High Noon Blu-ray Review

Small, compact, and brimming with suspense, High Noon feels nothing like the other A westerns of the post-war period–epic movies like Red River, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers. With its 85-minute runtime and looks-like-every-other-western sets, it feels more like the forgettable B oaters Hollywood was cranking out weekly in those days.

But unlike those cheapies, it had an expensive cast (headed by Gary Cooper), a talented director in Fred Zinnemann, and a crackerjack screenplay by Carl Foreman. With all that talent, it stands out as one of the best westerns of the 1950s–and one of the most controversial.

The plot is simple enough. On his last day on the job, which is also his wedding day, Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) discovers that murderer Frank Miller will arrive on the noon train to murder Kane. Miller’s three buddies are waiting at the train station already.

Against the wishes of his new wife, a Quaker and pacifistic (a not-yet famous Grace Kelly), he sets out to line up a posse to take care of the bad guys. But one by one, his so-called friends turn away from him, leaving him to face four killers on his own.

Westerns always celebrate courage, but Cooper’s Kane feels more courageous than most. He’s facing almost certain death. Everyone tells him to run away. He’s terrified and comes close to crying (Cooper won an Oscar for the performance). But he still does what he has to do.

This is a very self-contained film in something very close to real time. The story appears to take place in something very close to the film’s 85-minute runtime.

At the time Foreman was writing High Noon, he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be blacklisted from Hollywood for his left-wing activities. He assumed, correctly it turned out, that High Noon would be the last film he’d be able to put his name on for some time. The story of a man insisting on doing the right thing, and having his friends turn on him for it, would have meant a lot to an ex-Communist working in Hollywood in the early 1950s.

Not everyone approved of High Noon, and many still object to it. Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo (an even better western, where the marshal refuses help from the citizens) as an answer to High Noon. And Samuel Fuller’s 40 Guns ends in a scene that is similar to–yet shockingly different from–High Noon’s climax.

How It Looks

Shot in 35mm black and white, High Noon recently received a 4K digital restoration. Olive Films presents this new restoration in a glorious 1080p Blu-ray, pillarboxed to the appropriate 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

I’ve never seen it look this good–and I’ve seen it in 35mm. The detail is absolutely amazing. You can see wood grain even in the long shots. And when you can’t see the wood grain, it’s because you can see the film grain.

The grayscale isn’t all that great. But High Noon never really had much of a grayscale, even on film. That was apparently intentional.

How It Sounds

Olive presents High Noon’s original mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound is as good as it should be for a low-budget film from 1952.

And the Extras

Olive Films built a reputation on licensing classic films and releasing them with good transfers but no extras. This release of High Noon marks the new Olive Signature series, with extras.

  • A Ticking Clock: 6 minutes; 1080p. Academy Award Nominee Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) discusses the movie’s real-time structure and the use of clocks. Fascinating and too short.
  • A Stanley Kramer Production: 14 minutes; 1080p. Michael Schlesinger talks about High Noon’s producer, who would soon be a major director. It’s a quick overview of his career, from someone who loves It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World far more than I do.
  • Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon: 9 minutes; 1080p. Larry Ceplair, author of The Inquisition in Hollywood,
    talks about the blacklist and Foreman in particular. Blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein adds additional insight.
  • Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon: 12 minutes; 1080p. This visual essay covers the making of the film, the blacklist issue, and Gary Cooper’s involvement. Until I saw this, I had no idea that Poland’s anti-Communist Solidarity movement used an image from High Noon in a poster.
  • Uncitizened Kane: Essay by Sight & Sound editor Nick James. You can read this article on your TV screen via the disc, or on the printed booklet that comes in the package. I read it from the booklet. It’s worth reading.
  • Theatrical trailer

This disc is available now.

Chimes at Midnight Blu-ray Review

Orson Welles boiled down five related Shakespeare plays, found the comic tragedy at their core, and created a masterpiece. Chimes at Midnight, also known as Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight, has been unavailable in anything like a complete version for decades. With the recent theatrical restoration, and Criterion’s new Blu-ray based on that restoration, it’s finally available in all of its troubled glory.

