Friday, April 18, 2014

GILDA: Blu-ray (Columbia 1946) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

A shyster plagued by an attack of conscience - and an even worse bout of sexual frustration; the erotically-charged flame of desire he once gave up, but now is forced to accept as the wife of his boss, and a suave, strangely asexual mobster, dangling the proverbial carrot in front of both their noses, even as he continues to pull their strings like the supreme puppet master: it all makes perfect sense in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946); a peerless thriller  - half noir/half woman’s picture and so sultry and seductive, one can easily overlook its’ dis-satisfactory conclusion and move on, only to recall the myriad of pleasures along the way. These continue to tantalize from the peripheries of our collective imaginations long after the houselights have come up. To the world-weary postwar generation, Gilda must have acted like a tonic; Stephen Goosson and Van Nest Polglase’s production design, conjuring a sublime and escapist South American paradise, sumptuously lit and moodily photographed by Rudolph Maté.
Apart from Rita Hayworth’s obvious attributes, Gilda is a supremely gorgeous movie to look at; its palatial casinos, wrought-iron corralled manor houses, complete with palm and fountain-spewing courtyards, are the epitome of forty’s chichi grand living that most suffering through the malaise of wartime rationing could only daydream. And yet, for all its grandeur, there is a pervasive and unsettling sense of danger permeating from beginning to end. Gilda is another world entirely; one populated by salacious playthings resting their satin-haired heads, glycerin tears and crocodile smiles affixed, on the arms of men who’ve bought and paid for the privilege. Marion Parsonnet’s screenplay (from a story by E.A. Ellington, and adaptation by Jo Eisinger – with an unaccredited assist from Ben Hecht) sparkles with villainous charm, all of it quietly observed through the unvarnished clarity of the hotel’s washroom attendant, Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), who sees right through the hypocrisies of the hoi poloi rather unapologetically.
Central to one’s appreciation is Rita Hayworth’s perennially electric performance as Gilda Mundson Farrell; the gal most likely to succeed with any man in long pants, and, who manages to needle her way back into the rather stubborn good graces of American gambler, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). Her, decent?  Hardly. But Gilda has guts – and class – even if she chooses to scabbard this latter virtue in a faux iniquity. How Gilda ever expects to win Johnny back using this flawed charade is questionable. Stirring his jealousy is one thing. Making him see her as the twenty-cent tart who can only be redeemed by his reclamation is quite another.
Hayworth is undeniably the sparkling gem of this piece. If, as Columbia Pictures press declared “there never was a woman like Gilda” then it’s equally certain Hayworth was never more exotic, enticing, or maliciously exuberant than herein.  That it all works out in the end for Gilda and Johnny is a wee too cockeyed and optimistic for most tastes. Gilda pretends at being a sybarite. But actually, she’s just a homespun girl, spurned and chagrined, whose thoughts have been twisted towards jealousy and revenge. Hayworth’s smoldering sensualist ought to have been the femme fatale of the piece; but in Gilda she’s the good girl – faking bad to win back the affections of the one man who ought never have let her go in the first place. Okay, we’ll accept that…I guess. After all, until this penultimate letdown, Gilda remains one of the most fantastical, dream-like and nightmarish love affairs ever experienced; masterfully cobbled together and infectiously malignant yet appealing.
Gilda’s other strength is the two men who dance around her maypole, bumped out in all the right places: the laconic, embittered and impoverished Johnny Farrell, and, dangerously aloof, but affluent, Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Johnny’s a bum. But Ballin gives him a new start in life as his croupier; recognizing his rare gifts for managing the rough trade as well as the international jet-setting scammers, out to rob his casino of its assets. Takes one to know one, I suppose.  But Ballin’s not a very patient man…or, perhaps, is – biding his time and giving Johnny and his own new bride just enough rope to tie the noose around both their necks. After their first adversarial ‘cute meet’ Ballin informs Johnny “She doesn’t like you.”  But that’s just it. Gilda likes Johnny. She likes him very much - too much, in fact, to mask the art of her deception in cruel barbs and daggers aimed in his direction.  Playing the bitch is a good show. But it doesn’t wash with Ballin. Or does it?
But back to Ballin and Johnny for just a moment: a very ‘queer’ pair indeed, this master and his mate – one owing the other everything, but refusing to pay out, and ultimately, betraying the ‘kindness’ to get what he wants – namely Gilda! There’s an asexual quality to Ballin and Gilda’s marriage; a sense she’s merely a beard for this rather smooth-shaven, impeccably quaffed and mannered, but decidedly effete Ballin; acquired to shield his own reputation from hushed whispers and scrutiny, even as he procures a more interesting ‘relationship’ with Johnny – one going well beyond mentor/apprentice or even father/son. After all, why should this interesting cross between devil-may-care bon vivant and steely-eyed businessman take on a rat like Johnny, hustling it in the gutters for a few measly dollars, and make him his second in command?
Does he really see Johnny’s innate abilities to manage his casino at a glance, only later proven, or is Ballin attracted to this shiftless gambling bum’s more obvious attributes.  Pitted against George Macready’s Mercurian phantasm of masculinity, Glenn Ford emerges as the strapping, dark-haired Adonis of the piece, regrettably, not so easily corruptible by his Svengali, but made sullen and sexually frustrated by Galatea. Johnny doesn’t perhaps see Ballin’s truest intensions at first, but they’re there just the same. Superficially, the penultimate return of Ballin in the final reel, merely to pick off Johnny, is meant to solidify and explain away Ballin’s jealousy. Subliminally, however, it positively reeks of homoerotic subtext.  After all, killing Johnny means Gilda can’t have him either.
Viewed in another light, Gilda adheres to the time-honored precepts of the traditional noir thriller; her willful deconstruction of Ballin and Johnny’s ideal buddy/buddy friendship, momentarily mislabeling her as the supreme femme fatale. Yes, Hayworth’s vixen is responsible for the creeping malaise of anxiety and betrayal slowly dividing these two men. But, the movie’s rather hopeful and decidedly ‘too perfect’ conclusion, (Uncle Pio stabs Ballin in the back, using his ‘trick’ cane, presumably to keep Johnny’s virtue intact; also to satisfy the Hollywood censors - which absolutely forbade a murderer walking away from the scene of the crime), is further diffused after the arrival of Det. Maurice Obregon (Joseph Calleia), who informs everyone that since Ballin faked his own death earlier, and has been legally declared dead, no murder has actually been committed now, despite the presence of a body; hence no one is going to jail.
Gilda also obeys another noir tradition; the ‘first person’ narration. It’s Johnny’s story we’re hearing – straight from the horse’s mouth…partly. Newly arrived in Buenos Aires, Johnny quickly lands himself in a heap of trouble; attempting to cheat some hardcore river rats out of their ill-gotten gains during a game of craps. He’s only spared having his throat slit – or worse - by the quick-thinking intervention of a complete stranger, Ballin Mundson. Here again, it becomes necessary to question why Ballin – a man of obvious wealth and culture, should be out near the wharf at such an ungodly hour; perhaps, trolling for some fresh meat down by the docks. Johnny certainly fits this bill; a handsome diamond in the rough. Ballin gives the slick reprobate some good advice – not to try his illegal flimflam at the nearby high-priced casino. But is this good advice? Or does Ballin instinctively know Johnny will be tempted by his backhanded invitation.
