Thursday, February 15, 2018

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE: Blu-ray (Columbia, 1993) Criterion Collection

Filmed twice during the late silent era, Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence - all about the manners and mores of blue-blooded New York society at the turn of the last century, was already a cultural touchstone by 1923; a sort of scandalous stripping away of the courtly polish and hypocrisies of, then, contemporary life. On the surface, propriety demanded a stringent set of criteria to harness, keep steadfast and purify the behaviors of its gentry. However, as Wharton’s novel illustrates, there was a social subclass of avarice and duplicity working against this exercise. Using the time-honored convention of star-crossed lovers, Wharton’s telling exposed the undercarriage of society at large and, its suppressed, though more than salacious fascination with sexual intrigues. Hard to digest now, but The Age of Innocence was a real bodice-ripper when it came out. Not that Wharton would have considered the novel as such. In fact, Wharton had penned The Age of Innocence as a minor apology for The House of Mirth, her fourth novel that had been far more scathing and critical about such things.
The Age of Innocence is essentially a tale of one man - gentleman lawyer and heir apparent, Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) - dominated by two women in his life; the first, his seemingly naïve ingénue of a bride, May Welland (Wynona Ryder, who will prove more enterprising in her desires to anchor Newland to the conventions of their caste) and her cousin, the more free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who brutalizes Newland’s lust for her; first, by willingly offering it up to his infatuated caprice, then by cruelly denying him more than a faint reminiscence of their brief time together; thereby driving him to wild distractions. The women, each aware of what the other is up to, spar on an intellectual plain, their battle of temperaments causing occasional friction in Newland and May’s marriage and all but wrecking any chance Newland might have had to remain happily ensconced as a power-brokering bon vivant without the nagging thought he has probably settled in his marriage at the expense of finding truer happiness – and eroticism aplenty – elsewhere.
In adapting the novel for the screen this third time around, director Martin Scorsese has assumed a monumental task; The Age of Innocence (1993) receiving an all-star and decidedly lavish treatment – alas, less compelling as a plot, if mesmerizing in its beauty. The screenplay, co-authored by Jay Cocks and Scorsese slavishly adheres to the novel; excising whole passages with a voice over narration provided by Joanne Woodward (who does not appear in the film) designed to expedite our various introductions to these characters. Visually at least, Scorsese’s film is a masterpiece; Michael Ballhaus’ luminous cinematography married to some opulent period recreations: Dante Ferretti’s production design, Speed Hopkins art direction, and, Robert J. Franco and Amy Marshall’s set decoration, perfectly complimented by Gabriella Pescucci’s costuming. Point blank: The Age of Innocence is a peerless, A-list super production of immense scope and infinite style. That it somehow lacks impetus as an absorbing melodrama is a tad perplexing, and most certainly something of a letdown; the actors delivering their schematic dialogue with grace and polish, but strangely, an antiseptic inability to breathe the necessary life into these words. As such, The Age of Innocence quickly devolves into a clinical exercise rather than an astute regression from, and observation of, the period. 
In hindsight, Scorsese was, perhaps, the wrong director for such an ambitiously high concept demure melodrama. His approach to the folly of Newland’s lustful badinage with Ellen is low key. There is a complete absence of the director's more infamous verve for gripping action; Scorsese’s métier undeniably centered on contemporary tales about organized crime.  Scorsese’s direction herein is quite unlike what we expect from him. It’s fairly obvious he is heavily invested in making The Age of Innocence a resplendent period picture; showcasing all of the intricacies of the gilded age. There is, in fact, a sublime joy to be gleaned from Scorsese’s complete immersion in the realities of this bygone culture; meticulously composed moving portraits; Scorsese’s resurrection of ‘the age’ fairly reeking of his consummate professionalism as a film maker. Edith Wharton would be right at home in the grand majesty of Scorsese’s turn of the century New York. And yet, there exists more than a faint whiff of embalming fluid emanating from the peripheries of the screen; a sort of veiled reminder what we see is, in fact, a museum-inspired antiquity of animated waxworks rather than a suspension of disbelief in the illusions spun by Wharton’s fictional characters.
The oddity is neither Scorsese nor the actors can entirely be blamed for this fault. It isn’t easy to pinpoint the lack of spark, perhaps because The Age of Innocence prodigiously excels in so many facets of its production. The weakest performance of the lot is Wynona Ryder’s giddy green girl; interminably, wrinkling her nose and letting out with a squeak to suggest her joyful bemusement at allowing Newland his more amorous affection; a peck on the lips in public, as example. Alas, it’s all just an act; Ryder’s May Welland, a devious little peacock, incrementally tugging on the yolk about her husband’s neck until he is resigned to surrender all hope of ever being his own man; or, at least, Ellen’s illicit lover.  No, that void in the unhappy countess’ life will be filled by Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson), the Teflon-coated, notorious womanizer.
The Age of Innocence is, in fact, a story of morally corrupt, manifestly irresponsible and devilishly manipulative individuals, putting on their priggish airs while playing a rather insidious game of seduction. Apart from the aforementioned three principles, the picture is extremely well cast: Geraldine Chaplin as May’s fussing mama; Richard E. Grant as Larry Lefferts – the foremost proponent and social commentator on style and form; Alec McGowan as elder statesman, Sillerton Jackson – a veritable magpie of gossip; Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Mingott - the invalided, though enterprising dowager to half of New York’s ‘polite society’; Carolyn Farina, as Newland’s younger sister, Janey Archer, and, Siân Phillips as their mother; Norman Lloyd, Mr. Letterblair, an elder partner in Newland’s law firm and finally, Jonathan Price as Rivière; the social secretary to Madam Olenska’s estranged husband, the Count – and quite possibly, her ex-lover. Scorsese is working with some heavy-hitting talent here. But the central focus on the love triangle makes short shrift of virtually all these aforementioned players; mere – if supremely elegant and accomplished – window dressing.
Immediately following a stunning main title sequence designed by Elaine and Saul Bass (calligraphy letters matted onto fine lace and a time lapse of various buds ripening before our eyes; symbolic of the flurry of passion to unfurl), The Age of Innocence begins at the New York Opera House, gathering place for the hoi poloi. Newland Archer is in his box, along with Larry Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson; the wily old coot far more intrigued by the presence of the Countess Ellen Olenska, seated across the auditorium in a box with Mrs. Welland and May. It seems the Countess has fled from a marriage to a monster; the Count, pure Euro-trash with fetishistic depravities aplenty, leaving Ellen scarred, scared and quite alone. While Jackson and Lefferts slyly debate the possible intrigues, Newland skulks off to May’s box; formally introduced to the Countess by May. Ellen reminds Newland of their playful youth together and he is amused by how unchanged she seems; her joy at the opera his first real taste of the woman who will come to challenge his own sense of morality before too long.
Regina Beaufort (Mary Beth Hurt) departs the opera ahead of everyone else. As one of the matrons of New York society she must make ready the elegant home she shares with Julius for the annual ball. Newland attends, as does May and her mother. Either from a sense of propriety, or perhaps mere concern she will be branded a wanton, Ellen abstains; lying to May about her dress not being “smart enough.”  Julius arrives late to his own party, the implication being he has been off somewhere consummating an extramarital affair.  Newland is quite obtuse to this notion. Indeed, the following evening as he, his sister Janey and their mother entertain Sillerton at dinner, the conversation inevitably shifts to the Countess; Sillerton, only too jovial to pry and probe with innuendoes of impropriety. Newland questions why any woman trapped in a bitter marriage should be condemned for wanting to better her prospects elsewhere. His cool resistance to Sillerton’s criticisms of Ellen translates into our first faint glimmers of a more tangible eroticism brewing from within.
Mrs. Mingott offers to give a party in honor of the Countess. The crème de la crème of New York is invited to this soiree – but decline en masse, citing ‘prior commitments’. The insinuation, however, is painfully clear. Anyone who even dares acknowledge the Countess Olenska will be shunned. Newland is outraged, appealing his case to Henry van der Luyden (Michael Gough) and his wife, Louisa (Alexis Smith). As leaders of polite society no one would question their authority should they choose to accept the Countess into their genteel circle of friends.  The van der Luydens are empathetic and agree to host a fashionable dinner engagement, expressly to welcome the Countess. The occasion is a success. Newland is strangely drawn to Ellen in a way he did not anticipate. She politely questions his fidelity to May. Newland is steadfast to his bride-to-be, but increasingly becomes distracted by impure thoughts about the Countess. He offers to act as a broker to find Ellen a house. As she intends to remain in New York – and is May’s cousin – surely no one will think anything of this philanthropic gesture.
