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Football As Never Before February 4, 2012

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews , 5 comments

To Be The Best…

Saturday, September 12, 1970. A watery northern European sun lights a crisp autumn afternoon at Old Trafford, where a crowd of 48,939 fans of Association Football have gathered to watch Manchester United of the English First Division play Coventry City.

It was also the day where Hellmuth Costard, one of the most important experimental film makers in German cinema during the 1960s and ’70s, used eight 16mm cameras to follow every single move over the 90 minutes of the blindingly beautiful number 11 in the iconic red jersey. The most famous footballer on my planet; George Best.

George Best

Costard’s 1971 film - Fußball wie noch nie (Football As Never Before) - is a homage to the then 24-year-old Belfast born genius. And in an age where fans of The Beautiful Game can languidly choose to see a match in comparable fashion via satellite or cable, and will no doubt have seen the similarly structured Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, it’s possibly difficult to understand just how unique Costard’s film was. Indeed, four decades ago, the idea of such a film, such apparent cultish worship of an individual was undoubtedly a slightly bizarre concept.

Best, or rather the selling of the “mercurial Best”, was the progenitor of today’s hyper-inflated, hyperventilating, Premier League marketeering. Everybody wanted a piece of the man; he was a fashion icon, the gossip columnists dream, pop records were written about him, his every move was followed by long lenses. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. And ultimately his decline and fall from grace was noted in the finest detail by a slavering press pack, charted in quite horrifying slow motion over the next agonising 35 years. “Where did it all go wrong Mr Best?” was the punchline of a popular contemporary joke. Which turned out not to be especially funny.

For while Costard was filming Best at his very zenith in terms of fame, success and tabloid notoriety, what he wasn’t to know was that Best, and particularly the team he was playing for, were already on the ebb.

Within three months - while Costard was in post-production - with mighty Manchester United struggling, Wilf McGuinness, Matt Busby’s anointed successor at Old Trafford, would be out and Busby back in the hot-seat. It would only delay, not assuage, their eventual downfall. Best, the most naturally talented footballer of not only his generation, but arguably ever, was already well down the path where addiction would eventually kill him.

George Best

And thus, Costard’s experimental film takes on a new significance; not only of a real time snap-shot of a unique individual but also as an invaluable record of a bygone era. Indeed, whenever clips of Best in action are required for broadcast today, invariably Costard’s footage is trawled. Of Fußball wie noch nie, the director himself was said to be excited by the freedom afforded by using multiple lightweight cameras. Costard said: “Artists using these small-scale tools increasingly appreciated the intimacy of the screening situations and the low-key and fragile qualities of the image and spontaneity that…filming allowed.”

Using his various camera angles, Costard keeps the lens tight on Best, sometimes on only parts of the man, those tanned legs, scarred by intimate encounters with the likes of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, his back, shorts, socks, crotch, or the (probably) Catholic medallion that hangs round his neck. We see Best warming up, pre-titles, Costard’s single microphone planted near to the away fans, hence the anachronistic chants of “City! City!”, and the cries that “We hate Stepney”, Alex of that name replaced in goal for the day by a nervous, but under-employed (as it turns out), Jimmy Rimmer. It was to prove that kind of season.

Boy: Who are you today, sir? Liverpool?
Mr Sugen: Don’t you know your club colours? Manchester United, this.
Boy: Are you playing Denis Law, striker?
Mr Sugden: No. Charlton today, lad. All over the field. Too cold for striker.
Boy: Charlton’s not as quick ont’ turn as Law, is he?
Mr Sugden: You tryin’ to tell me about football?
Boy: No. I…
Mr Sugden: You trying to tell me? Anyway, Denis Law’s in the wash this week.

Ken Loach’s Kes (1969)

The viewer only gets fleeting glimpses of the other United players as Best ambles, sometimes seemingly alone on a pitch that is variously jade green or turquoise (the wear and tear of ages on the film elements), from box to box. In a flash, the Irishman stiffens the sinews and transmogrifies into a supernatural blur of red and white, his change of pace absolutely spine-tingling, shirts of sky-blue in his imperious wake. Time and again, the predatory Best scouts for every opportunity, but there’s little meat on the bone of the first half.

On the terraces the crowds look like they’ve been airlifted in from another planet - mostly older men, working men, higher up the stands, lots of spectacles, neat suit jackets and ties - ties! - flat caps, an almost universal factory pallor. At the front, tousle haired kids, banging on the advertising hoardings, scarves knotted round their wrists, gleefully joining the chant of “Fuck off City!” Easy to remember lyrics. Handily.

It’s recognisably Old Trafford; no prawn sandwiches, they were still to come, but a slightly subdued atmosphere from the home crowd, only really fired into life by the first goal. But not yet…

At the interval, we follow Best - in a sequence clearly shot at a different time - glancing over his shoulder to invite us wordlessly on backstage at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. He’s bearded and alone, standing in an empty, unprepossessing and unlit room, a tight head shot, the whiff of old socks, stale sweat and Wintergreen. Best turns to face us and for fully three minutes, we stand toe to toe.

The great man, alone with his thoughts - we peer into his mind, and he into ours. Is the shot saying that he’s a different man at half-time, that he truly is alone? Like the film as a whole, it’s deeply fascinating, hypnotic, and certainly homoerotic. On and on he stares. And on and on we stare back. Best licks his lips, then looks down. Almost as if he’s come to a decision. Or made a deal with his Gods.

After a first half during which he appears to say not one word to neither friend, nor foe, Best emerges to the pitch for the second period and flashes that trademark smile just before kick-off. It’s a good sign, for inside six minutes his lazy amble becomes that blur once more; with effortless economy, Best takes the ball down off his right thigh and it’s glued to his boot. One on one, a jink to the left and the red/white blur leaves the Coventry ‘keeper grasping at shadows as Best slots the ball into the net. The crowd erupts in acclaim. 1-0.

George Best

Five minutes after that, Best has the opposition defence in a panic once more. On the edge of the box, he eschews showy individuality and instead casually stabs the ball to his right. It’s only when he moves to congratulate the scorer that we see that it was Bobby Charlton who has made it 2-0. Best - El Beatle as he was dubbed by the Portuguese press two years previously - with his mane of luxurious jet black hair and thick mutton chop sideburns, steps forward to rather formally shake the hand of a stone-faced Charlton, his comb-over overcome by the merest breeze.

Costard’s cameras capture two eras; the almost other worldly Best, all ‘Swinging ’70s’, for whom this football lark is ridiculously easy, and the consummate professional Charlton, for whom the ’60s apparently never existed, who treats both those imposters just the same and who refuses to crack a smile until the final whistle. Sometimes not even then.

For fans of the modern game, the whole experience may seem remarkably quaint. For a start there is no shrieking, hysterical commentary to distract, to inflate the ordinary into a carrier for a business generating billions. There’s the odd - and by ‘odd’ I also mean quite random - musical overdub, but the rest is natural sound. There’s also not a single name taken by a referee who looks like, any second, he may produce a pipe.

The tackles fly in, but Best just dusts himself off and gets on with it - no writhing about on the ground, begging for a name to go into the official’s book. No stoppages as such, no ‘added time’, and incredibly for Best and many others, despite the accepted physicality on show, the GBH that passes for defending, no shinpads. Moments before he scores (no coincidence; he seems fuelled by the offence), Best also takes a hefty smack in the mouth that he doesn’t complain about - except to admonish the offender - but leaves him checking that handsome face for blood for the rest of the game.

Fußball wie noch nieNo theatrics, no hysterics, no time wasting. Just the football. It’ll never catch on.

The Frankfurter Rundschau’s film critic commented at the time that the film’s concentration on one player actually shows “the true extent to which the sport is all about teamwork.”

While that may be so - and for the politically aware Costard that may well have been his intent - it also gives a quite unique insight into the game as played in that ‘other country’ that is our past.

And a glimpse, just the merest hint, as to why, 38 years after he quite sensationally walked out of Old Trafford aged just 27, the burden of carrying a failing team simply too much for a man fighting demons on other fronts, many still think that no-one quite played The Beautiful Game as beautifully as the late, and the very great, Georgie Best.

