Tag Archives: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

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World Cinema Paradise’s Best of Blu – 2014

Despite nearly everyone’s insistence (so it seems) that physical media is dead as a doornail, 2014 has, truly, been a remarkable year for home video, Blu-ray particularly. From an agonizingly slow start when the format was new, the flow of classic titles really exploded in the last year. It’s been hard to keep up with all of the terrific catalog titles, even if most are being sublicensed by the majors to boutique labels like Olive Films, Kino, and Twilight Time.

Region-free Blu-ray players have become an essential piece of hardware, with so many of the best titles emanating from the damndest places. For instance, some of the best ‘50s Hollywood Westerns and sci-fi pictures, for instance, are currently exclusively available from German labels. Further, video transfers and better extras from non-U.S. labels (Britain’s Arrow Films, for instance) are often far superior to their American counterparts. Sporadically, many French, Spanish, German, Italian, Indian, and other countries occasionally offer domestic Blu-rays of their country’s classic films with English subtitles.

But perhaps most exciting developments in the Blu-ray realm have been the growing list of classic 3-D titles and the continuing reemergence of long-lost Cinerama releases. These movies were next to impossible to see anywhere in the world at all. Today one can enjoy a very good approximation of what it was like for paying audiences when these movies were new, in the comfort of one’s own home. And that, folks, is simply amazing.

Narrowing a Best of Blu-ray list to only ten titles proved a daunting task. This is not a list of the greatest movies released in 2014 or even necessarily the greatest video transfers. In large part, however, it does take into consideration the work that went into reconstructing/restoring/presenting it (as opposed to simply releasing a preexisting video transfer), the “bang for the buck,” particularly in terms of the results versus the funds available to the label to do the work, and the creativity and ingenuity involved in the creation of extra features.

And away we go…

Day Earth Caught Fire

1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1962)
This extremely smart and adult science fiction film seemed pretty good when for years it ran panned-and-scanned on commercial television, but the BFI’s outstanding Blu-ray offers a picture-perfect transfer of its extremely impressive ‘scope photography (and special tinting for its opening and closing reels), with audio far superior to Anchor Bay’s years-ago DVD release. All of the fine extras from that earlier release have been ported over, along with many fine new ones – look for Leo McKern, in one his last interviews, doing a hilarious imitation of star Edward Judd!

Mad World

2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Fans of Stanley Kramer’s all-star epic comedy have for years been clamoring for a reconstruction of this film’s short-lived original roadshow version. Criterion’s release reinstates nearly all of the lost footage, which subtly but effectively improves the film’s pacing, even with its longer running time, adding fine little bits of comedy long thought lost. The many fine extra features include 2014’s Audio Commentary Track of the Year, a deeply affectionate yet densely informative track that’s a real joy to listen to.

Werner Herzog

3. The Werner Herzog Collection (Werner Herzog, 1967-1987)
I envy those who’ll “blind-buy” this amazing collection of shorts and features, viewers unprepared for Herzog’s uniquely hypnotic, visionary films. If this set, well under $100 had included only Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) it would have been worth every penny, but this boxed set includes scads more films and shorts, and hours-upon-hours of extra features content.

Seven Wonders

4. Seven Wonders of the World (Tay Garnett & Paul Mantz & Andrew Marton & Ted Tetzlaff & Walter Thompson, 1956)
David Strohmaier and his plucky band of restoration artists rescued three Cinerama titles from oblivion in 2014, the other two being Search for Paradise (1957) and Holiday in Spain (1960). Seven Wonders of the World is the best of the three, a visually spectacular tour around the globe chockfull of natural and man-made sights from a fascinating, singularly 1950s “Free World” perspective. More than any other movies from its time, the Cinerama format is the movie’s equivalent of a time machine, an experience not to be missed. Crammed with great extras.

Pit Stop

5. Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider get all the praise, but Jack Hill’s movies of the 1960s and early ‘70s are in their own way just as revolutionary and innovative. Another gorgeous high-def transfer from Arrow Films, this is one of Jack Hill’s best (and frequently startling) films. Despite its ultra-low budget, this is a fascinating and smart little movie you’ll not want to pass up. As usual for Arrow, this is packed with creative extra features.

Planet of Vampires

6. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
Mario Bava’s enormously influential sci-fi horror film (Ever see Alien?) is an eye-popping parade of surrealistic sets, costumes, and special effects, but even in Bava’s home country the best anyone could come up with until was a widescreen DVD. Scorpion’s new Blu-ray rectifies all that, with a gorgeously, richly-colored transfer that at long-last does Bava’s vastly-underrated work justice. Add to that a densely packed, fact-filled and observant audio commentary by Bava authority Tim Lucas and you’ve got one of the year’s best releases.

Infero

7. Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953)
This classical era 3-D production was initially released Region B only by British label Panamint Cinema but, almost under the radar, they’ve reissued it region-free. If you’ve got a 3-D set-up at home, this is one you’re going to want to get. A terrific desert noir, Inferno stars Robert Ryan as a wealthy, urban company president whose mettle is tested when his trophy wife and her secret lover abandon him (and his broken leg) in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization. Filmed in Technicolor (and thus requiring no less than six strips of 35mm film for each shot!) this release is a thing of stereoscopic beauty, perhaps the best-looking 1950s 3-D release on Blu-ray so far.

