Friday, October 21, 2016

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN: Blu-ray (Columbia 1936) Sony Home Entertainment

Was there ever a more gloriously virginal he-man than Longfellow Deeds? Gary Cooper’s monumental incarnation of this proverbial ‘lamb bites wolf’ remains supremely satisfying, not so much for extolling the kind-hearted ‘screwball’ heroics indicative in practically all of director, Frank Capra’s most fondly recalled ‘Capra-corn’ from his Columbia period, but because Cooper’s bright-eyed and lanky stud is not nearly as naïve as the more jaded who surround him initially suspect. Longfellow Deeds is not a simpleton from the sticks but ‘Superman’ in disguise; thoroughly unnerved as the archetypal ‘fish out of water’ and even more uniquely satisfied to remain Clark Kent amidst the mere mortals who otherwise unknowingly look down upon him. Yet, just like the famed DC comic book idol, Longfellow’s Achilles heel proves to be a woman; or rather, the love of one he distrusts as having done him wrong. What is the point of living in a world corrupted by the unscrupulous; where goodness is scoffed at or even made the figure of fun, chided for embracing the virtues of ‘truth, justice and the American way’? During this 2016 election campaign, I have sincerely and often been asking myself these same questions. But I digress.
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) likely remains the most refreshing and cheerful of all Frank Capra’s classic comedies; Robert Riskin’s screenplay steeped in the polarizing political quagmire of a nation nearly gone to pieces during the Great Depression. In these monumentally troubled and topsy-turvy times Capra’s ‘every man’ is the unlikely instrument by which the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ are drawn closer together to explore as yet uncharted ‘common ground’; discovering the commonalities rather than the differences that divide. And the pearl in this Tiffany setting is Longfellow Deeds; a laudable dignitary because he refuses to bend in the face of abject humiliation, defies the social convention and absolutely refuses to be classified as just a silly little rube from Hick-ville, U.S.A. (or in this case, the corn-fed and thoroughly ‘pixilated’ enclave of Mandrake Falls, Vermont). Longfellow is a man’s man to who even the thought of inheriting $20 million dollars cannot shake or reshape his unfathomable desire to do good. Interestingly, all of Capra’s best recalled champions of the ‘humane’ spirit are cut from a similar swath on the loom; tested in their resolve by corrupting influences beyond their control, only to discover a way to regain control of their own destiny as well as making real and genuine a similar path for those who have stood by them in their hours of crisis. At one point in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Longfellow rhetorically asks, “Why can’t people just learn to like each other a little more?”: on its surface, an unsophisticated – almost child-like query, and yet, revealed within the course of the movie to be evenly as well-rounded and intrepid as any of the more devious probes planted in the way of Deeds’ altruism by the insidious bottom feeder, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille).
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town is an eloquent treatise on the devastated hearts and minds of Americans then suffering through the worst financial catastrophe of their lives. If Capra and Riskin’s message – one man making a monumental difference – appears overly-simplified, raw, big-hearted and empty-headed, or even fanciful conjecture on the part of absent-minded and thoroughly moneyed Hollywood at best, it is only because in more recent times we have all slipped a little bit further left of center in our lack of belief in ourselves as catalysts, capable of achieving the sort of ‘kind’ world Longfellow Deeds fervently believes in, as real to him and distinctly possible for the rest of us, with just a little plied and pliable compassion afforded. What a world it could be. What a world it should be. And what a world it never has been, or, as director, John Cassavetes more cleverly suggested, “Maybe there never was an America in the thirties. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.” Yet, in these 80 years since passed, the potency and charm of such blind optimism to be gleaned from any Frank Capra movie has never entirely gone out of fashion. Despite changing times and tastes Capra, who dwelt heavily in his later years inside a cocoon of his own immigrant’s shiny beacon of success, achieved not without a good many heartaches and setbacks preceding it, would never falter in his fervent trust in America as an inherently great nation, consistently striving toward the betterment of all living both within and without its borders. Such was the basis of the man himself who would, could and eventually did inspire us all to believe in ourselves and in unicorns like Longfellow Deeds who perhaps might still be walking among us today; along the way, creating his own mythology more vibrant than Technicolor and more vitally tangible than life itself; Teflon-coated and infallible to upset and downfall; Capra’s sweetness and light oft challenged, though never threatened.
Capra’s movies today are sometimes quaintly distilled into uber-clever critiques as harmless fairytales for adults. Yet, with each passing decade his body of work seems more and more to function collectively as a truthful and inspired parable for what is wrong, troubling and even undesirably shameful about modern society. What was true in Capra’s time, regrettably, has not diminished in the present, if for no other reason than owed to the humanity of today who continue to lack the wherewithal to overcome, or in most cases even grasp the foibles and biases of their ancestry. Hence, we remain divided along the lines of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’; the rich removed from the poor and remote in their attitudes towards them; understanding neither what it means to exist without hope for improvement or capable of respecting the fact not everyone with a vision can achieve greatness in their own time. The greatness comes, I suspect, from the solemnity in the struggle and being able to recognize the true temerity of the human spirit, not in the safety of a well-stuffed pocketbook, but in the security of living as moral as possible with or without the social refinements. Longfellow Deeds is the perfect example of this; a man unaccustomed to wealth and easily wounded by fame, neither seeking nor wanting more than the opportunities life has already afforded him; just the tuba-playing poet laureate of the greeting card sect who manages fine and dandy on his own steam and in accordance to his own likes and dislikes.
What Longfellow Deeds dislikes the most is mendacity; also, attempts made by those who believe him to be the plum-perfect fool, rife for manipulations to coax him right out of his newly acquired fiscal solvency.  Is it any wonder then Frank Capra should have admired such a man as Longfellow Deeds and cleverly made him the poster child/spokesperson for the rest of us? To varying degrees, Capra’s champions are all harbingers of his immigrant’s pride, inherently unashamed to be an American, but as reticently in danger of being chagrinned by the ‘ugly Americans’ lurking in their midst, plotting under an arbitrary set of jaded rules otherwise inculcated as the status quo. Yet, Capra’s protagonists are all rule breakers, or rather - rule benders; ingeniously working within the rigged system against them to discover clever ways of outfoxing the fox and, in the end, thoroughly excommunicate him from the archetypal henhouse before the final fade out. Seen in this light, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town is the cinematic equivalent of an epistolary or tome; a mentality even that Capra might have hoped would sink deeper into our collective subconscious over time; a real ‘love-in’ for mankind and the desperately needed opioid for the world at large; preceding and predating the sixties’ overly simplified hippy ‘flower power’ by a good solid twenty odd years, and proving, at least in hindsight, a thousand times more recalcitrant and affecting. We have, in fact, resisted such unbridled happiness for far too long. A decade after Capra, composer, Richard Rodgers would pick up his baton and beg a similar query, “What’s wrong with sweetness and light…they’ve been around for an awfully long time?” Yet, it is Capra’s vision of America as a melting pot of inherently big-hearted, good-natured working class citizens, imbued with rugged individualism and the go-getter’s indomitable spirit to push forward despite any and all obstacles, that endures and maintains his legacy best.
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town begins with a terrible tragedy; a car wreck that kills one of the world’s foremost philanthropists but leaves his estranged nephew, Longfellow Deeds with a considerable inheritance of $20 million (equivalent to nearly half a billion today) to be spend as he sees fit. Deeds, a small town, prudent and pennywise poet, beloved by virtually all who know him in the town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, is unaware his uncle’s attorney, John Cedar has managed to abscond with nearly $180,000. Cedar believes getting Deeds to sign over his late uncle’s power of attorney (thus, affording him and the law firm of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington absolute control over his finances) will be as easy as taking candy from a baby. Hence, it is a considerable blow to Cedar’s conceit when Deeds not only refuses his John Hancock on the dotted line, but sets about casually investigating the overall robustness of his newfound wealth and current portfolio of investments. When members of the New York Opera arrive with their hands outstretched to cover their yearly net loss they are rather bluntly informed by Deeds they will either have to find a way to make the opera profitable or entirely cease their operations. Culture and art are noble pursuits. Deeds should know. He played the tuba in his town band. But neither is he willing to accept art supported without commerce getting involved to turn a handsome profit. As he points out, “That’s just not good business sense.”