Sure enough, a short while later, Johnny saunters into the casino, cheats at blackjack and is caught by a pair of goons, who take him upstairs to meet the big boss – none other than Ballin Mundson. This ought to have spelled disaster for Johnny, as Ballin is hardly the forgiving sort – rather, a high-rolling underworld mob boss who cloaks his vindictiveness under a very thin veneer of courtly finesse. And yet, something about Johnny defies Ballin inflicting his revenge. Perhaps, ‘revenge’ was never the point of their second ‘cute meet’. It ends with Ballin hiring Johnny to oversee the daily operations of his posh gambling house. In short order, Ballin not only gives Johnny a job, but a fashionable place to live and stylish clothes to wear; benevolent patriarch or sugar daddy biding his time…hmmm. Despite Johnny’s shining up like a new penny, washroom attendant, Uncle Pio remains cynically unimpressed. A mule in horse’s harness is still a mule, as far as Pio is concerned. In fact, despite Johnny’s newfound authority (he practically runs the place), Pio has no compunction about labelling him “a peasant” to his face.
The plot thickens after Ballin disappears for a short while, leaving Johnny in charge of the whole works. Only when he returns, it’s with a most unwelcomed surprise nobody expected: Gilda – his newly acquired trophy wife. There’s an immediate love/hate chemistry brewing between Gilda and Johnny, questioned by Ballin, but vehemently denied by each of its adversarial participants.  While Johnny plays dumb, Gilda baits her ex on the very real prospect his own future hangs in the balance, predicated on his being nice to her. Sometime later, Johnny and Gilda have it out in her boudoir. She’s all too eager to remind how easily she could get him fired. But Johnny elucidates for Gilda that Ballin isn’t exactly the type to treasure used/damaged goods. While it seems unlikely Ballin would be completely obtuse about their mutual past history, he nevertheless entrusts Gilda to Johnny’s care in his absence – presumably, knowing something of her wild streak and penchant for luring attractive young men to her bedroom.
Gilda does everything in her power to complicate Johnny’s second career as her chaperone; running off with various young studs, disappearing for hours, and attempting a seductive – and very public - striptease in her slinky black gloves and cocktail dress inside the casino’s ballroom, cooing “Put the Blame on Mame”. As one might expect, this really turns the temperature up a degree, incurring Johnny’s wrath. After escorting Gilda away from the cheering crowds, Johnny strikes her across the cheek. As her attempts to embarrass him grow more vile and obnoxious, Johnny becomes more spiteful and abusive. 
We momentarily diverge from this lover’s triangle; interrupted by the arrival of two spurious ‘businessmen’ (Ludwig Donath and Jean De Briac) – actually Nazis – to whom Ballin owes his entire existence. Ballin is part of their secret society, used to finance a tungsten cartel. As part of their agreement, all of this secret organization’s assets have been entrusted to Ballin to shield the other two in their complicity. This arrangement places all of the responsibility on Ballin’s shoulders. If he is caught, it is his neck alone that is on the line. However, on the flip-side, it also affords Ballin absolute power over some formidable assets he is quite unwilling to relinquish after the men return; having decided it is safe for them to take over once again. In the meantime, Argentine government agent, Det. Obregon has become suspicious of Ballin’s casino operations, suspecting them as a front for much more nefarious activities. During a lavish New Year’s Eve masked ball given at the casino, the businessmen threaten Ballin. This time, they mean business. Instead, Ballin, wearing a disguise, manages to murder one of the men in the ballroom as the lights dim for the countdown to the New Year.
There’s no going back. Ballin must take everything he can get his hands on and flee the country. Regrettably, he arrives home just in time to discover Gilda in Johnny’s arms. The couple pursues Ballin, as does Det. Obregon, to a remote landing strip where Ballin manages his daring escape, piloting a private plane over the ocean. Informed by Obregon that the plane likely doesn’t have enough fuel to complete the journey, Johnny explains he doesn’t believe Ballin is trying to escape – merely commit suicide. Sure enough, moments later the plane explodes over the open waters, its fiery wreckage plummeting into the sea. Unbeknownst to anyone, Ballin has planned the incident perfectly, having parachuted to safety and a hidden lifeboat.  Now, he must bide his time and remain out of sight. During an interim of several long months, the mood between Gilda and Johnny turns rancid. He is racked with guilt and determined – if not in life, than certainly in death – Gilda will remain faithful to the memory of her late husband. It’s a bizarre turn of events; Johnny marrying Gilda out of spite, then making her a veritable slave in their apartment; forcing her to attempt various extramarital affairs, only to realize all of her would-be lovers are actually house detectives working for Johnny, designed to satisfy Johnny’s own perverse sexual starvation of his new bride. If ever there was a moment to suggest Johnny and Ballin were more the real couple in love, this montage of failed in flagrante delicto definitely hints at the possibility.
Regrettably, this prison of his own design begins to unravel, preying upon Johnny’s own sexual frustrations as well. Oh, how Johnny could use a woman like Gilda right about now. Or perhaps, ‘use her’ he does, in committing them both to this celibate purgatory from where no viable escape seems possible. She would kill him too, if only still waters didn’t run quite so deep. You see, despite Johnny’s repugnant behavior, Gilda can’t help but lust after her man. Uncle Pio makes Johnny see the light. Besides, there’s no future for either of them in Buenos Aires. Gilda inheriting Mundson’s estate and assets means neither of them will ever be free of the police investigation into Ballin’s counterfeit activities that could land them both in prison as accomplices after the fact. Johnny and Gilda reconcile. He urges her to pack in haste. Perhaps, there’s still time. Only, as the pair enjoys a farewell drink at the bar with Uncle Pio, they are surprised by Ballin – back from the dead.
He’s come for his money; also, to put a period to Gilda and Johnny’s happiness together once and for all. It’s the end of the line. However, in holding Gilda and Johnny at gunpoint, Ballin has forgotten he’s left his special walking stick with a retractable knife on the bar, leaving Uncle Pio to stop his former employer with a fatal stab wound to the back. Obregon arrives too late to prevent the murder. Both Johnny and Pio attempt to convince Obregon they have killed Ballin. Obregon listens to their lies, pleasantly amused, before reminding everyone that Ballin was declared legally dead months ago. A man cannot die twice. Besides, there is such a thing as justifiable homicide.  Johnny gives Obregon the incriminating documents from the safe, exposing the Nazi crime syndicate, and, Johnny and Gilda surrender all of their open hostile toward one another for good.  
From a purely psychoanalytic perspective, Gilda is beguilingly flawed character study; its WWII themed espionage mere icing on an already exceedingly decorative cake. Rita Hayworth is the ravishing cherry on top; an edifying star turn as the malevolent vixen, positively oozing sex appeal out of every pore. Yet, Hayworth’s performance goes well beyond mere titillation. The golden rule in Hollywood has often obfuscated the fact that just because an actress is beautiful it stands to reason she has absolutely nothing going on in her head. Hayworth’s Gilda is the exception; one among many, in fact, and utterly stimulating in all its complexity. When she sings “‘Amado Mio’…love me forever, and let forever begin tonight,” Hayworth’s mannerisms and intonations reveal a hint of sadness; perhaps, even abject surrender of the truly damned, her willowy arms caught in silken smooth undulations. These seem to beckon, yet simultaneously grasping for anyone to throw her drowning self-esteem a life-preserver.
