Saturday, July 27, 2013

THIS IS CINERAMA: Blu-ray (Merian C. Cooper 1952) Flicker Alley Home Video

Technical innovations are often the barometer by which the state of any art is judged. The introduction of sound, as example, liberated movies from what was then considered their zenith in self-expression. But it also led to a mass exodus of those who suffered an even crueler fate – watching their stardom implode, simply because their vocal capabilities lagged behind their presence in the silent medium. Then there was color – hand tinted frames at first giving way to the unpolished novelty of 2-strip Technicolor with its palette favoring pasty pinks and a swamp frog green/beige patina; then, 3-strip Technicolor, the Eastman monopack, color by DeLuxe and so on and so forth. Motion picture modernizations have continued ever since: widescreen, home video, CGI and, most recently, improvements made to the 1950s rudimentary understanding of 3D coming full circle.
In retrospect, Cinerama – a forerunner in the widescreen war – and undeniably the biggest with its cumbersome three-camera set up and projection – doesn’t seem so much an revolution today as the preamble that forever changed the shape of our movie screens from their relatively square Academy OAR of 1:33.1 to varying rectangular apertures still in existence today. Fred Waller often gets the nod for this evolution.  Arguably, he deserves most of it; his fifteen years of research instituted as the Waller Gunnery Trainer – a realistic flight simulator for U.S. combat pilots later tweaked, refined and rechristened as Cinerama. 
But lest we forget that French director Abel Gance beat Waller’s invention by nearly 20 year with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its final sequence breathtakingly expanding the square-ish movie frame into a three camera projection for the Battle of Waterloo. There was also William Fox’s superior Grandeur process in 1930’s early talkie, The Big Trail - a 70mm precursor some thirty years ahead of its mid-1960s competitors. No, in hindsight Cinerama wasn’t a gigantic evolutionary step ahead so much as it proved a costly and very unwieldy promotion that kicked off the mad dash for newer/better widescreen technologies yet to follow: Cinemascope, Todd A-O, VistaVision, Technirama, Dimension-150 and, Panavision among them.
Waller’s first time out, Vitarama, was little more than a novelty showcased at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yet, in viewing Cinerama’s debut today, with 1952’s This Is Cinerama, one is left rather dumbstruck not only by its overwhelming success (the film had a five year continuous run on Broadway) but also by how little the technology had progressed between the aforementioned touchstones and this re-introduction at the start of the 1950s. Arguably, without the Great Depression and WWII – both severely impacting budgets spent on innovations and movies in general, Hollywood would have streamlined and main stapled ‘widescreen’ as the industry standard by the mid-1930s. 
Nevertheless, Cinerama caught the whirlwind of the postwar generation. The ripples from its box office sensation and television’s own introduction (another technology debuted at 1939’s World’s Fair, but one that brought mass entertainment into the living room and convinced approximately fifty percent of the paying public to stay home instead of going to the movies) combined, forced studios to enter a race for competing widescreen formats. To be fair, This Is Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly made it unique among its early rivals; Cinerama’s louvered screen, as example, comprised of horizontal chords meticulously angled, greatly improved the overall luminosity and clarity of the image being projected onto them. So too did Cinerama give us our first real taste of eight-track directionalized stereophonic sound.  Disney had toyed with his own concept ‘Fanta-sound’ for 1940’s Fantasia, but Cinerama delivered an orchestral richness unheard in the movies before its own time and arguably, ever since.  Unlike any other widescreen technology, only Cinerama filled the entire periphery of human vision with its all-encompassing vistas.
There are others who deserve their share of Cinerama’s success story, beginning with maverick film maker Merian C. Cooper, who backed Waller’s grand experiment this second time around; Hazard E. Reeves – the pioneer of modern day sound recording; and finally, flyer extraordinaire, Paul Mantz, whose harrowing passes over such natural wonders as the orangey mesas of the Grand Canyon, and craggy spiked rock formations at Zion National Park made for some truly spectacular scenery. This Is Cinerama’s grise éminence is Lowell Thomas; writer/world traveller/broadcaster/spokesman – a true renaissance man of such diverse experiences, including being among the few to interview the real T.E. Lawrence of Arabia, and, who later became the voice of Fox’s Movietones Newsreels.
