Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
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Christopher Jacobs

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PostTue May 11, 2010 6:42 pm

The stock that opticals were printed on during that era are notorious for fading faster than the rest of the film, and the difference in color between the camera neg and the optical will be exponential over time.


Noted, and edited to reflect that. Thanks.

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PostFri May 21, 2010 1:32 pm

Okay, here's another one that's not too old by our standards but came out last year on a 25th anniversary BluRay. I saw THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984) on sale for only $15 on BluRay the other day and couldn't resist. I know it's a favorite of some cinephiles and Andy usually uses a 16mm print of it to set up the projector and sound settings at Cinefest. Apparently a combo BluRay/DVD 2-disc set came out a few months ago, but I haven't seen that one around.

While maybe or maybe not a genuine classic, the movie is still a lot of fun. It's a sweet coming-of-age story sans the crudity that seems obligatory today, and both a good look back into the mid-80s culture when videogaming was becoming a major pastime and a great example of when computer-generated graphics were first used to create "photorealistic" effects in lieu of miniatures. It's also got a very entertaining and fitting final role for stage and screen veteran Robert Preston as a good-hearted intergalactic con-man. The story, for those who don't know, follows the adventures of a high school senior who longs to escape his rural trailer park for a more exciting life while his girlfriend is rooted in their small-town life (can anyone say "Jimmy Stewart in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE?"). When he beats the top record on a Starfighter video game, a high point in the social life of the entire community, a mysterious stranger (Preston) suddenly shows up to inform him that the game was actually a recruiting tool and a test for potential starfighters in a struggle for power light-years away. Preston whisks our hero off to another galaxy after leaving a robotic duplicate in his bedroom to avoid suspicion, leading to an amusing parallel plotline as he's blasting spaceships while his duplicate tries to deal with his confused girlfriend.

The picture quality on the BluRay is good but should have been much better. There is a disturbing amount of digital noise reduction that eliminates amost all film grain and softens the image sustantially. Of course in this case, the video game story at least gives a certain logic to the more electronic and less filmic look. On a smaller HDTV, or from a distance, it should still look very nice. With an HD video projector, you may want to sit a bit further back than usual so you don't notice the smeariness of the fine details. One of the extras is a new (and quite good) retrospective in HD, and the clips actually look better in that documentary than they do in the full-length movie. There's also a standard-def retrospective made a decade ago for the 15th anniversary DVD, as well as standard-def trailers that despite their inherent softness still seem to look more like film than the HD transfer of the actual film. Other extras include some image galleries and a nice audio commentary. Audio quality is generally pretty good.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER on BluRay --
Movie: A-
Video: B
Audio: A-
Extras: A-
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PostWed May 26, 2010 8:38 pm

I just watched the new Criterion blu-ray of "M".... boy, it looks great! I A/B'd it against their most recent DVD edition, and there's far more detail and vastly improved black levels. In addition, it includes the English language version of the film, previously only available (to my knowledge) on the Region 2 Masters of Cinema DVD.

Highly recommended, needless to say :).
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PostFri May 28, 2010 11:55 am

I'll be looking forward to M in my upcoming Amazon order as well.

The other day I picked up Universal's new 50th anniversary BluRay of SPARTACUS (1960) at Target for $19.99 and watched it over two evenings, breaking at the intermission. I'd previously seen only the cut-down version on 16mm film, and this 3-hour and 17-minute restored version (including overture, entr'act, and exit music) is a much better film. It's also obviously more Kirk Douglas than Stanley Kubrick.

Picture quality is good, despite over-application of digital noise reduction that softens the image and rather defeats the whole advantage of BluRay's resolution capabilities, especially with a movie shot in Super Technirama 70 that should look as crisply detailed on BluRay as any movie shot today (just take a look at SOUTH PACIFIC to see it done right). Still, it is a subtantially better-looking picture than THE LAST STARFIGHTER or ZULU BluRays, and people with 720p sets or HDTVs smaller than 40 or 50 inches may not notice any problem. We can only hope that Criterion will eventually come out with its own edition on BluRay like they did on DVD. The only distributors that consistently seem to release classics on BluRay the way they should look are Criterion, Warners and Fox in the US and Eureka in the UK (although there are occasional exceptions).

Audio quality is very good, with decent stereo and a wide frequency response. Bonus features are sparse but nice (only in standard-def), with a couple of old interviews of Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons, some fun old newsreels, a couple of alternate edits of certain scenes, a trailer, and an image gallery.

SPARTACUS fans should find Universal's BluRay adequate, but will probably want to upgrade if Criterion gets a chance to transfer the image properly and add their more extensive bonus materials.

SPARTACUS on BluRay
Movie: A-
Video: B+
Audio: A
Extras: C+


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Spartacus

PostFri May 28, 2010 6:12 pm

I await my Spartacus Blu ray which I ordered just before the release day at Amazon. I sorta missed because I had ordered some TV series with Spartacus in era due out later in the year!!!!

I note you mention this will look better than Zulu on Blu Ray. This I gotta see. My Blu Ray is from UK of that one is the best I havce seen in the medium and many others have agreed.

I wish I could report on South Pacific but I await a new release that I can play along with The Robe. No Blu Ray players I have tried it in including a burner device play passed the opening montages on the discs. Play does not get it going. Nor will it copy using such Blu ray copying software to HDD to try & solve the problem. I had problems like this with some early Disney Blus but a new machine with remote adjustable Region Codes for Blus worked on those and other Fox are fine. Someone said that Fox were using some unique codes at the time but one would have thought that the machines I have access to that are all produced well after this time would have had firmware upgrades to correct this. There is no release of these titles on Blu Ray in my country of Australia at this time.
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PostFri May 28, 2010 10:38 pm

Christopher Jacobs wrote:The other day I picked up Universal's new 50th anniversary BluRay of [b]SPARTACUS...
[b]

The transfer is apparently from the same source that was used for the HD-DVD. I have the latter, and thought the quality a big disappointment, not nearly as sharp as it should have been. I'll pass on the blu-ray and hope that Criterion releases it.

I watched the German blu-ray release of El Cid a week ago. The film is still impressive. The picture suffers from the same excessive video noise reduction that Chris has described with other discs. At times faces have a flat, cartoon-like quality. Still, the overall sharpness is much better than the standard DVD. I don't have a reference for the color quality, and although overall it's good, it still seemed a tad muted. The surround-sound is good, but the audio a bit bright for my taste.

I also watched the British blu-ray release of Dumbo, the U.S. release apparently postponed. The video is outstanding, with color that looks like real IB Technicolor. There did not seem to be an original mono soundtrack, but the 5.1 audio was very good.
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Mike Gebert

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PostSat Sep 11, 2010 10:49 pm

Not much older has been shown lately, but here was one I recorded on July 4 (to judge by the promos):

MAN OF THE WEST-- Anthony Mann's next to last western (only the misbegotten Cimarron remake would follow) shows, like The Tin Star, how his treatment of the genre adapted to different iconic western stars; from Stewart's neuroses to the mentoring Fonda in The Tin Star to, now, Gary Cooper as a Mr. Deeds-like innocent who recoils from the iron horse belching steam at him and seems easy prey for con man Arthur O'Connell. With its stock elements (dance hall girl Julie London notable among them) and mock-Copland score, this seems naive and a decade out of date for 1958...

...and then it turns out the opening was a feint and Cooper is a man whose past includes robberies so bloody "we painted the walls red." A train robbery leads him stranded, he finds his way (with London and O'Connell) to an old house... and his past is waiting for him in the form of half-mad criminal gangleader Lee J. Cobb and the band of degenerate losers he had to settle for working with when Coop abandoned him years before. As in House of Bamboo/The Street With No Name, this is a man-romance in which nobody can tell the boss that his new best pal plans to destroy him. (Actually, I suppose the real precursor for that is The Westerner, with, um, Gary Cooper.)

Man of the West is ranked, rightly, as an important precursor to the spaghetti westerns, and the resemblances are fairly easy to pick out— the operatic use of widescreen landscapes often shot in deep focus (Cobb picks the perfect craggy rock formation to finally get plugged in front of, or to sing Tosca at), Cooper's often silent, often sardonic performance (easy enough to imagine Eastwood delivering most of his lines, or silences), and especially the unsavoriness of the unshaven, unhealthy gang— Cobb is a proto-Tuco, and the gang of dirtbags will lead quickly enough to the degenerate brothers in Ride the High Country and many others. That said, Reginald Rose's screenplay is often heavy-handed and doesn't really develop the characters— it carries a whiff of slumming in the genre, frankly, which manifests itself as "I'm gonna show those hacks how you write a badass screenplay"— but Mann and Coop carry it off with easy confidence.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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PostSat Sep 11, 2010 11:43 pm

They ran this at Cinecon last year. Great film.
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PostFri Sep 17, 2010 1:49 pm

moviepass wrote (in another thread):
Ali Baba is indeed unlocked but Burmese Harp is. I assume Burmese Harp is a possibility that Criterion is doing a US edition? And, they lock everything. Burmese Harp is incomplete. Like other Japanese films of the 50s-60s, nothing has been found in negative or positive form in the producing company's(Nikkatsu) vaults. It had been released in two parts and much longer than what we now have. The print used was the Japanese domestic print with Japanese titles down the side rather than hunt out the international version prints. The booklet has a colorful poster on the front and is thick but this is also because there is wide line spacing for whatever reason.