Is she a fallen angel, a divisive manipulator or a wounded child? Perhaps a little of all three bottled up into one explosive package, simplistically mislabeled as ‘sex appeal’. The innate tragedy Hayworth stirs from within transforms what could so easily have been yet another variation on the ‘I am a bad woman’ stock cliché into a delicious confection; made sweet/then sour by all the venomous hurt, spite, bizarre empathy, self-loathing and seething rage welling up from inside. Rita Hayworth was already well-established in Harry Cohn’s pantheon of stars by the time she made Gilda. Indeed, around the back lot she was frequently referred to as the ‘Columbia lady’; her box office alone keeping the studio fiscally in the black. It is primarily for Gilda that Hayworth is remembered today: an enduring, eye-catching, emotionally supercharged powerhouse, likely to endure as long as there are memories of that Eden lost to us all, but strangely rekindled each time Hayworth cocks her head to the side, auburn tresses lazily falling back as her mood turns from elation to contempt within a matter of seconds and those dark and flashing eyes produce daggers of morbid self-pity that could stop any man in his tracks. Put the blame on Mame, if you must. But let’s hear it once again for the gal who knows how to spark, peak and maintain our interests: an enthrallingly blemished creature of shadow and light.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment continues its rather annoying trend of releasing many a longstanding classic from their vaults only in the European marketplace. Thankfully, Gilda on Blu-ray is region free and thus, easily imported to any household in the world via This hi-def mastering effort utilizes archival elements preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in cooperation with Sony Pictures, The Library of Congress, and The National Film and Television Archive in the U.K. Gilda looks very fine in 1080p; good solid depth and clarity with robust contrast, nuanced grays and organic film grain, all accurately preserved. Better still, it does not appear as though any DNR or undue sharpening have been applied to this image. There are some fluctuations in grain distribution, the occasional age-related artifact, and, some minor light fading apparent. Otherwise, you are going to love this disc.
The audio is a minor disappointment: no DTS, but the 2.0 mono Dolby Digital sounding very good nonetheless.  Sony has cleaned up this audio, stabilizing its dynamic range and minimizing noise levels down to a very slight hiss during quiescent moments.  The real insult here is a near complete absence of extras. We get the very same/very brief and superfluous commentary fluff piece by Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann and that’s it. For shame! Bottom line: we could poo-poo Sony’s shortsightedness. But this disc looks so darn good, it’s hard not to simply smile and say thank you – even if it was a hassle getting our hands on a copy in North America. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

REALITY BITES: Blu-ray (Universal 1994) Universal Home Video

The abject tedium of day to day living is enough to get anyone down. Dissatisfaction with direction in life – or rather, lack thereof; the disillusionment that comes from knowing one has played by the rules, only to be trounced by the status quo; realizing – despite best intentions, there may be no proverbial ‘light’ at the end of a tunnel…what can I tell you? Reality Bites, or so it would seem, according to director/star, Ben Stiller and his scathingly on-point Generation X dramedy from 1994. 

Gen-X has since become the ‘catch-all’ for a cohort of then ‘young adults’ – now entering middle age – who, try as they might, seemed doomed, discarded and forgotten in their own time. In retrospect, we’ve all become Gen-Xer’s since; world events and homegrown dilemmas conspiring to rob the nation of its once blind-eyed optimism, faith, and place of relative safety. In many ways, Reality Bites prefigures the beginning of ‘end times’ for this spend/spend, and, 'life’s good' period in America’s cultural renaissance (now, in steep decline), though fondly recalled with warm, fuzzy affections as the 1980’s; a decade of profound enthusiasm for the future.
All that is gone now. But in 1994, it was yet a distant memory and Stiller’s film, despite seeming preciously cynical then, has since managed, rather effectively, to tap into this growing malaise and pessimism.  It bears a brief reprise herein; that any great society is judged – not by its technological/scientific and/or political demarcations, but rather – its contributions to the world of art (music/literature/theater/movies and television). Art informs, reflects and inspires. But it can also condemn, stifle, cripple and brutalize the audience; creating its own normalcy along the way, thereafter adopted – nee absorbed – into our cultural fabric. Yes, art is that powerful and the movies – in their ability to saturate the human frame of reference with towering, cleverly-composed images, designed to manipulate and mimic reality – arguably, remain the most influential cursor of them all. 
Only in retrospect can we truly see Reality Bites as an ominous predictor of how far American culture has spiraled out of control; the implosion ingeniously wrapped inside the paradox of a romantic/comedy – arguably, without the proverbial happy ending. Yes - lovers, Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) and Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) meet in the middle of their flawed relationship before the final fadeout. But there’s no future in it for either of them; this lost waif and her scuzzy Lochenvar, who looks as though he would benefit from a bath in Varsol.  No, Lelaina is drifting – given up on a promising future – twice – first, as the backstage gofer on a popular daytime variety TV show, tyrannically mismanaged by its ensconced and curmudgeonly host, Grant Gubler (John Mahoney), then again – trading in a hopeful alliance with waspish MTV-inspired producer, Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) for a very dubious future involving Hawke’s unemployable and very bitter street poet.
Into this mix, come the unwitting family: Lelaina’s mom, Charlane McGregor (played with motivational decapitating precision by Swoozie Kurtz) and her bumbling second husband, Wes (Harry O’Reilly), Lelaina’s equally obtuse father, Tom (Jo Don Baker): and well-intended friends; Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and Troy’s introspective book work, Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), whose closeted homosexuality serves as a burgeoning subplot, never entirely resolved by the end of our story.
Depending on one’s point of view, Reality Bites is either a sad epitaph to the 1980’s or a remarkably clear-eyed prologue, heralding the cultural perspectives we have adopted today; scornful, bored with life, and utterly lacking in any sort of impetus to jerk ourselves free from the societal malady.  The characters populating Reality Bites are not ambitious. Arguably, they’re not even marginally motivated, but beaten in their initiatives and thoroughly careworn before their time. Point blank: Lelaina and her friends have given in and given up. What’s the point? In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any. In some ways, Reality Bites is the Seinfeld of movies; a show about nobodies doing nothing spectacularly well; or as Lelaina puts it “masters at the art of time suckage.”  

Only in retrospect, can we see just how farsighted Reality Bites is: self-mocking and iniquitous; a story about people who not only have lost their will to dream, but perhaps to whom the concept of dreaming itself is tragically foreign. Mediocrity, rather than exceptionalism has become the new standard. Arguably, it was always the norm. It is perhaps a bit much to claim Reality Bites for this foretelling. But there’s little to deny the film its prophetic gesture; putting a period to one era, while punctuating the start of another.
Reality Bites begins with commencement – the real beginning of the end for Lelaina Pierce, an aspiring videographer, honor roll student and class valedictorian, attempting to disseminate her own brand of self-appointed prophetic wisdom to the graduating class. Alas, her cue cards get jumbled at the most inopportune moment, her rhetorical inquiry as to how her generation will face the moral/social/political and economic challenges of tomorrow, resolved with a rather deflated “I don’t know.”  We advance to an undisclosed period in the immediate future; Vickie and Lelaina living together in a cramped apartment in Houston. Lelaina is working for obnoxious Grant Gubler who, to the public at least, remains the genial, Cheshire-grinning co-host of Good Morning Grant! – an utterly vacuous TV variety show. Lelaina’s repeated attempts to improve the program are met with Gubler’s abject contempt. He even threatens to fire her if she persists in her endeavors to elevate the overall tenor of the talk show.
As retribution, Lelaina decides to sabotage Grant’s cue cards. Since Grant never bothers to pre-screen his cards, he dives headlong into his own embarrassment on live television, reading Lelaina’s words that brand him a pedophile while interviewing a guest about little girl’s self-esteem. It’s an amusing vignette to be sure, but a lethal blow to Lelaina’s career. For very soon, she discovers jobs are not plentiful in her line of work. Her misguided mother, Charlaine attempts to put a positive spin on her unemployment situation, suggesting she get hired at Wal-Mart where they even hire “the retarded”.  
In the meantime, Vickie decides to move an old college pal, Troy Dyer, into their apartment to help with expenses. After a round of debilitating job interviews, Lelaina quickly realizes how inept and unsuitable she is for just about every other line of work. She is inadvertently rear-ended by producer, Michael Grates who isn’t paying attention to the road, but wrapping up a big deal on his cell phone. After an initial exchange of telephone numbers – for insurance purposes – Michael decides to ask Lelaina out.
