Fantasy for the family that thinks together: Time Bandits on Criterion Blu-ray

At his creative height in the 1980s, Terry Gilliam wrote and directed some of the dizziest, imaginative fantasies ever projected. He would mash up well-known myths, social satire, amazing (but cheap) special effects, the surreal comedy of Monty Python (he was, after all, their token Yank), and a busily baroque visual style all his own. His more recent works, such as The Zero Theorem, are a pale reflection of what he once could do.

Time Bandits, briefly the top-grossing independent film ever, was his breakout hit. It came out as a bolt of merry lightning in 1981, reminding everyone who saw it that there was more to fantasy adventure than an endless stream of Star Wars and Conan rip-offs. Here was an irreverent tale of Robin Hood, Napoleon, Agamemnon, the Titanic, and the ultimate battle between God and Satan.

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Actually, in this movie they’re called the Supreme Being and Evil. The Supreme Being is played by Ralph Richardson as a fussy bureaucrat in a business suit. I doubt anyone else could have properly delivered a line like "I am the Supreme Being. I’m not entirely dim."

David Warner, one of the great villains of the last half century, plays Evil with appropriate relish, in a costume and makeup that must have been great fun to design. He has henchmen, of course, obsequious yes men whom he blows up on a whim.

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But let’s get to the story:

Young Kevin (Craig Warnock), a wise boy with idiotic parents, accidentally finds himself travelling through time with six motley and generally inept robbers. They started their criminal careers by stealing a map from the Supreme Being that shows holes in the fabric of time and space. With this map in their hands, they can rob Napoleon (Ian Holm) and escape into Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. "Mr." Hood, by the way, is played by John Cleese as an insufferable and idiotic nobleman proud to be slumming with "the poor."

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The robbers, played by little people–including David Rappaport as their leader and Kenny Baker (AKA R2D2)–start off greedy and self-centered, and constantly arguing with each other. But as Evil (who wants to get his hands on that map) comes after them, they have to learn to care for each other, and for Kevin.

Time Bandits is a family movie, in the sense that children and adults can all enjoy it. But it’s too scary for very young children. I would say it’s fine for kid seven and up. But it’s not appropriate for parents who don’t want their children laughing at God.

First Impression

imageThe disc comes in a thickish plastic case. The outer slipcover has a lenticular illustration that creates a 3D effect if you look at it straight on.

Remove the slipcover and open the case, and you’ll find the disc and, instead of Criterion’s usual book, a fold-out copy of the map so important to the plot. On the other side you’ll find an essay by David Sterritt and credits for both the film and disc.

The essay is alright, but there’s too much plot description and too much celebration, with too little real analysis.

When you insert the disc, it displays the aforementioned map, with standard Criterion menu on the left.

Like all Criterion Blu-ray discs, it has a timeline. You can bookmark any point in the movie. When you insert the disc for the second or third time, you’ll be asked if you want to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Gilliam, with the help of Art Director Norman Garwood and cinematographer Peter Biziou, filled the frame with little details to delight the eye and create a sense of wonder. That’s part of Gilliam’s signature style. The better the resolution, the more you get to enjoy.

Criterion’s 2K transfer, supervised by Gilliam, does justice to this busy image (yes, it probably would have looked even better in 4K). Details are sharp, and the film grain is visible but not distracting. In a couple of shots, the skin tones looked a little over-saturated, but I’m not sure that wasn’t intentional.

How It Sounds

Like most commercial features of the 80s, Time Bandits was released theatrically in the 35mm version of Dolby Stereo. To recreate that type of mix in home media, all you need is two-track stereo media, a surround audio system, and enough knowledge to press the Surround or Surround Decode button on your receiver’s remote control. (You don’t need to press that button for a more modern 5.1 mix.)

Criterion offers the original Dolby Stereo mix as an uncompressed, PCM, 24-bit, two-track stereo mix. The only thing missing: They don’t tell you that this is a Dolby Surround mix. I don’t know why. So you have to know, on your own, to turn on the Surround or Surround Decode feature on your receiver.

By the way, it sounds great.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Terry Gilliam and cast members: The various people who speak on this track, prepared in 1997 for the Criterion Laserdisc release, were recorded separately. You don’t get to hear them talking to each other. Gilliam does the lion’s share of the talking, while Craig Warnock (a young adult by 1997) adds quite a bit. So does Michael Palin, who in addition to acting co-wrote the screenplay with Gilliam. John Cleese and David Warner talk a bit about their small parts. Interesting and fun.
  • Creating the Worlds of the Bandits: 23 minutes. HD. New. This documentary covers production and costume design, and tells the story of how the movie was shot, from the point of view of the designers.
  • Terry Gilliam and (film scholar) Peter Von Bagh: 80 minutes. A conversation recorded in 1998 at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, just before a screening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam recounts his life and career, with very little about Time Bandits.
  • Shelley Duvall: 9 minutes. Excerpt from a 1981 episode of TV show Tomorrow, where Duvall is interviewed by Tom Snyder. Kind or ironic since she has such a small role.
  • Still Gallery: Lots of behind the scenes photos. Didn’t go through all of it.
  • Trailer: Very funny in a meta way.

