|Classic Coming Attractions #107
Welcome to another Classic Coming Attractions column. Readers will recognize the delay in this edition of the column due to my recent health-related issues, by virtue of the inclusion of many announcement dates that have now passed, but I haven't removed any of them, just so that we all haven't missed something.
For this edition, then, I've focused strongly on getting all the classic release news up to date.
I also offer ten classic reviews including DVDs of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III (from the TCM Vault Collection), Westward the Women (from the Warner Archive), and The Prince and the Showgirl (from Warner Bros.). Blu-ray review coverage includes Swamp Water, The Big Heat and Journey to the Centre of the Earth (all from Twilight Time), A Trip to the Moon (from Flicker Alley), To Catch a Thief and Chinatown (from Paramount), and David Lean Directs Noel Coward (from Criterion).
Finally as a heads up for the future, some of you who yourselves keep well up to date on DVD releases are probably aware of VCI Entertainment's recent introduction of its classic Rank Collection line. If not, the company's initiative is very much worth noting and I am working on a focus article on it that will hopefully lead off in my next Classic Coming Attractions column (a column which I hope won't be nearly as long in coming out as this latest one).
With that, let's go on with the show! (Note that I have also updated the new announcements database as usual.)
Classic DVD and Blu-ray Reviews
Twentieth Century-Fox's 1941 Jean Renoir film Swamp Water (never previously available to the home video market) features two of my favourite classic players - Dana Andrews and Walter Huston.
It's thanks to Twilight Time that we now have this little gem on Blu-ray, a film long overlooked and under-appreciated. "Back-woods" films of the era (Swamp Water, for example, focuses on troubled life in an Okefenokee-area Georgia town) often compromised themselves with mannered dialogue and stereotypical values, but such are mercifully avoided here in what is a very emotional and compelling tale. The film is the first American film by French director Jean Renoir, working at Fox with a project of his own choosing. As I mentioned, we have the pleasure of a Dana Andrews/Walter Huston tandem headlining the film, here offering a son/father character pairing. But also in the fine cast are such Fox stalwarts of the time as Walter Brennan, John Carradine, Ward Bond, and Anne Baxter. Throw in the likes of familiar faces Eugene Pallette, Guinn Big Boy Williams, Russell Simpson, Joe Sawyer and one has professionalism and pleasure indeed. One of the film's many technical virtues is its hauntingly beautiful photography courtesy of Peverell Marley, and it is in respect to this aspect particularly that Twilight Time's new Blu-ray release really shines. The 1.37:1 image is simply superb, offering a lustrous black and white image that has it all - deep blacks, clean whites, a beautifully-detailed grey scale, and excellent shadow detail. A DTS-HD Master Audio mono track delivers clear dialogue with so sign of hiss or crackle. Supplements include an isolated 2.0 DTS-HD Master mix of David Buttolph's score and an 8-page pamphlet containing notes by film historian Julie Kirgo and film artwork. Swamp Water on Blu-ray is highly recommended.
Flicker Alley's Blu-ray release of Georges Melies's A Trip to the Moon is truly one of the most astounding Blu-ray releases so far offered. The film is familiar to so many due to its timeless image of what appears to be a shell impacting the right eye of the Man on the Moon.
Considering the 1902 film's checkered quality of availability and the amount of time and effort that has been lovingly invested in its restoration, the resulting home theatre product is exquisite. It deserves the full support of any film scholar or enthusiast who cares for the history of film in even the smallest degree. Of course, all the images of A Trip to the Moon have been familiar to film fans almost forever, but it has been Martin Scorsese's film Hugo that so richly evoked its images recently that has also helped bring it so to the fore again. None of the original hand-dyed copies of Melies's film had been known to survive until one was found in Spain a decade and a half ago. It was in such fragmentary condition that it was not thought safe to restore or even handle by French archivists who received a copy. Enter modern technology in 2010, and three experts in worldwide film restoration - Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, and Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage - joined forces to reassemble and restore the individual 13, 375 frames they had to deal with. The result of their efforts is gloriously available to us all in Flicker Alley's Blu-ray release - packaged in an attractive SteelBook case. The artistry of Melies's work, its exuberance, and even prescient nature - despite an air of lovable naivite at times - all shine gloriously through, delivering clarity never before visible and a real sense of depth. Enhancing the overall visual experience is the new soundtrack commissioned from the French group "Air" and delivered on a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Supplementary items are highlighted by The Extraordinary Voyage (2011), a fascinating new 65-minute documentary directed by Serge Blomberg and Eric Lange which chronicles the journey of A Trip to the Moon from its original 1902 production through subsequent rediscoveries to the premiere of the new restoration on the opening night of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Other extras include a restored black and white edition of the film from 35mm elements and featuring two separate audio music tracks; two Melies shorts (1898's The Astronomer's Dream and 1904's The Eclipse); and a 24-page insert booklet. Flicker Alley's Blu-ray release also includes a DVD version. A must-buy Blu-ray!