It’s an awkward call, but a really good first date. Both discover they have much in common. Michael offers to present some of the raw footage Lelaina has been working on in her spare time for a documentary about her friends, to executives at ‘In Your Face’ TV. Having an ‘in’ with Michael could really boost Lelaina’s chances for landing the career of her dreams. Alas, advancing Lelaina’s prospects doesn’t bode well for Troy’s chances with Lelaina.  As far as Troy is concerned, Lelaina doesn’t need money to make her happy. She just needs him. She, instead, admonishes Troy for being chronically unemployed, for lacking the initiative to even go out and look for a job, and for getting fired from various part-time jobs he’s temporarily held. The irony, of course, is that Lelaina has yet to recognize Troy is more her speed than Michael.  She’s the same type of screw up as Troy; one who would rather have wrecked her reputation in the industry she professes to aspire to with a silly prank (the cue card fiasco) than diligently work around the obstacles to get where she thinks she ought to be.  
Troy isn’t exactly a patient man. Okay, he’s a fairly cruel pragmatist, forcing Lelaina to accept him with a deliberate and rather vindictively systematic attempt to ruin her chances with Michael. For example, after Lelaina and Michael’s first kiss, Troy condescendingly inquires, “Did he dazzle you with his extensive knowledge of mineral water, or was it his in-depth analysis of Marky Mark that finally reeled you in?” After Troy and Lelaina sleep together, Troy is even more pitiless, “You can't navigate me. I may do mean things, and I may hurt you, and I may run away without your permission, and you may hate me forever, and I know that scares the living shit outta you, 'cuz you know I'm the only real thing you got.” 
The Troy/Lelaina relationship is, in fact, the most fascinating aspect of Reality Bites; what sets it apart from just another cornball fluff piece about oversexed twenty-somethings bumping uglies in the night. Troy and Lelaina are so right for each other it’s unpleasant to watch as they tear at one another – or rather, tear down the barriers and artificial role-playing between them to get to the heart of the matter. Or perhaps, ‘heart’ is the wrong word. These two have a whole ‘cerebral/sexual’ thing going on and it’s delicious to watch.
Vickie, a sales associate, recently promoted to manager of The Gap, is rather laissez faire on the dating scene. Her promiscuity forces her to face the very real risk she has contracted HIV – a fear narrowly averted when her AIDS blood test comes back negative. Meanwhile, Sammy – everybody’s even-keeled friend – has remained celibate to hide from his conservative parents the fact he is gay.  As Helen Childress’ screenplay progresses, everyone is forced to come to terms with the crises and dilemmas presently afflicting their lives.
Vickie convinces Sammy to tell his parents he is gay. They are distraught, angry and hurt by his revelation. But the confession allows Sammy to move on with his life. Vickie decides to clean up her act after her encouraging blood test results. The imperfect solution to Michael and Lelaina’s relationship persists. She is utterly humiliated when her documentary about all of their lives – a labor of love with social significance – is butchered in the editing process by the exec’s at Michael’s network; her serious reflections distilled into a sort of extended Saturday Night Live comedy skit, intermittently interrupted with pop-tune infused nonsense. 
Storming out of the premiere, Lelaina is ripe for the picking and Troy wastes no time encouraging a mutual seduction. This leads to one hot night of passion. However, in the morning things look very different.  Commitment-shy to a fault, Troy nervously scurries away – and this, after professing his undying love the night before. Shortly thereafter, Troy all but disappears from Lelaina’s life; the death of his own father forcing him to realize how important Lelaina is to him.
Michael returns, attempting to reconcile with Lelaina at the coffee house where Troy performs. Sensing Lelaina is about to discard him for Michael, Troy indulges in an impromptu vamp, dedicating the song to her (with very crude lyrics that reveals for Michael the specifics of Troy and Lelaina’s one night stand). Disappointed, frustrated and humiliated, Michael leaves the bar, chasing after Lelaina. He is too late to catch her and Troy and Lelaina eventually reconcile.  The movie’s improbable and uncertain ending is interrupted midway through the end credits where we are treated to a brief tag, featuring two characters ‘Laina’ and ‘Roy’ – transparent parodies of Lelaina and Troy – having a very shallow/severely scripted argument about their sinking relationship. As the faux credits to this ‘episode’ roll, we discover Michael is the producer, suggesting he has turned his own failed relationship with Lelaina into a hit spinoff for his network.   
Reality Bites was the inspiration of producer, Michael Shamberg who, after reading a screenplay by Helen Childress, became obsessed with the idea of making a movie about real people in their twenties struggling to make a name and a life for themselves. As it turns out, Childress was largely cribbing from her own experiences as well as that of her friends, working through their own post-graduate angst and uncertainties during the recession to find their niche, their purpose and their futures. Shamberg persisted. Three years and seventy drafts later, Reality Bites began production; Ben Stiller’s fame on The Ben Stiller Show ensuring his participation as co-star and director. Stiller’s involvement necessitated several rewrites. It also changed the organic chemistry of the subplot involving Vickie and Sammy’s characters; their more detailed back stories reduced to mere cameo at Stiller’s behest, to concentrate on the lover’s triangle between Troy, Lelaina and Michael instead.
Every studio balked at the project, including TriStar – who had initially agreed to fund Reality Bites, then promptly reneged and put the film into turnaround.  Stiller and Childress, along with producer Stacey Sher, managed to convince Texas’ film commission to pay out of pocket for location scouting. Ultimately, however, it was Winona Ryder’s involvement that opened the doors over at Universal; her request of Ethan Hawke to co-star, willingly granted by the powers that be. Universal had heavily campaigned to cast Gwyneth Paltrow as Vickie. But Ben Stiller, had worked with Janeane Garofalo on his own show, and pushed for her involvement on the project instead.
Ultimately, Universal gave in, after the revised script severely pared down the part. On a relatively brief 42 day shoot in Houston and Los Angeles, and a budget of $11.5 million, Reality Bites went on to gross $20,982,557; a sizable hit by most any standard. I’ll confess – numbers don’t really impress me, and rarely, do they tell the whole story. Twenty years later, Reality Bites has not dated; its message of an imploding society and misanthropic youth, destined to perpetuate and expedite its downfall, still rings loud and clear. The film is blessed with good solid chemistry between its three ‘stars’ – Winona Ryder doing the doe-eyed/angst-ridden ingénue best.
For all his involvement behind the camera, Ben Stiller’s Michael really takes a backseat to Ethan Hawke’s Troy. Personal opinion – but I’ve always found it difficult, if not entirely impossible, to appreciate Hawke as a leading man. He’s a competent enough actor, but not very easy on the eyes. However, in Reality Bites, Hawke’s dressed-down, arrogant, bong-smoking trailer trash/drugstore cowboy anti-heroism doesn’t wear thin at all. Hawke gives us a wounded soul – warts and all – and doesn’t hold anything back for a moment. He’s gloriously tainted though never pathetic, and belligerently clear-eyed to a fault without ever becoming overbearing. Stiller’s Michael is, of course, meant to be the counterpoint; clean-cut, respectful, altruistic in his romantic pursuits and sadly, out of his league. In this instance, it really is true: nice guys do finish dead last.
Alas, Helen Childress’ screenplay never promises her audience the proverbial ‘rose garden’. Hence, we don’t really mind it all that much when we get more thorns than blooms along the way. In fact, one of the movie’s salvations is its razorback dialogue; adversarial, ironic and tremendously funny.  In the final analysis, Reality Bites refreshingly lives up to its namesake. This isn’t a movie about perfect people or even imperfect ones finding true love the first, second or third time around. It’s the story of misfits, fools, and people who know better but cannot help themselves. In short, it’s about someone you know intimately – maybe even yourself.  