The Criterion Time Bandits Blu-ray disc goes on sale today.

The Mediocre Fascist: The Conformist comes to Blu-ray

Fascist states don’t really need that many committed fascists. But they do need ambitious, unscrupulous, and cowardly people.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant character study of a man lacking character, we see political murder as an act of a bureaucrat. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici as a confused, emotionally cut-off cog in the wheel of Mussolini’s government in the late 1930s.

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A civil servant with a "good" record, Marcello yearns for middle class respectability. To that end, he’s preparing to marry the bourgeois imageGiulia (Stefania Sandrelli), whom he doesn’t really love although he feels some fondness for her. Why shouldn’t he? She’d attractive and can hardly keep her hands off of him.

But their honeymoon provides an ideal tool for the government, which wishes to make a lesson out of Marcello’s old college professor–an anti-fascist activist now living in exile in Paris. Marcello, of course, takes the assignment.

While Trintignant plays Marcello as a nervous man who keeps his cards close to his chest, Sandrelli’s Giulia is an open book. She clearly adores her new husband, and doesn’t object in the slightest when he looks up an old professor. In fact, she becomes bosom pals with the professor’s much younger wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda as a self-assured sex goddess.

Marcello soon starts ditching his wife to visit this irresistible woman (remember that this is their honeymoon). Anna lets him seduce her, possibly because she understands the danger and wants to control him. But sexually, she’s clearly interested in Giulia, who doesn’t quite understand this other woman’s advances.

But The Conformist isn’t about sex. It’s about a man desperate to fit into society, even if that society is evil.

For a serious political drama, The Conformist is a surprisingly beautiful film. The sets, clothes, and makeup are as glamorous as an old-fashioned MGM musical. Visually, the film is set in an idealized 1930s, even though the story looks coldly at the reality of that horrible decade. This gives the film a sense of people not quite living in the real world. They’re comfortable, but we know they won’t be comfortable for long.

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Another curious aspect of this very serious drama: When it’s funny, it’s very funny. Not often, but on rare and brief occasions, it goes completely off the wall. There’s no reasonable way to explain the fascist bureaucrat with a desk covered in walnuts. But bits like this break the tension and never undermine the serious story.

The Conformist makes for great art and great entertainment. It’s sexy, vibrant, and suspenseful–with a story that makes you care not for the protagonist but for the people unfortunate enough to know him.

First Impression

imageThe Conformist arrives in a standard Blu-ray box inside a slip cover. The slip cover and the case display totally different graphics.

Inside, you’ll find one disc and a 27-page booklet, containing film credits and multiple short articles.

The first thing that comes up when you play the disc (after the FBI warning) is a logo for Video Cinema Arts Visions. Then the menu comes up.

The setup allows Italian or English audio, with English subtitles on or off. I selected the default: Italian audio, subtitles on.

How It Looks

The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot The Conformist with the intention that it would be shown in dye-transfer Technicolor prints. The beautiful transfer provided by Kino recreates the saturated colors that made those prints special.

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This is a film of colorful interiors and cold, snow-and-fog whites (I’ve never seen Paris look so chilly). Storaro captured these visuals magnificently. The Blu-ray does justice to his work.

How It Sounds

The slip cover announces that the audio would be in PCM stereo, which is odd because The Conformist was recorded and released in mono. The Video Cinema Arts Visions logo at the beginning of the movie is indeed in stereo. But once the movie really begins, it’s thankfully all mono.

And that’s uncompressed PCM mono. It sounds just fine.

And the Extras

Not much here. The only significant extra is a 57-minute documentary, In the Shade of the Conformist. It’s interesting when Bertolucci is talking, less so with the voice-of-god narrator. Fortunately, Bertolucci does most of the talking.

The only other supplement shows us two different English-language trailers–one from its original American release, and one from the 2013 restoration. The first one provides a good example of how fading color film can hurt a image.

In short, this is a great transfer of a great film. But the extras are slight.

The Conformist Blu-ray goes on sale November 25. Something to be thankful for just before Thanksgiving.

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Tombstone as Myth: My Darling Clementine on Blu-ray

By all rules of the western genre, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the whole middle part of the movie. And yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made.

Ford’s westerns, at their best, danced along a thin line between reality and myth. The characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions. But the atmosphere created by framing, lighting, and music suggests something bigger than the story of these people–the story of America..

