MVFF: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Lark

Wednesday night I finally got to a 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival event–a screening at the Lark of one of my favorite westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

imageBelieve it or not, this was my first visit to the Lark. Yes, I’ve been covering it at Bayflicks for years, but this was the first time I actually stepped inside.

The Lark is a modest-sized neighborhood theater of the sort that dotted the small towns and suburbs before the invention of the multiplex. The art deco décor has been lovingly restored. The lobby is small, with two small areas off to the side where people can sit and talk.

The screen isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to create a real movie feel. The seats are comfortable, with good drink holders.

Before the movie, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin came onstage and introduced James Hetfield of Metallica, who hosted the screening. Metallica is this year’s Artists in Residence, and each member of the band got to select a favorite film to be screened.

Hetfield talked briefly about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and how it had influenced him. He discussed the three main characters, the use of close-ups, and–not surprisingly–Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The film started at about 7:15.

The Great, the Crazy, and the Iconic

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals, all very skilled at their job, set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other.

Meanwhile, war rages around them. Director/co-writer Sergio Leone set this western in the American Civil War. Issues like succession and slavery never comes up, but the destruction is vast and senseless. As the rebel army retreats from a town, an innkeeper loudly hails the Confederacy, while privately telling his wife that the Yanks will be better because they pay in gold. Another town has been battered to ruins–perhaps an echo of Leone’s adolescence in World War II Italy. Twice a day, armies clash over a bridge that both sides want and no one can hold. Soldiers on both sides speak with sarcastic hate of their commanders.

And through it all, our three lead characters (I can’t quite call them all protagonists) cheat, threaten, bribe, and murder their way to their ultimate goal.

The Good: Clint Eastwood plays his iconic Man With No Name, although in this film his friends call him Blondie. He’s a thief and a con artist, a quick and deadly draw who feels no remorse after killing someone. When he tires of his partner, he leaves him in the middle of the desert without horse, food, or drink. In any other movie, he’d be the villain. But he doesn’t kill without reason, and he occasionally displays acts of generosity to minor characters. By this film’s standards, that makes him the good guy.

good bad ugly

The Bad: Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes stands amongst the vilest villains in film history. His nickname is clearly ironic–his eyes look as evil as Satan. He tortures people for information, robs prisoners, and murders with the slightest of motives. His only code of honor: If he takes the money, he sees the job through. Early on, he kills two men because each of them paid him to kill the other one–and he shoots one of them in cold blood.

The Ugly: The Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach played Mexican banditos in at least three movies, but only here did he make the character funny, touching, lovable, and utterly horrible. His Tuco–devious, dumb, proud, and as wily as a rat–carries The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When he’s out for vengeance, his cruelty surpasses Angel Eyes. But when he needs the victim of that cruelty, he becomes the dependable partner–just so long as you don’t turn your back. More than anything else, Wallach’s performance raises this movie from very good to great.

Leone and his collaborators tell the story of these men in a flashy and daring style. In addition to the close-ups and musical score I’ve already discussed, there’s the striking use of the widescreen frame, splashy editing–especially in the climatic three-way gun duel–and the dark humor that pervades the picture.

Versions and restorations

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an Italian film with American stars, shot in Spain, and set in the American west. Like most Italian films of its day, it was shot without recording a dialog track. All of the dialog was dubbed in separate Italian and English versions (and other languages too, I assume).

Leone’s original cut ran 175 minutes–too long for the American distributor, United Artists. So Leone cut it back to 161.  The cuts were made before the English dubbing; the removed scenes could not easily to restored to the film.

That was fixed in 2003, when MGM/UA created the Extended English Language version. They restored and redubbed the cut scenes. Eastman and Wallach dubbed their parts, but another voice actor talked for the late Van Cleef. They also added a scene that Leone had cut from the Italian version, bringing the running time to 179 minutes. They also remixed the soundtrack, taking it from mono to Dolby Digital 5.1.

