|Classic Coming Attractions #105
Welcome to the first Classic Coming Attractions column of 2012. In this edition, I have 7 DVD and 5 Blu-ray reviews along with the usual rundown on new announcements of classic releases. The year appears to be starting off pretty well for classic fans!
The DVD reviews comprise coverage of: Rhapsody in Blue and It All Came True (both from the Warner Archive); Humphrey Bogart - The Columbia Pictures Collection (from TCM/Sony); The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask (both from Hen's Tooth Video); Reach for the Sky (from VCI); and The Magnificent Ambersons (from Warner Bros.).
And the Blu-ray reviews include the following titles: The Lady Vanishes, and 12 Angry Men (both from Criterion); Picnic and The Roots of Heaven (both from Twilight Time); and Fort Apache (from Warner Brothers).
Note that I have also updated the new announcements database as usual.
Classic DVD Reviews
I well remember the first time I experienced Alexander Dumas' classic tale, "The Count of Monte Cristo". My mother read the lengthy story chapter by chapter to me at a time when I was just starting to be able to read for myself.
The tale of Edmond Dantes, a man unjustly imprisoned in the notorious Chateau d'If and his subsequent ingenious escape and search for justice enthralled me then and continues to do so. At some point I saw, on television, the 1934 film version that starred Robert Donat (an Edward Small production for Reliance Pictures with direction by Rowland V. Lee) and was impressed both by how well it captured the book's spirit of adventure and suspense as well as by Donat's fine portrayal of Dantes. A good, familiar supporting cast that includes Elissa Landi, Louis Calhern, Sidney Blackmer, and Raymond Walburn is a strong positive as is Alfred Newman's music. My admiration for the film has not been dimmed by subsequent TV series, or numerous other filmed versions. It was a pleasure to hear before Christmas last year that Hen's Tooth Video would be bringing the 1934 The Count of Monte Cristo to DVD in early 2012 and it's good to be able to report now that the release though hardly among the best-looking classic DVD releases is worthy of your support. Utilizing a new digital transfer from a 35mm fine grain, the 1.37:1 image is reasonably sharp and bright with a decent grey scale evident, despite the original elements with which Hen's Tooth had to work showing considerable deterioration There are certainly scratches and speckles also present, but not to a degree that compromises one's enjoyment of the film. Modest grain is pleasingly evident. The mono sound is in good shape and English subtitles are also provided. The only disc supplement is a reissue trailer. Recommended.
"The Man in the Iron Mask" is the third tale in a three-book saga by Alexander Dumas covering the exploits of characters known as The Three Musketeers. (The others are "The Three Musketeers" and "Twenty Years After".)
In the Iron Mask tale, the focus is more on twin heirs to France's throne who are separated at birth than on the Musketeers. The first-born Louis grows up to be a self-serving king while the other, Philippe, is brought up unaware of his true identity. Eventually the two do meet but complications ensue involving the king's beautiful fiancee Maria Therese from Spain that result in Philippe being imprisoned in the Bastille with an iron mask locked over his head. The story is full of palace intrigues and action that make it a great read. As a 1939 follow-up film in the swashbuckling genre to his 1934 production of The Count of Monte Cristo, producer Edward Small turned to Dumas's Iron Mask tale and with James Whale as director turned out the action-filled and atmospheric The Man in the Iron Mask starring Louis Hayward in the dual heir role and Joan Bennett as Maria Therese. The film is great action-adventure fare that, with James Whale in control, keeps one delightfully entertained throughout the 112-minute running time. Greatly contributing is the fact that the film is very well cast both in its two leads as well as in the numerous supporting roles where we see the familiar likes of Warren William, Joseph Schildkraut, Alan Hale, Montagu Love, Albert Dekker, Harry Woods, Peter Cushing (film debut), Walter Kingsford, Lane Chandler, and others. Hen's Tooth Video presents The Man in the Iron Mask on DVD in a new digital transfer taken from a 35mm fine grain and the results are impressive. The 1.37:1 image is sharp and bright with very good image detail throughout. Contrast is also notably good and modest grain is pleasingly evident. The mono sound does its job well and optional English subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. Recommended.