Of all Ford’s westerns, Clementine gives us the greatest sense of myth. That’s hardly surprising, since it’s built around one of the west’s most famous legends–the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

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Yes, I know that it really happened. But the tall tales about this gunfight overtook actual history long before Ford rebuilt Tombstone in Monument Valley. And Ford and his screenwriters pretty much ignored history in their goal of creating an American myth.

Ford never used Monument Valley as extensively and as effectively as he does here. Every daytime exterior in the film uses the Valley as its background. When you’ve got Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons on the streets of a Deadwood right smack in Monument Valley, you know that you’re watching a myth.

The plot is simple. The Clantons rob Wyatt Earp’s cattle, and murder one of his brothers. So Wyatt (Henry Fonda), who was just passing through, becomes the town’s marshal, clearly without any ambitions beyond vengeance.

All that is set up in the first 20 or so minutes. Then the film all but forgets about vengeance. Instead, it introduces us to Tombstone, pictured as a wide open western town inching its way towards proper civilization.

And in that changing town, Wyatt Earp develops a complicated and not-always-imagecooperative friendship with Doc Holiday (Victor Mature). Holiday’s Mercurial, self-hating, and possibly suicidal personality makes it impossible to know when he’s with Wyatt, and when he’s against him. If you need any more proof that John Ford was a great director, consider this: He pulled a terrific, conflicted, and empathetic performance out of Victor Mature, a movie star known for being a bad actor. Even he would joke about it later in life. But here he even manages a slice of Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy without it looking ridiculous.

While praising the cast, I have to recognize Walter Brennan as the Clanton’s evil patriarch. This is one of the great villains in the movies–spiteful, angry, intelligent, and terrifying even to his own four sons. They’re as evil as he is, but considerably less intelligent. 23 years later, he played a comic variation of the same character in Support Your Local Sheriff.

Alas, the female leads scarcely appear to be their own people. Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, is little more than a symbol of civilized American womanhood. She’s the pure, perfect woman that Wyatt loves but can’t approach with anything but stiff politeness. And Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, lovesick and full of larceny, would be a horrible Mexican stereotype if some dialog didn’t define her as Apache. That doesn’t help.

The climatic gunfight is one of the best, with slow-building suspense before the bullets fly.

My Darling Clementine was John Ford’s first film after he was mustered out of the navy after World War II. In it, he took one of America’s strongest myths and made it his own.

First Impression

imageCriterion has given up their policy of putting DVDs and Blu-rays in the same package. Now, you have to buy one or the other.

The Blu-ray version of My Darling Clementine comes in a simple plastic case. There’s one disc, and a small foldout rather than a full book. The foldout is dominated by an essay by David Jenkins, "The Great Beyond."

As is standard for Criterion, the disc opens to the main menu the first time you insert it into a player. After that, it offers an option for Resume Playback. A timeline allows you to set bookmarks.

How It Looks

Like most films of its time, My Darling Clementine was shot in black and white, and in the Academy Ratio, 1.37×1. it’s one of the most visually striking films of its era.

Fox and Criterion have done a wonderful job on this 4k restoration. Fine details, including stubble on men’s chins, are clearly visible. The grayscale is excellent, from near-whites to deep blacks, with fine shadow detail.

How It Sounds

The audio is PCM 2.0 mono. As such, it succeeds in producing the original sound as well as could be imagined.

The Preview Cut

Like most Hollywood movies, My Darling Clementine was previewed and recut multiple times before its release in the final 97-minute version. One of those preview cuts, running 103 minutes, has survived.

The Blu-ray offers this preview cut as a supplement. The disc also contains a 42-minute documentary, narrated by UCLA’s . Robert Gitt. Both cuts, plus the documentary, were on the original Fox DVD release.

As Gitt reminds ups, this is "Not a director’s cut, but a work in progress." Both of these cuts were supervised by studio head Darryl Zanuck, and they’re almost certainly closer to each other than to Ford’s lost rough cut.

Most of the differences are minor. A few scenes go on a little longer, and these are seldom the best scenes. One scene is visually identical, but with different music cues. Overall, I prefer the release version.

But I wish that Zanuck had kept Ford’s original ending. Zanuck, in a memo, admitted regret for altering the ending for commercial reasons. Ford’s original ending, available now in the preview version, makes a big improvement.

Although transferred in HD, the preview cut doesn’t get the full 4K-mastered, 1080p treatment of the release cut. It looks like broadcast HD, with that annoying video smoothness that movies shot on film are not supposed to have.