So the film has now grown by 18 minutes from the version I first fell in love with. I have mixed feelings about the changes, and I still cling to my 161-minute DVD. Some of the recovered scenes add atmosphere and character development. Others fill in plot gaps that never really needed to be filled. I love both versions, but I love the shorter one more.

This year, MGM/UA gave this picture a 4K digital restoration. They stuck to the 179 extended version, and–I’m glad to say–they restored the mono soundtrack. The festival screened the film from a 4K DCP, with the mono sound.

Aside from a rather ridiculous MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (see MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM), it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get.

Overall, a very good evening.

TCM Classic Film Festival coming to Hollywood (and I wish I could be there)

I generally only write about Bay Area film festivals. In fact, all too often, I don’t have time to cover them properly. And yet here I am, writing about a festival that’s four hundred miles away. And there’s simply no practical way for me to attend.

It is, of course, Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Classic Film Festival, a celebration of classic films and restoration. Among the better-loved titles are Tokyo Story, American Graffiti, Stagecoach, A Hard Day’s Night, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, East of Eden, the original Godzilla, and This is Spinal Tap. Other titles include The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Johnny Guitar, Hobson’s Choice, and Freaks.

More than anything else, I would love to attend the screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and not only because it’s my all-time-favorite swashbuckler and turn-of-the-brain action movie. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will be in attendance to discuss how the special visual and audio effects were created. The conversation with Carl Davis also looks like fun.

Techy that I am, I naturally wanted to know how the films would be projected.–film or digital? At first, that seemed impossible. Clicking on a title from the Programs page tells you everything about the movie and the presentation except that one little detail.

But I found a way. If you go to the schedule page, you’ll get a pop-up that, among other things, tells you if the film is 35mm or "digital." It doesn’t say what kind of digital. I’d certainly feel cheated if they screened a DVD. I’ll give the festival a benefit of the doubt and assume here that all of the digital presentations will be off of DCPs–the professional, theatrical format.

I didn’t click on every single movie, but I checked out a reasonable sample. About half the films will be digitally projected, and as a general rule, they’re the better-known titles. Oklahoma, East of Eden, and Double Indemnity will be screened digitally. But On Approval, My Sister Eileen, and The Naked City will be on 35mm film.

That isn’t surprising. It takes time and money to properly digitalize an old movie. Naturally, the films everyone loves are the top priorities.

Of course there are exceptions. Stagecoach will be screened on 35mm, and Paper Moon will be digital.

I know that a lot of people disagree with me on this, but I’m happy to see so many classics available on (I assume) DCP. It makes them available in more theatres. And a well-transferred DCP looks at least as good as a brand-new print going through a projector for the first time. Often, they look better.

But sometimes they take the digitizing too far.  For its 75th anniversary, the festival will screen the 3D version of The Wizard of Oz. A 2D movie should remain 2D.

One Downside of Digital Projection

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of digital projection–not only for today’s movies but classics, as well. But I’m not a fundamentalist. Digital has its downsides. And one of those downsides is the number of great motion pictures now unavailable in any decent theatrical format–digital or otherwise.

More and more classics are becoming available on DCP–the digital format used professionally in multiplexes. Over the next eight days, the Castro is screening Journey to Italy, Stromboli, and several recently restored silent films by Alfred Hitchcock off of DCPs. The  Pacific Film Archive has several classics on DCP on its current schedule, including The Tin Drum, Tristana, Port of Shadows, and those same Hitchcock classics. The CineMark multiplex chain screens classics every week off DCPs, although they understandably stick to popular, English-language titles. They’re doing Spielberg this month, and they may do Hitchcock and Lean soon, but don’t hold your breadth for Bunuel.

It costs time and money to digitize an old movie properly, so that the DCP–or even the Blu-ray–can stand up proudly against a good 35mm print. And as the price of making 35mm prints goes up as demand goes down, the studios will become much more selective about who they’ll rent a print to.