I enjoyed the Blu Ray Ali Baba. The print was clean with only a few flecks here and there. The sound was clean & clear. The colors were soft. However, it is often very obvious when a back projection or process scene is playing. It shows very clearly. I hope that they do the Phantom of the Opera in this format & other 40s Universal color. Now for those Korda color titles.

I always wondered why these early color Universals don't have the Universal logo and just open with Universal Presents.

Mention of Cleopatra from Fox(1960), they have never found about two hours of footage they say is lost from the film. It would be a lot film as it was in 70mm. Fox even named one of their theatres in Melbourne the Cleopatra for the season & installed 70mm equipment in that very ancient(demolished) small venue that was once the Paramount, then the Lyceum-a fleahouse dating to WW1 when Paramount ran films in the building. A live variety house was next door and owned by the same landlord. Opposite Fox had another ancient hall converted to a moviehouse and had 70mm equipment in it for West Side Story & South Pacific. It was a long and narrow building. It also had live theater(The Theatre Royal) next door but all gone now. The chain started in this venue about 1911. Few knew Fox owned the Hoyts chain for many years in Australia. It was never publicized widely.


I've heard that the 1963 CLEOPATRA has had an ongoing restoration attempt after the last DVD release, but have not heard any updates on how much footage has been located.

I do hope Criterion comes out with BluRay editions of those Eureka titles that are currently region-locked (and all of the BFI titles, which are all region B only). It's odd that the normally thorough blu-ray.com does not have a review of ALI BABA yet, and odder that the review on DVD Beaver takes no notice of the fact that the disc is region-free (which they usually make it a point to mention). I'll probably go to amazon.co.uk next week to order ALI BABA and PARANOIAC, but would really like to get some of their other titles that are region-B only.

I was about to order the new BluRay by Periscope Films of William Wyler's MEMPHIS BELLE until I read the blu-ray.com review -- not because the worn original 16mm source is less impressive than a new movie, which would not have deterred me, but because they apparently have superimposed their logo in the lower right corner throughout the entire film. This is barely tolerable on cable TV broadcasts, and is inexcusable for a BluRay release (or DVD for that matter). I expect they may lose quite a few sales because of that ill-advised policy. That's certainly the deal-breaker for me, despite some interesting-sounding bonus features in HD.

Meanwhile, I'm awaiting my latest Amazon order (estimated at about two weeks from now) of the new BluRays of BREATHLESS, FORBIDDEN PLANET, MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS, BLACK ORPHEUS, THE RED SHOES, THE TWILIGHT ZONE season 1, and a number of others. And October-November are loaded with key classics showing up on BluRay (it's gonna get expensive!).

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PostFri Sep 17, 2010 2:05 pm

Meanwhile, I'm awaiting my latest Amazon order (estimated at about two weeks from now) of the new BluRays of BREATHLESS, FORBIDDEN PLANET, MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS, BLACK ORPHEUS, THE RED SHOES, THE TWILIGHT ZONE season 1, and a number of others. And October-November are loaded with key classics showing up on BluRay (it's gonna get expensive!).


Yeah. I'm going to have to sell my house.

THE RED SHOES is a knockout. Let us know what you think of it. I also recommend Criterion's blu-ray of BLACK NARCISSUS.
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PostFri Sep 17, 2010 2:26 pm

THE RED SHOES is a knockout. Let us know what you think of it. I also recommend Criterion's blu-ray of BLACK NARCISSUS.


I've already got the British region-free BluRay of BLACK NARCISSUS, which looks great except that the bonus featurette is in PAL so I can't see it. If the Criterion ever goes on a decent sale price I may pick that version up, since it also has a few other bonus features.

THE RED SHOES has never been a favorite, although I'll admit it's got some lovely color cinematography. Maybe the sharpness of the BluRay will make me like it better. We'll see in a couple of weeks.

Never having seen cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis' PARANOIAC, I'm really looking forward to ordering it (nothing quite like good, crisp, black & white CinemaScope), and am glad that Eureka title is region-free. More classic Hammer would also be nice, region-free!

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Old Movies in HD

PostFri Sep 17, 2010 7:46 pm

Logos on DVDs. There have been too many logos on retail DVDs & a good offender is Passport Video who do sometimes have some stuff not available elsewhere but otherwise best left alone. Some start with the imprint then it goes. I first saw these imprints on VHS people had given me many years ago of German TV variety shows. When they started putting them on Australian broadcast shows(excluding the money making ads) there was an uproar but it continued with no real reason why they did this. Many people seem to accept the TCM logo on classic films they record off air thru cable. TCM is liked because they don't have ads in the middle of films for products. But in Australia people complain they get a raw deal and the programming come thru Hong Kong apparently thru a Murdoch source who owns the major cable in Australia partly with our biggest telco, Telstra as Foxtel. I have never had cable and not really to be discussed here.

It is good news if something is being done about the missing Fox footage of Cleopatra(1963) but I would like to hear more in time. As a sideline, I learnt that one of the child actors in the film, Richard O'Sullivan(born May 1944 in London) who played Ptolemy 111, had stroke in 2003 after a fall the previous year. Now he lives in London area nursing home of his own desire and a recent picture shows a decrepit old man as a result. He is said to still do some ads & voiceover work but this is not confirmed.

Those coming Blu Rays mentioned in the posts I have on order & got the Criterion Black Narcissus this week but already have the UK release as I do The Red Shoes. I have Michael Powell's early The Edge of the World in this format received recently. I get many of the BFI twofers being the Blu Ray & DVD in one pack & reasonably priced. Most of these are films that have not be available before. The BFI have oodles of material never available anywhere to buy and their restoration of world films in on-going.
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PostSun Oct 17, 2010 12:50 am

Just a quick note -- the first season TWILIGHT ZONE episodes (1959-60) look absolutely stunning on BluRay. Haven't gone through every one yet, and some are certainly better than others, but scanned from the 35mm negatives and with audio from the original magnetic tracks, these are definitely a must-buy. Almost every episode features some major star and has one or more rising stars who would later go on to fame in TV or films. There's also the Rod Serling-scripted 1958 Desilu Playhouse hour-long episode THE TIME ELEMENT, which is perfect for watching on December 7th (I plan to screen it that night right before the British BluRay of the longer Japanese cut of TORA! TORA! TORA!, which so far I've only spot-checked for quality and looks extremely impressive).

I just watched the British BluRay of the uncannily still-timely German film THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (1975), and should have a review of it shortly. In a few days I plan to screen the new BluRays of the original KING KONG and the British release of the first directorial effort by cinematographer Freddie Francis, PARANOIAC (1963), in black & white CinemaScope, and can report on them later.

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PostSun Oct 17, 2010 11:54 pm

Another quick note...

The next several weeks, combined with the past several weeks, are seeing a modest but relatively impressive number of films over 40 years old get BluRay releases. I still haven't had time to see all the titles I ordered last month, and I haven't yet ordered TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, THE MALTESE FALCON, PSYCHO, THE SEVEN SAMURAI, PATHS OF GLORY, THE MAGICIAN, or the U.S. Govt. documentaries in the WWII IN HI-DEF set (including John Huston's LET THERE BE LIGHT, among others), not to mention the soon upcoming SOUND OF MUSIC, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, OCEAN'S 11, TWILIGHT ZONE season 2, Criterion's 7-film BBS collection, two Sam Fuller Criterion titles, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, and many more, plus a few region-free foreign titles like LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT, FRENCH CANCAN, and a few others.

I've been trying to keep a reasonably updated list of every pre-1980 film that I know is available or announced for release on Blu-Ray in the U.S. with a chart on my webpage at
http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/Old ... BluRay.htm
for those who haven't already run across it or don't follow the usually (but not always) comprehensive site www.Blu-ray.com

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PostMon Oct 18, 2010 11:52 pm

Okay, with the restoration of THE LEOPARD showing on the big screen in New York (really the only way to watch it), here finally is my review of the new Blu-ray release from this summer...

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Luchino Visconti’s “Il Gattopardo” (“The Leopard”) won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963. Its official Italian version ran three hours and five minutes (about 20 minutes shorter than its premiere). The English-dubbed American release was cut even further, to two hours and forty-one minutes, got some lukewarm critical praise, and was a boxoffice dud. Then 20 years later, the director’s preferred 185-minute cut appeared in the U.S. and critics suddenly discovered the film was drastically better than they remembered, some now declaring it a masterpiece. This past summer, the Criterion Collection released both cuts on BluRay.

