A+ List: The world ends with a bang, a whimper, and a lot of laughs in Criterion’s Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick’s only out-and-out comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, manages to terrify the audience, hold them in suspense, and trick them into rooting for people about to cause Armageddon, all the while generating side-splitting laughter.

As the darkest of dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove earns its place on my A+ list, To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, that I personally loved for decades. In the case of Strangelove, I decided to promote it from A to A+ while preparing this review.

Considering the film’s Cold War roots, it’s amazing how well Dr. Strangelove stands up. When it was made in 1963 (it opened early in ’64), the USA and the USSR were in a nuclear game of chicken that could have wiped out humanity in hours. Not only were they competing to make more and bigger bombs; they were creating faster hair triggers for instant retaliation.

Dr. Strangelove rides on this fear. The psychotic General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) decides on his own to start World War III, and thus orders his pilots to attack Russia with nuclear bombs. No one else knows the code that will recall the planes. The military and political leaders–who set up the system that allowed Ripper to destroy the world–are too busy fighting amongst themselves to help much.

And that’s what makes Dr. Strangelove relevant in 2016. We still live in a world run by egotistical incompetents who will quite likely destroy civilization.

It helps that Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant filmmaker, and this story in particular played to his strengths while hiding his weaknesses. Since it’s a broad farce with no room for empathy, Kubrick’s coldness doesn’t hurt the story. And yet Kubrick and his writing collaborators Terry Southern and Peter George (who also wrote the serious novel on which the film was based) manage to create suspense.

Without a likeable protagonist to root for, there’s nothing Hitchcockian about Dr. Strangelove ‘s suspense. You can’t really care what happens to the characters on the screen. But you’re worried for yourself, your friends, and your family. These will be the victims should the dolts onscreen fail to stop a nuclear war.

And yet, at the climax, Kubrick briefly tricks us into rooting for the very people whose success will wipe us out.

None of this would have worked without the humor. (Kubrick started the script as a drama, then decided to make it a farce.) Much of the comedy is so subtle you might miss it, such as the binder labelled World Targets in Megadeaths. Others are broad, such as George C. Scott’s mid-sentence pratfall. (Kubrick filmed a pie fight but left it on the cutting room floor.) As President Merkin Muffley, Peter Sellers gives one of cinema’s great comic monologues. It’s a phone call, and we don’t hear the voice on the other end of the line. But how do you explain an accidental nuclear attack to a drunk Russian Premiere named Kissov?

Dr. Strangelove brims with silly yet appropriate names. There’s General Buck Turgidson (Scott), Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Peter Sellers), Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers), and Major King Kong (originally to be played by Peter Sellers, but replaced at the last minute with a very funny Slim Pickens).

Kubrick appropriately described Dr. Strangelove as a “nightmare comedy.” I wish he’d made more of them.

How It Looks

Gilbert Taylor shot Dr. Strangelove in black and white–in the last years before color became completely ubiquitous. He used the medium boldly, with very deep blacks and shining whites. The images look like a cross between film noir and a really bad acid trip.

Columbia’s 4K restoration, the same one used for theatrical DCP projection, catches that grey scale, and shows plenty of grain. Criterion’s 1080p transfer to Blu-ray looks great.

How It Sounds

Criterion’s disc offers two versions of the soundtrack. The default, and the one I recommend, is the original mono, presented here as a 24-bit, uncompressed LPCM single track. It sounds excellent.

And then there’s the new 5.1 surround mix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. As near as I could tell, it still sounded like mono.

And the Extras

Pretty much all Criterion discs come packaged with some sort of pamphlet, poster, or booklet. But for Dr. Strangelove, they really went to town. If you haven’t seen the film, you probably won’t get the jokes in the paper-based extras:

  • The Top Secret Code R envelope contains:
  • A “TOP SECRET” memo, printed to look like a 60’s-style typewriter. The contents of this memo is an essay by David Bromwich about Kubrick, the cold war, and Dr. Strangelove.
  • A teeny, tiny little book titled Holy Bible & Russian Phrases. And yes, it contains some English-to-Russian phrases, but no holy scripture. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, along with About the Restoration. All in absurdly tiny print.
  • A 20-page booklet filled with a 1994 article by screenwriter Terry Southern about the making of the movie. Amongst other things, it gives a thorough and possibly accurate description of the lost pie fight. Also included: cheesecake photos of Tracy Reed (the only woman in the cast) as Miss Foreign Affairs.