Sincere thanks to Anthony Nield for his help in preparing this piece.

And Some Came Alone… July 1, 2011

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 1 comment so far

Vera Cruz has unexpectedly and happily arrived on Blu-ray disc, courtesy of Fox/MGM in the US. Happily because it’s a film I love, and unexpectedly because it’s a film that has dropped off the radar of many folks, even western fans.

I first wrote about Robert Aldrich’s seminal western some time ago. That was before I was fully conversant with the mechanics of Superscope, and now that I am, it goes a long way to explaining the wildly inconsistent look of the film that I previously noted and which provoked the ire of contemporary critics.

Vera CruzI don’t intend to attempt to dissect the film further than I have already; this brief ‘drive by’ is simply another bid to encourage those that have not done so to seek out what I, and many others, see as an exceptional piece of work, now presented in high definition.

Fans will enjoy, as I did, John McElwee’s 2-part look at the film at his Greenbriar Picture Shows blog; his point regarding the prints, and Aldrich’s unhappiness at the Superscope conversion, makes sense - the cropping isn’t a huge disaster (setting aside the detrimental effect the Superscope process has on the film’s appearance in general), but I’d lay good money on it being framed by the brilliant Ernest Laszlo with a slightly more forgiving 1.85:1 frame in mind, whilst being protected for Academy Ratio*.

Having, like a kid on Christmas morning, only today ripped the cellophane off the case and watched the film through in high definition, I can’t say too much more about Vera Cruz than previously, except that, like a fine Californian Zinfandel, it gets better with age, with each and every viewing. And the barebones Blu-ray presentation (save for a garish 1.85:1 trailer in 1080p - it even lacks a conventional menu; left in the machine it plays on a loop…) is the best it has looked - or is ever likely to look - on home video.

Sourced from a very decent print, Vera Cruz has not been messed around with digitally, it’s clean and as colourful as Superscope allows and it looks like film - not much more you can ask. I’m indebted to McElwee’s blog above for, among many other things, pointing out the pocket Derringer in Duvarre’s hand at the end, which underlines the script problems they were facing. You can hardly see the gun in standard definition but it’s as clear as a bell at 1080p; the wonders of high definition.

I just love discovering something new about works I admire and am familiar with; I come over all Howard Carter standing on the threshold of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Was Duvarre to have taken a pot-shot at Joe? Was Lancaster to have gunned her down, while grinning like Captain Vallo’s evil twin? I’d still prefer a much bleaker ending; I think Aldrich had one in mind but was possibly over-ruled. It was a tough shoot.

Vera Cruz was total improvisation because the script was always finished about five minutes before we shot it, and we’d sit right down and work it out and then shoot it as we went along. I’m not sure that’s the right way to work…”

Robert Aldrich

I’m not altogether convinced (as McElwee says) that Cooper’s playing of Ben Trane was hamstrung by the star simply protecting his image; I think Trane is the ideal counterpoint to Erin, there’s no doubt he’s heavily conflicted - and having two amoral bad asses would not have made much sense. As you see from the contemporary New York Times review linked above, the savagery, the amorality, the bad table manners, didn’t go down well with critics - Aldrich was way ahead of the game in that respect.

Four final links; I have to give enormous credit to Glenn Erikson - not only did he point me at John McElwee’s blog entry, but it was the Savant who, in the first place, unlocked Vera Cruz’s potential for me as a political entity. His Blu-ray review is here. Need further convincing of the link between Aldrich and Leone? Read Roland Caputo’s wonderful essay Aldrich, Leone and Vera Cruz; Style and Substance Over The Border - I’m particularly taken with his examination and analysis of the ‘reveal’, a bravura camera move that is not only reminiscent of Leone in terms of style, but of Peckinpah in actual execution.

Vera CruzBlu-ray screen captures? We don’ do no steenkin’ Blu-ray ‘caps! No, beaten by technology on that front, so I have to point you elsewhere; Blu-ray.com review here and DVD Beaver’s review here. Please, please bear in mind that when it comes to screencaps, they can only be a rough guide to what you will see on your own equipment. Sound is provided by a DTS HD Master Audio mono soundtrack, which is more than good enough and another step up from previous home video incarnations.

As said, I’m far from alone in thinking Vera Cruz is an under-appreciated and influential western that deserves a greater following; punting out quality BD transfers such as this at bargain bin prices can only help do that surely?

By the way, it’s also available in Germany, but no sign, thus far, of it being offered on these shores; both discs are region free, so will play in your Blu-ray machine. No excuses, buy it now…

*2013 edit: Totally untrue according to widescreen guru Bob Furmanek, and if Bob says it’s so, it’s so…

Crompton’s Mule… May 27, 2011

Posted by John Hodson in : Comedy, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film , 2 comments

Spring and Port Wine

Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine was filmed in 1969, released early 1970, but based on a story conceived and written by the Bolton based playwright in mid-1950s austerity Britain.

Spring and Port Wine

As such, it’s ever so slightly out of time; this tale of a gentle, yet strict and starched collar stiff, family man coming to terms with the new liberalism of his post-war universe perhaps struck a chord even as the swinging ’60s drew to a close, but the synchronicity of the piece is more in tune with it’s origins. The muleish Rafe Crompton - played to perfection by Huddersfield born James Mason - reminded me of my grandfather’s generation; tightly-laced Edwardians who worked as slaves, who placed the highest value on family and thrift. Who loved deeply, but were ever so slightly horrified by waste or overt displays of affection.

Indeed, there’s a clue to the real anchor stone of the setting when Rafe talks of the the Hunger Marches of the early 1930s, being “20 years ago”. And I know of no working family of the era who would have gathered, as the Cromptons do, round the piano (piano? There’s posh…) to lustily sing their songs of praise - by 1970 it was, more likely, to have been the Dansette to join in with ‘All You Need Is Love’

Sring and Port Wine - around the Piano

Still, that caveat aside - the same also, I feel, applies to the film of Naughton’s The Family Way by the way - it is a rather beautiful, gentle comedy from the Irish born author. Hilda Crompton (Susan George) seemingly makes a bid for independence from the iron rule of her father, Rafe, when she refuses to eat a fried herring mum Daisy (Diana Coupland) has prepared for supper (or tea; depending on which part of Lancashire you may be from, gentle reader). Rafe is adamant Hilda will eat the fish; Hilda digs in her heels. Impasse.

The herring at the centre of the plot is slightly red - and as we come to see, not quite what it appears - for here is a tale wherein not only does Rafe come to terms with a nascent feminism (although that may be overstating things slightly), but his family also comes to terms with him, this chap who fully realises the solemn responsibility of being head of a home, and all that entails; both the great weight and the immense joy.

“A home can become a prison where there isn’t love.”
Rafe Crompton

Set and filmed on location not a mile from where I sit, Spring and Port Wine is the remedial nephew of the kitchen sink drama; the happier, less angry nephew, who knows his place in the world and is content with it. Reasonably.

It is undoubtedly a golden-hued portrayal of working people that’s both true and an outright lie; life was like this, the communities, the good neighbours toiling together, the neatly painted front doors, the proud little gardens. Perhaps though, only on good days.

Spring and Port Wine - the herring

But Spring and Port Wine doesn’t condescend - it’s a piece aimed squarely at those working classes, the film’s audience turning the glass on themselves and liking what they see. And after years of being shown that it’s all a bit grim up north - This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, the inestimably brilliant but ultimately miserable Kes, et al - Peter Hammond’s film is something of a throwback in terms of a ‘poor but happy’ ethos. Yet there’s a vein of genuine affection to be seen.

It is a sweet, simple slice of ‘feel good’ propaganda showing that the toiling masses had more going on than at first meets the eye. Rafe might be an old dog, but he’s familiar with poetry, can play the piano - has a parlour big enough to hold such an instrument - and lives by an almost unbendable moral code. However, in a fast changing world, he’s not adverse to learning new tricks. He’s a role model for a new age.