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is a fairly nice treat. Reality Bites divides its run time between Emmanuel Lubezki’s film-based footage and a simulated VHS quality/faux documentarian style; both accurately captured on this hi-def 1080p transfer. Colors are solidly balanced with great-looking flesh tones. Occasionally, we get some startling clarity to boot and fine detail revealed even during scenes shot under low lighting conditions. There’s a good smattering of grain too, rendered with accuracy. Everything looks as it should, except for contrast – which does seem just a tad weak. Not a deal breaker, in my opinion, but not stellar either. The DTS 5.1 audio vastly improves on the old DVD which, let’s be honest, wasn’t all that hard to best. For a 20th Anniversary release, Universal has stacked the extras – deleted scenes, a retrospective, Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’ music video and a somewhat meandering commentary from Ben Stiller and Helen Childress. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

DOUBLE INDEMNITY: Blu-ray (Paramount 1944) Universal Home Video

The wise-cracking, surly chump, the smooth-talking, wicked woman, and, the devious murder plot that goes hopelessly awry: few film noirs can begin to hold a candle to Billy Wilder’s influential Double Indemnity (1944); an excursion into that rancid underbelly of betrayal, lust and unbridled greed. There’s no getting around it; Double Indemnity is a tale of disreputable, lowlifes conducting themselves with base and vial disregard for the sanctity of life itself. Even the show’s lone virtuous voice in the cesspool, hardcore insurance adjuster, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), has seen too much. He’s a white-knuckled, hard-bitten realist with few redeeming qualities apart from the fact he can spot a flimflam in less than twenty paces and redirect his own venom to puncture its balloons of hypocrisy.
Too bad for Keyes he’s too close to the latest scam to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Edward G. Robinson, who had begun his stardom playing career criminals over at Warner Bros. was to bear witness as his reputation as the squat – if dapper – scumbag in movies like Little Caesar and Five Star Final (both made in 1931) turn to mush after the imposed code of Hollywood censorship made his particular brand of pugnaciousness unfavorable – though, arguably, never unfashionable.  It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that the flat-faced Robinson - diminutive and chronically sneering - became code for an uncouth reprobate; that persona so unlike Robinson himself; in life, a genial, refined gentleman and art lover, who appreciated the finer things in life. Robinson is in a transitional phase in Double Indemnity.
There are still flashes of his former self; the veneer, at times, tissue paper thin. But Robinson, apart from being a seasoned pro, is also something of a loveable ham; a sort of wise-cracking precursor to Peter Falk’s Columbo; his ‘just one more thing’ leading to that bittersweet revelation and unraveling of a crackpot scheme to defraud his company; the ruse perpetuated by the one man Keyes thinks of as his white knight and friend; amiable insurance salesman, Walter Neff (played with spectacular cynicism by Fred MacMurray). Like Robinson, MacMurray used Double Indemnity to reinvent his movie persona. Only a decade before, MacMurray had been considered solid, second-string leading man material in movies like Alice Adams (1935), Maid of Salem (1937) and Too Many Husbands (1940). Arguably, this was a dead-end career.
But in Double Indemnity, MacMurray flips to the other side; an easily corruptible knight sent on one errand only to transgress and become the unmitigated fop of another more perilous and self-destructive journey. Interestingly, MacMurray was not Wilder’s first choice, nor even his tenth to play the part. Only after some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters had all turned it down, did Wilder suddenly realize his malleable misanthropist required an actor who could play both cynic and good guy turned bad all at once. Double Indemnity excels for many reasons, though primarily because both MacMurray and Robinson are being transformed into people we only thought we knew. Too many actors are typecast for life as either the hero or the villain with narrowly a chance to flip-flop from one side to the other. But both actors herein achieve the near impossible, employing the eloquent Barbara Stanwyck as the maypole around which each is forced into their adversarial dance.  
Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, undeniably one of the most salacious and sinful femme fatales ever to grace a film noir. In a word, she’s delicious. In her cheap blonde wig, dark shades and anklet, Stanwyck’s tramp is both sublimely sexy and tastelessly raunchy, rubbing Neff’s fur the wrong way and getting more than his dander up in the process.  Vixen, harlot, slut, murderess – pick your poison. Phyllis is more potent than arsenic and strychnine put together.  And Walter’s just the rat to find himself caught between her cat-like clutches. At first, Stanwyck (always Wilder’s first choice) was not entirely certain she wanted to play such an awful mantrap, believing it would hurt her reputation in Hollywood. Wilder appealed to Stanwyck’s professionalism and the deal was struck. Years later, Stanwyck would acknowledge her gratitude to Wilder for his faith in both her and the project.
Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s screenplay picks apart the bones of James M. Cain’s gritty, dark novella, maintaining the acidic, hard-edged drama of the original, while making concessions to honor the ensconced production code. The screenplay benefits from Wilder’s acerbic wit and construction; also from Chandler’s superb penchant for double entendre and punch-packing dialogue.  It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Cain had based his novella on an actual 1927 New York case. First published in 1935, Double Indemnity began making the rounds in Hollywood shortly thereafter. However, like his other trend-setting crime/thriller – The Postman Always Rings TwiceDouble Indemnity would be delayed from reaching the screen for almost another decade; the circumstances depicted in the novel considered un-filmable by the Breen and Hays Offices. 
Joseph Breen had, in fact, killed initial interest in Cain’s novella, shared by virtually all the major studios competing to pay $25,000 for the rights, by citing the story’s “general low tone and sordid flavor” as “thoroughly unacceptable”.  Screen censorship often gets a bad rap. Yet, it is interesting to note from our present-day absence of it, just how much of Breen’s concerns seem, not only warranted, but sadly come to pass; his prediction - that any depiction of such disreputable human behaviors – would have a “hardening” effect on the audience; particularly those with “impressionable minds” seems to mirror the malaise currently inflicted by our movie ‘art’ – as well as reflecting the general tenor of modern society.
In the eight long years intervening between Cain’s publication and the movie version, Double Indemnity’s reputation had considerably grown. Nevertheless, by the time Paramount bid on the property, its price tag had slipped to the relatively paltry sum of $15,000. Nevertheless, the project was shot down a second time by the Breen Office. Undaunted, Paramount proceeded, executive producer Joseph Sistrom placing the project’s future in Wilder and co-writer, Charles Brackett’s hands. Somewhere along the way, Brackett decided the material was too crude and unmanageable for his own artistic sensibilities and bowed out; Paramount bringing in Raymond Chandler to collaborate with Wilder and polish their draft.
In a relatively short turnaround, Wilder and Chandler submitted an intelligent script for reconsideration; one almost immediately approved by the censors, with minor caveats and revisions to be incorporated. A proposed gas chamber sequence was dropped, and, the length and girth of the towel worn by Stanwyck for Phyllis Dietrichson’s initial cute meet with Walter Neff were amplified. But perhaps the most influential revision Wilder made was in having Phyllis and Walter mortally wound one another (in Cain’s novel they commit suicide together); the idea these two social pariahs would devour themselves, satisfying the Production Code’s essential edict that criminals must pay for their transgressions.
The Wilder/Chandler alliance was tempestuous at best. In fact, the director was rather disappointed to discover the man behind such hard-boiled crime thrillers, despite being a recovering alcoholic, shared more the continence of a mild-mannered accountant than a bona fide crime solver. Wilder was also unimpressed by Chandler’s initial misunderstanding he alone would be writing the screenplay; a gesture immediately quashed after Chandler submitted roughly eighty pages Wilder openly criticized as “useless camera instruction.”  Initially, Wilder had wanted to keep as much of Cain’s original dialogue in the movie as possible. Chandler disagreed, and proceeded to do a complete rewrite much to Wilder’s dismay.