And the Other Extras

  • Commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. This is a new commentary; not the one on the original Fox DVD. McBride covers pretty much every issue about the film, from historical inaccuracy to how Chihuahua becomes idolized once she’s dying. He even explained a few things about the gunfight that had me confused.
  • Print the Legend: 14 minutes, HD. New interview with western scholar Andrew C. Isenberg, author of Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life. He talks about the real Earp and Ford’s fiction.
  • David Brinkley Journal: "tombstone": 8 minutes. A 1963 NBC-TV piece on Tombstone. Moderately interesting.
  • Today: "Report on Monument Valley": 6 minutes. 1975 episode of NBC’s Today show. Talks about the location, the Navaho, and the movies. Doesn’t mention My Darling Clementine by name, but does mention the Tombstone set.
  • Lost and Gone Forever: 18 minutes. Video essay by Tag Gallagher. Discusses Ford’s early friendship with Earp, the different cuts, music, framing. Makes a good argument that Ford’s wartime experience influenced the film and made it Ford’s darkest work.
  • Bandit’s Wager: 14 minutes. 1916 western short starring and directed by Ford’s older brother, Francis Ford. John also plays a supporting role. I only figured out who is was by matter of subtraction; only three people in the movie. Not all that funny. Music by Donald Sosin.
  • Lux Radio Theater: 58 minutes; audio only. I have to confess, I got only 12 minutes into this 1947 radio adaptation of the film. 
  • Trailer

The Blu-ray is available now.

The American Dream turns into a nightmare, and a great American film needs to be seen

A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams–perhaps because he dreams too much– in King Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece, The Crowd. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary.

Even those who love silent film will often acknowledge that when it comes to character-driven, realistic, contemporary drama, talkies have a distinct advantage. But The Crowd makes one very special exception. Here we have reality–or something very close to it–without the aid of the human voice.

The Crowd is not a lost film, but it’s a difficult one to see. Warner Brothers, which owns this MGM title, has never released The Crowd on DVD or Blu-ray. If you want your own legal copy, you have to find an out-of-print, expensive laserdisc or VHS cassette. It’s currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant, but individual titles don’t stay up on that service for more than a few weeks. As far as I know, it’s not streaming anywhere else–at least not legally.

The Crowd follows the optimistic but ultimately disappointing life of John Sims, who comes to New York as a young man to make it big. The first time we see the adult John (James Murray in what I believe was his only starring role), he’s on a ferry to Manhattan, smiling and ready to conquer the world. He tells a fellow passenger (in an intertitle, of course) that he only wants an "opportunity." The look on the other man’s face is priceless.

A reverse shot shows us the Manhattan docks, which leads to a montage of New York City, including a couple of shots where the camera tilts up to reveal the high skyscrapers. Then the camera moves up one of those skyscrapers, and heads inside, where rows and rows of desks fill a vast room (yes, The Crowd influenced The Apartment). Finally, the camera finds John, now earning his living. But he’s just one toiler out of hundreds, eagerly waiting for the 5:00 bell that will let him leave the office.

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That image of the vast, dehumanizing room reoccurs much later in the film, in a surprising context. John has just become a father, and the vast maternity room stretches out with rows of beds. People are born to be lowly workers dreaming of an unattainable better life.

Director King Vidor (who also co-write the screenplay) condemns American society in The Crowd, but he also condemns John, a man whose imagination is greater than his real ambitions. He talks about his ship coming in, but he never seems to seriously guide it into a harbor. He works just hard enough to keep his job, refuses to socialize with his bosses, quits in a moment of anger, and rejects a job offer that feels like charity. And all this from a man with mouths to feed.

Murray gives an excellent performance here, but Eleanor Boardman gives a better one–one of silent cinema’s greatest acting jobs–as his long-suffering wife, Mary. We first meet her as a flirtatious but innocent young woman on a Coney Island date. On her wedding night (on a train to Niagara Falls), she is shy and scared. In a later breakfast scene, her frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment are palpable. She loves John, and you can see that even when she’s mad at him. And he gives her plenty of reasons to be mad at him.

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Boardman married Vidor two years before they made The Crowd. Three years later they divorced. I can’t help wondering if a real troubled marriage helped her understand her character.

The Crowd is a serious film, but it has moments of joy and laughter. The ending is ambiguous. It’s a happy ending, in that John and Mary are happy when we last see them. But the basic problems are still there. Vidor gives you no reason to believe that the happiness will last.

I first saw The Crowd at a Los Angeles museum screening in 1973. It was some 30 years before I could see it again, on Turner Classic Movies. A year or so later, I saw it at the PFA. Last night, almost a decade after that screening, I got to watch it on Warner Archive Instant. Outside of the current, temporary situation, it’s not an easy film to see.

But it’s one that should be seen. Warners should give it a thorough restoration (the streaming version shows serious nitrate degradation in some shots), and make it readily available to theaters on DCP and 35mm. And then they should make it available on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with commentary and extras . And if Warners won’t do it, they should license the film to Criterion, or the Film Foundation, or UCLA, or someone else who doesn’t have to worry about stockholders.