Billy Fisher hasn’t the guts to get out of small town Yorkshire, Arthur Seaton has to better himself or become the withered old man Nottingham has made his father, for Colin Smith, perhaps nothing more is accomplished other than a pyrrhic victory. Rafe Crompton, with a few tweaks here and there, is comfortable in his skin and with his lot.

What the rest of the Comptons achieve is the nod from dad to help themselves to a modicum of independence, and be safe in the knowledge that family, ultimately, is all that most of us have to truly depend on, for love, for comfort. For happiness. When you get down to it, what more can you ask?

Spring and Port Wine - love conquers all

The cast is wonderful; Diana Coupland, Susan George, Rodney Bewes, Hannah Gordon and a host of familiar faces sneak in and out, Arthur Lowe, Bernard Bresslaw, Frank Windsor, Ken Parry.

It is almost wholly Mason’s show; the Yorkshireman breathes life into this patriarchal Lancastrian whether he’s striding across Bolton’s moorland, almost guiltily strutting in his new 40 guinea overcoat, or - and it’s a tiny detail but, like all Mason’s acting, so true - luxuriously washing his hands, fingernails and creases blackened by a day at the mill, in machine oil.

I’ve long liked Spring and Port Wine, but now I fancy I love it in an almost wistful fashion. As I approach Rafe’s age, I hanker after simpler times. Incidentally, Roy Baird executive produced this and If…., and both Michael Medwin (who also produced If….) and Albert Finney - ‘Arthur Seaton’ himself - were producers. There’s pedigree here.

Spring and Port Wine DVD

Released in the UK a couple of years ago, apparently after an exhaustive search for elements decent enough to transfer to DVD, the not always reliable Optimum Entertainment have really come up with the goods. The transfer is simply wonderful; presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colours are true, it’s virtually unmarked, sharp as a tack and very film-like; only a high-definition presentation could better it and then, I fancy for most viewers, only marginally.

The mono soundtrack is adequate with Douglas Gamley’s simple but perfectly apposite score well represented.

Gaumont Bring ‘Manufactured on Demand’ to Europe… October 2, 2010

Posted by John Hodson in : DVD News & Info , 2 comments

Invasion of The Disc Snatchers?

Gaumont in France has launched a Manufactured on Demand (MoD) service to ape the schemes already on the go in the US and spearheaded by Warners Archive wheeze - details, including a video interview with Jérôme Soulet, head of of Video at Gaumont, at the French webzine 1kult.com.

Some fine films included in the first two waves as you can see - films by such luminaries as Welles, Melville, Costa-Gravas, René Clair, William Dieterle, Jean Renoir among them.

From what I can gather, these discs (I initially assumed they must be DVD-Rs, but Msr. Soulet does seem to indicate they are professionally pressed) will sell for €12.50 plus postage and are available only from the Gaumont website. Overseas mailing is offered, but, for example, postage to the UK appears to add an eye-watering €16.26 to the bill, and that for a single item! The first wave is available now, with another in November and they are talking of including High Definition releases in the future on Blu-ray discs.

Be interesting to see how they are received. But I anticipate we’ll be looking at the same standards set by the Archive; varying levels of restoration, older transfers, little or no extra features.

Skimming through the titles on offer, most do seem to be without any supplemental features, but if you have no French, the worst aspect is that they only have French soundtracks and French ‘hard of hearing’ subtitles. These DVD-9s also seem to come in Thinpaks. Most, if not all, also carry the warning: “This DVD was made from the best video source available today. The film has not been restored  for digital image and sound.”

So, we now have MoD schemes in the US by Warner, MGM, Sony, with Fox said to be on the verge, and now the first European model. Warner did mention some while back that they would be looking at launching an Archive scheme in the UK - it can only be a matter of time.

Showing Soon: Oh What A Circus, Oh What A Show… April 30, 2010

Posted by John Hodson in : Film General, Showing Soon , 3 comments

Park Circus Flex Their Home Entertainment Muscle…

Setting out with aims to be a leading international sales and distribution company, the Glasgow based Park Circus provide distributors, cinemas and film festivals with (and I quote):

“…knowledge, ideas, rights and prints to make screenings of classic films straightforward.

“We have a passion for what we do, invest in our film libraries and ensure our people’s knowledge is at the forefront of that for the industry. For our customers, we want our name to be synonymous with classic films.”

They’ve done a fine job thus far. Park Circus handle a number of extensive libraries, including the vast British holdings of ITV Studios Global Entertainment, they were one of the driving forces behind the superb Summer of British Film screenings a couple of years back, in fact screenings are organised at cinemas and festivals all over Europe.

In the past year or so, they’ve taken a courageous step and expanded into the frankly uncertain Home Entertainment market. Gently at first with a couple of documentaries (including Maximilian Schell’s Marlene) on DVD, then breaking into a trot with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’enfer (Inferno), Julien Temple’s Vigo - Passion For Life and Bille August’s Den goda viljan (The Best Intentions). That became something of a gallop when they gained the rights to a number of Charlie Chaplin films, licensed from French outfit mk2, that were previously part of the Warner catalogue.

The Great Dictator Blu-rayOn May 10 Park Circus release The Great Dictator (extras include: Chaplin Today: The Great Dictator documentary (26mins) • Behind The Scenes colour footage (25 mins) • Charlie The Barber (1919) deleted scene from Sunnyside (7 mins) • Photo Gallery • Chaplin Trailer Reel) and The Kid (Introduction by David Robinson (6 mins) • Chaplin Today: The Kid documentary (26 mins) • Scenes deleted for 1971 release (6 mins) • Recording the new score (1971) (2 mins) • Jackie Coogan dances (1920) (2 mins) • Nice and Friendly (1922) featuring Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Jackie Coogan and Chaplin (11 mins) • Photo Gallery • Chaplin Trailer Reel) not only on DVD but also in High Definition on Blu-ray.

You can see that those extra features replicate the previous Warner releases, and The Kid appears to be the same version cut for the 1971 theatrical re-release as before.

However, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In August, Park Circus adds two more from the Chaplin catalogue with the major difference that both The Gold Rush and Modern Times will be emerging in dual-format DVD/BD editions. The former includes both versions of The Gold Rush – the 1925 silent original, restored by Kevin Brownlow, and the digitally restored 1942 film (in 1942, Charles Chaplin took the 1925 original, composed and recorded a musical score for the film, added narration and re-edited). Other extras include: Introduction by David Robinson, Chaplin Today: Gold Rush, Chaplin Trailer Reel and Photo Gallery.

Modern Times includes the 1936 feature, which has now been restored in high definition, and the following extras: Chaplin Today: Modern Times, Introduction By David Robinson, Deleted Scenes, Chaplin Karaoke, Chaplin Trailer Reel, and Photo Gallery.

Incidentally, the rights to these Chaplin films have gone to Kinowelt in Germany, and to Criterion in the U.S. Though the Park Circus/Kinowelt releases should be identical (you can find screenshots from the Kinowelt Chaplin BDs at the redoubtable DVDBeaver), I’m sure Criterion will go to even further lengths in due course.

August also sees the release of another dual-format treat; Pandora And The Flying Dutchman which, thrillingly, also gets a theatrical re-release.

Pandora & The Flying Dutchman

That press release in full:

A brand new theatrical trailer has been created for PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN ahead of the film’s re-release from Friday 14 May 2010.

Originally released in 1951, PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN is iconoclastic writer-producer-director Albert Lewin’s deliriously romantic and contemporary Technicolor™ visualisation of the often told legend of the sea, starring two of Hollywood’s most popular performers. Ava Gardner, in a thinly veiled portrait of herself, is Pandora, who falls hard for James Mason as Hendrik, a 17th-century seaman eternally condemned to sail the oceans.

The quintessential Lewin film, PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN was a production made independently of the Hollywood studios, and its original camera negative has been presumed lost for several decades.

Working from a nitrate separation positive and other sources, George Eastman House has supervised a painstaking 35mm restoration of the film, bringing back the rich palette of deep, sensuous colours utilised by renowned cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

Unavailable theatrically for many years and never available on Home Entertainment [in the UK], PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN will open from 14 May at BFI Southbank and Key Cities on brand new 35mm prints and in Digital Cinema format.

PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN has been restored by George Eastman House in cooperation with The Douris Corporation. Funding provided by The Film Foundation, the Rome Film Festival, and the Franco-American Cultural Fund, a partnership of the Directors Guild of America; Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique; the Motion Picture Association of America; and the Writers Guild of America, West.

Extras on this dual-format disc set appear to be a little thin, two separate theatrical trailers – the new, restored version and the original. But click here and you’ll see that new trailer and get a glimpse of the lush Technicolor wonders that await.Pandora & The Flying Dutchman

One of the most ravishing romances ever committed to celluloid, Lewin’s film is a genuine oddity: at once coolly literate, intensely passionate, and quite sensuously surreal. Transposing to 1930s Spain the old legend of a loner doomed to sail the seven seas forever unless he’s redeemed by a woman’s love, Lewin centres his film on the alluring Pandora (Ava Gardner), courted by a clutch of expats and locals but intrigued by the arrival of a mysterious yachtsman (James Mason) who drops anchor outside the village.

The film is as audaciously stylised and erudite as a Powell-Pressburger movie – unsurprising, perhaps, given the presence of actors like Sheila Sim and John Laurie, and the stunning Technicolor camerawork by Archers regular Jack Cardiff. His immaculately lit compositions, often evoking the delirious dreaminess of a Delvaux or De Chirico painting, are beautifully served by this recent restoration.

- Geoff Andrew

In September Park Circus release two more DVDs, Don McKellar’s Last Night, with McKellar himself, Sandra Oh, David Cronenberg, Roberta Maxwell and Robin Gammel, and David Hare’s unsettling Wetherby (Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm, Judi Dench and a memorable Tim McInnerny). Getting a dual-format release in September is Sean Mathias’ Bent (Lothaire Bluteau, Clive Owen, Brian Webber, Ian Mckellen, Mick Jagger).

Unlike the other DVD releases for this month, Bent features a number of good looking extras. The film has been restored in HD and the BD/DVD set contains: Theatrical Trailer, Interviews with Sean Mathias, Martin Sherman, Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau, Ian McKellen and Mick Jagger, On Set Footage and the Music Video for Streets of Berlin, performed by Mick Jagger.

From that standing start, Park Circus is quickly becoming a player in the Home Entertainment market. And with that library of film to delve into, hopefully both the will and the ability to secure the necessary rights, we can only imagine the riches that may come…

Showing Soon; BFI DVD and Blu-ray ‘Dual Format Editions’ March 11, 2010

Posted by John Hodson in : Showing Soon , 1 comment so far

BFI to launch DVD and Blu-ray ‘Dual Format Editions’

The BFI has announced the introduction of ‘Dual Format Editions’, in which both the DVD and Blu-ray versions of selected releases – main features and extras alike – will sit side-by-side in what they say is a ‘competitively-priced single package’.

Dual Format Editions launch on April 26, at RRP £19.99, with two classics from the master of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu: Tokyo Story (1953) and Early Summer (1951). Over the next 12 months a total of 25 releases will be packaged in this way.

Tokyo StorySam Dunn, Head of BFI Video Publishing, said: “The idea behind Dual Format Editions is to provide film lovers with the ultimate win-win solution in a time of financial uncertainty and technological confusion. Not only does the price mean that the BFI’s quality Blu-rays are instantly more affordable, but the inclusion of both DVD and Blu-ray in a single package means that the DVD buyer is safeguarded against upgrades they may make in the future at no extra cost.”

Dunn opines that existing Blu-ray customers will benefit both from the lower price and from the inclusion of a DVD, which offers greater flexibility for viewing away from the home cinema environment.

Other titles lined up for the BFI Dual Format treatment this year are the Quay Brothers’ exquisite Institute Benjamenta (1995); Tony Garnett’s controversial Prostitute (1980); celebrated James Bond director Guy Hamilton’s long-lost The Party’s Over (1965) starring Oliver Reed; Gerry O’Hara’s swinging The Pleasure Girls (1965) starring Ian McShane and Klaus Kinski; a collection of acclaimed Hollywood director Tony Scott’s early films, including Loving Memory (1970); and Mike Sarne’s colourful Swinging Sixties masterpiece Joanna (1968).

Over the past 18 months the BFI has embraced the Blu-ray format and built a unique and exciting catalogue of High Definition releases. Providing a platform for both critically acclaimed and little-known films, the BFI Blu-ray range not only includes classics such as the beautifully presented Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Red Desert and Salò, but also showcases lesser-known, but equally arresting, works by unduly neglected filmmakers like Jeff Keen, Bill Douglas and Jane Arden.

Looking ahead, the BFI says it will continue to present a “rich and diverse selection of works on Blu-ray in order to provide viewers with the opportunity to experience and engage with film like never before”.

Square Eyes; Awesome Welles This Christmas… December 4, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film General, Square Eyes , 8 comments

Citizen Welles…

BBC FOUR IS TREATING US TO AN Orson Welles season over the Christmas holiday, featuring five of The Great Man’s best known films, a little screened BBC series from the ’50s, a welcome repeat of an excellent Arena ’80s documentary, and a brand new look at Welles’ post Hollywood career courtesy of leading ‘Wellesian’ Simon Callow.

A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.

Orson Welles

The schedule, as it stands now, is:

Friday, Dec.18, 19:30-19.45 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; A series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches. This is fascinating - the Beeb digging deep into its own archives for a series first aired in 1955 in six parts. I’ve never seen this so I’m grateful for this neat précis courtesy of IMDB: “This six-episode series, produced on a shoestring budget for the BBC, proves that above all else Orson Welles was a great storyteller. The camera cuts back and forth between close-ups of Welles and his charming sketches as he tells anecdotes ranging from the tragic (such as the case of a black U.S. serviceman who returned to the South after a tour in the Pacific, got into a dispute with a bus driver, and as a result was beaten blind by a policeman) to the hilarious (the varied reactions to the Mercury Theatre of the Air’s infamous radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds). This is as minimalist as television gets - just his drawings, his subtle facial expressions, and that wonderful, wry voice - and it’s riveting; a great showcase of Welles’s talent, wit, and charisma.”

What is a little odd is that, thus far, BBC4 only appear to be showing five of the six parts, if indeed that is what we’re getting. Detail so far is scant - let’s hope it isn’t just one or two of the ‘Sketchbooks’ repeated over.

Wednesday, Dec. 23, 00:10-00:25 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

Christmas Eve, Thursday, Dec. 24, 19.00-19:15 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

I have the terrible feeling that, because I am wearing a white beard and am sitting in the back of the theatre, you expect me to tell you the truth about something. These are the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai.

Orson Welles

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 19.00-21:00 - Citizen Kane; Welles’ tour de force is weighed down by it consistently being voted the Best Film Ever Made, as if there could ever be such a thing. If you’re viewing for the first time, I can only beg you to view Orson Welles’s masterpiece as a piece of pure cinema and not an irrefutable icon that sits there Citizen Kanebegging to be shot at. Kane tells the story of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane in a series of stylish and stylised flashbacks. A reporter is intrigued by the dying Kane’s last word - rosebud - and sets out to find a new angle on the life of one of the most powerful men in America. Nine Oscar nominations resulted in only one award for the wunderkind Welles - Best Screenplay - and was to serve as both a medal of honour and the millstone that would forever hang round his substantial neck. If you allow it, Welles astonishing, vibrant debut serves to dazzle still. Blindingly so.

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 21:00-22:50 - Arena: The Orson Welles Story (Part 1); First of a fine two-part profile of Orson Welles, premiered on the BBC in 1982, looking at his life and career in theatre, radio and particularly film. With Jeanne Moreau, John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Wise, Charlton Heston, and a detailed interview with Welles himself. This part deals with his work up to Touch of Evil.

