Tuesday, September 16, 2014

SOUTH PACIFIC: Blu-ray (Magna 1958) Fox Home Video

“Peace is not the product of a victory or a command. It has no finishing line, no final deadline, no fixed definition of achievement. Peace is a never-ending process, the work of many decisions. I know the world is filled with troubles and many injustices. But reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about the beautiful mornings as it is to talk about slums. I just couldn't write anything without hope in it.” – Oscar Hammerstein II
The Broadway stage, once thought of as a pantheon for bright and breezy musical revues, took on considerable ballast with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1958); an inspired tome predicated on Hammerstein’s innate charity toward all mankind. “When I meet a man from another part of the world who is in showbiz, I feel close to him,” Hammerstein once explained, “If he’s in tryouts, I know exactly how he’s feeling. He knows I know this.”  At the heart of South Pacific remained this modus operandi, tweaked via its source material to explore the great racial divide, albeit - set to music. To label South Pacific as a milestone in American theater is an understatement. It is nothing less than a trailblazer. It may, in fact, be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest achievement; certainly, one of their most perennially revived. 
The film version would deserve no less consideration, and under Joshua Logan’s direction (also, responsible for the Broadway sensation), South Pacific – the movie – retains its introspective critique of this artificially created cultural divide; the characters of mid-western American, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) still grappling with their ‘carefully taught’ inhibitions; desperate to embrace the world without its color barriers. Ultimately, this resolution is achieved – at least, for Nellie, reconciling her institutionalized racism with a genuine love for French plantation owner, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi) by dedicating herself as mother-figure to his half-Polynesian children from a previous marriage.
Based on James A. Michener’s novel, Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific breaks with tradition, both theatrical and societal based. For never before had the artistry of stagecraft so cleverly revealed so much about the human condition, using its patina of heartfelt pop-u-tainment to explore a more politicized injustice plaguing the modern ‘civilized’ world. This timeless social evaluation had been a part of Michener’s novel. Michener, who had been based as a lieutenant in the South Pacific during WWII, had grown very close to its native peoples; his diaries, later reconstituted as a work of pseudo-fiction, first published in 1947 and winning the Pulitzer one year later. It was the beginning of a prolific – if inauspicious – writing career.
Interestingly, Michener’s novel was not an overnight sensation. Indeed, had it not been for Broadway director, Joshua Logan, the novel might never have come to the attention of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Basking in the afterglow of their two previous stage successes, Oklahoma! and Carousel, R&H had launched into Allegro – an original property that miserably failed to catch on. Moderately disheartened by its colossal thud, the duo was approached by Logan, who had read Michener’s novel and become an ardent admirer almost immediately. It was Logan who proposed the project to R&H, and ultimately Logan who would see it through to fruition on both the stage and the big screen.
As had happened before, the subject matter just seemed to click with the composers. Buoyed by the familiar theme of love’s transformative quality, and, feeding into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s positivism, as well as their cause célèbre for social reform, South Pacific would evolve into an enduring testament against racial prejudice. However, the question remained: was the public ready to embrace such unbridled hopefulness where race relations were concerned? Lest we forget, the play and movie’s debut are both ensconced in a pre-civil rights America; imbued by starchy conservatism and a general unwillingness to examine the world through color-blind spectacles. Alas, Rodgers and Hammerstein had little to fear. On stage, South Pacific became an immediate sensation.
In transforming Michener’s poignant tales into a show, Rodgers and Hammerstein were to rediscover their own moral strength; the show deeply appealing to Hammerstein’s sense of compassion toward all humanity. Alas, on film, this tenuous balance was mildly hampered: first, by director, Joshua Logan’s inability to reconceive the material in cinematic terms; also, by Logan’s obtuse overuse of various color filters to create an enforced tropical moodiness in specific scenes. On stage, the allure of the tropics had been conceived, and achieved using dramatic lighting changes; also, by incorporating impressionist backdrops to mimic the breezy outdoors. Regrettably, what works in a theater does not usually transfer well to movies for obvious reasons.
To satisfy the medium’s demands for reality, the production team traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, Logan toiling in the heat and sand to recreate that elusive stage magic in more tangible terms. There is little to deny South Pacific – the movie – as one of the most sumptuous and lush visual experiences of the decade – possibly, even of a lifetime. Indeed, when projected in expansive 65mm Todd A-O, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography proved a very intoxicating elixir. In London, as example, South Pacific played continuously at the Dominion Theatre for nearly five years – its’ gross intake at the box office rivaled only by The Sound of Music (1965). The English were equally as transfixed by the original cast album: 115 weeks at the top of their charts, with 70 consecutive in the #1 spot.  
At the time of South Pacific’s debut, Rodgers and Hammerstein were in the envious position to be calling their own shots. Artistically speaking, this presented a challenge for Hollywood; then, as now, unaccustomed to surrendering the future success of any project to the dictates of non-Hollywood players. But for R&H, the alliance forged with Darryl F. Zanuck at 2oth Century-Fox had been, if not initially amicable (they quarreled and were miserable working under Zanuck during their one and only foray into an exclusively film-based project, 1945’s State Fair) then ultimately manageable – if for no other reason, then Zanuck had already departed the studio by 1957; their cache affording unprecedented bartering power by the time South Pacific entered pre-production.
As such, South Pacific would only be distributed by Fox, who also partially funded the movie. The rest of the capital came directly from the Magna Theatre Corporation of which R&H were part owners.  Interesting too, R&H’s resurgence on film was only made possible after the movie’s technological capacity to recreate the aura – as well as the visual – splendor of a night in live theater, via new widescreen/stereophonic technologies, had matured. If never quite considered on par with a live presentation, particularly by theater aficionados and critics alike (such was the snobbery then) the movies had nevertheless stepped up their game, enough to appeal to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who fervently believed they were at the cusp of a new era in motion picture presentation. 
On screen, South Pacific remains more an event than a movie, and regrettably, less cinematic than stage-bound to its roots. The proscenium is rarely broken, Logan interrupting the action sparingly with a limited amount of close-ups to bring the audience into the story. Instead, we are kept at a distance. Yet, the stultification that had plagued the screen versions of Oklahoma! (both in Todd A-O and Cinemascope) is not quite so obvious herein; perhaps, because there are other distractions afoot to abuse the optic nerve. Of these, Logan’s misuse of color filters must be considered the worst transgressor. Initially the plan had been only to use a series of color filters to enhance the ‘Bali Ha’i’ sequence. Since Logan could find no tangible example in Mother Nature of this elusive tropical paradise described in Michener’s novel, the film relied on a rather obvious traveling matte painting for long shots of the island; heavily diffused through fog filters and an inexplicable mist; also plied with some Vaseline, rubbed around the edges of the camera lens to create a ‘dream-like’ quality; the screen changing from violent shades of magenta and aubergine, to cartoon reds and pumpkin oranges, and finally, a thoroughly unattractive urine yellow. Viewing this sequence today, it remains difficult to deduce exactly what about the footage proved so gosh darn tantalizing; enough to prompt Logan to pursue the technique for virtually every other musical moment in the movie. Rather than rendering ‘Bali Ha’i’ as a magical Shangri-La, the filter effects diffuse the spectacle into a sort of garish carnival sideshow oddity; splashed with all the frenetic energy of an epileptic let loose in Disney’s ink and paint department.
We could forgive Joshua Logan even this indiscretion, had he not burdened the rest of South Pacific with as incalculable artistic travesties; the jaundice yellow tints as Nellie Forbush sweetly trills ‘A Cock-eyed Optimist’; the lurid tangerine that intrude upon ‘Some Enchanted Evening’; the unhealthy carmine and scarlet, igniting the lush tropical foliage in a sort of impressionist’s Dante’s Inferno while Liat (France Nuyen) and Joe Cable consummate their passionate affair; the midnight cobalt and amethyst tints, meant to mimic a haunting eve in the tropics for ‘This Nearly Was Mine’, and so on. With so many shifting colors, South Pacific gradually devolves into a painterly mess; Logan, applying the broadest of hues to the story’s dramatic palette as might a child newly discovering his Crayolas. It’s too tempting to debate his motives; to argue Logan’s approach to generating dramatic tension and pathos is enhanced by the obviousness in his exercise, when the literal application of color merely gilds an already appropriately vivid lily.