Deeds’ press agent, Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) is most impressed by the way this perceived simpleton handles himself in a pinch; as when Hallor (Charles Lane), an attorney for Mrs. Semple (Mayo Methot); a woman claiming to be his late uncle’s common law wife (actually married to a stuffed shirt, played by Jameson Thomas, who many will recall as King Marchand in Capra’s It Happened One Night) attempts to press Deeds for a third of his uncle’s estate. When Hallor haggles, suggesting he can get his client to accept a $1million dollar settlement in lieu of the more generous $7 to 8 million Deeds is offering, Deeds smells a rat and has Hallor properly ejected from his home by his butler (Barnett Parker). He furthermore instructs Cedar to make ready all of the accounts so he may first examine them before considering whether or not to retain Cedar’s services in perpetuity. In the meantime, harried New York Post editor, MacWade (George Bancroft) is beside himself. He has a bevy of reporters eager to pounce on the latest detail about the newly appointed heir apparent. Only no one can gain access to Deeds, thanks to Cobb’s careful buffering. Unaware he is the target of such rank curiosity, Deeds elects to lock both of Cobb’s bodyguards in the front hall closet before going out for a hearty jaunt on the town. Effectively, MacWade has sent his secret agent, hotshot newswoman Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) to get the scoop. She pretends to be a stenographer, Mary Dawson, caught faint from lack of food in front of Deed’s home. He falls for her act and takes her to Tulio’s; a fashionable ratskeller where the literati frequently meet.
Enamored by several renowned writers gathered at a nearby table, Deeds is singled out for a bit of abject humiliation; these self-appointed ‘great men’ having their fun until Deeds wises up to the reality greatness does not necessarily equate to graciousness. Of these ‘soon to be put in their place’, only Morrow, the poet (Walter Catlett) finds Deeds a genuinely invigorating presence. Hence, when Deeds dispenses with a few good punches to teach the rest of the highfalutin a thing or two about sincerity, Morrow elects to show Deeds the town; Babe accompanying him on a binge that winds up on the front page the next day. Babe dubs Deeds ‘the Cinderella man’ - a moniker meant to stick to some of his more bizarre antics; like feeding donuts to a horse or swinging from a lamp pole. Cobb cannot figure out how these stories continue to get leaked to the press. But Babe – as Mary – continues to meet Deeds in secret. The pair visits Grant’s Tomb; Babe utterly moved by Deeds’ account of the Ohio farm boy who would lead a great army to victory during the Civil War and become the 18th President; a figure of only passing interest to Babe, but a proud and historic touchstone for Deeds, now lying in state; body cold, but memory as vibrant and alive as ever. Capra would employ a similar homage to Lincoln in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Gary Cooper delivers one of the most moving monologues featured in any Capra picture here; heartfelt and with uncanny spontaneity, to reshape Babe’s jaded predilections about the man she has chosen to besmirch for a mere month’s holiday with pay, simply for the sake of a ‘good’ story.
Meanwhile, Deeds plans to host a lavish house party for the uber-wealthy sophisticates, including beefy opera star, Madame Pomponi (Margarete Matzenauer). Alas, the invested arrogance of these intellectuals, who regard Deeds as little more than a piñata for their amusement, is enough to sour Deeds on going through with the evening’s planned festivities. Much more interested in seeing ‘Mary’ again, Deeds evicts everyone from his household, making an impromptu visit to the rather dingy little apartment Babe shares with a friend, Mabel Dawson (Ruth Donnelly), who feigns being Mary’s sister for Deeds’ sake. Babe later confides in Mabel, that despite her best intentions to remain objective, she has fallen hopelessly in love with Deeds. He awkwardly proposes to her during a fog-laden jaunt around the park. And although Babe – as Mary – accepts, she later suggests she is going ‘back home’ to the small town from whence she came. Meanwhile, Cobb has unearthed the truth about Mary. In exposing her true identity, Deeds’ faith in humanity is utterly shattered. He instructs his manservant, Walter (Raymond Walburn) to prepare his trunk and bags. He is going home to Mandrake Falls for good. However, before this can happen, Deeds is accosted by a militant farmer (John Wray) at the point of a pistol. The man accuses Deeds of being a money-grubbing fat cat, so lost in the cesspool of his own wanton frolics he is an affront to all decent and hard-working cash-strapped men, having lost their sense of self-worth while waiting for daily rations in line at the soup kitchens. Suffering a terrible crisis of conscience, the man collapses. Tossing away his pistol, he suggests to Deeds he can do with him whatever he wishes, for he has reached the end of his rope. In reply, Deeds asks the man to dinner – a table initially set for Deeds’ private rendezvous with Mary.
Deeds now realizes what needs to be done. He announces to the world he will effectively give away his entire fortune to charity, establishing a farm program to set up the unemployed on a few acres of land, with the necessary implements to make a success of their new venture. The announcement attracts scores of the impoverished who beat a path to Deeds’ front door and make their way into his front parlor where they are registered into the program. Alas, Cedar will not stand for this. He gets the Semples to sign a legal document challenging Deeds’ mental incompetency. Deeds is arrested and placed in an asylum where he awaits a formal hearing to determine the legitimacy of the claim.  Cobb pleads with Deeds to reconsider his silent stance. He must defend himself. But Deeds’ spirit is broken and despite Babe’s best intensions to visit him and confess her part in this terrible turn of events, she is denied all access. At trial, the judge (H.B. Warner) invites opposing arguments. But Deeds, who has refused legal counsel, also declines to represent himself; remaining forlorn and silent as Cedar launches into his crucifixion from the other side. Cedar even invites Jane (Margaret Seddon) and Amy Faulkner (Margaret McWade) two benevolently spinsterish sisters from Mandrake Falls to testify against Deeds as being ‘pixilated’ (a.k.a. – crazy).
Babe implores the court to be heard, despite Cedar’s objections. She pleads with sincerity for Deeds to stand up to Cedar and confesses under cross-examination that, for what it is worth, she sincerely and deeply is in love with him.  Stirred by Babe’s confession, Deeds takes the stand in his own defense; illustrating for the judge and committee he is no more insane than any of them. In fact, he is very much of sound mind as he explains his plan to spread wealth and prosperity to those who have already lost all hope of ever achieving anything in their lifetime. “It's like I'm out in a big boat,” Deeds eloquently explains, “…and I see one fellow in a rowboat who's tired of rowing and wants a free ride, and another fellow who's drowning. Who would you expect me to rescue? Mr. Cedar - who's just tired of rowing and wants a free ride? Or those men out there who are drowning? Any ten year old child will give you the answer to that.”  Moved by his declaration, also by Deeds’ impromptu sucker punch that sends Cedar to the ground in a moment of ebullient chaos, the judge declares Deeds legally sane. The charges against him are dismissed and Babe and Deeds are reunited with passionate resolve.     
Despite its obvious commercial appeal, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town was not particularly a picture Columbia Studios’ president, Harry Cohn wanted to make. Cohn had seen the strength in Capra’s ability to transform an unassuming ‘road picture’ – It Happened One Night (1934) into a monumental and multi-Oscar-winning zeitgeist. It Happened One Night also had been a movie with little faith attached to it; costar, Claudette Colbert reportedly telling a friend at the end of the shoot, “I’ve just made the worst movie of my life.” Evidently, audiences and the Academy disagreed and It Happened One Night took home the top five Oscars (Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay and Best Picture); catapulting Cohn’s fledgling studio into competition status with the heavy hitters in the industry. And Capra had even more cache, both with audiences and his boss, when his second picture, Broadway Bill (released that same year) did respectable – if not phenomenal - box office. Still, Cohn advised against Capra’s verve to do a comedy with guts; or rather, one with a moral commentary. “He knew enough to know he didn’t know it all,” Capra would later reminisce about Cohn who, despite his personal reservations, entrusted Capra knew what he wanted. While It Happened One Night effectively ushered in the age of the celebrated ‘screwball comedy’, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is undeniably the picture that brought more ballast to the romantic comedy or, as Capra put it, “…a picture that says something.”