55 Days Blu

8. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)
In this age of CGI excess, the gargantuan roadshows of producer Samuel Bronston seem downright tasteful and restrained now, and despite their occasional shortcomings remain intelligent, thoughtful, and undeniably awesome in their full-scale epicness. This one, set during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, features an incredible reproduction of turn of the century Beijing, all built full-scale on the plains of Spain. On big home theater screens (I watched this on a 90-inch screen), the film’s grandeur is truly a sight to behold, especially via the picture’s stunning restoration from its original Super Technirama 70 negative.

Mack Sennett

9. The Mack Sennett Collection (various, 1909-1933) Flicker Alley; ALL
A revelatory set of rescued silent short subjects (plus a couple of feature) that demonstrate the incredible range not just of producer Sennett but also his company of comics, gag writers, and directors. Those whose image of Mack Sennett is limited to the Keystone Kops will be enormously surprised – and delighted – by the range of these delightful comedies. Many fine extras, including a genuinely touching This Is Your Life.

Price 2

10. The Vincent Price Collection, Volume 2 (various, 1958-1972)
A worthy follow-up to Shout! Factory’s Volume 1, this set – featuring House on Haunted Hill, Return of the Fly, The Raven, Comedy of Terrors, Tomb of Ligeia, The Last Man on Earth, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Most were licensed from MGM, but Shout! went the extra mile licensing and insuring good transfers of the Allied Artist Haunted Hill and Fox’s Return of the Fly, as well as locating and creating lots of good new supplements.

Some Honorable Mentions:

The Essential Jacques Demy, The Sicilian Clan, Gravity (3-D), Gulliver’s Travels, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Tomorrow, Judex, Man Hunt, His and Hers, The Death Kiss, Dragonfly Squadron (3-D), The Bubble (3-D), Last of the Unjust, The Conformist, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Girl Hunters, The François Truffaut Collection.

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3-D Blu-ray Review: “The Bubble”

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I first saw (Arch Oboler’s) The Bubble (1966) in the late-1970s under its reissue title, The Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth. The sci-fi/special effects boon instigated by Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977) was just getting underway, and here was a movie with a decidedly retro-looking one-sheet prominently feature a ‘50s-style flying saucer, one that, as is it turned out, wasn’t even in the movie. I could tell right away that I was looking at a strange movie at least ten years old, and its very existence baffled me. Nonetheless, its 3-D effects, filmed in “4-D” Space-Vision, were nonetheless impressive, sometimes even startling. Decades later Rhino released a very poor, unrepresentative DVD of the film, badly converted to anaglyphic (i.e., “red-green”) process. It only delivered about one-tenth of its full impact.

Conversely, the 3-D Film Archive’s Blu-ray presentation of The Bubble, here under its original title, far surpasses all expectations. As a movie, The Bubble is draggy and obviously fairly cheap, resembling as it does a protracted episode of ‘60s sci-fi shows like The Outer Limits and The Invaders. But it’s also so strange that, even though it borrows elements from those TV shows, written science fiction, and even E.C. comic books of the early ‘50s, as to be a unique synthesis all its own. Even without the 3-D, there’s no movie quite like it.

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The primary reason to watch The Bubble, however, is for its 3-D photography and effects, and on that count the picture is quite remarkable. An early scene, which in terms of the plot has no reason to exist at all, features a tray holding two glasses and two bottles of beer. It floats about the room, gradually drifting out into the movie audience. The effect is almost perfectly realized (the wires suspending it become visible toward the end of the shot); it’s still one of the most impressive 3-D effects shots ever done.

The 3-D Film Archive, primarily Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz, have done another incredible job here, literally rescuing the nearly-lost film: the original negative was rotting away in a stiflingly hot public storage locker rather than an environmentally-controlled film vault, its reels kept in rusted film cans. A restoration demonstration makes clear how much work was done to remove visible negative splices and other viewing imperfections. The presentation now is probably better than when the film was new, and the 3-D is spot-on perfect throughout.

The 3-D craze of 1952-54 petered out quickly after 20th Century-Fox’s hugely successful dissemination of CinemaScope during late-1953 and early-1954. The only major 3-D release between Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Bubble had been a Fox film called September Storm (1960) shot in Stereo-Vision 3-D and converted to 3-D CinemaScope. However, it was not a success, and led to no additional 3-D productions.

Radio writer-producer-director Arch Oboler, a kind of Bush League Orson Welles, broke into films in the 1940s and almost all of those he wrote, produced, and directed are unusual. His first film as a director, Strange Holiday (1945) had Claude Rains returning home from a fishing trip only to find America had been taken over by fascists. Five (1951) was the first American feature to depict life after a nuclear war. The Twonky (1953) has Hans Conried at odds with a strange, walking television set that takes control over his life.

But Oboler’s greatest success came with Bwana Devil (1952), the first sound-era feature-length 3-D movie, an independent film that, along with This Is Cinerama, released that same fall, caused a firestorm within the Hollywood film industry, leading eventually to the widescreen revolution, the biggest sea change since the Dawn of Sound.

Bubble 1

Oboler returned to 3-D moviemaking with The Bubble, which utilized Robert V. Bernier’s special 3-D cameras and lenses. Primarily, Space-Vision allowed for “polarized” 3-D movies to be photographed and exhibited on a single-strip of film, rather than the two interlocked cameras and projectors system used during the ’50s craze. This significantly reduced production and exhibition costs and allowed for color and ‘scope productions such as The Bubble.