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 22:50-24:00 - Journey Into Fear; A nightmarish tale of espionage and treachery in Istanbul, as an American arms dealer goes on the run from the Gestapo during the Second World War. Orson Welles, who acts the role of a corrupt chief of the Turkish secret police, wrote the script with co-star Joseph Cotten, and, while Mercury Theatre alumni Norman Foster is credited as director, it was Welles who oversaw the production, and also shared directorial responsibilities, dashing from the set of ‘Ambersons’ and back again. Adapted from a novel by Eric Ambler.

Boxing Day, Saturday, Dec. 26, 19.00-19:15 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

Boxing Day, Saturday, Dec. 26, 19.15-21:00 - The Third Man; Classic Graham Greene thriller set in a shattered and divided post-WW2 Vienna where American writer Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) is invited by his friend Harry Lime (Welles), only to find that Lime is dead. However, all is not what it seems - a mysterious ‘third man’ was seen tending to the dying Lime. But who was he?

The Third Man

Carol Reed is the genius behind the camera on this occasion, Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, graciously allowing Welles to slip in the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, obviously recognising a bloody good line when he hears it. Of all the films in this season, this is the one that bears the least imprimatur of the legendary producer, writer, director (and sherry salesman); but for all that, it’s one with which he is famously connected. It speaks volumes for Welles sheer star power, and Reed’s masterly handling of that star. Fabulously entertaining.

I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don’t think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.

Orson Welles

Sunday, Dec. 27, 20.00-21:30 - The Magnificent Ambersons; Period drama telling the story of a wilful son of the proud Amberson family who destroys his mother’s hopes of marrying her first love - a recent widower. Refusing to move with the times, he not only causes his mother to suffer but also brings about his own financial ruin. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, and famously edited in Welles absence (he was in Rio filming a never to be completed documentary) by Robert Wise, who, at the studio’s insistence, hacked an hour or so from Orson’s original cut. What’s left is wonderful, what could have been is tantalisingly missing, though if they can find the missing scenes from Metropolis, who knows what may turn up one day? I’m an eternal optimist. Warners have been threatening to release the film in the US for a couple of years now in a special edition home video set, blaming a search for the ‘best elements’ on the delay. If it ends up in their benighted ‘Archive’, Orson will haunt the grounds of Burbank, rattling old film cans and intoning ‘pressed discs you bastaaaarrrrrds’ until those Brothers come to their senses.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 21.30-22:30 (repeated at 1.45am) - Orson Welles Over Europe; When Orson Welles went into self-imposed exile in Europe, he first found stardom with The Third Man and then immersed himself in challenging films, television, theatre and bullfighting. Hello AmericansSimon Callow, author of two fantastic volumes of biography on Welles (we await the third), trails the complex actor-director in what promises to be an authoritative and entertaining new documentary. Ideal companion piece to the Arena documentary that follows.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 23.00-23:55 - Arena: The Orson Welles Story (Part 2); Second of the two-part profile of Orson Welles, looking at films including The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story and F for Fake and discussing his many unfinished projects, including The Other Side of the Wind (which Peter Bogdanovich is currently completing on his one time house guest’s behalf) and Don Quixote.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 23.55-1:30 - The Stranger; In which a federal agent is assigned to track down an escaped Nazi war criminal, and eventually finds him in a small Connecticut village. Welles stars with Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, yet another of his movies missing up to half an hour of footage (thought to have been destroyed) and said to be one of Orson’s least favourites - nevertheless, a very watchable noir-ish thriller.

Monday, Dec. 28, 1.30-1:45 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; The last in the series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

Watching Brief; Don’t Go ‘Round Tonight… October 30, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Horror, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, Watching Brief , 2 comments

For Hallowe’en, Watching Brief scorns the accusations of being a corny old hack, and serves up a smörgåsbord of seasonal horror film recommendations…

The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Suspending belief in the existence of werewolves is small beer to imagining the towering Lon Chaney Jr. as the son of the diminutive Claude Rains, not to mention Universal’s all-purpose ‘mittel yurpean’ set of what is allegedly a picturesque Welsh village. We won’t even go into the variety of mid-Atlantic accents, the absence of anyone sounding remotely like Max Boyce replaced by a veritable Cook’s Tour of the English regions, or the fact that Larry Talbot’s 18 year stay in the Land of the Free has rubbed off all the traces of his ‘little Lord Fauntleboyo’ upbringing.

The Wolf Man

Nevertheless, this Curt Siodmak scripted telling of the werewolf legend makes Talbot’s lycanthrope into the ultimate tragic horror figure, and perhaps the most interesting of Universal’s unholy three; cursed to became half man, half wolf ‘when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright’, and to kill those that are nearest and dearest to him. Well, those nearest to him are certainly in big trouble.

The Wolf Man is a thinly veiled allegory on the beast that lurks within man; Talbot is hunky dory until he’s smitten by a gal, takes her into the woods (for a, ah, walk y’know) and gets bitten by Bela the gipsy (Bela Lugosi), who isn’t, puzzlingly, half man half wolf at the time, but all wolf. Thereafter, he’s in the grip of unimaginable forces, and driven to do heavens knows what to Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). Gasp.

There’s more than one way to skin a Hays Code…

Tightly written, and neatly directed by George Waggner, with iconic makeup by the real star of The Wolf Man, the great Jack Pierce. From this distance it’s also important to underline that the special effects added a real wow factor. The transfer from Universal, is excellent; they intend to do it all over again with a new special edition DVD set, they’re just waiting on the remake to get to our cinemas early next year. A toothsome prospect. I used to be a werewolf, but (altogether now), I’m alright nooooooow-ow-ow-ooowwwwww!

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Four years on from the incidents in The Wolf Man (only two years in filming terms), we discard the Great Big Book of Lycanthropic Legend, to bring poor, dead, hirsute Larry Talbot back to life. Open the casket, out with the wolfbane, a shaft of moonlight and pretty soon we’re all humming a snatch of the Creedence.

‘I see a bad moon risin’…

All semblance of anything that passes for logic goes out the window, as Larry seeks out Maleva (the always delightful Maria Ouspenskaya), and she has a solution to Mr Talbot’s problem. He wants to die, so let’s hit the high road to ‘Vasaria’ to find Baron Frankenstein, as he holds the secrets of life and death; who better? I mean, honestly.

‘I see trouble on the way…’

Slight impediment. Larry finds the Baron is now dead (obviously, not that much of a master of life and death), but needs to find his ‘Secret Diaries’, for within he’ll get the answers. As you would; ‘Dear Secret Diary, created a monster today, also found a way to kill werewolves, better than those rotten silver bullets (must nip down the patent office…)’

Before he does, Larry wakes the monster (Bela Lugosi), and, well, all hell breaks loose. Doctor Mannering (don’t ask) is mouthing the words of Frankenstein’s diaries like some remedial pupil in ‘Special School’, and mind bogglingly gasps: “I must see Frankenstein’s creation AT FULL POWER!” Uh, oh…

‘…don’t go ’round tonight, it’s bound to take your life…’

Poor Bela has no dialogue (ironically, the reason Lugosi turned down the James Whale original); preview audiences laughed at his Hungarian accent and all his lines were cut. Worse, the scene where the monster explains he’s nearly blind is excised, so his arms outstretched stagger looks plain daft, though it’s now the lazy, de rigueur method of impersonating said creature at fancy dress parties.

It’s deliriously loopy, but all the more lovable for it; you can imagine a young Mel Brooks watching, and taking notes. Universal’s transfer is, like many of their films from this era, quite super.

The Quatermass Xperiment (R2 DVD); seminal Hammer horror/sci-fi, from Nigel Kneale’s 1953 hit TV series, condensed for the big screen by Richard Landau and director Val Guest. It was Guest’s cunning plan to give the whole a kind of docu-drama feel, and weighing in at a lean 82 minutes (as opposed to the three hour TV production), the narrative fair gallops along. There isn’t a moment of wasted footage.