Indeed, Cinerama’s pedigree is nothing short of impressive. Yet the film is somehow less than spectacular, except in fits and sparks. This Is Cinerama begins with a rather excruciatingly tedious prologue in B&W and mono, featuring Lowell Thomas attempting to breach the chasm between the ‘dawn of time’ and, then, present day 1952. We move from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Eadweard Muybridge’s experimental still photography of a running horse to settle a bet, then onto Thomas Edison’s famed ‘the kiss’ actuality and a detailed abridgement of Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) with Thomas’ monologue at times strained and overly-simplified. This prologue serves a trifecta purpose; first – it is a glorified, if truncated, history lesson; second – it artificially lengthens This Is Cinerama’s runtime by twelve minutes, despite the fact that this footage is not in Cinerama or even in color. Finally, it sets up a distinct comparison, as in ‘this is where we’ve been. Now this is where we’re going to take you’.
And so, immediately following Thomas’ declaration of “Ladies and gentlemen…this, is Cinerama!” the screen opens to its full aperture inside the dugout of Rockaway Playland’s Atom Smasher roller coaster; the audience placed in a front row seat as the car pulls from the station and plunges through a series of steep inclines and hairpin turns. Even on home video – arguably the least effective way to view true Cinerama – there’s absolutely nothing to touch this moment for its sheer exhilaration; and such a shame too that in the remaining 118 minutes of This Is Cinerama we are infrequently treated to little more or better than snippets of coming attractions for a feature film that arguably never comes along. Instead, This Is Cinerama runs on like a glorified test reel for the format and not the comprehensive ‘you are there’ world-class experience its road show engagement program and movie posters advertised and promised.
There are some truly curious oddities along the way. A brief aerial shot of Niagara Falls in blazing Technicolor is followed by the turgidity of a static sequence photographed in sepia as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir enter the frame with their backs to the camera while raising their voices in Handel’s Hallelujah. The staging of this sequence just seems off if not entirely bizarre; drawing one’s attention to the immobility of the camera rather than the size of the image, and to those atrocious seams that separate the three panels. The setting itself, curtained with a makeshift altar taking center stage, is as unimpressive and uninspired a thing as any ever photographed since the early days of silent cinema.
The opera inserts of Verdi’s Aida are salvaged only by the staggering opulence of La Scala, the sumptuousness of the production once again marred by the camera’s inability to get closer to the action, but maintaining the proscenium of the stage experience. From these rather stuffy moments, presumably meant to elevate the stature of Cinerama to highbrow, the production kicks into a truncated cook’s tour of Europe – Spain, with its flamenco dancers and castanets clicking, and then, Italy’s St. Mark’s Square and a gondola ride down the Venetian canals that unfortunately shows off the awful and exaggerated warping of the image derived from Cinerama’s three lens process; the overhead bridges unnaturally stretched and becoming cavernous, lopsided and tunnel-like; the seams between panels two and three never quite matching up.
After a brief intermission – inserted to satisfy the constraints of having to mount another massive reel of film onto the projector, This Is Cinerama takes off to Florida’s Cypress Garden for a water ski showcase, and, a grand Floridian display of southern-styled belles parading through some very lush tropical vegetation. This is the movie’s most lurid and eye-popping moment. It is rumored that cameraman Harry Squire’s eyebrows were singed clean off when his boat sailed through a ring of fire in pursuit of the speedboats and water skiers.  Lowell Thomas’ commentary is threadbare, allowing the flourish of Max Steiner orchestral underscoring its full opportunity to carry the visuals on a groundswell of 8-track stereophonic sound.
The finale to This Is Cinerama is a mesmerizing trek across America – from its fruited plain to pinnacled mountainous natural wonders, with breathtaking aerial views of Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Frisco’s Golden Gate bridge feathered in for good measure – all of them serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s haunting refrains of America, The Beautiful. The moment when Harry Squire’s low-lying camera, strapped to the nose of Paul Mantz’s P-51 Mustang goes sailing over the edge of the Grand Canyon still retains its ability to take our breath away; ditto for Mantz’s hair-raising and equilibrium-testing swoops down into the jagged caverns of Zion National Park. Mantz’s plane was so close to the rocks, the experience of capturing it all on film convinced Squires to never again agree to fly with him. As a tragic postscript, Mantz would die while performing aerial maneuvers for Robert Aldrich’s Flight of the Phoenix in 1965.   