Regrettably, Newland grows distant, then jealous, when the Countess begins seeing Julius Beaufort on the side. His sexual frustrations are manifested in a plea to May; to expedite their long-term engagement. Mrs. Mingott approves. But Newland has already begun to question his motives for marrying May, and increasingly discovers his love has insincerely cooled since Ellen’s arrival. At the same instance, the Countess makes plans to divorce her husband – absolutely unheard of, sending shockwaves of scandal to overwhelm both households. Mr. Letterblair approaches Newland with a request; to an indefinite postponement of the divorce. Newland is appalled. But his own feelings for the Countess are now painfully transparent.
Placed into an impossible situation, Newland professes his love to Ellen. She reciprocates it, but then becoming modestly unsettled by how it will impact May. The Countess agrees to an awkward truce: to remain in America, though still married to the Count. This sort of marital imprisonment is hateful to both Ellen and Newland. But it also serves as a buffer. So long as Ellen abides, Newland should not consider his consummating their love for one another a sin against May. In the meantime, May sends a telegram agreeing to wed Newland well before their natural period of courtship has run its course. From this moment forward, The Age of Innocence will prove a hell in its heavenly trappings: not one, but two sham marriages. For Newland no longer loves May, forever poisoned by his strong desire to possess Ellen. Nevertheless, he and May are wed; their honeymoon, a grand tour of Europe where, inadvertently May meets Rivière, the Count’s secretary. Rivière informs Newland the Count has expressed an urgency for his wife’s return. Newland is disgusted but impotent to suggest any alternative without making his true feelings known.
Upon their return to America, Newland and May attend Mrs. Mingott at her summer home on Rhode Island. In the late afterglow of a warm summer afternoon, Mrs. Mingott sends Newland down to the docks to fetch Ellen. He obliges, but then hesitates when Ellen is near, casually staring across the open waters. Newland makes himself a promise: only if Ellen turns around will he gesture to her. She does not, however, and Newland returns to Mrs. Mingott; lying he could not find Ellen to bring her back. Time passes. But Newland’s carnal thirst for Ellen only grows more parched in her absence. He fantasizes about a reunion, despises himself for being ‘technically’ untrue to his own wife and cannot help be short-tempered with May.  Having reached an impossible stalemate, the family cuts off Ellen’s allowance – presumably to hasten her return to her husband. Instead, she departs for New York City to nurse her ailing grandmother. Mrs. Mingott accepts Ellen’s need to be rid of her husband and reinstates her allowance, thereby affording her financial independence to do as she wishes. Newland is wildly distracted by this prospect. Perhaps now, he and Ellen can find some clandestine way to be together.
Unfortunately, the lady is unwilling – even to be his mistress. Newland’s pursuit of Ellen is rather insidious and predicated on fulfilling no one’s gratification except his own; the Cocks/Scorsese screenplay illustrating a transgressive quality to his lust. Ellen relents to Newman’s demands. But she then elects to return to Europe with all speed. Incensed, Newland decides to tell May he is in love with her cousin, intending to leave his wife at the earliest possible moment for whatever may be waiting on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, May interrupts Newland before his declaration with an announcement of her own: she is pregnant. May also reveals to Newland she deliberately told Ellen about the baby two weeks earlier, even before she was certain of it. The insinuation is May has known all along of Newland’s passion for Ellen but is determined to anchor him to his duty toward her – whatever the cost.
Realizing Ellen’s decision to return to her husband has been predicated on May’s revelation does not soften this blow, as Newland cannot leave the woman who is carrying his child without a scandal of epic proportions, certain to blacken his family’s status in the social register for generations yet to follow. Years pass: twenty-six all told. May dies of fever, thinking the world a fine place. Newland is left to rear two children. Their adult son, Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) encourages Newland to take a trip abroad to Paris, informing his father he has tracked down the Countess Olenska. She has, in fact, agreed to see them. However, as the men stroll toward her fashionable atelier, Newland cannot but acknowledge how time has withered his memories of her. No doubt, Ellen has changed as much.
At the last possible moment, Newland declines the invitation, leaving Ted to go on alone. As he had done on the pier many years earlier, Newland plays a game in his own mind: if Ellen looks out her open window he will join Ted upstairs to reminisce about old times. Alas, not long after Ted has left to go upstairs, the window to Ellen’s apartment is closed shut by a maid’s hand; the sun’s reflection blinding Newland a moment or two without Ellen ever appearing at the window. Newland realizes too much time has passed. He is not the same man. Perhaps the only place he and Ellen can ever truly coexist now is in the memories that remain quietly locked away in his heart. Without remorse, Newland turns and walks away, destined never to see Ellen again.
In these penultimate moments of surrender, The Age of Innocence attains a sort of tragic clarity about love, desire and destiny; the triage in Newland’s pursuits disentangled for him so very long ago by May’s steadying hand. Whatever decisions were made on his behalf in his youth, he has maintained the façade and played the charade to perfection. No longer dictated and haunted by his fickle passion he has escaped with his respectability intact and without the nagging doubt he has sacrificed his entire life for a dream remembered. There is something supremely satisfying in this sense of finality; an exquisite decay lain waste to the people Newland and Ellen once were; the myth to have perished in each other’s absence, denied its unsaid farewells. Daniel Day Lewis’ glance is both world-weary and edifying; a revelation of the queer tugging within an all too fragile and human heart. Newland’s desire for Ellen, still colored despite the passage of the years, has morphed into something finer, yet still as unattainable. Preserving Ellen’s memory will have to sustain Newland now.
The Age of Innocence was hardly a smash hit. In fact, it grossed only $2 million more in the U.S. than its $30 million budget. Why? Its artistic merits are impeccable. Were audiences in general, and fans of Scorsese in particular, anticipating an edgier affair? Indeed, The Age of Innocence is hardly taut or even tantalizing; its narrative tension sustained by subtle glances across a crowded drawing room; no violent fits or outburst, no wildly careening camera movements.  Without Scorsese’s screen credit, The Age of Innocence might just as easily have been a Merchant-Ivory production or a courtly English drawing room comedy of errors – something from the Ealing Studios in their prime, albeit on a far grander scale. We must also reconsider the aftereffects and fervor created by the multi-Oscar-nominated production of E.M. Forrester’s Howards End (1992) and Merchant-Ivory’s superb follow-up; The Remains of the Day (released the same year as The Age of Innocence) each, a veritable ‘how to’ make period costume dramas. In competition with these superior scripted dramas; the former, having taken artistic liberties with Forster’s novel, Scorsese’s unoriginal faithfulness to Wharton’s text exposes the chinks in any ‘literal’ literary adaptation for the movie screen.
The Age of Innocence would have been better had Scorsese afforded himself the luxury to experiment; to be passionate about the art of film-making and depart from the authoress’ prose; if only to illustrate how he might have ‘improved’ upon an already iconic masterwork. Instead, we get 2 hrs. and 19 min. of Wharton incarnate; deftly executed, but minus Scorsese’s ability to enthrall and captivate an audience as only he distinctly can when inspired to dabble and mesmerize us with his ballsy creativity.  Yet, it’s difficult to condemn the movie outright as a failure. Artistically, it remains on very highborn ground; its technical merits unsurpassed, its meticulous attention to setting and place virtually unparalleled. This is, in fact, a ravishing exaltation of the period in which Wharton lived; a breathtaking movie to behold if foundering and failing to ignite or excite an audience. It wholly lacks the intrinsic spark of dramatic tragedy.  Like its visuals, The Age of Innocence’s score by Elmer Bernstein is ravishing, yet perhaps, ever so slightly blundering into an orchestral grandiloquence - too gilded even for the gilded age without ever foreshadowing the more ominous overtones of promiscuity behind closed doors. If it had been made in the fifties – even the sixties – the implication of closeted sexual mores might have been enough to crackle and amuse. It’s not enough, however, to propel the story forward. In the end, we are left with some superb waxworks of mostly impotent ne'er do wells who think naughtier than they do – or perhaps, even are.