It boggles the mind to consider Mr. Deeds Goes to Town might never have been made, as Capra’s next planned project for Columbia was an adaptation of James Hilton’s best-seller, Lost Horizon; delayed when Capra’s first choice to star, Ronald Colman, proved unavailable until later in the year. Colman’s absence provided Capra with the luxury of time to make another movie in between; Capra quickly gravitating to ‘Opera Hat’; a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, first serialized in The American Magazine. Throwing out most of Kelland’s last act (Deeds implicated in a murder), Capra and screenwriter, Robert Riskin telescopically focused their efforts on fleshing out the character of Longfellow Deeds; his small town altruism and faith in humanity tested by shysters from the big city, what Capra would later suggest as ‘the rebellious cry of the individual’ who employs the ‘simple weapons of honesty, wit, and courage’ to overcome ‘mass predators and conformity’. In later years, Capra’s cause célèbre for ‘the little guy’ would be repeatedly misconstrued as veering dangerously close to socialism; an erroneous claim indeed.
Interestingly, Jean Arthur was not the first, nor even considered an ideal choice for the role of Babe Bennett, ultimately to make her a much sought after star. Although discovered as early as 1923 and given a brief contract at Fox, Arthur (born Gladys Georgianna Greene) suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety, translated into an abject and reoccurring fear of the camera.  By the mid-thirties, she had been through the gristmill, with stints at Fox and Paramount, and, a lot of stage work, before her unprecedented resurgence at Columbia Pictures where she would reign supreme throughout the thirties as everyone’s favorite screwball and ‘girl next door’. “I don't think Hollywood is the place to be yourself,” Arthur once told a friend, “The individual ought to find herself before coming to Hollywood.”  Arthur’s debut at Colombia was preceded by her inherent nervousness over what would soon become trademarked as her ‘throaty voice’. Capra, who had hoped to star the glorious madcap, Carole Lombard in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, was rather bitterly disappointed to accept Arthur in her stead; yet, pleasantly surprised with the results on film; Arthur’s performance embodying all the tender angst and bewilderment of a hard-nosed newspaper hound knocked off her celebrated perch by this unassuming Lochinvar with charm to spare.
And Gary Cooper’s Longfellow Deeds is precisely the sort of male ingénue Capra was looking for; possessing boyish good looks in a man’s body, but with a strong head on his shoulders.  Cooper was always Capra’s first choice for Deeds; the actor already tenured with a decade’s worth of solid performances. The chemistry between Cooper and Arthur is not only palpable, but electrifying; so much, that David O. Selznick briefly considered Arthur in the running for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939). Indeed, in this same year, Arthur was Capra’s first choice to costar opposite James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; originally titled Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, but changed at the last minute when Cooper’s participation on the project proved impossible; Capra ‘settling’ for James Stewart: an amiable replacement as the Capra-esque ‘every man’. Cooper’s performance in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town forever altered the course of his public persona; once aimed, perhaps, too high as the stoic loner/hero in westerns or sexy romantic lead opposite Marlene Dietrich. Herein, Coop’ acquires an almost natural patina as the plain-spoken man of integrity to whom any father could place in trust his daughter’s care.
Yet, perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the picture remains its deceptively effortless blending of comedy, drama and pathos; an ingenious soufflé concocted by Capra and Robert Riskin without the perfunctory scenes to wring tears and laughter, yet, running the gamut of emotions from A to Z; in the process, proving a ‘reel’ crowd pleaser.  The picture was nominated for a slew of Oscars, though only Capra would take home the award this time. Nevertheless, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town remains a joyously intoxicating, and yet sobering and thoroughly original comedic gem; the strength in its timely Depression-era sentiment, ever-present in 1936, for which the passage of even these eighty years since has proven powerless to eclipse. It is a picture that fluently compels with its peerless finesse in storytelling. We are emotionally invested almost from the outset; the flickering images thriving on our innate and basic need to believe in a time and a place where the crestfallen can rise up from their despair to achieve great things with a little blind faith in themselves and a lot of fealty in humankind at large. And it implores the audience not simply to relate to, or even appreciate the struggle, but attempt transmitting the strength of its sentiment into practical applications upon exiting the theater. There is a Longfellow Deeds lurking within us all.  I believe it, and on occasion, have discovered it in myself. Hence, the beauty and the magic of it is there will always be a Longfellow Deeds when we need him most. And boy…do we need him now!
Sony’s ambitious undertaking, to rescan Mr. Deeds Goes to Town from an original camera negative at 4K resolution, has yielded the most impressive Blu-ray offering of the fast approaching holiday season. Time and again, VP Grover Crisp and his dedicated staff have ensured the legacy of Columbia Pictures its proper place, despite usually working from a deficit of previously ill-archived elements. Their devotion to the cinema art from their past is ingrained in the integrity of a clear-eyed vision to restore, remaster and preserve the Columbia libraries for future generations to appreciate, admire and study. From our present vantage, it seems sacrilege to think of movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town being lost for all time; repeatedly hauled out the vaults for prints to be struck from the original camera negative – over and over again, until inevitable wear and tear and the ravages of time nearly destroyed them. In the late 1990’s Mr. Deeds received a photochemical restoration; alas, plagued by built-in dirt, grit and other age-related anomalies impossible to correct to achieve optimal image quality.
Fast forward to 2004, and a digital scan created a new HD master, still afflicted by built-in flicker, mold and water damage and a barrage of age-related artifacts. But now, Sony has achieved near perfection; using the fragile original negative as the basis for a brand new 4K scan and filling in the missing frames and/or gaps with duplicate nitrate negatives. Keener eyes will detect the differences in fine detail and advanced grain between dissolves and fades. But what we have here by far and large is a superbly rendered hi-def transfer that sparkles with all the pop, glitter and gorgeous textures inherent in Joseph Walker’s luminescent B&W soft focus cinematography.  Chace Audio has seen to it the fragile soundtrack is up to snuff too. Mono is as mono does; front and center, but herein represented with a renewed crispness and virtually free of all age-related hiss, pop and clicks; quiescent moments truly exhibiting just how far the technology has come to preserve the delicacies in these old Westrex recordings. Extras are a tad disappointing; virtually all exported from the old DVD release and including Frank Capra Jr. Remembers Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, an audio commentary (also from Capra Jr.), stills gallery set to music; plus, theatrical trailers and reissues. 
Bottom line: Sony has spent considerable time and effort getting Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to shine like the comedic gemstone it is and the results are neither to be taken lightly or, in fact, to have been expected from an 80 year old surviving negative. The efforts are truly Herculean and would not have been possible without cooperation from Cineric, Colorworks, The Library of Congress, Chace Audio and, of course, Sony’s diligent pursuit in achieving the best possible results.  While I have often been critical about the less than stellar efforts employed by a lot of major studios when readying vintage catalog for hi-def home video release; there is nothing blasé or matter-of-fact about Sony’s elephantine pursuit of perfection here. This release of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town puts most every other to shame. Here, at long last, is one of the truly iconic movies of the 1930’s presented for our enjoyment in a manner befitting its original theatrical release. We give our thanks then, heartily and without reservation. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town belongs on everyone’s top shelf of ‘must haves’ this holiday season. My only heartbreak: we still do not have Capra’s Lost Horizon on Blu-ray. Perhaps soon, Mr. Crisp? Regardless, bravo and kudos are owed to Sony for taking the time to get things right. You have. On behalf of movie lovers everywhere – God bless, and thank you!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

ON DANGEROUS GROUND: Blu-ray (RKO 1951) Warner Archive Collection

Take one cop teetering on the edge between borderline sociopathic brute and agent of mercy, a blind woman isolated in the snowbound wilderness of upstate Colorado, and a hunted rapist on the lam and…well…you have the makings of Nicholas Ray’s exceptionally underrated noir, On Dangerous Ground, previewed in 1951, but given its ‘official’ wide release in 1952. Ray’s penchant for extracting from this luxuriant unease the aggrieved psyche of a thoroughly flawed protagonist is working overtime here; the sadly undervalued Robert Ryan, the conduit of this anguished human opus, told in two movements with an almost symphonic arc for operatic tragedy, effectively leading to the redemption of the human heart. Ryan’s tightly wound Jim Wilson is a good cop; or rather, could be – if only he was not suffering from some fitful lack of appreciation – his reasons for being good dwindling, as he flies off the handle to give murderers, winos, crooks and stoolies a going over at the least provocation. It does not matter the goons he pummels are as rotten to the core as humanity can get. The devil, as they say, is in the details. But the last man to tangle with Jim ended up with a ruptured bladder; the precinct, in for a tussle with attorneys and Jim, ordered by his superior Capt. Brawley (Ed Begley) to take it easy or else face sanctions and possibly even get kicked off the force.
