Holiday Specials

FIR 2012 STOCKING STUFFER

By • Dec 20th, 2012 •

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It’s that season again where weighty gifts are appropriate, and the economy is rebounding just enough to allow some of us to indulge in that extravagant mode of gift-giving. So here are some big home video collections and some terrific coffee table books to dazzle those on whom you wish to bestow something extra special for the holidays.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
(Columbia Pictures/SONY)

Restorationist Robert A. Harris is all over the place this season, as he is not only responsible for LAWRENCE, but REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO, two of the titles in the massive Hitchcock collection reviewed below by Glenn Andreiev.

I was at the premiere of the restored LAWRENCE in 1989, and I was at the 4K screening at Lincoln Center earlier this year. Both occasions were breathtaking and emotional. Harris got an enromous ovation both times for his great and historically important work, and recently he told me how pleased he was with this super-sized BluRay release.

The box is so large that I felt I was hefting a 16mm carrying case, or at very least a laser disc special edition such as GETTYSBURG. There is a smaller and far less expensive presentation available, with fewer supplementals, but this being Xmas time, the deluxe box is a gift for which you will never be forgotten, partially because it will always be visible no matter where it is placed in one’s home.

The mega-box contains a substantial hard-cover book about the making and release of the film, including a lovely little B&W photo of Albert Finney as Lawrence in an early test, and looking at him I have no doubt that he would have been great in the role. There are four discs in the box, one a CD of the soundtrack, while the third (not available in the less expensive release) displays a scene not restored in the film, and elsewhere Spielberg and Scorsese weigh in. Also, in its own special nook is a genuine 70mm frame from the film. Mine was of Omar & Peter. Otherwise the vast space inside the box seems a bit empty. But lest we forget, the main thing is the movie, and LAWRENCE looks splendid in BluRay. Home theaters in the past decade have continued to grow in size and sound, and now are ready to accommodate this epic. The scale really can be captured in a living room with the right-sized monitor and speakers.
But I still don’t recommend viewing it on your Iphone…..

SAUL BASS – A LIFE IN FILM & DESIGN
(Laurence King Publishing)

A massive coffee table book (I can’t pick it up with one hand), this comprehensive exploration of the creative carreer of designer/filmmaker Saul Bass was compiled and designed by his daughter Jennifer, and written by noted historian Pat Kirkham. On the inside cover it notes that there are over 1,400 illustrations.

You go where you want and take what you want from this book. I was certainly interested in his advertising work, much of whch I didn’t know about, but before long I was into the film stuff – poster design, title design, whole scenes designed and directed for films such as WEST SIDE STORY. He became the signature/brand for Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock. When doing up-front titles for movies, he often liked to create a sort of mini-narrative which he called ‘the time before’, which would, in an abstract way, acclimate the viewers to the adventure on which they were about to embark. The book is over four hundred pages long; you get to see just about everything, though you really should catch up with the films themselves to get the full experience.

I interviewed Bass a few times, usually about the title sequences of films I was reviewing in which his work was equal or superior to the films themselves (WALK ON THE WILD SIDE is a perfect example). For WilliamWyler’s THE BIG COUNTRY, the title sequence is a prelude to the film, showing a stagecoach driving across the terrain, shot so far away at times that it seems to be getting nowhere in the vast emptiness of the country. This represented Gregory Peck’s journey to reunite with his bride-to-be on a great, isolated ranch in the western wilderness.

RF: At what point in production did you create the title sequence?

SB: While they were shooting in Stockton, and that’s an interesting story. I needed to use the stagecoach, but Willie told me “You can have it for a day; no more.” I wanted it to be so far away that you almost didn’t see it, and the way you knew it was there, and had the sense of that echo of furious activity, was the unfolding cloud of dust. But there was a light rain the night before, and after the rain there was no dust! I only had the coach for that day. What was I supposed to do? I got a bright idea. I sent the grips into Stockton, and they brought back twenty or thirty bags of flour. I cut a hole in the back of the stagecoach, and I had two guys dumping the flour out as it raced along. It was perfect. The flour billowed up like a real dust cloud.