“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

The disc has 14 supplemental videos, which come to about 3½ hours of additional viewing. Many of them are interesting, but they soon become repetitive.

  • Stanley Kubrick: 1080p, 3 minutes. Excerpts from physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein’s 1966 audio interview with the filmmaker. Illustrated with slides.
  • Mick Broderick: 1080p, 19 minutes. Film scholar Broderick discusses Kubrick’s move from director to producer/director with Dr. Strangelove. New.
  • The Art of Stanley Kubrick: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 14 minutes. Made in 2000. A documentary on Kubrick’s career up through Strangelove.
  • Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike: 1080p; 12 minutes. In this new doc, the film’s camera operators talk about working with Kubrick.
  • Inside “Dr. Strangelove”: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 46 minutes. This 2000 documentary on the making of the film is by far the best of the extras.
  • Richard Daniels: 1080p, 14 minutes. Richard Daniels of the Stanley Kubrick Archive tells us about the letters, memos, drawings, etc. around Dr. Strangelove, and what they tell us about the making of the film. New.
  • David George: 1080p; 11 minutes. David George, son of author Peter George, talks about his father and the writing of Dr. Strangelove. Among other things, he says that the final film follows the plot of his father’s book very closely. New.
  • No Fighting in the War Room: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 30 minutes. This 2004 documentary examines the Cold War and the dangers, then and now, of nuclear war. Interview subjects include Robert McNamera, Roger Ebert, and Spike Lee. Very good.
  • Best Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 18 minutes. From 2004. Roger Ebert, Michael Palin and others talk about Peter Sellers’ genius, with an emphasis on Dr. Strangelove.
  • Rodney Hill: 1080p; 17 minutes. Film scholar Hill tries unsuccessfully to put Dr. Strangelove into a Joseph Campbell/heroes-and-myth context. New.
  • George C: Scott and Peter Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 7 minutes. From 1963. As part of the film’s marketing, Scott and Sellers were filmed answering unasked questions. Later, TV newscasters would read the questions to give the illusion of a real interview. Since we have to wait as they pretend to listen to questions, it’s kind of boring.
  • Today: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 4 minutes. From a 1980 TV interview of Sellers by Gene Shalit. Short and unenlightening.
  • Exhibitor’s Trailer: 1080p; 17 minutes. Simultaneously fascinating and boring. Apparently, the movie was marketed to theaters with unedited takes–and not the takes used in the final cut–while a dull-voiced narrator explains the plot in detail. It’s those alternate takes that make it fascinating.
  • Theatrical Trailer: 1080p; 3 minutes. An utterly bizarre and entertaining trailer.

The Criterion Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, June 28.

The New Buster Keaton Shorts Collection on Blu-ray

How can anyone describe the beauty, grace, and breathtaking hilarity of Buster Keaton in his silent film prime? An actor, an acrobat, and a brilliant filmmaker, he spent the 1920s making some of the funniest and technically sophisticated comedies ever preserved on film.

Since I can’t describe him, here’s a highlight reel of some of his best gags. But remember, they’re funnier in context—and with better music and clearer image quality.

On Tuesday, Kino released the new Buster Keaton Shorts Collection Blu-ray set, put together by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg–one of the world’s heroes in silent film restoration and preservation. It contains new restorations and 13 shorts that have never before been available on Blu-ray.

I reviewed a previous Buster Keaton Shorts collection back in 2011.

The 13 newly-added shorts are not, strictly speaking, Buster Keaton movies. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and starred in these two-reel comedies. Keaton was just part of the team. While not in Keaton’s league, Arbuckle was an astonishingly agile performer for a man of his girth. He took graceful pratfalls, jumped over fences with ease, and could juggle like a demon. Put him behind a kitchen counter with cups and knives, and he’s brilliant.