The film is a lush costume epic set in Sicily, focusing on one aristocratic family during the 1860s as a popular revolution was hoping to combine the variety of independent kingdoms, principalities, and provinces into one united Italy for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s something more than an Italian “Gone With the Wind,” however. “The Leopard” is bittersweet nostalgia for an old and elegant social order based on 2500 years of feudal tradition. There’s a grudging acknowledgement that it needed to change and recognition that its own decadence led to a rising wealthy middle class replacing it as the seat of political power, and nouveau-riche mafia families superseding the inbred and overspent families of princes, dukes, and barons. It’s also symbolic of any generation’s gradual mutation into the next.

Burt Lancaster plays an aging and melancholy prince whose energetic but impoverished young nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) opportunistically joins the revolutionaries and then switches to the army of the victorious united monarchy, hoping to advance in political connections. The prince reluctantly understands the wisdom of his nephew’s assertion that “for everything to remain the same, everything must change.” He dismisses his lovesick daughter’s attraction to the handsome military hero and arranges for Tancredi to marry the beautiful daughter (Claudia Cardinale) of the doltish but extremely wealthy village mayor.

The last quarter of the film is devoted to the elaborate engagement ball at which the once separate social classes mingle for the first time, the crude but practical businessmen hoping to gain the same prestige that clings to the genteel but irresponsible aristocracy they are rapidly supplanting. The prince is the only one who can foresee and accept the approaching death of his class and himself, mourning the inevitable substitution of lions and leopards with jackals and hyenas.

The Italian cut of the film is a leisurely but deliberate accumulation of details and atmosphere, which is occasionally elliptical but builds to a powerful conclusion. Lancaster’s commanding physical performance dominates the film, even though a nameless (and deeper) Italian voice speaks his words. The American cut, besides having a mediocre English-dubbed soundtrack with a not-always accurate translation (although Lancaster’s own voice can be heard), deletes scenes and sequences that often leaves what remains hard to follow and substantially decreases the emotional involvement in the central characters.

Criterion’s high-definition transfer of the Italian cut was made from the original horizontal 35mm Super Technirama negative at the 2.2:1 aspect ratio used for its 70mm release, supervised by the film’s original cinematographer, and generally looks excellent. Although a few scenes show higher levels of grain due to the original film stocks and lab work, overall it reveals a level of fine details and textures (especially when projected eight feet wide) that give a new understanding of the numerous actions going on during the film’s many long shots, things simply unrecognizable on any video versions until now. The original optical mono soundtrack is adequate but lacks wide frequency range.
The transfer of the American cut was done from a standard 35mm positive 2.35:1 CinemaScope reduction print whose softer appearance, contrastier color, and frequent printed-through specks of dust make it appear at least two or three generations removed from the negative. The transfer itself looks softer, without the obvious care taken during the transfer of the Italian version. At least the reel-change cues were allowed to remain, giving a nostalgic movie-theatre flavor to the film. The English-language soundtrack also sounds more worn than the one on the Italian version, with even less frequency response.

As usual, Criterion includes an excellent selection of supplementary materials, from a color illustrated 20-page booklet with a nice essay and info on the restoration, to an hour-long documentary on the film, interviews with the producer and an expert on Italian history, newsreels, trailers, posters, and numerous production stills (including some from scenes deleted from even the 3-hour cut). The Italian cut includes a very informative commentary by critic Peter Cowie (there’s no commentary on the American cut).

“The Leopard” ranks as one of the great works of Italian cinema, and now in Criterion’s BluRay edition, home viewers can finally see why.

THE LEOPARD on BluRay –
Italian cut
-- Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: B+ / Extras: A
American cut
-- Movie: C+ / Video: B / Audio: C+ / Extras: A-
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Christopher Jacobs

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PostTue Oct 19, 2010 12:18 am

I'm trying something slightly different over three weeks for my film classes. They get to (have to) watch three different films of the same story, two from the 1960s and one from the 1990s, all three of which, not quite so coincidentally, came out on Blu-ray earlier this year. We'll watch them in chronological order, starting with the best, Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece YOJIMBO (1961), a clever Samurai variation on American westerns and film noir which never gets old or goes out of date. Next week is the pretty good Italian western version, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), followed by the much later American noir version, LAST MAN STANDING (1996).

I had a couple people over to watch all three in a row one entertaining afternoon a couple of months ago, and here's a review of each disc.

--Christopher Jacobs
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http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/Old ... BluRay.htm

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Today’s modern action-hero movie genre typically features a lonely, cynical, and almost super-human protagonist who is out for himself but has a streak of decency and strong personal code of honor. There have always been movies about heroes fighting bad guys. But the type of antihero, the level of violence, and the darkly comic wisecracks so prevalent in the current formula largely came into being almost a half-century ago with Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” starring Toshiro Mifune.

This new style of movie really took off, however, several years later when its first remake, Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” made Clint Eastwood a star. The story’s staying power and adaptability were reinforced after another three decades, when action star Bruce Willis made it again as “Last Man Standing.”

All three versions can now be seen at home in high definition. Last spring the Criterion Collection released to BluRay the classic samurai action adventure and dark comedy “Yojimbo” (1961), both individually and packaged with its sequel, “Sanjuro” (1962). This summer Warner Home Video released BluRay editions of “Yojimbo’s” two very effective but cross-genre remakes, the spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) and the film noir gangster picture “Last Man Standing” (1996), packaged not together but with other films by the same stars.

“Yojimbo” (whose title means “The Bodyguard”) follows a wandering, out-of-work samurai warrior in the late 1800s who stumbles into a village torn by violence between two competing families of racketeers. Naturally, with his cocky self-confidence, personal code of honor, and supreme skill with his weapon of choice, he decides he’s just the person to clean up the town. He plays the two gangs against each other, with plenty of intrigue, action, and violence before the climactic showdown and satisfying conclusion.

The film remains one of Kurosawa’s best, with still timely social commentary, still funny one-liners, and still exciting action sequences. Criterion’s BluRay really does the film justice with a fine HD video transfer of the beautifully composed black and white widescreen image and a good reproduction of its original Perspecta Stereo soundtrack, along with a generous selection of bonus features.

Italian director Sergio Leone had directed only one film, the pseudo-historical adventure “The Colossus of Rhodes” (1960), but loved American westerns. When he saw “Yojimbo” he was struck with how perfectly it fit the western formula, and decided to turn it into “The Mysterious Stranger” for his second directorial effort, much of copied it almost word by word and scene by scene, with a few variations, now set in northern Mexico near the American border during the mid-1800s.

The low-budget widescreen process called Techniscope required shorter focal-length lenses than standard 35mm anamorphic widescreen, which as any photographer knows produces a byproduct of a greater depth of field. This resulted in almost everything being in focus and led to Leone’s now-famous style of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots, sometimes at the same time. The international cast, all speaking their own languages and later dubbed for each country, inspired Leone to concentrate on sound effects more than dialogue, along with a now-iconic music score by Ennio Morricone.

TV actor Clint Eastwood wound up playing the lead, “Joe” (he really did have a name, despite the advertising campaign), after several other Hollywood actors turned it down. After the film finally made it to the U.S. under the title “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1967, the rest is history, with Eastwood playing mainly variations on that character ever since. Kurosawa successfully sued Leone for stealing his plot without permission, and part of the settlement was that Kurosawa’s studio obtained Japanese distribution rights for “A Fistful of Dollars,” which they promptly renamed “The Return of Yojimbo.”

So far Warner’s BluRay edition is only available in a box set with its two followup films (each a bit better than its predecessor), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (1966), all of them with fine video transfers, audio remixed to stereo, and very good bonus features including informative audio commentaries and background documentaries.

In 1996, writer-director Walter Hill, better known for “48HRS,” “Crossroads,” and “Red Heat,” decided to do an official remake of “Yojimbo,” but updating it into a pulp crime thriller set in a dusty Texas border town during the early 1930s. Hill’s script borrows from both Leone and Kurosawa while adding his own take in the style of both classic gangster melodramas and film noir – right down to the voiceover narration by its cynical antihero.

Bruce Willis, like Eastwood, was ideal for this type of character and plot. He also brings back more of the darkly comic attitude that Mifune gave to the original “Yojimbo,” whereas Eastwood’s humor was much dryer in “A Fistful of Dollars” than it became in later, similar roles. Bruce Dern and Christopher Walken add to the fun.

“Last Man Standing” is only available as a double-feature, very well-paired with another Willis action-crime picture, Tony Scott’s “The Last Boy Scout” (1991), which is almost as good. Both have great transfers of the picture and the outstanding digital stereo soundtrack of “Last Man Standing” will really show off a home theatre sound system. Unfortunately, having both movies on a single disc allows no room for any bonus material whatsoever, but they can at least be bought at a bargain price, under $20 for the pair.