Vintage reviews of This Is Cinerama ranged from moderately glowing to downright gushing, but frequently referenced the film’s ‘travelogue’ atmosphere – something Lowell Thomas vehemently detested because in the truest definition of that word This Is Cinerama is not a ‘travelogue’ per say, but a compendium of spectacular shots incongruously assembled to suggest something of a world tour or journey, shot mostly from overhead. Despite the success of This Is Cinerama and its several highly publicized sequels ‘The Windjammer’ and Cinerama’s Seven Wonders of the World among the highlights, in hindsight it’s easy to see why the format never went beyond this initial fascination.
To say the least, Cinerama’s laborious three camera set up and projection process was not cost-effect. Worse, at least for conventional storytelling, was its complete inability to favor the conventional Hollywood close-up.  Even in MGM’s all-star blockbuster How The West Was Won(1962) - one of only two traditional narrative movies to use the process and arguably the only one to show off Cinerama to its very best advantage - the actors and action remained at a distance from the camera, the audience even further removed from the story by the proportionate space between their theater seats and that massive curved screen.
This is Cinerama can be fun. I must admit, positioning myself just so in front of an 80 inch flat screen gave me a fairly accurate ‘you are there’ effect for the roller coaster and water skiing sequences. But on the whole, the movie plays far more like a grand experiment with slight imperfections than an enveloping and comprehensive movie-going experience. The effect is exacerbated during the penultimate flying sequences with rock formations, trees, bridges and buildings infrequently appearing as though they are crashing against one another where the Cinerama panels meet.   
Despite some formidable video remastering efforts put forth by David Strohmaier and Greg Kimble the seams between these various panels are ever-present and distracting throughout. It should be noted that Strohmaier and Kimble’s restoration efforts were hampered by the fact that their work was being performed not from three camera Cinerama original negatives, but from a reassembled print master composite made of all three panels spliced together and printed onto one strip of 70mm Panavision film stock back in 1971. Kimble developed innovative ways of handling the various damage and instability inherent in this Panavision master. He has, in fact, resurrected much – if not all – of This Is Cinerama’s former glory for this Blu-ray debut.
Colors are, for the most part, a revelation; yielding a richness of reds, greens, blues and yellows that generally recapture the vintage look of Technicolor. It’s not perfect, but it is impressive nonetheless. Kimble has also managed to reduce a goodly amount of age-related damage, camera jitter and other anomalies inherent in the flawed film elements. Does it improve our overall viewing experience? Absolutely! No question or doubt about it. But Cinerama’s inherent shortcomings – even the smaller ones - look far more obvious in HD than they probably did in a theater, where one is quite simply overcome and overwhelmed by the sheer size of Cinerama’s projection and presentation. The audio is presented in either 5.1 or 4.0 DTS and is a revelation as well; robust and bellowing with all the drama of Cinerama’s opening night sonic splendor.
Extras include a rather comprehensive explanation of how the movie was restored and remastered for Blu-ray. It’s only 19min. long but crams in a ton of information. We also get tributes to the Neon Theater’s 1996 Cinerama revival and the Cooper Theater – a million dollar venue built expressly for Cinerama presentations in the 1960s, but torn down in 2000. Fred Waller provides a rather rambling radio interview. There are also trailers, TV spots, a slide show and stills to whet the appetite.
Yet, in the end This Is Cinerama comes across as a quaint relic from the past rather than a newly resurrected classic for all time. Although I am exceedingly grateful to the aforementioned men for their time and efforts put forth, and to Flicker Alley for its faith in releasing this vintage catalogue title to HD home video – a very important part of cinema history indeed, to say the very least – This Is Cinerama is not a movie that most outside of the collector, film buff and/or historian will find compelling. It has its moments, but they don’t add up to that overall ‘wow’ in wonderment and participation that movie audiences undoubtedly experienced in 1952. That’s a shame. But it’s also the truth. This Is Cinerama is an intriguing artifact from the past, not a cinematic masterpiece.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

3 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

BUS STOP: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1956) Fox Home Video

The last act of most actors’ careers is usually one they wish they could take back; the bitter-sweetness of that fond memory of what they once were - but no longer are - urging the star to prove his/her metal and partake in material substandard to both their talents and personal tastes. Bette Davis said it best, when asked about her role in Dead Ringer (1964). “Not everything I do is art,” she said, “But I pick the best from what I am offered.” Yet the tang of regret is doubly felt in the career of Marilyn Monroe; an actress whose formidable gifts were buried behind a studio-sanctioned image of that bauble-headed sex kitten and bombshell; the woman snuffed out by her own legend in her own time that, in the end, was far too much for the mere flesh and blood to endure, and even more far-reaching since her untimely passing.  