Consider On the Town, one of the best MGM Technicolor musicals from the glory days of the Arthur Freed era. Made in 1949, it never achieved the lasting fame of Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris, but it should have. It would make my list of top ten musicals–I don’t think Paris would make my top twenty.

The plot is a bit like Before Sunrise, but funnier and with dancing. Three sailors arrive imagein New York for a 24-hour leave–precious little time to see the sights, drink in the atmosphere, and get laid (of course, they couldn’t say that in 1949).

What makes On the Town so special–beyond the great songs, terrific choreography, and witty script–is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie. These three sailors and the women who fall for them all seem to genuinely like and support each other. The movie also treats sexuality in a surprisingly upbeat and positive way for its time. The women in the story (Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, and the infinitely funny Betty Garrett) are as motivated by lust as the men (Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra). It’s just too bad that screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden updated their own wartime stage musical to the post-war period, losing the urgency that came from not knowing if the sailors would come back alive.

The Cerrito will screen On the Town Thursday night. But they’re screening it off a DVD. No better option is available.

Warner Brothers, which now owns On the Town, has not given it the digital restoration it deserves. And that means no DCP and no Blu-ray. I don’t know if the problem is financial (the movie might not be a big enough money-maker) or technical (there may be no good source materials). I’d love to hear what someone at Warner Brothers has to say on this subject.

So why can’t the Cerrito show it in 35mm–the picture’s original format? When the Cerrito went digital, they kept their film projectors. They even have two projectors in their downstairs auditorium, allowing them to screen old prints. (See Methods of Projection for an explanation.) According to my Rialto Cinemas contact, “WB did not offer a 35mm so I don’t know if one is available or not.”

The Castro screened On the Town in December, 2011–I assume in 35mm. 18 months later, Warner doesn’t even offer the print to the Cerrito. Sad.

SF Silent Film Festival, Day 3

The Irrepressible Felix the Cat
This may have been the first theatrical, 35mm presentation of multiple Felix the Cat cartoons ever. The shorts were wild, crazy, bizarre, surreal, and hilarious. The accompaniment added much to the festivities. Donald Soosan and a drummer who's name I didn't get accompanied some of the shorts. Toychestra–a sextet playing toy instruments and a synthesizer–did the rest. They took turns, with Sosin and the drummer doing one cartoon, and Toychestra doing the next. Everyone joined in for the last one, involving a trip to Mars. There was singing from Toychestra, snoring sounds from Sosin, and monkey sounds, clapping, and laughter from the audience. The only disappointment was that it ended.

The Spanish Dancer
I've never been a fan of Pola Negri, the star of The Spanish Dancer. Her acting strikes me as stilted, and she usually played a annoyingly sexless seductress. But she's somewhat more acceptable here, as a gypsy dancer ingenue. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this swashbuckler.

That had everything to do with the leading man, Antonio Moreno. He plays the joyful, devil-may-care swashbuckling hereo with the optimism of Fairbanks and the energy of Flynn. I'll have to find out more about him.

Donald Sosin once again supplied the music. This time, in addition to the grand piano, he was accompanied by two guitarists, and used a synthisizer as well as his usual grand piano. He had a laptop open, as well.

The Canadian
Not everything is a pleasant surprise. This drama about an Englishwomen who moves to her brother's farm in Alberta and marries a farmhand is only moderately interesting. Mona Palma at first plays the Englishwoman with so much snobbery that she fails to be either believable or sympathetic. She wins some sympathy as her problems build up–especially in one effective, shocking scene–but after that moment the movie slides into predictability. Thomas Meighan gets top billing as the new husband.

Stephen Horne's accompaniment, on piano and accordian, was better than the movie.

The good:

  • The whole Shackleton story of spectacular failure turning into spectacular success, is just so amazing and incredible.
  • The fact that there is a cinemagraphic record of this voyage is even more amazing.
  • Stephen Horne's musical score on piano and other instruments.
  • Actor Paul McGann's dramatic readings from Shackleton's diary.