To prove his point, Wilder then hired a pair of contract players to read whole passages from Cain’s novella aloud. But to Wilder’s chagrin, Chandler’s assessment of Cain’s prose proved genuine and Wilder begrudgingly realized if the movie was to function at all, then Chandler’s stichomythia would have to prevail. From this tenuous détente, the alliance between Wilder and Chandler only continued to disintegrate. At one point, Chandler even begged to be released from his contract. Wilder stuck it out, believing their tumultuous discord could only enhance the final product. Besides, he genuinely admired Chandler’s immeasurable gifts as a brilliant wordsmith. 
Chandler’s embittered lot on Double Indemnity would cause him to publish a rather scathing critique of Hollywood’s respect (or lack thereof) for the writer after production wrapped. But the Chandler/Wilder brouhaha is also rumored to have been the inspiration for Wilder to make The Lost Weekend (1945); the tale of a drunken writer’s recovery from the bottle; in essence, Wilder making the film to explain Raymond Chandler to himself. As for James M. Cain; the author had nothing but good things to say about Double Indemnity when it premiered, complimenting Wilder on his revisions and even suggesting Wilder had improved on his own narrative construction.
Double Indemnity is also noteworthy for its eerie, all-pervasive mood since come to be known as California Gothic; typified by a queer oppressiveness looming large and beyond the sun-drenched atmosphere of that traditionally warm and idyllic backdrop.  In some cases, cinematographer John F. Seitz simply amplified the contrast; creating mysterious pools of bleached out light or enveloping crevices of overpowering darkness. To capture the unsettling atmosphere of danger inside the Dietrichson home, Seitz blew handfuls of talc and aluminum particles into the air, creating the illusion of thin airborne veils of dust settling about the room. He also insisted on filtering his light through slats (usually Venetian blinds), mimicking the uncanny illusion of prison bars. The contrast between these gloomy interiors and starkly saturated outdoor settings gave Double Indemnity its stylish noir look, almost immediately adopted and copied in countless movies throughout the 1940’s.    
Double Indemnity opens with a prolonged and suspenseful introduction of one of our three stars – Fred MacMurray – returning to his place of employment in downtown L.A. hours before it is ready to conduct business. Only after Walter Neff has let himself into his private office and slumped back in the chair behind his desk do we take notice of the hemorrhaging gunshot wound to his shoulder. Employing what would become a time-honored cliché of the noir style, we get the story firsthand from Walter, narrating the particulars into his Dictaphone; the sordid tale unraveling in heavy, sustained gasps as we regress in flashback to the point where Walter’s undoing began. Walter and his boss, curmudgeonly claim adjuster, Barton Keyes, are debating the finer points of a scam being perpetuated on their insurance company. Keyes has been at this sort of racket far too long. He sees corruption everywhere. Truth be told; his hunches are usually right on the money.  
Keyes amuses Walter with his abject cynicism. In fact, Keyes considers Walter a brilliant cohort to bounce ideas off; better than just one of the boys and a clear-eyed guy who thinks even worse of the human race than he does. So much for business. Besides, who has time to get all wrapped up in a scheme when there’s real work to be done? For Walter, it’s business as usual, or so he thinks as he arrives at the Dietrichson household to pitch a renewal of an auto insurance policy to its owners. Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is out. But his wife, Phyllis is definitely in, and into some such mischief, greeting Walter in nothing more than a towel after some nude sunbathing on an upstairs balcony. There’s an immediate chemistry – or perhaps, friction is a more apt description of the generated sparks between them. Walter makes Phyllis aware of the advantages of renewing their policy, perhaps as yet unaware just how much any of the pros will turn into deadly cons by the end of their conversation. Phyllis inquires how she might take out an accident insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge.  Deducing Phyllis is up to no good; Walter becomes glib and condescending, telling her he wants no part in whatever her gruesome plans may be.
Regrettably – and to his own detriment – a short while later, Walter reconsiders his decision after Phyllis arrives at his apartment and seduces him. The two concoct a clever plan to off Mr. Dietrichson and collect the insurance money. These things must be done delicately so as not to draw skepticism. Walter knows the ropes as well as the loopholes. But he also knows Keyes will stop at nothing to investigate and debunk any death as a scam. So, Walter devises a plan to have Mr. Dietrichson take a tumble off a moving train, thus triggering the life insurance policy to pay out its ‘double indemnity’ claim – twice the policy’s value.
Luring Mr. Dietrichson into signing the policy, after he has already accidentally broken his leg, Walter conceals himself in the backseat of Dietrichson’s Packard. As Phyllis drives her husband to the train depot for his planned college reunion trip to Palo Alto, Walter springs into action and strangles the man. Herein, Billy Wilder choses the infinitely more tantalizing perspective, focusing on Phyllis, a thin grin curling about her pallid cheeks as she continues to drive on; the sound of life being squeezed from her husband’s body causing her infinite pleasure as the car nears the depot. Posing as Dietrichson, Walter boards the observation car, stepping onto its open platform; presumably setting up for the real Dietrichson’s ‘accidental’ tumble onto the tracks. Regrettably, another man named Jackson (Porter Hall) is already there, taking in the fresh air. Walter manages to encourage Jackson to go inside for a moment, jumping off the moving train at precisely the spot where Phyllis had already driven to dump her husband’s body onto the tracks.
It’s all worked out exactly as planned…or so it would seem. A short while later, Walter quietly observes as Mr. Norton, the company's chief, tells Keyes he believes Dietrichson’s death was an obvious suicide. Keyes discounts this scenario however, firing off statistics about the improbability of any suicide attempt made by jumping off a slow-moving train. To Walter’s great relief, Keyes does not suspect foul play – at least, not at first. But then Keyes begins to break down the series of events leading up to Dietrichson’s untimely death. Why did he not claim his broken leg? Perhaps, because he did not know he had such a policy. And if Dietrichson didn’t know and Phyllis did, then perhaps she was also instrumental in arranging her husband’s demise – along with an, as yet unknown, accomplice. Ah yes, the pieces of this puzzle are beginning to fit together.
Walter has already begun to break a sweat; his nervousness compounded after Dietrichson’s teenage daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) confronts him with her suspicions that her stepmother wanted her father dead. Lola explains to Walter about her real mother, an invalid, who died under spurious circumstances while under Phyllis’ care. To diffuse the situation, Walter begins to see Lola – at first to quell her doubts and discourage her from going to the police. But pretty soon, Walter is racked with guilt over his complicity in the crime. In fact, it’s eating him alive. In the meantime, Keyes has located Jackson who informs him the man he had the exchange with on the train’s observation platform was at least fifteen years younger than the one in the archival photo identified as Mr. Dietrichson. Believing he has Phyllis right where he wants her, Keyes decides to suspend the claim and refuse the payout. The only way Phyllis will ever get her hands on the money is if she sues.
Walter steps in, telling Phyllis she cannot take the insurance company to court without facing the very real prospect of revealing her complicity in their crime of murder. Walter also informs Phyllis about Lola. In the meantime, Lola has uncovered a love affair between her own boyfriend, Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) and her stepmother. Putting two and two together and coming up with twenty-seven, Lola now suspects Nino and Phyllis of conspiring to kill her father. Keyes seems to concur with Lola. After all, Nino has been repeatedly spotted coming and going from the Dietrichson’s late at night, and he’s something of a hothead too with a minor rap sheet down at police headquarters. Yes, Nino’s ripe for the picking.
Even Walter can see this. Nino is his way out. In a remarkably stupid gesture, Walter confronts Phyllis about her affair and guesses she planned for Nino to kill him so they could run off together. Walter now reveals he plans instead to murder her and pin the blame for both homicides on Nino. Phyllis shoots Walter in the shoulder with a concealed gun. He stumbles, but does not fall, instructing her to shoot him again. But Phyllis really loves Walter…or rather, cannot imagine her life without him. They’re two of a kind – bad apples destined to be together for all time. Too bad for Phyllis, Walter doesn’t see things her way. After a brief repudiation of her killer instincts, Phyllis gives Walter her gun and embraces him. It ought to be the perfect beginning, except Walter meant what he said. He doesn’t love Phyllis and has no compunction about shooting her twice to prove it, coldly whispering “Goodbye, baby” before pulling the trigger.