Criterion’s new to Blu release – at least, in North America is a virtual carbon-copy of Sony’s Germany Blu-ray from 2007 (then, region free). Back in Blu-ray’s infancy I commented on the perplexing nature of Sony’s own marketing; releasing oodles of deep catalog in Europe while simultaneously denying North American audiences the same luxury – lest they feel like paying exorbitant fees to import these discs via or some other foreign derivative through a third-party seller. It’s only taken Criterion 11 years to license this one from Sony and frankly, while it’s advertised as a ‘new 4K transfer’ there is virtually NO difference in image quality between these two discs. Criterion’s has a superior bit rate, but this does not bear itself out in the visuals which, for those wondering – looked superb in 2007 and continue to look just fine in 2018.  
Herein, we should give very high marks for VP in Charge of Catalog, Grover Crisp’s deep-rooted commitment to ensuring Sony’s catalog came to hi-def looking this immaculate, especially when – at that time – his competition was merely contented to release tired and careworn SD transfers bumped to a 1080p signal. The Age of Innocence is nothing less than impressive in hi-def. This 1080p image is stunning; razor-sharp without untoward edge effects, richly saturated colors and superior amounts of fine detail that pop, exquisite contrast and film grain looking indigenous to its source.  Flesh tones are accurately rendered and greens, reds and blacks look spectacularly rich and appealing. One minor quibble: as Newland Archer arrives at the Beufort’s ball, Scorsese’s impressive long tracking shot through these antechambers is momentarily marred by some age-related artifacts; an oddity indeed, since the rest herein is virtually blemish-free.
The audio is DTS 5.1 and as impressive; yielding an unanticipated richness in its bass. Again, this appears to be the same mastering effort as on the 2007 disc. Criterion predictably fattens the calf with a barrage of extras. The Sony disc had none. Criterion offers 4 new interviews (recorded last year); with Scorsese, Jay Cocks, Dante Ferretti and Gabriella Pescucci. Cumulatively, these total just a little over an hour.  We also get, Innocence and Experience; a half hour doc made in 1993 to promote the movie with snippets and sound bites from cast and crew. Finally, a trailer and liner notes from critic, Geoffrey O'Brien. Bottom line: for fans – very highly recommended! For those who shelled out for Sony’s bare bones release from a few years ago – think carefully about spending the extra coin this time around. You are doing it for the extras only – not a remastered Blu-ray viewing experience…just saying!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

THE HANGING TREE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1959) Warner Archive

You would be pretty hard-pressed to discover a manlier legend of the Hollywood western, finely wrought and introspective than Gary Cooper. By 1959, Coop', who died on May 13, 1961 from prostate cancer, was an institution in his own right; the lanky Montanan who, in his youth, was ruggedly handsome, but in later years, could appreciate the erosion of these matinee idol good looks into a weathered façade: the perfect complement to his no-nonsense acting style. Gary Cooper's screen legacy is that of a towering figure infused with a sort of reluctant masculinity. For although Cooper could slug it out with the best of them, and frequently threw punches to level adversaries twice his girth, one always sensed he would have preferred a hearty intellectual debate to the more ballsy display of fisticuffs.  In movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and High Noon (1952) we get Cooper as he likely was in real life: a slightly wistful gent, deeply entrenched in his unwavering principles and personal integrity; instinctively knowing right from wrong. Yet, Cooper was never hard line. He never expected others to follow his example; merely, to live up to their own personal best. 
In his final western, Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree (1959), we get a genuine sense of Gary Cooper, ripened with time and more than a few movie westerns under his belt; someone who has seen it all/done most of it too, and, has learned by example what works on the screen – the righteous path to fortune and glory, like wreck and ruin, converging on this singular wrinkle in time. Life - never as perfect, linear, or, as full of promise as we would desire it to be; Coop’s epitaph to the Hollywood western eviscerates its mythology otherwise slavishly devoted to the noble frontier. Based on Dorothy M. Johnson’s 1957 novelette of the same name, the screenplay cobbled together by Wendell Mayes and Halsted Welles unapologetically strips away the mask of virtue so much a part of the western iconography, thanks in part to film makers like John Ford. And, while Ford’s excursions into frontier territory offer the viewer a glowing pastiche of the west as it ought to have been – lusty and adventurous – Daves’ depiction herein turns to a far grittier and visceral chapter in its lawlessness and wicked abandonment, more likely much closer to its truths. The gold fields of Montana are not populated by wily old coots and claim-happy prospectors, but the dregs of society; the morally ambiguous at best; at their worst, the ruthless, cutthroat and generally unworthy of the fortune and glory they seek.
Into this milieu blunders a trio of naves. Only one, the ‘beautiful lady’, barely having survived a near-death stagecoach holdup, later to be discovered by a posse badly hurt, nearly unconscious and temporarily blinded by the sun, is the true innocent. The two who side in her recovery, Doc Frail – of spurious background (rumored to have set afire a mansion in the east, killing two people) and Rune, the boy he has blackmailed as his man servant after restoring him to health from a near-fatal gunshot wound, are of dubious distinction, though arguably, still the noblest intentions. Indeed, Rune has acquired a bad case of puppy love; Doc, uncertain whether he is even worthy of the lady’s affections. The world this disparate and desperate triumvirate come to inhabit operates on a shifty-eyed plateau of extreme ethical haziness. We witness the towns folk of Skull Creek, a mining outpost in the middle of nowhere, swayed and collectively lacking any self-governance or even a modest collective conscience; pillaging and torching their makeshift community during a self-destructive, if celebratory, bacchanal.
The Hanging Tree is teeming with such moments of genuinely terrifying mob rule; the way of the gun the only way to survive a daily onslaught of jealousy, fear, corruption and moral turpitude threatening to wipe out anyone with a more altruistic approach to life. The Hanging Tree likely appealed to Delmer Daves for precisely this hard-hitting realism. Lest we remember, Daves career was responsible for such masterworks as The Red House, Dark Passage (both in 1947) and 1949’s Task Force (also starring Gary Cooper). Daves would fall ill right in the middle of shooting The Hanging Tree, co-star, Karl Malden assuming the director’s chair to complete the picture, along with a very brief assist from director, Vincent Sherman. And yet, there is a consistency to the final cut, directly rooted in Daves’ overriding arc and vision for the movie. Although released thru Warner Bros., The Hanging Tree was actually made for Gary Cooper’s indie production company, Baroda; overseen by producers, Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd (whose brief alliance would produce three more pictures, including the iconic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961). Coop’ amassed a formidable team to make The Hanging Tree, not the least, veteran composer, Max Steiner to write the score, Ted D. McCord to photograph it, and, in his movie debut as an overzealous and wild-eyed frontier ‘preacher’ – George C. Scott.
Our story begins with Dr. Joseph Frail (Gary Cooper); a physician by trade, but also a gambler, gunslinger and very shrewd businessman. He rides into Skull Creek, Montana during the gold rush, looking to establish his practice amongst the ‘good’ citizenry. En route to the isolated cabin he will soon cajole an old prospector to sell to him, Frail passes ‘the hanging tree’ – a gnarled old oak, dangling a withered noose from one of its craggy/bare branches. Frail quickly sets up his home and office, treating the sick with medicinal remedies and kindness. Meanwhile, Rune (playwright and stage actor, Ben Piazza in his first movie role) a devious young upstart, is shot by prospector, Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) after attempting to steal several nuggets of gold from his sluice. The boy flees, pursued to a point by the ebullient Frenchy, out for blood. Avoiding capture, Rune manages to make his way to Doc’s cabin. Frail treats the wound but then blackmails Rune into serving him as his ‘assistant’ – basically, a ‘fetch and carry’; lest, Frail be tempted to turn Rune in to the authorities for theft or simply leave him to Frenchy’s vengefulness to finish the job.  Begrudgingly, Rune acquiesces, quite unaware Frail has already destroyed the only evidence – the bullet extracted from his shoulder – possibly to link him to the crime.