Hammer’s decision to place Americans as both the male and female leads (Margia Dean as ‘Judith Carroon’ and Brian Donlevy as ‘Professor Bernard Quatermass’) was purely commercial. Dean, it seems obvious, was post-dubbed for some reason, and as a result her performance suffers. But it’s Donlevy, slyly adding copious draughts of brandy to his flask of coffee during shooting, who usually comes in for most opprobrium - ‘over the hill’ and ‘wooden’ are two of more common, and more charitable, accusations. ‘Tom’ Kneale, it’s well known, was unhappy his quintessential English scientist had been replaced by an American tough (and usually bad) guy actor. In truth, as Guest opines on the DVD commentary track, he’s more than adequate, with his Quatermass driven, determined and no-nonsense - frankly, there’s not much screen time for anything else. Besides; I do like Donlevy, sober…or drunk. Allegedly.

The Quatermass Xperiment

While most other sci-fi (Kneale hated the term) films of the period of this kind - i.e. alien invasion - particularly Hollywood product, were simple allegories of the Cold War, Kneale’s piece could be read similarly, though the hugely influential British writer was far too complex for such a simplistic interpretation. Kneale was warning of hubris; when an arrogant, immature mankind reaches out into the unknown, he risks getting his fingers badly burnt.

It’s Richard Wordsworth’s doomed ‘Victor Carroon’ who commands the screen, the actor wordlessly conveying the nascent spaceman’s agony and sheer bloody terror as he transmogrifies into a planet threatening combination of species and lifeforms, with obvious comparisons to, and just as deadly as, the carrot from outer space that was The Thing From Another World. By the by, in his remake of the latter, John Carpenter, a huge Kneale fan, had his ‘Thing’ share a few more characteristics with Carroon than carrot…

The amiable Guest, who made his name with a series of easy going comedies, adapts to a genre that would set Hammer down a profitable path for two decades with effortless ease. He handles the screening of the spine-tingling mute cabin footage beautifully, the scene still oozing a squirming, chilly, menace half a century and more later. Much of the credit here must also go to composer James Bernard, making his film debut and the man whose scores would become Hammer signatures; here, as it does throughout the film, Bernard’s subtle yet ligature tight cue winds the tension.

Wonderful stuff, and the first in a trilogy of Hammer Quatermass (the ‘Xperiment’ of the title was to capitalise on the BBFC certification) films all of which, I simply could not resist watching again.

Incidentally, IMDB lists the OAR for The Quatermass Xperiment as 1.66:1, but also says:

“…This film was originally slated to be released in the United States by 20th Century Fox. However, to convince more exhibitors to install Cinemascope equipment, studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, pledged that all future 20th Century Fox releases would be in Cinemascope or a compatible anamorphic process. Since this Hammer production was shot in standard Academy, it had to be passed over. It was picked up and released through United Artists…”

The BFI can’t even confirm the AR; filmed during 1954 when the world was becoming wide, it’s more than possible that Guest had it shot in 1.66:1 but protected for 1.33:1. I gave it go for the first time at a ratio as close to 1.66:1 as I could. The credits are very tight, but thereafter it looks reasonable with no cut-off heads; However, I reverted to 1.33:1 the moment Dr. Brisco spots the slime trail at the zoo; wide, Brisco looks alarmed, but the trail, at the bottom of the screen, is out of shot.

On the whole, I think I prefer my ‘Xperiment’ in 1.33:1; I don’t think there’s any doubting it was framed thus (EDIT; since writing this, I’ve learned that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong - not only is the DVD badly cropped, but Exclusive Films switched to 1.66:1 in 1953. Never too old to learn…). DDHE’s video transfer is quite good, nice and sharp with decent contrast. There’s a constant background hiss to the soundtrack, and sound levels vary, but it’s not unduly distracting. I hear MGM have prepped a HD version in the US and a Blu-ray presentation would be more than welcome, though the way catalogue releases are shaping up Stateside, I’m not about to hold my breath.

The Quatermass Experiment (R2 DVD); The 1953 television broadcast, or at least what remains of it. The first two parts are all that remain of the BBC’s gripping six-parter. Broadcast live, the initial brace of episodes were thankfully also captured on film; as you might expect, with three hours to play with, Kneale’s horrifying tale of the possible consequences of exploring the unknown has time to breathe. Thus, there are more characters (including a surprisingly sympathetic journalist) and greater characterisation (Quatermass comes across as far more conflicted, indeed desperate, about the havoc his British Rocket Group may have unwittingly wrought), it’s tremendously frustrating we have to leave the BBC dramatisation only a third of the way in.

It’s understandable Kneale was unhappy with Donlevy; his Quatermass is hardly as he envisaged and Reginald Tate plays him most effectively, but then again, he has time to characterise - watching the later Hammer production unfold, how the Manxman must have agonised over all that lost exposition.

The TV production seems to have the budget of half an episode of The Flowerpot Men, as we switch - live don’t forget - from a tiny sparse set to an even tinier and sparser part of the same studio. ‘So the comic strips were right’ says an awestruck onlooker at one point ‘they do wear those kinds of suits.’ Within eight years, the truth would out - spacemen did not in fact wear an odd mix of items fashioned after vintage diving gear, the lot bought wholesale by the Beeb costumers from the Portobello Road Army & Navy Storesvery disappointing!

Despite that, these tantalising snippets of The Quatermass Experiment transcend any problems; you can see why it left a nation spellbound, and Hammer films eager to get their chequebook out. Quatermass would not only provide a template for successive generations of film-makers, but would also enter the language to become a convenient shorthand for hyperbole prone hacks in search of a sensation seeking headline. Kneale’s creation entered the public consciousness to the extent that even those that have never seen the good professor in action have some idea what the dropping of his name entails. Bad things. Very bad things.

Picture quality is exactly as you would expect for 55-years-old TV, and some of the bugbears are part and parcel of the original production; no time to set things up ‘just so’, so the lighting sometimes causes unwanted lens flares, cues are missed and so on. Given all that, it’s not bad but it’s hardly the best example of vintage television preserved digitally, though probably it doesn’t differ much in this respect from the day it was first transmitted. Live TV folks, ’50s style. And it emptied pubs and churches the length and breadth of the land.

The mono sound is actually pretty good, Holst’s Mars hammered out effectively over those stylish main titles. The 2|entertain box set from which it hails, containing all three BBC productions - with the quite fabulous Quatermass And The Pit easily the stand-out - comes very highly recommended

Quatermass II (R1 DVD); Three years after the release of the first film, and Hammer again follows the Beeb’s lead. This time Kneale combines sci-fi and horror with a deep-seated paranoia. In The Quatermass Xperiment, Kneale warned of alien invasion from outer space. Here, it’s an enemy that’s already established and it’s happened even before the opening credits roll; the invaders have infiltrated society at the very highest echelons, both Government and the Police. The population isn’t aware that they are becoming zombie slave workers or, in one instance, being prepped as the main ingredient in a rather nasty inter-galactic bouillabaisse.

Quatermass II

The original BBC script is adapted for the screen this time by Kneale himself with director Val Guest, and once again, the pace is relentless (even if the geography is suspect; Carlisle being a short ride, apparently, from Parliament Square). It feeds Cold War angst of an enemy within, the fears that enemy invasion could be insidious and covert, rather than the wholly overt threat of the first story. Of course, it also reads that you can’t trust anyone, even - or especially - our political masters. The alien landscape of the Shell Haven refinery in Essex proves the ideal location for the supposed manufacturing base for a ’synthetic food’; perhaps the most startling image in the whole film is of the bluff northern MP ‘Broadhead’ (Tom Chatto) covered in a skin-stripping slime, staggering, his smoking flesh boiling, down the ladder of one of the refinery’s huge, unearthly, domes.

This time, there is no doubt about the original aspect ratio; Anchor Bay’s R1 DVD is transferred open-matte, and zooms to 1.66:1 beautifully. The transfer is excellent and the sound mostly nigh on perfect, the chatter of the machine guns given a satisfying thud, and the screams of the ‘thing’ suitably vast and otherworldly. As he does on the DVD of the first film, Val Guest again features on an interesting commentary track, his age at the time of recording no impediment to recalling incidents on and off the set.

Quatermass & The Pit (R1 DVD); the last of the triumvirate of Hammer Quatermass films, and it takes a Scot to get closer to the heart of the English Prof. Bernard Quatermass. 12 years after their last stab at Nigel Keale’s creation, and nine after the Beeb broadcast the TV version of the same story, once again director Roy Ward Baker has to tell the story condensed from a three-hour original at a fair lick.