At 82 minutes, On Dangerous Ground is a far more invested and prolonged exploration into the fragility of one man’s decaying soul, miraculously given a reprieve in the eleventh hour by an unforeseen ‘understanding’. Borrowing from Kahlil Gibran, that “the most massive characters are seared with scars” the film’s screenwriter, Albert Isaac Bezzerides, and actor, Robert Ryan, have concocted a compelling spectacle out of Jim Wilson’s migration of consciousness from one state to another. “When a character does not suffer,” Bezzerides once offered, “…there is no drama.” On Dangerous Ground tests this theory to its utmost, Jim Wilson’s struggle from within brought forth as a festering lesion, desperately in need of some miraculous healing powers. He discovers these in the unlikeliest of women: Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a martyred shut-in who has sacrificed even her sight to remain vigilant over a wayward younger brother, Danny (Sumner Williams). Alas, without her watchful eyes to keep tabs, Danny has transgressed against Mary’s altruism; raped and murdered a local teenage girl whose father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond) now vows bloody vengeance at the point of his double-barreled shotgun. When it was released, On Dangerous Ground was not profitable; the story, perhaps, too grim and realistic for audiences to digest. Even today, the picture packs a deflating wallop. However, it equally lacks from an acute disconnect; Bezzerides’ screenplay incongruously departing the claustrophobic inner city cesspool for the even more stark and dingy wide open spaces; the Colorado landscape creating a natural barrier: Jim and Walter’s trek across the frozen wilderness, trudging through ankle and sometimes knee-deep drifts, their car skidding off a slick embankment and rolling over several times.
On Dangerous Ground is perhaps the most curious adaptation in noir history. Certainly, there remains very little of Gerard Butler’s English-themed novel, Mad With Much Heart (published in 1946); the entire first act concocted by Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray as back story; the book’s Jim Wilson, neither suffering from urban isolationism or a slow, sad decline to a speedy mental breakdown. In its entirety, the novel’s crime-solving milieu is told from Jim’s first person account.  But Bezzerides’ adaptation adds unexpected texture and that all essential and flavorful noir mood to the straight-forwardness of the book; ably abetted by Bernard Herrmann’s underscore, uncharacteristically, both forceful and haunting. Herrmann had come to the project at the behest of producer, John Houseman; a major proponent of his skills since Herrmann’s days as a conductor on CBS’s symphonic radio program. When CBS decided to disband the series, as well as the musicians in 1946, Houseman encouraged Herrmann to consider RKO as his fallback. Alas, by the time On Dangerous Ground began to shoot, Houseman had departed the studio; Herrmann holding tight to the reins of a contract already agreed upon under RKO’s new management team of Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna. This gave Herrmann unprecedented creative control over the final edit. It also allowed him to conduct the scoring sessions, a luxury not readily afforded at this time. There are whole portions of On Dangerous Ground devoted to extolling the virtues of Herrmann’s viscerally alarming, dark and sinister themes. Indeed, most of the tension achieved between Jim and Walter during their perilous trek across the frozen wilderness is generated by Herrmann’s string-based ‘chase’ themes; his even more unsettling ‘love theme’ recorded with virtuoso, Virginia Majusky plying her talents to a viola d’amore.
On Dangerous Ground was not just another B-noir thriller in RKO’s hopper. Indeed, Nicholas Ray was given unusual permissions to photograph a goodly percentage of the picture on location. Yet, even the studio-bound process work possesses Ray’s dash for achieving a grittier verisimilitude from this high key lit scenery, lensed to perfection by cinematographer, George E. Diskant, who relies on a veritable basket of visual clichés from the noir movement (high contrast chiaroscuro lighting - heavy on the shadows - and perpetually rain-soaked and glistening wet pavement), nevertheless, seamlessly blended into the bleak realism achieved beyond the relative safety of the studio’s walls. And another plus to consider: the killer cast of notably hard-edged reprobates, including Nita Talbot’s simpering and smoky-eyed barroom B-girl (a sort of Veronica Lake gone to seed); also, Cleo Moore’s finger-pointing moll, Myrna Bowers. From these cameos it is very easy to see why Jim Wilson harbors a homogenized contempt for all humanity, and women in particular. Even the relatively congenial soda hostess, Hazel (Joan Taylor) shuns him. And Jim is frankly tired of being considered the pariah; bad for the criminal element, but not nearly good enough to meet the high standards of the forthright he is committed to serve and protect.
On Dangerous Ground’s other depictions of mankind are as nefarious and unpleasant: Nestor Paiva’s paper-deliveryman cum snitch, Bagganierri, or the leering four-eyed pimp, Gatos (played with oily offensiveness by A.I. Bezzerides), offering Jim a bribe and/or the opportunity to abuse one of his ‘girls’ for the night - for a fee. Yet, unlike other movies depicting country folk as corn-fed, pure-of-heart Bible-thumpers in stark contrast to these city-dwelling bottom feeders, the isolated inhabitants who populate the second act in On Dangerous Ground offer mere continuity of this moral corruption; Olive Carey’s Mrs. Brent, a steely-eyed matriarch with dagger-loaded accusatory glances cast upon Sheriff Carrey (Ian Wolfe) for bringing this stranger into their midst; the only eye-witness to the crime, the Brent’s teenage daughter, Julie (Patricia Prest) stifled in her shell-shocked confession, coached by familial skepticism and grotesquely warped anxiety; first, for uncovering, then obfuscating the truth.  
On Dangerous Ground is often erroneously and unfairly referenced as a copycat of 1951’s Detective Story; despite Sidney Kingley’s play (on which the latter film is based) being more maudlin and theatrical. Ironically, On Dangerous Ground has also been accused of this, particularly during the penultimate speech delivered by Jim’s partner, Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) after Jim corners a goon in a dark alley, responsible for the near-fatal assault on Myrna. The dialogue bears repeating, Pop bluntly expounding the good cop’s credo; “I live with other people. This is just a job, like any other. I do it the best I can. It’s never enough, but I do it. When I go home I don’t take this stuff with me. I leave it outside. But you…the way you carry it around inside – you must like it! Maybe you think that’s what makes you a good cop. The way you’re going you won’t be good to anybody…not even yourself. Somebody had to tell you. You wanna get something out a this life…you gotta put something in it – from the heart!” The sentiments of this confrontation will continue to echo in Jim’s head. Yet, this is precisely the point to be made; Jim Wilson wholly lacks this necessary appendage – and understanding heart - generally associated with compassion. There is no distinction for Jim between the people he serves and the ones he more transparently identifies as the filth of the city. Jim’s inability to get close to anyone, except when pulverizing a suspect into submission with his fists, is a devastating blow to his own moral welfare; particularly as the forthright protector toting the badge. 
On Dangerous Ground opens with a thumbnail sketch of Jim’s two partners; Pop Daly and Pete Santos (Anthony Ross); director, Nicholas Ray and A.I. Bezzerides illustrating the careworn, thick-skinned, matter-of-fact resolve men in blue must possess to endure the psychological severity of their chosen profession. In many ways the complicity shared by each man’s wife acts as a buffer or cushion against emotional responses – or lack thereof, when dealing with the criminal element. Jim Wilson, by direct comparison, is a lone wolf, meticulously – and almost maniacally searing the police circular into his subconscious; on the prowl to identify a pair of cop killers he aims to bring to justice, whatever the consequences. Capt. Brawley is breathing hard down his department for some speedy results; and not just to look good in the papers. Alas, the search does not progress smoothly, chiefly because Jim sees evil around every corner; in the eye of every man and women he passes, even going so far as to roust an undesirable, while a crowd of pedestrians looks on. Fundamentally, On Dangerous Ground is not about police brutality, despite Jim’s gruff man-handling. This lands him in hot water with Brawley. However, there is evidence to suggest RKO was sincerely worried about its implication. A scene was added almost a year after production wrapped to depict Jim given a dressing down by Capt. Brawley, before being exiled to the sticks to investigate the Brent murder; perceived as both a punishment and a way for Brawley to relocated Jim far away from the considerable heat the department is presently taken for some of his other indiscretions.