Forced by the overwhelming success of the stage show to repeatedly delay plans for the movie only seems to have given Joshua Logan more time to reimagine his high concept – rather than his staging. As such, when at last South Pacific made it to the big Todd A-O screen, it was undeniably lush – although stricken with a perceptive bout of elephantiasis. Worse, Logan seems to have entirely forgotten motion pictures are ‘moving pictures’; his camera remaining stationary for long uninterrupted segments while the actors hit their marks, treating each location and/or set as though it were hampered by the invisible third-wall rule of a stage-bound  proscenium. The result: while South Pacific undeniable has all of the visual cache of a prestige picture, it lacks the mobility of a veteran filmmaker, this shortcoming amplified by Todd A-O’s superior high resolution.
What remains galvanic and endearing then, is the story; also the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. After an exhilarating overture, with main titles breathtakingly capturing the robust tropical paradise in all its’ natural splendor, we settle on a Seabee plane bringing Lt. Cable. In the extended roadshow cut, Cable engages pilot, Lt. Buzz Adams (Tom Laughlin) in a discussion about the tenuous nature of diplomacy and the mounting crisis looming in the South Seas. The theatrical cut expedites Cable’s arrival to the main island, the Seabees serenading with the hearty strains of ‘Bloody Mary’ – a tribute for their affinity for the local mercantile trader (played by Juanita Hall), who delights in tempting the more jaded Luther Billis (Ray Walston) with trinkets from Bali Ha’i. The island is strictly off limits to the American sailors. The film plays up the sexual frustrations of these homesick gallants as they strut and preen on the beach, belting out a chorus or two of ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’; the moment interrupted by the arrival of nurse, Nellie Forbush who has asked Luther to do some stitch work on several of her garments.
The men chide Luther who, determined to assert his authority among them, plies Lt. Cable with enticements designed to broker his own favor in getting to that off-shore paradise not restricted to officers. Cable is interested, particularly when Bloody Mary refers to him as a very ‘saxy man’ She also hypnotically serenades him with the magical strains of ‘Bali Ha’i’.  Alas, before any journey can get underway, Cable is called by his superior, Capt. Brackett (Russ Brown) to a meeting. Brackett is interested in using one of the locals, Emile De Becque as a guide to establish an observation outpost on one of the more remote Japanese-occupied islands. De Becque is a French plantation owner, widowed and raising two young half-Polynesian children; Ngana (Candace Lee) and Jerome (Warren Hsieh). He also harbors a darker secret, having fled France after killing a man, presumably in self-defense. De Becque has since begun a burgeoning romance with Nellie Forbush, whom Cable crudely suggests could be used as a spy to learn about De Becque’s political affiliations.
Owing to his own concerns about Nellie’s view of miscegenation, De Becque has yet to reveal his children of blended origin. To test his loyalties, Brackett invites De Becque in for a friendly chat with Cable and his second, Commander Harbison (Floyd Simmons) present. But the meeting is hardly enlightening; De Becque challenging America’s view of the conflict by adding “I know what you are against…what are you for?” Nellie agrees to spy on Emile. But her efforts are as transparent as they prove unsuccessful. Nevertheless, De Becque senses he has already made inroads to her heart; the two sharing snifters of brandy, and soliloquizing their respective anxieties apart, before coming together in their burgeoning romance, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.
De Becque would prefer to be honest with Nellie. So, he confides the reason for his departure from France. Nellie dutifully relays this to Brackett who, already in possession of this information, is frankly astonished De Becque would share it with his paramour. Evidently, Brackett had hoped to use the murder as leverage to convince De Becque to accompany Cable on his mission to the Japanese occupied outpost. Departing for the nurse’s beach, off limits to sailors, Nellie insists to her fellow cohorts she intends to promptly ‘Wash That Man Right Out of (her) Hair’, but instead she dissolves into a blissful and euphoric daydream of love, openly declaring she is hopelessly in love with ‘A Wonderful Guy’. Like virtually all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, this will be the pinnacle of Nellie Forbush’s romantic flourish; her cockeyed optimism about to experience a perilous shift toward tragic disillusionment.
In the meantime, Bloody Mary manages to coax Lt. Cable into visiting Bali Ha’i; Cable taking along Billis, who is intent on bringing back a boar’s tooth from the rumored savage’s island ceremony. Enveloped by the tropical splendor, and surrounded by sweetly innocent native girls who encourage the men’s participation in the pleasures to be had, Cable and Billis are soon separated; Bloody Mary taking Joe high into the mountains where he is introduced to Liat; the virginal beauty with whom Mary sincerely hopes to strike a marital bargain. Cable is captivated by Liat’s ‘Younger Than Springtime’ naiveté; learning only after the consummation of their affair that she is Mary’s daughter. Mary’s ‘Happy Talk’ proposal encourages Cable and Liat to marry; that, after the war, he remain on Bali Ha’i; she being the island’s wealthiest native with enough to support her future son-in-law.
Cable is taken aback by this proposition. Moreover, he cannot rid himself of an innate prejudice. Liat is good enough to sleep with, but she would never be accepted back home in his white-bred world as his wife. Struggling to purge these prejudices and anxieties from his heart and mind, Cable instead confides them to Nellie as ‘Carefully Taught’ – if utterly misguided. Nellie can definitely relate. For previously, De Beque had invited her to his home for a party. There, she met other planters and their wives. But Nellie’s effervescence was deflated when Emile introduced his children. The incongruity of Nellie’s own emotions – able to accept her future husband committing murder (albeit, in self-defense), but unable to embrace the fact he was once in love with a woman of differing ethnicity, has since split the couple up. De Becque now challenges Nellie and Cable to justify their prejudices. Unable to do just that, Nellie flees, leaving Emile to reconsider ‘This Nearly Was Mine’.
Shortly thereafter, De Becque accepts the assignment to accompany Lt. Cable on his hazardous mission on the occupied Japanese outpost. Daily, the pair is faced with death from bomber and sniper attacks; De Becque keeping Brackett abreast of developments by radio contact. In his absence, Nellie diligently endeavors to befriend Emile’s children and quickly discovers how much she has come to love them – regardless of their race. Realizing Emile may never come back, forces Nellie to reconsider what really matters in life. She wisely resolves to never again question De Becque’s love for her. For her love for him is truly genuine. Alas, as the Allied Forces move in, tragedy strikes.
Joe Cable dies on the remote island; Nellie introduced to Bloody Mary and Liat after learning of the news. Mary informs Nellie her daughter will marry no one except Joe and Nellie, knowing this can never be, now comforts the girl. Nellie departs the hospital, pointing in the general direction of the remote island where her lover remains, isolated and alone; declaring into the wind that whatever prejudices she once harbored have since been abandoned. She promises never again to question her heart. A short while later Nellie’s declaration is rewarded. While attending Ngana and Jerome at Emile’s plantation, Nellie is suddenly startled to discover De Becque, weary, dirty – but otherwise unharmed. As the children rejoice – seemingly oblivious to how much this reunion means to either their father or Nellie, she quietly reaches for his hand; forgiveness assured when De Becque leans across the table to accept it.
South Pacific was a colossal smash; by far the most popular film musical of 1958. Audiences flocked to see the spectacle in Todd A-O. On stage, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza had originated the roles of Nellie Forbush and Emile De Becque. But Martin’s inability to make it as a film star, coupled with Pinza’s virtual invisibility on the radar, practically ensured neither would make the transition to the screen. In casting Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi in their stead, Rodgers and Hammerstein were betting on Gaynor’s recent ascendance as a popular ingénue. In retrospect, South Pacific really is the end of Gaynor’s splashy movie career; a definite step up from the featherweight roles she usually played in musical comedy, but also putting a definite period to her work in movies. Gaynor would eventually find a temporary home on television before effectively retiring as an actress in 1963, only sporadically appearing on variety shows like Ed Sullivan thereafter.
Rossano Brazzi’s film career was only slightly more distinguished. For although he had appeared, often in support, in some high profile movies throughout the 1950’s and 60’s – mostly as the swarthy Italian lover – South Pacific can justly be called his most prominent role; certainly, in which his prowess as a leading man is never questioned. Incidentally, Brazzi’s rather thin voice was dubbed by Pinza; Juanita Hall’s too by the London stage’s Bloody Mary - Muriel Smith, despite the fact, Hall had sung for herself in the Broadway original. Interestingly, France Nuyen and the late, John Kerr would go on to have the more prolific careers, as reoccurring characters in some very high-profile television dramas.  