But he’s not reliably brilliant. His early shorts, such as His Wedding Night, get dull. And Keaton rarely takes the center of the screen. But he got better as he made these shorts–or perhaps he just learned to depend on Keaton. As the shorts progress, they get funnier, and Keaton becomes more prevalent.

One strange thing about the Arbuckle-Keaton films: Keaton smiles in them. That always strikes me as wrong.

The 19 shorts that Keaton made as auteur and star don’t show that sort of slow growth. By his second short, One Week (actually the first released), he’s brilliant—way above Arbuckle at his best. Even the lesser works, such as The High Sign, The Scarecrow, and The Paleface, provide amazing stunts, imaginative filmmaking, and plenty of laughs. The greats, which include Cops, The Boat, and my personal favorite, The Goat, can reasonably be called masterpieces.

One warning: Like a lot of silent comedies, these movies occasionally use racist gags that are shocking by today’s standards. Consider them troubling artifacts of their time.

This set contains five discs—two of Arbuckle films and three of Keaton’s. The five discs fit into one slim package.

Reconstructions & Rediscoveries

Lobster Films spent considerable time and money reconstructing these films. Many a problematic jump cut has been filled in with found footage.

Disc Five contains French and American versions of Keaton’s The Blacksmith. The American version starts with a parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith—gags that would be lost on non-English speakers. The French version has a risqué silhouette scene.

My Wife’s Relations, also a Keaton short, has an alternative ending, shown on a split screen side-by-side with the one shown for decades. I prefer the newly-discovered one.

And then there’s the original ending of Coney Island, separated from the rest of the movie because of an extremely racist gag. A new title card tells us that “The original ending of Coney Island was removed from the film by the 1920s, probably because it was considered racially offensive,” and goes on to say that “it should not be included in contemporary presentations of the film.”

That’s an odd statement. Very few people with influence objected to racist humor in those days. And there are many equally racist gags throughout the collection and elsewhere. In fact, the same gag turns up in Keaton’s Seven Chances.

How It Looks

Before opening the box, I imagined digitally-repaired, pristine images. I was disappointed. Most of these films are damaged beyond help…or beyond Lobster’s budget.

I compared a few scenes in this new release to their counterparts in the previous Keaton Shorts collection. I saw only a few significant improvements. My Wife’s Relations looks particularly good, with at least one big scratch in the old version that wasn’t in the new one.

How It Sounds

For this collection, Kino and Lobster used the talents of some of today’s major silent film accompaniment stars. These include Robert Israel, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, Timothy Brock, and the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The music is presented in two-track stereo uncompressed PCM. So far (I haven’t watched all of the Keaton’s yet), I haven’t heard anything I didn’t like.

The musical credits come at the end of each film. Some movies have an alternative piano score. This pianist isn’t credited.

And the Extras

In addition to the five discs, the package contains a 28-page booklet. Here you’ll find essays on the Arbuckle-Keaton collaboration and on Keaton’s solo work. Also included: a description and credits of each movie, and an article by Serge Bromberg’s article on the various versions of The Blacksmith.

About the Restoration: 7 minutes. Serge Bromberg talks very fast in French, making it difficult to follow the subtitles while looking at what he’s describing. By the second or third time you watch it, you’ll be able to learn something.

Life with Buster Keaton: 3 minutes. This short film of Keaton’s Cleopatra dance routine (also performed in the Arbuckle film, The Cook) was made in 1951 for international markets. Yes, it’s very funny.

What’s missing? The previous release contained 15 video essays—almost one for every short in the package. Most of them were entertaining and informative. But they’re not included in this version–a real shame.

Janus, Criterion, Coen Brothers, and James Schamus: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I started the day with Wesley Morris’ State of Cinema address. But as I’ve already written about that presentation, I’ll skip it here and go to the two other events I attended.

Mel Novikoff Award: An Afternoon with Janus Films & the Criterion Collection

Every year, the Festival gives the Mel Novikoff Award to “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema.” This year, it went to two companies that often work together: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection.

The event happened at the Castro.

If you’re not familiar with them, Janus distributes classic films–mostly foreign–to theaters. Criterion brings classics and not-so-classic films to the home screen via DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming services. If you check out my Blu-ray reviews, you’ll find a lot of Criterion titles.