Jim retreats from the city, driving his car to the snowy enclave of Weston Junction, met at the station by Sheriff Carrey and almost immediately taken to the Brent farm to make their inquiries. Mrs. Brent is overly protective of her daughter, Julie’s haunted remembrances. These are cut short by Walter’s arrival, shotgun in clenched fist, vowing there will be no trial for the man who raped and murdered his child because he intends to shoot him dead first. Alerted to the assailant’s nearby presence, Jim chases after Walter through ankle-deep drifts. Unlike the novel, the identity of the rapist is delayed in the movie; a fleeting glimpse of someone (or something) tumbling out of a pine-needled treetop adding to the suspense of what director, Nicholas Ray has graphically conceived as more the blood-thirsty ‘animal’, rather than a ‘manhunt’. Jim and Walter pick up the scent in a nearby town; commandeering one of the local’s cars to make chase. Alas, the winding roads are slippery with freshly packed snow. Jim loses control and the car plummets down a steep ravine, becoming lodged between several trees. Now, Jim and Walter follow freshly made footsteps in the snow to an isolated farmhouse owned by Mary Malden.
Given Ida Lupino’s name gets top billing, it is more than a little disheartening she only occupies the last twenty-eight minutes of our story. As it turns out, Mary Malden is the elder sister of the accused, Danny. Though blinded in more recent years by an undisclosed affliction, Mary initially lies to Walter and Jim about having seen anyone matching the description of the man they are searching for, and, whose footsteps they have managed to track back to her farmhouse. Knowing Danny is not on the farm at present, Mary allows Jim and Walter to search the house and grounds; a rather idiotic disclosure since it does not take very long for Walter to discover Danny’s boots and other clothes belonging to a man kept in an upstairs bedroom. Mary suggests Danny has gone away to a neighboring county. Although neither Jim nor Walter believes her story, Jim is at least – and rather uncommonly – sympathetic. As night falls, Mary offers Jim and Walter to spend the night warming by the fireplace in her living room. They gratefully accept and, weary from their day-long trek across the frozen wilderness, easily succumb to the sway of a good night’s sleep. However, by the steely grey break of dawn, Mary quietly dresses and sneaks out of the house undetected to a nearby barn with a hidden storm cellar, forewarning her brother he must turn himself in to the police. While Mary fears for Danny’s safety, she instinctually believes Jim will not harm him. In fact, Mary had Jim give his word of honor to protect Danny from Walter.
Meanwhile, Jim and Walter stir inside the house. As Danny makes a break to escape over a nearby mountain range of craggy boulders, Walter makes chase, followed by Jim. All three begin to scale a very steep incline; Walter repeatedly thwarted from blasting Danny with his shotgun. Nevertheless, tragedy strikes. Danny loses his footing near the top and plunges from a rugged precipice to his death; his bloodied body recovered by Walter who, seemingly with all venom departed him, now carries Danny’s lifeless body back to Mary’s farm. Initially holding Jim responsible for Danny’s death, Mary cannot surrender her feelings for Jim entirely. He, in turn, finds it increasingly impossible to forget her once he has returned to his old inner city beat. Mary’s words about loneliness echo from within. Indeed, Jim’s punishment has proven a cathartic experiences on several levels; chiefly, in being able to recognize his own pitilessness as filtered through Walter Brent’s manic bloodlust for Danny Malden. Unexpectedly, Jim returns to the farm after only a few days. He finds Mary at home, forgiving and what is more, much yearning for his touch. The two embrace and share in a tear-stained kiss.
Despite this somewhat anticipated finale, On Dangerous Ground never unravels into the predictable ‘happy’ ending meant to satisfy the Hollywood tradition. Instead, it rather cautiously experiments with a somewhat restrained, if slightly more hopeful conclusion for these two protagonists we have come to, if not love, than intuitively recognize as perfectly paired soulmates. Part of this successful conveyance is owed to Ida Lupino’s staggering professionalism as an actress. Undeniably varied and intuitive, Lupino lends ballast to the story without fermenting stolidity. The Brit-born Lupino’s career as an actress has entered its third and final phase with this movie; moved away from the self-assured, tough-as-nails vixens, vamps and whisky-voiced/chain-smoking saloon singers to be found in films like High Sierra and Road House; hard dames, invariably clawing their way up the ladder in a man’s world. But as the blind girl Lupino has assuaged into an unusual and sustained martyrdom for which too many a great actresses of this period were increasingly brought to heel. 
Yet, Lupino’s Mary Malden is not the put-upon victim or the innocent of this piece; rather, an intuitive and stabilizing voice of reason. Her initial deceptions are mired in bittersweet and thoroughly flawed nepotism; her resultant confession of love made to Jim not with teary-eyed gratitude, but level-headed appreciation for having found a man just as scarred as she; someone to take the place of her lost brother; someone she can ‘cure’ and look after, who in turn will look after her. While Mary initially senses ‘no pity’ in Jim’s voice she is nevertheless able to detect something of his internalized torment; offering a way out of this labyrinth on her own terms.  Lupino, who would go on to establish her own production company – The Filmmakers – and have a rewarding career as both director and producer in television, does some of her best acting in On Dangerous Ground, and, such a genuine pity we do not get to see more of her. To be sure, Lupino was not pleased with On Dangerous Ground; a movie she regarded as rife with excellent production values but exceptionally weak and very uneven in its storytelling. There is something to this. For although the picture possesses some striking noir elements as well as salient departures from the formula, Bezzerides’ screenplay is a somewhat mangled affair; the inner city first act and penultimate cross country chase/finale, seemingly excised from two irreconcilable plots with only the aforementioned, abridged scene between Robert Ryan’s Jim and Ed Begley’s Capt. Brawley to explain away the abrupt disconnect.  
However, no picture with Ida Lupino or Robert Ryan is entirely a washout and certainly, with the two of them together, On Dangerous Ground is far from becoming an artistic failure. In fact, in more recent times, On Dangerous Ground has been ‘rediscovered’ by fans, increasingly come to regard it with considerable interest as a minor work by Nicholas Ray. This still doesn’t make it a classic in my opinion. But it does add badly needed cache to a storyline otherwise afflicted with some stifling inconsistencies, effectively assuaged by the Ryan/Lupino screen presence and chemistry, and, their performances given within. And Ryan, whose career thrived on variations of unrepentant bastards and bigots, gives an unlooked-for and affecting performance. He lets Jim Wilson’s extreme mental anguish show in an emotionally charged and frequently heartbreaking performance; panged, powerful and prophetic; a prelude, even, to all those anti-heroes to emerge decades later throughout the 1970’s. We get disturbing shades of a basically good man being pressed dangerously close to the edge of his abilities; someone for whom the fog of daily living has already begun to cloud his own moral clarity. Like so many crusaders, Ryan’s conflicted cop wants ‘justice for all’. Yet, increasingly he cannot discern between evenhandedness and one-man vigilantism. As with sanity and its counterpoint, there is a fine line of distinction between these polar opposites that Jim appears dangerously close to transgressing on more than one occasion.
Before embarking upon a critique of this Blu-ray, we must sincerely pause, doff our caps and give thanks to the Warner Archive (WAC) for performing what can only be described as a minor miracle. When On Dangerous Ground was released to DVD in 2004 as part of Warner Home Video’s noir box set the results left a good deal to be desired; chiefly, because the elements employed to master the DVD then were several generations removed from the original camera negative and suffered greatly from a barrage of built-in artifacts; flicker, exaggerated grain, low contrast, age-related dirt and scratches, some aggravated edge enhancement, and, a curious ‘greenish’ telecine tint. In short, the DVD was a mess and rightfully cause for considerable outrage among fans. Well, prepare for one of the biggest revelations you are ever likely to encounter in hi-def, because WAC’s newly remastered Blu-ray is, in a word, sumptuous; remastered in 4K from original nitrate elements.  In the past, I have been glowing with compliments paid to WAC. And this disc, like virtually all others gone before it, unequivocally proves when it comes to very deep catalog releases in hi-def, there are really only two companies in competition: Warner Bros. and Sony/Columbia. Even more so, I have to give it to Warner in 2016 for mining their nuggets and hidden treasures with the due diligence we had once come to expect from every major studio in DVD’s glory days, but today, is as rare as finding four-leaf clovers a plenty, sprouting from the heads of unicorns.