Rhapsody in Blue, Warner Bros.' 1945 biography of George Gershwin, has always struck me as one of the better composer film biographies.
That's not to say that there isn't plenty of typical Hollywood fiction, but the film does capture Gershwin's dedication and love of his music. It also conveys some of his demons that plagued a life that ended much too soon in 1937 at the young age of 38. Robert Alda, as Gershwin, makes the piano sequences look realistic and generally delivers a thoughtful if at times wooden portrayal. There's good support from such Warner stalwarts as Joan Leslie, Alexis Smith, Julie Bishop, and Morris Carnovsky. Appearing to good effect as themselves are the likes of pianist Oscar Levant, singer Al Jolson, and orchestra leader Paul Whiteman (who among other things conducts a fine performance of the lengthy title work). The latter performance is but one highlight of a very effective sound track calling on the talents of Leo Forbstein, Ray Heindorf, and Max Steiner to convey Gershwin's impressive musical legacy. The 151-minute, black and white film (including the overture) is available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive. The full frame image (in accord with the original theatrical release) is sharp and conveys very good contrast throughout. Black levels are reasonably deep, and the image is quite clean looking with only the odd speckle noticeable. Modest grain is apparent. The mono sound is quite strong, doing very well by the music while conveying dialogue clearly. The only supplement is an original theatrical trailer. Recommended.
Australian writer Paul Brickhill documented some of the most famous actions of World War II in such books as "The Great Escape" and "The Dam Busters", but no story is more remarkable than that of RAF pilot Douglas Bader who lost both legs and almost his life in an airplane crash, but persevered to become once again an active pilot and later squadron leader during the war.
Bader's story was documented in Brickhill's biography of him, entitled "Reach for the Sky". The book was filmed in 1956 with Kenneth More portraying Bader, and VCI has now released Reach for the Sky on DVD as part of its Rank Collection line. The film is a fine inspirational effort that captures well the spirit of the times it portrays. More gives an immensely likable performance and Muriel Pavlow provides a steadying influence in her role as Bader's wife. At 136 minutes, the film has lots of time to tell its story leisurely, and it maintains significant interest throughout with an effective blend of the details of Bader's personal life and of footage related to his flying career. That's mainly due to More, to the steady direction and screenplay writing of Lewis Gilbert, and to John Addison's pleasing music score. Reach for the Sky was the BAFTA Best Picture winner for 1956. VCI's 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is a strong one. The black and white image looks fairly sharp and bright, sports clean whites and fairly deep blacks, and looks reasonably clean overall. Speckling and debris is minimal indeed. A fine layer of grain is apparent. The mono sound is unremarkable, but does the job quite satisfactorily, handling dialogue and aerial footage sounds equally well. English subtitles are also provided. The extras comprise the theatrical trailer and a photo gallery. Recommended.
Well, we finally have The Magnificent Ambersons available on DVD in Region 1. For a brief time included as a supplement to an Amazon exclusive version of a Citizen Kane Blu-ray box set, the film can now be purchased as a stand-alone product.