Rune comes to admire Frail’s compassion for the sick. But he utterly despises the way he tricks a fellow poker player, Society Red (John Dierkes) out of the deed to his mine – yet to yield any riches. Red infers Doc Frail is on the lam, having escaped a charge of arson back east that resulted in the death of his wife and brother. Frail strikes down Red with a single blow. But his reputation in town suffers from this accusation. Indeed, Edna Flaunce (Virginia Gregg), the gossipy wife of a local merchant comes to deeply criticize Frail later on; a tone Dr. Grubb (George C. Scott), a bizarre ‘faith healer’, adopts to cast aspersions on his competition. Frail chases Grubb off his property with a blaze of gunfire, more to frighten than wound or kill. Nevertheless, some of the town’s citizenry begin to doubt Frail’s motives. After all, they still need his medical cures.
On a steep pass not far from Skull Creek, a stagecoach is robbed, killing the driver and a male passenger aboard. The coach careens out of control, overturning and tumbling down a rocky canyon with its sole survivor, Swiss immigrant, Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) somehow managing to crawl from under the wreckage. She is discovered by Frenchy several days later, near death and blinded by the intensity of the sun, accompanied by a local search party. Having overheard a rumor about the girl’s beauty, Rune is sorely disappointed by the fragile lass’ distorted and badly bruised appearance. Frail encourages Tom Flaunce (Karl Swenson), Edna’s husband, to loan him the use of his adjacent cabin to help Elizabeth with her recuperation. Frail also appoints Rune as Elizabeth’s guardian. Deviously, Edna spreads lies in town that Rune and Frail are likely ‘having their way’ with the patient, not nearly as sick as she pretends. Frail will have none of their slum prudery however. Indeed, when Edna arrives with a contingent of ladies under the guise of offering their nursing skills, Frail quickly admonishes the lot for their perverted inquisitiveness and sends them on their way.
The lascivious Frenchy sneaks into the cabin while the still blinded Elizabeth is convalescing. Under the pretext of being her friend, and hopefully her future business partner, Frenchy attempts to kiss her. But Frenchy’s unwarranted – and unwanted – aggression is witnessed by Frail. Chases from the cabin, Frail follows Frenchy back into town; the pair engaging in a knock-down/drag-out fight that ends badly for Frenchy. Frail threatens if Frenchy should ever return to the cabin he will surely meet his untimely end at the point of his gun. Elizabeth’s recovery progresses slowly. She is plagued by nightmares, crippled by fear, and haunted by lingering remorse for the male passenger who died as a result – the man just happening to be her father. Transferring her gratitude to Frail into an amorous overture, Frail turns Elizabeth down. Embarrassed, she departs his care in a huff, determined to strike it rich as a prospector in order to pay him for his services. At the Flaunce’s general store, Elizabeth tries to hock a jeweled pin her father gave her, presumed to be a family heirloom. In fact, it is costume jewelry and utterly worthless. But Frail, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, strikes a bargain with Tom to pay for all the supplies she will require to go into business for herself.
Elizabeth forms a mining partnership with Frenchy, whom she misguidedly believes is owed something for saving her life; also, with Rune, having since learned Frail holds no dominion over him and left his employ, very bitter and resentful. These three novice prospectors erect a sluice and work the mine, at first, to no advantage. At some point, Elizabeth goes into town to inquire from Edna whether she might continue borrowing credit on the pin being held as collateral. Edna viciously informs Elizabeth the pin was never the source of her income. Frail has secretly continued to cover all her debts, thus perpetuating the rumor she is his kept woman. Angered by this discovery, Elizabeth is more invested than ever to work the mine until it yields enough money to pay back Frail every last cent. In response to her query about his past, Frail confides that he came home one night to discover his wife and brother in bed together, dead of an apparent murder/suicide. Disgusted and in a rage, he set fire to his house with their bodies left inside. The incident has haunted him ever since.
Elizabeth, Frenchy and Rune are at the end of the line. Indeed, Frenchy’s patience has worn threadbare. He threatens to dissolve their partnership. As fate would have it, an impromptu thunderstorm sends everyone scurrying to their nearby tents; the earth quickly turned to mud, causing a towering pine to topple and flatten a part of the sluice. However, upon examining the tree’s exposed roots, Frenchy finds the stump is littered with gold nuggets – a glory hole, revealing the richest strike in these parts. Mad with excitement, Frenchy, Elizabeth and Rune ride into town with their newfound wealth. Frenchy whips the town into a frenzy, promising drinks and prosperity for everyone. At his behest, the town’s folk start a bonfire and with Dr. Grubb’s manic encouragement they burn down Mame’s Saloon. The looters also wreak havoc all over town while the law-abiding citizenry desperately gather to put out these man-made blazes. Meanwhile, Frenchy has made it back to the cabin where he physically assaults, then attempts to rape Elizabeth. Mercifully, Frail arrives in the nick of time. He pummels Frenchy, who pulls a gun on Frail; Frail, pumping several bullets into Frenchy in self-defense until he is quite dead before kicking his remains over the side of a very steep cliffside as various town’s folk, including Grubb, look on.
Grubb accuses Frail of cold-blooded murder. The citizenry loyal to Grubb and ready to believe the very worst about Frail, already crazed and looking for any reason to lynch him, seize this opportunity to drag Frail to the hanging tree. Society Red gleefully looks on with immense satisfaction as Frail is raised onto a wagon bed, his hands bound behind his back and a noose placed snug around his neck. Emerging from the cabin unharmed, Elizabeth explains what has occurred to Rune. The two grab their gold sacks and hurry to the hanging tree, Elizabeth throwing herself on the town’s mercy to spare Frail’s life. She offers them not only the gold but also the deed to their claim. As Grubb and his followers are not after justice, they greedily accept the trade, pawing and knocking one another down to gain possession of the riches they neither earned nor deserve. As the mob disperses, Rune climbs onto the wagon bed and frees Frail from his constraints. He kneels before Elizabeth, taking her face in his hands, gently caressing her cheeks. She has sacrificed everything for him. He cannot deny his love for her any longer.
The Hanging Tree was photographed amidst the rugged natural splendor of Oak Creek, a wildlife conservation area just west of Yakima, Washington with other location work done at Goose Prairie and Rattlesnake Creek. The picture benefits greatly from this authentic backdrop; also, Marty Robbin’s warbling of the title tune, co-written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston; an uncharacteristically jaunty main title that quickly became all the rage on the hit parade. In 1959, the Hollywood western was at its zenith; both, on the big screen and television; the market thoroughly saturated with the likenesses of cowboys and Indians. After Delmer Daves became incapacitated by ulcers, Cooper and Malden developed a working rapport whereupon Malden, encouraged by his costar to assume the directorial duties, acted out the scenes for Coop’ the way he felt they should be played and Cooper responded in kind, bringing a vitality all his own to their heated exchanges.
While for a good many John Wayne will always be synonymous with the western film, Gary Cooper’s legacy in the genre dated all the way back to 1926’s The Winning of Barbara Worth and 1929’s The Virginian; Coop’, all but inventing the iconography of the laid back western hero, taken from idyllic and refined, at its zenith, to its near antithesis as a reticent lawman in 1952’s High Noon. Unequivocally, Gary Cooper etched his place into the American western mythology. Like the image he worked so hard to convey on the screen, Cooper’s public persona was, in many ways, an extension of his alter egos; noble, patient, abiding in his love of country and mindful of the strength in moral goodness, always in very short supply among his contemporaries then, but virtually depleted by any barometer ascribed to the social castes presently occupying our post-post-modern age. Suffering from a previous hip injury, Cooper developed a curious ‘riding’ style’ to accommodate his scenes on a horse; listing to the left while hanging onto the saddle horn instead of the bridles.
