlie lays on his victims, defining the star persona he’d nurture for the next two decades. Clu Gulager affects a giggling hipster cruel streak. He primps like Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes of TV’s 77 Sunset Strip a behavior that hasn’t aged well. Gulager comes off as the weak sister to Marvin’s cold menace, sort of a hit man’s Sancho Panza. Angie Dickinson, the modern man’s woman of choice from China Gate (1957) and Ocean’s Eleven (1960), has an essential toughness that would later make her a perfect mobster’s foil when she reunited with Marvin in 1967′s Point Blank. John Cassavetes contributes his reliable intensity. At this time he was concentrating on his directing career, and reportedly acting to gather production money.

Cassavetes even obtained a brief bit part for his Faces star Seymour Cassell. Familiar actor Norman Fell has a smallish supporting roll. Helping to get The Killers off to a shocking start is the wonderful actress Virginia Christine. In the 1946 original she played a charming cop’s wife. Here she has a brief but strong role as a blind woman manhandled and threatened by Lee Marvin. For viewers old enough to remember, Christine’s television fame as the “Folger’s coffee lady” greatly enhances the scene’s impact.

Don Siegel bounced around for most of the 1960s, trying to stay active in big-screen work but often collecting a paycheck for TV jobs. Initially produced as a TV movie, The Killers ended up being something of a stumbling block for the director. Not long after it was completed John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the film’s nihilistic violence — which includes a pair of sniper killings from atop a tall building — was deemed far too brutal for television. It was instead released directly to theaters in July of ’64. When film critics of the 1970s discovered genre studies, the JFK connection helped The Killers become a standout title in articles and books seeking a conncection between the movies and the accelerating violence in modern life. Lee Marvin and his gun graced the cover of English fine art critic Lawrence Alloway’s rambling essay-book Violent America: The Movies, 1946-1964. Anyone concerned about screen violence in 1964 was surely in for a rude shock when pictures like Bonnie & Clyde came along a couple of years later.

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Don Siegel and Gene L. Coon’s conclusion makes a strong statement about the culture in general. A main character gets what he wants yet ends up drained of blood on a neat green lawn in suburbia, defeated by the everyday, square consumer life he held in contempt. Several other pictures convey this notion of dissatisfaction with the value system, such as Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap. But Siegel’s final shot gives us the iconic image to remember.


Arrow Academy’s Region B Blu-ray of The Killers is a huge improvement over Criterion’s 2003 DVD. At the time, the best Universal could provide was a grainy flat transfer of the film. The Killers always looked like a fairly ratty TV production until now. Arrow’s grain-free image is as sharp as a tack and colors are bright and accurate; clearly Universal did a bang-up remastering job. The Blu-ray has both television and cinema aspect ratio versions of the movie, which in this case is a terrific choice. Although planned for TV, the picture was composed for theatrical widescreen use, as TV movies (and some series, re-edited) of the time were commonly distributed theatrically in Europe.

The wide screen version is the way to go, as the images look beautiful when framed to exclude extraneous ceilings and floors. Although it’s surely an illusion, the image even looks a bit wider. The cropping also helps minimize the impact of some cost-cutting in the production, which was done on a TV budget. Rear projection driving scenes look less awkward, for one example. Some painted backdrops are also on the weak side, especially the incredibly fake view from Jack Browning’s office window. It somehow seems appropriate, though, to see Ronald Reagan staring blankly at such a phony backdrop.

Arrow’s extras include a couple of presentations by authors with books to sell. Marc Eliot’s coverage of Reagan’s involvement is welcome, as the man did have longevity as an actor. Dwayne Epstein’s remarks on his subject, Lee Marvin, go awry from the start with the unsupported assertion that Marvin was the catalyst for screen violence in the ’60s. The fine actor was more successful during these years in comic roles, for which he was rewarded with an acting Oscar.

The best piece on the disc is a 1984 interview with Don Siegel by a French TV crew. Siegel is marvelously candid about his work and the business. We’re intrigued to hear a couple of remarks that his acolyte Sam Peckinpah would adopt as his own, namely the statement that film directors are whores that work where they’re told (or kicked). We immediately like Mr. Siegel — he’s not the kind of self-promoter that considers himself the star of his movies. Luckily, Siegel’s other pupil Clint Eastwood was more generous, and 1971′s Dirty Harry returmed him to the top rank of directors for a few years.

The disc extras also contain a thorough still gallery. My check disc did not include Arrow’s illustrated insert booklet, which is said to contain an essay by Mike Sutton, interview excerpts with Siegel and contemporary reviews. Final product discs also come with a choice of reversible package artwork.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Killers

Blu-ray

Arrow Academy (UK)

1964 / Color / 1:78 widescreen and 1:37 flat full frame / Street Date February 24, 2014 / £ 15.09

Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager,
Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald Reagan

Cinematography Richard L. Rawlings

Art directors Frank Arrigo, George Chan

Editor Richard Belding

Original Music Johnny Williams, Henry Mancini, Don Raye

Written by Gene L. Coon from the short story by Ernest Hemingway

Produced and Directed by Donald Siegel

Packaging: Keep case

Reviewed: March 8, 2014

 

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Special Report: The Decline of Physical Media and the Rise of Illegal Torrents

Almost one year ago Stephen Bowie and Stuart Galbraith IV, on their respective blogs, began debating the aesthetic issues of watching movies via streaming video versus physical media like DVD and Blu-ray. That conversation, which you can read HERE and HERE, happily prompted a lot of good dialogue all over the Net where how one watches film is nearly as important as what one watches.