Kneale eschews the paranoia of the his ‘Q X’ and ‘Q II’ for a mix of ghosties, ghoulies, the paranormal and science - aliens not a million miles from those unseen propagators of planets in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001; A Space Odessey. Good to see James Donald and Barbara Shelley (who is weirdly erotic even here; it’s not just me surely?), but Julian Glover is a little young for the blustering warrior Colonel Breen I feel.

The story builds but, unlike the TV presentation, the genuine chills are few; it sorely misses a James Bernard score, Tristram Cary’s cues a little workaday. However the sound department - taking their cue from the broadcast series - works overtime to cover in this respect with aural effects that help to build tension. If I appear to be a little harsh on the film, I temper that by saying it’s a favourite. Honest. But simply, having now seen the original BBC presentation with André Morell, that towers above it. Yes; it really is that good.

Quatermass & The Pit

The climax is exciting, and nicely achieved, though what the hell was James Donald thinking of? Madness… Anchor Bay’s R1 transfer is non-anamorphic, but hails from a clean print.

The Black Cat (R1 DVD); Not the Edward G. Ulmar horror, but the cornball 1941 version with Bela Lugosi lurking about in the shadows, while folks are bumped off in ‘the old dark house’ - Broderick Crawford and Anne Gwynne play the roles Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard did with far more aplomb over at Paramount, while Gale Sondergaard is, well, Gale Sondergaard. Crawford asks of Basil Rathbone at one point: ‘Who do you think you are - Sherlock Holmes?’

Lots of running around, secret passages and amusing business by Hugh Herbert; the kind of thing Universal chucked off in five minutes during the war years to keep folks minds off the fact that the world was going to hell in a handcart. Alan Ladd is bottom of the cast list, but was bumped higher on the posters as audiences were wowed by the simultaneous release of This Gun For Hire.

Perfect late night viewing from Universal (and another nice transfer) that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Man Made Monster (R1 DVD); Take one mad scientist (Lionel Atwill), add an unlikely premise (’electro-biology’), stir in a big, daft affable dupe (Lon Chaney Jr.), season with stock characters (the blonde, the investigative reporter), leave to simmer for about an hour - et voila! A typical Universal horror cheapie, and one that it notable for setting Chaney’s career down a path that both carved his name in movie history, and cursed him to a life on the undercard. It was off the back of Man Made Monster that Chaney got the part of Larry Talbot, another unwitting, doomed monster, one that simply refused to die.

Man Made Monster has Chaney’s ‘Dan McCormick’ able to absorb huge amounts of electricity, and doing so for some unexplained reason, it gives him superhuman strength and makes him the willing slave to Atwill’s ‘Dr Paul Rigas’, a man who is clearly several shillings short of a full leccy meter.

McCormick kills ‘Dr. John Lawrence’ (Samuel S. Hinds - oh no, not that nice Peter Bailey!), he’s then hoicked off to die in the electric chair. Not a good idea. Duly energised by being zapped, and zapped again and again (and again), a glowing McCormick goes on a rampage, carries away ‘June Lawrence’ (Anne Nagel) in true monster stylee, then meets his nemesis - barbed wire. Oh, watch it yourself…

Universal’s transfer is just pristine, with excellent contrast, there’s nary a mark and the mono soundtrack is spot on. There are English (HoH) and French subtitles.

Plague of The Zombies (R1 DVD); Following on from watching the Beeb’s excellent Quatermass & The Pit, I was in the mood for more André Morell. It was Mike Parkinson and Granada’s Cinema that first had me hiding behind the sofa at clips of this as a 10-year-old, and it’s always had a special place in my heart. Plague of The ZombiesI still think the nightmare sequence is one of the most chilling to be found in any Hammer film, indeed - even in a genre now dominated by tawdry horror pornography - any horror. And it is the reason, if I take a short cut through the cemetery, I scurry, occasionally glancing nervously over my shoulder, watching the newly dug earth for signs of movement. My flesh creeps just to think about it.

It’s neatly directed by John Gilling, who also helmed a number of other Hammers, notably The Pirates of Blood River, as well as the effective The Flesh & The Fiends and The Night Caller (not to mention a slew of Department S episodes). Morell’s ‘Good’ is nicely matched by John Carson’s ‘Evil’ squire, and full marks to Roy Ashton’s makeup, Les Bowie’s effects which combine with James Bernard’s score (there really is no substitute when it comes to Hammer) to culminate in a notable chiller. Even if the pay-off proves to be ever so slightly bananas.

Anchor Bay’s transfer is quite good; there’s some evident print damage in the first reel, but’s pretty strong thereafter and the mono soundtrack is more than adequate.

Cue maniacal Vincent Price laugh, a creaky coffin lid closing, end titles; happy All Hallows’ Eve…

You shouldn’t have interfered, Number 6. You’ll pay for this… September 29, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews , 5 comments

The Prisoner comes to Blu-ray; well, most of it…

A couple of Christmases ago, in the 40th anniversary year of its first broadcast, Network produced a truly scrumptious gift for admirers of Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic, emblematic, trail-blazing puzzle wrapped in a conundrum that is The Prisoner.

That boxed set, a digipak of DVDs, plus Andrew Pixley’s wonderful book of production notes, proved near nirvana not only for that army of obsessive fans of the TV series, but for those who simply, like myself, recall it as fascinating, unmissable, wonderfully crafted. And, let’s face if, downright screwy. In both picture and sound, it was The Prisoner as never - well, not by myself and I would guess by millions of fans worldwide - seen before. The series was accompanied by a host of wonderful bonus materials; interviews, features, photographs, commentaries, on and on. It couldn’t possibly get any better than this. Could it?

Well, now it has.

The Prisoner on Blu-ray pack shot

Network’s newly released The Prisoner on Blu-ray initiates a sheer sensory overload, every single one of those 2,073,600 high-definition, on-screen pixels smashes through your retina and into your occipital lobe as blindingly vibrant, new - no - better than new. Minute details can be picked out, Portmeirion never looked so lush, the costumes and production designs never looked so…so damned ’60s, while at the same time appearing to have been shot yesterday.

Happily, Network appear to have taken on board fans’ niggles over the first set - a handful of audio problems, incorrect credits and the like - and put right those wrongs. The audio (it’s transferred at 24fps so there is a scintilla of difference from PAL video’s 25fps) is not lossless, but the mono track packs a delightful punch, those lightening crashes and McGoohan’s incandescent desk thumping, wakening the sub-woofer from its slumber. The 5.1 track, for those that want it, is a distinct improvement over the abomination that was included with the previous set. It’s a thing of genuine, eye-popping, ear-caressing, beauty. Now, surely it can’t get any better than this. Can it?

The Prisoner on Blu-ray pack shot

The packaging eschews the digipak of the previous set and goes for a big black coffin of a box with, nestled in storage pockets inside, all six discs economically stashed within one translucent blue case, Pixley’s paperback novel sized ‘notes’ - exactly the same book as with the previous box - alongside it. Maybe they thought both in a small slipcase would appear to undervalue such a big release with an rrp of £59.99, or maybe they are simply anticipating a day when the book will no longer be included, and the 6-disc box will be sold alone. It’s quite pretty, but another storage nightmare. I think the box may have to go into storage (i.e. the loft).

I can’t say any better about the contents of The Prisoner on Blu-ray than point you at James Gray’s excellent DVD Times review, complete with screenshots and a full rundown of the plethora of extras, and you can see snatches of the HD content on YouTube here, here and here.

I must however point out a small problem. Several folks have reported problems playing (ironically) disc six of the set on their BD machines. When my box arrived, I thought I’d better check it out as a matter of priority on my Samsung BD-P1500, and sure enough, after whirring uselessly for a few seconds up popped a terse on-screen message - ‘This disc can not [sic] be played’ - and it was disdainfully spat out.