Criterion's release of David Lean Directs Noel Coward is one of the most welcome of the company's recent Blu-ray efforts. It's a box set of four digipaks containing Blithe Spirit (1945), Brief Encounter (1945), In Which We Serve (1942), and This Happy Breed (1944).
The familiar Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve are comfortable and evergreen entertainments that are well known to classic enthusiasts and highly welcome to yours truly of course, but it is the appearance of This Happy Breed that makes me most pleased. An epic chronicle of a working-class family over the 1919-1939 period in a London suburb, the film achieves an enviable blend of the humanity of everyday life during a period of significant social and political unease. Events are seen through the eyes of Frank and Ethel Gibbons, a couple with three children, who experience both joy and tragedy. Playing the pair are Robert Newton and Celia Johnson and their work is joyous indeed, with Newton really scoring heavily. Interestingly, both Noel Coward himself and Robert Donat might have been cast, but saner heads (particularly that of David Lean) prevailed against either of them. The film also features beautiful Technicolor cinematography by Ronald Neame, and Criterion's transfer of the British Film Institute's (BFI's) 2008 restoration looks sublime, both in terms of crispness and image detail, as well as its colour fidelity and brightness which impart a pleasing colour level while never giving the story an unrealistic look. Both Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve have never looked better, again drawn from their 2008 BFI restorations, and on Blu-ray offering strikingly bright crispness and image detail that is consistently high. Then we have Blithe Spirit, a complete change of pace from the seriousness of the other three titles. It is Noel Coward's supernatural farce that had such stage success in both London and New York, before making it to film with a cast of endless pleasures served up by the likes of Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford, Kay Hammond, and Constance Cummings. Its Blu-ray transfer of its 2008 BFI restoration fares equally well as the other titles in terms of image quality, with the Technicolor colour saturation levels joyously enhancing the story's otherworldly angle. All four films offer cleaned-up LPCM mono sound that provides consistently clear dialogue. Fans of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 in Brief Encounter will be pleased to know that it has received its full due. English SDH titles are provided. I won't go into exhaustive detail on the set's supplements, but you won't be disappointed. There is an incredible array of documentaries, new and vintage interviews, crew portrayals, trailers, as well as Bruce Eder's venerable but still impressive audio commentary for Brief Encounter. The set also has a 48-page booklet that covers the four titles in terms of articles on Lean and Coward, the films themselves, cast and crew listings, and stills. Familiar British contributors such as Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, and Kevin Brownlow are all involved. Very highly recommended indeed. It seems likely to me that Criterion's David Lean Directs Noel Coward will be a leading contender for the best Blu-ray release of 2012.
A couple of evergreens have recently been released on Blu-ray by Paramount - Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1954, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly) and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway).
I don't think new words are really needed from me regarding the considerable virtues of these two titles, so I've restricted myself to a quick review of the discs' merits. To Catch a Thief had at least three DVD incarnations over the past 10 years, each improving on the previous one in terms of image quality and supplementary content. As one might hope, the new Blu-ray version is now clearly the one to get. It is based on the Paramount 2009 Centennial remastering, but that's no problem. The 1.78:1 image is a model of consistency in terms of colour fidelity, sharpness, and detail imparting a noticeable sense of depth whether in daylight or even nighttime scenes. The 2.0 Dolby TrueHD sound balances dialogue clearly and effectively with both the music and the modest sound effects. English SDH subtitling is provided. The previous DVD supplements are ported over, including Drew Casper's fine audio commentary, some eight featurettes, various galleries, and the trailer in HD. Highly recommended. With a similar DVD history of improved transfers over the past decade as that of To Catch a Thief, Chinatown‘s arrival on Blu-ray from Paramount is cause for celebration and it looks pretty good although I believe even further improvement could be achieved. (I'm not sure but Paramount may have resorted to its recent Centennial Collection transfer rather than striking a new one.) The 2.35:1 image is nicely detailed and colours look good. Facial features and clothing textures shine. Crispness is very good a lot of the time, but there are some instances of softness. A 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track provides a good solid listen with clear dialogue but not a hugely expansive sense of spaciousness. An English mono Dolby TrueHD sound track, DD monotracks in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and subtitles for all four languages are also provided. The previous DVD supplements are provided including audio commentary by screenwriter Robert Towne and director Brad Fincher, a raft of impressive featurettes comprising some 2 ½ hours of material, and the trailer in HD. Despite a niggling feeling that Paramount's Blu-ray of Chinatown could look even slightly better, it's recommended.