And, now, the conversation continues with a chat focusing on the subjects of bootleg videos and illegal torrents, as well as the related but fiendishly complex issue of once copyright protected movies gradually lapsing into the public domain, and whether this is good or bad for consumers.  

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Let’s start with the issue of buying bootleg videos. I think we’re pretty much on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, as well as the related notion of downloading/streaming movies officially unavailable.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, first of all, buying a bootleg is something I’m a lot less inclined to do than possessing a bootleg.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪How do you mean?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Because that does mean there’s a middleman who isn’t a rights holder but is making a profit anyway. I’ll only fill that person’s pockets if I’m pretty desperate to see something. I couldn’t do what I do, as a TV historian, without being heavily reliant on non-commercially released copies of shows. ‪Isn’t that also true of Japanese films for you? Let’s say there’s a private torrent site that contains a whole bunch of fan-subtitled Japanese films that you can’t purchase legally. Would you or would you not avail yourself of those? Would it make a difference if it was for “work” vs. pleasure viewing?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think needing access to movies/TV shows as a researcher is an entirely different issue. When, for instance, I was writing my Kurosawa/Mifune book, many of their films, particularly Mifune’s, weren’t available through normal channels. I ended up buying Hong Kong DVDs, for instance, Japanese DVDs sans English subtitles, and in some cases rented bootleg VHS tapes from Japanese rental stores in LA’s Little Tokyo and elsewhere. I’d rather fend for myself accessing what I’d need through rental shops here in Japan and, when necessary, going through official channels and viewing those titles I’d need to see through archives. ‪What I’d like to address is from the perspective of the ordinary consumer fed up that, for instance, Disney won’t release Song of the South, which has opened an underground market for that title.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Okay. And your response to that, from the consumer’s viewpoint, is what? “I guess I’m SOL then” and that’s the end of it?

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     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, first off I believe Disney will get around to Song of the South eventually. The mighty dollar supersedes political correctness any day. Over time labels have gotten around these issues with (for my money, overly PC disclaimers and warnings), driven by legal concerns more than anything else.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪But that’s sidestepping the issue a bit. Are you arguing that someone curious about Song of the South would be wrong to avail him/herself of a pirated copy?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪From a historical and artistic perspective, it absolutely should be released. Besides, my argument with regards to that film is that Uncle Remus is smarter and wiser than all the white people in that movie. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other Hollywood movies from the 1940s, and certainly the racial stereotypes are far more offensive in Gone with the Wind.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Still doesn’t answer my question, though.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪No. I myself have a copy that was given to me as a gift. I haven’t watched it, partly because the picture quality isn’t where I want it to be. However, of the handful of bootlegs I have, all I’d gladly replace with legitimately purchased copies when and if those become available. But I don’t think that’s the case with those who rely on torrent sites for 50-100% of what they watch.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Right. That’s closer to the way I feel. My own primary concern about bootlegs is aesthetic — I’d rather wait and see if a remastered copy comes out somewhere. I even dumped TCM, finally, after deciding that even a recording straight off the air didn’t pass my quality check. Most of those were piling up unwatched in the hope of a legit release.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪With regards to your SOL comment, I think part of the problem is that many folks today want instant gratification. Old fogey me, I remember if you wanted to watch, say, Touch of Evil, what you did was buy TV Guide every week and hope, pray, that sometime over the next 6-9 months one of the 6-7 VHF and UHF channels would air it, and hopefully not at 3:00 am! For me the current state of home video is an embarrassment of riches. It’s positively amazing that so many obscure titles are easily accessible. Sure, there are a bunch I’d love to watch RIGHT NOW that are presently unavailable, but I have no doubt a good percentage of those will turn up sometime over the next year or two. I don’t mind waiting. A good measurement of that is DVD Savant’s Wish List. It was huge 10 years ago, but something like 80% of those titles are now available in some form.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪And I know collectors who yell at me for not having taped, say, The Wackiest Ship in the Army when it ran on CBN in 1984. The fact that my age was in the single digits at the time doesn’t buy me much sympathy.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Even those folks who have been complaining for years about George Lucas’s suppression of the first theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy probably won’t have much longer to wait, now that he’s been bought out by Disney.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Or: I spend 20 years and a lot of money hunting down some rare TV show, and now it’s on YouTube. Any tool who wants can see it in three seconds. It’s infuriating, but that doesn’t have much bearing on the state of things now.