Much of what we take for granted on DVDs and Blu-rays today–extras, commentary tracks, carefully-created transfers, and presenting a film in its original aspect ratio–started with Criterion on Laserdisc.

On stage, film critic Scott Foundas interviewed Criterion’s Jonathan Turell and and Janus’ Peter Becker. Some highlights:

  • This idea that Criterion has come to play a role in canon creation is an accident. The result is people have started to think that way.
  • On working with major studios: We try to be an asset to the studios. We’ve been able to position ourselves has a way .
  • On their devotion to physical discs: I don’t think the beauty of it can go out of style.
  • Long ago, Turell showed Michael Powell a Laserdisc with one of the first commentaries–possibly King Kong. Powell exclaimed “What I could do with that technology if I were younger.” Then he did the first ever director commentary; it was for Black Narcissus.
  • They’re preparing to launch Filmstruck, a recently-announced streaming service that’s a joint venture between Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. “It’s built from the ground up and just for movies. And it’s wholly curated by us.”

The Novikoff Award presentation always includes a movie. This time, it was the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, which Criterion has just restored. So the Coen Brothers and the film’s cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld (now a director) came on stage and joined the conversation.

More highlights, all from the creators of Blood Simple:

  • What a relief to deal with people who understand what your movie is trying to do. It’s not about marketing the movie. It’s about presenting a movie in a particular way.
  • The first day of shooting was the first time we ever were on a movie set.
  • The Coen brothers raised money for Blood Simple marketing it as a splatter movie. “Well, we did have vomiting blood.”
  • M. Emmet Walsh was the only actor in the film that anyone would recognize. When asked to do something a little different “to humor me,” he responded “I’ve done this whole fucking movie to humor you.”
  • Sonnenfeld on shooting John Getz: We could never focus his face. Those in front of him were in focus, those in back of him were on focus. But he was never in focus.

Then we got to see Blood Simple.

The Coen Brothers’ first film shows a promise of what they’d become. An exceptionally dark, violent, gruesome, and funny noir, it tells a coherent story that is totally incoherent to the characters onscreen. You’ve got an adulterous couple (half of which is Frances McDormand in her first film role), a violently vengeful husband, and a private detective with less morals than your average snake (Walsh).

As I watched it, I kept seeing tropes that would reappear in Fargo. While it’s not quite Fargo material, it still earns a clear A-.

There was no audience Q&A. Too bad. I must have 50 questions for Criterion.

Centerpiece: Indignation

For my final event for the day, I went to the Victoria Theatre for the Centerpiece screening of James Schamus’ directorial debut, Indignation.

The film will get a theatrical release in the near future, so I’m not allowed to say more than 100 words about it now:

Most coming of age movies are essentially optimistic. You know that the protagonist will come out alright. But in Indignation, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil. The son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, he does well academically but not socially in a Christian college in Ohio. And if he leaves college, the draft and the Korean War await. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth.

I give it an A.

After the movie, Executive Director Noah Cowan presided over the Q&A with Schamus, best known as Ang Lee’s producer/screenwriter and as the former head of Focus Features. Some comments:

  • On adapting a Phillip Roth book: He’s notoriously difficult to adapt, and I learned that the hard way. Empathy comes out of the brutality. You can’t get that kind of truth on film.
  • On Roth’s reaction: He did me the greatest favor. I sent him the screenplay before we started shooting. He refused to read it. that was the best thing he could do.
  • On why he waited so long to direct: I’ve written a lot of screenplays. Then I think: I could direct it, or Ang Lee could direct it.
  • I know it’s a miserably depressing movie, but I had a blast making it.
  • On directing for the first time: There were two things that were completely new. Where you put the camera, and working with actors.

Bicycle Thieves as great as ever on Blu-ray

If the point of cinema is to create empathy, both for the characters on the screen and for real people, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is the greatest film ever made. It’s about desperate poverty, and how the desperately poor feed on the desperately poor because they have no other options.

