Monday, December 15, 2014

TOOTSIE: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures 1982) Criterion Home Entertainment

Can an unemployed actor find his true calling in a slip and red sequin gown? According to director, Sydney Pollack, the answer in Tootsie (1982) is a most emphatic ‘yes’. Tootsie is a rare flower, indeed. Like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) it uses the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ premise of a man in drag merely as its crutch rather than the crux of its' story. Therein lays the movie’s great sincerity and its enduring legacy as a truly remarkable piece of cinema: also in Dustin Hoffman’s monumental performance – playing it ‘straight’ as it were - as the guy who reaffirms his manhood by getting in touch with his feminine side…literally! 
Hoffman, who has proven his chameleon’s skin on numerous occasions and has had one of the most enviable careers in Hollywood, delivers us a bungler of life, inadequate, inept and grotesquely awkward in his own sex, yet effortlessly liberated and fortified each time he straps on the war paint and brassier. It’s a delicious transgression; the strong-minded woman who comes to understand not only the power of the feminine mystique but can also admire what it means to be a woman in the proverbial man’s world from the male point of view; Hoffman realigning this convoluted quagmire of sexual politics as witnessed from both sides of the looking glass and coming away with a far richer appreciation. 
Tootsie is so rife with moments of sheer comedic brilliance and self-revelation that it catches the viewer almost by surprise. Oh sure, we’re expecting a comedy. And Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal’s screenplay never disappoints. But the origin of our laughs derives from the most unlikely places, rather than periodically escaping from under the wig and girdle. Tootsie strikes at the heart of virtually all male/female relationships, while tapping into our hero’s awkward desperation to fit in and grapple to understand the opposite sex on their terms. Hoffman’s struggling actor, Michael Dorsey (a.k.a. Dorothy Michaels) says it best when, in the film’s penultimate confession to costar, Jessica Lange’s Julie Nichols, he astutely points out, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was as a man. I just got to learn to do it without the dress.” Therein the lesson and/or message behind Tootsie remains, remarkably hitting home for Dustin Hoffman too.
What is quite miraculous about Tootsie is Hoffman’s ability to so completely immerse us in his alter ego that somewhere along the way we can still forget this is Hoffman playing a part. George Masters’ impressive makeup can only take the actor so far. The rest of the assimilation comes entirely from within, Hoffman’s ability to get inside Dorothy Michaels transferring the best elements of his own star presence and actor’s acumen into a re-conceptualized sense of self as the unattractive female most men would find threatening to their own fragile sense of masculinity.
The die is cast early on in the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay when Michael - as Dorothy - auditions for the part of the new hospital administrator on the popular daytime soap opera, ‘South West General’. Given the briefest and most dismissive once over by the program’s chauvinistic director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman), Hoffman's Dorothy challenges this judgment call at its face value. “Yes,” Dorothy defiantly tells Ron, “I think I know what you all want. Some gross caricature of a woman…to prove some idiotic point. Like power makes women masculine. Or masculine women are ugly. Well, shame on you and any woman that lets you do that. Shame on you – you macho shithead!”
Throughout the movie, the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay repeatedly informs and reinforces its pro-feminist agenda, yet never becomes preachy or detracts from Tootsie’s innate entertainment value. The film's best moments help establish something greater than just another man in drag farce and confront us with our own perceptions about female attractiveness. Consider the moment from a scene within a scene, supposedly taking place on the South West General set. Dorothy deviates from the teleprompted script to respond to a battered woman's pleas. Wielding a flower pot at the wall to reference her response to any man who would raise his hands to her, Dorothy informs Ron that to tell any woman with children, no money and a ‘bashed in face’ to seek counseling is a lot of “horse shit”.  In another of the film's most fondly recalled moments, Hoffman brilliantly articulates to his roommate, Jeff (Bill Murray), “I think Dorothy’s smarter than me”, catching himself in this self-revelation before falling back on “It also happens to be one of the great acting challenges of any career.”
Dustin Hoffman would later acknowledge a divining force in making Tootsie. In an interview conducted for the AFI, the actor confessed his bias to women he had found physically unappealing, a realization spoken with humility, crystalized when he first saw himself in drag. "I wouldn't date me…and I started to wonder why?" Hoffman reasoned, before adding, “That was never a comedy for me.” Indeed, Tootsie aims at loftier ambitions; its social critique of men who judge women as sex objects is fueled by Hoffman’s inspired ‘take charge’ gal with an agenda. The screenplay touches off a powder keg of issues: gender inequality, mixed messages about basic human attraction, a near rape situation, transgender confusion, and, transsexualism; hardly the expected fodder for a frothy ‘light’ romantic/comedy. At the heart of these probative explorations is Dustin Hoffman’s potent morphing into the title role. Not only does his conversion from starving actor, Michael Dorsey to popular television personality, Dorothy Michaels serve as the crux of the comedy, it also explores social issues in a palpably engaging, educational, but ultimately, entertaining way; a fascinating tightrope never breached under Sidney Pollack’s masterful direction.
Some thirty plus years after its debut, Tootsie remains as fresh and unvarnished as ever. Part of the reason is the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay never strains for laughs. Tootsie isn’t a movie looking to fabricate ‘funny situations’ but rather unearth something quite ironic and ‘sadly’ humorous about the state of the sexes in the contemporary every day. Finding the perfect outfit to wear with an imperfect body concealed underneath, or balancing on a set of high heels is good for the thirty second chuckle. But when Dorothy speaks, her words have a naked authority that never stoops to patronize either sex. The complications arising from Dorothy really being a man in love with a woman he’s only met socially as a woman are, decidedly, the cream of the jest. Yet, the movie’s great strength lies in Dorothy’s unapologetic delivery of these more deeply felt truths, disseminated from a national platform as the new cast member of the movie’s fictional soap to her millions of adoring TV fans; also, by way of Tootsie’s potentially sobering voice for changing social mores.  
Somewhere along the way, Hoffman's transformation becomes so believable we easily forget Dorothy is actually a guy wearing a push up and heavy foundation. In fact, it’s almost as shocking to the movie viewer when Hoffman’s supreme queen lets down his wig in front of South West General’s principle cast to a live TV audience no less; unraveling his hoax with a desperate confession. It’s Tootsie’s pièce de résistance, culling together all of the parallels between Hoffman's character on the soap and the part he has been forced to play in life, most detrimentally deceiving Julie and her father, Les (Charles Durning), who has come to have affections for Dorothy too. Hoffman draws on some inner intuitiveness and makes this revelation genuinely heartfelt. We feel Michael's angst and can empathize with his predicament.
We can sense his desperation at having to dissolve all the good his personal growth has achieved along the way because it has been predicated on a grand deception that cannot be allowed to go on. And we cry out to the object of Michael's affections – Julie – praying she can see through his masquerade. What began as a cruel joke for personal gain is now the greatest of sacrifices made by one man for the only person he truly loves better than himself.  The old cliché, that if you can fake sincerity you have it made, resonates with renewed redemptive qualities. We understand just how awkward and awful Michael Dorsey’s life has been, prior to his assimilation into womanhood. He was a frustrated, compassion-less actor with an ax to grind and a general contempt for human frailty beyond what it could do for him. Now he is someone who has found himself, albeit in the unlikeliest of places. Tootsie continues to work its magic because it forces the audience to question many personal failings, opinions and attitudes. It isn’t often movies can make us look inside ourselves; even more uncommon when they do without being preachy diatribes, beating us over the head with their ‘message’. But Tootsie neither shrinks from making its points, nor does it indoctrinate us with them and that’s refreshing.