Monroe was only thirty-six when she left us – her body of work as yet thankless to her true capacity. She was - and remains - a star, despite some very substandard material along the way. Yet through her extraordinary talents Marilyn was able to rise above such stock characterizations and, more often than not, elevate the material along with her. Movies like The Seven Year Itch (1955) and How To Marry a Millionaire (1953) are today widely regarded as classics.  Realistically, however, they’re little more than standard film fodder made memorable exclusively by Monroe’s presence in them and occasionally, by the other star talent accompanying her on the journey. But the material itself is hardly exceptional.
Anyone can have a hit out of mediocrity the first time around – the public swayed by the performer and thereafter willing to overlook even cracks in the performance or the movie as a whole or even the execution of its subject matter. But if one is genuinely gifted, then this trick is not only repeated, but perfected over time; the movie becoming secondary to the presence of its star. And Monroe was a star of the first magnitude. One cannot, for example, think of Mitzi Gaynor or even Jayne Mansfield – the Monroe wannabe and knock off - plugged into either of the aforementioned movies and still have either come out a box office sensation. No, it just wouldn’t work without Marilyn. This is precisely why her iconography endures: because Monroe, for all her faults and flaws behind the scenes, was a very special star indeed.
Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop (1956) is passé entertainment at best – a sort of prelude to Monroe’s deeper delving into the lost woman in a male-dominated outback given its full flourish in John Huston’s sadly underrated 1961’s The Misfits. And yet, as the careworn singer, Cherie, held up in the middle of nowhere and forced to sell her wares amid the pawing and yowling of half-drunken rodeo bucks out for a good time and to cop a feel or two, Monroe is arguably luminous. In retrospect, Marilyn’s own demons seem very close to the surface of Cherie; that character’s desperate need to be loved, understood, but ultimately respected for who she is - at odds with the stud-farm broncos come to ogle and catcall as she cavorts in her torn fishnets – faintly reminiscent of Monroe’s own inability to procure any lasting happiness with the men who briefly shared her life, or convince the powers that be at 20th Century-Fox that she was worth so much more than just a towering billboard of that billowy Travilla skirt blowing high above her knees from the errant breeze off a subway grate.
Because she was such a moneymaker in her current diluted form, the studio saw virtually no reason to tamper with this formula. Monroe was box office gold, even if she increasingly proved something of a handful for her directors and costars; her inability to quell the anxiety from within, coupled with a mounting and chronic addiction to alcohol and pills often left her incoherent and incapable of meeting deadlines. In its heyday Fox tolerated such delays because Marilyn positively glowed on the movie screen and rang cash registers around the world. Perhaps it was all just an illusion – the heads of the studio remaining silent if not entirely complicit in Monroe’s slow, sad self-implosion.
The rumors that Monroe was murdered either by the Kennedy’s or Peter Lawford, or both to silence her from breaking with character and the agreed upon program of keeping her mouth shut over an affair with President John F. Kennedy have marred the last act of Monroe’s private life. Because she left us seemingly with so much more promise yet to come, though never to be, without fanfare or flourish or even a typed suicide note to explain it all away, the mystique that we today regard as Marilyn Monroe has been a tale largely told by others – even those who never knew her in life – who have sought to regale the tragedy of Marilyn with varying degrees of truth peppered in.
However ensconced her image as a superstar was, it is highly unlikely Marilyn Monroe’s movie career would have survived the relentless cost-cutting that occurred throughout Hollywood after 1962; the year of her death.  The days when a star could simply delay a project for weeks or in some cases, even months at a time, were being replaced by a more ruthless and fiscally-minded regime of film makers and studio executives to whom the bottom line was the only barometer of star power. In this light, Marilyn Monroe was a relic from that ‘other’ Hollywood – the eternally glamorous Mecca that tolerated any and every form of self-indulgence and effrontery to the six day work week merely to keep the status quo working and happy.
Bus Stop doesn’t really enhance our appreciation of Monroe - the actress - so much as it maintains the elusiveness of her resilient stardom – the film a rather turgidly scripted and even more languorously directed melodrama in which Monroe deliberately sings off key and attempts to emote buckets of angst, self-doubt, dismay and finally acceptance for her own lot in life; that the best her Cherie can hope for is a man – even one as rough around the edges as Beauregard 'Bo' Decker (Don Murray); still very much a boy inside and quite incapable of fully appreciating the woman who long ago has sacrificed her schoolgirl daydreams for life’s proverbial happy ending, long-since proven to be anything but.