Disc six, being one of two DVDs of extra features in the set (the only extras in hi-definition I can find thus far are the on-set photographs), was quickly popped into my DVD player…and accepted without problem. Very odd; so only a couple of hours ago I contacted Network via email, and in just a few minutes received a reply that they were ‘looking into it’. Within the hour came this thorough reply from Production Assistant Tim Berry, to whom I’m very grateful:

Following my previous email, we have looked into the issue you raised with the final disc of the Prisoner blu-ray set and have a likely explanation for your problem. We suspect it may be because the final disc includes the PDF content for PC/Macs, and it appears that this may not be compatible with all BD players, depending on the manufacturer.

To put PDF content on a DVD we make the DVD into what is called a ‘hybrid’ so that it can contain both ‘DVD video’ and ‘DVD ROM’ content. As a blu-ray player is more computer based than it is DVD (using more codes, etc.), all blu-ray discs are effectively BD-ROMs, so players need to read both the ROM and video elements on a blu-ray disc in order for it to play. It would appear that some companies are manufacturing BD players that first try to read the ‘ROM’ content on any disc – whether blu-ray or DVD - as opposed to the video element of the disc first. With disc 6 of The Prisoner, your BD player appears to be trying to read the PDF files, which are only playable on PC/Macs and declaring the disc unreadable before attempting to read the DVD content.

We are unsure how many players would behave in this manner. Blu-ray technology is still in its infancy and some manufacturers are still working out how to make their players compatible with previous technology; we do know, however, that the PS3 and Sony350 are able to play these discs. We can only apologise for any convenience caused but I hope that this email goes some way towards answering your question.

…Blu-ray production is completely new territory for a lot of companies and inevitably, just as when DVD replaced VHS, there will always be an element of trial and error - both on the part of the distributors and the BD player manufacturers - in order for the technology to develop and improve.

While we at Network are aware of how a blu-ray disc is read, we had never been in any situation to made aware that some manufacturers may not have taken into account, when making a BD player compatible with previous technology, that it will need to read video elements first. The variety of players we used to make and check these discs worked were programmed to read them correctly, with no problems and it is the aim of manufacturers to ensure that DVDs can continue to be played on BD players. We put a lot of research into our release and it’s a problem that has never been brought to our attention up until now.

This is obviously an experience we will learn from for our future releases and I’d be surprised if the manufacture [sic] who made your BD player was not already aware of this flaw in their production also. It may be worth contacting them directly though, to make clear the specific problems this has caused you - they may even be able to offer you a suitable solution to this problem.

Fair enough, but, gentle reader, the plot thickens. Stap me for a fool, but it didn’t occur to me until tonight to try other ‘hybrid’ discs in the BD player to see if Network’s finger pointing holds water. 2|entertain’s ‘Doctor Who’ releases of Inferno and Genesis of The Daleks are hybrid discs and Network’s own Man In A Suitcase set also features discs containing PDF content. All booted up in the Samsung in a trice. I’m sighing - can’t you hear me sighing?

I’m reliably informed that disc six of The Prisoner set works fine in a Panasonic BD35, an unspecified Sanyo, but is also ejected from the budget Curtis machine - so it does appear to be some kind of player specific issue, an authoring problem, or possibly a bad batch of discs (or a combination of any of those) - oh dear, time for another email to Network.

Number 6, as always, is proving a tough nut to crack. Be seeing you.

Square Eyes; Bullets, Broads…and BBC 4 August 17, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film General, Crime / Noir / Thriller, Square Eyes , 8 comments

The redoubtable BBC 4 is running a short film noir season this coming weekend with six movies shown Saturday and Sunday and no less than five screenings of a new hour long documentary presented by Matthew Sweet, The Rules of Film Noir.

All the offerings on display are from the genre’s golden period, all from Hollywood studios and featuring some of film noir’s finest…

Saturday August 22

19:30; Farewell My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet - 1944). Two years before Bogie’s indelible impersonation of Raymond Chandler’s crumpled detective in The Big Sleep, former crooner Dick Powell made a courageous career leap into the murky world of noir with his rather more battered and bruised version of Philip Marlowe. Private eye Marlowe is hired by ex-con Moose Malloy to find his girlfriend, embroiling the hard-boiled gumshoe in a plot which involves blackmail, murder, drugs, double cross… and delicious dollops of voice-over dialogue. Perhaps the most filmed of all Chandler’s stories (though sometimes heavily disguised; parts of the plot were even borrowed for a Bob Hope comedy vehicle), Powell and director Edward Dmytryk’s Farewell My Lovely boasts a grittiness only bettered by Dick Richards and Robert Mitchum 30 years later. Available on a rather nice R1 Warner DVD and a less impressive Universal disc in the UK.

21:00; The Rules of Film Noir. First showing of the new Elaine Pieper directed documentary. Also shown Sunday at 00.50, 0.3:35, 22:35, and Monday at 03:05. Through the lavish use of film archive and stylised graphics as punctuation, BBC Four’s one-hour documentary presents:“…an essential guide to one of the most influential movements in cinema history: dark, cynical Film Noir.” Let’s all hope it amounts to more than a little fluff.

22:00; The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Compelling and highly stylised (what else from director/writer Orson Welles?) tale of an Irish sailor who accompanies a beautiful woman and her husband on a sea cruise, and becomes a pawn in a game of murder. Includes labyrinthine plot twists and some breathtaking cinematography - particularly in the famous Hall of Mirrors scene. The cast includes Welles, as the sap Michael O’Hara, his then wife (but not for long) Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale, the wholly dependable Everett Sloane and William Alland is again uncredited as a reporter. Some read Welles own marital difficulties into a tale of deceptions and lies; it’s not impossible. Available in both R1 and R2 from Sony.

23:25; The Big Combo (1955). Stylish film noir about a police lieutenant (Cornel Wilde) who comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious thug (Richard Conte). He is helped by the gangster’s wife, jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe. Director Joseph H. Lewis hoped the Production Code would take less interest in a minor studio making Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef, as a pair of trigger men, not so obliquely gay.  He guessed right. I think I’m right in saying the only DVD incarnations available have been chucked on to DVD by slapdash PD merchants now that the R1 Image version is OOP.

Sunday August 23

01:50; Force of Evil (1948). Dark, brooding and cerebral drama from writer/director Abraham Polonsky about two brothers caught up in crime and corruption. An ambitious lawyer (the superb, doomed John Garfield) in search of materialistic gain begins work for a New York criminal mastermind, who plans to take over New York’s illegal lottery. The attorney serves his boss faithfully until he realises his own brother will fall victim to the plan. But it seems he may now be too involved to escape the gangster’s violent ends. Martin Scorsese hails this as one of noir’s forgotten masterpieces, but certainly it’s not under-appreciated by film fans. Beautifully written, acted and directed with a fine David Raskin score, R1 and R2 have to make do with slightly underpar transfers from Lionsgate and Metrodome respectively.

21:00; Build My Gallows High (aka Out Of The Past - 1947). Quintessential American noir which tells a grim, complex tale of love and betrayal. A failed detective (Robert Mitchum) falls for the mistress (Jane Greer) of a mobster to whom he is heavily in debt. When she double-crosses him and returns to the mobster, the detective changes his identity and drops out of sight. But the gangster still wants his money back, and he and the woman plot to lure the detective into a vengeful scenario. Daniel Mainwaring wrote and literate and intelligent script from his own novel, Jacques Tourneur directs with aplomb, both Mitchum and Greer are on top form; also features Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming. Warner delivered the DVD goods in R1, Universal, once again, had to make do with sloppy seconds in R2.

23:30; Stranger on The Third Floor (1940). Rarely screened Boris Ingster helmed psychological drama (for RKO) and touted by some as the first noir. The testimony of an ambitious reporter (John McGuire) helps to convict a young man (Elisha Cook Jr.) of murder, but the newspaper man has second thoughts about his contribution when he finds himself in the dock while a homicidal maniac is on the loose. Peter Lorre is top billed but while he has little to do, he does so effectively in this short (64 minutes) proto-noir. The only DVD out there appears to be a Spanish offering from Manga, but not having seen it, I can’t vouch for it.

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