RF: My favorite shot in the sequence is the high angle of the wagon wheel, and it seems as if prairie dust is pouring off the hub. Was that more of your flour?

SB: You bet your ass it was!

The book is beautifully designed, from the stark white cover bisected by Bass’s graphic for THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, to every page therein.

‘ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION’
(Universal Home Entertainment) BluRay
SABOTEUR
 / SHADOW OF A DOUBT / ROPE / REAR WINDOW / THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY / THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH
 / VERTIGO / NORTH BY NORTHWEST / PSYCHO / THE BIRDS / MARNIE / TORN CURTAIN / TOPAZ
/ FRENZY / FAMILY PLOT

By Glenn Andreiev

Film fans flew into a frenzy when Universal Studios announced they were releasing 15 of the suspense-master’s most popular films in one Blu-Ray box set. When early reviews of the box set complained that a number of the films had image problems, people held back from paying almost three hundred bucks for this big-brick-of-Alfred. Various internet venues began offering the box set at half price, so I gathered my courage, and my dollars, and ordered this highly anticipated collection of landmark Hitchcock Blu-Rays.

I watched the films in chronological order, starting with the oldest in the set- SABOTEUR, from 1942. SABOTEUR is a lesser known Hitchcock film, but many people, including myself, consider it to be one of his most exciting, visually inventive thrillers. The normally comedic Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane, an every-man accused of a deadly arson attack at the factory he works at. His only clue is that the real culprit is a mysterious man named “Fry” (Norman Lloyd became a movie villain icon in this role). Barry’s search for Fry takes him across America on a thrilling double chase, winding up him and his nemisis dangling from The Statue Of Liberty.

The next film in the set is the deliciously macabre noir, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, made a year later, in black and white, lensed beautifully by SABOTEUR cinematographer Joseph Valentine. The picture and audio quality on both this and SABOTEUR are top notch.

Next is Hitchcock’s first film in color – 1948’s ROPE. ROPE is a study of a thrill-murder set entirely in a clean and antiseptic Manhattan penthouse apartmen, famous for its use of continuous takes. The colors are beautifully pastel here. I always felt Hitchcock wanted the apartment set to resemble a funeral parlor, and the crispness of the Blu-Ray proves me right. We jump ahead six years to the next film in the set – REAR WINDOW, and now some trouble begins. When REAR WINDOW was re-released to theatres in 1983, viewers were awed by the “storybook-like” Technicolor they saw on the screen. However, much of the Technicolor cinematography on this Blu-Ray leans towards the look of modern day video. It’s as if somebody at Universal said “Mainstream audiences want everything to be normal and life-like. Don’t make it look like Technicolor. Make it look like today’s news broadcast.” Did anybody at the studio look at Cinematographer Robert Burks’ original notes? On the plus side, the image on REAR WINDOW is amazingly sharp and crisp. One catches small details in Hitchcock’s apartment courtyard set, such as rust around window frames, thrift store bric-a-brac in the struggling musician’s one-room studio, and bird droppings on the roof above Miss Torso’s apartment.

Burks’ Technicolor work is really well displayed in this edition of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. The New England autumn colors captured in Hitchcock’s location shooting leap out at you. Next on the program is one of my favorite Hitchcock films – the 1956 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Robert Harris, who performed previous restorations of REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO, stated that Hitchcock was a great film-maker, a terrific businessman, but his archiving skills need much work. Out of the five films Hitchcock pulled from circulation and re-released in 1983 – THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH had the most wear.

Again VERTIGO has the same issue as REAR WINDOW, the Technicolor is abandoned for a more “lifelike” look.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which is currently licensed by Warners Brothers, is slipped into this Universal set. It’s noticeably darker and more contrasty than the Warners DVD release of the film, and the framing is off. Part of Saul Bass’s opening credits run off frame when they dart up that glass skyscraper. NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s start menu is at the back end of the film. On most of the start menus for the films here, Universal uses generic stock suspense-mystery music rather than musical cues from the films themselves. From some of start menus, you’d think you’re about to watch some quickly made TV-movie mystery. This is actually annoying when the start menu for PSYCHO appears. Doesn’t anybody at Universal remember that this oh-so-famous and beloved shocker has one of the most celebrated, and imitated musical scores?