What Bus Stop has, then, is Marilyn Monroe looking washed out, haggard, slightly disheveled and mostly worn to a frazzle; the flashy image of the bombshell watered down into a trashy knock-off of her former self. It’s a deliberate distillation, one designed to show off more of Monroe - the actress - and less of Marilyn - the star. The effort is not entirely successful, mainly because by 1956 Monroe had gone too far down the rabbit hole with her ingrained image of the platinum sexpot to ever fully let us forget she still had the moneymakers and knew exactly how to shake them. But Bus Stop gives us Monroe doing her damnedest to make us remember the creature first glimpsed in a more honest and revealing light in films like Niagara, The Asphalt Jungle and Don’t Bother To Knock – roles that ironically led to a kind of stardom as that other ethereal, though intellectually stunted blonde vixen trapped within her own curvaceous and buxom frame.
There’s no getting around it. Monroe’s Cherie is a tart – twenty-cent and day old off the rack. She’s made the rounds and played the circuit, putting in her time, giving everything to her art and having lost practically all of her own heart’s desire in the process. It’s a sad trade off; one Cherie isn’t entirely certain how to pull back from, if – in fact – she can resist it at all. The battering of her soul hasn’t made her more hearty or impervious to disappointment, but that much more vulnerable to having her spirit completely broken.
Again, one senses a lot of Monroe – the woman – invested in this part; a reflection on her own stardom slowly creeping into the rearview mirror of Cherie’s life and its resounding errors in judgment that have contributed to an even greater unhappiness. This, arguably, never entirely went away for Marilyn. Where the character ends and Monroe begins (or vice versa) is a mystery that the film never addresses or perhaps even more cleverly disguises. It’s one of the reasons – if not the only reason – why Bus Stop continues to fascinate Monroe movie fans to this day; because it all seems somehow so tawdry and yet very real; truer to Monroe and her place in Hollywood than Cherie and the Blue Dragon café where she nightly warbles sad little tunes for the paying clientele: a forgotten nobody catering to nobody’s audience.  
Bus Stop is based on two short stories by William Inge – People in the Wind and Bus Stop. The screenplay by Inge and George Axelrod (who adapted the The Seven Year Itch for Marilyn too) concerns itself primarily with a thoroughly rambunctious but socially inept cowboy; Beauregard ‘Bo’ Decker played by Don Murray. At twenty-one, Bo is still a virgin but so ramped up on testosterone and youth that he is perhaps an elixir to Virgil Blessing (Arthur O’Connell); an aged one-time rodeo star living vicariously through his young protégée's naiveté. Virgil and Bo have come from Montana to Phoenix to partake in the rodeo, Virgil’s initial goading of Bo to take a more proactive interest in women is at first outwardly dismissed, then casually fluffed off by Bo who can think of no finer feeling between his legs than the smooth edges of his careworn leather saddle strapped to a mountain of bucking bronco.
To placate Virgil’s insistence, Bo sets about to find himself ‘an angel’ – one he will know at first sight and who will immediately fall in love with him. It’s such a misguided premise that it just might work, particularly after the pair find their way to the Blue Dragon Café – a seedy watering hole where Bo immediately becomes smitten with its talentless but ambitious singer, Cherie (Monroe). They’re both naïve in different ways – him, in believing that by forcibly manhandling a woman and planting a kiss upon her cheek he has somehow struck a blow for a lasting arrangement to marry and live happily ever after; she, by still thinking her woeful lack of talent will be enough to jet propel her from Phoenix to Hollywood with just the right break waiting around the corner.  Neither is about to have their wishes granted.
Bo’s insistence is not only uncouth but painfully boorish. His determination mildly frightens Cherie, who is simultaneously attracted to him because, after all, he is rather handsome in a rugged – if unrefined – sort of way. Bo tells Cherie that as soon as the rodeo is over he will come to collect her at the café and take her back with him to Montana; a move counterintuitive to her own grandiose plans for the future.  Bo, however, doesn’t listen to reason…or anything else for that matter. He’s too full of himself and his own misguided notions about love, women, life and living it beyond his own wants and desires.