Watching “Yojimbo” and its two sequels back to back in high-definition makes for a very entertaining five-and-a-half hours as well as an instructive example on how effectively the same story can be adapted to different times and places and actors.

YOJIMBO on BluRay –
Movie: A+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A-

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS on BluRay –
Movie: B / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A

LAST MAN STANDING on BluRay –
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A+ / Extras: F


Quick Update (Oct. 28, 2010):
I ran FISTFUL OF DOLLARS for my class this week, but discovered that the classroom Samsung Blu-ray player would only load the MGM Blu-ray, play the title menu, and then reload the disc, and keep doing that, so I had to use the standard DVD as a backup (lucky I brought it along!!). I checked the disc on my main two-and-a-half-year-old Magnavox (Funai) Blu-ray player wired into my home theatre, and the feature and all HD bonus items played fine, but all SD bonus features were little tiny pictures in the upper left-hand corner. The same disc on a slightly newer Magnavox played everything the way it was supposed to be, filling the screen for either HD or SD material. Oddly, that newer Magnavox has issues with Criterion's WALKABOUT Blu-ray, while the older one plays it fine!
Last edited by Christopher Jacobs on Thu Oct 28, 2010 8:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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PostTue Oct 19, 2010 12:35 am

And as promised the other day, here's a review of the British region A/B compatible (but not region C) Blu-ray of THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (1975) otherwise known as DIE VERLORENE EHRE DER KATHARINA BLUM, ODER: WIE GEWALT ENTSTEHEN, UND WOHIN SIE FUEHREN KANN...

--Christopher Jacobs
http://hpr1.com/film
http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs
http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/Old ... BluRay.htm

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

There are some films that seem highly topical when they first come out, closely tied to the times of their release. Many of those quickly become dated, but others seem just as timely over a generation later. Such is the case with the 1975 political crime thriller, “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” written and directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotte from the novel by Heinrich Böll. The story grew out of government and media reaction to the rise of terrorism within 1970s West Germany, a story that 35 years later resonates with an eerily chilling reality in today’s global political climate.

The terrorists at the time were largely student anarchists and Communists, notably the Baader-Meinhof Group, who actively sought violent political revolution against the West German establishment. However, this film’s focus on its characters rather than ideologies gives it simultaneously greater dramatic impact and broader implications far beyond its time and place.

Numerous films of the late 1960s and 1970s dealt with revolutionaries, campus radicals, and politically-charged themes, glorifying or demonizing one side or the other. Most of those films are now merely curious artifacts of their era. “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” on the other hand, dramatizes the devastating and irreparable effects on individuals that arise from terrorist activities, official counter-terrorist policies, and media exploitation of any popular controversy. It shows what might happen and what it might lead to.

Katharina Blum is an attractive young divorcee known for living alone and rarely socializing. However, one night she decides on a whim to attend a party where she’s attracted to a young man she then brings home to her apartment. The next morning he’s gone, and the police break in to arrest her for harboring a political terrorist, convinced she’s an accomplice. Detained for questioning, she steadfastly refuses to reveal anything that could be considered incriminating. While police officers grudgingly come to believe she has no political motives, an ambitious tabloid reporter with police department connections has been sensationalizing her arrest with daily front-page reports and photos. Naturally this makes Blum the target of constant anonymous threats and propositions.

Schlöndorrf and von Trotte’s film brilliantly balances questions of personal freedoms vs. legitimate government concerts about terrorism vs. freedom of the press, with an intensity of characterizations and a few plot twists that are sure to provoke debate. Angela Winkler is superb in the title role, supported by a strong cast including Jürgen Prochnow (of “Das Boot”) as the man who changes her life literally overnight.

“The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” has been on DVD from the Criterion Collection for some time, but late last year was released on an impressive region A and B compatible BluRay from Britain’s Optimum Home Entertainment. The BluRay image, in its original 1.66 aspect ratio (Criterion’s DVD is cropped to 1.85), is extremely sharp and clear, with just a little distracting electronic boosting in a few dark scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless mono soundtrack is also very good, in German with optional English, French, German, or Japanese subtitles.

The bonus features are all playable on American BluRay players, and include a substantial documentary, interviewing the two directors and the producer, but unfortunately no audio commentary. A short political film Schlöndorff did as an episode for an anthology using some of the “Katharina Blum” cast members, “The Delayed Antigone,” dramatizes a filmmaker’s efforts to get a TV production of the ancient Greek play passed by political censors who find it too inflammatory for the country’s current situation. Also included are a trailer and photo gallery (both in HD), plus a 20-page pamphlet containing an interesting if somewhat awkwardly-translated essay on the influence that the turbulent 1970s political climate in Germany had on writers and young filmmakers.

Optimum’s BluRay can easily be ordered from amazon.co.uk for roughly the same price (including overseas shipping) as Criterion’s standard DVD can be bought over the counter in the U.S. It’s a film well-worth revisiting from time to time, and a worthwhile addition to any collection of international cinema.

THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM on BluRay –
Movie: A
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: B+
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PostThu Oct 28, 2010 7:27 pm

Here are comments on three classic films from Universal recently released to Blu-ray. Only one can be bought in the U.S., but the other two are region-free and easily ordered through amazon.co.uk


PSYCHO (1960)
Celebrating its 50th anniversary with a newly remastered edition on Blu-ray in October is Alfred Hitchcock’s ground-breaking PSYCHO, the 1960 thriller that changed the face of horror films forever. Instead of some intimidating mutated creature or alien being, the monster was the mild-mannered guy next door, and the name “Norman Bates” became embedded in our cultural consciousness. And a completely unexpected shift in the plot emphasis kept audiences guessing what could possibly happen next.

A brilliant performance by Anthony Perkins with strong support from Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam, and the rest of the cast, aided by Hitchcock’s subversively clever approach, turned what might have been a forgettable low-budget murder thriller into gripping suspense that had audiences wrapped up in the lives of its two main characters. Paramount’s inspired marketing plan, which refused to let anyone enter the auditorium after the film had started and pleaded with all patrons not to reveal the ending, resulted in long lines and a box office smash.

The Blu-ray edition has a magnificently crisp transfer of the film’s stark, Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography. Having seen it several times before, I find that scenes which previously seemed to drag a bit now seem much better paced. This is something I've noticed on quite a number of Blu-ray editions of familiar titles (like THE SEVENTH SEAL and DAYS OF HEAVEN, among others) where the sheer wealth of image detail keeps your eyes occupied scanning the frame so that slower-paced scenes on standard-def video are just about right (as they should be) with the higher picture resolution original audiences would have seen. Although the original sound recordings are lost, thanks to new digital technology a French company was able to separate the music, sound effects, and dialogue into individual tracks that could be remixed into a very effective 5.1 stereo surround soundtrack. The original mono track is also included on the Blu-ray for purists.

Bonus features are also impressive, with a very good audio commentary, an informative 10-minute documentary on the soundtrack’s renovation, a revealing hour-and-a-half making-of documentary and another good documentary on Hitchcock’s influence on modern directors. There’s also an audio interview between Hitchcock and François Truffaut, a promo film for exhibitors, a breakdown of the famous shower scene, stills, advertising, and more. Unfortunately all extras are standard-definition except the soundtrack documentary.

PSYCHO belongs in the Blu-ray collection of every film buff and can be found for about $20 or less. With any luck (and respectable sales) this will be the first of many classics from Universal's vaults to get good Blu-ray treatment in the U.S. market.

PSYCHO on Blu-ray
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A-


PARANOIAC (1963)

Somewhat inspired by PSYCHO was the above-average British Hammer/Universal production PARANOIAC (1963), released in a region-free Blu-ray this summer from England’s Eureka Video. This first directorial effort by famed cinematographer Freddie Francis is full of intensely creepy atmosphere, beautifully lit and shot in black and white CinemaScope.

Oliver Reed stars as a faded family’s dissolute son trying to drive his sensitive sister insane so he’ll inherit the entire fortune, but then a long-lost brother who supposedly had committed suicide years before suddenly shows up. It’s a well-done blend of elements from PSYCHO with THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE OLD DARK HOUSE, among others, maintaining an almost Hitchcockian sardonic undercurrent to the gothic thrills. PARANOIAC is a film that deserves to be better-known.

The Blu-ray has a good film-like transfer of the film, with some very minor video shimmer at a couple of spots where there are fine patterns in fabric, but otherwise it looks outstanding. It's also got strong mono sound. Unfortunately the extras are sparse: a trailer, a fairly extensive photo gallery of production stills and lobby cards (all in 1080p HD, at least) and an isolated music/effects track. It is, however, available for under $20, including shipping from England.