Our story begins in earnest with harried actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) unable to find suitable employment in his chosen profession. Nevertheless, he’s a brilliant layman who breathes the craft by day, holding workshops in the loft he shares with roommate, Jeff (the sublime Bill Murray) while the two work diligently to craft a play they hope to independently produce and co-star in, along with their good friend, Sandy Lester (the hilarious, Terry Garr). Michael loves to act. But he’s also fed up with taking direction from talent he perceives as less than his own. His lack of pliability has branded the scarlet letter of ‘D’ for ‘difficult’ across his forehead; something Michael refuses to accept until his agent George Fields (Sydney Pollack) points out that he can’t even set Michael up for a commercial. “Do you mean to tell me nobody in New York will work with me?” Michael asks. “That’s too limiting,” George replies, “No one in Hollywood wants to work with you either!”
After Michael’s surprise birthday party, Sandy confides her anxiety over an early morning audition for the soap opera, South West General. Michael runs Sandy’s lines for her all night to prepare for the audition. Alas, only a few moments  at the studio Sandy is rejected and Michael inadvertently discovers one of the show’s major stars, Terry Bishop, has since departed to do a revival of The Iceman Cometh on Broadway – the role Michael was supposed to be up for. Meanwhile, Jeff’s new play – Return to Love Canal – has hit a funding snag. To kill two birds with one stone, Michael decides to disguise himself as a woman and try out for the part on the soap. After an initial confrontation between Michael and the show’s director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman) Michael is signed as the forthright, if matronly, Dorothy Michaels; the hospital’s new administrator. As the latest addition to the venerable cast, Dorothy will find – true, pure and haplessly misguided love thrice; first, with Ron’s playmate, Julie Nichols(Jessica Lange), cast as the hospital slut, Nurse Charles; love unwillingly reciprocated from Julie’s amorous widower/dad, Les (Charles Durning) who thinks Dorothy is the right kind of woman he could settle down with and marry, and, sexism exploited to the point of near rape by John Van Horn (George Gaynes), the wily, womanizing ham who also stars on the soap as the frisky and ferocious chief of staff, Dr. Melville ‘the tongue’ Brewster.  
The sexual relationship that blossoms between Sandy and Michael stems from a misunderstanding Michael is unwilling to admit, further fueled by Sandy’s neuroses best left untapped, but probably stemming from her general mistrust of all men. This relationship is played strictly for laughs. Still, the tenderness in Michael’s appreciation for Sandy’s insecurities is oddly touching and sincere. Meanwhile, Michael transforms himself into a crusading feminist/actress on the show; the delightfully opinionated Dorothy Michaels.  No one, least of all George can understand Dorothy’s appeal. But Michael’s proactive Dorothy is an instant hit with female viewers, even if Michael (as Dorothy) repeatedly runs into conflict with the show’s chauvinistic director. As Michael begins to fall for Julie, Les starts to have feelings for Michael’s Dorothy. Of course, no one knows Dorothy is really a he, resulting in all sorts of riotous confusion after Michael (as Dorothy) spends the weekend with Les and Julie at Les’ upstate farmhouse. Michael is proposed to by Les, and later, forgets himself by attempting to kiss Julie (still, as Dorothy) to prove his love for her. Julie mistakes Dorothy to be a lesbian. Michael reveals to George he is distraught. His love life is a shambles. There’s only one way out: quit the show. Too bad for Michael, it’s a one way contract with the option defaulting to the producer, Rita (Doris Belack). Dorothy is a rating’s bonanza. Her contract is renewed. Michael is trapped.
Unable to get out from under his ironclad contract, Michael makes a fateful decision; to reveal his true identity during a live broadcast of South West General – thereby forcing its producers to fire him. Julie is incensed and punches Michael in the stomach before storming off. But Les is more understanding. Try as he might, he cannot bring himself to hate this man he once thought he could not live without as a woman. Waiting for Julie – as himself – outside the studio, Michael is momentarily disturbed when Julie simply ignores him and hurries off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. But as Michael pursues he quickly discovers Julie is more wounded than mad. “I miss Dorothy,” Julie confesses. “You don’t have to,” Michael explains, “She’s right here.”
Tootsie is self-effacing, probative entertainment; its cerebral debates brought to the forefront by the genius of its comedy. Everyone in the cast is given their moment to shine and each is playing their scenes ‘for real’ rather than for the perceived comedic value. As such, the comedy seems neither canned nor rehearsed. Reportedly, Sydney Pollack had cast an actor to play Michael's agent, George Fields when Dustin Hoffman suggested the director play the part himself instead. Pollack resisted. Hoffman insisted and the results clicked with antagonistically genuine camaraderie; the only real buddy/buddy friendship featured in the film. Two scenes exemplify Michael and George’s strained, but ultimately devoted friendship. The first is George’s initial surprise introduction to Dorothy inside New York’s famed Russian Tea Room (without George first let in on the masquerade). 
Michael as Dorothy attempts to pick up George, silencing his worrisome objections by grabbing his scrotum and then by dropping the gentile falsetto from his charade. “Oh God,” George exclaims in a state of complete shock, “I begged you to get therapy. You’re insane!” to which Michael as Dorothy coyly replies, “No, I’m not. I’m employed!” The other bromantic between George and Michael comes late in the movie, the pair debating Dorothy’s future on South West General; the disguise having outlived its usefulness and begun to grate on Michael’s sanity and sexual frustrations. In this latter scene the two old friends debate Dorothy/Michael’s sexual confusion. Sandy thinks Michael’s lack of renewed affection after their initial flagrante delicto means he is gay. Julie thinks Dorothy is a lesbian. Yet, Julie is strangely attracted to Dorothy on some maternal level. Finally, Michael desperately wants Julie as a man. After Michael’s live confession to the world reveals Dorothy’s true self to the world, Dr. Brewster has the penultimate ‘last laugh’, quietly exclaiming, “Does Jeff now?”
It really is difficult to objectively critique a film as well-rounded as Tootsie. It's as real and as perfect as movies get. Owen Roizman's cinematography captures the grit and glory of New York City circa 1982. Dave Grusin's original score, and Stephen Bishop’s Oscar-nominated, 'It Might Be You' add another layer of poignancy to a movie already brimming with an embarrassment of riches: heart, class and something meaningful to say. Comedies tend to date. But Tootsie remains the gold star standard bearer by which most any other before or since can or ought to be judged.
Criterion Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray appears to be the same hi-def transfer Sony is peddling in Europe with minor additional clean-up performed somewhere along the way.  The Sony/German ‘region free’ Blu-ray release of Tootsie was fairly impressive with minor caveats; mostly an exaggerated grain structure during the optically printed montage sequences depicting Dorothy’s rise to prominence on the cover of various magazines.  The pluses on this Criterion disc are a sparkling 1080p transfer with some gorgeous color and a stunning amount of fine detail evident in both close-ups and long shots.  Truly, you won’t be disappointed.
At some level, however, this hi-def transfer is at the mercy of less than stellar existing film elements. The color, processed at MGM’s labs, occasionally fluctuates from vibrant to less so. While some scenes exhibit very fine tonality, contrast and a good solid smattering of film grain accurately rendered, others suffer from wan colors and heavier than usual grain. Age-related artifacts are a non-issue. Montages suffer from weak contrast brought on by inferior optical printing methods. Sony could have gone back to the drawing board from original elements for a re-composite as they have done on their Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Blu-ray (available through Twilight Time). Regrettably, they didn’t spend the extra coin. Criterion gives us a monaural PCM audio; the German Blu-ray contains a 5.0 stereo track. 
Criterion carries over an audio commentary recorded by the late Sydney Pollack from their ancient 1991 laserdisc. It’s to Pollack’s credit time has not diminished his introspective reflections on the film. They hold up very well and are definitely worth a listen.  Criterion has sweetened the pot with nearly forty minutes of new interviews featuring Dustin Hoffman and comedy writer, Phil Rosenthal. The 5 minute deleted ‘interview’ between Dorothy and Gene Shalit is cloying and silly. But Criterion also gives us a half hour vintage ‘making of’ as well as A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie. This latter effort is more comprehensive and was part of Sony’s 2007 25th Anniversary DVD edition. There's a lot of overlap in coverage between the aforementioned 3 featurettes; Hoffman more introspective - and emotional - in his new interview. Extras round out with 6 minutes of screen and wardrobe tests done for Hal Ashby, initially approached by Dustin Hoffman to direct the picture.  We also get nine deleted scenes, three trailers and a critical essay by Michael Sragow. 