Viewed today, South Pacific retains its intangible potency as a critique of racial prejudice. Almost all of the reasons are in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s superior score; steadfast in its melodic evaluation, defying the shortcomings in Joshua Logan’s color-induced rainbow malaise. With such magnificent hits as the buoyant ‘Cockeyed Optimist’; thought-provoking ‘Carefully Taught’; bittersweet ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ and iconic ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, South Pacific soars beyond the misfires in Logan’s direction. The principle cast is competent. But rarely do any of them triumph above the material in ways that would earmark their performances as standouts. Mercifully, it’s the weight of the score and the story that proves the inspired counterbalance to offset their mediocrity.  When we reconsider the film, it is the totality of the presentation, rather than any deconstructing assessment of its individual parts – or cogs, as it were, in this multi-spoke wheel that continues to fortify our minds, bring enchantment to our hearts, and ultimate nourishment to our souls.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a reissue of the disc released in 2006; a pluperfect mastering effort, fortunately void of the current pox of teal/orange tinting that has otherwise submarined the hi-def release of The King and I (1956). We get both the theatrical and extended roadshow cuts, spread over two discs. Like the previous minting, the roadshow footage has not been restored before being reinstated into the film and is woefully subpar to the rest of the 1080p image quality. I would have preferred Fox to color correct this reinstated footage; also to clean it up and bring the entire image into focus with current Blu-ray mastering standards. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
Since, most will recall South Pacific only from its theatrical engagement, we can attest to the fact South Pacific in its theatrical cut sports one of the most pristine and startlingly gorgeous/reference quality transfers anywhere. Prepare to be dazzled by the film’s ultra-vibrant color saturation (at times, overpowering) and its razor-sharp Todd A-O clarity: simply breathtaking in all respects. You are going to LOVE this presentation. South Pacific won an Oscar for its sound design and it’s easy to see why. The 5.1 DTS audio is robust beyond all expectations, with exquisite separation across all channels. The R&H score sounds magnificent to say the least. But dialogue also exhibits a naturalized clarity that is engaging. 
Extra features include Ted Chaplin’s audio commentary on the theatrical cut and Richard Barrios’ on the road show. There’s also a brief ‘making of’ featurette and Diane Sawyer’s 60 Minutes interview with James A. Michener from the 1980;s. All of these features were included on the standard DVD release. New and exclusive to the Blu-Ray is the documentary: Passion, Prejudice and South Pacific – a beautifully produced and thoroughly engrossing feature-length look back at the story behind the film. If you already own the previously issued Blu-ray from Fox you’ll want to pass on this one. If not, then South Pacific comes very highly recommended herein. It’s still ‘Younger than Springtime’ and more than capable of providing you with ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in front of the TV.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Theatrical Cut - 5+
Roadshow Version – 4.5


Monday, September 15, 2014

THE GREAT RACE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1965) Warner Archive Collection

Played strictly in caricature, and with its heart firmly affixed as an homage to the zany antics from the silent era, Blake Edwards’ The Great Race (1965) remains an absurdly amusing transgression against the more serious permutations of entertainment infiltrating the decade; also a pointedly obtuse send-up to 60’s radical feminism, astutely lampooned in the ironic parallel between its more aggressive contemporary campaigners and the film’s own Susan B. Anthony, Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood) – a nonsensical, if aspiring, and occasionally perspiring, ‘working woman’ - given over to rambunctious camp. It isn’t hard to figure out which side of the argument Blake Edwards sentiments fall; Donfeld’s costuming for our forthright, strong-minded female who wants the vote, but is willing to settle in marriage to the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis as an undeniable paragon of bygone masculine virtues), leaving very little to the imagination. Wood actually spends most of the film’s second act scantily clad in a vibrant rose corset that pushes and plumps out her already ample bosom. Wood is a fine actress. Alas, The Great Race is not her finest performance by a long shot. She often appears stilted; her mannerisms deliberately meant to evoke a sense of theatric grandiosity, but somehow less authentic than a silly wink and a nod to that era when actors gesticulated for their pay.
The film has far better success with Dorothy Provine; all too briefly glimpsed as sultry Lily Olay; a feisty saloon entertainer in Boracho; a forgotten backwater bedecked in all the vintage trappings of a John Wayne western. Provine is a thoroughly captivating addition to this cast, utterly superb as she belts out “He Shouldn't-A, Hadn't-A, Oughtn't-A Swang on Me”; one of two hummable songs penned by the irreplaceable, Henry Mancini, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The other is ‘The Sweetheart Tree’, Mancini writing an exquisite ballad that draws heavily on a Pianola influence. It’s about the most authentic thing in this period picture. Director Edwards is conspiring with Arthur A. Ross on the screenplay. But it’s something of a kerfuffle, begun as a vainglorious turn-of-the-century pastiche, under the misguided pretext to tell us all about the era of the daredevil; when men of indomitable spirits and disposable cash vied for supremacy in costly globe-trotting adventures to satisfy their own boredoms and captivate the impoverished masses with their free-spirited escapes into these flights of fancy.
We get all this and more in The Great Race; a film immeasurably blessed by Fernando Carrere’s production design and art direction; also, Russell Harlan’s sumptuous and eye-filling Technicolor cinematography. Carrere bids – with varying degrees of success and accuracy – to recapture the period, as well as a host of European locations. The Great Race did shoot in Salzburg and Paris; also, Big Bear Lake, Alabama Hills and Sonora California, before confining most of its action to sound stages over at Warner Brothers in Burbank; also a few obvious outdoor sets on the old MGM back lot. Alas, footage shot within the studio’s confines belies Blake Edwards attempt to recreate a marvelous travelogue a la the likes of Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) or even Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines (1965), another 1900’s cross-country/transcontinental escapist yarn, made and released the same year as The Great Race and with roughly as much (or as little) appeal and longevity as cinema art.  
Despite its evident virtues, The Great Race is decidedly second rate as a roadshow experience on several levels. The film is affectionately dedicated to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; Edward’s ‘everything old is new again’ approach to the material leaving no stone unturned. But the recycling of this famous team’s sight gags (the polar bear sketch is an obvious swipe) – along with others re-orchestrated for the movie – fails to evoke nostalgia. Instead, it almost completely reminds us just how bygone and never-to-be-forgotten the silent era remains. For starters, the reteaming of Tony Curtis with Jack Lemmon (the two had played exquisitely off each other in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot 1959) is lacking the same intangible chemistry herein; the Ross/Edwards screenplay pitting the boys against each other; Lemmon cast as the Great Leslie’s arch nemesis, Professor Fate, whose sidekick, Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk) is less than hilarious. Lemmon is having a deliriously good time playing the maniacal Fate; something of a grotesque satire of Boris – the handle-bar moustache twirling villain from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1961-64).  But only he can appreciate this farce. It is grating, to say the least.
There’s not enough charm to endear us to Fate; not even to make us understand why the Great Leslie – as noble, virtuous and carefree as he is – would risk his own life and victory in the race to save the despicable Fate from…well, his own in the movie’s third act; a horrendous rip off of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), right down to its crossed-swords duel, done partially in silhouette, between our hero and Baron Rolfe Von Stuppe (Ross Martin). All the characters, from Keenan Wynn’s Hezekiah Sturdy (Leslie’s confident and travelling companion) to frenetic newspaper editor, Henry Goodbody (Arthur O’Connell) – who suffers a nervous breakdown and is committed to an asylum by his portly suffragette wife, Hester (Vivian Vance, of Ethel Mertz/I Love Lucy 1951-57 fame) are stick-figures at best. I suppose, that’s part of The Great Race’s charm; the story relying on the actors’ presence, rather than character development, to carry the weight. Actually, beyond the initial setup of Leslie proposing a lengthy competition from New York to Paris – by way of one of the most bizarre road maps ever selected for such an excursion – there’s not much of ‘story’ going on in The Great Race either.
This one’s played strictly for the guffaws; Blake Edwards ladling on the nostalgia just a tad too thick for my tastes. While naturalism was never the pursuit of the film or its director, it’s a crying shame more subtlety wasn’t applied by the actors; in effect, to surprise us with the campier moments, rather than repeatedly slug us over the brain with an, at times, lethally heavy-handed ‘look how funny we are, aren’t we?’ approach to even the most menial vignettes bridging the journey by carrier pigeon. Yes, The Great Race is meant to be episodic. But its pratfalls and wide-eyed leering grow tiresome after about the first ten minutes; particularly Jack Lemmon’s seriously apoplectic scoundrel, who teeters from gloomy hatred for our hero – simply because he is the hero – and a sort of emasculated, Freudian ‘mama’s boy’ who prefers Maximillian’s company to Maggie’s. At 160 minutes, there’s just too much ‘I can’t believe they did that’ and not nearly enough ‘wasn’t that clever?’ to win our hearts and fortify our funny bones with the proverbial good tickle.