WAC’s decision to return to an original camera negative housed at the Library of Congress is owed formidable kudos; first, because it was a costly endeavor for a movie, arguably, few outside the die-hard noir community have ever heard of (let us be blunt here – a commercial flop, long obscured by shoddy available prints, infrequently shown on late night television), and second, because of the time-consuming ‘restoration’ process required to resurrect this movie from its own very ‘dangerous ground’.  The results speak for themselves: a simply gorgeous 1080p image, so richly detailed it easily extracts all of the well-dressed B&W imagery captured by cinematographer extraordinaire, George E. Diskant.  Tonal balance in the grayscale is exquisite. I was stunned to see such minute textures, the crystalized snow trampled underfoot looking so distinct and real it might just as well have sent a chill to fill the room. The mono 2.0 DTS audio is another cause for cheer; Bernard Herrmann’s score full of unanticipated bombast; dialogue front and center, achieved with unexpected razor-sharp clarity. 
This is what great Blu-ray mastering is all about, folks!  Warner has also shelled out for an informative audio commentary by film historian and author, John Ericson. Bottom line: I don’t know how anyone cannot include this release as one of their top-tier pre-Christmas orders. In an era where far too many studios have discounted their illustrious past, licensing subpar 1080p dreck to third party distributors merely to make a quick buck, or virtually ignoring their past altogether, we must continue to praise, give thanks and encourage Warner Bros. to do more of the same. They have already proven they know better than their competition. Classics on physical media sell – period! Classics restored on Blu-ray sell even better. So, buy today and treasure forever.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

CARRIE: COLLECTOR'S EDITION Blu-ray (UA 1976) Shout!/Scream Factory

Forty years ago, Sissy Spacek terrorized audiences in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976): the movie that unequivocally proves “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”; particularly if the gal in question possesses untapped wellsprings of telekinetic rage roiling from within. With each passing year, Carrie just seems to acquire a more richly disturbing patina, going well beyond the movie land clichés of a good horror flick, lending its genuinely spooky ‘charm’ to the perennially renewable social anxieties afflicting most adolescent girls, while disturbingly tinged in troupes and allegories more aligned with the Shakespearean (or even classical Greek) tragedy than the shock-and-schlock trappings generally associated with vintage celluloid scares. The real sadness here is derived from the fact our protagonist (or antagonist, depending on one’s point of view) desires nothing more, or even better, than simply to be accepted by her peers, found attractive by the boys, and, to be loved by her own mother.
Unhappy circumstance then – and regrettably, not just for Carrie White, that in this topsy-turvy world, she is doomed to remain the mousy and abused frump of this set piece; a social outcast, brutalized by the more sexually aware graduating class, ignored by callous school administrators like Principal Morton (Stefan Gierasch) who chronically, and rather irritatingly, refers to her as ‘Cassie’, and micromanaged in her burgeoning sexuality by an evangelical nut job and real gargoyle of a mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie in a wickedly bizarre and effectively theatrical performance), whose warped sense of Christianity includes condemning Carrie’s perfectly natural interests in boys as sinful, infrequently beating her down with the ‘good book’ into tears of submission, and dragging her by the hair to a locked closet where a makeshift altar to the Almighty has been erected. Pray for forgiveness – Carrie. Or is it prey? Oh, what Carrie White might have been if only someone in her social sphere had taken a more proactive, even a casual interest in her welfare. But no – and henceforth, the girl no one thinks much of (if, indeed, they consider her at all) begins to unearth more demonic forces from within; the ability to command with the power of her thoughts alone.
Carrie was author, Stephen King’s fourth attempt at a novel – his first to be published, and written – arguably, from hunger – in a trailer on a portable typewriter belonging to his wife Tabatha. Initially, King had hoped to sell the concept as a short story to Cavalier Magazine for some quick cash; the premise, about a girl accidentally discovering her period in the high school locker room showers, thereafter pelted with sanitary napkins by a small contingent of her leering/laughing peers, triggering a telekinetic episode to kill everyone. Although at least a part of this scenario would survive the final draft, King hated what he had written thus far, and scrapped the idea entirely for the time being. Compositing the central character from two girls he had known in high school, King eventually expanded upon his thumbnail premise into an epistolary account of a terrible ‘incident’ having taken place in a small town; the investigating commission into an unexplained night of terror reviewed through a series of interrogative interviews conducted with survivors leading to a series of flashbacks fleshing out the rest of the narrative.  In re-conceptualizing the story for the screen, screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen jettisoned nearly all of this back-and-forth structure in the book, concentrating entirely on retelling the events in the present, presumably as they occurred. He also set aside an earlier draft of the screenplay in favor of starting from scratch.
Originally, Carrie was to have been made for 2oth Century-Fox; Cohen, enamored with King’s story, working feverishly to iron out its various kinks and create a more cinematic approach to the material, only to be told in the eleventh hour of his creative outpouring, the studio had decided to put the movie into ‘turnaround’ – code, for basically killing the piece without actually relinquishing the rights…just in case. Heart sore, Cohen, who had come to New York with dreams of becoming a film and theater critic, instead moved out west: first, to Arizona, then California, working on other projects including Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; though never entirely to forget about Carrie. Indeed, after the deal with Fox fell through, Cohen was to heavily campaign to find Carrie a new home; pounding on mostly closed doors at Warner Bros. and Universal. As fate would have it, Cohen would read sketchy details about someone having optioned the rights to King’s book. Believing himself to be out of the loop, Cohen went on, rather unenthusiastic, searching for his next writing gig. No producer satisfied until a chance meeting with Paul Monash revealed to Cohen he was the guy who had optioned Carrie in addition to a slew of other properties. Monash had all but revolutionized the TV prime time soap opera with TV’s adaptation of Peyton Place. He had also produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – one of Cohen’s favorite movies and was to prove a positive influence on Cohen; both men agreeing an earlier draft of the screenplay Monash had commissioned was an unmitigated disaster in desperate need of a rewrite. Hence, when Fox turned down the option to make the picture, Monash and Cohen were contacted by Marcia Nasatir; newly appointed as VP at United Artists. In her previous job as a senior publisher Nasatir had acted as the agent responsible for promoting Stephen King’s novel. Now, she green lit the film project almost sight unseen. With a few stipulations, mostly to keep a tight rein on the budget, Cohen and Monash were basically left to their own accord to pursue the talent they wanted.
Yet, their initial meeting with Brian De Palma did not go at all according to plan; De Palma more aloof than intrigued and bringing absolutely nothing to the discussion; instead, listening rather intently to the project pitch from the other side. With time running out on their option, Monash agreed to hire De Palma and, in hindsight, the director would come to illustrate an indispensable artistic flair as well as becoming the glue to keep cast and crew motivated and happily working together. Of the other early casting choices, P.J. Soles (as the smarmy tart, Norma), Nancy Allen (the deliciously wicked Chris Hargensen), Amy Irving (Sue Snell), John Travolta (Billy Nolan) and William Katt (Tommy Ross) were inspired; particularly Irving, as the only girl other than Carrie to show her sensitive side; hence, to suffer the fateful affliction of forever being plagued by horrific nightmares. For a bit of verisimilitude, De Palma also cast Irving’s real-life mother, Priscilla Pointer, to play Sue’s mom. In hiring Betty Buckley - a personal friend - for the part of gym teacher, Miss Collins, De Palma instructed Cohen to expand upon what had only been a walk-on part in his first draft. Cohen willingly complied, adding a veneer of empathy and compassion to this ‘tough-as-nails’ educator.  The success of the picture, however, squarely lay on the actress yet to be cast in the lead. In accepting the role, Sissy Spacek knew two things; first, she would have to do her first ‘nude scene’ and second, she would be required to summon an as yet untapped courage to connect with the abject rage her character unleashes during the film’s pièce de résistance; a fatal firestorm on prom night inside the high school’s gymnasium.