Bottom line: Tootsie is a seminal comedic gem. It remains head and shoulders better than your average ‘romantic comedy’ and a superior example of the sort of genius Hollywood used to foster: low brow humor made palpably highbrow and extremely clever.  Hey, Tootsie – it might as well be you! Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG: Blu-ray (UA 1961) Twilight Time

The penultimate moment of realization for condemned German justice, Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) is, in fact, the haunting epitaph to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); a weary Janning imploring American Chief Judge, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) with a personal atonement for all the atrocities committed under Nazi socialism, adding “I never knew it would come to that. You must believe me.” Haywood’s sobering reply: “Herr Janning…it came to ‘that’ the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”  By then, audiences had been treated to 179 minutes of intense courtroom histrionics, some fairly weighty – if poetic – speeches, expertly delivered by the principle cast, and, an artistic framework built around the very first mass public exposure to the gruesome newsreel footage taken by the American liberator’s film corps at Dachau concentration camp. 
While no accurate number of casualties incurred will likely ever be known, for certain the tally of the murdered accrued there is in the thousands. Too often, the meticulous narrative construction of screenwriter, Abby Mann’s sublime melodrama is overlooked. What Mann had achieved is nothing short of a miracle; his expansive canvas of world events lyrically distilled into a highly personal and unlikely ‘respect’ and sublime disenchantment, dishearteningly realized by Tracy’s world-weary Haywood for Lancaster’s demoralized Janning.
In his courtroom summation, Haywood points to the staggering and unholy truth of it all; Janning – the tragic figure, whom Haywood staunchly believes “loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and death of millions by the government of which he was a part. Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he and the other defendants were all depraved perverts - if the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs - these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes. But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men - even able and extraordinary men - can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination.” 
Haywood’s final words are, perhaps, even more prophetic today than when first spoken. “There are those in our country too who speak of the protection of the country. Of ‘survival’. The answer to that is: ‘survival as what?’ A country isn't a rock. And it isn't an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world - let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what we stand for: justice, truth... and the value of a single human being!”
By his own admission screenwriter, Abby Mann did not set out to write a propaganda piece. Indeed, in his passionate resolve to spare his entertainment the trappings of a lengthy diatribe or heavy-handed indictment on the atrocities committed under Adolf Hitler’s reign, Mann focused the crux of his documented theatrics on the conflict of personalities at play in his electrifying courtroom drama. Many today will forget Judgment at Nuremberg began as a play filmed for television’s popular live theater program, Playhouse 90; the roster including the inimitable Claude Rains (as Haywood) and newcomer, Maximilian Schell – the brother of famed German star, Maria Schell. Max’s star turn in the TV drama made him an obvious choice for the movie version, although it took the clout of director, Stanley Kramer to insist on his reprise. The part was heavily sought after by Marlon Brando   - a far more ‘bankable’ star.
Schell’s superb and Oscar-winning performance as defense council, Hans Rolfe is counterbalanced in the movie by Richard Widmark’s venomous prosecuting attorney, Colonel Tad Lawson. Viewed today, both performances are apt to occasionally veer into exaggeration. But Schell’s remains more steadily on course; Widmark’s passionate reveling in the punctuation of every last syllable as written becoming marginally tedious.  Other roles went to Judy Garland, spellbindingly brilliant as the fragile, Irene Wallner; Montgomery Clift as the surgically enfeebled, Rudolph Peterson, and, Marlene Dietrich’s embittered, Madame Bertholt, former wife of a high-ranking Nazi general. 
Of all this glittering assemblage, Dietrich is, perhaps, the most poignant and truest to the core of the piece. The sultry and gender-bending Dietrich – one of Germany’s brightest cinema stars in the late 1920’s and early 30’s – had forsaken the Nazi occupation of her country in 1939, becoming a U.S. citizen, her outward condemnation of her former homeland, “the German people and I no longer speak the same language”, inciting considerable ire back home for decades yet to follow.
The irony, of course, is Marlene would forever be linked to Germany in her American career; often cast as an ex-patriot, or spy or scheming – if sinfully exotic – foreigner, perpetuating the myth of the good/bad German in America movies. In Judgment at Nuremberg she is, quite simply, the shattered soul of a nation, revealed to Judge Haywood by an, at first, glacial exterior slowly melted into tender friendship, but doomed to abject pity and ultimate refusal as Haywood’s perspective on the German people’s complicity in national socialism turns from compassion to letdown and eventual – if restrained – scorn. Dietrich’s international fame led to a reconciliation of sorts with Germany. In later years, she toured the country in a one woman show that enthralled audiences.
On the surface, Judgment at Nuremberg is a fairly weighty tome; covering not only the atrocities of the Holocaust but also examining the geo-political hotbed of complexities surrounding the actual Nuremberg trials. Almost miraculously, Judgment at Nuremberg never deviates into typically heavy-handed courtroom theatrics; Abby Mann’s critique of the persecution and genocide of European Jews, telescopically refocused as crimes perpetrated by a corrupt German autocracy against its racial/religious, and eugenic groupings. Alas, Abby Mann could find no one to produce it; the general – and nervous – consensus being not enough time had passed between the proposed film and actual events; at least enough for them to be considered ‘ancient history’. Hollywood en masse might have also seen a distinct parallel between Mann’s prose and the, then, even more recent scourge of the McCarthy witch hunts, resulting in the blacklisting of some of its most prominent talent. Better not to pick at that scab. Mann perceived blind patriotism as the villain of his piece; recognizing that under considerable stress during a national crisis, even extraordinary men of great moral convictions and intellect could be swayed into its maelstrom of turpitude.
Along the road to immortality, Mann was repeatedly discouraged from proceeding with his plans to turn the TV drama into a major motion picture. However, Katherine Hepburn had seen Playhouse 90, had been moved by it, and furthermore, had thought it a splendid vehicle for her lover, Spencer Tracy. Tracy agreed, but only if Stanley Kramer would direct it. With such heavy-hitters on his side, United Artists green lit Judgment at Nuremberg; Mann going to work assembling his all-star cast from a roster of Tinsel Town’s finest. To the film version, Kramer brought his own inimitable brands of conviction and energy; a passionate film-maker’s eye with a keen sense of timing. Kramer had hoped to shoot the entire movie in Berlin and Nuremberg. In the end, half his wish was granted; approximately fifty percent of Judgment at Nuremberg shot among the ruins of those cities. Kramer also had dozens of photographs taken of the actual courtroom where the Nuremberg trials had taken place to better inform his production designer, Rudolph Sternad, and set decorator, George Milo in their meticulous recreations.
In retrospect, Judgment at Nuremberg can also be seen as one of the first – of the last – blindingly all-star pictures to emerge from the decade that gave us such grandiose ensemble entertainments as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cleopatra (1963), and Kramer’s own jam-packed It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Courtroom dramas are, perhaps, the most exigent form of movie entertainment to pull off successfully – primarily because the ‘action’ takes place inside a single confined space with the principles immobilized in seated positions. Kramer did, in fact, ‘open up’ the play to accommodate the demands of cinema; his departures from the courtroom yielding a rich tapestry of vignettes to showcase and crystalize the pall and lingering devastation inflicted on Germany’s nationalism and pride. There is very little room within the framework of Abby Mann’s original to infuse a more lighthearted flair. But Kramer managed brief flights into quaint comedy nonetheless; perhaps, the most charming of them all featuring Tracy’s Haywood stopping for a sausage at an outdoor market. He takes notice of an attractive German fräulein, quietly smoking a cigarette. The two exchange mildly flirtatious glances and she quietly says a few words with tenderness he does not understand before departing. Inquiring for a translation from the street vendor who has overheard their conversation, Haywood is told the girl said “Goodbye, grandpa!”