I wrote about this film back in 2014. But I’m returning to it now because of Criterion’s upcoming Blu-ray release. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

You probably already know the story. Unemployed Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), desperate to feed his wife and children, finally finds a job. But the job requires him to use his own bicycle, which is currently in hock. His wife sells their sheets to get the bike out of hock. But on his first day on the job, someone steals the bike. The bulk of the film follows Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) as they wander through Rome, searching desperately for the precious machine that will keep them from starving.

You may know the film as The Bicycle Thief–the title used for this Italian film’s initial American release. In recent years it’s been retitled Bicycle Thieves–a closer translation of the original Italian name, Ladri di biciclette.

Whatever you call it, it’s generally considered the great masterpiece of Italian neorealism, a short-lived, postwar movement that looked at life as it was. The ethos of neorealism called for shooting on location and using real people instead of professional actors.

But realism is always questionable is cinema. While it’s true that Maggiorani had no acting experience when De Sica cast him in the lead role, it’s pretty clear that his handsome, movie-star face helped him get the part. And Staiola, eight or nine when the film was shot, is easily one of the most adorable children in the history of movies.

De Sica was a commercial filmmaker. He throws in occasional comedy relief, usually around Bruno. He also plays with our expectations early on, making us think that the bike is about to be stolen well before the actual theft. Alessandro Cicognini’s romantic, lush music also reminds us that we’re watching a movie.

But Bicycle Thieves is still primarily a realistic film, and a sad one. When we finally get to know the thief, he’s as desperate as Antonio, and the ending can break your heart.

How It Looks

Carlo Montuori shot Bicycle Thieves in black and white, and in the full-frame 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

Criterion’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer comes from a new 4K scan of a fine grain master only one generation away from the original camera negative. It has the high-contrast, slightly-washed out look of Italian films from the 1940s. It looks, I believe, the way it was meant to look.

How It Sounds

The uncompressed, Linear PCM, 24-bit, mono track delivers De Sica’s original mix. Criterion, thankfully, did nothing to “improve” it.

The disc also has an alternative, English-dubbed track.

And the Extras

  • Booklet: 33 pages. This paper-based extra contains a very good essay by Godfrey Chesire, and six remembrances by people who worked on the film, include De Sica and Sergio Leone (a volunteer gofer). Also included: film and disc cast and credits, and About the Transfer.
  • Timeline: As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, you can save bookmarks on the disc (well, technically, they’re saved in the player). When you insert the disk for the second or subsequent time, you’ll have the option to go back to where you left off.
  • Working with De Sica: 23 minutes; 1080i. Documentary with interviews recorded in 2005. The interview subjects include one of the writers, a film historian, and the former child actor Enzo Staiola. It’s all in subtitled Italian. Interesting.
  • Life as it is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy: 40 minutes; 1080i. Film scholar Mark Shiel discusses neorealism. His voice gets a little monotonous, but it’s still interesting.
  • Cesare Zavattini: 56 minutes; 1080i, but clearly from a 4×3 standard definition source. Documentary on the screenwriter and co-founder of neorealism, who was also De Sica’s most important collaborator. Zavattini comes off as a larger-than-life, unique individual.

Criterion’s Blu-ray goes on sale March 29.

Johnny Guitar Blu-ray review

This is my second Olive Films Women’s History Month Blu-ray review. The first was Baby It’s You.

Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, released in 1954,
has to be the weirdest western made before Blazing Saddles. Stagy and talkie, it’s filled with outrageous dialog and fanciful names (Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid). The women behave like men in a conventional western, and the men act kind of like traditional women.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, but the real hero is Vienna (Joan Crawford), the owner of a saloon in the middle of nowhere. She knows that the train will go right through her property and eventually make her rich.

Make no mistake about it; Vienna is the boss. She expects total obedience from her employees (all male). She orders one to keep spinning the roulette wheel, even though there are no customers, “because I like it.”

But Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) hates Vienna and wants her out of town or, better yet, dead. They’re both businesswomen, and they both carry guns. The very wealthy Emma wants to own Vienna’s soon-to-be-valuable business, but their personal hate seems to go beyond that. The film never explains why.

Many people see a lesbian subtext here, based on the stereotype that a very strong woman must be gay. McCambridge plays Emma in a very butch style. Perhaps she hates Vienna because she can’t have her.