The movie is a more a vehicle for this process rather than a film enhanced further by 3-D. After an unseen narrator instructs the audience to put their 3-D glasses on, the picture opens with young married couple Mark (Michael Cole) and Catherine (Deborah Walley) aboard a small plane piloted by care-free Tony (Johnny Desmond). Catherine has gone into premature labor while the couple was vacationing, and they’re frantically trying to reach the nearest hospital.

A big storm forces Tony to land on a runway that turns out to be an ordinary road leading to an anything-but-ordinary small town nearby. Catherine gives birth at a small hospital without incident, but Mark and Tony gradually – too gradually – begin to realize something is amiss. The town resembles a studio backlot (and so it was; The Bubble was filmed at the former Republic Studios, then called CBS Studio Center, in the San Fernando Valley north of Hollywood). A New York subway entrance leads nowhere. Several buildings are strangely fused. Old West buildings, including a saloon, are located further down one street, along with a partial carnival. A road leading out of town is dotted with gargoyles (possibly from 1963’s The Raven), statues and fake boulders. And, just out of town, is a partial representation of the Lincoln Memorial, the statue of Lincoln being the same one Eddie “Rochester” Anderson falls onto during the climax of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

More disturbing, the residents of this strange place wander about with glazed-over eyes like zombies, saying the same few words over-and-over again. A bartender at the old saloon repeatedly asks, “What’ll it be, gents?” while a taxi driver (Vic Perrin) asks “Cab, mister?” ad infinitum. Unbelievably, Mark and Tony initially find this rather amusing if bemusing. They help themselves to drinks at the saloon, cars parked in the streets, etc., and initially aren’t terribly concerned by everyone’s strange state.

The real trouble begins with the threesome decide to leave town, only to find the entire area encased by an impenetrable bubble many miles in diameter and stretching across the sky, thus explaining the distorted sun and moon.

The Bubble premiered at 112 minutes but almost all reviews of that version complained that at that length the movie was interminably paced. It was subsequently cut to 91 minutes, its Blu-ray length, and even that is a bit overlong, the pacing partly dragged down by Mark and Tony being so slow on the uptake about the strangeness of the town and its potential dangers. The deleted scenes, offered in screenplay form as an extra feature, help to explain some matters obliquely referenced in the shorter cut, but overall the picture is probably better off with all the editing.

If you thought 2001: A Space Odyssey perplexing, The Bubble positively confounds. Mark, without any evidence, suggests some possible explanations for the bubble’s origins and particulars about why things are what they are, but the story pretty much ends without any real answer about what the audience has just witnessed. Just what the bubble is, who put it there, and why remains a baffling mystery. If one tries to make sense of The Bubble’s plot, they’ll probably be disappointed. But on a dream-like, Twin Peaks-type level, the movie and all its strangeness is moderately effective.

While many have pointed out the story’s resemblance to various Twilight Zone/Outer Limits/The Invaders episodes, the movie is peculiarly adult in other ways. Mark and Catherine’s baby was conceived while the couple “made love” and she forgot her contraception. (Later on is a scene where she breastfeeds her newborn.) He complains about her “bitching” in one scene, and it’s clear Tony is having a sexual relationship with the Old West saloon’s dancer (called “Talent” by him and on the credits), even though she’s basically a mindless zombie.

The cast is good, particularly Michael Cole (Mod Squad), whose second film this was. He’s so good, in fact, one is reminded of Steve McQueen’s similar “debut” in The Blob. Indeed, The Bubble almost plays like The Further Adventures of Steve and Jane, as if the young teenagers from that film had gotten married and were expecting a baby only to run afoul of The Bubble.

The rest of the cast consists of actors Oboler must have known from his radio days, many of whom coincidentally worked regularly with Jack Webb, notably Virginia Gregg, Vic Perrin, and Olan Soule. The credits and the IMDb list Gregg as playing the ticket cashier but this is incorrect. She plays the nurse, who in the short version at least has no lines. The actress playing the ticket cashier (“Tickets? Tickets?”) resembles Patricia Barry.

As a showcase for 3-D effects, the film is a delight. The Bubble bursts open with an exterior shot of the plane, one of its wings sticking way, WAY out toward the movie audience. There are startlingly good 3-D shots every few minutes: a baby in an incubator, Talent’s high-kicking saloon dance, numerous shots of Mark and Catherine in a mine shaft, he hoping to tunnel their way under the bubble. Even ordinary scenes are staged to maximize the process. Although a few ideas are more than a little silly (Tony having visions of floating rubber masks, for instance), visually speaking, The Bubble is quite spectacular, a real crowd-pleaser.

The picture allegedly cost around $500,000 to make. It looks inexpensive but not desperately cheap. Many Blu-ray fans that recently purchased Shout! Factory’s Vincent Price Collection II set will be amused. If, as I did, you watched Return of the Fly, The Last Man on Earth, and The Bubble over the last few weeks then you’ve heard the same Paul Sawtell/Bert Shefter music three times.

The 3-D Film Archive restored The Bubble from the inaptly stored, original camera negative and the results are extremely impressive. With its 2.50:1 aspect ratio, the image is sharp with accurate, corrected color, while many imperfections, including film damage and apparently a few misaligned shots, have all been fixed. It’s too bad Oboler didn’t release The Bubble is stereophonic sound as well (as many early 3-D titles were) but the mono audio here is more than adequate.