It’s a shame too, because Mel Brooks would later illustrate the virtues of a world with no dialogue in his Silent Movie (1976…and pardon me – one word, ‘no’ uttered by – who else? – mime, Marcel Marceau: simply hilarious!). But no such sparks of brilliance seem to have inspired Blake Edwards on The Great Race. And indeed, with dialogue, the yuk-yuk sight gags in this movie (that might have worked without the benefit of sound) now seem to get weighted down and remade as unfunny tripe, precisely because they are stereophonically rendered. Edwards throws everything at the screen. The best vignettes in The Great Race are a no-holds-barred brawl inside Boracho’s Palace Saloon (a chance for some of Hollywood’s most proficient stuntmen to show off their truly mesmerizing and highly dangerous craft as they total the inside of a sound stage) and the lavishly appointed pie fight a la The Three Stooges; again, staged in Burbank, in which no custard, raspberry or lemon meringue is left untouched. The bar fight still gets my vote; chiefly because all the principles are engaged, and the delicious, Dorothy Provine (terribly underused in the movie) has no quam about rolling up her chiffon-yellow sleeves to get down and dirty with the boys. She takes her lumps on the butt – twice; sailing over the side of a pair of breakaway tables; tossed around like a ragdoll by her desperado brute of a boyfriend, Texas Jack (Larry Storch). Ray Rice…are you listening?
The Great Race does have its moments. But it takes far too long for the story to get off the ground; the Ross/Edwards’ screenplay bungling its first act with a series of botched competitions between the Great Leslie (a man constipated in his verbal communication and interactions) and Professor Fate, who suffers from chronic verbal diarrhea. Tony Curtis gives one of his most restrained performances. It’s actually refreshing not to see Curtis overreaching to impress, as he frequently did throughout his movie career. 
Alas, Jack Lemmon has not taken this cue from his partner. I’ve always admired Lemmon for his comedic genius and timing. But both are woefully off in The Great Race; Lemmon’s high octane energy, no match for his truly painful interactions with Peter Falk, who seems even less to be enjoying his position as the fop’s fool. And then there’s our third wheel – Natalie Wood – to reconsider. Pert, plucky, and frequently grating on the nerves (if decidedly, never on the eye), Wood clobbers her part with an interminable amount of feminist cheek and caustic venom; inexplicably dissolving like a cube of sugar when finally forced into a locked embrace by our proverbial ‘good guy’ (Curtis’ Leslie is perpetually clad from head to toe in virginal white…just in case there was any doubt as to his virtue and/or integrity). We’re seeing some very fine actors in this movie. Alas, ‘joyless’ is the best way I can describe most of The Great Race.
We begin on an open airfield where the Great Leslie is preparing to be bound in straightjacket and left dangling upside down from a cord attached to an unmanned hot-air balloon. The gathered crowd loves it, particularly several adoring female fans, who rush the podium for one last passionate farewell kiss before Leslie is sent into the skies, presumably to his death. Not far off, Prof. Fate and Maximillian lie in wait, having concealed themselves in a tank camouflaged as a rather large bush. Fate unveils a harpoon and commands Max to fire it into the balloon. It’s a bull’s eye hit and almost immediately the balloon begins to lose altitude. Not to worry, however. This is, after all, the ‘great’ Leslie; a man of collected calm and inimitable manly grace, who effortlessly slips from his restraints, straps on a parachute, and leaps to safety from the descending balloon, much to Fate’s angry chagrin.
A short while later, we catch up to Leslie again, this time attempting to break a speedboat record; Fate and Max setting an early prototype of a sound-seeking torpedo after Leslie’s boat. Alas, in attempting to make their quick getaway, Fate and Max’s model-T backfires several times; the bomb honing in on that sound instead, leaping from the water and pursuing Fate’s car to an inevitable conclusion.  Fate is, of course, beside himself. He desperately wants to rival and surpass Leslie’s feats of daring with one of his own. In this mad dash to outdo the perfect male specimen, Fate concocts a manned rocket probe he plans to shoot down the railroad tracks at lightning speed. Too bad the rocket proves much too powerful, blasting Fate and Max into the air before running out of steam and nose diving them back to the earth. In the meantime, Leslie has latched on to the next big thing; a great race from New York to Paris; by far, the most spectacular transatlantic crossing yet proposed, much less attempted.      
Convincing the Webber Motor Car Company to construct a new automobile expressly for the race – the ‘Leslie Special’ – Leslie’s engineering triumph is challenged when Fate sets out to create an even more impressive – if sinister – vehicle from scratch, stealing parts from some of the best auto manufacturers. The Hannibal 8 is a sort of Franken-Chrysler; part tank/part car: all Fate, complete with a front loading cannon, a heat-seeking torpedo (ironically, never used in the film) and rear smoke screen (decidedly, overused whenever Fate cannot figure out any other way to distract his competitors). Interestingly, the ‘Leslie Special’ was built at Warner Brothers to evoke memories of the Thomas Flyer; the actual car that had won the real 1908 New York to Paris race.
In the meantime, overbearing woman’s crusader, Maggie Dubois has infiltrated the front offices of the New York Sentinel newspaper, handcuffed to the men’s room in the hopes her shenanigans will endear her to its editor-in-chief, Henry Goodbody. Henry is, however, not about to let any woman dictate to him, ordering his copyeditor, Frisbee (Marvin Kaplan) to have Maggie arrested. The edict touches off a firestorm of unwanted publicity, the suffragettes – fronted by Henry’s own wife, Hester, parading up and down the square, then inside the hallways; demanding equality. Maggie overwhelms Henry with the promise of getting the intimate story by entering the ‘great race’ herself as a competitor.
Maggie’s first prospect, to lure Leslie into having her along for the ride in his car, is crushed when both Leslie and his trusted travelling companion, Hezekiah Sturdy, proclaim an automobile race is no place for a woman. Undaunted, Maggie attempts to broker favor with Fate, sneaking into his heavily guarded shop, chased by a pack of wild Great Danes, and inadvertently blowing up Fate’s garage with the Hannibal 8 still inside. Hardly dissuaded, Maggie now manages to secure her own ride for the race, packing up her note pad and photography equipment in the backseat to document the adventures that lay ahead.
The six-car launch is interrupted when Max sabotages three competitors; one crashing into a store front, another losing its transmission on the road, and still another overturning, then having its’ wheels pop off. Alas, in his zeal to wreck the chances of anyone finishing the race, Max has also ridiculously sabotaged the Hannibal 8, leaving Maggie and Leslie as the only competitors to proceed to the next round of competition.  Later, in the middle of the desert, Maggie’s car breaks down and Leslie, being the noble gentleman that he is, graciously offers her transport to the next refueling station; a forgotten western outpost called Boracho. The delay with Maggie allows Fate to gain a minor lead, arriving first in Boracho and presented with the key to the city by its Mayor (Hal Smith). All Fate wants is enough gasoline to propel his Hannibal 8 onto the next length of the journey. But the Mayor assures Fate he will receive nothing until the dawn. The town has planned a lavish celebration to mark the event. Fate manages to sidestep the Mayor, but later runs out of gas and is forced to concede he must remain in town until morning. 
When Leslie arrives in Boracho he is greeted with minor hostility until he graciously accepts the honor to partake in the festivities planned for the evening. That night, at the town’s local saloon, Leslie, Hezekiah and Maggie are treated like royalty; the entertainer, Lily Olay serenading the rambunctious crowd with a rip-roaring ditty that brings down the house – literally. For Lily ‘belongs’ to Texas Jack, a notorious desperado who manages to start one of the biggest brawls in screen history, believing Leslie has designs on his girl. Actually, it’s the other way around, creating a minor rivalry between Lily and Maggie, who gets the upper hand (and upper cut, later in the fight) planting a fist on Lil’ to send her toppling to the floor.
In all the hullabaloo, Fate manages to steal the necessary gas he needs to fuel the Hannibal 8, blowing up the rest of the stockpile, thus ensuring Leslie does not follow him. To Fate’s chagrin, Maggie has snuck aboard the Hannibal 8. He ditches her in the middle of nowhere. But the next afternoon, Maggie is once more rescued by Leslie, who has hitched a team of horses to pull his car to the next outpost; Grommet, where he intends to send a wire to ask for more gas. This, however, will take time and give Fate a considerable lead. Thus, Maggie offers to expedite the time it will take to order the gas and have it sent to Grommet, by sending a message ahead of them via carrier pigeon so that the train and Leslie’s car will arrive in Grommet at the same time.