Vienna has clearly slept around. Johnny is a former lover of hers, returning after years, and he still pines for her. “How many men have you forgotten” he asks. She responds “As many women as you’ve remembered.” He begs her to lie: “Tell me you still love me like I love you.”

Not that Johnny Guitar is a nobody. Not only does he play a mean guitar, but he has all the western hero virtues. He’s good with his fists and, if need be, fast with a gun. But he also deflects a fight by waxing philosophically. “You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lotsa’ land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.”

For much of the movie, Emma leads a lynch party out to hang Vienna. They’re coming from a funeral–an excuse to have them all wearing black. She’s the only woman in the group, and the men in the mob slowly turn away for her thirst for violence–a reversal of the usual western rules, where the women try unsuccessfully to stop the killings.

The cheapskate Republic Pictures made Johnny Guitar. The company was willing to pay for a strong supporting cast, which includes Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carradine. But the film is marred by cheap production methods. Exterior backgrounds are often obviously painted. Shots don’t always match. One scene cuts back and forth between location shots filmed in bright daylight and soundstage work with a studio-created sunset.

Johnny Guitar is about as realistic as an opera. But like an opera, the stylization is part of the art. Philip Yordan’s screenplay (based on Roy Chanslor’s novel) and Ray’s direction make it something strange, unusual, fun, and just possibly great.

How It Looks

The film’s credits tell us that Johnny Guitar is in “Trucolor by Consolidated.” According to Wikipedia, it was actually shot on Kodak’s then-new Eastman Color Negative stock.

Olive’s AVC 1080p transfer is pillar-boxed to the pre-widescreen 1.37 aspect ratio. Whether that’s the optimum ratio for Johnny Guitar is difficult to say. It’s certainly one of the right aspect ratios. Non-Cinemascope films from 1954 were shot with the knowledge that they’d be shown in all sorts of shapes. This video about On the Waterfront (also from 1954) explains the issues. Personally, I think the film would have looked better cropped to 1.66.

Aside from aspect ratio issues, I found the transfer disappointing. At times it looked soft. I saw digital artifacts at least once. Most of the time it was acceptable, and occasionally very good. Considering the cheap production values and the early use of color film (which was very unstable in those days), I suspect that Olive did not have great sources to work from.

That may change soon. Park Circus has a new 4K restoration.

How It Sounds

Olive replicates the original mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. No complaints.

And the Extras

Introduction by Martin Scorsese: 3 minutes. 480i. The great director clearly loves what he calls “one of cinema’s great operatic works.” Among other things, he talks about the film’s influence on the young, French film critics who would soon become filmmakers and create the New Wave.

Baby It’s You Blu-ray review

Three weeks ago, Olive Films sent out a press release linked to March as Women’s History Month. The point was to highlight 24 “female-created or female-driven” films in the company’s DVD and Blu-ray catalogue.

Like Criterion and Kino, Olive licenses classic and obscure older films, often made by Hollywood studios, and releases them on disc. Unlike those better-known companies, their discs tend to be pretty stripped down, with little or no extras. But they’re releasing films on Blu-ray that no one else is releasing, and that’s worth paying attention.

I decided to take advantage of this promotion to look at and review two Blu-rays of films that should be more available. This is the first of those reviews.

Baby It’s You

John Sayles’ third feature as a director was also his first for a major Hollywood studio (Paramount). The studio interference was so horrifying he swore not to do it again. Despite the interference, he managed to create an exceptional teenage romance.

He didn’t make the usual feel-good comedy about discovering the wonders of sex just before high school graduation. Baby It’s You is more of a drama than a comedy, and the second half of the film follows the main characters after they’ve left high school behind them. And where they go is very much determined by where they were born in the American class system.

Jill (Rosanna Arquette at the start of her career) is comfortably middle-class, Jewish, and the daughter of a doctor. She wants to be an actress, and her parents are supportive. It’s pretty clear that even if she fails in her pursuit, she won’t go hungry. She can always change majors at college.