Six years after making The Crowd, Vidor made a sequel of sorts, Our Daily Bread. It’s an interesting picture, but far from a great one. If I was to put The Crowd on a double bill with anything, I would bill it with Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July. Yes, one’s a drama, and the other a comedy. Yet they have some interesting themes running through both.

But for now, just catch The Crowd while you can.

Note: Soon after posting this article, I received the following good news from a Warner spokesperson:

The film has not been released on DVD yet as they feel it needs a restoration, which it will at some point but for now, fans can watch the film on WAI.

Also, the article makes it sound as if the film is only on the short for a short period of time. It’s not. Films do come off and new ones will come up but it’s not as if they are only up for a few weeks before coming down. Also, there is a column on the site noting which films are coming off so fans have notification of this ahead of time at http://instant.warnerarchive.com/browse.html#CF_2461-3426.

Red River on Blu-ray: Of men and cattle

To those who consider westerns mindless shoot-em-ups, and dismiss John Wayne as a talentless reactionary symbol, I can think of no better answer than Howard Hawks’ Red River. And outside of a movie theater, I can think of no better way to see it than in this new Criterion Blu-ray release.

In Tom Dunson, Wayne found his first complex, nuanced character–a man who starts out as the movie’s hero and slowly becomes its villain. Even then, he’s an honorable and sympathetic villain, and you understand why he behaves as he does. But you nevertheless root for the other guy.

That other guy is the orphan Tom raised as his own, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift in his breakout role). They love each other as father and son, but under the strain of a long and dangerous cattle drive, their conflicting ways of handling hardship and managing hired hands turns them against onr another.

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Tom Dunson is a hard and determined man. He killed other men to establish his Texas ranch. In his defense, the other guys always drew first, but they wouldn’t have drawn at all if he was the sort who negotiated. But as the post-Civil War southern economy threatens to destroy all he worked and fought for, he gambles on a dangerous longshot–driving his immense herd across a thousand miles of potentially deadly territory. Matt, ever the loyal son, will help him lead a bunch of hired hands and thousands of cows across mountains and plains that may be infested with rustlers and Comanches.

In addition to Matt, Tom has a sidekick, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). Older and in some ways wiser than the others, he’s the loyal friend who tries to steer Tom away from his darker tendencies.

And Tom’s tendencies get very dark. As the drive drags on and the dangers increase, the men begin to grumble. Tom reacts with anger, pigheadedness, bullying, and eventually violence.

But Matt is one apple that clearly fell far from the tree. He treats the men with respect. He listens. He defends them when Tom becomes violent. A confrontation becomes inevitable.

This personal story plays out against an epic background. Russell Harlan’s beautiful black-and-white location photography has the mythic look of a John Ford western–a major departure from Hawks’ usual matter-of-fact visual style. And Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score suggests that there’s something going on beyond the story of two men leading a cattle drive.

Unfortunately, the film reflects the almost subconscious racism of its time. Early on, Duson–basically at this point a squatter– kills a man trying to protect his employer’s property. I don’t believe that would have been acceptable if not for the convenient fact that both employer and employee are Mexican. Native Americans, of course, are treated as simple savages.

Like all great westerns, Red River is about masculinity. But it’s about two kinds of masculinity, and two very different kinds of men.

The ending has generated a lot of controversy since the movie opened in 1948. That’s all I’ll say about it.

The Two Versions

imageIf you’ve already seen Red River, chances are you’ve seen the pre-release version, originally shown in previews. The theatrical version runs about six minutes shorter.

After previewing his original cut in front of audiences, Hawks shortened the film. He also replaced narrative intertitles–designed to look like pages in an old book–with first-person narration by Brennan. That that version screened in theaters in 1948. And that, Hawks always insisted, is the definitive Red River.

And yet the pre-release version somehow got released and accepted as something like a director’s cut. And most people, myself included, prefer the pre-release version. The intertitles enhance the epic feel, while Brennan’s narration just gets annoying. And the ending, considerably shorter in the theatrical version (for legal reasons explained in the extras), works much better in the longer cut. In the theatrical version, everything gets resolved too quickly.

But you can make up your own mind. Criterion gives us both cuts.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages Red River in a thick cardboard box containing a disc sleeve and a book. The book is Borden Chase’s short novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,  that Chase and Charles Schnee adapted into the Red River screenplay.

The disc sleeve contains four discs and another book. Well, a 28-page booklet with two articles on the film and both film and disc credits.

The discs are stacked, two on the left, and two on the right. You have to remove one disc to get to the one beneath it. This configuration always makes me worry that I’ll damage a disc. I haven’t yet.