Supplements include a standard, 2-D version of the film, as well as original and highly deceptive reissue trailers, both in 2-D as well. A restoration demonstration is offered in both 2-D and 3-D. There’s also a nice still gallery, screenplay excerpts of the deleted scenes, and a BD-ROM essay about The Bubble by Bob Furmanek, which is also available on the 3-D Film Archive’s website.

As a movie, The Bubble is far from great but, perhaps having already experienced it several times before, this time I found myself rather liking its bizarre plot as well as its plentiful, eye-popping 3-D effects. For aficionados, The Bubble is a must.

Thunder Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974)

Thunder Blu

There seems little doubt that, 20 years from now, many of Clint Eastwood’s formula blockbusters, movies like The Gauntlet (1977), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Firefox (1982), and all of the Dirty Harry sequels will gradually fade from public consciousness, while his more ambitious and unusual starring films – The Beguiled (1971), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Bronco Billy (1980) – will be reappraised as far more interesting works. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) belongs in this latter category. It’s a road movie-crime film with, for the time and its genre especially, surprisingly rich and offbeat characterizations. It’s also, contrastingly, brutally violent at times and features especially good action set pieces, particularly some dangerous-looking car stunts supervised by Carey Loftin (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World). Eastwood alone gets his name above the title, but up-and-comer Jeff Bridges received most of the accolades, including an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Eastwood’s Malpaso Company produced the film for release through United Artists, but the actor reportedly was unhappy with UA’s handling of the movie (though it still grossed a robust $25 million against its $4 million negative cost). He may have a point. Warner Bros., home to most of Eastwood’s filmography, aggressively releases and re-releases all of Eastwood’s movies, good and bad, while Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, part of the MGM library, has been released to DVD exactly once: in June 2000, in a widescreen but unenhanced video transfer. Despite the grossly outdated transfer, as I write this Amazon is currently selling new copies of this old DVD for $75.98. Huh? Why MGM has chosen to all but ignore probably the most internationally bankable star of the last half-century is a mystery.

But now, through Twilight Time, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot comes to Blu-ray and 1080p high-definition. Needless to say, it’s a vast improvement over the DVD, especially considering writer-director Michael Cimino’s and cinematographer Frank Stanley’s excellent, frame-filling Panavision compositions. The disc also includes an audio commentary and trailer.

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The movie starts with a literal bang as the sermon by a rural Idaho preacher (Eastwood, hair neatly slicked back and wearing bifocals) is interrupted by the shotgun blasts of Red Leary (George Kennedy), clearly gunning for the minister. Meanwhile, carefree young drifter Lightfoot (Bridges) steals a Trans Am right off the lot of a used car dealer (Gregory Walcott). Lightfoot and the preacher meet as the latter effects his escape from Leary, with the younger ne’er-do-well gradually recognizing the preacher as Thunderbolt, a fugitive bank robber who with muscle Leary, driver Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), and two others audaciously used a 20mm cannon to blast open a seemingly impenetrable vault and steal the $500,000 inside it.

Thunderbolt squirreled away the loot behind the blackboard of a one-room schoolhouse, but the two return there only to find a modern school built in its place. Leary and Goody eventually catch up to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seeking revenge, all because Leary wrongly assumes Thunderbolt double-crossing everyone. Instead, Lightfoot convinces the others to simply break into the vault a second time, using the same cannon.

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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot came about after Michael Cimino impressed Eastwood with his cocky personality and rewrites on Magnum Force (1973), the second Dirty Harry movie. Eastwood generously acquiesced to first-time director Cimino’s desire to adapt his own script, though Eastwood reportedly was later annoyed by Cimino’s perfectionism and endless takes. (Cost-conscious Eastwood has one of the lowest shooting ratios in Hollywood, and during the making of the film Eastwood-as-producer often vetoed Cimino’s excesses.) While overlong at 114 minutes, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s screenplay is nevertheless far superior to Magnum Force and most of Eastwood’s ‘70s output.

In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot Eastwood is polar-opposite of his short-fused, grimly neo-fascist Dirty Harry, nor is he the reticent, brawling good ol’ boy of comedies like Every Which Way But Loose. Instead, here he’s unusually relaxed and even smiles broadly several times, Thunderbolt clearly amused by Lightfoot’s cocky, charming naïveté. It’s Lightfoot’s ambition to pull off a big heist that drive the plot, his childlike enthusiasm spurring the more experienced if aimless middle-aged career criminals.

That the heist becomes something as enjoyable as it is dangerous and even deadly is one of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s many unusual qualities. Like the slam-bang opening, Cimino’s idiosyncratic script is full of surprises. Amusingly, to stake their heist the four work minimum-wage jobs: Goody drives an ice cream truck, Leary works as a third-shift janitor at a department store guarded by man-eating Dobermans, etc.

In one of the best (if entirely tangential) scenes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot hitch a ride with what turns out to be a completely balmy driver (Bill McKinney) who keeps a caged raccoon in the passenger seat while his car’s trunk is packed to the gills with fluffy white bunny rabbits. (Cimino seems to have given Bridges especially room to improvise. One possible example of this is an exchange where Lightfoot accidentally puts his hand in some raccoon shit. Eastwood’s amused reaction doesn’t look rehearsed.)