Walter waits for Nino in the bushes just outside, advising him not to enter the house, but instead go to the woman who truly loves him - Lola. At first reluctant, Nino agrees and leaves. Walter drives to the insurance company in the dead of night, staggers upstairs to his office and starts speaking into his Dictaphone. We have come full circle to the movie’s opener as, Keyes sneaks up to the half open door unnoticed, hearing Walter’s confession. It all but breaks Keyes’ heart – if only he still had one left to break. Walter informs Keyes he is going to Mexico to escape the gas chamber. Instead, he collapses on the floor near the elevator and Keyes, ever sympathetic, though unwilling to allow any murderer to get off Scott-free, paternally pats Walter on the arm, whispering “Walter, you’re all washed up.”
Double Indemnity is an extraordinary film noir; buoyed by superb performances and a taut script whose killer instincts to enthrall never miss a trick or a beat. Wilder’s direction is superb. He moves his lovers in almost the concentric and constricting circles of a spider’s web; their fates drawing closer together even as the plot continues to unravel and tear them apart. A text book example of the noir thriller; Double Indemnity’s pervasive distillation of evil, eventually trapped by its own methods, is utterly captivating. At some level, the film is a fascinating character study of misguided principles getting in the way of the perfect crime, perhaps never more astutely summarized than in Walter’s confessional, “Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray both give iconic and career-altering performances. But Double Indemnity’s most impressive bit of acting, undeniably, goes to Edward G. Robinson, who is given some of the most complex and lengthy monologues in movie history. These he brilliantly recites with razorback clarity. Consider just one; Keyes confrontation of his boss’s theory Dietrichson committed suicide.  “You know, you ought’a take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn a little something about the insurance business... Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they've got ten volumes on suicide alone; suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.”
As fine as Stanwyck and MacMurray are (and they are both very fine indeed) it’s Robinson’s contributions that drive Double Indemnity’s narrative with all the forcefulness of a steam turbine about to explode under pressure. Without Keyes’ intervention we have just another ‘who done it?’ gussied up with chiaroscuro lighting and exquisitely chosen locations, stamped in that distinguishable mark of quality inherent in all Billy Wilder’s contributions.  In the final analysis, the film is Robinson’s show and he carries it off as an exceptional presence. The rest doesn’t mean much without him and Wilder knows it. Despite being third billed, it’s Robinson who is the real star of Double Indemnity. The weight of the film rests upon his diminutive shoulders and Robinson proves he is more than up to the heavy lifting. Seventy years later, Double Indemnity endures because of his contributions – perhaps, not singularly, but primarily, with MacMurray and Stanwyck bringing up the rear in very strong support. 
Double Indemnity finally gets a hi-def release from Universal Home Video in Region 1. Region 2 has long enjoyed the Masters of Cinema transfer. Between these two versions, the Universal’s exhibits considerably less grain, some movement revealing more information within the frame, and, superior black levels. DNR doesn’t appear to have been excessively applied – no waxy imagery. The European release has what I would consider more accurately reproduced film grain. But Universal’s looks more accurate in its darker contrast. Universal’s also has some additional grading and cleanup, but otherwise it looks like the same elements were used to master both. So, which is preferred? Hmmm.  I think I’ll stick with Universal’s because of the deepened contrast, although I’m torn because it lacks the more obvious grain structure of the MOC.  As with Universal’s Touch of Evil, the DTS mono audio on Double Indemnity is a shay heartier than the MOC, noticeable only on higher end sound systems.
Extras are all ported over from Universal’s 2006 SE DVD, and include a pair of informative audio commentaries; one featuring Richard Schickel, the other showcasing a wealth of information from screenwriter Lem Dobbs and Twilight Time’s Nick Redman. 2006’s Shadows of Suspense documentary, featuring Eddie Muller, James Ursini, Alain Silver, Drew Casper, William Friendkin and many more is also included, as is the rather tepid 1973 TV incarnation of Double Indemnity starring Richard Crenna; badly done, if you ask me.  Some junket materials are included; also the ability to download to a portable device, but otherwise Universal hasn’t augmented this disc with any previously unreleased ‘must haves.’ Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, April 12, 2014

TOUCH OF EVIL: Blu-ray (Universal 1958) Universal Home Video

The last act of Orson Welles’ life is a very strange, sad epitaph; reduced to peddling mid-grade plonk in commercial endorsements for Paul Masson’s winery, recording a prologue for the television series, Moonlighting, and becoming the frequent brunt of Johnny Carson’s glib monologues on The Tonight Show. Welles not only observed his reputation as the cinema’s enfant terrible erode into something of a laughing stock; he had also, to some extent, contributed to this malaise in his reputation. In his prime, Welles was a man of varying bombast; a perfectionist with a penchant for morose excesses in food, drink and late night carousing.  He was a bitter, self-loathing artist, arguably deprived of his first love – directing – but given the opportunity to perform in projects of varying quality – the system exploiting his obvious talents to their own purposes. If only his movies had acquired a greater respect they so rightfully deserved, Welles might have risen through the ranks to become a legend in his own time. As it stands, he remains something of a legend untapped; a visual artist who gave us, arguably, the greatest movie of all time – Citizen Kane – before becoming a disappearing shadow of his former self. 
Before this implosion, however, Welles was given one last opportunity to direct. Based on Robert Wade and William Miller’s Badge of Evil, Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) has long since acquired a reputation as a classic film noir. In its day, however, the movie was misperceived by executives at Universal Studios as little more than a gritty melodrama, unceremoniously dumped on the market as the bottom half of a double feature and all but ignored by audiences. Viewing the studio’s cut it’s easy to see why. In the editing process, conducted after Welles had already been removed from the project, Touch of Evil was ruthlessly butchered, given a score by Henry Mancini (which Welles abhorred) and a linear narrative that, curiously, convoluted the story rather than draw out its clarity.
Disgusted by their meddling, Welles rattled off a memo to Universal – an in-depth step-by-step critique with suggestions on how to improve it before the general release. Welles’ ideas were ignored. For decades, Touch of Evil remained a grand disappointment for Welles who, in the intervening decades, made several valiant attempts to convince Universal to reinstate his original vision and re-release the film. Sadly, it was not until after Welles’ death in 1985 that a more concerted effort got underway to honor his wishes. But by then the damage seemed permanent. Universal had saved none of the outtakes, edits or trims; all of this extemporaneous material junked a long time ago. Miraculously, however, all was not lost.  
There are two theories as to how Welles came to direct Touch of Evil. Co-star Charlton Heston has claimed after learning Welles would be in the movie, he insisted that if Universal wanted him they would have to agree to Orson as its director. There is some merit to Heston’s claim. By 1958, Charlton Heston’s reputation was clearly the more pronounced and respected in Hollywood. His box office cache alone could easily have coaxed Universal into accepting his terms for participation. There is, however, another tale to tell; this one involving producer Albert Zugsmith; a longtime admirer of Welles’ gifts who gave him a stack of scripts to choose from; Orson’s wily genius accepting the challenge to make something unique out of the worst in the batch: Badge of Evil.