Although I was a big-time science fiction fan as a youth, I don't remember that the 1959 release of Twentieth Century-Fox's production of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (directed in CinemaScope by Henry Levin) occasioned much curiosity in me at the time and it wasn't until a few years later that I caught up with the film.
I do remember then though how much I was impressed, enjoying immensely the special effects evoking the planet's underground beauty and treasure, as well as the somewhat giddy plot surrounding James Mason's irascible Scottish geologist, Pat Boone's callow young student assistant, an Icelandic assistant (Peter Ronson) with a pet duck, and Arlene Dahl as a lovely widow who all together set out on a fantastic voyage of discovery that begins in Iceland. Now experienced again at least 20 years later on Twilight Time's fine Blu-ray release, one's time remains very well-spent. The main characters remain appealing while mesmerizing indeed are the colourful and fun special effects evoking exploding volcanoes, crashing boulders (that put one in mind of Raiders of the Lost Ark), floods, flesh-eating reptiles, and beautiful crystalline images - all generated long before the time of today's pervasive CGI. And then we've got the entrancing score by Bernard Herrmann that really heightens the adventurous nature of the whole experience. Twilight Time's 2.35:1 Blu-ray image does an excellent with colour fidelity and overall saturation. The image is quite crisp with virtually no tendency to any softness and no sign of edge effects. Skin tones are accurate. Some modest grain is occasionally evident on an element that looks quite clean. Substantial success has been achieved with the sound, a 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track really drawing a lot of life out of the organs and the occasional harp delivering Herrmann's score. Strong bass effects are particularly noticeable. Dialogue is well-balanced with effects. There are no subtitles. Disc supplements include a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio isolated track, Spanish- and English-language trailers, and an 8-page pamphlet that features a production article by film historian Julie Kirgo and some artwork. Highly recommended.
The Big Heat is one of those films that makes one appreciate the old studio system. Columbia had purchased the story rights for William McGivern's novel "The Big Heat" (about police sergeant Dave Bannion who is assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of a fellow police officer) after its serialization in the Saturday Evening Post and assigned the writing of the screenplay to veteran film noir scenarist Sydney Boehm.
Director Fritz Lang had the opportunity to work on revisions with Boehm. The resulting script was tight and suspenseful with finely delineated characters. The studio then turned to its roster of contract talent to cast the film. Glenn Ford was chosen to play Bannion. Ford, who had been a Columbia contract player for over a decade and for years had often seemed rather fresh-faced and young for his roles, was starting to develop more character in his face by the early 1950s. He suited the Bannion character to a "T," offering earnestness and doggedness tinged with a hint of weariness all of which seemed just right for the role. He was well paired with Gloria Grahame who played Debby and who had just recently won a supporting actress Oscar for her work in 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful. It is Gloria Grahame who most sticks in your mind once The Big Heat is over - her along with Lee Marvin, who is brilliant as Vince Stone. His work is as fine a portrait of an evil, well-groomed henchman who toadies to the boss and ultimately proves to be the typically cowardly underling as you're likely to see in a film. Lang recognized this and, as an example, chose to focus on Marvin's reaction to having thrown the scalding coffee in Debby's face rather than on Debby herself. The Big Heat received only a modest positive response in terms of both critical and box-office reaction upon its release in North America. Overseas, it was different as both French and British critics offered very complimentary comments on both the film's script and its execution by Lang. Since then, the film has come to be recognized as one of the great films noir. It's certainly one of the most violent and sadistic of them. In Bannion, the film also foreshadows such more modern cop anti-heroes as "Dirty Harry." Bannion ultimately triumphs but the cost is his home, the safety of his daughter and the lives of four women, and for a time, his job on the police force. The film packs a lot into its brisk 89-minute running time and has lost none of its impact over the almost 50 years since its initial release. A decade ago, Sony first released the film on DVD in a rather mediocre effort, and then revisited it to better effect 3 years ago. Now, we have the charm transfer-wise in Twilight Time's new 1.37:1 Blu-ray release. The HD Sony master that Twilight Time had access to is glorious indeed. The result is a very crisp image that simply looks lustrous in its black aspects and exactingly-detailed in its reproduction of image detail, shadowy or not. Film grain is very pleasingly evident. The sound has been well-reproduced via a DTS-HD Master Audio monotrack. There's nothing very showy here - just clear dialogue free of hiss and some gunfire that has decent heft. English SDH subtitling is provided. Disc supplements include an isolated score track, the original theatrical trailer, and an 8-page pamphlet containing production notes by film historian Julie Kirgo and some artwork. Very highly recommended.