Ultimately though, it’s the beguiling father-son like bonding among thieves Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that cements the picture, the former amused and paternal, fulfilling an unstated longing by the latter, eternally optimistic, for someone to look up to. Some read a gay subtext to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but really it draws on a tradition common to myriad B Westerns, with Bridges a Russell Hayden/Lucky Jenkins-type admirer to father figure William Boyd/Hopalong Cassidy.

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The 1080p transfer of this 2.35:1 Panavision production is excellent. The title elements are quite grainy, but overall the transfer is true and accurate with minimal manipulation. In high-def the careful framing and gorgeous rural Idaho and Montana locations really shine, while the 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio maximizes the limitations of the mono audio. (Optional English subtitles are provided.)

Extras include Julie Kirgo’s observant liner notes, and she joins Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman on a somewhat meandering but okay audio commentary track. An original trailer is included, along with an isolated score track.


Inherit-the-Wind-poster

The Still Relevant Musings of Stanley Kramer

I always tell people that the best part of my job as a writer is talking to people whose work I admire about the work I admire. There’s no better example of that then Stanley Kramer. He agreed to meet with me in November 1994 at the legendary Sportsman’s Lodge. The interview was for my book Lee Marvin Point Blank so consequently, Marvin was the main topic of conversation. Most of Kramer’s thoughts on Marvin went into my book but the opportunity to speak with the pioneering producer/director naturally bled into other topics. That which didn’t go into the book is presented here for the first time. Sadly, he passed away in 2001 (on Lee Marvin’s birthday!) and what survives here are the opinions, anecdotes and cantankerous musings of a filmmaker whose value can never be overestimated.

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Dwayne Epstein: As a producer, you did a film in 1952 called Eight Iron Men based on a play…

Stanley Kramer: Was Lee in that?

D: Yeah, he was. Do you remember anything about it?

S: No, not very much. But he must have impressed me because I used him several times after that.

D: What would be in a script that would make you think Lee Marvin could play the part?

S: My natural sense of genius. I mean why do you cast? You cast out of ego, too. You see it that way. People say to me, “Why did you use Gene Kelly?” or “Why did you use Fred Astaire in a dramatic part?” or “Why did you make the first picture with Marlon Brando?” Because I felt that I was doing something special.

D: And you were.

S: Not always.

D: You had the guts to at least try something different.

S: Try, yeah. That’s why I got into it.

D: How did Lee Marvin and Brando get along?

S: Not too well. Brando had done Streetcar and a couple of other things. I was the only one who made two films with him that didn’t make any money.

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D: I always thought The Wild One (1954) was a big hit.

S: It was banned more places that it played.

D: Was there a rivalry between the two actors that transferred to the screen?

S: Since they played the heads of rival gangs, they played it that way.

D: Lee hid behind his personality?

S: He created a personality and hid behind it. He wasn’t that way, at all.

D: What was he really then?

S: Soft. Sensitive. Easy to hurt.

D: You saw that side of him?

S: I lived that side with him. I must have done about five pictures with him.

D: How would that sensitive side show itself?

S: Well, sometimes with another actor or actress. Sometimes with a director. It would depend. He wanted to do a good job much more desperately than his personality indicated.

D: So there was a sense of insecurity about him?

S: Sure, but he was very talented.

D: Having worked on The Caine Mutiny (1954), would you say there was a comparison between Bogart and Lee Marvin?

S: I don’t think so.

D: How would they be different?

S: Well, Bogart was a star incarnate, from the beginning. First time I ever got together with Bogart, for example, was in Hawaii, The Beachcomber’s Restaurant. There was a bout eight of us at the table and the film was starting rehearsals the next morning. We had all been settled in there for about three or four days. Around 11:00, I looked at my watch and said, “For all the guys that have to work tomorrow, I think it’s time to turn in.” Bogart said, “Wait a minute. What do you fancy yourself to be? Who are you, the producer of this picture? For Christ’s sake, dictating the time to go to bed and everything, that’s ridiculous! What’s your function here?” Fortunately, I thought of a line. I said, “My function is to see that recalcitrant actors get to bed on time.” He looked at me and just stared at me. Then, he broke out in a laugh. He said, “Okay.” That was all just before we started The Caine Mutiny.

D: Do you remember if Lee Marvin got along with Bogart, because I know he was enamored of Bogart?

S: Right, he was. I don’t remember. Too many other things going on.

D: The first film you directed, Not As A Stranger with Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin had a small part in that. What was it like working with him then? It was a pretty volatile cast with Sinatra, Mitchum, Broderick Crawford….

S: I don’t recollect. You’ll have to make it up.

D: [laughs] I won’t do that. Some critics said Gene Kelly was miscast in Inherit the Wind (1960). I thought he was wonderful in that.

S: I did, too. It’s hard to find reasons for that failure of that movie except I know some of the reasons. United Artists never went all the way down the line with it, to open it and do it, exploit it. It needed that. I thought Tracy and March would carry it, you know?

D: They were like titans.

S: They were titans, too. They had respect. That was a wonderful experience for me. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. When I was working on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), everybody said, “Christ, this will fold like an accordion.” Yet, they stood opposite each other. The guy kissed the girl in the opening scene.

D: The world didn’t come to an end.

S: No, maybe if it had we’d have made more money. If you have any personal questions, feel free to ask me.

D: What do you look for in a script? Obviously, you have a certain style of filmmaking like all great directors do…

S: No I don’t.

D: I think you do. I think you have a film that says Stanley Kramer on it.