Arriving in Grommet, Leslie is bribed by Maggie into her accompanying him on the next length of the journey…or she won’t sign for the consignment of gasoline. Hezekiah has had quite enough of Maggie’s scheming. He bitterly informs Leslie he must chose who will continue the race with him. For Leslie, the choice is quite simple. So, Maggie pretends to surrender and get on board the train, asking Hezekiah if he will help with her luggage. Instead, she handcuffs Hezekiah to a seat on the train, returning to Leslie and lying Hezekiah has decided to quit and go back to New York. A brief while later, her rouse backfires, when Leslie and Maggie meet up with Hezekiah in Alaska; also, with Fate and Max who have managed the next length ahead of them by a very narrow margin. Fate kidnaps Maggie, hurrying to the next destination; Russia. The two cars are caught in a violent blizzard, Fate and Max visited by a polar bear, forcing them into a toppled heap inside the backseat of Leslie’s car. The foursome huddle together to keep warm, awakening early the next morning only to realize they’ve been cut adrift from the mainland, now drifting on a block of ice in the middle of the frigid ocean. Will they survive? Intermission.
So far, The Great Race has been a consistently plotted affair. Alas, to expedite the journey from America to Europe (we’re already 83 minutes into the movie by now), screenwriters, Ross and Edwards devise a rather shoddy connecting device; Maggie using her trained carrier pigeons to send updates about their progress to the New York Sentinel; Edwards frequently cutting away to a close-up of the Sentinel’s latest headline being read with great interest by Henry Goodbody. Thus, we move into the movie’s half-baked European adventure; Fate, Max and Maggie arriving mere moments ahead of Leslie and Hezekiah; met with an ominously stern reaction until Maggie – who speaks fluent Russian – declares a celebration in order; Fate and Max hoisted on the shoulders of the merry villagers and carried inside the local watering hole.
Once again, we cut to the New York Sentinel, now overseen by Hester Goodbody who, it seems, has had her husband committed to the state asylum for a much need rest – also, to convince him to allow women in the workplace…or else. Cut again, this time to Salzburg, Austria, mimicking one of those mythical Ruritanian European principalities – this one named, ‘Pottsdorf’. The kingdom is presided over by a foppish Crown Prince, Hapnick (also played by Jack Lemmon). Fate, Max and Maggie pause for badly needed repairs to the Hannibal 8; Max eyeing Maggie as she takes a nude swim/bath in the nearby lake (so obviously shot on the old MGM back lot in the same forest where Leslie Caron’s Gigi warbled the last few bars of ‘The Parisians’. I mean, they didn’t even try to weed out the Californian tropical vegetation, not indigenous to the supposedly European landscape).
Unfortunately, fate seems to have caught up with Prof. Fate; the rebellious Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, struck by the uncanny resemblance between Fate and Hapnick, now taking the trio hostage to his isolated schloss on the Rhine. The Baron and General Kuhster (George Macready) force Fate to impersonate the Prince for the King’s coronation. Afterward, Kuhster will instruct Fate to abdicate the throne, thereby allowing the rebel government under Stuppe’s rule to take control of Pottsdorf. The Ross/Edwards screenplay now moves into its fairly transparent rip-off of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.  Max, posing as a monk from a nearby monastery, encourages Leslie to rescue Fate and Maggie; also, Hezekiah who has been found out by the Baron while skulking around the castle late at night and is being tortured in the dungeon. The Great Leslie and the Baron duel with crossed swords, then sabers; a flashy display of swordsmanship, paying an almost verbatim photographic homage to David O. Selznick’s 1937 movie version of Zenda, right down to the cutaway shadows on the wall.
Unable to free Fate from his impersonation of the King, the coronation takes place. Fate is forewarned by Max that Leslie – who has managed to rescue the real prince in the nick of time – is on his way to the cathedral to expose the bait and switch. Hurrying from the church with Max hiding beneath his King’s train, Fate takes refuge in a nearby bakery preparing a vast assortment of pastries for the post-coronation feast. A hideous pie fight breaks out after Fate take a tumble into the nearly six foot torte made for the palace inaugural; the various pastry chefs incensed and picking up their pies to do battle. Leslie, the real prince, the Baron, Maggie and General Kushter all get their just desserts – literally – and in the kisser. But the walloping of creams, custards and other various fillings is more grotesque than riotous; the scene devolving into an abject waste of food.
Escaping across the countryside, Leslie decides to set up camp for the night in a forest; acknowledging Maggie as an emancipated woman, only to plant a rather sexist kiss on her for which she returns a sizable wallop to Leslie’s cheek. This leaves him stunned and confused. What’s a man in love to do? The next day, while the two furiously debate a woman’s place in society, Fate gets the upper hand in the race. But he makes an incalculable error by misreading the map en route to the Eiffel Tower; Leslie easily managing to make it to the famed Parisian landmark first. At the last possible moment, Leslie deliberately throws the race to prove to Maggie he really is in love with her.
Fate is overjoyed as he effortlessly sails past their stalled vehicle; awarded the silver loving cup and showered with ticker tape streamers and confetti. Sadly, he is unable to relish his victory, knowing Leslie ‘let’ him win. Outraged, Fate refuses his prize and instead challenges Leslie to another race – from Paris to New York. The Parisians immediately erect another banner to mark the start; Leslie and his new bride, along with Hezekiah, boarding the Leslie Special and taking off on their first length before Fate and Max can even get underway. Fate instructs Max to fire the newly installed jet propulsion rockets that will presumably hurl them to victory at lightning speed. But in the film’s penultimate shot, an overview of Paris with the Eiffel plainly visible, the sudden explosion is enough to topple its girders to the ground in a cloud of dust.
The Great Race is idiotic good fun. But it lacks the essential spark of crazy excitement to catapult it into the upper echelons of screen entertainment. Honestly, there just isn’t enough ebullience to sustain its hefty 160 minute runtime. I get it. Blake Edward’s has given us a stereophonic/Technicolor and widescreen sendup to those gloriously obtuse silent B&W screen spectacles a la The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and yes, even Laurel and Hardy. There are also elements of every road movie you’ve ever seen in The Great Race – with nods to Frank Capra’s masterpiece, It Happened One Night (1934) and Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). But the sight gags are mostly ill-served by the inclusions of sound, color and expanding the image horizontally. What was hilarious as slapstick in the 1920’s looks decidedly out of place in the 1960’s.  Yes, it’s still homage; but not an altogether successful one, and not at all well-received when it had its premiere.
To some extent, Blake Edwards was given the green light to make The Great Race because his previous two movies (Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961, and The Pink Panther 1963) had been so wildly successful with audiences and critics alike. Initially, The Great Race was planned as a $6 million dollar extravaganza for the Mirisch Company, financed through United Artists. However, when UA balked at the escalating budget, the project migrated over to Warner Bros. who had every confidence it would be a valiant successor to the previous hits directed by Edwards. In some ways, Tony Curtis doesn’t really fit the bill as our hero; Edwards preferring Robert Wagner, a choice vetoed by Jack L. Warner who was worried the recent divorce of Wagner and Natalie Wood would cast a pall on the entire production.  Jack might have also had the overwhelming success of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot in the back of his mind, believing Curtis and Lemmon would once more make beautiful music together – even, if they were living apart and in competition with one another in this movie.
But Tony Curtis’ participation on The Great Race proved very costly indeed; his agent, Swifty Lazar insisting on a salary of $125,000 - $25,000 more than either Jack Lemmon or Blake Edward was receiving for their work. As for Natalie Wood; she began the film under a cloud of reluctance, goaded/then bribed by Jack Warner, who assured her the lead in Inside Daisy Clover (1965); a part she desperately wanted. Unhappy chance for Wood the perceived ‘short shoot’ on The Great Race ballooned in proportion to its budget; the production eventually doubling from $6 to $12 million, making it the most expensive comedy ever filmed. The pie fight alone tipped the scales at a staggering $200,000 for less than ten minutes of screen time. The shoot proved exhaustive, trying everyone’s patience. But Wood, ever the professional, kept her energies and spirits up to its completion; shortly thereafter attempting suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills.   