The emotional core of Judgment at Nuremberg is centered on Haywood’s burgeoning friendship with Madame Bertholt; the widow of a high-ranking Nazi official who has already been executed for war crimes. Haywood’s stay in Bertholt’s former residence is left at a quiet unease by the presence of two of Bertholt’s former servants; Mr. and Mrs. Halbestadt (Ben Wright and Virginia Christine). Haywood’s introduction to the city reveals its desolate wasteland. “I didn’t think it was this bad,” Haywood confides to fellow justice, Kenneth Norris (Kenneth MacKenna). Indeed, Germany is a shell of its former self; the specters of Nazi socialism lingering all about. Stanley Kramer aptly begins Judgment at Nuremberg with the explosion of the Nazi insignia – the stone wreathed swastika – toppled from its perch at the Reichsparteitagsgelände. From here, Haywood is introduced to his personal attaché, Capt. Harrison Byers (William Shatner), the Halbestadts and, not long thereafter, Madame Bertholt, who has come to take a few mementos from the house. Bertholt is distant. But Haywood is compassionate to her plight and allows her to retrieve whatever she wishes without question. 
From these auspicious beginnings, Stanley Kramer delves into the trial; presided over by Haywood, Norris and a third judge, Curtiss Ives (Ray Teal). The prosecution, helmed by Col. Tad Lawson, is intent on exposing the distortions and perversions of German law, as dispensed by a motley crew of grey-faced and steely-eyed former judges. These included, Dr. Ernest Janning – once, the foremost progressive influence in modern German justice. Also in the dock are Justices Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer), Werner Lampe (Torben Meyer), and Friedrich Hofstetter (Martin Brandt). Each enters a plea of ‘not guilty’ in tandem, cumulatively represented by impassioned defense council, Hans Rolfe. Haywood is empathetic toward the accused. Indeed, as he points out, some feel the trial of these judges is a redundancy stalemating the post-war recovery. But Haywood is determined to press on. In his free time, he explores the city. A widower, he begins an unlikely friendship with Madame Bertholt, suggestive it could lead to something more. She introduces him to the lingering traditions of Germany before the war. Lawson is adversarial toward Bertholt; his more blatant vitriol spared for the trial, where he and Rolfe frequently clash over contentious points about the extent to which the German justices had knowledge about the gruesome fates on innocent defendants their verdicts had, brought before them by S.S. officers.
We hear testimony from Dr. Karl Wieck (John Wengraf); once, a mild proponent of National Socialism, but long since having changed his opinion, Rolfe suggests to avoid his own prosecution. Also called to testify is Rudolph Petersen (Montgomery Clift, in a mesmerizing performance); a shell-shocked remnant of his former self since being ordered to submit to medical sterilization. On the witness stand, Petersen accounts the hour he was forcibly taken away and made ‘half the man he used to be’. Clift, who survived a near fatal auto accident that deprived him not only of his handsome good looks but also the self-confidence that went with it, is exquisite as this bumbling and wild-eyed figure, infused with nervous ticks and holding up a picture of the real Petersen’s mother, shouting “Look…my mother! Was she feeble-minded?!?” 
The other exemplary performance, among the many called to testify, belongs to Judy Garland. Primarily known as a musical comedy star, Garland is stirring as Irene Hoffman, a middle-aged frump sent to a Nazi work camp in her youth after being accused of improprieties with a then middle-aged Jewish friend of her family who was cruelly labeled a sexual deviant and sent to the gas chambers. Under cross-examination by Hans Rolfe, Irene suffers a breakdown; vehemently denying the allegation - that simply because she sat on the ‘old Jew’s’ lap and accepted candy from him, there was something more sinisterly sexual about their father/daughter friendship.  Abby Mann had, in fact, based the nefarious ‘Feldenstein case’ in the movie on an actual trial involving an elderly Jewish man put to death in 1935 for allegedly carrying on a sexual relationship with an Aryan girl of sixteen. 
As the climax of Rolfe’s humiliating insinuations bring Irene to the brink of collapse, her tear-stained testimony is interrupted by the stoic, Ernst Janning who addresses the court directly, despite objections from his defense council. Janning describes the ‘fever’ afflicting the German people; one predicated on ‘disgrace, indignity and hunger’. He eloquently surmises the folly of the Weimar Republic, its fractured democracy leaving a void into which Hitler was able to whip up his own blind-sided - if unified - frenzy from the ashes as both its paranoia and propaganda.  At last, Janning concedes to the fault in Hitler’s master plan. It was not in the tyranny he preached, but by how infectious it proved on the hearts and minds of the people and, more importantly, the judges who had sworn their allegiances to justice. Now they partook in the hysteria, knowing the brevity of their actions. Janning’s benediction hypnotizes the courtroom. He speaks of a passing phase becoming a way of life; of a people turned, not to accept, but desire the perversion of their own human rights. In his penultimate moment of realization, Janning points to Rolfe’s skillful defense; in effect, charging him with the perpetuation of the myth of their innocence.
“I was content to sit silent during this trial,” Janning concludes, “I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it - he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it... whatever the pain and humiliation.”
Armed with the forcefulness of Janning’s argument, this after having seen the grotesque concentration camp footage for the first time, Haywood and his cohorts render a verdict of guilty. Madame Bertholt’s faith in the past; in her husband’s notorious legacy; her burgeoning hope for an understanding from Haywood; everything she had once dreamed, known, hoped for and invested in to be the truth – these principles are devastatingly swept away for all time. In the movie’s epitaph, Janning bequeaths his writing to Haywood, imploring him to be compassionate. Haywood is, but his tenderness toward Janning’s predicament has left him. In his departure from the courtroom, Haywood is confronted by Hans Rolfe, who wagers that none of the defendants charged and imprisoned this day will remain so for very long.
“In five years,” Rolfe gloats with a cocky smile, “…the men you sentenced to life imprisonment will be free.” Haywood nods with sad-eyed agreement. “Herr Rolfe, I have admired your work in the court for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of what you suggest may very well happen. It ‘is’ logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right, and nothing on God's earth could ever make it right.” The movie’s epilogue reveals Rolfe’s prophecy come true. None of the convicted served their full life sentences, all of them out by the time the movie was made.
Judgment at Nuremberg is, perhaps, Stanley Kramer’s finest hour as a film maker. Unquestioningly, it remains one of his most potent and enduring movies. Based upon the ‘subsequent Nuremberg trials’, Abby Mann’s screenplay is an impassioned critique of the legalities of justice pitted against the moral condemnation and outrage focused on the atrocities committed in the name of nationalistic pride.  Mann’s eloquent speeches are superbly spoken by Spencer Tracy, and particularly, Maximillian Schell, who won the Best Actor Academy Award. Additionally, Judgment at Nuremberg was nominated for a total of eleven Oscars; the only other statuette bestowed on the movie for Abby Mann’s writing. Interestingly, Tracy’s performance anchors us in a sort of present day relevancy, while Schell’s moody and haunting counterpoint, attempts with the greatest conviction to whitewash and blindside the legal wheels with an emphatic defense strategy; evoking every known precedent and even the jurisprudence of Oliver Wendell Holmes to persuade and manipulate.
The stellar supporting cast is all just icing on an already exceptionally well-frosted cake; Tracy’s craggy exterior, coupled with his curmudgeonly world-weariness proving the quintessence of America’s awkward forthrightness in matters of policing the world. The other deliciousness at work is, of course, Rolfe’s wily verbal sparring with Col. Lawson. Here are two men of diverging mindsets to be sure, but of incredibly like-minded and singular passions: Rolfe’s fervent belief in his clients’ innocence, but also perhaps in that tragically flawed past that has brought them all to this moment, never entirely challenged by Lawson’s bitter and even more self-doubting/pitying crusader for justice; chasing after his lost cause with hammer and tong, but emotionally emasculated by the excursion.  At one point, outside of the courtroom, and a little worse for the wine, Lawson begrudgingly admits, “One thing about Americans, we're not cut out to be occupiers. We're new at it and not very good at it.”