The two discs on the left are DVDs; on the right, Blu-rays. Following Criterion’s current policy, everything is on both discs. I only looked at the Blu-rays.

The first disc contains the theatrical cut, plus a few extras. The second contains the pre-release version, with additional extras. I don’t know why they didn’t use Blu-ray’s (and DVD’s) seamless branching feature to put both films on one disc. There would probably have been enough room for all of the extras, as well.

How It Looks

Red River is a beautiful example of 1940s black-and-white photography. Much of the film was shot in twilight or around campfires, requiring good shadow detail. The many long shots, showing wagons, galloping horses, and cows moving across vast stretches of open land require fine detail to make their impact.

Criterion’s 2k transfer manages all of this. Ninety-five percent of the time, this Blu-ray (or perhaps I should say these Blu-rays) looks great–from the mountains to the clothes to the faces seen only in shadow. Unfortunately, one of Red River’s most spectacular shots–a slow pan across the cattle just before the drive starts–looks horrible. In both versions, this shot is ruined by what looks like a combination of heavy film grain and digital artifacts.

How It Sounds

The PCM mono soundtrack is exactly what it should be. It doesn’t try to sound like anything beyond an optical soundtrack from 1948. But it sounds like a pristine soundtrack of the period, played in a really good theater.

And the Extras

By Criterion standards, these disappoint. There’s no commentary track, and no real documentary. Mostly you get interviews, some only in audio.

Disc One: The Theatrical version

  • About the Versions: Just a paragraph of written text about the two cuts.
  • Peter Bogdanovich on Red River: 17 minutes. The film historian and sometimes director explains Hawks’ esthetics and simple visual style. He also discusses the two versions.
  • Hawks and Bogdanovich: Criterion divided this 16-minute this audio interview from 1972 into 7 section. It’s worth a listen. I was surprised to discover that Hawks regretted shooting the film in black and white. Personally, I’m glad he did.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes.

Disc Two: The Prerelease Version

  • Molly Haskell: 16 minutes. The critic and historian discusses Red River’s gender issues, and Hawks’ approach to genre. Like me, she prefers the pre-release cut.
  • Lee Clark Mitchell: 13 minutes, The author of Westerns: making the Man in Fiction and Film talks about the western as a literary and cinematic genre, masculinity, and ties it all to Red River.
  • Borden Chase: 10 minutes. Audio excerpts from a 1969 interview, separated into four chapters. He talks a good deal about how Hawks changed the ending. He wasn’t happy with that.
  • Lux Radio Theatre: 59 minutes. Radio adaptation with much of original cast. I didn’t listen to it.

Red River is already on sale.

Comedy and Popularity: Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman on Blu-ray

It might be possible to watch Harold Lloyd’s 1925 masterpiece, The Freshman, without laughing, or without hoping that the protagonist will win the popularity he so deeply wants. But it wouldn’t be easy. Every shot in this film is brilliantly designed to make you either laugh or care–or both.

Lloyd’s "glasses" character truly came into his own in The Freshman. He’s more than just the brash, clever, ambitious, and opportunistic young American of Safety Last. Here "Harold Lamb" is a naïve college freshman, caught in the tide of peer pressure, desperately wanting to be liked and admired by his fellow students. In his determination to become popular, he unknowingly becomes the class clown. Everyone pretends to like him, but they’re all laughing behind his back.

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How can you watch a story like that and not be moved? This kid has spunk to spare. Even when his ineptitude makes a mess of things, his spirit and fortitude seem admirable.

What’s more, the movie is peppered with brilliant, extended comic sequences–although none top the climax of Lloyd’s Safety Last. Silent comedy, which don’t have to pause for the laughter to die down so that the audience hear the next line, could build one gag on top of another, producing an unstoppable locomotive of laughter. Lloyd was one of the masters of this technique.

Consider the Fall Frolic sequence. Harold is hosting the big party. It’s clearly hurting him financially, but he springs for a tailor-made tuxedo. Unfortunately, the tailor is subject to fainting spells, and has only managed to baste the tux –it’s not properly sewn together. So we have Harold trying to be the life of the party while his guests are secretly laughing at him, his suit is coming apart, and an elderly tailor is sneaking around, trying to fix the disintegrating tux without being seen–and without fainting.

And all the while, the local working girl who loves him looks on, far more aware than Harold of his real status. And his real worth.

I’m not sure if Jobyna Ralston was the best of Lloyd’s leading ladies, or simply the one who was there when Lloyd reached his artistic maturity. She’s not as funny as Mildred Davis, who after Safety Last gave up a career as his on-screen ingénue to become his real-life wife. But Ralston’s on-screen persona seemed both pure and worldly, sexy and motherly. She could deliver a "believe in yourself" pep talk that would save the day–even in a silent movie.