Monash had sincerely hoped to entice composer, Bernard Herrmann into writing the score for Carrie. Herrmann’s legendary career dated all the way back to the forties, his collaborations with Hitchcock (and their equally as infamous fallout on the set of Marnie 1964) only adding to Herrmann’s reputation as one of the premiere masters in the medium. Alas, Herrmann died while still working on the score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); Monash turning to composer, Pino Donaggio in his stead. There are moments in Carrie that belie Donaggio being influenced – or perhaps ‘encouraged’ by De Palma and Monash to find his own ‘Herrmann-esque’ sound; the most transparent of these cues, polite riffs pilfered from the shower scene in Psycho (1960), and the love theme from Vertigo (1959). Nevertheless, Donaggio, who spoke almost as little English as De Palma did Italian, managed to find an intermediary/interpreter in cinematographer, Mario Tosi – who spoke both languages enough for each man to understand his translations. In retrospect, the ever-evolving mood of Carrie primarily derives from Donaggio’s darkly textured underscore. Even the melodic central theme of ‘innocence’ possesses a few dissident chords to effectively suggest something is not quite right, only moments before Carrie White experiences her first menstruation cycle while showering in the girl’s locker room.  
Carrie begins unexpectedly, even unconventionally for a horror movie with a scene of complete normalcy; a school yard volleyball tournament in which the losing point is made by viciously lobbing the ball to Carrie White; the poster child for clumsy/awkward adolescence. We regress to the high school locker room and showers; De Palma shooting an almost bacchanalian revelry in slo-mo; the girls in various stages of undress, casually frolicking among themselves, a light steam from the showers lingering in the air to add a softer, diffused glow to these stolen moments. While far too many horror movies, particularly those made throughout the 1970's used nudity gratuitously, merely to titillate the audience with a sort of cheaply erotic ‘art house’ feel to be turned asunder, the nakedness in these introductory moments appears indigenous to the unanticipated early ‘shock’ that immediately follows; Carrie, suffering through her very first menstruation in the most excruciatingly humiliating way. Unaware of her body’s natural cycle, Carrie panics and reaches out with blood-stained hands to the group who discover an almost orgasmic pleasure instead in pelting Carrie with a myriad of tampons, dirty washcloths and clean towels, chanting for her to ‘stuff it up’ until Miss Collins breaks up their insidious hazing by first slapping, then embracing a thoroughly shell-shocked Carrie taken into her arms. The incident causes a light bulb overhead to unexpectedly burst. The girls disband.
Carrie is next taken to Mr. Morton’s office by Miss Collins who gingerly explains the situation. Morton is surprised a girl of Carrie’s years could be so biologically naïve. But Collins assures Morton she is not one bit surprised, given Margaret White’s staunch opinions on human sexuality, unabashedly regarded as sinful and dangerous. While the rest of the community thinks Margaret is a religious fanatic, in Carrie’s case she may be onto something; the girl’s hormonal imbalance unexpectedly unbridling her ability to inflict revenge on those who have wronged her. Henceforth, when a paperboy on his bicycle taunts Carrie on her long walk home with “creepy Carrie” her steely-eyed glances are enough to cause the wheels of his bike to go out from under him, the child toppling in a heap on a neighbor’s front lawn – good for a startle, and a lesson: do not mess with Carrie White! Yet, whatever shame Carrie has suffered cruelly at school decidedly pales to the rigors and mortification endured at the hands of her own mother at home; accusing the girl of sins she has yet to commit, striking her down on her knees with the Bible, locking her inside a closet (converted into a makeshift shrine to Jesus), and confining the girl elsewhere and otherwise in her spare time to several decidedly claustrophobic rooms inside their tiny and darkly lit home; blinds drawn to keep out the sunlight. Margaret believes she is doing God’s work. But Carrie is frightened, alone and friendless. 
Miss Collins lays down the law to the rest of the girls responsible for the shower hazing incident. She informs them of her initial plan, to get Mr. Morton to renege on their prom tickets and suspend them from school for three weeks. The girls breathe a heavy sigh of relief as Morton has not agreed to these terms. However, he has agreed to allow Miss Collins to supervise their week long detention period, during which she puts this menacing sorority through the paces on the athletic field. When Chris Hargensen, one of the chief instigators of the locker room assault, defiantly resists to partake in these grueling calisthenics, she incurs Collins’ wrath; Collins walloping Chris but good and for all to see. This sets Chris upon a path of revenge, not against Collins, but Carrie White. In the meantime, fellow participant in the hazing, Sue Snell, has begun to have second thoughts. In fact, her guilt is both genuine and heartfelt. Thus, she asks her boyfriend, Tommy Ross – the most popular jock at school – to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. Tommy is initially reluctant. But he respects Sue enough to go along with her plan to make recompense to Carrie for her actions in the shower. Carrie is less convinced of their altruism. Indeed, she believes Tommy has been sent to humiliate her once again. And, in some ways, this is true as Chris and her boyfriend, Billy Nolan have already begun to hatch a diabolical plot to wreck Carrie’s supreme moment of triumph at the prom.
Taking fresh pig’s blood from a local slaughterhouse, Billy and Chris rig a bucket over the stage where the king and queen of the prom will be crowned; convincing their friends to cast their ballots for Carrie White and Tommy Ross; the trap, camouflaged by a barrage of prom decorations suspended from the ceiling overhead. Getting word her daughter is attending the prom with a boy, Margaret commands Carrie not to go. But the girl has learned to momentarily harness her supernatural powers. When Margaret pleads, confessing to Carrie about her own terrible ‘experience’ with Carrie’s father, she throws herself into another evangelic diatribe. But this time, Carrie unleashes her more ominous will on the shuttered windows and doors, barring her mother’s exit from the room and adding, “I’m going, mama.” The stage is set for a memorable night; Tommy’s arrival in a rented powder blue tux compounded by his pleasant surprise at discovering the usually mousy Carrie miraculously transformed into a rather startling vision of innocence and beauty; a real classy prom date. Tommy is the perfect gentleman. Perhaps he has underestimated Carrie’s virginal appeal. No one is more pleased by this turn of events than Miss Collins, who earlier suspected Tommy and Sue of conspiring to wound Carrie yet again, either by playing a cruel joke by not showing up after being asking to the prom, or by pulling some cheap stunt in front of the other classmates once they have arrived to the gymnasium and made their entrance.
But even Miss Collins is surprised by how well Carrie and Tommy go together. He coaxes Carrie out from her shell, getting her to partake in a spin around the dance floor. Back at the table, Miss Collins tells Carrie about her own prom; the last bit of lighthearted camaraderie this evening will bear. It is time to crown a prom king and queen. As Chris and Billy have already assured the magic couple of the hour will be Carrie and Tommy, they make their way to the podium to receive their just rewards. Each is given a crown to wear and Carrie is handed a bouquet of roses and a sash to mark the event. But this perfect moment is shattered, De Palma cross-cutting between a slow-mo pan of the applauding attendees, and, Sue, suddenly coming to realize there is a mysterious bucket precariously teetering over the stage with a rope tied to it. Before she can alert Miss Collins to her discovery, Chris, hiding under the stage with Billy, gives the rope its fateful tug. The bucket is overturned, raining down pig’s blood (actually corn syrup and red dye) onto the newly christened prom queen as Tommy and the others look on. The bucket becomes dislodged and strikes Tommy in the head, rendering him unconscious. Carrie White’s worst fears have been realizes, the audience suddenly bursting forth with laughter as she shrieks in despair. However, no one is amused when Carrie commands the auditorium doors and windows bolted shut with her mind power; willing a fire hose to begin pulverizing the party guests with a penetrating blast of water.   