But then she meets Albert, although he prefers to call himself Sheik (Vincent Spano). He’s the Italian-American son of a garbage collector. He’s a spiffy dresser, and clearly cares for Jill. But he’s also something of a juvenile delinquent, constantly getting in trouble with the teachers. There are unsettling questions about how he can afford those clothes.

After graduation, Jill goes to Sarah Lawrence College. After getting expelled, Sheik has to get out of town fast.

Keep in mind that Baby It’s You was made in 1982 and released early in ’83. This was the golden age–so to speak–of teenage sexploitation comedies. Porky’s, The Last American Virgin, and Valley Girl all came out in the early ’80s. You can understand why Paramount didn’t like what Sayles delivered.

Although made in the ’80s, Baby It’s You is set in 1967. That was the year that the 1960s became what we think of as “The Sixties.” Once in college, Jill blossoms as a sort of hippie, smoking pot, wearing wild clothes, and enjoying casual sex.

But as hip as she and her friends think they are, they’re really exclusive, spoiled brats. In one heart-breaking scene, a very drunk Jill tells her new friends funny stories about this crazy high school boyfriend who called himself “Sheik.”

Sheik has no access to Jill’s world. He doesn’t even like the current music. He worships Frank Sinatra and dreams of escaping poverty by becoming a singer. But it’s clear that he’s fooling himself. He doesn’t know the first thing about becoming a professional singer.

One advantage of making a studio movie: You can afford to license songs. Sayles uses a lot of hits from the mid-60s to create mood and set the time.

He also uses some anachronistic Bruce Springsteen songs. Surprisingly, they work, helping to define Sheik’s character. Besides, just like Jill and Sheik, Springsteen was a New Jersey high school student in 1967.

Baby It’s You is a bittersweet tale of opposites attracting, creating a love affair that can’t last. When it comes to class differences, love seldom conquers all.

How It Looks

Olive Films gives Baby It’s You a very good but not exceptional transfer. The images are sharp with a bit of film grain, and the colors seem accurate.

Nothing to shout about, but nothing to complain about either.

How It Sounds

I have not been able to determine what kind of soundtrack was on the original 35mm prints. My guess is that it was mono.

The Blu-ray comes with a lossless-compressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack. I tried it with and without Dolby Surround decoding, and decided that it sounded better without. As near as I can tell, the dialog and sound effects are mono, but much of the music is in two-track stereo.

It sounded just fine.

And the Extras

There are no extras, which is a pity. John Sayles is a master at commentary tracks.

Manchurian Candidate Criterion

Evil Chinese, worse Americans, innocent bystanders, brainwashing, assassination, and party politics collide in this surprisingly timely cold-war thriller from 1962. While the suspense grows, the story attacks both Communism and McCarthyism (a recent memory with lingering effects in the early 60s). it also contains the most evil mother in the history of movies.

I reviewed Fox’s first Blu-ray of The Manchurian Candidate back in 2011. Now Criterion is re-releasing the movie, in a new, improved 4K transfer, with the original sound mix and some new extras.

The film starts in the Korean War, where an American platoon is captured by the Chinese. Then it shifts to the post-war USA, where the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. He’s cold, aloof, and thoroughly unpleasant. That’s understandable. His mother (Angela Lansbury in the best performance of her career) is an evil, scheming, manipulating monster. In her eyes, anyone who crosses her is a Communist. She controls not only her son, but also her husband–a senator clearly modeled on Joe McCarthy.

James Gregory plays this idiotic senator (whom Shaw constantly reminds people is only his stepfather) to hapless comic perfection. Twice, director John Frankenheimer visually compares him to Abraham Lincoln. It’s never a complimentary comparison.

Compared to these two, the main Communist villain is a pussycat. Even with his disdain for human life and his Fu Mancho mustache, Khigh Dhiegh comes off as likeable. At least he has a sense of humor.

I should mention that this film, written by George Axelrod from a novel by Richard Condon, could not possibly have been made when it was set–in the mid-1950s. By 1962, its undisguised attack on McCarthyism was just barely acceptable in a Hollywood feature.

While Shaw tries to avoid Mommy, other veterans of his platoon suffer from a reoccurring dream. They’re listening to well-dressed women talking about horticulture, but these women also seem to be Chinese and Russian men–many of them in uniform. The dreams are, of course, a side effect of brainwashing. But for what purpose?