Judgment at Nuremberg is a peerless entertainment, surefootedly executed by Stanley Kramer. Kramer’s command of not only the language of cinema, but also its space, has yielded an unusual richness. Courtroom dramas have always been a main staple of Hollywood movies, though few have run an epic 3 hrs. 6 min. and managed to remain as star-studded or as spellbinding for virtually every last minute of their screen time. Judgment at Nuremberg is the exception. It yields an embarrassment of riches. It is an actor’s movie – also, a playwright’s – the combined efforts from all these memorable faces, resulting in a spectacle impossible to top. 
Through it all runs the fine thread of Abby Mann’s personal conviction. The pleasure in Mann’s prose is not to be derived from the performances given – at least, not entirely, but rather, by listening to the meticulously concocted arguments he manages to bestow without a single word seemingly left out of place. Cut one line here or add just a few words to a bit of dialogue over there and the tenuous balance of the piece could so easily be thrown out of whack. But Mann’s craftsmanship is both immeasurably confident and astounding.  Such is the way with all great artists who discover the kernels of truth in their art. Mann’s remains a legacy of astute eloquence, likely to remain unchallenged for a very long time.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release easily bests the old MGM non-anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD from 2004. We get a gorgeous 1080p image with densely layered contrast and fine grain textures. Twilight Time has a menu option to play the feature with or without its overture, intermission and exit music; Ernest Gold’s powerful score repurposed in 5.1 DTS.  The B&W image astounds – truly and completely. Fine detail is evident throughout and most noticeable during the many featured close-ups in hair, skin and clothing. Wow and thank you! There are extremely minor hints of age-related speckling – barely visible and hardly worth mentioning.  
Apart from the newly included isolated stereo score, all of the supplements included herein have been ported over from the aforementioned DVD and include a 20 min., largely self-congratulatory conversation between Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell, a 6 min. sound bite entitled, The Value of a Single Human Being and thirty minutes excised from the hour long Tribute to Stanley Kramer. As is usual for TT, noted historian, Julie Kirgo provides us with some stellar notes and reflections on the film; always appreciated. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, December 7, 2014

THE LION IN WINTER: Blu-ray (Avco Embassy 1968) Creative Films

The age-old axiom of ‘art imitating life’ has been exercised so often it has acquired general legitimacy as a means for one craft to successfully mimic the other. History on celluloid has provided entertainment fodder far more captivating than any textbook written by legitimate historians, and this – at least, in hindsight – seems to be a constant source of sour grapes and bitter lament for those who diligently do the real archeological legwork. Over the last hundred years, Hollywood has mined – and arguably, bastardized – virtually every period in man’s evolutionary l’histoire. Not even The Bible has escaped the movie’s delicious fermentations into popularized flights of fancy. And it remains a genuine oddity about mankind that what is presented to us in visual terms is frequently mis-perceived as derived from fact – even when we know better: art eclipsing life, as it were, to become its surrogate or even its canonized substitute in the long run. 
Such is the case of William Goldman’s superb 1966 play, The Lion in Winter reporting to be a dramatization of the headstrong conflict enveloping the court of Henry II. In truth, The Lion in Winter bears no earthly claim to history itself. Virtually all of the dialogue and situations depicted are complete fabrications spawned from Goldman’s fertile imagination. There was no Christmas court at Chinon in 1183, and, no evidence to suggest Alais, the half-sister of France’s Philip II Augustus, was Henry’s lover. By contrast, the real Eleanor of Aquitaine had been imprisoned by her husband for plotting his overthrow, using their three sons as pawns in a diabolical game of botched succession. The Lion in Winter cleverly mangles this latter historical truth, using it as the crux of another palace/political intrigue-laden scenario. As it stands, we can either fault or excuse Goldman for his ‘artistic license’ because The Lion in Winter is so damn exasperatingly ambitious in concocting its faux history as a stand-in or parallel to the truth. We can also forgive Anthony Harvey his 1968 filmic adaptation, perhaps even more since, not only has he assigned screenwriting duties to Goldman (allowing him to further improve upon and embellish his own stagecraft in cinematic terms) but also, because Harvey has assembled a superb cast for what is essentially a fascinating – if slightly wordy- two-person battle of wills.
The supporting parts, few and far between (for Goldman has chosen to remain relatively faithful to his play), are filled by some fantastic ‘new’ talent, including Jane Merrow as Alais, future James Bond, Timothy Dalton – her steely-eyed brother, Philip II, Nigel Terry (Henry’s preferred heir apparent, John), John Castle (the overlooked and malicious middle son, Geoffrey) and finally, future fava bean eater, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, the eldest of the offspring and Eleanor’s definitive choice for the throne. In the leads originally fleshed out on the stage by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, director Harvey has set forth for consideration two of the most prominent acting talents of the twentieth century: the formidable Katharine Hepburn and consummate actor’s actor, Peter O’Toole.  In hindsight, O’Toole’s is the more impressive performance, particularly when one considers he was a mere 38 years old at the time, sufficiently aged to compliment Hepburn’s 61 year old wily matriarch. It’s the verbal sparring between these two tigers of stage and screen that proves so perfect a counterpoint to this discordant tale steeped in deceit, lies, manipulations and insults.
Goldman is nothing if unapologetic about making Eleanor and Richard contemptible, often repugnant usurpers of each other’s authority; this aged hen and rooster, fighting for the same scrap of waning power neither is likely to possess in their own lifetime. It remains a tribute to Goldman, and the performances of both Hepburn and O’Toole neither character ever devolves into a filthily unlikeable horror, each carefully weighed with deliciously vial and impertinent things to say, expertly timed outbursts to challenge and defile the other’s reputation while, miraculously, never tainting their own. We can empathize with every last horridly imperfect barb; the aging King who has no viable heir apparent to bequeath his throne; the empress of these ineffectual male offspring, forced to concede her part in their bungled rearing into this motley brood of scheming reprobates. The Lion in Winter is essentially a familial tragedy where personal domestic crises threaten to topple a nation; the tale of one man’s legacy doomed to molder and decay after his time because he has failed to prepare himself and his kingdom for his own inevitable decline from this life into the next.
Having avoided his truer duties as husband and father, Henry is now faced with a bitter decision to either choose the least effective and worthy of his sons – John – to succeed him on the throne, or whittle this triage out of their divine rights altogether by secretly having Alais, whom Henry has already betrothed to Richard but since taken as his lover, bear him more offspring, presumably with the intent to raise them differently in preparedness for the future. Alas, time is not only of the essence, but seemingly has run out. Henry is old; his three children by Eleanor already of an age to succeed him on England’s throne and put a decidedly definite stop to his future ambitions. As Alais points out, any chance for their – as yet unconceived – sons supplanting Richard, John or Geoffrey can only be made concrete if these aforementioned are either put to death or imprisoned for the duration of their natural lives. Despite her misgivings, Alais is hardly bitter. She is, in fact, a loyal and devoted lover – compassionate too, making it all the more difficult – if not entirely unbearable – to despise her.
On the flipside is Eleanor, her one ace against Henry’s plan to make John King her retention of the Aquitaine, a strategically important region Henry desires to possess, but Eleanor holds dear and intends to bequeath to Richard instead, thereby insuring a future power struggle between her two sons. Of course, the wrinkle herein is neither is fit to rule; John, the slovenly and pimple-faced stunted adolescent, easily swayed by his misguided devotion to Geoffrey – who is loyal to no one except himself – and Richard, whose keen militaristic intellect and stern maturity bear the scars of a wounded childhood. This continues to haunt and slowly erode his sanity. Neither would make a good King for obvious reasons. Determined he should work out the kinks to his plan during the pending Christmas holidays, Henry commands his trusted advisor, William Marshal (Nigel Stock) to gather his scattered progenies to Chinon.