I don't propose to say anything new about a film that has been justly praised and analyzed over many years. Suffice it to say that if you haven't somehow had the opportunity to see The Magnificent Ambersons, you are indeed in for a special time. Despite its unfortunate history that saw the film be taken out of Welles's hands by RKO when it previewed poorly, chopped from 130 minutes to under 90 (albeit by a skilled editor such as Robert Wise), and with some scenes reshot by assistant director Freddie Fleck, The Magnificent Ambersons remains a remarkable profile of a bygone era, following the story of the socially prominent midwestern Amberson family whose fortunes become undone and whose chief scion Georgie (Tim Holt), a spoiled brat of a child, may be in for a deserving comeuppance. Many of the Welles hallmarks of incisive and mellifluous dialogue (narration at times intoned by Welles himself), superb deep-focus cinematography, and of course the presence of numerous of his Mercury Players (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, e.g.) help to set and maintain the film's hold on the viewer. It's a pleasure to report that Warner Bros. DVD of the film looks and sounds excellent. The film's outstanding cinematography has been beautifully captured in a bright, crisp, clean 1.37:1 image that retains a fine component of grain. The contrast is a delight to behold. The mono sound delivers the dialogue clearly throughout, with no trace of hiss or distortion. English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided as is a Spanish mono soundtrack. It is less of a pleasure to report that the disc contains no supplements at all, a distinct disappointment given the amount of information about the film's history that exists. One can only hope that Warner Bros. has The Magnificent Ambersons in its sights for a full-blown Blu-ray release that would correct the supplement oversight and maybe even include Wellers's Journey Into Fear as had been once hinted at by the studio. For now though, The Magnificent Ambersons DVD is recommended, if grudgingly so. Certainly those of you who have made do with European DVD releases to date will be pleased by the much improved image component of the film that Warners has managed.
Humphrey Bogart: The Columbia Pictures Collection is a new release of the TCM Vault Collection by virtue of TCM's arrangement with Sony. Five titles are included, two of which are new to Region 1 DVD - Love Affair (1932) and more notably, Knock on Any Door (1949). The titles previously released by Sony itself are Tokyo Joe (1949), Sirocco (1951), and The Harder They Fall (1956).
The latter film, Bogart's final one before his untimely passing, is the best in the set. He plays a sportswriter fallen on hard times who allies himself with a promoter (Rod Steiger) intent in mounting a false build-up for his new discovery, a clumsy young giant of a fighter from Argentina. The Harder They Fall is a bit of a throw-back to the grit, style, and cynicism of Bogart's 1940s roles, but the world weary, cynical, be-damned-to-you character he plays is a weaker, more easily influenced character than the likes of Rick Blaine or Harry Morgan, but then age and disappointment will do that to one. The film has a pleasing noir ethos in its cynical loner chief character and the fact that he's played by Bogart - one of the iconic figures of the style. The film's look with the harsh black and white photography (by Burnett Guffey) and the almost documentary-like feel that director Mark Robson achieves in the New York fight sequences also contributes strongly. In its first DVD release, the film looked and sounded quite good. For TCM/Sony's new release, it does appear to have received a new 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, but other than looking a little cleaner there's not a substantial difference. Knock on Any Door is the next best film in the set. Bogart plays a lawyer who takes on the case of an underprivileged kid (John Derek in a fine performance) facing a murder charge. Director Nicholas Ray builds suspense effectively and with flashbacks introduced judiciously, the film delivers a serious if familiar story that maintains interest well and still stands up today. The 1.37:1 image looks bright and is fairly sharp. Clean whites and deep blacks are very evident. There are a few speckles, but nothing of any significance. Sirocco and Tokyo Joe are of a piece, both decent if unmemorable melodramas from 1951 and 1949 respectively that attempt unsuccessfully to invoke the thematic and stylistic glories of Bogart's greatest 1940s roles. Both were produced by Santana, Bogart's own production company, with Sirocco starring Bogart as a gun-runner working in 1920s Damascus and Tokyo Joe starring him as an ex-World War 2 pilot who after the war, returns to Tokyo where he had operated a bar before the war. Both films are presented as originally released at 1.37:1 and seem equivalent in image and sound quality to the original Sony DVD releases - quite sharp with good contrast, modest levels of grain, and a few speckles. Finally, we touch on Love Affair, the only picture that Bogart made during a six-month contract with Columbia in 1932. The film is basically Dorothy Mackaill's as she plays a young heiress who falls in love with a flying instructor (Bogart) who is also a hopeful airplane motor inventor. It is of course interesting to see a young, clean-shaven Bogart, but the film is pretty formulaic love affair stuff. Columbia loaned Bogart to Warner Bros. right after Love Affair which suggests what they thought of Bogart's film prospects. The full frame image is quite workable if a little soft at times. The five films in TCM's set are nicely packaged using a unique spring-loaded approach that works well (don't get over-anxious and try to pull the discs out; it doesn't work that way). Each film is presented on its own pressed disc and while including no subtitles, features introductions by TCM's Ben Mankiewicz; various galleries of posters, lobby cards, scene and publicity stills; behind-the-scenes photos; and on Love Affair, a Bogart biography. Highly recommended.