PARANOIAC on Blu-ray
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: C-


ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944)

Filmed in late 1943, this rousing Technicolor family matinee adventure from Universal is one of the best Maria Montez/Jon Hall pairings, thanks to competent direction from Arthur Lubin, sincere performances from a solid supporting cast (including Andy Devine being far less broad in his comic relief role), and especially a well-crafted script by Edmund L. Hartmann. Hartmann manages to turn the famous "Arabian Nights" tale into superior juvenile action fare with a political power-struggle plot framework that doubles as an effective adult allegory about the war raging in Europe at the time the film was made, with obvious references to invasions and occupation governments, collaborators, and efforts of the resistance.

The real star of the film is the gorgeous Technicolor art design and cinematography, beautifully rendered on this superb HD transfer. This print is so sharp that even the "bumps" into and out of dissolves (indicating dupe footage spliced into the negative) are barely noticeable, and those brief dupe sections are actually sharper than many complete films often look. The colors are solid, rich, and varied, not pastel, although perhaps not as glowingly saturated as some IB prints might be. While it doesn't seem like the kind of title a studio would choose for extensive restoration (especially Universal, which has a nice selection from its library on DVD but almost nothing on Blu-ray from before 1980, let alone a modest programmer like this), the Blu-ray image quality is in the same league as the recent restorations of BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS -- in short, absolutely stunning. Audio is also very good, but for some reason roughly the first half of the 88-minute film the sound appears to be maybe a frame or two ahead of the picture (which would no doubt appear in perfect sync towards the middle or back of a movie-palace balcony). I don't think it could all be due to bad ADR. In any case, the last half is in much closer sync. Sadly, the only bonus feature is an isolated music and effects track, not even a trailer or production stills, like the PARANOIAC release.

The Blu-ray is another of the classic Universal titles that are available only from British distributor Eureka!, despite being American productions and with Blu-rays that are region-free. Even with overseas shipping, it's under $20 and well-worth adding to any well-rounded Blu-ray collection, especially to show off just how sharp a 1940s film can look. (Did I happen to mention how good the picture quality is?)


ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES on Blu-ray
Movie: B+
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: D-


--Christopher Jacobs
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PostSat Nov 20, 2010 11:44 pm

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS has long had the reputation of being a stodgy adaptation of the Verne film, more travelogue than drama, and noticeably inferior as a Best Picture winner to the same year's other mammoth moneymaker (both of which would, temporarily, knock Gone With the Wind off its perch as the biggest hit of all time, only to be relegated to also-ran by GWTW reissues), The Ten Commandments.

TCM HD showed an HD transfer of it recently, and... well, all that's true, and yet, it's grand entertainment when you can really see the Todd-AO 70mm image. (80 Days and Oklahoma! were the only films shot in the true 70mm, 30 fps Todd-AO format.) The richness of the vast panoramic frame is remarkable-- Cantinflas fights the bull in long shot, which would normally mean a stuntman at work, yet here you can plainly see that it's him some 30 or 40 feet from the camera-- and even moreso during the many sequences which, in a manner more like the Cinerama travelogues than a normal drama, simply allow us to luxuriate in point of view shots which show a balloon's-eye-view of the chateaux of France, a train chugging through the American West, an elephant moving through the forest. In gloriously saturated Technicolor, the travelogue aspect is breathtaking, and director Michael Anderson's tendency to shoot everything in pageant style, wide shots with no cutting, as archaic as it may seem, is justified by just how much you can absorb from within those giant, hyperdetailed frames. It's a short step from here to, say, Tati's Playtime, with its 70MM frames where you have to pick out what the real scene within the scene is.

As entertainment, it has one great advantage— Cantinflas, who is not only adorable but, coming from a country where life is cheaper, much more willing to risk his neck than any American comedic star would have been; when he's running atop a moving train in real life and Buster Keaton plays a conductor who is (putatively) in the car below, it's a touching nod to the movies' earlier, more daredevil days. David Niven is rather dull, unfortunately (I'm trying to think of anything he was ever really good in; he was certainly a fixture still as I was growing up, but why?) and Shirley Maclaine, though charming and much droller than any other comparable ingenue of her day could have been, only gets a few chances to do more than stand at Niven's side. The cameos are fun to spot, but rarely give the famous performers a chance to do anything really memorable than mug as various national stereotypes; only Bea Lillie manages to really make her moment her own with a couple of glances that leave you in no doubt what her Salvation Army lady is really thinking.

In short, it's a film whose flaws you could pick apart all day— and yet in HD, when you can really SEE it, it's captivating as a form of entertainment belonging to a more naive and wondering age, thrilled to really see Japan and not bothered when it comes right after an obvious studio-built Hong Kong. I heard some years ago that the material on 80 Days was in very poor shape and possibly not restorable, but this version looks superb— with fewer flaws in the surviving material than were in the original to begin with (there are a lot of specks on the camera lens, they may not have realized just how much you could see on that 70MM image).

By the way, I watched it with my kids, and I'd just like to beam with pride at the conversation that ensued when a horse stunt sequence started:

12 YEAR OLD: I bet that's Yakima Canutt.
9 YEAR OLD: It's totally Yakima Canutt!

I don't think it is, actually, but we watched Stagecoach maybe six months ago, and they remembered what I told them about the stunt work on it and produced the name Yakima Canutt out of their memories. That's my boys!
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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PostSat Nov 27, 2010 9:46 am

Between switching to AT&T U-verse (which has TCM in HD, unlike DirecTV) and finally buying a Blu-Ray player, I've suddenly got older movies in HD everywhere. I'll refrain from a detailed examination of The Incredible Mr. Limpet, which my kids viewed recently (one viewing in original release was probably enough for me), but as Christopher Jacobs has noted above, if you look around for sales, you can pick up Blu-Rays quite reasonably all the time, so here are two picked up for around $10 each courtesy of Target. They have another thing in common: showing how beautiful, but also sometimes problematic, early Technicolor in HD can be.

Both The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Wizard of Oz are, to my mind, perfect movies, so perfectly aimed at a young audience's mentality that any imaginable flaw to adult eyes, the naivete or rare moment of kitschiness, is merely part of what makes them so touching as a reminder of youth's uncritical enjoyment. (Note to self: watch for sale on Blu-Ray of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.)

One thing that I think is not as appreciated as it might be about Robin Hood is that it is the movie that saved "three-strip" Technicolor. Earlier live-action features had been sort of white elephants (Becky Sharp, The Garden of Allah) and three-strip seemed doomed to the same novelty ghetto as two-strip, but Robin Hood proved that it could add larger-than-life panache to an adventure story and make a hit.

The HD version of Robin Hood is gorgeous to look at, shimmering with dazzling color. But the digital restoration is one of those ones that finds detail in the negatives that audiences in 1938 could never have seen given the softer printing results of the time. The hypersharp images throb with so much minute colorful detail that at times it's like watching a million sequins in a breeze; this is The Adventures of Ritalin Hood, your eye focusing on every minute flashing pixel. Of course, for most of us with middle-aged eyes, moving a little further back on the couch will solve much of this problem, and then the color is, don't get me wrong, a joy. But Robin Hood is Exhibit A for one of the issues with this kind of restoration, with the digital era we all live in, which is that part of the artistic effect of these films was a subtle softness that filmmakers used for its romantic feel— and we just don't find that acceptable now, we find it a flaw. (See people like Jeffrey Wells ranting about grainstorms on DVD releases like Stagecoach, as if they should look like they were shot in 4K video.) Balancing faithfulness to 1938 with the expectations of 2010 consumers is not ever going to be easy, or satisfy everyone.

Happily, The Wizard of Oz manages to resolve many of these problems— maybe because the Technicolor technology got that much better and smoother in barely a year. Here skin tones seem even, not shimmery, and colors seem to exhibit more realistic gradation within an object or a costume. Even watching it compared to the standard DVD release taken, I assume, from the same digital restoration masters, you spot details of set design or the remarkably good special effects that you've never noticed before. Ironically, The Wizard of Oz was a bit of a return to white elephant status for Technicolor— fortunately a little picture called Gone With the Wind came along the same year and definitively demonstrated the process's value— but at $12.99, there's not a better value to be had in demonstrating the eyepopping value of a later technology, HD TV.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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PostSun Nov 28, 2010 1:01 pm

Fantasia/Fantasia 2000

I just finished watching and testing the upcoming Blu-ray release of "Fantasia" and "Fantasia 2000" and all I can tell you is how wonderful the original looks and sounds on HD.

If you have a 7.1 setup, as an audiophile who enjoys the movie, you will love this release! I have had this soundtrack since before my college years back in the very early '90s and have had the soundtrack on cassette, CD and now to hear it via Blu-ray 7.1, I've never imagined I would be listening to the soundtrack with this presentation ever and it sounds absolutely wonderful. Instruments are wonderfully positioned to various channels, you hear the music going from the left to the right and vice versa, just remarkable channel placement for various instruments.