The first few scenes in Anthony Harvey’s masterpiece are devoted to establishing the psychological complexities of these three potential heirs; John, who is steadily improving in his swordsmanship under Henry’s expert tutelage; Richard, who narrowly is spared the torturous decision to decapitate a foe after rendering him useless during a jousting tournament, and Geoffrey, ever satisfying his lust for conquest by setting up bloody battles between rival forces on the windswept beaches. Alais questions Henry’s devotion. She loves him dearly, but is plagued with concern the memory of a former mistress, Rosamund Clifford – recently deceased – has not abated. Alais also worries about the influence Eleanor may exert over Henry’s heart. By his panged silence, Henry confesses a minor lingering attachment to Rosamund’s ghost. But he openly refers to Eleanor as ‘that bitch’ and ‘gargoyle’ who occupies no residency apart from her imprisonment in Salisbury Tower.
Christmas is destined to be flawed by the reunification of these warring factions under one roof at Chinon. Almost immediately, Eleanor pledges Henry a rough time of things. John, willy-nilly and blinded by his allegiance to Geoffrey, is both acrimonious and confrontational toward Richard. Eleanor, however, calls each of her sons out in tandem, exposing their deficiencies to one another. You can’t fool mama, I suppose. And Eleanor is, after all, most interested in goading her excommunicated husband with incessant anecdotes; how she first bed his late father, and throughout their marriage was passionately intertwined with some of Henry’s most ardent detractors and closest friends; forcing him to reconsider his loyalties at court. Mere lies or cynically unvarnished truths, exposed at last and much too difficult to digest? Who can tell? Eleanor is a devious hellcat, conniving one moment, tenderly affectionate the next; using her soft spoken intellect to weed out the darker veracities concealed deep within.  
Henry refuses to bend from his cause. At one point, stalking the abandoned castle by night in a rage, he commands its inhabitance to stir and make ready for the instantaneous marriage of Alais to Richard. While Alais is crestfallen, Richard is stunned – and suspicious. What could daddy be up to? Much to Henry’s chagrin, at the last possible moment he cannot bring himself to cast off his mistress; revealing too much his own devotion to her. Later, in a private moment, Alais will confess a great relief to Eleanor, also her enduring admiration for Eleanor and her desperate love for Henry. Try as she might, Eleanor cannot fault, condemn or despise Alais for her legitimate affections. Into the thick of things arrives Alais’ brother, Philip of France; a young and ambitious monarch with decidedly definite ideas of where Henry’s loyalties ought to ally; in a pact made between Henry and Philip’s late father, and Alais; cementing an alliance between England and France with Alais’ proposed marriage to Richard. Regrettably, in the interim since accepting – and spending – Alais’ dowry, Henry has fallen hard for the girl himself and lost all interest in preserving this tenuous alliance or to make Richard the future King of England.
The Lion in Winter is not particularly interesting in resolving any of these plot points in any concrete way. Henry briefly entertains the clumsy notion to free the Queen from Salisbury Tower; the price for her freedom the relinquishment of all rights to the Aquitaine. It is an offer fraught with incalculable dangers and uncertainty – particularly for Eleanor, who is bitter and starved for the opportunity to be free of her confinement once and for all. Alas, Henry has proven himself to be a fairly ineffectual King; fickle in his decisions: first, to imprison his boys in the dungeons of Chinon for the rest of their natural born days in order to satisfy Alais’ request to marry and procreate. Seizing the opportunity to bribe a guard, Eleanor skulks off to the dungeon to free John, Richard and Geoffrey, instructing her sons with knives to rise up against their father. Too bad, blood proves far thicker than water. Henry’s arrival at the dungeon is met by temporary conflict. Enraged, Henry challenges his boys to take up arms against him. But even Richard is unable to challenge his father. Coward that he is, John flees, followed by Geoffrey. Richard is disillusioned, storming off in a huff. Alais now realizes her dreams of marrying Henry can never be. His heart, indeed – if begrudgingly – belongs to Eleanor. At the movie’s end, nothing is decided, Eleanor happily departing on the royal barge for her return to Salisbury Tower with Henry promising her release for Easter.   
Referencing its title from the latter period in Henry II’s reign, The Lion in Winter is an extraordinary medieval soap opera. It rarely devolves into fits of subjective pique. James Goldman’s erudite screenplay is occasionally slavish in its politicized platitudes. But these are counterbalanced by an even wittier spate of salaciousness situated in a place of less than cerebral palace intrigues; also, by the expertly nuanced performances put forth by this superior cast. Goldman has taken every human frailty, the malicious and the fractured, and condensed both its sincerity and sinfulness into a compendium of ambition and greed. The joy and the magic to be derived from this consolidated exercise is almost exclusive to the hurly-burly between Hepburn’s queenly harridan and O’Toole’s curmudgeonly liege, more emasculated pussycat than teething lion.  Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography captures the bleakness in this winter’s tale, both figuratively and literally.  
Well, well…another Hollywood classic on Blu-ray out of Spain (, this one manufactured and distributed by an operation calling itself ‘Creative Films’. The Avco Embassy credit at the beginning of the picture, as well as the ‘Joseph L. Levine presents’ producer’s credit remain intact, and what follows is, frankly, far more impressive – if not perfect – than the old MGM/Fox DVD being peddled this side of the Atlantic. Again, the disc defaults to Castellano 2.0 with subtitles that can be easily switched off and changed to English 2.0 DTS mono. I have to say, this is a far more welcome package than the aforementioned Anne of the Thousand Days from Feel Films. I’ll point out the minuses first. Color fidelity never attains a level of saturation one might expect from a 70mm Panavision presentation. I suspect, this hi-def transfer of The Lion in Winter has been mastered from 35mm elements instead; owing to the absence of the original 6-track stereo and the less than perfect visuals. Still, what’s here is much better than what we’ve seen in the past. For starters, age-related artifacts are subdued, if still present. Also, color balancing is more finely nuanced; particularly exteriors which show off some impressive fine detail in grass, trees, brick and mortar, wood grain, etc. Close-ups are occasionally a mystery, looking either vibrant and crisp or decidedly softer than normal. On the whole, colors are less pronounced than I expected.
Kate’s red Christmas robe pops with unanticipated vibrancy, as do greens and browns in the color palette. But on the whole, the Eastman stock isn’t all that exciting. There’s no real ‘wow!’ factor to these visuals. Film grain seems to have had some undue DNR tinkering applied and contrast is weak. Again, this is 2.0 mono rather than stereo; an oddity and a curiosity, given the film has supposedly been ‘restored’ and re-screened in Hollywood not so long ago in its original stereophonic glory. Exactly why this one hasn’t made it to Blu-ray in the U.S. since remains a genuine mystery. This Spanish offering is ‘region free’. It will play anywhere in the world. So, if like me, you just can’t wait for Fox to get off their collective duffs and start remastering their great back catalog in true 1080p hi-def, then I suppose this Blu-ray import will have to do. It isn’t awful, and it bests the old MGM/Fox DVD by a gallant stride. But it’s far from perfect or, for that matter, the true capabilities of either Panavision 70 or the Blu-ray format. Judge accordingly and buy with caution – also, a lower than average level of expectation for perfection.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, December 5, 2014

ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS: Blu-ray (Universal Pictures 1969) Feel Films

The Tudor drama, with all its political/palace intrigues, was to experience something of a minor cultural renaissance on film in the 1960’s. It’s interesting to note that the decade generally known for big, often bloated, all-star screen spectacles, tricked out in the vast expanses of 70mm Super-Panavision, were also brought to heel under the wordy perplexities of literate adaptations of some highly celebrated stagecraft; 1966’s multi-Oscar-winning, A Man for All Seasons and 1968’s The Lion in Winter among such offerings. Pennsylvanian dramatist, Maxwell Anderson had long been a favorite of Hollywood. Famous for his intricate construction and blistering dialogue (also, for calling Ingrid Bergman a ‘big dumb goddamn Swede’ after she and director, Victor Fleming changed much of his carefully written prose for the film version of Joan of Arc, 1948…and, a colossal failure). Anderson’s plays are more frequently – and comfortably – situated in the courts of England’s past kings and queens; a delicious potpourri for the crass and the sycophantic, unapologetically hiding in plain sight beneath their Elizabethan collars and cuffs.