A look at one of the posters for It All Came True immediately tells you where it fits in Humphrey Bogart's career. Sporting the Warner Bros. name and with Ann Sheridan's name above the title and before Bogart's, the film could only come from the late 30s or very early 40s.
And so it is - a 1940 production in which Bogart is a gangster on the run after killing a policeman with the gun of the boyfriend (Jeffrey Lynn) of a former night club entertainer (Sheridan). The story comes down to trying to save the boarding house that Sheridan's and Lynn's mothers run, with Bogart's character playing a key role. The film's premise is a bit much, but the blend of drama, music, comedy, and sentimentality is hard to resist. Besides, who can and why would you want to resist Ann Sheridan! The film's role for Bogart is no stretch for him by 1940, but any Bogart is worthwhile. It All Came True is available from the Warner Bros. Archive as a MOD release delivered at 1.37:1. The image is in great shape, offering crispness, brightness, and very good detail throughout. Some modest grain is evident and only a few minor speckles intrude at all. The mono sound delivers the dialogue clearly without hiss or distortion. There are no subtitles and the only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended.
Classic Blu-ray Reviews
The Roots of Heaven is in some ways a failed epic, but there is so much still to like about it that it's a pleasure to report that Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation is quite admirable.
The screenplay is rather murky at times and one senses real passion behind the tale of trying to end the merciless slaughter of the great African elephant only sporadically, but the cinematographic trappings and the earnest efforts of a rather impressive cast shine through. Produced by Darryl Zanuck, released through 20th Century-Fox, and shot in CinemaScope mainly on location in Chad by director John Huston, The Roots of Heaven is at least a very impressive-looking document both in the vast African terrain and the herds of magnificent elephants. Its story about an idealist, Morel (Trevor Howard, replacing William Holden who was unavailable due to other commitments), trying to save the elephants from extinction due to senseless poaching for their ivory tusks is based on the prescient 1950s novel by Romain Gary. Though some progress has been made in the past half century, poaching is still an issue and it gives the film a resonance with contemporary audiences. Morel tries first through moral suasion (petition, leaflets) to gain support until he must finally resort to armed conflict to counter the poachers. In his endeavours, he is aided among others by a disgraced former British soldier (Errol Flynn, partly cast for his marquee value after Holden was unavailable for the Morel part), a world-weary bar girl (Juliette Greco), and an African nationalist (Edric Connor) with his own political agenda. Also appearing are Orson Welles as an American broadcaster and Eddie Albert as an eager news photographer. All the main players are very effective, particularly Howard but also notably Flynn playing a role that for him offered little scope indeed.Twilight Time presents the film on Blu-ray in a very impressive 2.35:1 transfer. Colours are bright and accurate while the image as a whole is very sharp and offers excellent detail both in facial features and the various textures of the magnificent exteriors while retaining a pleasingly modest level of grain. There is no evidence at all of any untoward digital manipulation. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master audio does an at-times surprisingly effective job with Malcolm Arnold's fine score. The music is dynamic and even suggests some modest LFE on occasion. Dialogue is clear and exhibits some directionality. There are no subtitles. The only supplement is a very good one - an isolated score track that allows one to enjoy a reprise of Arnold's efforts. Highly recommended.