The deluge inside the auditorium is De Palma’s tour de force; employing split screen images to simultaneously illustrate Carrie White’s intent and the very concrete net results from her wicked thoughts. As panic and fear grips the prom attendees, Mr. Morton and English teacher, Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick) attempt to gain some semblance of order; fighting for the stage microphone, only to be electrocuted in their efforts by Carrie’s spiteful telekinesis. Next, Carrie turns her thought-concentrated venom onto Norma (P.J. Soles suffered a punctured eardrum for real during this stunt); then, Miss Collins, severed in half by a basketball backboard as Chris and Billy look on from a safe distance. Setting off a firestorm inside the auditorium, Carrie manages to incinerate her classmates while calmly exiting the building; De Palma, slowing down the camera to add a thoroughly eerie panache to this carnage. Chris and Billy chase down Carrie White in Billy’s muscle car; Chris, intending to run over Carrie. At the last possible moment, Carrie commands the speeding vehicle to swerve out of control and tip onto its side; flipping over and over again before bursting into flames with Chris and Billy still inside. Back at home, Carrie pleads for her mother’s love and forgiveness. Margaret seemingly is ready to give it, softly caressing her daughter’s hair. But suddenly, she reaches for the kitchen carving knife, plunging its blade into Carrie’s back. In retaliation, Carrie commands the rest of the utensils to impale her mother; a cleaver, various knives, scissors and a potato peeler, all implanting themselves into Margaret’s body until she is quite dead. Having sinned against her own flesh, the wrath turns inward and befalls Carrie White; the house around her suddenly imploding, rocked from its hinges and finally set ablaze by her uncontrollable telekinesis.
We discover only Sue Snell survived the nightmarish ordeal; though now heavily sedated and still suffering from unspeakable hallucinations, having left her almost catatonic. As Mrs. Snell is comforted by a concerned friend on the telephone, De Palma regresses the audience into an almost hypnotic trance from Sue’s bedroom into her overly active imagination; trailing in a long white gown with a memorial bouquet of flowers to the empty lot where the White house once stood. However, as Sue kneels down to place her ceremonial flowers next to the ‘For Sale’ sign (in the shape of a cross that someone has spray-painted with the words ‘Carrie White burns in hell’) Carrie’s blood-soaked hand emerges from the earth, attempting to drag Sue to the netherworld she has been exiled; Sue stirred in fitful shrieks from her slumber as Mrs. Snell finds she is powerless to quell or even comfort her daughter’s precarious mental state. The inference is that while the ordeal may be over its memory will continue to infest the last survivor until she is quite mad and in need of chronic institutionalization. No one has actually escaped Carrie White’s wrath.
Carrie is one of the most unconventional horror movies ever made; chiefly because it neither preys on the audience for its traditional thirty-second scares, nor saturates the screen with increasing amounts of blood and guts. The strength of the piece is wisely centered on the tragic elements, and, pitying this seemingly unwitting participant who conjures up a night of unspeakable terror, almost as an afterthought, rather than as premeditated motivation to avenge herself. Hence, there is no ‘monster’ to fear; only a young girl’s painful sadness to endure. It is the pathos of the piece that gets to the audience every time and in all likelihood remains the reason Carrie is prescient as a cultural artifact these past forty years. The 1970’s truly were the last golden age for ‘horror’ in American cinema. From 1980 onward, almost without fail, the focus shifts from spooky good chills to increasingly violent depictions (disembowelment, decapitations, and every other conceivably perverse mutilation known to mankind, etc. et al); a real Ginsu-gallery chop-shop of body parts flung at the screen with indiscretion and a thorough absence of respect for the audience. Real horror is not conjured by assaulting the mind in abject explicitness and ever-mounting graphic details. And once begun, the onslaught cannot be stemmed, much less reversed. The carnage must therefore exponentially balloon and become increasingly more tasteless, grotesque and even injurious to our collective sensibilities for basic human decency, desensitizing and dehumanizing the audience until even the truly repugnant behavior anesthetizes and/or appears as mere par for the course of what we have paid to see.
Carrie is entirely that proverbial ‘horse of a different color’; a bone-chilling exercise in the implosion of a young girl’s sense of self, already skewed by her mother’s contorted moral decency. The depictions of death and destruction capping off Carrie’s flawed triumph at the prom exhibit an unusual restraint; De Palma’s passion for using the split screen to its utmost effectiveness, illustrating multiple views of the same disaster afoot. The incineration of the graduating class is implied rather than shown; the flames kept a safe distance from the extras; the penultimate shot of Carrie White exiting the gymnasium in slo-mo, as hellish shrieks are heard echoing above the sound of licking flames, accompanied by Pino Donaggio’s ominous underscore, is enough to implant an infinitely more graphic image in the mind’s eye of these revelers being burnt alive than actually seeing even one charred body fall to the ground. Any burgeoning film maker today endeavoring to shoot a horror movie ought to take a master class in deconstructing this moment and its series of cleverly placed visuals De Palma first story-boarded to maximize our heart-pounding fear and anxiety.  
Sissy Spacek gives one of her top two best performances in this movie (the other, I would sincerely argue, in Coal Miner’s Daughter 1980); wholly believable as the terrorized waif assaulted in the locker room shower, yet even more astonishingly believable as the incendiary telekinetic powerhouse, channeling her energies to harness the darkness from within. Spacek has produced an extraordinary portrait of martyred adolescent uncertainty; De Palma cribbing from Stephen King’s perverse paralleling of a young girl’s budding into womanhood with the self-destructive fury of a Medusa unable to control these latent impulses. Like all truly great representations of ‘monsters’, we can feel a modicum of empathy for Carrie White. She might have turned out alright with a little TLC to recommend her or become just another innocuous face in the crowd, baking cookies for the PTA, putting daisies in her hair, or marrying a simple guy from the sticks who really loved her. Alas, Carrie’s fate is destined to destroy her. She cannot help herself, and we in turn cannot help but quietly watch as she turns that pinnacle of her social success into a night of unspeakably pleasant, blood-thirsty revenge.
Previously available on Blu-ray from MGM/UA Home Video, and later, Fox/MGM Home Video, all previous incarnations of Carrie were derived from a basic hi-def scan of an existing print master with a few auto-tuned adjustments made before exporting the image to disc. The results, while head and shoulders above DVD, were not entirely pleasing; pinkish flesh tones and an artificial brightening of the image and/or boosting of contrast levels. Well, you can retire these discs for good, because Shout!/Scream Factory’s new ‘collector’s edition’ Blu-ray has been derived from a brand new 4K scan from the original camera negative and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. Not only are we privy to hosts of previously unseen fine details in skin, hair, and background information, but the necessary color timing and correction has been applied to produce a far more natural and appealing spectrum; in particular, flesh tones. Contrast has been brought into line. The image, while considerably darker than before, has not suffered from untoward tinkering, but reveals minute tonal differences in Mario Tosi’s exquisite cinematography. Colors are fully saturated; the gaudy reds, greens and blues of prom night perfectly aligned with the orange flicker of flames rising to engulf the proscenium. Truly, Carrie has never looked better on home video and both Shout! and MGM (for providing this new scan) are to be commended for the efforts put forth herein. Shout! offers us two audio options: a new 5.1 DTS remaster and the original mono mix. I actually prefer the vintage mono, although the 5.1 offers impressive spatial separation between dialogue, SFX and Pino Donaggio’s underscore.
Shout! has favored us with an overwhelming amount of extras on a separate disc. I want to champion this as I would much prefer every future hi-def release from every studio to maximize its bit rate on the feature film. Disc Two of this Collector’s Edition (a moniker truly deserved herein) contains new and extensive interviews with writer, Lawrence Cohen, editor, Paul Hirsch, actors, Piper Laurie, P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, William Katt and Edie McClurg; also, casting director, Harriet B. Helberg, Mario Tosi and Pino Donaggio. Also new to this release is Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, hosted by Sean Clark, who explores the actual locations used in the movie. Shout! has also gained access to several featurettes MGM produced for the old DVD SE. Nothing has been done to clean-up or stabilize the image in these featurettes; a pity, since they feature some impressive interviews with Sissy Spacek, Art Director, Jack Fisk, De Palma and others who did not partake in these new interviews for this re-release. Aside: I hesitate even using the word ‘re-release’ to describe Shout!’s disc, because what we have here is a re-envisioning of Carrie on home video; a sincere upgrade worthy of a double dip. Finally, we get a few new featurettes devoted to Carrie’s afterlife; the several turgid movie remakes that have come along since but failed to catch even the tail fires of the original for sheer staying power and longevity; also, Carriethe musical; a rather ridiculous premise that has nevertheless more recently developed its own cult following. Oh well, I suppose there is no accounting for personal taste…especially if you have none.  Finally, we have a rare ‘behind-the scenes’ photo gallery and text essay on Stephen King and the evolution of Carrie, plus theatrical trailers and TV spots to sift through. Bottom line: Shout! Factory has done their homework on this release. Carrie: Collector’s Edition is a must have for any horror aficionado. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)