Viewed today, The Great Race is much more an artifact than an entertainment; a relic even in its own time and a time capsule for a type of lavishly appointed film-making we are not likely to see again. There are definite virtues to this production, as already discussed. But the pluses barely outrank the minuses and what we’re left with is a fairly sluggish, would-be comedy with more spectacle than laughs. This isn’t a great film and unlikely to be appreciated as such for some time to come – if ever. Tastes vary and shift with time, but The Great Race was merely passable for me – and infrequently ‘less than’ in spots. Judge and buy accordingly.
But there’s great news for Warner Home Video’s archive edition Blu-ray: a peerless mastering effort. This is becoming something of a habit for the WB Archive, and one definitely championed by yours truly on this blog. I just sincerely wish Warner would invest in more A-list titles from its vast catalog. Could we hope for titles like Around the World in Eighty Days, Silk Stockings, The Student Prince, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Marie Antoinette, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Pride and Prejudice (1940) and so on, and so forth?
Aside: I recently tuned into a Warner Archive podcast between WB VP George Feltenstein and noir historian, Eddie Muller where Feltenstein seemed genuinely perplexed the recently remastered Blu-ray edition of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) was already in its forth minting. No kidding, George. If you release it, they will buy! Release more high profile catalog to hi-def and it will sell! I guarantee it! Alas, a lot the of the titles currently part of the hi-def archive are not A-list ‘must haves’ for collectors. I don’t know why this is so startling a find; especially to Feltenstein, who has been the driving force for catalog restorations and their releases at Warner Home Video since the mid-1990’s.  But I digress.
The Great Race is everything you could possibly hope for on Blu-ray; sparkling with deep, richly saturated colors, superbly rendered contrast, and a dazzling amount of fine detail evident from beginning to end. The rear projection matte work is more obvious than ever, but that’s part of the movie’s ‘charm’. There isn’t an age-related blemish to be seen. This is a clean, crisp and beautifully rendered reference quality disc that will surely not disappoint.  Better still, the 5.1 DTS audio is a minor revelation, particularly Henry Mancini’s score. It takes on a sumptuous sonic life of its own. Dorothy Provine’s ‘He Shouldn't-A, Hadn't-A, Oughtn't-A Swang on Me!’ nearly knocked me off my chair.  Wow and thank you! The only extra features are a brief vintage featurette of Edwards at work and a badly worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended for quality. Warner Home Video is once again to be congratulated on their efforts. I just hope this means better movies are coming down this pipeline in similarly pristine 1080p. We’ll wait and see.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, September 13, 2014

MIDNIGHT LACE: Blu-ray (Universal International 1960) Shock Home Entertainment

In viewing David Miller’s Midnight Lace (1960) I am incongruously reminded of the marketing slogan for Paul Masson’s mountain winery: “We sell no wine before its time”; the inescapable fact being, this film is definitely a Ross Hunter picture - the producer’s inimitable stamp in visualized flare for the proverbial glam-bam superseding, and all but deflating, whatever ‘shock value’ Miller, or screenwriters, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts might have brought to the occasion.  And the parallel between this movie, being peddled as cinema art and Masson’s bait and switch of plunk for fine madeira is, I think, fitting.  For Midnight Lace is as half-fermented and sour-tasting as movie thrillers get; its formulaic ‘damsel in distress’ scenario diverging down some thoroughly murky ‘false leads’ in a desperate attempt to play up our sympathy for Kit Preston (Doris Day); a middle-aged newlywed love bunny, under siege from an cryptic would-be assassin with an effetely sinister voice.
There’s more than a hint of George Cukor’s 1944 classic, Gaslight in Midnight Lace (aside: I suppose I should be referencing Thorold Dickerson’s 1940 British-made original here) - albeit, less skillfully executed; combining all of the twists and turns of an amusement park ‘dark ride’ with its ‘women in peril’ treatise clap-trapped together. We’ve seen it all before: 1948’s Sorry Wrong Number and 1952’s Sudden Fear immediately come to mind. I should have clued in; the title, Midnight Lace – denoting a sheer black satin undergarment, worn by Doris Day in the penultimate ‘surprise’ (no surprise) ending. Like director, Douglas Sirk, producer, Ross Hunter’s métier is froth at the expense of story. Day runs the gamut of emotions from ‘A’ to ‘B’ wearing some truly stunning (and occasionally bizarre) haute couture by Irene Sharaff; elegantly sheathed from horn to hoof and looking every inch the fashion plate/star belonging to another bygone era in picture making. Que sera sera: clothes make the woman. Alas, they do nothing for the plot; nor do Robert Clatworthy and Alexander Golitzen’s art direction; cobbling together a faux London from various unconvincing and redressed outdoor sets on the Universal back lot.
Virtually every major female star from Hollywood’s golden age was reamed through this grindhouse of schlock suspense; in hindsight, a mostly predictable cycle of thrillers. The implosion of the studio system in the mid-1950’s really did an injustice to these female legends; particularly, those erroneously considered ‘past their prime’ after the age of thirty. At age 36, it must have dawned on Day that the proverbial ticking time bomb had been set to detonate her career prospects for playing the girl next door.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore Day. But she always seemed much too street savvy to be the virgin-esque ingénue – even when she was the virgin-esque ingénue. Her best movies, Calamity Jane (1953), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), or even Pillow Talk (1959) usually played up that intuitive intelligence, infectiously married to Day’s exquisite platinum beauty. Alas, Day is miscast as Kit Preston, the clotheshorse trophy of husband, Anthony (Rex Harrison). Her ‘mad’ scene, all frantic shrieks, undulating tears and heavy breathing, is particularly well played. But her gazelle-like sprints through perpetually fog-banked London squares, or shimmying from girder to girder in her aforementioned black negligee, in order to escape certain death, are over-the-top bordering on cheap camp; exceedingly strained panic attacks in the worst vein of the ‘scream queen’ tradition.
Despite his aging façade, Rex Harrison oozes an insidiously oily sex appeal from every pore. It’s easy to see why Harrison once earned the moniker, ‘sexy Rexy’. But apart from this intangible erotic larceny, Harrison was, is and will forever remain an exceptionally fine actor. He can basically recite the phone book and I would probably tune in for a listen. Midnight Lace never begins to test the boundaries of Harrison’s formidable strengths as a thespian, but he’s, nevertheless, quite magnificent in a part that, so easily, could have crumbled into foppish cliché. When Harrison’s ‘Tony’ Preston speaks, there’s always a crisp, clean edge to his delivery; a little something extra in double entendre, brewing with a modicum of uncertainty, pathos and manipulation. It’s a delicious, if casual, performance.
Midnight Lace also sports a ‘killer’ cast – pun intended. When all else fails – and it frequently does – we can admire Ross Hunter for assembling some of the greatest talents of the twentieth century for his disposable yarn: Myrna Loy, as Kit’s sympathetic aunt/sex-starved flirt, Bea; Herbert Marshall doing nine minutes as aging con man, Charles Manning; Roddy McDowell, cast against type as the wickedly devious leach, Malcolm Stanley, and ‘then’ resident heartthrob, John Gavin, improvising moody shell shock, as returning war vet cum architect, Brian Younger. So, which one of them is behind the mechanical sing-song pervert terrorizing our dear Kit with the promise of strangulation in the park? Hmmm. More on this later. Consider this your spoiler alert.
Midnight Lace is based on Janet Green’s play, Matilda Shouted Fire (a sort of ‘Never Cry Wolf’ set-up; our rechristened heroine…um…victim, Kit Preston, slowly forced into a nervous breakdown because no one except she seems to be hearing voices in the dark, on the telephone, behind locked doors, goading from just outside her balcony window. Midnight Lace, perhaps might have worked on the stage, as a sort of reconstituted Agatha Christie ‘locked room’ who done it? On film, it has the added impediment of Ross Hunter’s desire to ‘open things up’; taking us on a Triptik of London and the Universal back lot; needless, wasted travelogue footage to gild his lily with glamor. Alas, expanding the material with these lush surroundings also deflates the play’s claustrophobic atmosphere; the ever-constricting and ominous nature of the piece – evaporated. As Kit’s own anxieties take hold, making her world seem much smaller and more treacherous than it actually is, we’re suddenly left to question her motives and her sanity. What’s wrong with this silly female, who otherwise looks physically robust and hearty; as though she could tackle both Rex Harrison and the movie’s red herring killer, Roy Ash (Anthony Dawson) with one arm, while using the other to dial up Scotland Yard Inspector Brynes (John Williams)?  