The bad:

  • Nowhere near enough of McGann's dramatic readings from Shackleton's diary.
  • The movie is horribly padded with “cute” animal photography.
  • It was projected off a very bad digital source. My guess: A heavily-compressed DVD.
  • Although the screening started on time, it ended very late. That contributed to the biggest problem of he day. Read on:

Pandora's Box
We had to wait. South ended, with a pretty full house, only half an hour before Pandora's Box (which was sold out) was scheduled to open. Other delays inside (I don't know the details) delayed things further. The show finally started at 8:00.

I've loved this film for 20 or more years, but I've never experienced it like I did tonight.

First, there's the restoration: Previous screenings showed a film that was literally in black and white, without shades of gray. The new Pandora's Box showed the full monochrome range, and a great deal more detail. I could appreciate the lighting, the photography, and the acting better than ever. The bridal bedroom scene felt like the dark corners of the soul. And I wasn't so sure of Louise Brook's Lulu's naive innocence. There were times when I felt that she understood the destructive consequences of her behavior…maybe. That made her all the more interesting and, oddly, her tragedy all the sadder.

Then there was the music by Matti Bye Ensemble. Heavy on drums and strings, it created a sense of relentless motion and doom. This was, thanks to Matti Bye, the darkest Pandora's Box I've ever experienced. I loved it.

Because of the delay, I didn't stay for The Overcoat.


SF Silent Film Festival, Day 2

Amazing Tales From the Vault
This year’s technical talk concentrated on digital restorations and distribution by major studios, with experts from Paramount and Sony (Columbia). I didn’t take notes, so I’ll just give you a quick overview:

  • Wings was projected off a DCP Friday night. Paramount has made a 35mm negative and prints of the new digital restoration, but the Festival decided to show the DCP because they were more confident of the quality.
  • The restoration cost about $700,000, and will probably lose money. Since Paramount is a for-profit company, this bodes ill for other silent restorations.
  • We were treated to a back-and-forth comparison of the first reel of Dr. Strangelove in 35mm and DCP. DCP looked better.
  • If you sit close enough to the screen, 4K projection looks better. They showed a single frame from Lawrence of Arabia in 2K and 4K. The difference, from my seat in the third row, was amazing.

Little Toys
I had mixed feelings about this late silent from Shanghai. At times, I felt the lack of sound as a flaw, something I rarely experience in a silent film. Other times, this tale of a brilliant toymaker and her tribulations in a world of war, touched me. Ruan Lingyu gave a brilliant performance as the lead, but at times it felt like it was going on too long.

The 35mm print looked washed out and badly scratched–probably a problem with the source and not this particular print. The Chinese intertitles had badly-translated, often grammatically strange, English subtitles.

Donald Sosin was, as usual, brilliant on the piano.

The Loves of Pharaoh
This is the sort of big, epic, costume melodrama that Hollywood loved in the 1950s–except it was made in Germany in the 1920s. The plot involved an evil yet love-sick pharaoh, a slavegirl, her lover, barbarian Ethiopians, and…well, you get the idea. Silly, but utterly entertaining.

Recently restored from two incomplete tinted prints, the movie is still not complete. Missing scenes were filled in with intertitles (“Pharaoh walks to the window”) and occasional stills.

The DCP presentation was acceptable, but not as crisp as Wings. One annoyance: The bulk of the intertitles used light blue letters, which was very distracting and anachronistic. Only the ones filling in for missing footage used the conventional white letters. It would have been better the other way around.

Dennis James provided fine music on the Castro’s mammoth pipe organ. There was no subtlety to the score, but that was appropriate, as there was no subtlety to the movie.

