Release Date(s)1992 (August 18, 2015)
Studio(s)MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: C
- Extras Grade: C
Michael Ritchie’s Diggstown (1992) is one of the most underrated films by one of the most underrated directors in the history of American cinema. A contemporary of Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Scorsese, and Ashby, Ritchie’s notoriety has faded in recent years, possibly because his remarkable consistency in the seventies gave way to a more uneven output in the 1980s and 1990s – or possibly because he was never quite the aggressive self-promoter that his peers were. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Ritchie’s cinema is its self-effacing quality; his direction rarely announces itself, as he eschews self-conscious stylistic choices in favor of a restrained camera that subtly, effectively underlines his dramatic points. Ritchie’s modesty goes hand in hand with his subject matter, which most often has to do with a critical perspective on Americans’ drive toward competition and winning at all costs. Ritchie was not someone who found either self-aggrandizement or idolatry healthy, and in a series of six masterpieces made in eight years (from Downhill Racer in 1969 to Semi-Tough in 1977), he examined the corrosive effects of striving for all the wrong reasons. By exploring the topic via stories about politics (The Candidate), crime and business (Prime Cut), and sports (The Bad News Bears), the director savagely skewered American pageantry in all its forms (most literally in the beauty contest satire Smile).
Ritchie’s filmography in the 1970s is every bit as admirable as those of the more lauded legends of Hollywood’s second “golden age,” though by the end of the decade it became clear that his consistency of vision was unsustainable in the post-Star Wars era. Ritchie took his own stab at big-budget blockbuster filmmaking with the entertaining but unsuccessful Peter Benchley adaptation The Island (1980) before settling into two decades of star vehicles (Fletch, The Golden Child), compromised attempts at recapturing the flavor of his early work (Wildcats, The Scout), and out-and-out artistic and commercial flops (Cops and Robbersons). Yet even amidst the anonymous craftsmanship of his for-hire assignments, Ritchie continued to create great work – The Survivors (1983) remains an unfairly overlooked and hilarious Reagan-era satire, and when Ritchie reunited with that film’s star Walter Matthau in 1988 for The Couch Trip, the result was a sweet, charming comedy.
Perhaps the last of Ritchie’s truly great sports comedies is 1992’s Diggstown, newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The story of a pair of con artists (James Woods and Oliver Platt) and an aging boxer (Louis Gossett, Jr.) who team up to pull a scam on a crooked millionaire (Bruce Dern), it’s another of Ritchie’s inquiries into what it takes to win – and what it costs both the winners and the losers in a society that values winning above all else. Steven McKay’s elegantly structured and terrifically witty script (based on Leonard Wise’s novel The Diggstown Ringers) both invites and earns comparison with con game classics like The Sting – and Ritchie’s unerring eye for casting further helps to place Diggstown on a par with that beloved film. The movie’s star wattage is blinding: Woods, Dern, and Gossett are as good as they’ve ever been, Heather Graham is positively luminous as a banker who joins forces with them, and the cast is filled out with reliable character actors like Randall “Tex” Cobb and Marshall Bell. The wealth of talented ensemble players and the warm but sly satire of small town Americana is reminiscent of Preston Sturges’s best work, and the movie’s unforced, adult charms feel even rarer and more valuable now than they did when the picture was released 23 years ago.
Given the film’s middling box office performance and critical reception, it’s not particularly surprising that the Blu-ray release is essentially a bare-bones, nothing but the essentials package. The image quality is serviceable but nothing to write home about – there’s a slight washed-out quality to the entire image that makes it little more than a slightly improved version of the original standard-def DVD release from MGM. The DTS-HD 2.0 sound mix is no great prize either, with a lot of excessive hiss and noise that should have been cleaned up. The only extras are a lame five-minute making-of featurette (standard EPK stuff) and theatrical trailers for both Diggstown and The Couch Trip. It’s a shame that this excellent film couldn’t have gotten a more worthy presentation and restoration, but there’s no arguing with the abundance of entertainment value provided by the movie even in this routine package.
- Jim Hemphill