Anne of the Thousand Days had, in fact, been written by Anderson more than a decade earlier; a miraculous hit in 1948, considering the climate on Broadway then was more attuned to the socially conscious musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein than wordy costume dramas. Alas, success went to ‘Anne’s head’ (pun intended) – or rather, to it being repeatedly delayed as a movie, despite several major studios vying for the rights to produce. Eventually, independent producer, Hal B. Wallis (known for his illustrious and staggeringly prolific hit-making tenure at Warner Bros. and later, Paramount) courted the honor to transform Anderson’s caustic and confrontational battle royale into a costly costume epic. Anderson’s best stagecraft is usually characterized by its willful female protagonists, espousing historical platitudes laced with a highly developed and wickedly keen sense of sexual double entendre. The dialogue featured in a Maxwell Anderson play goes well beyond expected eloquence; part Shakespearean and partly an acidic/astute observation on the hypocrisies of contemporary social mores.
Depending on one’s critical predilections, Anderson’s perceptions of life at court may either be construed as devilishly handsome odes to these bygone eras or mere bastardizations made under the rubric of ‘artistic license’.  In point of fact, director Charles Jarrott’s Anne of the Thousand Day (1969) is a little of both. There are many discrepancies between the historical record and the conspiracies played out for dramatic effect on the stage and later, in this movie. For starters, Anne Boleyn’s actual age may have been closer to thirty than eighteen when she began her affair with Henry VIII. Also, there is virtually no documented evidence to suggest the real Henry VIII deliberately dissolved the romance between Anne and Henry Percy to pursue her for his own. Finally, the bittersweet parting between the condemned Anne and Henry likely never happened. The King was many things – but compassion was decidedly not one of his more finely honed attributes!
Yet, setting aside these and several other minor quibbles about accuracy and Anne of the Thousand Days is a richly textured drama, enveloping and engrossing in its courtly maneuvers regarding royal succession. Hal Wallis’ unrivaled abilities as producer assume a mantle of quality herein.  Georges Delerue’s gorgeous underscore is a melodic compliment, as are Maurice Carter’s production design, Lionel Couch’s art direction and Margaret Furse’s exquisite costuming; all of it lensed to perfection by cinematographer extraordinaire, Arthur Ibbetson. And then, of course, there is the cast to consider: French-Canadian actress, Geneviève Bujold, uncommonly commanding and forceful in this, her Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated debut in an English-speaking role as the enterprising heroine of the title – much too smart for her own good; Richard Burton, appropriately sullen, steely-eyed and authoritatively mad in the part of England’s most notoriously lascivious liege; taking over the part from Broadway’s formidable, Rex Harrison (Burton then considered something of Harrison’s successor anyway); Irene Papas, poignantly subdued as the tragically lovelorn, Queen Katherine; Anthony Quayle (an intriguingly complicit orchestrator of the mayhem as Cardinal Wolsey); John Colicos (effectively plotting as the usurper, Cromwell), and  Michael Hordern (a cruelly uncompassionate patriarch, Thomas Boleyn).
The strengths of the production are, arguably, also its weakness; Maxwell Anderson’s articulate exchanges infrequently teetering on the brink of longwinded byplay but, mercifully, never going over this precipice into stultifying melodrama. Anne of the Thousand Days is an engrossing achievement on so many levels it continues to stir the pot of history with little jabs of pleasure scattered along the way. Anderson’s reflections, made in the play and movie, are, of course, predicated on the momentous assessments made about Henry’s reign, long since analyzed by scholars to the point of absurdity. But Anderson’s impressions are fortified by the solidity of the performances within, particularly Bujold’s. When, at the end of our fateful story, not long before Anne loses her head, she bitterly declares to Henry, “Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can - and hope that he will live. But Elizabeth shall reign after you - child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher… and remember this, Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. Yes – ‘my’ Elizabeth shall be queen and my blood will have been well spent!’ we are privy to all the historical hindsight interjected since 1536, the bulk of which could not have been known at the time our story is taking place.
Indeed, the film’s greatness rests on the slender, though ever-capable, shoulders of Geneviève Bujold who delivers a towering performance as the impenitent, enterprising, but ultimately forthright Boleyn sister, who would be neither bought nor had for the price of a crown. Anderson affords Bujold an unprecedented scale of cheek in her frequent verbal sparring with the King. When Henry asks for her impressions on a ballad he has composed expressly to impress her, she coolly replies “I would ask him first how his wife liked it, Your Grace”.  Shortly thereafter, Anne further goads Henry by haughtily informing him that his lyrics are sour to her ear. She projects that he “makes love” as he eats …with a great deal of noise and no subtlety!” These are bitter barbs to be sure. But Bujold delivers them with the glacial serenity of a well-orchestrated ice princess. Arguably, she is already a queen, long before the crown has been affixed to her temples.    
Richard Burton’s performance is as impressive, though arguably, not nearly as durable; a stately scuffling between love-struck sovereign, plying Anne with naughty hints of his libidinous intensions, and, direct in his commanding rage when she refuses to be impressed by his more courtly polish and sly innuendo. Understated, and underrated honors must also go to Irene Papas, typecast as the olive-skinned, childless Mediterranean; alas, incapable of satisfying Henry’s obsession for a male heir to the future throne of England. Papas is undeniably a very fine actress and usually a domineering presence in the movies. Herein, she subverts our expectations for another strong-willed female; impresses with the subtleties in her panged, delusional love, shattered by Burton’s rich villainy; a man who quite obviously does not – and, arguably never has – desired her. “England married Spain,” Henry tells Anne, while wasting no opportunity to remind Katherine of what a colossal disappointment she has remained for him these many years. “Our marriage is a curse in heaven and hell, madam!”     
Anne of the Thousand Days begins in the twilight of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Originally an affair of state, (the marriage thrust upon an eighteen year old Henry by his late father to secure an alliance between England and Spain) the King, now a man in his late thirties, is beside himself with sexual frustration. Katharine has been unable to bear Henry a son. At court, Henry eyes the young maiden, Anne Boleyn, newly returned from her tutelage in France. But his dalliances with her older sister, Mary (Valerie Gearon) have toughened this young girl’s resolve. Apart from her obvious disdain for this man who has impregnated her sister in trade for the family’s present appointments in wealth and property, Anne is much in love with Henry Percy (Terrence Wilton), son of the Earl of Northumberland. The couple has received both sets of parents’ permission to marry. Alas, Henry will not permit it, sending Cardinal Wolsey as his mouthpiece to intervene on his behalf. Percy is sent away. Anne bitterly resents the King’s manipulation; in tandem, brashly defying and even challenging him to make good on his threats to reduce her family’s fortunes to bedrock if her behavior so displeases him.  With clever barbs, Anne continues to test the resolve of the King’s lust and patience until Henry can endure no more. Not long thereafter, Anne receives word Percy has married another.
Anne now invests all of her venom to refuse the King. At one point, Henry strikes Anne full on the cheek, sending her tumbling to the floor. But he is almost immediately remorseful and she begins to realize the gravity of importance she truly wields upon his heart. When Henry professes his genuine affection, Anne seizes the opportunity to make her own edicts known. She will bed Henry for his pleasure, but only when he secures a papal annulment of his first marriage to Katherine. She will bear him a child, but one legitimately entitled to the throne of England. Determined to prove his loyalty to her, Henry attempts to move heaven and earth to receive an annulment. He is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts; first by Wolsey’s stalling, but also by Cromwell’s plotting.