As for the picture quality, considering "Fantasia" was created in 1940 and has gone through many edits throughout the decades, this is the original 1946 general release version with the main racial stereotype character that was removed back in 1969 still absent (it is safe to assume that this will never come back, despite purists who may be upset by it). But PQ is very good although it does have a little banding at times. Of course, "Fantasia 2000" fares much better being a newer film. Although the CG was created in 2000, it still manages to hold up in 2010 (although, if this sequel was made in 2010, makes you wonder how far Disney would have taken it visually).

Also, another wonderful inclusion to this release is the "Destino" animated short. Back in 1946, Salvador Dali and Walt Disney collaborated. The two admired each other despite being quite different but as Salvador Dali's style started to really become too abstract for Disney, the project was shelved. And a little over half a century later, as all the classic Disney archives were being moved from the old studio morgue to the new Disney Archives, they discovered this shelved project and was rescued by his nephew Roy E. Disney Jr.

Both the animated feature and the 1.5 hr documentary are included.

Also, if you have BD-Live, there are a ton of special features also available. (despite this being a 4-disc release, 2 Blu-rays and the 2 DVD of each film, a lot of the special features pertaining to both films are on BD-Live).

Anyway, just wanted to plug this upcoming release!
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PostSun Jan 02, 2011 3:35 pm

Here's another batch of reviews of recent Blu-ray releases of older films...

OCEAN’S ELEVEN (1960)
The recent remake of Ocean’s Eleven was popular enough to spawn two sequels, but the 1960 version of the story has a different kind of charm a half-century later. One of the last films directed by veteran Lewis Milestone, it is also an enjoyable light-hearted heist comedy. Its pacing drags at times as it takes about an hour to bring together the eleven old army buddies who plan to knock off five Las Vegas casinos at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but the overall sense of fun and a few odd twists keep it intriguing.

Today it is far more interesting as a record of the personal chemistry and ad-lib camaraderie among the group of celebrity friends known as “The Rat Pack.” This included singer superstars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., actor Peter Lawford, and various other entertainers who worked in TV, movies, and nightclubs during the 1950s and 60s. The stars made this film as a lark, shooting from right after their midnight stage acts finished until dawn. It’s also got an early pre-starring appearance by North Dakota native Angie Dickinson and cameos by several major stars. The film is an excellent example of 1960-era pop culture and a valuable document of the Vegas casino scene before it shifted its focus about a decade later to become what it is today.

The Blu-ray of this 50th anniversary edition has a very fine high-definition transfer that preserves the original film grain and wide Panavision image with sharp details and vivid colors. The original mono soundtrack is good (with French and Spanish dubs as alternates), although audiophiles will miss the fact that there is no updated stereo remix, especially with its two song numbers and Nelson Riddle score.

A modest but nice selection of bonus features includes a pretty interesting commentary that alternates between separately recorded reminisces of Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Angie Dickinson. There are also a half-dozen very brief featurettes about Las Vegas and the five casinos featured in the film, a “Tonight Show” clip featuring Dickinson and Sinatra talking about the film (and giving away its ending), a trailer, plus an “easter egg” clip of the 1990s demolition of one of the hotels. All bonus features are standard-definition.

OCEAN’S ELEVEN on Blu-ray
Movie: B
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B-



MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)
Almost exactly 75 years after its theatrical premiere, Frank Lloyd’s classic MGM seafaring epic “Mutiny on the Bounty” made its Blu-ray debut in November of 2010. Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the ruthless Captain Bligh became forever associated with him and with ship movies in general. Superstar Clark Gable shaved his mustache for his iconic role as reluctant rebel first officer Fletcher Christian, who led the crew to depose their commander and try to start a new life on their own south Pacific island. Franchot Tone is also fine as a conflicted young officer-in-training. All three received Oscar nominations for Best Actor, the only time that the same film has ever had three nominations in the same category.

Besides a strong story, the film has magnificent production values, including location shooting in Tahiti and a huge $2 million budget during the depths of the Depression. It has all the polish of the Hollywood studio system in its heyday, something that is both a virtue and a drawback in its slick but often predictable use of characters and bits of business. Nevertheless, it’s a must-see at least once, although due to its sparse bonus features, purchasers may want to wait until its price drops to about half its $25-$30 current rates.

The Blu-ray, as expected from Warner, has a uniformly excellent HD picture that reproduces the look of the original film admirably. Audio is also quite good, considering the state of optical sound recording in 1935. Bonus features, unfortunately are disappointing, with four alternate language tracks (French, German, and two Spanish) but no audio commentary and nothing in high-definition. There’s a fairly interesting 1935 nine-minute documentary about Pitcairn Island, a one-minute newsreel of the film’s Oscar presentation, a trailer to the film, and a trailer to the 1962 remake. The attractive “digibook” packaging contains nice photos and a limited bit of production trivia.

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY on Blu-ray
Movie: A-
Video: A+
Audio: A-
Extras: D+



WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954)
White Christmas is a TV perennial I always considered pleasantly diverting but not much more (never having seen it projected from film), maybe worth a C+ to B- in entertainment value. Seeing it projected from Blu-ray, however, with the rich, unexpectedly varied colors, and incredibly crisp background details that were all but unnoticeable before, made it almost like watching it for the first time (in fact I watched the last half twice!). This is a perfect example of just how much a large, high-quality picture can greatly enhance a film's enjoyment and make one reassess one's opinion of it. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the story of two army buddies who become a popular song-and-dance team after the war and join a sister act to put on a show at a remote Vermont inn that happens to be run by their old army general.

While its sentimental story is often hackneyed and predictable, the classic Irving Berlin songs and breezy performances remain an attraction. And now it has an extremely impressive upgrade in picture quality over any previous video version, with vibrant colors and looking as sharp as any new movie on Blu-ray. This is due partly to the fact it was the first film made in the VistaVision widescreen process, whose larger image area gave double the picture resolution of other films of the time.

Paramount has reworked the audio into a pleasing 5.1 stereo track and also restored the original mono sound for audio purists. There is a generous selection of bonus features, including a commentary by Clooney and numerous new retrospective featurettes produced in HD.

WHITE CHRISTMAS on Blu-ray
Movie: B+
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A



BABES IN TOYLAND (1934)
March of the Wooden Soldiers is the re-release title of the Hal Roach film adaptation of the Victor Herbert operetta “Babes in Toyland,” about classic nursery-rhyme characters. Silent and early sound comedy superstars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy bring their screen personas to the roles of innocent incompetents Stanley Dum and Oliver Dee, who must help Bo Peep from the evil Barnaby and save Toyland. The pacing is often slow and the action a broad caricature, but Laurel and Hardy are fun as always, it’s got a few nice songs, and the plot is good family entertainment, especially for younger children. The Laurel and Hardy routines are what really make the movie worthwhile for film buffs.

The Blu-ray from Legend Films has a generally fine transfer from 35mm film, including the original MGM release title, although it’s often a bit low in contrast. Most of the film is quite sharp but few brief passages, mainly scenes in the cave, are much lower quality, as if edited in from some old video source. The audio is pretty good for its age. The disc includes both the original black-and-white plus a colorized version with pastel hues reminiscent of old hand-colored lobby cards. There’s a nice selection of several Christmas-themed short bonus films, but all unfortunately in very poor-quality standard-definition transfers.

BABES IN TOYLAND on Blu-ray
Movie: C+
Video: B+
Audio: A-
Extras: C+


--Christopher Jacobs
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PostSun Jan 02, 2011 6:31 pm

I got Fantasia as well, and it is certainly gorgeous to look at, though there are some curiosities about this latest incarnation of a movie that seems to change every time it's re-released.

So far as I can tell, this one, like the 2000 DVD release which it apparently is based on, represents an attempt to get to what might be called 1940 minus 1969: the original roadshow version from 1940, minus the few censorship cuts/zooms in the Pastorale that seem permanent.

This introduces one big problem: apparently the audio tracks for some of the Deems Taylor narration segments no longer exist. So someone named Corey Burton, who does a lot of Disney voice work, did a decent Taylor imitation redubbing all of his dialogue in a sort of "gimcracky" imitation-40s way of talking. Personally, I'd have preferred him doing it only where Taylor's tracks were unavailable, and lived with the voice difference within the film (which most would never have noticed), but it's tolerable, if slightly jarring. Ultimately, if you're watching Fantasia for Deems Taylor, you've got a screw loose; but in any case, no need to start a long thread about that here— one with a very familiar tone can be found at Home Theater Forum.

So anyway, this is either a step forward or a step back for Fantasia getting back to its longest original roadshow/Fantasound version, depending on your point of view. It did introduce me to at least one thing I swear I had never seen before, an extended intro to the Rite of Spring/dinosaurs sequence in which Taylor, or Corey Burton, explains evolution.