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Another thing: I’d bet many of those loudest bellyachers probably have a huge stack of unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays stacked up, gathering dust. Why not look at those while you’re waiting?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Look, I agree with that in general: Like you, I’ve had so much stuff to watch during the DVD era that for the most part (aside from my area of specialty, which is a big exception), I haven’t needed to go outside the proper channels to find stuff to watch.But: One reason I felt like this was a natural extension of our conversation last year is that the shift from physical media to streaming changes this equation.‪ If the market is tilting away from the possibility of a consumer legally purchasing (as opposed to streaming / “renting”) a copy of a movie, does that alter the ethics of bootlegging?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think that shift hasn’t so far stopped the flow of new and interesting releases, for one thing. Sure, if DVD and Blu-ray and all other physical media came to a full stop, that might change the rules. But that hasn’t happened. DVD and Blu-ray have been “dead” for several years, supposedly. I don’t see that now or in the immediate future. What I do think bootlegging and torrents are doing is having some, probably unmeasurable, impact on marginal titles. If everyone who wants a copy has one on their hard-drive already, what’s the point in releasing it to Blu-ray, DVD, or as a MOD?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ll bet they are cannibalizing the same niche audience that small indie home video labels need. Which is a problem. Well, then, take it as a hypothetical, or look at some of the isolated instances where it’s true now. For instance, Criterion’s Hulu channel. Even if that’s not a dumping ground for films they don’t plan on releasing on disc (which it seems to be), it’ll take them 20 years to get to all of them. And while I can stream those if I want to (which I don’t), in Japan, you can’t. Don’t you feel the impulse to have someone make copies of those rare Japanese films? Would you ever feel justified in doing so?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, I found ways around accessing the U.S. version of Hulu while still paying for the service. But if I couldn’t, probably, no, I wouldn’t ask somebody to burn a BD-R for me just because I want to see something. For research purposes, probably yes. I suppose the bigger question is: By dumping titles they’ve licensed on Hulu, is Criterion damaging the financial incentive to eventually release those titles to DVD and/or Blu-ray?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s a good question. Yes, I suspect that Criterion starting that Hulu channel was a tacit admission that most of those films wouldn’t get a disc release, and so they wouldn’t be cutting into that revenue. But I do see a lot of people on movie forums talking about streaming a film to see if they like it and then if they do, buying a copy. For me that’s backwards — I’ll always seek out the best copy possible for a first viewing, even if it means blind-buying a Blu-ray of a movie I might hate. But it may be that for others streaming and disc purchases aren’t mutually exclusive.

     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As the author of a recent piece here on WCP bemoaning the lack of Jacques Rivette titles on home video, would you pay money to obtain those unreleased titles as bootlegs or torrents, and if so would you then re-purchase them should they come to DVD or Blu-ray?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s true that Milestone and a few other small labels have publicly said they’ve dropped plans to release films for which they have the rights because they’ve already been heavily pirated. So that’s not completely immeasurable. It’s really frustrating but, at the same time, still sort of an isolated example. I mean, I’m not going to download a Lionel Rogosin film now because Milestone is working on his stuff, and it’s probably reasonable to wait on almost anything that could come out via Warner Archive. But a ’30s Paramount title? I wouldn’t counsel anyone to hold their breath on that. ‪Would I purchase the unavailable Rivette titles from a bootlegger now? No. But, that’s what I was getting at earlier — I wouldn’t have to. These days it happens anonymously on the Internet rather than via one-on-one contact, but I could essentially “trade” for custom-subtitled rips of French DVDs. I’m not in a huge hurry to do that, but I would also have no compunction about it. For instance: I recently borrowed a gigantic set of Portuguese DVDs of Manoel de Oliveira’s films from a friend. There were three or four Oliveiras I hadn’t that weren’t in the set or weren’t subtitled so, yes, I did indeed acquire non-commercial copies of those so that I could drop them in chronologically.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Technology-unsavvy me asks, “What exactly are you trading?” in terms of technology? And how do you make each other’s needs known?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets (and I don’t know many, because I’ve only dipped a toe into this world), but essentially there are private, invitation-only websites where cinephiles upload rare stuff that others can then download as a digital file. In some cases the standards of commercial unavailability, and image quality, are quite high.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Hmm. This sounds like the 21st century version of secretive hoarders of 35mm prints in the old days! In any case I’m guessing we’re talking about numbers too tiny to have any major impact on even the niche catalog marketplace.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Exactly. Also, I believe you mentioned a kind of pool where you and some others commissioned subtitles for rare Japanese films, 20 years ago? Perhaps you can say more about that, but custom-subtitling is one of the factors that drives this underground community, and I think it’s one of the things that makes it ethically defensible.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, well. Around the time I was researching and writing about Japanese fantasy films – this being something like 22 years ago – none of the original Japanese-language versions of these films were available in the U.S. officially. Local TV markets had stopped running them, and the only licensed versions were panned-and-scanned, dubbed into English, and often heavily recut from their original versions. Gradually some of the films became available on VHS by people who’d obviously obtained Japanese laserdisc versions (for the most part) and then had them subtitled privately. Eventually I learned the main dealer doing this was making so much money that he was able to fly First Class to Tokyo several times a year (a $5,000 ride) on all the dough he was making. Fans didn’t care. They just wanted to see the movies. I, however, got to know many of the original filmmakers – directors, screenwriters, composers, actors, etc. – people who’d normally be entitled to royalties from their studios had these movies been legitimately licensed. Clearly this guy was getting rich while the people who actually made those movies got nothing. There was a time before that when I was invited in to a small, private group (mostly fellow researchers) that would all chip in to have these movies privately subtitled. In that case most or all of us already purchased the Japanese laserdisc of the titles in question, so this was, to my mind, merely a self-financed supplement to that experience.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, I started to say that I don’t care if some douchebag gets rich if the end result is wider availability for the art; it’s incidental. Then the second part of your comment makes that seem heartless! But at the time, you have to admit, English-language licensing of those films had to seem extremely unlikely. I can only counter with my own experience, is that often people who made TV in the 50s and 60s ask me, “How did you see that?” And only one or two have then gotten annoyed that I had a copy of some never-released show that they helped to create; dozens, however, have asked me to send them one, because they didn’t have it themselves.