Anne is vengeful – ultimately, to her own detriment. But for a time, her slyness supersedes even Wolsey, whom she repeatedly undermines in Henry’s presence. When she reminds Wolsey of the fact he holds more titles in England than the King, the embarrassment of this discovery causes Wolsey to piously recant all rights to his possessions and property. Wolsey, who once thought of Anne as merely another passing fancy for the King, now begins to suspect she may lead to his own undoing if he is not careful.  In the meantime, Henry appeals to Katherine to publicly declare she has been unfaithful to him, thereby granting the legal grounds for the annulment. Alas, Katherine – knowing Henry has never loved her – is nevertheless compelled to admit she continues to bitterly adore him. As such, she refuses to submit to his lies.
Enraged, Henry endeavors to force Wolsey’s hand in getting the Pope to agree to a divorce.  Again, he is thwarted and again, Anne haughtily declares she will not be his mistress by default. Henry now petitions a separation of England’s reliance on the Catholic Church. He further dismisses Wolsey from his court and makes Anne a present of Wolsey’s magnificent palace in London. Ensconced there, Anne comes to a genuine affection for Henry of her own accord and, at last, permits him into her bed chamber. The couple consummates their relationship and is secretly married. Discovering she is with child, Anne is given a resplendent coronation to legitimize her presence at court. Alas, the people are not so easily fooled or nearly as accepting, jeering in abject disgust. Anne is “the king’s new whore.” Nevertheless, Henry and Anne await the royal birth with baited anticipation. Tragically, Henry’s joy turns to vinegar when the child is a girl Anne names the Princess Elizabeth. Although Henry is disillusioned, Anne manages to convince him of Sir Thomas More’s (William Squire) treason against the state, because of his opposition to their marriage. She further demands Henry must put More to death for treason against the state. Despite Henry’s initial misgivings, Anne gets him to see things her way and More is wrongfully accused and summarily executed.
Sometime later, Anne and Henry try for a son. Alas, like all of Henry’s male offspring conceived with Katherine, this new babe – also male – is stillborn. Already begun to believe his second marriage as cursed as his first, Henry now turns his attentions to Anne’s lady in waiting, Jane Seymour (Leslie Paterson). Cromwell, who once believed the best way to manipulate the throne was by ingratiating himself to Anne now, instead, turns on her with all his enterprising venom, forcing Henry to reconsider his loyalties and simultaneously turning the people against Anne and the King’s favor. Discovering Jane Seymour’s affair with Henry, Anne has her lady in waiting banished from court.
Henry appoints Cromwell his new minister, his first order of business to discover a way of excommunicating Anne from the court. Cromwell succeeds beyond Henry’s wildest dreams, torturing a loyal servant into confessing to an adulterous relationship with the Queen. Cromwell then has several other courtiers arrested on similar trumped up charges. Finally, he has Anne’s devoted brother, George (Michael Johnson) imprisoned in the Tower of London along with Anne; claiming brother and sister have shared in an incestuous relationship. Disbelieving the severity of these charges at first, Anne now breaks down, declaring Henry mad and herself doomed to suffer a horrible fate. Indeed, pressured by Cromwell’s manufactured evidence, the court finds Anne guilty of incest and treason. However, at trial, Anne manages to cross-examine Mark Smeaton (Harry Fiedler); the servant whom Cromwell had tortured into a confession. Unable to remain silent, Smeaton fervently declares his testimony given to be false and all of the allegations against Anne duly unfounded.
Pressed to reassess the case, Henry implores Anne to reconsider annulling their marriage. It would make Elizabeth illegitimate, but such a sacrifice would also spare Anne’s life. Anne refuses to entertain the notion and Henry is forced to affix his signature to the court’s legal decision to have her put to death. Awaiting her fate, Anne hypothesizes on the future of England; one in which Elizabeth shall rule as its first Queen. Anne is taken to the gallows and beheaded; Henry riding off to pursue and eventually marry Lady Jane Seymour. In the movie’s penultimate and prophetic moment, we witness the child, Elizabeth, obtusely at play in the palatial gardens – seemingly unaware of her mother’s fate and most assuredly unprepared for her own as England’s future Queen; Anne’s declaration of Elizabeth’s succession echoing in the breeze as the credits begin to roll.
Anne of the Thousand Days is an intense and fairly captivating costume drama. Producer, Hal B. Wallis delivers a formidable cinematic feast. Along with David O. Selznick, Wallis’ career ought to be a textbook example of the producer as guiding influence on movie art. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), White Christmas (1954); with such credits as these, Wallis could literally do it all. And further to the point, Wallis had already proven his mettle with costume period drama on another movie based on a Maxwell Anderson play, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
Interestingly, Richard Burton’s Henry VIII is the most sincerely flawed and human of all movie incarnations of the king.  Most films portray Henry as a one-dimensional gluttonous demigod. I confess, there are elements to this trademarked image represented herein. But Burton manages to make something more of the part; perhaps, as written by Anderson, he slowly evolves into a more complex and tragic figure. And Burton ought to have been the movie’s star, if not for the magnificent Geneviève Bujold who, almost through a miraculous will of grace manages to refocus the picture back onto the plight of her doomed heroine. Lost in the shuffle is Irene Papas’ empathetic and long-suffering Queen. Critics at the time were rather harsh on Papas, made up to embody stereotypical Spanish nobility, complete with cocoa-tan skin and widow’s peaked hair, tightly pulled beneath a restrictive bonnet. In fact, the real Katherine of Aragon was an Auburn-haired beauty of very fair complexion.  
Anne of the Thousand Days ought never be misconstrued as a literal history lesson. What it remains is a very finely acted, highly literate, and intimately compelling portrait of the human complexities and frailties surrounding these towering figures from history. Anderson’s prose breathe renewable life into the antiquity as few playwrights of his time or since have been able to manage. Anderson may fudge on the particulars, but he strikes like a firebrand into the overall framework and essence of the piece, the period and its human foibles, follies and societal conundrums. Personally, that works for me.  
I’ll simply go on record herein with what does not; namely having to search the foreign markets for catalog classic movies like Anne of the Thousand Days on Blu-ray, only to discover them made available abroad in substandard hi-def transfers that belie the formidable efforts put forth by everyone involved in their initial creation. So, where to begin? Well, in 2002, Universal Home Video released a 2-disc movie collection in the U.S. on DVD featuring Anne of the Thousand Days and another Hal B. Wallis production: 1971’s Mary, Queen of Scots. The Universal transfer was severely flawed with copious edge enhancement that inexplicably crops up without rhyme or reason, but queerly, is more prominently featured in long shots. Nothing has changed for this Blu-ray release; culled from the same flawed elements. I am still trying to figure out the rights reverting to an, as yet unheard of, distribution label – ‘Feel Films’. Nowhere on the packaging of this disc is there a Universal Home Video logo, even though the digital elements used in this transfer are quite obviously derived from the aforementioned 2002 standard release.
The pluses are as follows: the brightly colored image razor-sharpening considerably, revealing exquisite amounts of fine detail in hair, skin and costuming. With only a few scattered age-related artifacts to momentarily detract; Anne of the Thousand Days is a movie tailor-made for Blu-ray; meant to show off its sumptuous production design. Tragically, with this crispness, the edge effects that were marginally distracting on the DVD are now glaringly obvious to the point where they become the focal point of any scene in which they appear. Yuck, and who needs it?!? Contrast is solid, and film grain seems – at least on the whole – naturally reproduced. But gate weave is another problematic issue; the image horizontally lunging back and forth. Honestly, what we have here is a very fine film given over to an utterly disastrous 1080p rendering in desperate need of restoration and remastering. Will it ever get its just desserts? Hmmmm. I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one, given Universal didn’t even think enough of the movie to release it state’s side. At least, this Spanish imported disc, orderable on, is region free. It will play anywhere. The audio defaults to Castellano, but can easily be switched over to 2.0 DTS English with removable subtitles. There are no extras. Bottom line: I really wanted to recommend this, but have to say – pass - instead.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)