And most of all, it's drop dead gorgeous in blu-ray, if you can see past a few compromises with perfection.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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PostMon Jan 03, 2011 4:21 pm

Just an FYI for those of you with Netflix streaming—there are a number of classic titles up now available in HD. I watched FLYING DOWN TO RIO and WEREWOLF OF LONDON and both looked extremely good, obviously real HD transfers and not upconverts (which was a problem apparently with some of Amazon's transfers).
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PostFri Jan 21, 2011 2:07 am

Those who subscribe to Films of the Golden Age may have noticed Bob King's scathing editoral about Jean-Luc Godard in the latest issue. I can't say I completely disagree with him, but he pretty much ignores the early Godard, so this may serve as a qualified, semi-rebuttal to his comments. I was never a fan of Godard in college, when he was the "in" thing, but most of the Godard films I got to see were his heavy-handed and downright boring political diatribes (those films King decries), and to a teenager without much exposure to independent cinema, both BREATHLESS and MY LIFE TO LIVE were merely curious aberrations to mainstream Hollywood of the 1970s. I much preferred Bergman and DeSica and even Antonioni. CONTEMPT in its dubbed pan-and-scan version was barely watchable. Then a few years ago I saw it in the original scope multi-lingual version on Criterion's restored DVD, was unexpectedly amazed, and I started to give (early) Godard another look. Suddenly any one of his ultra-avant-garde stories from the early 60s seemed like just another modern film rather than a peculiar experiment. Below is a look at what Godard is now available on Blu-ray, which isn't much, but luckily includes most of his best and none of his worst...

The ways movies tell stories to audiences still hark largely back to classic cinematic traditions popularized by Hollywood from the 1910s through the 1960s. But today's most modern-looking, cutting-edge films, especially those by independent filmmakers, show a heavy influence of films from the "French New Wave" of the 1950s-60s, especially the early films of Jean-Luc Godard, who just turned 80 last month.

While many Godard films have been released to DVD and VHS over the years, five of his key titles are now available for reappraisal on Blu-ray, four of them just released to the format over the past year. Unfortunately the best film of the bunch is also the worst-looking (the Lionsgate transfer of Contempt), but the other four (three from Criterion and one a region-free release from Britain's Eureka) all have superb transfers that resemble new 35mm film prints. All five have nice selections of bonus features including illustrated booklets (with those for Breathless and Une femme mariée the most lavish at 80 pages each), but Vivre sa Vie is the only Godard Blu-ray with an audio commentary. The two color films are in beautifully-composed scope, whereas the three black-and-white titles are in the traditional 1.33:1 ratio Godard felt was more appropriate for black-and-white. He considered color (at this point in his career anyway) to require a full widescreen image, despite having Fritz Lang poke fun at CinemaScope in Contempt.

Because Godard was so influential, his once avant-garde style makes these films all look remarkably modern today. Because many of his experimental techniques never caught on widely, they also remain fresh and surprising, and possibly disconcerting. Besides an unconventional use of editing and sound, he sometimes has characters address the camera directly, loads his films with pop-culture references (for example we get to see directors Fritz Lang and Sam Fuller playing themselves), and likes to leave out elements that might clarify his plots. His films are still an acquired taste and dedicated Godard fans might rate all five of these as masterpieces, whereas other may not find any of them particularly satisfying.

À Bout de souffle (1960), better known as Breathless, was Godard's first feature-length film, and its success changed the look of films ever since. The simple story of a cheap crook who inadvertently kills a cop and hides out with a sometimes-girlfriend was inspired by an actual incident. It could have been a typical film noir thriller, and does indeed pay homage to American gangster films.

Godard's loose, free-form approach, however, makes it something entirely different. He often avoids spelling out relationships and motivations, and neither of his protagonists is particularly likeable. He shoots largely on actual locations with natural lighting, but uses numerous jump-cuts that condense time while giving an edgy, frantic feeling to the film that purposely calls attention to the fact that we're watching a film and not reality.
BREATHLESS on Blu-ray from Criterion --
Movie: B+
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A-


Vivre sa vie (1962), sometimes called My Life to Live, is an interesting and off-beat character study of an aspiring Parisian actress who becomes a prostitute, played by Godard's then-wife Anna Karina. This time he uses a documentary style with numerous long takes, including a substantial clip from the 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, and he divides the film into 12 individual episodes with a sudden surprise ending.
VIVRE SA VIE on Blu-ray from Criterion --
Movie: B
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A-


Contempt or Le Mépris (1963) is arguably Godard's masterpiece, a multinational moviemaking story of a French writer (Michel Piccoli) hired by an American producer (Jack Palance) to rewrite a German director's (Fritz Lang) adaptation of the Greek epic "The Odyssey" being filmed in Italy. It's a parallel plot of the writer's failing relationship with his wife (Brigitte Bardot), alluding to the situation of Odysseus and Penelope, and the conflict of artistic vision with crass commercialism during the process of film production. For the most part more traditional in style than Godard's other films (even the roughly half-hour real-time apartment scene in the middle), it still displays many of his trademark techniques and a vivid symbolic use of the mise en scene.

The Criterion Collection's outstanding old DVD release (approved by the cinematographer) is the preferred version of Contempt to look for, rather than the disappointing 2010 Blu-ray version from Lionsgate. Moments of the Blu-ray look outstanding, and much of it is sharper than the DVD, but all the colors appear faded and muddy, and several scenes unaccountably switch from the high-resolution transfer into segments that look fuzzier than a VHS transfer, sometimes in the middle of a shot. This is a rare case where the DVD (which also includes an audio commentary) is drastically superior to the Blu-ray edition.
CONTEMPT (LE MÉPRIS) on Blu-ray from Lionsgate --
Movie: A
Video: C+
Audio: B+
Extras: A-


Une femme Mariée (A Married Woman) (1964) is subtitled "Fragments of a film shot in 1964 in black and white," giving an advance clue as to its much more experimental style of photographic composition and editing. Even more than most of his films, the images look like art photographs in motion. Its story of an unfaithful wife is also a provocative statement on male-female relationships.
UNE FEMME MARIÉE on Blu-ray from Eureka --
Movie: B
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: B


Pierrot le fou (1965) is a vividly colorful crime romance with a playful comic edge undercut by a number of dramatic and/or philosophical elements (or perhaps vice versa, depending on one's approach). It may be the film that is most "Godardian" of Godard's films, and one of the last before he became more explicity (and tediously) political in his stories.
PIERROT LE FOU on Blu-ray from Criterion --
Movie: B
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A
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PostTue Feb 08, 2011 2:10 am

A bunch of older movies hit Blu-ray last week, including ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951), AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968), and more. Here are my comments on Disney's latest cartoon classic to make it to high-definition...

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ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

The theatrical release of Disney’s flashy 2010 ALICE IN WONDERLAND is doubtless what inspired Universal Home Video to issue a DVD last spring of the all-star ALICE IN WONDERLAND made at Paramount in 1933. It’s quite possible Disney timed last week’s 60th anniversary Blu-ray release of its classic 1951 animated cartoon version (which itself was nominated for best music score) to take advantage of the Oscar publicity for the 2010 Tim Burton version. Cynics might wonder whether Disney's financing of the amusing but disappointing 2010 re-imagination of "Alice" was really just a calculated PR move -- designed specifically to raise interest in the title at a time that would coincide with anticipation of the 60th anniversary Blu-ray.

Although many regard it well-below classics like SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, DUMBO, or the more recent LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN, Disney’s 1951 ALICE IN WONDERLAND remains the best screen version of Lewis Carroll’s beloved comically surrealist story so far. It's arguably much better than SLEEPING BEAUTY and CINDERELLA, and at least on a level with PETER PAN. While it expectedly leaves out a number of episodes and makes a few changes, it is unusually close to its source for a Disney film. It’s got much tighter pacing than any other “Alice” film, along with some memorable songs, beautiful use of color and design, and first-rate hand-drawn animation. The Richard Hayden-voiced caterpillar sequence remains one of the best from any Disney cartoon.

The Blu-ray has a beautifully-restored HD picture that looks brand-new, the colors more vibrant and Technicolor-looking than I've ever seen them on 35mm reissue prints, the last of which I'm pretty sure was annoyingly hard-matted to 1.85:1 (I know that CINDERELLA was cropped in the last 35mm print I saw). The disc has a fine soundtrack in both a well-restored version of the original mono and a very nicely remixed 5.1 stereo surround soundtrack. It is packed with great bonus features, the best of which is an in-depth 75-minute documentary about Lewis Carroll, the story, and the film, which runs concurrently with the film picture-in-picture in lieu of an audio commentary track.