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪That’s the thing: Back in the early 1990s it seemed very unlikely that any Japanese fantasy films would ever be released in the west in their original form, except maybe the 1954 Gojira. Nor did I think I’d ever get the chance to see any of the original Cinerama travelogues from the 1950s unless I trekked several hundred miles to John Harvey’s custom-built Cinerama theater in Dayton, Ohio. Now, of course, virtually everything is available, on its way, or under consideration.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Dave Kehr would kick you out of Movieland for writing that! There was more available on 16mm in 1975 than there is on DVD now! Don’t you know that?

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I do think Kehr may be right about classical Hollywood films on 16mm in the ’70s, but that gap, if true, is certainly narrowing. Also, to rent (not buy) a 16mm print from a distributor was comparatively expensive, anywhere from, say, $40-$200, just to rent a print for a couple of days. ‪I do want to address a related issue, the fact that we may be entering a new age in which classic films from the 1930s may fall into public domain, most famously Disney’s early cartoon shorts, but also everything from King Kong and All Quiet on the Western Front to Warner Bros. gangster movies and Fred Astaire musicals, etc. Some argue this is a good thing, that it will free-up long unreleased titles. What do you think?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪First off, I think you’ll see new legislation that extends corporate copyrights before huge swaths of sound films start going PD. That’s one reason why I’m provisionally pro-piracy in some circumstances: because big corporations (not the artists who work for them) have been writing US copyright law in recent years. But, generally, no, I think we’ve seen that public domain status does no favors for a medium as technically complex as cinema (or television). ‪I don’t pretend to have all the details figured out, but I’ve always said that the only way to pry the gems loose from the studio vaults is to create some kind of tax incentive for making that stuff commercially available. Obviously a non-starter in the current anti-NEA, anti-arts political climate (although who knows, maybe the corporate handout aspect would have some traction).