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S: How do you…That’s why I made a picture, the picture I made was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963). That’s not a Stanley Kramer picture.

D: Right, since every now and again, you got to break the mold. No question about that. But chances are, if there’s a film that says Stanley Kramer on it, it’s not going to be a light piece of fluff. You tackled tough subjects mostly…

S: I didn’t think they were so tough when I tackled them. I made them because I believed in them and visualized it and thought, “Well, I could do this. Make a great thing out of it.” Doesn’t always turn out that way. That’s what makes a Christian out of you.

D: What do you look for in a script when you read it?

S: I don’t look for anything in particular. Surprise me! Shock me! Stun me! Intrigue me! Do something! I don’t know whether it jumps off the page but maybe I can visualize something. Chances are, if it jumps off the page, it wouldn’t be very good.

D: Did you ever think of directing a play instead of just films? You seem to be a very good actor’s director.

S: Who told you that?

D: No one. That comes just from watching your films. You give great showcases for actors in your films.

S: Well, then the film would be the showcase. But, nobody ever offered me a play script and I never thought of one so…I’ve directed stage productions, workouts, locally and so forth.

D: Interesting. When you cast Burt Lancaster as the judge on trial in Judgment at Nuremberg, was there a chance of casting Lee Marvin in that or any role in the film?

S: I’m sure I did along the way. Maybe there was some reason why he wasn’t in it. See, I had Tracy near the end of his life, since it was an all-star cast, I did that so I could get try to get an audience where it all jelled, because it never did sufficiently. We got an audience but not enough. Lancaster was a replacement. That part was set and agreed to and all negotiated out for Olivier to play. He got married. He married Joan Plowright. He said, “Unless you can postpone the picture for four months, it’s out.” I couldn’t. At any rate, Lancaster was one of those nasty…It didn’t work entirely because everybody else had a background of being German; Schell and all the defendants. But Lancaster read it and wanted it. I didn’t like the accent he played with.

D: He tried.

S: He tried and he performed pretty well.

D: You produced John Cassavetes’ first studio film, A Child is Waiting (1963). I’m guessing he preferred his own independent projects so he wasn’t crazy about the experience.

S: He wasn’t crazy about the experience because of me, probably. We had difficulties. He was a talented fellow. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put him in the job. But I had a self-centered idea about films. There can only be one dominant and you can’t do it by conference, by agreement. One guy has the concept and the driving force. That’s what I always felt to be true, anyhow. Cassavetes was young, unregimented, not accustomed to listening, and I was in his ear a lot. It was a project I would have done. I was busy on something else. The reason I didn’t direct it is I made the project go up to that point but it was the kind of subject most people wouldn’t be interested in, anyhow. We used a lot of people from the hospital

D: Burt Lancaster played the head of the hospital but would you have considered Lee Marvin for Lancaster’s role as the lead?

S: Yeah, I would have considered Lee Marvin for anything. I thought he was a hell of an actor.

D: Do you recall if you did or not for that role?

S: Probably not because Lancaster was a much bigger name. Some of those subjects needed a symphony of names. It’s always a confining thing. See, in the early days, Marlon Brando had never made a film, and that was good. Kirk Douglas hadn’t done anything, and that was good. There were other people. Jose Ferrer was not known in films. Gary Cooper was but Grace Kelly hadn’t. I had used a lot of people exciting in those days. Then, I began to switch cast, vis a vis Astaire or Gene Kelly, that kind of thing…dancers [laughs].

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D: On Ship of Fools (1965), how did Lee Marvin get along with Vivien Leigh?

S: I don’t know if there was anything personal going on between them. I would be the last one to ask about that. But, he got along very well. After all, he was a queer duck. Meeting him for the first time, for an actor who’s supposed to be playing with him, it must have been an experience for her, too. I’m sure it was.

D: Would you say there was a mutual respected for each other’s talent?

S: The respect that he had for her was unbelievable. What her respect was for him, I don’t know.

D: How did Lee Marvin get the part in Ship of Fools?

S: I picked him. If you ask me on what basis, I don’t know. Usually, casting is a feeling. [pause] I can’t stress enough that he was really two people. He had an outer facade and this terrible, sensitive, introspective underneath. How do you deal with that, as an actor? It’s not easy. He was very respectful of Vivien Leigh. The first scene they played together I remember very well because of Marvin. He came into the dining room, crossed the room and sat down at the table.

D: That’s right.

S: How do you know that’s right?

D: I’ve seen the movie several times. Wasn’t it the scene where he’s at the table and she comes in and he doesn’t get up for Vivien Leigh who sarcastically says ‘don’t get up.’?

S: You’ve seen it more recently. At any rate, he worked out the lines, how to cope with it and then did me the honor of discussing it. He often did that, very often. This was always deep with him because either he had something profound to say which people ought to listen to — he always seemed to be so surfacely amuck or rough. When you bear that, when you lifted the curtain and looked behind it, there was a lot to see.

D: So you’re saying there was much more depth to the man then people realized?

S: Not only much more depth but he was sensitive underneath. His sensitivity he protected as best he could. I always gave him credit of his intelligence. I remember…let me think a minute. I constantly had a feeling he left too soon. I think he had a lot more to say and do, I really feel that. I don’t think he ever crested, is what I mean

D: Have you seen a film in recent years and thought Lee Marvin could’ve done it?

