At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Dec 2nd, 2015 •

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DVD review by Roy Frumkes

This is a troubled but fascinating film, grown from a troubled but colorful production. The cast and behind-the-camera talent are alluring, and it has long been unavailable and, before that, shown with faded colors in an improper aspect ratio. But with the proper ratio restored, and much of the color as well, what is revealed are its many technical flaws and the remnants of a wonderful idea that fell far short of its mark.

The nominal star of this oddity is Christopher Plummer (replacing Ben Gazzara, who dropped out just prior to production) as Walt Murdock, an ornithologist/activist who comes to early 20th Century Miami to put an end to the rampant slaughter of birds whose feathers are used to adorn women’s hats. At the 3 mins 55 secs mark, Plummer is talking like a ventriloquist: we hear the words but his lips don’t move. This is the glaring tip of an iceberg of unrewarding aspects of the final product. Sure, many a great line has been post-dubbed when an actor’s back is turned, or when an actor is off-frame. We pulled off a few beauties in STREET TRASH, and I just saw a whole bunch of them in Lloyd Kaufman’s new (and as yet, unfinished) film RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, PART TWO, most of which elevate the humor of the piece. But neither of us had lines dubbed while the actor was in close-up, facing the camera, lips sealed.

Yes, the color is restored, and unlike a 16mm print I owned several decades ago, the image no longer has a location-obscuring 3:4 aspect ratio, but rather a corrected, environment-revealing 1:85, which the Warner Archive is particularly proud of having restored. However, the miraculous changes I expected to witness when these egregious problems were solved do not manifest themselves. The image is still uneven – at times soft, at times overly grainy, as if shot in 16mm (the way you think of wildlife footage that has captured animals in their natural habitats, or for 2d unit inserts). Who knows what conditions the crew shot under? They really were in the Glades, based in remote, grungy Everglade City, 80 miles from Miami, population 500, most of them unfriendly towards the Hollywood interlopers. But the town looked more or less as it did at the time the film was supposed to take place, so it was ostensibly the ideal spot to shoot.

Could the heat have affected the film’s emulsion? They were editing it on location, and there are dupe sections in the original negative where the grain just doesn’t match. In technical comparison this is no AFRICAN QUEEN visually, and DP Joseph Brun is no Jack Cardiff. But it is what it is…

…and what, exactly, is that?

Much of the film is a failed attempt to capture a raw feeling of time and place. Burl Ives is the most successful element, playing ‘Cottonmouth’, the villain of the piece, an imposing force of nature living in the heart of the Everglades, fondling a lethal (if ridiculously small for so deadly a critter) cottonmouth snake as he lords over his band of miscreants (numbering among them Peter Falk in his first film role, Emmett Kelly – the famous mournful clown, and boxer Tony Galento). Infested with the grime and mud of the bayou, these collective swamp scum drink, dance, sing, and kill birds, all under ‘Cottonmouth’s watchful eye.

Whereas Plummer never seems convincing in his characterization, Ives nails his, but his posse, the swamp ensemble, also never quite works…at least in the first and second acts. It remained for Sam Peckinpah to do the colorful-redneck-scum-community justice with RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY in 1962.

Round about the hour mark, in a dark frolicsome scene in ‘Cottonmouth’s encampment, his surly cohorts finally click, too late to save the production, but at least gratifying as a rowdy, raunchy group performance. The red-haired Ives has a drinking contest with Plummer, his minions anxious to get it over with and kill bird-lover. But Ives grows to admire his nemesis enough to spare him, and what was surely going to be Plummer’s funeral, becomes instead some kind of existential challenge between the two men. It doesn’t work as metaphor, but at least its finally emotionally powerful.

Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper and subject of the play/film GYPSY, plays the madam of a local joint. A fun choice, like many of the others, and though she never breaks out, it is at least a bona fide legend in their midst.

There has been much speculation about Nicholas Ray being replaced as director by screenwriter/producer Schulberg. That he was under the influence of more than booze. That he asked Schulberg to direct Plummer, who he felt uncomfortable with, and that he directed Ives. Certainly this could have interrupted and mauled the film’s tone as well as Plummer’s out-of-synch thesping. But there are other factors at work. 26 minutes in, one of Ives’ moles tells him that Plummer is pretty good with ‘his dukes.’ But we haven’t seen Plummer use his dukes. So there’s definitely been some unfortunate scene-chopping.

Given all the things this unique piece of celluloid could have been, it still manages to leave one with a feeling that can’t be easily shaken off. And the footage of damaged and helpless birds is genuinely upsetting.

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