The Hanging Tree fails to stack the cards in Doc Frail’s favor, lending the picture and, by extension Cooper’s depiction of Frail, a curious moral opacity that, at least by today’s standards, appears bracingly candid.  Frail is not a heroic figure, though he illustrates spurts of heroism, well-placed and evenly timed, if only to maintain the guessing game. Is he or isn’t he a man to be trusted or, at the very least, taken at face value? The picture is never revealing of anything more or better about the man than a possible ‘maybe’. Lest we forget, Frail’s confession of discovering his wife and brother’s remains together is a little weak to explain away his hot-headed act of arson to conceal their infidelity – or rather, his embarrassment from it. This leaves the denouement (Frail’s near escape from the gallows) a tad unfulfilling. But otherwise, The Hanging Tree is a superb western drama. That it debuted in 1959, a year with so many more prominently featured screen triumphs, including Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and, William Wyler’s titanic Oscar-reaping spectacle, Ben-Hur has somewhat obscured The Hanging Tree’s reputation as a class ‘A’ movie in its own right. Although it did respectable business it equally failed to be a bona fide box office bread winner.
Regrettably, in the interim the picture was allowed to fade into quiet obscurity; an oversight rectified by Warner Archive’s (WAC) resurrected reissue on Blu-ray. WAC’s devotion to rarer finds among its vast catalog of treasures is commendable. The Hanging Tree certainly benefits from WAC’s care and remastering efforts. Shot in Technicolor, The Hanging Tree in 1080p supports excellent color reproduction, with sumptuous greens and eye-popping reds. Flesh tones are slightly on the ruddy side. Contrast is uniformly excellent. Occasionally, the image can be just a tad softly focused. But overall, this is a highly pleasing hi-def presentation; full-bodied in its reproduced textures and film grain, visually arresting throughout while showing off Ted McCord’s cinematography to its very best advantage.  The 2.0 mono is adequate, with limitations inherent in the original mix, as accurate as expected with virtually no hiss or pop.  WAC has truly done everything to ensure The Hanging Tree looks and sounds great. One regret: save a theatrical trailer – no extras! For shame! Oh well…can’t have everything. In retrospect, the moral complexity of The Hanging Tree looks ahead to the anti-hero westerns that would soon populate the 1960’s with their more darkly wrought and brooding figures caught in the shadows of late afternoon than the full flourish of noonday sun. Few westerns made before or since have yielded as varied a palette in human drama. This one comes very highly recommended, both for content and quality. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, February 10, 2018

TOM JONES: Blu-ray (Lorpert Pictures/UA, 1963) Criterion Collection

A breakneck, footloose and fancy-free sex comedy, back when movies found humor in the act itself, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) offers us an untrammeled exercise in film-making; crassly commercial, action-packed, and, as lustily satisfying as a wench with her pantaloons riding down around her easy virtue. Richardson’s bawdy social satire remains a valiant adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic novel, The History of Tom Jones – a Foundling, tricked out in Eastman color and afforded a pluperfect performance by Albert Finney as the eponymous and titular…uh…hero. Actually, Tom’s a randy sod; blessed with good fortune and above average looks, parlaying his meager lot in life into some of the most bodice-ripping sex-capades of the 18th century. Tom’s endurance is commendable. No Viagra here. And his unquenchable thirst for the ladies, good food and fine wine – not to mention spirited misadventures that can – and do – arise after the husbands find out – is the stuff of Don Juan meets Harvey Weinstein.
In 1963, Tom Jones seemed to point to something new – or at least, different; if not to defy censorship, at least striving to be audacious. As Thackery’s Barry Lyndon is a tale of rake’s progress in steep decline, Tom Jones remains declarative of the roué’s ribald triumph, thumbing his nose at this straight-laced, poker-faced and crinoline-lined status quo, distinctly preferring not to acknowledge his kind: hypocrites, every last one. Albert Finney’s countrified gent (the cream of the jest) with petty larceny always brewing, is the perfect foil for sophisticated Sophie (Susannah York) – a lady…well, mostly. Tom’s feeble chances to amass a small fortune and support his beloved in the manner to which she is accustom, is offset by his wild follies, suffering for his art with some truly clumsy seductions. John Osborne's Oscar-winning screenplay embodies the novel’s tone, even as the entire cast throws caution to the wind, casting aspersions, telling glances, and, witticisms aplenty with tongue-in-cheek naughtiness, never to degenerate into a tawdry or vulgar mess.   
Historically accurate, yet utterly cheeky, and, possessing a unique rhythm to its rhetoric – Tom Jones somehow typifies the swingin’ sixties, as well as the uninhibited techniques of the New Wave. These are effortlessly transposed to Fielding’s time-honored milieu; Richardson, unerring to maintain this kinetic energy, seesawing between serious drama and farce-laden frankness. The picture sticks its creative fingers in the eye of well-born and lowbrow British society; each, transparently debunked through the eyes of our bastard/boulevardier.  Richardson stands antiquity on end; no ceremony here, as he loosely toys with the literary text and our expectations of the period costume/film-based epic; no compunction either, applying a sort of Tudor burlesque to this tenderly fraught romance. Distilling Fielding’s 1000 pages into128 minutes, Richardson cannot help but to condense and/or jettison a good portion of the novel’s plot. And yet, he remains uncannily faithful to the essential qualities of the novel, and, with a mischievous streak of contemporary social awareness to boot.
The major episodes recounted in this young buck’s life are densely bookended by Ralph W. Brinton’s gorgeous Production Design, photographed to lush perfection by Walter Lassally. Yet, it’s the roar of Richardson’s artful lunacy, wed to the innate (if, by direct comparison, relatively ‘tame’) raciness in Fielding’s prose, conspiring here to give us a Tom Jones unlike anything the author could have envisioned, though likely would have garnered his glowing approval, albeit, with a sly grin and a nudge. The picture’s opener, shot in B&W like a silent newsreel, depicts the moral Squire Allworthy (George Devine) returning home to discover an infant in his bed; the offspring of an amatory disgrace, surely to topple the respectability of his house. The camera hits a close-up on the child, a prudish narrator offering this less than glowing introduction, “Tom Jones…of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged.” Flash forward to Tom as the Squire’s vigorous, transparent, and brash young ward, leaping through a series of raunchy exploits with casual aplomb. Richardson and his actors break the third wall, addressing the audience or camouflaging the camera lens so as to obscure the more salacious events presumably about to unfold from our prying eyes. It’s a very 20th century approach to 18th century mores and manners; the escapade set to John Addison’s flamboyant score with a contingent of the absurd.   
Immediately following the movie’s prologue, depicting the good Squire’s discovery of the foundling birthed by his barber, Mr. Partridge (Jack MacGowran), and a scullery maid, Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman), we fast track to the adult world of Tom Jones (Albert Finney); sinfully handsome, but a kind soul. Naturally, he is the envy of the opposite sex. But also, rather passionately, Tom only has eyes for one woman, the temperate Sophie Western (Susannah York), demure in all things except her reciprocated passion for him. The stigma of being considered as a bastard in polite society equates to being denied marriage to any lady of well-born pedigree. Hence, Sophie conceals her truest feelings for Tom from her Aunt (Edith Evans) and father, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith); both, imploring the head-strong girl to enter into an ‘arrangement’ with a more suitable man, Blifil (David Warner) whom regrettably, she absolutely despises.
On paper, at least, Blifil is a good match: the son of Squire Western’s widowed sister, Bridget (Rachel Kempson). Of legitimate birth, Blifil is nevertheless rather ruthless, concealing his truer self behind a self-professed mask of virtue. Lacking Tom’s intuitive genuineness – a quality that cannot be taught or bought, Sophie sees right through Blifil’s ill-mannered façade. When Bridget dies unexpectedly, Blifil intercepts a letter his mother did not intend him to see. Determined to wed Sophie, at mother's funeral Blifil and his conspiring tutors, Mr. Thwackum (Peter Bull) and Mr. Square (John Moffatt) set out to prove Tom an unscrupulous sort, unworthy of Sophie’s love. To spare Tom this further indignation, Allworthy gives his ward a small cash sum and mournfully sends him out to seek his fortune.