PSYCHO of course, doesn’t have to worry about color-tones. Cinematographer John Russell’s black and white work is amazing – harsh blacks and blinding whites, such as in Janet Leigh’s car at night, and in the bathroom, make the film really jump out at you. Mid-grays are amazing also, especially when stars Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Anthony Perkins are shown in close up. It further gives you a sense of handsome, beautiful people caught in shadowy, self-made traps. PSYCHO was the only film Universal previously released on Blu-ray, and it’s one of the best in this bunch.

THE BIRDS looks clean, but not sharp. The visual cleaning up here makes you wonder if Hitchcock and his Production Designer Robert Boyle were playing some weird tricks on us. (Example: I never noticed until now the odd Pepto-Bismol color of the car owned by the guy who drops the match into the gasoline.)
Trouble really rears it head with MARNIE, a terrific film with terrific screenplay and pacing problems. The transfer to 1080p is pretty good but almost every shot of Tippi Hedren is soft and defused. If she’s in a scene interacting with her co-stars, their close ups are sharp and crisp.

TORN CURTAIN is an almost masterwork, and it looks great here. Several scenes in this 1966 spy thriller are top grade Hitchcock, but the film is hampered by a shaky screenplay. Hitchcock was rushed into production and didn’t get a chance to fine-tune the writing. The casting doesn’t help. Paul Newman, with his “Mr. Cool” persona is so out of place, and you rarely get a sense that he is in danger. One wishes Hitchcock had used somebody more down to earth, like Tony Curtis or Rod Taylor.

No matter how much you clean up the 1969 spy thriller TOPAZ, it’s still a confusing, sometimes boring film, but it has its magical Hitchcock moments. I recommend the special feature here where Leonard Maltin praises the unique, quirky qualities of TOPAZ.

FRENZY is the last real Hitchcock masterpiece, and it looks terrific here. Hitchcock returned to his childhood haunts, London’s Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, to tell the story of a savage and brutal sex serial murderer.

The final film is Hitchcock’s swansong – FAMILY PLOT. It’s no masterpiece. Film professors won’t be playing this 1976 thriller/comedy to their students, but it’s a fun film. Definitely give it a shot, but I warn you, FAMILY PLOT could look a lot better than this Blu-Ray. It’s amazingly grainy. Just before the final fade out in, our heroine, played by the perky Barbara Harris, faces the audience and winks. This is the only time Hitchcock had a character break the forth wall and acknowledge us viewers (Well, maybe Anthony Perkins at the end of PSYCHO). According to a “making of” on the special features for FAMILY PLOT, there was a thought of Hitchcock himself stepping into the shot and winking at the audience. This would have been highly ironic, because it would have been the last image ever presented by Alfred Hitchcock before his death in 1980.

After considering all the pluses and minuses, I believe I got my money’s worth.

TARZAN: THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION – THE STORIES/THE MOVIES/THE ART
Titan Books

This is a breathtaking piece of work, created by Tarzan scholar Scott Tracy Griffin. Much as I always loved the Tarzan films as I was growing up, that was just part of the picture. The Tarzan comic books were great collectables, at first with painted covers, and later with photos of screen incarnations such as Lex Barker and Gordon Scott. I was as enamoured of them as I was of the films.

When I asked Steve (HERCULES) Reeves who was his role model, since he created the modern muscular hero, he instantly cited Tarzan. And I can see it, actually moreso in the book and comic covers than the films. All the great ‘fantastic’ artists contributed their handiwork to the comics, book covers, even the pulp magazines: Morris Gollub, R.G.Krenkel, C.E. Monroe, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, George Wilson, John Coleman Burroughs, Neal Adams, J. Allen St. John, and the list just goes on. An extraordinary selection, all beautifully represented in the pages of this coffee table delight.