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Exactly. As someone who’s worked with home video departments in various capacities, I’m aware of exactly how expensive it is to store and maintain film elements, to create a new video master, etc. If, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly became available from any and every PD outfit for five bucks, Disney would have zero incentive to ever remaster it again. I’d hate to live in a 2040 world where everyone was watching movies all mastered before 2014. As for private funding, to some extent that’s been happening for years. Hugh Hefner has facilitated the restoration of many films through his projects at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and elsewhere. And as much as people gripe about DVD-R programs, it’s an avenue in which studios have found a way (well, some have, MGM’s is DOA) to make obscure, extremely niche titles that probably sell a couple hundred units cost-effective.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There are a lot of Universal TV shows trapped in that kind of limbo now: The existing tape masters burned in the vault fire a few years ago, and no licensee is ever going to be able to afford to retransfer from the negatives. So your only shot at seeing BJ and the Bear at this point is old syndicated broadcasts posted on YouTube, basically. No, I’m very schizoid when it comes to the studios: If they’re taking good care of stuff and releasing it commercially, I’m their best friend. If they’re neglecting it, fuck ‘em: I’ll “steal” it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Of course, with TV there’s the problem of volume. It’s easier for Warner Bros. or Sony to remaster an hour-long Buck Jones Western and market it to hard-core B-Western fans with a $19.98 SRP than it is to take a chance on a 30-year-old TV show with 150 50-minute episodes.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes. Although many distributors have found a way to do that on DVD, and in fact I think Time-Life and Shout! may have realized that “complete series” box sets are in some cases more marketable than a slow trickle of the same series. However, that may also explain how you and I are coming from different places here. As a TV guy, it’s always been up to me to acquire what I want to see, either by recording reruns or from collectors. Only in the last 10 years has it been possible to buy more than a handful of old TV shows.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Clearly, also, emerging computer technologies are making previously prohibitive projects, like the reconstruction of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World possible. Twenty years ago the same work might easily have cost ten times what they were able to bring that title in for.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There, you see the kind of thing this demon technology can spawn? Shudder.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, and also content-starved media like Hulu I’m sure is driving TV (and film) availability like never before. The damnedest TV shows seem to be turning up on Hulu.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Actually, I’m mildly surprised that streaming hasn’t liberated more old shows. Researching my David E. Kelley piece, for instance, I found that only early seasons of The Practice, Picket Fences, and Chicago Hope were on Hulu; presumably, only what had been remastered for potential DVD releases (most of which didn’t materialize). Warner streams a few shows (e.g., Hawaiian Eye) where they can’t clear music rights for whole season disc releases, and some recent shows that didn’t get a disc release (like Rubicon) will show up on Amazon or Netflix. But I’ve yet to see a motherlode that didn’t also appear on DVD.‪ I don’t think, in other words, that streaming is really driving that side of the home video business … which may be a good thing. I don’t know.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As a resident of Manhattan, I want to ask you about the bootleg scene in NYC and how that’s changed, and also if you ever checked “specialty” dealers in, say, Spanish or Chinese neighborhoods.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ve done a little bit of that, but because ethnic video stores are targeting native speakers, there’s a limit on how much I can infiltrate them. I used to live in a neighborhood with some Indian video stores, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the DVDs in there. You may remember that I came to you for help when I found a cheap, very well-stocked Japanese video store in midtown. ‪In that case, I ended up printing out box art from Amazon Japan and other websites in order to find some of the few Japanese DVDs that had English subtitles. And I did find most of the Juzo Itami and Hiroshi Shimizu films that aren’t available here. But … once I started renting, I realized that most (though not all) of the rental copies had been replaced with bootlegged copies! So, even though Japan is not one of the countries we generally associate with video piracy, there you have it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I find places like that fascinating. In Los Angeles I used to frequent Hong Kong and Chinese places recommended by Hong Kong cinephile Jeff Briggs, partly for those movies but also because they sometimes sold LDs or VCDs (and, later, DVDs) of obscure Japanese movies. There was a time, for instance, where the only way to see some of Kurosawa’s early films with English subtitles was via Hong Kong DVDs and VCDs.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, at one point I counted, and I have directly ordered DVDs from over 15 different countries!

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think generally immigrant neighborhoods of all nationalities tend to do this, less so classic films and more often tapes of ordinary network prime time shows shipped to the States for homesick emigrants.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s interesting. That Japanese store did have a lot of JP (and Korean) TV shows, and many US films & TV shows, which would’ve been cheaper for me to rent there than from a regular video store … if they’d been the real thing! And understand, my objection to those bootlegs was aesthetic as well as moral, because they’d been compressed from dual to single layer in most cases. Fortunately the Itami discs were the originals, for some reason.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ There was a time when in, say, Times Square, you could openly buy bootleg copies of the very latest movies, as in within a day of their theatrical premiere and even before, usually taped by a guy sitting in a theater with a camcorder. (Seinfeld did an episode all about this.) Does that sort of thing still exist today?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I was thinking about that — yes, I still see the guys on the sidewalk with the blankets full of $5 pirated DVDs, though not as often. And I’m assuming they’re downloading those off the internet, not infiltrating a theater with a camcorder. Backing up one medium: When 35mm gave way to DCP, it took out the key ingredient in the experience of going to movie theaters for me. Yes, you still have the size and the shared audience experience … but I realized that what mattered most to me was that photochemical quality of celluloid. Without that, I lost the motivation to go to the cinema, and shifted most of that viewing to my home theater….

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Same here….‎ ‪So, onto my last point: What’s the scene going to be like five years from now? Will torrents and downloads, legal and illegal, kill DVD and Blu-ray for good?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s not quite as dire, but in the same way, I feel like I would at least partially reject streaming video if it were to supplant physical media as the dominant delivery mode for home video. And what follows from that, naturally, is what do I do next? That has caused me to adjust my thinking about piracy somewhat.‪ Not because I feel entitled to free stuff (which is why many people download movies illegally) but because I do feel entitled to keep a movie in perpetuity if I purchase it, and to own a physical copy. Or am I not entitled to that, ethically? What do you think?

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪So then, almost bringing this full circle, yours is predominately cautious measure while I see no immediate end to this party, content that new DVD and Blu-ray titles will continue to flow in the foreseeable future, maybe not in exactly the way we’d like it all the time, but with enough new interesting stuff to keep me more than busy for the time being.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t think I really have a prediction as to how fast things will change, but I think it’s clear that (1) there’s less demand for physical media, and that DVD & Blu-ray are evolving into a boutique market (like vinyl); and that (2) the rental market was a “bubble” that’s almost gone, and the future of consuming movies will mainly be a choice between buying or stealing. So, again, I ask it directly: If the choices are between streaming legally and acquiring a superior copy of it extralegally, what would you choose? In that future, would you censure cinephiles for congregating around private torrent sites?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think I’ve always been pretty clear on this point: As long as physical media exists for me that trumps even legal streaming, let alone poor quality bootlegs. I think where we disagree is about the speed and certainty about it going away for the most part or completely. Should it go away completely then, I suppose, all bets are off. It may come to that eventually but not, I don’t believe, anytime in the next five or six years.

     Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes, I think that’s true in terms of the time frame. It’s even possible that I should be more worried about being able to buy another plasma TV when the time comes than about finding discs to watch on it.

 

We at World Cinema Paradise value your opinion. What do you think? Join in on this discussion by leaving your comments below….

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Special Report: Criterion’s Reconstruction of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”

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One of the most eagerly-awaited titles of this or any other year, Criterion’s new Blu-ray of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World offers a long-desired reconstruction of the film’s original roadshow version, a cut of the film not seen by anyone a few months after the movie’s November 7, 1963 premiere.

An epic, all-star comedy directed by Stanley Kramer, it’s as divisive as Hillary Clinton: people tend to either love or hate it. Indeed, some of the more extreme haters harbor an inexplicable resentment toward those who don’t share their opinion. I’m squarely in the other camp. I’ve adored and have been endlessly mesmerized by Kramer’s film since childhood. For me it never gets old, but I can also understand why it might not click with everyone who sees it. It helps to be familiar with the dizzying array of stars, supporting actor-comedians, and even bit players who populate it. It also plays better viewed cold, without any awareness of what’s to come, with no promises or expectations of a “comedy to end all comedies.”

It is, unquestionably, misunderstood by many. Though dominated by broad, large-scale slapstick, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World works as much for other reasons. The movie has an unusual structure, introducing a group of characters which it then breaks up into, eventually, six major groupings, cleverly intercutting their various adventures before they all meet up again at the climax, with additional characters picked up and encountered along the way. This cutting among the various sub-plots as they converge on a potential $350,000 jackpot several hundred miles away is a big part of the film’s charm. Structurally, a comparison to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is not inapt. That silent epic doesn’t make much of an impact when its multiple stories are viewed separately (as they frequently were), but intercut as Griffith intended that picture, like IAMMMMW, it becomes an entirely different viewing experience.

Some reviewers have also mistaken the film as some sort of tribute to silent comedy. Certainly its Harold Lloyd-like climax has elements of that, but overall the film is its own animal. It’s not an attempt at an old-fashioned tribute the way The Great Race (1965) later was. Despite Kramer’s reputation for socially conscious drama and despite IAMMMMW’s greed-driven plot there’s no  attempt at any social significance or a “message” of any kind. Despite the presence of comedians and comic actors drawn from silent films, Vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs, radio, television, and other venues, William and Tania Rose’s screenplay brings these widely-varied performing styles into a solidly-plotted cohesive whole, though it does draw inspiration from various sources and gives each performer breathing room to ply their craft. (For me, parts of the film play like a more cynical Preston Sturges script, particularly in scenes featuring actor William Demarest, in all but name reprising his Officer Kockenlocker character from The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.)

Mainly, this review will explore the 197-minute reconstruction – not “restoration” – of the original 202-minute roadshow version, what was put back and in what form, and how these added elements play against the more familiar and subsequent 163-minute roadshow/general release version.

If you’re reading this review you already probably know It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World backwards. If somehow you’ve made your way through life without ever seeing it, like audio co-commentator Mark Evanier I recommend that you first watch the shorter version of the film, then the longer cut some time later, and then come back to read this review.

To summarize: Trying to elude detectives hot on his trail, career crook “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) spectacularly crashes his car in the Mohave Desert many miles north of Los Angeles. Before expiring he tells the five motorists who’ve stopped to help – dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar); Vegas-bound pals “Ding” Bell (Buddy Hackett) and Benjy Benjamin (Mickey Rooney); milquetoast seaweed entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle); and simple-minded furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) about $350,000 buried several hundred miles away at Santa Rosita Beach State Park, under what he describes as “ a big ‘W.’” (In a nice touch, Durante repeats this important clue for the audience’s benefit, looking straight into the camera, ensuring that they will be on the lookout, too.)

Joined by Russell’s straight-laced wife, Emmeline (Dorothy Provine), and domineering mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), and Melville’s wife, Monica (Edie Adams), the group quickly abandons any thought of calmly driving down to Santa Rosita together as a group and dividing the stolen money equally. As Benjy says, “it’s every man, including the old bag (Merman), for himself.”

Meanwhile, Chief of Detectives Capt. T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, top-billed) of the Santa Rosita Police Department closely monitors their actions. An honest cop four months away from retirement, Culpepper is equally anxious to close this 15-year-old case, believing that he can finagle its successful resolution into an upgraded pension so that he can “retire with honor.”