Embarking upon his travels, Tom is knocked unconscious as he attempts to defend Sophie’s honor. Awakening to an empty purse, he flees from an insanely jealous Irishman, Mr. Fitzpatrick (George A. Cooper) who falsely accuses Tom of an affair with his wife (Rosalind Knight). Other incidents on this very bumpy road to self-discovery include a pair of deadly sword fights and a chance meeting between Tom and his presumed father and mother, a certain Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), whom Tom spares from a maniacal Redcoat Officer. Tom later beds the same Mrs. Waters, their post-coital consumption of a lavish meal at the Upton Inn creating a palpably erotic spark of ignition. In the meantime, Sophie has stolen into the night to escape Blifil. Narrowly passing one another undetected at the Inn, Tom and Sophie separately make their way to London. It does not take long for Tom to garner the attentions of Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood), a licentious tart, born a ‘noblewoman’ in name only. Tom’s senior by some span of years, Bellaston is nevertheless wealthy and still very attractive. She also happens to be an unabashed wanton.
So, what does it say about Tom, enthusiastically bedding ‘the lady’ in order to gain a generous stipend for his…uh…services? Hmmm. Fate catches up with Tom twice; first, rather unexpectedly, facing down a vial crowd, jeering in the square at Tyburn Gaol, aflame for his hanging after Blifil frames him on a charge of robbery and attempted murder. Mercifully, the second blow is in Tom’s favor: Allworthy learning the contents of the mysterious letter intercepted by Blifil. Tom is not Jenny Jones’ son, but Bridget's illegitimate and thus, Allworthy’s nephew. Blifil’s conspiracy to ruin his own half-brother leads to his total disgrace and disinheritance. Allworthy uses the letter to obtain a pardon for Tom; alas, already taken to the gibbet. In the nick of time, Squire Western rescues the young man from certain death. Tom is reunited with Sophie and granted permission to court and wed her with Western's blessing.
Tom Jones is as bawdy as it proves farcical; imbued with a stylized mad genius perennially on display, from fox hunt to sword fight to masquerade ball. Our hero’s episodic misadventures might just as easily be the stuff of gaudy ‘art house’; encounters with town slut, Molly Seagrim (Diane Cilento) or the topsy-turvy upheaval caused by Fitzpatrick’s righteous disgust at having unearthed a bit of scandalous badinage at the inn. Albert Finney’s inveterate playboy is a charismatic rogue, teeming with a Puck-ish desire to turn the world upside down. His counterpoint, Hugh Griffith as Squire Western, is the antithesis of Tom’s youth and vigor. Indeed, his gluttonous behavior may be a signpost pointing in the general direction Tom is headed, should he not heed the call of true love and repent against playing the amiable Lochinvar. Susannah York makes for a comely and good-natured lass who, decidedly, knows her own heart and mind and is not afraid to exercise the privilege of expressing it, defying one suitor to wholeheartedly pursue another of her choice.  The picture is too transparently ironic to be truly vulgar and far too sophisticated to be accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator for its box office.
With so much at stake, to find Academy voters just as eager to embrace Tom Jones as the audience is quite refreshing; nominated for a whopping 10 Oscars and winning four: Best Score, Adapted Screenplay, Director, and, most coveted of all, Best Picture. It is one of those film-land ironies, a movie to have pleased so many should cause its own director such consternation. But Tony Richardson has always considered Tom Jones his artistic miscalculation, writing in his autobiography, “I felt the movie to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution. I am not knocking that kind of success – everyone should have it – but whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe a little inside.”  Under budgetary restrictions and time constraints (128 minutes is hardly an epic), Richardson could not have hoped to squeeze in all of the satirical misfortunes depicted in Fielding’s novel. Miraculously, it doesn’t matter one hoot whole portions of text and many extemporaneous characters have gone missing.
As Bryanston Films, the original company footing the bills, balked at the decision to shoot Tom Jones in color (and ended up bankrupt shortly thereafter), the picture was eventually financed by U.S. monies through United Artists. Cinematographer, Walter Lassally has suggested, although he and Richardson ‘got on well together’, the director apparently ‘lost his way’ during post-production, becoming fixated on endless tinkering where no such pruning or finessing was required. Whatever the truth, there is little to deny nobody on the outside looking in could identify these faults; Tom Jones, ringing registers around the world as the third highest-grossing release in the U.K. in 1963 and the fourth in the U.S. Tom Jones miniscule $1 million budget was effectively eclipsed by its $16 million gross state’s side and another $4 million accrued elsewhere.  While money alone does not necessarily equate to an artistic triumph, and despite Richardson’s misgivings, the picture remains indelibly etched into movie-goer’s minds as one of the all-time sassy, saucy and salacious good times ever to grace their picture-house screens.
Tom Jones arrives on Blu-ray (long overdue) from Criterion in two different cuts; the 128 minute ‘theatrical’ release seen in 1963, and the 7-minute shorter director’s cut released in 1989 and overseen by cinematographer, Walter Lassally.  Both are advertised as a new 4K scan and, with minor caveats, this is the very best Tom Jones has ever looked on home video. Owing to decades of improper storage and lack of restoration, earlier incarnations were frequently plagued by inconsistent and digitized grain; the natural palette of earth tones reduced to a muddy mess. Virtually all of these shortcomings have been rectified in hi-def. The image is remarkably free of age-related artifacts and colors, especially during daytime scenes, greatly improved. Flesh tones are quite natural.  Darker sequences continue to lean towards an unhealthy green bias.  Criterion’s PCM mono is pretty limited, but is presented at an adequate listening level.
As already stated, we have two versions of the movie to critique. Image quality is virtually identical on both. Two Blu-rays: the first, in addition to housing the Director's Cut, packed with a new 25-minute retrospective featuring Walter Lassally and film critic, Peter Cowie. We also get 22-minutes with film scholar, Duncan Petrie discussing the impact Tom Jones had on British cinema. Finally, there is a 10-minute interview with editor, Robert Lambert. The second disc houses the theatrical release, along with a 4-minute excerpt from a 1982 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring, Albert Finney.  Vanessa Redgrave weighs in on Tony Richardson (a fairly glowing tribute from an ex-wife). Finally, there is an illustrated archival audio interview with composer, John Addison. Capping off our admiration: liner notes by scholar, Neil Sinyard. Bottom line: Tom Jones is an entertaining movie; its technical merits have influenced an entire generation of film-makers. There is an economy to Richardson’s technique, undoubtedly inspired by limitations in his budget, but also the result of his unique parallel impressions of eighteenth and twentieth century life. Tom Jones remains vital and fun-lovingly addictive.  Good stuff here – ditto for Criterion’s newly restored edition.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, February 8, 2018

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: Blu-ray re-issue (Orion, 1991) Criterion Collection

It is impossible to set aside one’s own appetite for liver and Fava beans without remembering the good Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and his affinity for whatever else might be on the menu. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – a loose ‘follow-up’ to Michael Mann’s C-budget thriller, Man Hunter (1986, based on the novel by Thomas Harris) may be the most successful sequel in movie history. Unequivocally, it remains a delectably hair-prickling excursion into the mind of a sadist. In bringing this unrepentant flesh-eating physician to life, Anthony Hopkins resurrected a movie career that, until this film, most living in North America could barely recall. Let’s just go on the record here: Sir Anthony is an international treasure; an actor’s actor with the chops and pedigree to float several Lifetime Achievement Awards (though, oddly enough, not a single one yet bestowed on him by the AFI – for shame!). Hopkins’ performance in The Silence of the Lambs is a tour de force; a deep breath of malice for mankind while quietly expelling his deliciously grotesque admiration for fledgling FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) whom he ultimately spars the indignation of his Ginsu. The mutual fascination that develops between these sworn enemies is engrossing to say the least. Yet, it fuels what is essentially an otherwise conventional crime-solving narrative with an almost involuntary knee-jerk sexual friction. Is Lecter in love with Clarice? Increasingly, in his own warped sense of amour, this becomes our central and nauseating focus.
Clarice Starling is very like the ‘little lost lamb’ so depicted in her own flashbacks of an anxious childhood and more astutely accredited in the movie’s title; an innocent, thrust into the midst of wolves – her male counterparts at the FBI, including boss and mentor, Jack Crawford (played with subtle salacious inferences by Scott Glenn) and with more odious transparency by Anthony Heald, as Dr. Frederick Chilton; the despicably perverse curator of Baltimore’s maximum security asylum for the criminally insane. Ted Tally’s screenplay draws an unflattering, though remarkably clairvoyant parallel between all three of these men in Clarice’s life; the influences they exert – or try to – on her psyche and career, and, the commonalities they possess; namely, to claim her for their own. Ironically, Hannibal Lecter is the only man capable of reading Clarice Starling like a book; preying upon, but also showing a genuine compassion for, her primal self-doubts. He appreciates her more when she lets the pretense of her carefully honed cleverness slip, revealing honesty not yet jaded by its tenure at the FBI. 