The Chapter headings are most amusing: Tarzan of the Films, Tarzan of the Radio, Tarzan of the Television, Tarzan of the Stage, etc. And there are periodic pulp-paper reproduction asides containing pertinent facts about the books under discussion.

There is also a wealth of photos and biographicl data on Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, and info and artwork on his ‘Mars’ books, the first of which preceded Tarzan. Speaking of John Carter of Mars, I’ll take this opportunity to comment on the mind-bogglingly disappointing film version, something I’d been waiting for for over fifty years. Those Martian warriors – Tars Tarkas and his fellow Tharks – I pictured green muscular giants, didn’t you? Well, what Disney gave us were anorexic-looking, elongated Jiminy Crickets! Think it was subconscious?

PIER PAOLO PASOLINI’S TRILOGY OF LIFE: THE DECAMERON / THE CANTERBURY TALES / ARABIAN NIGHTS

Criterion didn’t release a mega-collection for the end of the year, but they should be represented, and I choose to recommend this one. It’s an odd collection for a Winter’s night, but there is celebration, both literary and profane, in the subject matter, and that makes it a fun fit for the season.

On the CANTERBURY TALES supplementals, Ennio Morricone talks of Pasolini’s unique respect for the composer’s work, and also describes his as unhappily shy. I can feel this reticence in his direction. The performances, often from non-actors, are allowed to happen with no apparent directorial polishing, no sense of multiple takes. No sense of continuity either, and a great sense of mediocre post-dubbing of all the voices. The Italian dialogue fits the lips of the players so poorly, I doubt that a dubbed version would detract further. Yet I’m drawn to these films…always have been. There are so many lovely images, and outrageous concepts, and flagrant sexuality. It’s finally great fun, and its flaws are overcome.

Film scholar Sam Rohdie defends Pasolini. He compares the filmmaker’s editorial dissonance to Eisenstein’s. He sees the stories – particularly CANTERBURY – as burlesque. Shifting that idea around a bit, there’s definitely a strong debt to, or love of, Chaplin in the film. Josephine Chaplin stars in one of the tales (she and her body double). And another character, remaining silent except for a bizarre little wordless tune, even has a medieval cane and bowler hat. Anyone familiar with Chaplin’s work will recognize a scene, lifted from THE CIRCUS, where the tramp beguiles a child who is resting on its parent’s shoulder, and eats the food the child is holding. This mischievous character never becomes quite funny – his performance is devoid of real comic timing or wit – and yet it’s gratifying to see this link into Pasolini’s thinking.

The Criterion release of the three films benefits from a new digital restoration. Danilo Donati’s colorful costumes look better than they ever have. And Pasolini himself, playing Chaucer, really stands out in his quiet, bemused observation of the procedings. There are useful and interesting recent supplementals as well, and a sixty-five page booklet that is crammed with insight.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR – A SHINING LEGACY ON FILM
(Runnung Press)

I was never into Liz, but even I can tell this is a well-researched labor of love. Written by Cindy de la Hoz, it is graced with hundreds of beautiful shots of her performances in Color and B&W, plus time-line studies of her life and loves, and rare behind-the-scene glimpses as well. It’s a delicious coffee table browser. There are contact sheets of her with Rock Hudson on GIANT, lots of stills of her with Richard Burton, magazine covers, and poster art. I may not be one of her adoring fans, but I did get hooked on Ms. Hoz’s glossy, emotional commitment to the subject and ended up spending a lot of time tansfixed by its visceral star power.

THE UNIVERSAL ESSENTIAL MONSTER BLURAY COLLECTION

This collection was reviewed for Halloween, but deserves mention in the Xmas column because it’s a sensational gift item – a great presentation of many of Universal’s Golden Age horror gems, accompanied by copious supplementals: feature-length docs, commentaries, etc. I’m not convinced that a few of the films looked this good when they were originally released, and it’s likely I’ll never know. How would these digitally immaculate and crystal clear classics compare with their 1930s nitrate counterparts? All those original prints, I’m assuming, are long gone or decomposing (as are any moviegoers who saw them in their original runs). These are new versions for a new age, and you should definitely own them. It’s a great gift batch.

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