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I suppose I should explain why I called this film "Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman," even though the directing credit goes to Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Lloyd produced the film, and had complete control. Historians pretty much agree that Lloyd, who never took a directing credit, was the leader of the collaborative team that made his films.

The auteur is not always the director.

First Impression    

imageThis unusually thick three-disc set comes in a cardboard slipcover. The fold-out container inside has a cover designed as the Tate College 1925 yearbook.

Inside, on the left, are two DVDs stacked together. You have to remove disc 1 to access disc 2. On the right, a single Blu-ray disc contains the same content as the DVDs–looking and sounding better, of course.

Also in the box is a thin booklet dominated by an article by Stephen Winer, "Speedy Saves the Day! A Harold Lamb Adventure!" Mostly, this article puts the movie in its’ 1925 context. The booklet also has an "About the Transfer" page and disc credits.

How It Looks

This is one of the best transfers of a silent film I’ve yet seen–for the most part clear and sharp as a tack. Whether the image is pure black-and-white or tinted (the tints are based on instructions that came with the negative), it’s a beauty to behold.

I thought I saw, very briefly, some nitrate deterioration. It went by so fast I’m not entirely sure. (And no, I didn’t go back and look for it. I was enjoying the film too much.)

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How It Sounds

This version comes with a new chamber orchestra score composed and conducted by my favorite silent film accompanist, Carl Davis. Like his Safely Last score, this one is heavily flavored with jazz–appropriate for Lloyd, whose work is so much of the jazz age.

I love Davis’ work, but he made a serious mistake here. The music in the climactic football game was too subdued. It’s an exciting scene that deserves exciting music.

The score is presented in two-track stereo, uncompressed PCM. It sounds great.

Much as I love this score, I wish they had also included Robert Israel’s score from the previous Warner Brother’s release (part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 2). That one, too, is excellent. With silent films, the more scores, the merrier.

And the Extras

No wonder the DVD version comes on two discs. There’s a lot of stuff here.

  • Commentary by film historian Richard Bann, archivist Richard Correll, and critic Leonard Maltin. A bit of a disappointment, especially when you consider how well these three men know the subject. While their talk contains some social and historical insights, the three (who were recorded together) spend too much time explaining what’s onscreen and just enjoying the movie. This extra track is also on the above-mentioned Warner Brothers release.
  • Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life: 30 minutes. In 1966, Lloyd combined a re-edited version of The Freshman with an introduction and some narrated clips from his other films, and called the cobbled-together feature Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life.  This excerpt contains everything in Funny Side of Life except The Freshman. Its only real interest is in seeing how Lloyd marketed his films to a new generation.
  • Short films: I’ve always preferred Lloyd in features than in shorts. Here are the three shorts included in this package:
    • The Marathon: 14 minutes. This early 1919 one-reeler doesn’t provide many laughs. It’s also one of the most racist silent comedies I’ve seen, and that’s saying lot. Piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
    • An Eastern Westerner: (27 minutes). This cute 1920 western parody is easily the best of the three, with a climax that seems to parody Birth of a Nation. Carl Davis’ wonderful score adds to the merriment.
    • High and Dizzy: (27 minutes). Harold gets drunk and walks along a skyscraper’s edge. Moderately funny and historically interesting. Another Carl Davis score.
  • Conversation with Kevin Brownlow and Richard Correll: 40 minutes. Our leading silent film historian and Lloyd’s personal archivist discuss their own initial Lloyd experiences, both in terms of falling in love with his films and getting to know him personally. Interesting and enjoyable.
  • Harold Lloyd: Big Man on Campus:
    16 minutes. John Bengson, who’s written three books on silent comedy locations, discusses where The Freshman was shot.
  • Delta Kappa Alpha Tribute: 29 minutes. In 1964, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts honored Lloyd in a gala event. On stage, Jack Lemmon, Steve Allen, and one-time Lloyd collaborator Delmer Daves ask him about his career. They’re all relaxed and friendly. And Lloyd talks extensively about his work. The best extra on the disc.
  • What’s My Line: (7 minutes) Lloyd appears as the mystery guest in this 1953 TV game show clip. Inconsequential, but fun.

Criterion’s release of The Freshman, containing both DVDs and Blu-ray, go on sale today.

Kurosawa has fun: My Blu-ray review of Hidden Fortress

In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa used the samurai genre to examine the limits of human knowledge and objectivity. In Seven Samurai, he told an epic story of small-scale war and a feudal system in crisis. In Throne of Blood, he adapted Macbeth to meditate on fate. In The Hidden Fortress, he pretty much just had fun.

The first of three samurai action comedies he would make very close together, Hidden Fortress is easily his most entertaining movie. Some of his basic themes of humanism and charity sneak through, but this is really just a sit-back-and-enjoy popcorn movie. No surprise that it was a major influence on George Lucas’ first Star Wars flick.

Watching The Hidden Fortress again–this time on Blu-ray–I was struck by how conservatively it accepts the Japanese feudal class system–at least on the surface. The most high-ranking character in the story, Princess Yuki, is also the most noble in the positive sense of the word. She’s willing to sacrifice for others, shows tremendous courage and stamina, and can’t bear to see her people suffer.

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By comparison, the two comic peasants who bring us into the film and through whom we see much of the story, are petty, greedy, untrustworthy, and usually stupid. The only other significant lower-class character–a peasant girl who comes in about half-way through the movie, is a good and trustworthy person. But she’s totally subservient to her betters. When wounded in a battle, she begs to be left behind because she’s not worth saving.

This is a far cry from the topsy-turvy class system of The Seven Samurai.

Or is it? Princess Yuki ‘s compassion comes off as an exception, not the rule for the ruling class. And she brings out compassion in others, shaming them into being less proper and more caring. This is especially true with the film’s main hero, a loyal general played by the greatest action star of them all, Toshiro Mifune. imageStrong, determined, and graceful as a big cat (and just as deadly), he holds the camera whenever he’s onscreen. He uses his wits more than his sword on this journey–smuggling the princess and a fortune in gold out of enemy territory. But when violence is called for, he’s in complete control. In one sequence he furiously gallops a horse at full speed, with both hands holding his sword aloft for action. In a theater with a good audience, that scene never fails to bring cheers.

Overall, The Hidden Fortress is more suspense than action. The main characters–growing from two to five over the course of the story–must sneak passed checkpoints, disappear into crowds, and go unnoticed by soldiers looking for them…as they contend with their own conflicting motives.

For more on The Hidden Fortress, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 15: The Hidden Fortress.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages The Hidden Fortress in the company’s standard-sized transparent plastic box, with an illustration of Princess Yuki on the cover.

Inside, on the left, you’ll find a small booklet, taken up mostly with an article by Catherine Russell called “Three Good Men and a Princess.” The booklet also includes a few paragraphs on the transfer, and other information on the Blu-ray release.

On the right side, a Blu-ray disc and DVD are stacked together. You have to remove the Blu-ray to get to the DVD. Within the limits of the format, they contain the same content.

How It Looks

The Hidden Fortress was the first of six consecutive films Kurosawa shot in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, TohoScope. (These six were also his last black and white films.) Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki were clearly having fun with the new, wide frame. They place the two arguing peasants on opposite sides of the screen. Or they line all four or five main characters together. They’re enjoying the new toy and binging us in for the fun.

But they’re also using it to tell the story and create location. the wide screen emphasizes the setting, and The Hidden Fortress used it to bring us the deserts, forests, and river crossings that make the story so compelling. Apparently, no one told them that shooting deep focus was impossible with the anamorphic scope lens, so they went ahead and did it over and over.

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Criterion’s 2K transfer is very good, but not exceptional. Details are sharp and clear most of the time, but occasionally they’re soft. Contrast is acceptable.

How It Sounds

The Hidden Fortress was originally released in Perspecta Stereo–sometimes called Perspecta Sound because it wasn’t real stereo. It was a standard mono optical soundtrack with sub-audio cues that could turn each of the three front speakers on and off. In other words, you could have different sounds coming out of different speakers at different times, but not different sounds coming out of different speakers at the same time.

Most theatrical audiences, in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, have only heard it in mono.

This release contains both mono and restored Perspecta versions. On the Blu-ray, the mono version is presented in uncompressed PCM; the Perspecta in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. I listened to the opening credits music in both versions, and preferred the Perspecta, which sounded fuller and more impressive.

As near as I can tell, Kurosawa used the Perspecta’s fake stereo twice. In both cases, it was for an important sound effect off to the side.

Overall, the sound was very good for a Japanese film of this era.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince: One of Prince’s best commentaries. He goes into depth about widescreen, Kurosawa’s use of short lenses as well as the long ones he’s associated with, the film’s influence on not only George Lucas but also Sergio Leone, John Ford’s influence on the film, and the themes and moral view of what’s clearly Kurosawa’s least moralistic movie. This is a new commentary recorded in 2013.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 40 minutes. Just about every Criterion Kurosawa release has the appropriate episode from this 2003 Japanese documentary mini-series. This episode has little about the story and the use of widescreen. But it has some amusing stories about horses.
  • George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa: 8 minutes. The creator of Star Wars, who turned the two comic peasants of The Hidden Fortress into C3PO and R2D2, talks about how he discovered Kurosawa in college, his use of the camera, and, of course, the influence on his work. From the earlier DVD release.
  • Trailer

The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray goes on sale today.

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