The Silence of the Lambs is based on Thomas Harris' 1988 novel of the same name. In galleys, it caught the interest of Gene Hackman and Orion Pictures, the studio conspiring for $500,000 to acquire the rights for Hackman, not only to direct, but also star.  But producers also had to acquire the rights to the name ‘Hannibal Lecter’ since it had first been used in Manhunter; still owned by that film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis. As Manhunter had yet to acquire its cult following, and had – in fact – been a colossal box office bomb, De Laurentiis freely lent the rights to Orion, perhaps forever thereafter to regret his shortsightedness. Ted Tally was hired to adapt the novel for the screen. Alas, midway through his first draft, Hackman withdrew from the project without explaining his reasons. Without a star, financial backing fell through. Nevertheless, Orion’s co-founder, Mike Medavoy encouraged Tally to keep writing. Fortuitously, Medavoy’s replacement in the director’s chair was Jonathan Demme. Ambitious to a fault and eager to please, Demme signed on after reading the novel, his enthusiasm only continuing to ferment and blossom after perusing Tally’s screenplay. In one of those rare instances, Tally’s first draft remained pretty much intact with few revisions; production green-lit by November with one of the shortest incubation periods of any movie produced during the cost-crunching early-nineties.
Like Demme, Jodie Foster’s participation was assured after she had read the novel. Demme, alas, was not entirely certain she was right for the part. He would have preferred Michelle Pfeiffer. As Pfeiffer found the subject matter too morbid for her palette, Demme relented to cast Foster in her stead. As for Hannibal Lecter; the director’s first choice had been none other than 007 himself - Sean Connery. Like Pfeiffer, Connery felt the role a bad career move, leaving relative unknown, Anthony Hopkins to step into Lecter’s shoes and appetite. Sir Anthony had been something of a main staple in Britain since the mid-1960’s; primarily known for his work in London’s live theater and a few supporting roles in the movies that intermittently garnered high praise on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet, despite his reputation as a consummate pro, Hopkins’ appeal failed to gel states’ side; his most prominent part, Sir Frederick Treves in 1980’s The Elephant Man, leaving little more than an afterthought in the public’s mind. Orion encouraged Demme to pursue the likes of Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman for the second lead. However, virtually all refused to partake of the exercise; ditto for Demme’s two ‘other’ Brit-imports: Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day-Lewis.  Demme also faced re-casting the part of Jack Crawford; the FBI’s Agent-in-Charge of the Behavioral Sciences Unit at Quantico, Virginia. This had been originally slated for Gene Hackman. Scott Glenn proved a noble ‘second’ choice; the actor immersing himself in the atmosphere of the piece by studying John E. Douglas, the man on whom author, Harris had modeled this fictional character.  Douglas gave Glenn a tour of Quantico and also allowed him access to bone-chilling audio recordings made by serial killers, Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris as their souvenir of the rape and torture of a 16-year-old girl. The tapes so disturbed Glenn he openly wept, and eventually, was stirred to change his liberal stance on the death penalty.
Principal photography for The Silence of the Lambs began on November 15, 1989 in Pittsburgh, with additional scenes made in West Virginia. In a rare act of cooperation, Demme was granted restricted access to shoot a few brief inserts at the actual FBI Academy at Quantico, with several senior agents appearing as extras in the film. As principle photography neared completion, composer, Howard Shore picked up his baton in Munich to record the score, taking his cue from Demme’s intricate notes and specific instructions as to the length, tone and placement of these cues. Shore’s score maintains an air of advancing horror; falling somewhere between a simple little dirge and elaborate requiem that perfectly plays on the audience’s impending sense of dread and mounting anxiety for Clarice Starling’s safety – not, so it seems, from Hannibal Lecter, but rather his copycat, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine in a thoroughly skin-crawling portrait as the “he puts the lotion in the basket” serial killer).
The Silence of the Lambs begins its narrative from Clarice Starling’s point of view; her awkward pursuit to become the best criminologist within the FBI’s patriarchal infrastructure. Midway through, this balance of power will shift; Lecter’s story overtaking the narrative bloodlines as Clarice becomes further mired in her desperate attempt to maintain pace with the morsels of truth strewn in her path. Intermittently, we are also allowed access into Clarice’s fearless, though angst-ridden past; her desire to be rid of early childhood traumas (the death of her father and slaughter of spring lambs) and her curious relationship with Dr. Lecter – whose fascination with her is only marginally creepier than that shared by Jack Crawford, abnormally relishing Clarice being kept slightly off balance in his presence. As portrayed by Jodie Foster, Clarice Starling is clever enough to play the game, yet smart enough to know when and where the rules might be bent to get exactly what she wants: the prestige and rank of an agent responsible for getting this notorious serial killer off the streets.
Even more bizarre, Clarice’s intellectual equal is Hannibal Lecter – aberrant, yet clear-headed. Lecter’s mind games leave Clarice addicted and craving more insight into the blackened recesses of a warped human heart and mind. Lecter abides. But he also baits Clarice. And yet, he affords her invaluable clues that help unearth Bill’s whereabouts before anyone else even suspects him of the disappearance of a college girl. What follows is a distorted game of ‘cat and mouse’ and a perilous race against time; Lecter, appealing to Clarice’s ego, plying her with legitimate tips, although, perhaps, never expecting her to follow them through to the end. It matters not to Lecter if Clarice finds Buffalo Bill in time. What Lecter is after is his freedom; a chance to escape and avenge himself on his tormentor these many years, Dr. Chilton – “the friend” he is “having for dinner”…literally!
Our tale begins with the Bureau’s Behavioral Science specialist, Jack Crawford pulling FBI trainee and UVA grad’ Clarice Starling from her studies for a very special assignment.  It seems Clarice is on her way; well…at least, to Baltimore’s ‘maximum security’ asylum to interview Hannibal Lecter; by far, the most intellectually perverse inmate in their otherwise devilish menagerie of pure psychopaths. Unlike most serial killers, who keep mementos of their victims, Hannibal ate his, earning him the nickname, Hannibal the cannibal. But Lecter may be useful in the Bureau’s latest investigation of a copycat killer, crudely referenced as Buffalo Bill ‘because he skins his humps’. Crawford needs insight into Bill’s mind. The matter becomes all the more urgent as Bill’s recent spate of murders has resulted in the disappearance of Senator Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) college-bound daughter, Catherine (Brooke Smith). The asylum supervisor, Dr. Frederick Chilton is himself a sadist who delights in the sublime torture of the inmates in this freak show. Chilton flirts with Clarice before allowing her to descend into the bowels of his institution where she does indeed come face to face with evil incarnate. Hannibal Lecter is not about to publicly share his secrets – that is, not without a little glimpse into Clarice’s psyche. His quid pro quo psychoanalysis threatens to reveal far too much about Clarice’s haunted past. Instructed by Crawford not to partake in any of Hannibal’s head games, Clarice instead decides to gamble her own memories for Catherine Martin’s safe return.
But Hannibal possesses an extraordinary mind. He chastises Clarice for her feeble attempts to ‘dissect’ his brain. Curiously, after fellow inmate, Miggs (Stuart Rudin) accosts Clarice by flicking semen in her face Lecter, who considers the act degrading, offers Clarice the first big break in the case; a clue to a former patient ‘Miss Moffat’, somehow indirectly involved with Buffalo Bill. Clarice traces the name to a storage facility and discovers, among the many possessions housed within, a man’s severed head submerged in a glass bottle of formaldehyde with a rare sphinx moth imbedded in its throat. Lecter helps Clarice profile Buffalo Bill on the condition he will be transferred to another institution for the remainder of his incarceration. To expedite this profiling, Crawford authorizes Starling to offer Lecter a fake deal.  Rather insidiously, Lecter seizes the opportunity and mercilessly probes Clarice’s childhood recollections on the murder of her sheriff/father when she was only ten years old. Chilton secretly records this conversation and exposes Clarice’s betrayal to Lecter, offering him an alternative ‘deal’. Lecter agrees and is flown to Memphis where he verbally taunts the Senator with misdirection, suggesting Buffalo Bill’s real name is ‘Louis Friend’ – an anagram for ‘iron sulfide’ (a.k.a. ‘fool’s gold’).
Desperate to solve the case and save Catherine’s life, Clarice implores Lecter to reveal the killer’s true identity to her. Instead, he promises everything she needs to know is already in her case file, and further investigates Clarice’s memory, awakening to the sound of spring lambs on a relative’s farm being slaughtered for market. Clarice confides that sometimes she still hears that terrible sound of death. Chilton intervenes in this latest interrogation, the police forcibly removing Clarice from the room. Later that same evening, Lecter escapes, having stolen a paperclip to loosen his restraints. He uses the police’s own pepper spray to startle a guard before ruthlessly bludgeoning him to death; removing the man’s face and placing it over his own. Lecter ensures the EMT’s will rush him from the crime scene, presuming he is the officer, still barely alive and in desperate need of their medical attention. Alas, en route to the hospital, Lecter butchers these angels of mercy too. He vanishes into thin air.
Meanwhile, Clarice analyzes Lecter’s annotations and concludes Buffalo Bill knew his first victim personally. Bill – a tailor by trade – is killing women to stitch together a dress made of real human skin. Clarice telephones Crawford with this news. Regrettably, armed with his own false narrative, Crawford is too preoccupied to listen, already en route to arrest the transsexual, James Gumb. While Gumb is definitely the serial killer they are both after, Crawford has misjudged the address – arriving at an abandoned home while Clarice simultaneously turns up on the front porch of ‘Jack Gordon’, who she comes too late to realize is James Gumb after discovering a live sphinx moth fluttering around the house. Gumb lures Clarice to his multi-level basement, a dimly lit inner sanctum of horrors where Clarice discovers the dress made of human skin and Catharine Martin, naked, but still alive and being held against her will in a hollow well.  
Plunging the windowless room into darkness Gumb, wearing a pair of night-vision goggles, stalks Clarice through the labyrinth. She is near paralyzed with fear. At the last possible moment, Gumb gives away his position directly behind Clarice by cocking his gun; Clarice, instinctually retaliating, unloading her service revolver into Gumb, sending him toppling to his bloody death through a blacked-out window. For her valor, Clarice achieves the notoriety and respect of her colleagues. She graduates from the Academy with top honors. Alas, at the post-commencement party, Clarice receives a phone call from the one admirer she did not expect; Hannibal Lecter – still at large and about to strike again on the remote tropical isle of Bimini where Dr. Chilton’s plane has only just landed.
In hindsight, The Silence of the Lambs can be viewed as a transitional piece in American cinema; the watershed moment in our post-post-modern storytelling when the more glossily told crime/thrillers of yore gave way to the grittiest of uncompromising portraits of the criminal element. Indeed, without ‘Lambs’ we might never have had Natural Born Killers (1994), or Se7en (1995) or Fargo (1996); perverse and nightmarish police procedural stories, favoring the ruthlessness, deception and unbridled madness of their glorified killer. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with this sort of movie, except that Demme’s breakpoint has created something of a creative gestalt in Hollywood these days, whereby virtually all like-minded narratives to have followed it take their cue and are destined to copy ‘Lambs’ stifling bleak modus operandi. Oddly enough, we warm to Hannibal Lecter, if not as likeable, then most certainly one of the most fascinating faces of evil ever to grace a movie screen.  This is partly due to Anthony Hopkin’s uber-riveting performance; teeming with precisely the sort of criminal insanity one would anticipate from a cannibalistic serial killer, yet queerly infused with an underlay of congenial charm that burrows deep (forgiving the pun) under our collective skin.
In 1991, The Silence of the Lambs was elevated from its crime/thriller sub-genre by the fact nothing quite like it had ever been seen on the screen before; the picture’s unnerving sense of genuine realism as paralytic as it proved penetrating in all its skin-crawling dread. I will depart a moment herein to account my own experience with this movie; having agreed to go with friends to see it during its theatrical run, even though I suspected it was not my cup of tea, only to have ‘said friends’ pull out at the last possible moment. Already at the theater, I elected to see the picture alone and was, upon exiting the theater, uncomfortably looking over my shoulder more than once en route to my parked car in the lot behind the theater. The picture’s most disturbing impressions gleaned from this opening-night experience have stuck with me ever since. Oft, on this blog and elsewhere on movie forums, I get bashed for preferring movie art of a higher calling; movies that can be re-seen and appreciated for their multi-layers of meaning over time.
The Silence of the Lambs is not this kind of movie. And yet, it remains so viscerally disturbing to me, I find myself compelled to trundle it out once every five or so years to be reminded of how perfectly affecting and afflicting brilliant it is. But it still creeps me out. And this, I suspect is the reason for my admiration; for all that Jonathan Demme, his cast and crew have wrought. But afterward, fava beans and Chianti just never seemed to go together. Evidently Academy voters disagreed. The Silence of the Lambs went on to win Oscars in all four of the major categories: Best Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster), Director (Demme) and Best Picture – an artistic coup not seen in Hollywood since Frank Capra's decidedly more ebullient masterpiece, It Happened One Night (1934). Today, ‘Lambs’ remains as disconcerting and authentic as the day it was made. Regrettably, in our present age of opaque, menacing and ultra-violent entertainments it plays as more par for the course than the standout from the lot – how deeply depressing, indeed!
Criterion’s Blu-ray re-issue of The Silence of the Lambs marks a vast improvement over MGM/Fox Video’s release from 2008; remastered in 4K with a superior bit rate and color balancing that has, at long last, eradicated the unhealthy red lean that made flesh tones pink and basically obfuscated all the subtle lighting techniques employed by cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto. The image herein is refined, with natural-looking flesh tones and film grain appearing far more indigenous to its source material. Age-related artifacts are a non-issue, as before. Where this latest incarnation excels is in the details. This is a razor-crisp presentation, extoling minute detail in skin, hair and background information without ever appearing to have suffered untoward DNR or artificial sharpening. By comparison, the color palette now possesses a green slant. However, viewed alone, it looks about what I am thinly able to recall from my movie-going experience so long ago; or rather, more natural on the whole and likely closer to the way it did appear when projected theatrically on film. So, good stuff here. The DTS 5.1 audio is magnificent, capturing the suspense-laden atmospheric quality of the original sound mix.
Best of all are the extras: not only do we get all of the previously released junkets and commentaries that were part of the MGM/Fox Home Video releases, but Criterion has jam-packed a second Blu-ray with hours of quality featurettes and documentaries, sure to please fans of this movie. From 1994, we get the audio commentary featuring Demme, screenwriter, Ted Tally, Hopkins and (in a rare incident of participation) Jodie Foster, along with former FBI agent, John Douglas. On the same disc as the movie, we also get a new interview piece with critic, Maitland McDonagh plus nearly forty minutes of deleted scenes. The second Blu-ray houses a 3-part, nearly hour-long documentary from 2005, produced by Laurent Bouzereau. We also get Inside the Labyrinth; the 2001 documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz that is superb and comprehensive. Also, on tap: at just under an hour, an episode of Bravo’s Page to Screen (2002) and brief featurettes on scoring the movie, and, entering the mind of a serial killer. Finally, there is an all too brief storyboard piece. Criterion’s liner notes contain an introduction by Jodie Foster and essays from critic, Amy Taubin and author, Thomas Harris, as well as a Q&A featuring Demme.  Mercifully left on the cutting room floor, the genuinely morbid 5 cooking recipes Hannibal Lecter would approve. This accompanied the tired ole MGM/Fox Blu-ray release. I shuddered then to think of their protein content. Bottom line: The Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece; although, in a year where J.F.K., Beauty & The Beast and The Prince of Tides were all Oscar-nominated, I confess, I had my ‘odds on’ favs that did not include ‘Lambs’ among the winners. Criterion’s Blu-ray is the definitive edition in hi-def. You will want to own this one; even it only gets played once every five years!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)