Chimes takes its story, inspirations, and most of its dialog from Henry IV Parts I and II, concentrating on Shakespeare’s ultimate loveable scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff (played, of course, by Welles, himself). Fat, drunken, and duplicitous, Falstaff embraces life and all the joys it provides. His self-serving yet occasionally wise philosophy provide much of the comedy. But age and rejection will turn him into a tragic figure. (A smattering of dialog comes from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor–a comedy Shakespeare wrote to exploit the popular Falstaff character.)

The plot: King Henry IV (John Gielgud) faces insurrections in his kingdom and his family. The family problem involves his son and heir, Hal (Keith Baxter). Prince Hal ignores his royal chores, preferring to spend his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with Falstaff and his friends. Hal is caught between two worlds and two father figures, and his inevitable decision to take on his responsibilities will break Falstaff’s heart.

Welles created a believable and effective medieval world on an extremely limited budget. Mistress Quickly’s inn (no one seems to believe her claim that it’s not a bawdy house) is large, specious, and filled with raunchy joy. And yet the king’s austere and forbidding castle looms over it.

A seemingly large battle, brilliantly edited to disguise the thin budget, makes up the film’s centerpiece. Close-ups of mud and dying soldiers, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes fast, plays against a haunting music score that avoids heroics.

And through that battle, Welles provides comic relief as a Falstaff in absurdly fat armor, trying to find the safest spot on the battlefield. And his words condemn the romantic view of war: ” What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.”

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey–although Rey’s voice was dubbed in by someone else. Keith Baxter, who never gained true movie star status despite his looks and talent, plays the second lead, Prince Hall.

Chimes at Midnight has been a difficult film to see, at least in a decent form, for decades. It’s good to have it back.

How It Looks

Edmond Richard beautifully shot Chimes at Midnight in black and white (Welles called black and white “the actor’s friend”). The short lenses, deep focus, and strong contrasts makes this very much an Orson Welles film.

Criterion’s 1080p transfer does it justice. This is a beautiful disc. The image is pillarboxed to 1.66×1–the standard European widescreen of the time.

How It Sounds

The film’s audio has always been its one big weakness. Like most of Welles’ European films, the dialog was recorded after the film was shot. The words and the actors’ lips don’t always match–especially near the beginning. Sometimes, a minor character talks in what is clearly Welles’ own voice. It’s distracting.

The restoration fixed the soundtrack about as well as it could be fixed. But for some strange reason, the uncompressed, 24-bit, mono LPCM soundtrack was transferred at a very low volume. You have to turn up the audio to hear it properly.

And the Extras

Criterion shot four new interviews for this release. All of them are shown in 1080p, with clips from the films and stills from Welles’ life.

  • Poster and article: Inside the package, you’ll find a folded sheet of paper. One side has an expressionistic illustration of the characters from the film. The other contains an article by Michael Anderegg that places the film in the context of Welles as an interpreter of Shakespeare on the stage and on film.
  • Timeline: Like all Critierion discs, this one has a timeline where you can add shortcuts. It also has a bookmark feature, that lets you insert the disc and get back to where you left off.
  • Commentary track: By James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles. Interesting. He talks about the characters, the stage version made before the movie, the camera work, and just about everything. But Naremore made one serious mistake, assigning a scene from one play to another.
  • Keith Baxter interview: 30 minutes. He discusses the making of the stage and film versions, and working with Welles and Gielgud.
  • Beatrice Welles interview: 15 minutes. Orson’s daughter was only nine when she played a role in the film. Here she discusses what it was like having Orson Welles as a father. Interesting at first, but it gets dull.
  • Simon Callow interview: 32 minutes. An actor and a Welles biographer, Callow played Falstaff in a 1998 production of the Chimes at Midnight stage play. Here he discusses Welles and his identification with Falstaff, as well as how the film was made and barely distributed. This is the best of the four new interviews.
  • Joseph McBride interview: 27 minutes. Yet another biographer. This interview covers a lot of what’s already in the Callow interview, but it has some original content, as well.
  • The Merv Griffin Show: 1080i (although it looks like standard definition), 11 minutes. This excerpt from a 1965 episode has Griffin interviewing Welles in his editing room while he adds finishing touches to the movie. It shows the editing tools of the day, and some footage of the battle scene. Welles discusses both this film and some career highlights.
  • Trailer: 1080p; 2 minutes. Clearly a new trailer for this restoration. Fun.

The disc goes on sale August 30.

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.