In Touch of Evil, Welles is barely recognizable, buried under a mountain of prosthetics and body armor to portray the disreputable Capt. Quinlan; a once admirable cop, long since gone to seed. Drawing on a parallel between his character and that of Ramon Vargas – played by Heston as the forthright officer of the law – Welles’ performance in Touch of Evil remains both tragic and bone-chilling; a sort of self-effacing spiral into oblivion from which neither Quinlan’s reputation in the film, nor Welles’ own in Hollywood, survived. Viewing Touch of Evil today, one is immediately reminded of the caliber of Welles as a performer, utterly wasted long before his emeritus years; Welles – a superior to practically all who toiled alongside him, tragically made the workhorse enslaved by someone else’s vision of his talents.
As originally intended, Welles opens Touch of Evil with a justly famous and fascinatingly complex three and a half minute dolly shot. A bomb is placed inside the convertible of an American couple driving through a Mexican border town (actually Venice Beach, Ca.). The car passes interracial newlyweds, Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his bride, Susan (Janet Leigh) before bursting into hellish flames. From here, the plot diverges into two parallel (and later, converging) narratives; the first involving Vargas, who is called in to assist in the investigation, much to the discontent of Police Chief Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan’s bigotry and rage are directed at Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff); the head of a local Mexican crime syndicate.
Quinlan’s right hand, Pete Menzies (Joe Calleia) is also a close friend who would do just about anything to ensure Quinlan’s one-time sterling reputation remains intact – even frame the innocent Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan) for the crime of murder. But Vargas smells a rat. Furthermore, he is not onboard with Quinlan’s theories about the crime and decides to slowly explore the investigation from a different angle. Meanwhile, Susan has been left to her own accord at the remote Mirado Motel, run by its hapless and fearful manager (Dennis Weaver). Using Susan as leverage against Vargas, Uncle Joe sends his posse of delinquent youth, fronted by nephew Risto (Lalo Rios) and a lesbian cohort (Mercedes McCambridge) to the Mirado Motel. In a rather shocking (then) and still very potent scene of implied gang rape, forced drug abuse and lesbianism, Susan is taken hostage to conceal the fact Grandi and Quinlan have been working together. She awakens from her stupor a short while later, in a seedy bordello with Grandi’s dead body lying next to her; the latest victim in Quinlan’s cover-up.
This being a noir thriller of a certain period and ilk, Quinlan is eventually found out by Vargas, who isolates and confronts him as to the charges; the whole conversation broadcast and recorded for posterity by a hidden microphone. Touch of Evil is a potent melodrama, but at some level it fails to live up to Welles’ reputation as a cinematic genius. The story is compelling – in spots – and Russell Metty’s bold cinematography augments what is, in fact, a very pedestrian crime story with considerable visual panache. But somehow, Touch of Evil remains a fractured masterpiece – if ever a masterpiece it, in fact, was.  There is more than one irony at play in the film: Heston’s star on its meteoric ascendance even as Welles’ own is exiting the stratosphere like a supernova; the padded appearance of a slovenly Welles in makeup shockingly foreshadowing his own formidable girth in later years; the film punctuating the end of Welles’ Hollywood career on a decidedly dower and undistinguished note – the visionary reduced to making a standard noir melodrama.    
Welles amassed an impressive roster of pop talent and veterans to appear in Touch of Evil; including Zsa Zsa Gabor as the madam of a border-city bordello and Joseph Cotten, playing a good-humored police officer. Undeniably, the outstanding cameo belongs to Marlene Dietrich as Tanya; Quinlan’s one-time lover who now runs a washed-up fortune-telling racket that Quinlan frequents to remind him of his bygone youth. Realizing he is about to be caught by Vargas, Quinlan asks Tanya to tell him his future. “You haven’t got any,” she coldly replies, “Your future’s all used up.” Dietrich is at her careworn best in this scene, just another tired castoff who nevertheless, remains higher up the proverbial food chain than Welles’ Quinlan, as she cruelly deprives him of his last possible respite from the world and his own incarceration. Dietrich is masterful as this world-weary temptress. In Touch of Evil, she’s quietly allows herself to go to seed; just not enough to lose all self-respect. Besides, her Tanya has accepted the ever-evolving parade of youth and beauty having abandoned her own time, unlike Quinlan, who is left to thirst after his former glories.  
Despite its boundary-pushing exploration of subject matter long taboo under Hollywood censorship, Welles’ rough cut of Touch of Evil failed to impress execs at Universal who found the narrative confusing. They opted to excise almost 25 minutes from Welles’ final cut; adding and re-shooting several key sequences in an attempt to draw clarity from the story. In response, Welles fired back a 58 page memo that included numerous ways to improve the film while remaining faithful to his own vision. Virtually all Welles’ ideas were ignored by the studio. Although Universal’s 98 min. cut did have its admirers in Europe, in America it was immediately dismissed and quietly forgotten. Then, in 1976, Universal discovered it had in its possession a 108 min. preview version of Touch of Evil. Misrepresented as Welles’ definitive version (when, in actuality, the preview cut included footage shot after Welles’ European departure), Universal re-released Touch of Evil to good reviews.
Then, in 1998, Touch of Evil was sent back to the editing room once more – this time under the supervision of Walter Murch, who used Welles’ original memo to Universal as his guideline. Since many of the damaging cuts made by Universal in 1958 no longer existed, this latest revision represents only an approximation of what Welles might have hoped for. Nevertheless, it is this cut that represents Touch of Evil as closely aligned to Orson Welles’ original intent. Touch of Evil was released as a Collector’s Edition by Universal several years ago – disappointingly without any extras and minus all but the 1998 version of the film. Universal then rectified these oversights with Touch of Evil: the 50th Anniversary Edition.
Now we get Touch of Evil: the Blu-ray. Like the aforementioned anniversary edition, the Blu-ray contains all three edits of the film, allowing the home video consumer to judge which is best.  All three versions are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The theatrical and preview versions contain the overlay of credits and extemporaneous music written by Henry Mancini. But the restored version reinstates Welles’ original concept for this prologue, laying in various organic tracks of music and effects and without a main title sequence.
Universal has seamlessly-branched all three versions on a single Blu-ray disc. The bit rate isn’t quite what I had hoped for, but there is a discernable amount of more information on the left and top edges of the screen. In Europe, Masters of Cinema (MOC) has a competing release of Touch of Evil out for some time. It is Region B locked. The Universal is region free (which all Blu-ray discs ought to be by now!). MOC’s edition exhibits more noticeable grain than the Universal, which also appears ever so slightly softer overall than its predecessor. So, which do I prefer? Hmmm.
Universal’s effort is very strong, but contrast appears slightly bumped, especially when compared to the MOC side by side.  Blacks are understandably richer/deeper on the Universal.  I still think the MOC looks more refined than the Universal – the grain structure more genuine to film-sourced material; the Universal’s looking far too smooth and also less sharp. The MOC edition does not appear to have been edge-enhanced, leading me to suspect Universal’s lower bit rate is responsible for its overall softer appearance. Finally, Universal’s DTS audio is slightly more refined than the MOC edition; very subtle differences in timber and overall spatiality – more noticeable on higher end sound systems.  
Universal has ported over virtually all of the extra features from their anniversary edition DVD, including commentaries - on the ‘reconstructed version’ from Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and producer, Rick Schmidlin; the ‘theatrical version’ from writer/filmmaker F.X. Feeney, and the ‘preview version’ featuring Welles’ historians, Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Also revived is ‘Bringing Evil to Life’, just over 20 minutes on the ‘making of’ and Evil Lost and Found, a 17-minute featurette about the restoration efforts.  Neither featurette has been upgraded, but rather presented in inferior 480i. We also get a booklet featuring Welles’ original memo to the studio.
Parting thoughts: I have to admit I’m not all that keen on Universal’s transfer quality. It bests the DVD – which is never hard to do – but it still seems to lag behind the efforts Universal has proven it can achieve when time, care and money have been spent correctly. Low bit rates on a format that can offer so much more is just a waste of Blu-ray’s capabilities. To what purpose and end? Your guess is as good as mine.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)