S: Well, it wouldn’t be that obvious. I made a picture once called On the Beach (1959). Fred Astaire played a scientist in it. Everyone said, “What the hell is Fred Astaire doing in this? Can’t visualize it.” I visualize it somewhere along the line. I think he came through very well. It would be the same with Marvin. If Marvin, for example, played a hard…I often look for a role for something like a football coach or a college instructor so I could use him and stand out from that.

D: Well, Anthony Quinn in RPM (1970) was a college instructor. Did you consider Marvin for that role?

S: I don’t remember that. It was a gigantic failure. That’s what I remember most.

D: It was a game effort.

S: Unfortunately, you don’t get points for that. I’ve had a lot of game efforts [laughs].

D: During Ship of Fools, anything else in particular about it that stands out in your mind?

S: Well, I had a conglomeration of people in the film, as you know. It was the one and only experience I had with an actor named Oskar Werner. He happened to be one of the great actors of all time. He and Spencer Tracy, but I only made one picture with Oskar…He was very difficult for everybody. I made a pact with him. If our objectives, our high objectives were up there and clear to both of us, he’d get rid of all this crap and go for it, which he bought and did. Many times he would do something and say to me something he never said to anybody: “What do you think?” That was a big concession for him.

D: How did he get along with the other actors?

S: Fairly well. He and Signoret, I got together and made a pact with both of them. They made a pact with each other: Drop the resentment and the dislike and let the roles dominant.

D: Seemed to work. Their love scenes seemed very believable.

S: Of course. So many other things I was satisfied with most of the way. I remember one day I had a scene with Vivien Leigh and she was drunk, she was playing it. It occurred to us, on her walk down the ship’s corridor, do something, the Charleston. Just suddenly broke into it like it was on her mind. And she did it and went off quickly. Then she went on her way to the cabin. That was my idea. I want credit for that one!

D: What are you doing with yourself, lately?

S: I’m preparing to make a picture, yeah. That’s one of the things I’m doing. I also wrote another book.

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D: Anything you can tell me about the upcoming film?

S: Well, I can tell you it’s present time. I have two projects. The first one, I’d like to be the story of modern Soviet Russia: After the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a good love story. I got to bring it up to date. Changes every month.

D: Any casting in mind?

S: Well, the guy who’s dogging me the most is Max Schell. Last time Max Schell and I got together, he won the Oscar. This is very special, too. Good love story.

D: You mentioned a new book. Is it on filmmaking or your own experiences?

S: Well, running through it is film anecdotes, motivations, agonies, prejudices.

D: Any of the later films that weren’t necessarily hits with critics or audiences, say, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) that you may have reconsidered casting?

S: I don’t recall, maybe. In terms of casting, you have to have a big enough ego and I had it. You visualize something, you get an idea, a thought, and you follow it through against the current. If it comes off, great. If it doesn’t, you made a mistake.

D: So, you’re saying casting against type worked for you a lot better?

S: No, it didn’t work a lot better but it worked, sometimes. Not always.

D: Can you think of an example where it failed?

S: Yeah, but I won’t tell you.

D: [Laughs] Okay, that’s fair. That seems like a good note to end on.

S: All right. Hope you got enough.

D: I sure did.

 

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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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Khartoum Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Khartoum” (1966)

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Though Criterion’s reconstructed It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) understandably got all the attention, January 22nd actually saw the release to Blu-ray of two filmed-in-Ultra Panavision, presented-in-Cinerama roadshows. The other was Khartoum (1966), a much less successful but still interesting historical epic dramatizing Britain’s equivalent to America’s Alamo. Had the film been released in 1956 instead of 1966 it would likely be remembered as an intelligent, intimate epic when compared to the more common, mindless CinemaScope spectacles that dominated the 1950s. But, ten years later, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) casts a long shadow. Khartoum can’t help but invite comparison, and in every way is inferior. A mostly British production but produced, written by, and starring Americans, Khartoum today is remembered as one of the first of a long line of failed Cinerama roadshows (it earned $3 million in U.S. and Canadian rentals versus its $6 million cost), the beginning of the end for that company and that type of roadshow exhibition, as well as for historical epics generally. But Khartoum does have its good points: the basic conflict is vast and intensely personal at once; the second unit work by Yakima Canutt is often spectacular; in retrospect the events in 1880s Sudan anticipate the rise of Islamic fundamentalism a century later; and some of the performances are interesting, though star Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon is maybe his least interesting within the genre. Twilight Time has licensed what originally was a United Artists release from MGM. The high-def results aren’t as splendiferous as the extremely pristine and aurally spectacular It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World but still good, plus there’s a smattering of interesting special features.