As the treasure hunters leave an awesome trail of destruction in their wake – “withholding information, causing accidents, failing to report accidents, reckless driving, theft, at least three cases of assault and battery…” – they pick up other strangers along the way, notably British army Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas), unscrupulous con-man Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), and Russell’s spaced-out brother-in-law, Sylvester Marcus (Dick Shawn)

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70, an anamorphic 65mm process, and originally exhibited as a road show, meaning that instead of saturation bookings on hundreds or thousands of movie screens simultaneously, the film rolled out across the country (and around the world) slowly, methodically. It typically opened in just one big downtown movie palace in each of the country’s biggest cities, playing on a reserved-seats basis for an average run of one year, then after that went into general release and neighborhood theaters and, eventually, drive-ins.

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The movie premiered at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood on November 3, 1963, and by mid-December had also opened in New York, Chicago, Boston, London, and Atlanta but few, if any, other theaters, partly because most Cinerama houses were still playing How the West Was Won to packed houses, and partly because theaters had to then be converted from the original three-strip Cinerama process to the more standard 70mm equipment needed to run IAMMMMW. By mid-December 1963 distributor United Artists, working with Kramer, decided to cut about 43 minutes of movie out of the long film which, taking into consideration its overture, intermission break, entr’acte, and exit music clocked in at nearly three-and-a-half hours.

And so it was the shorter, 163-minute version that played everywhere else, as a roadshow throughout 1964, in general release, during its 1970 rerelease, on network television, in syndication, and on home video. In 1991 MGM cobbled together its own 175-minute reconstruction, but that release was far from perfect: some of the footage was incorrectly integrated, and least one shot included in that release was apparently never part of any official version.

Criterion’s reconstructed Blu-ray version, supervised by Robert A. Harris, consists mostly of MGM’s HD transfer of the short version integrated with the same deleted footage included on the 1991 home video version, footage derived from 70mm theatrical print trims of the long version. For the 1991 laserdisc and VHS release, this footage retained the optical squeeze added to the extreme left and right sides of the frame so that, when projected onto Cinerama’s deeply-curved screen, the image would stretch back out to more or less normal. This has been optically corrected and properly integrated with the rest of the film. In the 22 years in-between these two home video releases, the color on the trims had faded so badly that the decision was made to layer the color from the 1991 transfer on top of the remastered-for-HD trims. Because the older transfer cropped the Ultra Panavision framing slightly, the area around the edges of the frame look almost monochrome. It’s noticeable, but not nearly as distracting as frame grabs of these scenes suggest. Because of where the magnetic soundtrack matching the action was placed on 70mm release prints, the audio drops out a second at the end of each cut. Harris has included these bits, using English subtitles so that viewers don’t miss any of the dialogue.

So, the vast majority of reinstated material consists of these trims, the same material integrated for that 1991 release. There is a bit of new material, though probably not as much as many were hoping for, and some of that has audio but no picture. The previously unreleased material with both picture and sound is easy to spot, as it’s the footage without the monochrome borders at the edges of the frame. There’s not a lot of this, but what’s there is worthwhile, most notably footage that expands the build-up to the intermission break, particularly at the Santa Rosita police station. The short version edits the build-up to the intermission extremely well, but the build-up in the long version is just as good, just a little different.

There are three short scenes in which there is sound but no picture: Sylvester’s theft of his girlfriend’s car, some more footage of the Crumps locked in the basement of a hardware store, and Culpepper’s telephone conversation with Jimmy the Crook (Buster Keaton, who in the short version has but one line and is onscreen for less than ten seconds).

Each of these three scenes offers a few surprises previously unknown to most Mad World fans: that Sylvester’s girlfriend is actually a married woman, for instance, and that it’s her car he steals. The telephone scene in one respect is almost heartbreaking: the audience hears Keaton’s voice but is denied the chance to actually see him and his reactions to Culpepper’s plotting.

But the sequence also completely changes one aspect of the film. In the short version it appears that Culpepper has suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. (“You know what I believe I’d like?” he asks his fellow cops. “A chocolate fudge sundae, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.”) In the short version, Culpepper’s decision to steal Smiler’s 350 Gs for himself isn’t made clear until very late in the film and comes as a genuine surprise, though there are clues earlier in the picture pointing to that.

In the reconstructed version all surprise is gone as made clear by that phone call to Keaton’s character. Further, Culpepper’s desire to have that chocolate fudge sundae is no longer the pathetic non sequitur of a broken man, but a ruse so that he can get out of the station and call Jimmy from a nearby drugstore. Nice as it would be to see and hear Keaton, the movie is better without that scene.

The brief audio-only footage of the Crumps in the basement is seriously damaged by one truly terrible decision. Unlike the other two audio-only scenes, which use publicity stills (possibly unreleased stills from contact sheets), this footage incorporates behind-the-scenes and set stills. In addition to Sid Caesar and Edie Adams, these stills make visible members of the film crew, including director Stanley Kramer himself, along with a massive Ultra Panavision camera in one shot. This has the effect of completely taking the viewer out of the movie. They’re interesting as photographs but they have no business in a reconstruction like this.

Likely no appropriate stills of the missing scene exist, but that was also true of some of the scenes missing from the 1954 A Star Is Born. In that Gold Standard of movie reconstruction, producer Ron Haver cleverly found ways around the problem, making those missing scenes play as seamlessly as possible. Clearly any evidence of the crew should have been cropped or matted out.