No surprises here. I own this romantic comedy–the perfect Clara Bow vehicle–on the Treasures 5 DVD box set. And I’ve even seen it once before at the Castro, with live music. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying the movie. After all, comedy is always better with a large and enthusiastic audience, and Stephen Horne’s score (mostly piano but also with some accordian and flute) sounds better live. A tale of a flirt who marries a hick, with a New York divorce lawyer thrown in as a reluctant piece of the triangle, is very much a work of its time. But in many ways, it’s timeless.

Physically, the film hasn’t aged well. The 35mm print from the Library of Congress came from a source that was scratched and lacked detail. Seeing this the day after Wings brought home the difference between preservation and restoration. No one will likely spend $700,000 to make Mantrap look new. So it has only been restored; the best existing print was copied to a more stable film stock.

I decided to skip the last movie of the evening, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. I didn’t think I could stay awake for it. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges in Airplane!, “I knew this was the wrong week to give up caffeine.”

But I did buy the Wings Blu-ray before I left.

Note: I corrected a factual error in the original post.

SF Silent Film Festival Report 1: Wings

I always felt that realistic sound effects weren't appropriate for silent films. I was wrong. Or perhaps this was just an exception. Realistic sound effects are fantastic if they're performed live by an ensemble directed by sound effects wizard Ben Burtt. Using bicycles, drums, a typewriter (I think) and devices that I couldn't possibly name (but all, I suspect, existing in 1927), Burtt and his team brought the air and land battles of World War 1 to life. The thrills, shocks, and horrors of combat came through in Burtt's audio as much as in William Wellman's images.

Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra helped, as well. One of the best ensembles accompanying silent films today, they make any silent film come alive. But this time, to be honest, they were upstaged by the sound effects. I don't think they minded.

Silent movies were meant to be seen, not heard, so let's talk about visuals. Paramount's new restoration of Wings–the first Best Picture Oscar winner–is simply stunning. A couple of scenes looked grainier than the rest, but most of it looked like a brand-new black and white movie. Except there wasn't much black and white. Most of the movie was tinted, and if the tints lacked the excitement of those in Napoleon, they were still effective. Flames were hand-painted orange (or CGI'd to look hand-painted). I don't know if I saw a brand-new 35mm print or a digital copy, and frankly, I don't care.

But what about the movie itself? I don't know if it was the audio, the restoration, or my age, but Wings seemed much better than I remembered. A great, big epic of regular soldiers at war, it took its time developing the atmosphere and characters, and foreshadowing an important death. When the action starts, we're entirely invested.

The two leads, Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Richard Arlen, give complete and subtle performances. There's a moment when Arlen's character is receiving a medal, and the weary sadness and confusion on his face spoke more volumes than any dialog ever could. Among the other impressive performances are a not-yet-famous Gary Cooper in a small but effective role, and Henry B. Walthall as a father trying his best to repress emotions raging inside. The wonderful Clara Bow, despite her top billing, is wasted here as the ingenue in love with a man who doesn't realize he's in love with her.

Tomorrow night, we'll watch Bow shine in Mantrap, a movie more suited to her talents.


Children of Paradise: Mystery of the Second Credits

Like a lot of long epics, Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise has an intermission. But there’s something odd about it. When the intermission is over, Part II begins with a full repeat of Part I’s opening credits, which is then followed by a brief summary of Part I’s action. Both seem pointless.

Carné wanted to release Children as a three-hour movie, but the studio, Pathe, wanted it released as two shorter features (like Kill Bill in recent years). Carné’s contract required Pathe to release it as one movie in Paris, but only for the initial run. After that, it was released the way Pathe wanted it–as two separate titles.

Knowing that it would be released both, Carné provided two versions. Part II’s repeat of the opening credits and summary were only meant to be seen when the two parts were not screening together. But Pathe, perhaps out of spite, included those parts at all screenings.

And thus, redundancies that Carné only wanted for a compromised way to present of the film have become part of how it is always shown.

By the way, to my knowledge, Pathe is the oldest film company still in existence. It was founded in 1896, a good five years before movies started telling stories and 15 years before the birth of any Hollywood studio.