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More than 10,000 British-led Egyptian troops are slaughtered by an army of Muslin fanatics, an army led by Sudanese Arab Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier), self-described Mahdi (“messianic redeemer”) who believes Mohammed has chosen him to lead a crusade to spread radical Islam across the region. To set a very public example, he intends to murder the entire population of Khartoum, moderate Sudanese and Egyptian Muslims not allied with Ahmad and non-Muslims alike. Word of the massacre reaches pragmatic British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson). He’s loathe to send British troops to Khartoum in order to save the thousands of Egyptians and Europeans stranded there, this in spite of Britain’s close ties to Egypt (and its Suez Canal). Instead, he decides to unofficially dispatch celebrated war hero Gen Charles Gordon (Heston) to the region, believing that if loose cannon Gordon’s mission to evacuate Khartoum with Egyptian troops fails, the British government will be absolved any liability or political fallout. Accompanying Gordon on this suicide mission is Col. J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), whose responsibility it is to try and keep Gordon in line. Formerly Governor-General of the Sudan who broke the slave trade there some years before, Gordon is hailed as a god-like savior upon his return but the situation is dire, with the Mahdi having cut Khartoum off from the rest of the world. A large British force is the only thing that can save Khartoum now, and that’s not likely to happen. Khartoum’s main point of interest is in the way playwright-anthropologist Robert Ardrey’s screenplay essentially makes Gordon and the Mahdi two sides of the same coin: True Believers (the real Gordon a devout Christian cosmologist) who’d gladly surrender their lives for the Greater Good. The only difference seems to be that Gordon barely recognizes the dangers of such unquestioning devotion. The movie’s best scenes are two brief meetings between Gordon and the Mahdi, meetings that didn’t actually happen though dramatically justified here. Part of the problem with Khartoum is that Gordon pretty much remains an enigma, nor is this characterization helped by Heston’s atypically reserved but still indulgent performance. The script, at least as far as one can make out in the final cut of the film, hints at Gordon’s evangelism but not enough to present any real clear picture of the man. The screenplay also suggests Gordon as egotistical, cocksure, but charismatic, qualities similar to T.E. Lawrence. Some of these Heston gets across, but like the mid-Atlantic accent he affects, mostly Heston hedges his bets, more often than not playing Gordon as a stiff upper lipped, A.E.W. Mason-inspired British Empire stereotype. Further, much of Ardrey’s script posits Gordon as the great white savior lording over adoring dark-skinned followers in “his” Sudan, especially in all the scenes involving Khaleel (Johnny Sekka), Gordon’s devoted valet, he forever bemused by Gordon’s faith and this strange Jesus fellow reads about in Gordon’s Bible. (What the film does not mention is that Gordon reinstated the slave trade to Khartoum upon his return. I doubt that went down well.) Laurence Olivier’s Muhammad Ahmad is another matter. Something like an extension of his controversial blackface performance as Othello, Olivier hides behind dark brown make-up, a thick beard, and flowing robes, affecting an inconsistent accent that, in his first scene addressing victorious troops, has the unintended comical effect of reminding viewers of Leo McKern’s Swami Clang in The Beatles’ movie Help! (1965). (I suspect that may have been the first scene Olivier shot; he dials back the accent considerably for the rest of the picture.) However, after 9/11 Olivier’s performance can’t help but remind contemporary viewers of Osama bin Laden, whose ambitions, fanatical beliefs, and terrorist strategies were starkly similar. In full make-up, Olivier even looks a little like bin Laden. Moreover, the British government’s interests in the region likewise draw eerily similar comparisons to America’s more than a century later. Another problem with Oliver’s scenes is that all too clearly the actor never set foot outside a British soundstage. In all of the location scenes Olivier is clearly doubled, the effect similar to Fun in Acapulco, G.I. Blues and other Elvis vehicles where the actor is painfully absent in all the location scenes because “Col.” Tom Parker refused to let his precious commodity travel abroad. In Khartoum, the flawless performances of the always-good Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson outshine the two leads. Heston reportedly was happy with Basil Dearden’s direction, and indeed his unimaginative camera set-ups don’t help. The film has extraordinarily few close-ups, and the use of Ultra Panavision’s extremely wide canvas is bereft of visual flair. Yakima Canutt’s second unit work is far more interesting. The climatic moment of the picture, based on George W. Joy’s famous painting General Gordon’s Last Stand, is particularly disappointing and ineffectively edited.

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Twilight Time’s 1080p Blu-ray of Khartoum sources superior 65mm film elements, made clear by the “in Cinerama” title card which would have been removed for 35mm engagements. Also intact are the film’s original overture, intermission break, entr’acte, and exit music. At 136 minutes, this also seems to be the longest original cut of the film, which is missing several minutes in the original U.S. release, making it one of the shortest narrative roadshow releases. The image is strong throughout, with good detail and accurate, vivid color. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio lacks the directionality of the original 6-track magnetic stereo mix; it’s not clear why MGM couldn’t use those sound elements as they apparently still exist. Optional English subtitles are included. The disc includes an original Cinerama release version trailer, also in high-def; an isolated music track (DTS-HD mono, alas); an audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman; and Kirgo’s typically observant liner notes (she aptly describes Olivier as looking “like a bearded walnut,” and rightly likens Khartoum’s portrait of Gordon to the later Patton). Khartoum, then, is a deeply-flawed epic but also an ambitious, mostly intelligent one that, on Blu-ray, can at long last be assessed more fairly than decades of panned-and-scanned viewings on 13-inch TV sets allowed. That it aims so high and falls well short of its goal doesn’t negate its many fine qualities, and Khartoum deserves the wider audience this handsome Blu-ray release allows.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Khartoum rates:

Movie: Good

Video: Excellent

Sound: Good

Supplements: Audio commentary, Cinerama release trailer, isolated score track, booklet.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES

Twilight Time 1966 / Color / 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 / 136 min. / Street Date January 22, 2014 / $29.95 Starring Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson.. Director of Photography Edward Scaife Music Frank Cordell Written by Robert Ardrey Produced by Julian Blaustein Directed by Basil Dearden

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Its a Mad Mad World 1083_013275.jpg

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