The brainwashing dreams/flashbacks are in themselves masterpieces of editing and camera movement. The American soldiers, dazed and lethargic, seem to be waiting out time in two places at once.

Although Shaw is really the central character, Frank Sinatra gets top billing. He’s certainly the most sympathetic character. A member of the platoon suffering from those dreams, it’s his job to unravel the mystery–or at least try.

Janet Leigh plays his romantic interest, but her character is far from believable. When she first meets Sinatra’s Ben Marco, he’s so messed up emotionally he won’t look her in the eye. His hands shake so badly he can’t light a cigarette (this is 1962; everyone smoked in the movies). So what does she do about this crazy person? She gives him her phone number.

And yet, that meet-odd scene works, primarily because of its almost surreal humor. She’s clearly an unusual woman.

This isn’t the only great thriller to come out of the cold war, and it’s certainly not the most fun (that would be North by Northwest). But it’s probably the most intelligent, and the only one to attack extreme anti-Communism. And all the while ratcheting up the suspense.

First Impression

The Manchurian Candidate comes in a standard Criterion clear plastic box, with a unique, simplified illustration on the cover. Inside, along with the disc, is a foldout that contains film and disc credits, About the Transfer, and an article by Howard Hampton (see below).

When you insert the disc for the first time, the home menu screen sports an animated version of that cover, with the various options on the left side–Criterion’s usual location. There are no setup options; not even subtitles.

When you insert the disc again, you’ll be asked if you want to return to where you were when you last ejected it. You can easily get back to where you started. As is standard for Criterion, there’s a timeline where you can place your own bookmarks.

How It Looks

Lionel Lindon shot The Manchurian Candidate in standard widescreen black and white (at a time when color was just becoming ubiquitous). It contains a lot of deep focus shots, often with one face just slightly out of focus. In a couple of very interesting scenes, we watch the same action from two angles–with one of those angles on a TV monitor.

The Criterion transfer comes from a new 4K scan off of the original camera negative. It’s presented on the disc in 1080p with AVC encoding. The aspect ratio is an unconventional 1.75×1 ratio, which was apparently Frankenheimer’s choice.

The result is a major improvement over the 2011 release, with stronger blacks and significantly more detail. A couple of scenes looked over-processed, but that probably wouldn’t bother anyone who wasn’t looking for problems.

How It Sounds

Criterion presents the original mono mix in a single, uncompressed 24-bit LPCM stream. This is probably the best it has sounded since Frankenheimer signed off on it in 1962.

It’s a major improvement over the 2011 release, which had only a 5.1 remix.

And the Extras

  • New Article by Howard Hampton: On the fold-out, not the disc. Do not read this essay before seeing the movie–it contains spoilers right from the start. If you have seen the movie, it’s an interesting take on it.
  • Commentary by John Frankenheimer: Recorded in 1997. What the film’s director has to say here is always interesting. Much of it is technical–lenses, mixing film and TV, and so on. The problem is that he didn’t have much to say. For long stretches, you’re just watching the movie.
  • New
    Angela Lansbury: 1080p, 11 minutes. Interview from 2015. Mostly she discusses working with Frankenheimer. But she also talks about how Sinatra pulled the film out of distribution after Kennedy’s assassination, so it had to be rediscovered.
  • New
    Errol Morris: 1080p, 17 minutes. The documentarian talks about how much he loves this movie. His enthusiasm wears out after a while.
  • George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer, and Frank Sinatra: This 1988 interview was clearly shot in standard definition video, but for some reason Criterion presents it in 1080p (it still looks like SD). My only real complaint is that, at 8 minutes, it’s not long enough.
  • New Susan Carruthers: 1080p, 21 minutes. The historian discusses the brainwashing scare of the 1950s. It’s fascinating history, and helps you understand the cultural world in which the film was made.
  • Trailer

Four shorts from the original Blu-ray release aren’t here: Queen of Diamonds, A Little Solitaire, How to Get Shot, and Phone Call. No big loss.

I don’t believe that any of these extras discuss the 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington.

The disc goes on sale on March 15.


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