The Goff/Roberts’ screenplay has some difficulty remembering where we are in the plot; particularly in its third act. After Kit is pushed in front of an oncoming double decker bus, rescued and brought back to her apartment by supposedly devoted friend, Peggy Thompson (Natasha Parry), she suffers an erratic attack of nerves. Bea does everything she can to anesthetize her niece’s fears. But it’s no use. Kit’s gone over the edge – mentally, speaking – screaming, crying and otherwise carrying on. What’s a poor harried husband to do? Draw up the commitment papers, of course. Tony does, in fact, take Kit to see a doctor. But then he decides instead to take his wife on that oft’ postponed Venice vacation they had been planning. Travel seems to be the magic elixir here. For within two short scenes, Kit snaps out of her catatonia, dresses in her midnight lace for the occasion, and packs a few suitcases for the journey. It’s such uneven storytelling that it makes us lose even an ounce of empathy for Kit Preston. As an audience, even we begin to believe she’s been faking it.
Midnight Lace opens with a fog-laden London street at night; the impeccably attired American heiress, Kit Preston departing the Embassy on route to the nearby fashionable apartment she shares with her high-financing hubby, Anthony. But after only a few venturesome steps into this pea soup, Kit allows her mind to play tricks; momentarily unsettled by the tap-tap-tapping of a blind man’s cane on the pavement. It’s silly to be scared. Or perhaps, not. For only a few more strides into the murk and Kit is addressed by a mechanical voice, drawing her attention to the statue of Franklin Roosevelt; the mysterious stranger claiming he is so close to Kit he could reach out, at this very moment, and strangle her. Racing off into the night, Kit manages to make it back to the apartment, frantically calling for her beloved housekeeper, Nora Stanley (Doris Lloyd). Instead, she finds Tony at home, waiting with cocktails. Kit regales her husband with her harrowing experience in the park. Tony makes light of it by suggesting the London fog is full of harmless pranksters who get their sick kicks by upsetting young girls and old women in the dark. Alas, our Kit falls into neither category. She ought to – and does – know better. However, Tony is convincing enough to momentarily relax Kit’s nerves. What can I tell you? He’s a damn good liar. He also promises to take her to Venice for the honeymoon they never had. Ah yes, nothing to calm the nerves like a smooth gondola down the canals.
However, the next day a pressing business matter forces Tony to cancel their luncheon date. It seems one of his company’s investors, Victor Elliot (Rhys Williams) is charging someone within the organization of deliberately forcing his stock prices down, thereby pushing his small investment firm into premature bankruptcy. Tony assures Victor this is not the case, but later we hear Tony’s treasurer, Charles Manning on the telephone, encouraging his broker to buy up even larger quantities of stock in Victor’s company, presumably to force the price of its shares down even further. In the meantime, the company’s younger colleague, Daniel Graham (Richard Ney) begins to investigate this matter on his own.
We shift our attention to Kit once again; left to her own accord for the afternoon and almost flattened by a heavy girder, breaking free from its restraints at a construction site adjacent her apartment complex. The building’s architect, Brian Younger dashes to Kit’s rescue. But she is mildly unsettled when he inquires about her safety using her last name; knowledge he claims to have gleaned off the couple’s mailbox. Okay, even so, this still sounds stalker-ish and creepy. Peggy leans out her second story window, inviting Kit up for some tea. Alas, Kit also encounters Nora’s shiftless son, Malcolm Stanley, whose sycophantic pleasantries disgust her; also, the way Malcolm constantly leans on his mother as a light touch from some quick, disposable cash. We witness Kit’s benevolence as she replenishes Nora’s purse with the small stash Nora gave her son so he can attend the opera with a girlfriend; Kit explaining she wants Nora to use the money to buy herself a new coat.
Left alone in the apartment, Kit promptly receives another call from the mysterious stalker who, once again, threatens to squeeze the life from her body. Kit panics and Peggy implores Tony to take her to make out a full report at Scotland Yard. Kit regales Inspector Byrnes with her story. But Byrnes is decidedly jaded. At best, he believes Kit is being pursued by some harmless hooligan who derives his sick sexual satisfaction from listening to Kit’s heavy panting on the telephone. At worst, Kit is mentally ill and making up these incidents to garner more attention from her husband. Nevertheless, Byrnes has Kit listen to a series of prerecorded voices of some of the city’s most notorious phone fiends; none of them matching the voice Kit’s has now heard twice. The next night, Tony surprises Kit with a stunning diamond clip in the shape of a gondola; a present meant to divert her fears; also, to mollify her disappointment upon learning from Tony their planned trip to Venice will have to be indefinitely postponed, due to a pressing business matter. Kit’s unhappiness is offset by a telegram, announcing the arrival of her favorite aunt, Bea.
A voracious flirt, Bea has picked up a portly bachelor, Basil Stafford (Rex Evans) on the plane. Aside: the film rather pointlessly introduces this character in a tedious dialogue scene at the airport, but then jettisons him entirely from the story. It’s probably just as well. For Bea seems more interested in rekindling a romance with her old flame Charles Manning; Kit, Bea, Chuck and Tony making a handsome foursome as they hit the nightclubs for some badly needed rest and relaxation. The seeds of doubt, as to the validity of Kit’s stalking claims, are planted in Tony’s head, first by Inspector Byrnes, then by Bea, each suggesting a woman desperately in love – but bored – may concoct such a story of persecution to get her husband to pay more attention to her. Tony is reluctant to buy into the possibility. But the next day, we see Kit overreact yet again, this time to getting momentarily stuck in the elevator; rescued from her own hysteria by an empathetic Bryan Younger who takes her to the pub across the street, managed by Dora Hammer (Hermione Baddeley). The pair stops off for a quick one to calm their nerves. During this tête-à-tête, Bryan confides in Kit, that ever since the war he has suffered blackouts, occasionally losing whole days at a time. Grateful for the kindness he’s shown her, but mildly rattled by his confession, Kit retreats to her apartment; Dora approaching to ask Bryan if he would like the telephone calls he made the previous night put on his bar tab.  Could Bryan be…? Hmmm.
The next evening, Tony decides to make a minor mends for his absences of late by accompanying his wife, Bea and Charles to a ballet performance of Swan Lake. Alas, at intermission Tony is summoned to his office by Daniel Graham, who informs his employer the company’s ledgers indicate someone has embezzled nearly £1 million from the firm. Knowing of Manning’s gambling debts Tony cleverly points the finger at Charles while never entirely coming right out to make his accusation stick. In the meantime, Malcolm, who is also at the ballet, uses the intermission to confront Kit in his feeble attempt to procure some money from her, supposedly on his mother’s behalf. When Kit instead offers to provide Nora with whatever necessity (and even a few luxuries) she could use directly, Malcolm vaguely threatens her. Tony, having returned from the office, swats back with a threat of his own, ordering Malcolm never to set foot in their apartment again.
Having established several characters who could possibly harbor a motive to want Kit dead, the Goff/Roberts’ screenplay now spends a goodly portion of its third act whittling down this list of deviants to the only two cast members the audience, presumably, have not yet even begun to suspect. In broad daylight, and with a crowd of onlookers surrounding her, Kit is pushed in front of a moving bus. The driver narrowly averts running over her. Now, Peggy appears out of nowhere and escorts Kit back to her apartment. Nevertheless, Kit is certain she is being stalked. A mysterious stranger knocks at her door, never identifying himself as Roy Ash – Peggy’s sweetheart. Instead, he ominously looms, and then approaches Kit, dressed in a black trench and fedora, and, with a perverse grin as she runs to scream for help. Once more, Bryan rushes to her aid. Alas, in the few seconds it takes Bryan to ascend the stairs Roy has vanished into thin air. Kit pleads for Peggy to lie for her; that she was present when another phone call came to the apartment; her corroboration necessary to convince Tony Kit’s claims of persecution are not delusional fantasies.
But Kit’s plan backfires when Tony arrives home and Peggy and Kit fabricate their story; Tony informing the pair the house lines have been down all day due to the construction going on next door. Inadvertently, Kit’s lie has managed to make her whole story seem even less credible. Concerned Kit may be on the verge of a nervous breakdown Tony takes his wife to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Garver (Hayden Rorke).  Only Garver is not terribly worried about Kit’s condition, even though she appears to be in a near catatonic state. Where did he get his medical license – out of a Cracker Jack box?!? However, the ‘good’ doctor does prescribe rest. Thus, Tony elects to take Kit to Venice. Only hours before seemly nearing the abyss, Kit has now miraculously recovered, peering from her upstairs window as Bryan toddles off to the pub across the street for a quick pint. Inside the pub, Bryan takes notice of Roy Ash reading a newspaper by the window. The gossipy Dora informs Bryan she doesn’t like the looks of him. After all, he’s been hanging around the neighborhood for days, presumably waiting for something to happen.