Overall, the long version has its advantages and disadvantages. Except for one early scene showing the mad motorists driving recklessly through a small desert community, with a few exceptions the cut footage mostly extends scenes from the short version and is no great loss without them. While some would argue the reinstated scenes merely make the long film even longer, in some ways it actually improves the pacing. In its short form the movie at times is a little schizophrenic and cuts too abruptly among the various subplots. The build-up in the longer version is more carefully and deliberately paced, in some respects making the payoffs that come later more satisfying. Interestingly, much of the cut scenes relate to the incredulous monitoring of the fortune-seekers by various law enforcement officers driving black-and-whites or riding in helicopters.

The cut footage also offers a short scene between Winters and Provine that provide Winters’s character with a selfless motive to want his share of the loot, a motive that’s completely absent in the short version. Moreover, there are a handful of great comedy bits the short version should have retained: Culpepper’s $5 bet with Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest); Rancho Conejo air traffic controllers Carl Reiner and Eddie Ryder shaking hands, a last goodbye as Ding and Benjy’s out-of-control twin-engine plane is on a head-on collision course with their tower; a funny deleted line from cab driver Eddie “Rochester” Anderson near the climax.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

The cut footage also make sense of continuity issues created by the short version, which had left viewers familiar only with that version baffled for years. They explain that the silver mine Otto Meyer speaks of is the place where the character played by Mike Mazurki lives. (I never realized this.) The long version also explains just why Hackett’s character is soaking wet in a couple of shots.

If ever there was a special edition prompted by consumer demand, it’s this. Though a popular catalog title, MGM was loathe to spend the vast sums of money a restoration/reconstructed would have required back in the ‘80s-through-early 2000s. Like David Strohmeier’s Cinerama restorations, IAMMMMW is only possible now because of cost-effective computer technologies that, combined with MGM’s preexisting HD master of the short version, now make such a release cost-effective.

The transfer of the extra-wide Ultra Panavision process (65mm, at 2.76:1) is impeccable, but then again it already was when the beleaguered MGM transferred the short version to HD a couple years ago. Excerpt for the new scenes, this is a same transfer as that, with only minor tweaking. The 5.1 surround, adapted from the original 6-track magnetic stereo, sounds great, a more noticeable improvement from MGM’s earlier Blu-ray of the short version. In addition to the original overture, entr’acte, and exit music, this release incorporates audio-only “police calls” heard sporadically throughout the intermission. All of this is over black, no title card, and there’s a lot of dead air between these calls but, apparently, that’s how they were spaced back in late 1963.

Criterion’s release offers both cuts of IAMMMMW on two Blu-ray discs and three DVDs, the third SD disc consisting of the same extra features spread across the two Blu-rays. The foldout packaging is nice, incorporating Jack Davis artwork commissioned for the 1970 rerelease. Inside there’s a booklet featuring an essay by Lou Lumenick and details about the film and sound elements sourced. Also included is a colorful but impractical map identifying some of the film’s shooting locations (Google Earth comes in very handy here).

Supplements are voluminous though curiously missing the “Something a Little Less Serious” documentary made for the 1991 home video version. That documentary featured Kramer and many more original cast members, all in better health and in greater number than they appear in the newer extras included here. “The Last 70mm Film Festival,” for instance, literally wheels-on Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney and Marvin Kaplan (one of the two gas station attendants whose business Winters’s character destroys), with Winters in good spirits but clearly not long for this world. Hosted by Billy Crystal and also featuring other cast and crewmembers, it’s a bit rambling, but enjoyable. (It’s a shame there’s no good video of the American Cinematheque screening I attended some years earlier, which had more of these folks and in far heartier shape.) Also included is a long excerpt from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs focusing on IAMMMMW.

Other extras include original and reissue trailers; Stan Freberg’s TV and radio spots, which Freberg himself introduces; a two-part CBC program documenting the movie’s giant press junket and premiere; one-sided press interviews from 1963, featuring Kramer and his cast; an excerpt from a 1974 talk show hosted by Kramer and featuring Caesar, Hackett, and Winters; short but enlightening featurettes about the reconstruction process and another about the film’s visual and aural effects, including some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.

And, best of all, there’s an informative and cozily personal audio commentary track on the long version by “Mad World aficionados” (they’re much more than that) Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. It’s worth all 197 minutes.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World rates:

Movie: Excellent

Video: Excellent

Sound: Excellent

Supplements: Audio commentary, trailers, radio spots, press interviews, 1974 TV reunion, 2012 cast and crew reunion, Mad World locations map, AFI 100 Years…100 Laughs excerpt, featurettes on the reconstruction, sound and visual effects, booklet.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES (for the general release version).

Criterion 1963 / Color / 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 / 197 and 163 min. / Street Date January 21, 2014 / $49.95

Starring Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine and a Few Surprises.

Director of Photography Ernest Laszlo

Music Ernest Gold

Written by William and Tania Rose

Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer