The Lost Criterion Commentaries

Back in the days before DVDs, if you loved films and wanted to enjoy them in your own home, the Criterion Collection was king. Their Laserdiscs were the first to have careful, state-of-the-art transfers, the first to letterbox widescreen films, and the first to come in supplement-filled special editions.

They also, to my knowledge, invented the commentary track. The Laserdisc format had a "multilingual" feature that allowed a disc to have two (later four) mono soundtracks. Criterion brilliantly found a use for that, giving you the option to watch a movie while listening to a film historian, or the director, talk about the picture.

Laserdiscs were a niche market, and the major studios were often reluctant to put their own money into special editions. But they were happy to license their classics, and even some of their new films, to Criterion for that purpose. So in addition to the foreign and independent fare we associate with them today, Criterion got to release such titles as Bad Day at Black Rock, It’s A Wonderful Life, Jason and the Argonauts, From Russia with Love, The Great Escape, High Noon, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

And all of them had commentaries.

Today, all of these films are available on DVD. Many of them are even out on Blu-ray. But not by Criterion. The current releases often boast excellent transfers, extensive extras, and well-below Criterion prices. But they lack those wonderful, old Criterion commentaries.

Some of those commentaries are valuable artifacts in their own right. For instance, director John Sturges provided excellent insights in his Bad Day at Black Rock and Great Escape commentaries. He has since passed on, and will be recording no others. Somehow, these commentaries should be made available again.

Now the good news: Columbia’s forthcoming Blu-ray edition of Taxi Driver includes the Martin Scorsese/Paul Schrader commentary from the Criterion Laserdisc. (Columbia has sent me a copy and I hope to get my review up in the next few days). Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend.

If it isn’t, let’s hope that Criterion finds a way to make these commentaries available on their own.