After Roy leaves, Bryan elects to keep a vigil on the Preston’s apartment. In the meantime, Kit receives her final phone call from the malicious stalker, forewarning that her end is near. Alas, Kit puts Tony on the phone this time to hear the man’s voice. Tony feigns disgust; also, telephoning the police, then making up an elaborate plan of action whereby, under Inspector Byrne’s direct orders, he will leave the apartment to set a trap for Kit’s assailant, who is most certain to come looking for her if he believes she is alone. True to form, Roy does reappear through the unlocked French doors with gun in hand, terrorizing Kit, as Tony leaps from the shadows to wrestle Roy to the ground in the dark. In the ensuing struggle, Tony manages to fire the gun and wound Roy in the stomach – discovering a mini tape-recorder in his pocket with prerecorded threats.
It all seems to be ‘conveniently’ over - except Tony now reveals himself to be the embezzler of his own company’s funds. It was he who plotted to be rid of Kit by making everyone think she is going insane, thereby setting up the premise she might commit suicide. Having heard the gunshot, Peggy bursts into the room. Kit urges her friend to hurry and telephone the police. Instead, Peggy confesses she too is in on the plot; Tony’s lover, in fact, and looking forward to putting a period to both Roy and Kit’s lives. But Roy stirs on the floor and Kit seizes the opportunity to escape onto the balcony, reaching for the girders of the adjacent construction site and shimmying across the suspended catwalk to relative safety.
Meanwhile, Inspector Byrnes arrives with several Scotland Yard bobbies in tow. Having put a tap on the Prestons’ phone, he became rather perplexed, the concerned by Tony’s fake phone call to the police; especially since Tony never dialed the number. Bryan takes a construction elevator up to rescue Kit; reuniting her with Bea on the ground, who is waiting with a nice warm fur coat. Tony helplessly observes from the balcony as the police move in to arrest him and Peggy for Roy’s homicide and Kit’s attempted murder. The movie concludes with Kit bravely marching off, flanked by Bea and Bryan, whom we might assume will now present himself to her as a prospective suitor.
Midnight Lace is unintentionally farcical and grossly derelict in its setup of false accusations. These effectively make everyone except Tony and Peggy look suspicious. The implication of Charles’ complicity in the embezzlement is one of the more egregious fibs told for the sake of throwing the audience off the scent as to the real culprits. But the Goff/Roberts’ screenplay also lobs distasteful hints of larceny at dear old Aunt Bea – who, in tandem, seems to fear for her niece’s safety but is rather too interested in having Kit committed to an asylum.
Another red herring involves the emotionally emasculated Bryan Younger. He spends a good deal of his time skulking about the shadows, just as a stalker might; reading people’s names off their mailboxes and spookily staring off into the distance when questioned by Kit about his past. But the worst offender is Roy Ash; Peggy’s beloved. He pops in and out of the narrative like an apparition; presumably, out to exact revenge on his cheating mate, but not above spooking Kit half out of her wits. It’s almost as if producer, Ross Hunter is relying solely on our collective memories of the actor, Anthony Dawson (and his star turn as Grace Kelly’s would-be killer in Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder 1954) to bolster this mute performance as Roy.
Only in the eleventh hour do we learn Roy suspects Peggy of having an affair. In fact, he has come home to murder her and her lover. Why he never bothers to explain this scenario or his presence at Kit’s apartment is another mystery (how he vanishes from the apartment even after Bryan has already sealed off every available exit route, is an even bigger mystery). None of these ‘loose ends’ is ever satisfactorily resolved; ditto for how Tony managed to slip his tape recorder into Roy’s pocket during their frenetic struggle inside the dimly lit apartment; or why Roy should have partook in Tony’s plan to drive Kit insane by playing a recorded message from a nearby payphone. Roy’s complicity in the crime is a mystery, indeed.
The premise for Midnight Lace – a woman in danger – is ruined by the audience being misled in too many conflicting directions all at once. When one of these dead end ‘what if?’ setups becomes problematic, it is simply discarded instead of being cleverly explained away. Occasionally, such absences of clarity can work in service to a story, building necessary tensions via ambiguity. Life is, after all, full of uncertainties and imperfect circumstances. And if art is an imitation of life, then it is plausible to have some incongruities within the script and still make sense; even within the fictional realm of a classic Hollywood thriller (Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep 1946– makes no sense at all – as example, and yet it’s a quintessential crime/thriller). Tragically, Midnight Lace is no Big Sleep; just a languid snore; the audience infrequently forced to suffer from bouts of insomnia. There are too many unexplained fool’s errands. Too soon these prove counterintuitive to our enjoyment. We lose interest in what happens to Kit or who is responsible for the sinister plot afoot.
Nevertheless, Midnight Lace has a following – or rather, it has acquired an appreciation among Doris Day fans for whom the actress can do no wrong.  I disagree. Day is too regal in stature; too physically robust to play the shrinking/shrieking/terrorized little violet. To listen to her screams is to want to give her a violent shake and then, a mighty thwack across the cheek: to have her be the Doris Day we all know, love and expect to see. Day never lives up to her back-catalog of memories. And despite a glittering assemblage of A-list star personalities to buttress her performance, no one is particularly well served by this anemic story.
The acting is, as to be expected, mostly top notch. And having such luminaries give themselves wholeheartedly to this flimsy material lends a certain cache to the story it otherwise would not possess.  There is much to be said for intangible ‘star quality’; the characters taking on ballast because of each star’s built-in presence. But the warm, glossy ‘feel good’ we derive from seeing these perfectionists at play is more for their presence - as stars - rather than the characters they inhabit during the next hour and forty-eight minutes.  Bottom line: I couldn’t get my knickers in a ball for Midnight Lace. It lacked the essential ingredient of suspense, minus a good story to propel and hold one’s interest for very long. There aren’t enough moments of genuine tension to offset Ross Hunter’s fervent desire to shake us another bubbly cocktail, meant more to captivate the eye rather than to tickle and titillate the senses.
Midnight Lace gets a region free Blu-ray release in Australia from Shock Entertainment, under a franchise distributor deal with Universal Home Video. There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of quality control regarding TCM’s Archive Collection DVD of Midnight Lace; also, a few reviews of Universum - Region 'B' - Blu-ray in Germany, but virtually nothing on this disc, making it something of a hidden treasure for fans in North America, who desperately want to add Midnight Lace to their libraries. Rejoice then, because this appears to be the same transfer as the Universum. It isn’t perfect. But frankly, it’s a lot better than I expected. Colors are generally solid, and overall color saturation is competent, if not robust.
The image has a consistent, slightly grainy quality, probably in keeping with the vintage film stocks. Grain, if heavier than normal, is nevertheless, evenly rendered and – better still – age-related artifacts are reduced to a minimum. Best of all, Midnight Lace looks fairly clean with excellent contrast levels. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the image harvest, particularly since Shock’s release of Exodus – also, under the Hollywood Gold label and region free – was a fairly pathetic gesture to Otto Preminger’s 1960 classic.  One hiccup: like the Universum German release, this Aussie import is framed in 2.0:1, not 1.78:1 as its’ back cover suggests.
The framing, at least to my mind, looks natural. We, of course, lose information on the top and bottom when compared to the old DVD transfer from Universal; but no egregious cutting off the tops of people’s heads. And in examining the credit sequence, 2.0:1 seems a fitting aspect ratio for this presentation. Techniscope? Not sure. The audio is DTS 2.0 mono, but remarkably solid, crisp and exhibiting no untoward distortions. So, good stuff here.
The TCM DVD contains a lot of junkets, advertised as ‘extra features’. What they boil down to is an intro from Robert Osborne, and a fashion featurette; plumped out by stills galleries, a radio excerpt, and a trailer. We get only the trailer on this Shock Blu-ray. I’m still okay with this because the quality of the hi-def transfer beats the pants off TCM’s tepid DVD. Aside: why TCM (who’s Archive Collection has already given us The Lady From Shanghai in hi-def) could not be bothered to do as much for Midnight Lace when a competent image harvest currently exist in 1080p, is a marketing decision beyond me. I don’t think logic was ever applied. Bottom line: you want it, you got it. Midnight Lace in hi-def from Shock Home Video comes recommended by me.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)