The delightful Carroll-inspired 1936 Mickey Mouse Technicolor short THRU THE MIRROR is presented in hi-def, and there’s a classic “Alice in Cartoonland” short from 1923 (but only in standard-def and previously available with six other Alice cartoons from the series on a “Disney Rarities” DVD set). There are several new featurettes, deleted songs, live-action reference footage, a short pencil-test, plus all the bonuses from the last DVD release, a couple now re-scanned in HD. Interesting SD items include a half-hour of highlights from a 1951 “Fred Waring” TV episode kinescope with live-action performances of scenes and songs from the movie, and a complete shot-on-film Christmas Day 1950 Disney TV special with Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy, spotlighting various Disney films (including the now-rare SONG OF THE SOUTH) and giving a sneak peek at a scene from the upcoming ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Interestingly all the old film clips were re-inserted in color for the video releases, but the old SD video transfers of those color clips must date back to VHS days as they don't look as sharp as the transfer of the rest of the original 35mm black-and-white TV program. The Coca-Cola-sponsored show is just as interesting for its quaint early-TV manner of integrating the Coke commercials into the program itself.

About the only negative aspect of this disc (aside from not upgrading all the SD materials to HD when possible) is the pop-up menu that suddenly appears when the closing credits begin, which is the disc authors making the assumption that no one will bother to sit through all the credits to wait for the main menu to show up and don't know where the "root menu" button is on their remote. At least the menu can easily be hidden using the remote, but that's hard to do when your player and projector are in the next room from the screen where you're watching it.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951) on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: A
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PostTue Feb 08, 2011 1:05 pm

I haven't had time yet to look at all the new Blu-rays of classics that came out last week, just ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR so far, but spot checks for picture and sound quality indicate they are all good to excellent except for THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, which looks okay but disappointingly has just enough digital noise reduction to eliminate most of the grain and soften the image considerably compared with all the other transfers.

ALL ABOUT EVE looks very good to excellent (a lot of soft-focus that seems to be inherent in the print), ALICE IN WONDERLAND (as noted in the above post) looks excellent, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER looks excellent with rich 1950s colors, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE looks very good, and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR has beautiful colors but its sharpness looks only fair to good when close to the picture and good to very good when sitting far enough away that you wouldn't notice the grain if there was any. Although Fox is distributing all of these Blu-rays (except ALICE, of course), the studio apparently takes better care of its own titles or uses better transfer facilities than for the MGM/UA titles it distributes. Some of the latest MGM-Fox releases don't even have menus -- the movies just start playing like a VHS tape and any of their few bonus features must be accessed through a superimposed popup menu while the movie is playing!

--Christopher Jacobs
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PostTue Feb 08, 2011 1:08 pm

Some of the latest MGM-Fox releases don't even have menus -- the movies just start playing like a VHS tape and any of their few bonus features must be accessed through a superimposed popup menu while the movie is playing!


I think that's actually a feature, discs that don't force you to watch 14 trailers and 11 Interpol warnings.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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PostSat Mar 12, 2011 12:36 am

Quote:
Some of the latest MGM-Fox releases don't even have menus -- the movies just start playing like a VHS tape and any of their few bonus features must be accessed through a superimposed popup menu while the movie is playing!



I think that's actually a feature, discs that don't force you to watch 14 trailers and 11 Interpol warnings.


Well, they do make you sit through an FBI warning or two, but then the feature just starts up with no main menu even available (unlike WB discs that start playing but you can still go back to a root menu manually). I like to be able to leave a disc in for a while with the menu showing before I press play, instead of having to press PAUSE after it starts. On these discs after you watch a bonus item, the main feature resumes playing where you left off, since you can only access the bonuses through a popup menu while the movie is playing (including the audio commentary, which means you have to back it up after you select it in order to hear the whole thing!).

I hope they go back to using menus again. No need for all the motion-visuals and audio clips, just a menu with buttons for each feature.

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PostSat Mar 12, 2011 12:50 am

Okay, I finally got around to watching these this week, so here's another report on some nearly half-century-old films newly released to Blu-ray...

Samuel Fuller, who died in 1997, would have turned 99 or 100 in 2011 (depending on which source you check). Earlier this year Criterion released to Blu-ray SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE NAKED KISS, two of his most influential films on such current filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Tim Robbins) as well as European directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders. The latter film features substantial supporting roles for former silent actresses Betty Bronson, Patsy Kelly, and Virginia Grey. Although issued on Blu-ray separately, these two films make an ideal double-feature, and the bonus-features give an interesting crash-course in Fuller's career and approach to filmmaking.

Fuller was a crime reporter in the 1920s who turned to writing stories and screenplays in the 1930s, and eventually got into directing in the late 1940s by telling a low-budget producer he’d sell him his script if he could direct it himself at no extra fee. To achieve personal control with little studio interference, he learned to thrive on the challenge of tighter budgets and shorter deadlines, more concerned with grabbing the audience’s attention and giving them something they’d remember than with lavish sets and the biggest stars.

Never shying away from controversial social issues, writer-producer-director Fuller’s success at turning out profitable films on modest budgets quickly earned him regular work at major studios like Fox, Universal, Columbia, and Warners during the 1950s and early 60s, but by the early 60s the traditional studio system was falling apart. To make the films he wanted he suddenly found himself an independent searching for backers, but he continued making films until 1982 in the U.S., plus a couple more in France during the 1980s. He even acted in a few for other directors.

While dismissed by some as sordid, tabloid-mentality exploitation films, SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE NAKED KISS are considered by many critics among Fuller’s best and most personal work, possibly second only to his Oscar-nominated crime-spy thriller PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953). And even those who appreciate both films often diverge on which is better, whether SHOCK CORRIDOR or THE NAKED KISS is a superior, artistic film or merely an interesting exercise in the director’s typical subject material. Both are rough-edged stories that treat topics rarely handled by mainstream Hollywood productions, and both are expertly photographed by Stanley Cortez, who shot Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and Charles Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (the latter of which is also available on a superb Blu-ray from Criterion along with two-and-a-half hours of fascinating outtakes!).

SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) follows the experiences of an ambitious reporter (Peter Breck) who goes to unusual extremes in hopes of getting a story that will win him a Pulitzer Prize. To solve a murder in an insane asylum, he pretends to be a sex pervert, enlisting his stripper-girlfriend (Constance Towers) to pose as his concerned sister, and has himself committed so he’ll be able to befriend the inmates who witnessed the crime. Naturally, things do not go exactly as he’d planned and the experience begins to threaten his own sanity.

During the course of the reporter’s investigation, however, Fuller uses the conversations with patients as a vivid and often moving means to explore political hypocrisy in American attitudes towards communism and collaborators, racism and integration, and nuclear war, not to mention sexual hang-ups and abuse of the institutionalized. In keeping with his occasionally experimental techniques, a few brief dream/fantasy sequences are in color in the otherwise black and white film. A good film, it sometimes shows its low budget and occasionally seems a bit overly contrived in its daring approach. Some may also find its obvious social commentary a bit heavy-handed at times, but it was likely far more shocking and unexpected in 1963 and the metaphor of America as a madhouse may still find a lot of resonance today. The film actually won awards from humanitarian and religious groups.

THE NAKED KISS (1964) gets off to a rousing start with a subjective hand-held camera switching viewpoints back and forth as a prostitute is beating up her crooked pimp. Constance Towers stars as a high-class hooker who moves to a small town and decides to start a new life for herself, getting a job taking care of crippled children at a local medical center instead of moving into the brothel across the river. The cynical local cop (Anthony Eisley) questions her motives, especially when she falls for the rich playboy who is the town’s financial benefactor (Michael Dante), but she persists and even helps disillusioned young nurse friends avoid taking up her former career. Of course, unexpected complications suddenly change the direction of the plot completely for its final act when she’s arrested for murder.

Throughout THE NAKED KISS there is a stronger literary sense, with a variety of allusions to classical literature and music, as well as occasional in-jokes referencing Fuller’s own previous work (including SHOCK CORRIDOR). The story is in some ways more conventional than SHOCK CORRIDOR but is perhaps even more powerful in exploring its characters’ confrontation with narrow-minded prejudice and preconceived conclusions from “respectable” citizens. Towers’ fine performance, a complex interpretation by Eisley, and brief but solid supporting roles by Hollywood veterans Patsy Kelly, Betty Bronson, and Virginia Grey do much to give the film a depth beyond a simple noir melodrama or the more obvious thrills and social commentary of SHOCK CORRIDOR. The layers of plot and character are far richer than the drive-in or grindhouse fare that its trailer implies. And despite the sometimes brutal rawness of the story material, Fuller manages to keep the language within the genteel standards of the pre-ratings system early 1960s.

Both films have excellent high-definition transfers with strong mono audio. Unfortunately neither has an audio commentary, but each includes a roughly 30-page illustrated booklet with a critical essay and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography. Each disc also has an interesting (though standard-def) half-hour interview with Towers about the particular film, plus a hi-def trailer for the film. SHOCK CORRIDOR includes a good hour-long documentary about Fuller, whereas THE NAKED KISS has over an hour’s worth of extracts from three interviews with Fuller made for European television.

SHOCK CORRIDOR on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: B

THE NAKED KISS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: B


--Christopher Jacobs
http://hpr1.com/film
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