The next afternoon Bo does indeed come back for Cherie. What to do? Well, she makes a feeble attempt to run away. It doesn’t last very long, and Bo forcibly drags Cherie onto the bus bound for Montana; a move that alarms Cherie, infuriates Virgil and makes a spectacle of all three to the other passengers travelling back east. When the bus makes a pit stop at Grace’s Diner, Cherie tries to get away again while Bo is fast asleep. Too bad the road ahead is blocked by snow, the approaching storm forcing everyone to remain at the isolated truck stop overnight. By now Virgil, the bus driver and the café owner’s sympathies are all with Cherie. Things reach a critical point when the driver (Robert Bray) takes it upon himself to challenge and subdue Bo, a move seconded by Virgil who also forces Bo to confront him. Defeated and frankly embarrassed by having his headstrong male initiative pummeled by a total stranger and backed by the man he regards as his surrogate father, Bo at last settles down and begins to behave like a man instead of an overgrown boy.
Virgil tells Bo that the only way he can make things right is to humble himself before Cherie and ask for her forgiveness – something Bo is sheepishly unwilling to do because he thinks it makes him less of a man. The night is rife for contemplations however, first between Bo and Virgil with Bo finally coming to the realization that his mentor is right. The next morning Bo musters up all the confidence he has left for a very sincere and heartfelt apology made to Cherie. More than simply telling her what he thinks she wants to hear, Bo has had a minor epiphany about the way the world works – at least how it ought to between men and women. After wishing her the very best, Bo makes ready to go the remaining length of the journey without her.
The last act of Bus Stop is all about farewells: the retirement of boyhood folly that gives way to a more adult male perspective on life; the self-sacrificing gesture made by Bo to give up the only woman he’s ever known, however briefly; Cherie’s surrender of a lifelong dream to be a great star; and finally, Virgil’s rather sad goodbye to Bo, akin to letting go of the last vestiges of his own youth by living vicariously through Bo’s lack of experience, perhaps even detrimentally encouraging it in their father/son-esque relationship.  
Cherie confesses to Bo that she has had far too many ‘boyfriends’ and is probably not the type of girl he ought to take an interest in. He admits to his lack of experience. It’s all rather tender and touching – each believing the other is more worthy than they are to themselves. In the end Virgil elects to stay behind. His roaming days are over. It’s time to move on and prepare for the twilight of a man’s life. Cherie realizes how much Bo truly loves her and tells him “Why…I’d go anywhere in the world with you now” – the two boarding the bus for an uncertain, but infinitely more promising future together than the one that seemed so impossibly destined for failure only yesterday.
Bus Stop is, at times poignant and sentimental though never maudlin. Don Murray overplays his hand during the first half of the movie – his Bo much too garrulous and as dense as cement to ever come to the conclusion he inevitably reaches before the final fade out. The transformation from slug-head to suitable mate is awkward at best, but once Murray passes that point of no return he’s rather convincing for the last act. Marilyn’s Cherie isn’t quite the revelation the studio’s PR attempted to trump up at the time. There’s too much Monroe in Cherie (and vice versa) for the star to entirely vanish into her character. At times Marilyn almost pulls it off. But then we get a flash of a nuance here or a gesture there that reminds us it’s Marilyn again, just Marilyn in cheap cotton and rags, performing a pantomime or mere masquerade for our benefit – we’re never quite certain of which – but definitely one or the other. Marilyn can’t escape the Monroe persona carefully crafted by herself and cleverly marketed at Fox in countless other movies from the 1950s. After Bus Stop she never again dared to try.
Bus Stop comes to Blu-ray in a 1080p hi-def transfer that seems just a little ‘off’ to me. The image is extremely impressive in its clarity. Fine details pop. I noticed fabric, skin and hair I never saw before. Really good stuff, actually. But the color is a different matter entirely, favoring a blue/beige palette that I firmly trust is in keeping with the original cinematography, but with a slight tinge of teal that I don’t think was intended. Again, I cannot in all good conscience say this isn’t how the movie looked theatrically; but reds in particular seem very anemic to my eyes, as do flesh tones that, at times acquire an almost cadaver gray/yellowish hue or very ruddy orange complexion.  If this is the result of Milton R. Krasner’s ‘mood lighting’ it certainly didn’t set any particular mood for yours truly.
Contrast also seemed a tad less robust than I was expecting, but grain was very film like and pleasing. The aforementioned anomalies described herein are brief and not terribly distracting. For the most part I appreciated the effort put forth on this disc. It’s not visually perfect but it is more than competent. The 4.0 DTS audio gave a good representation of the original Westrex 4 channel Cinemascope audio, occasionally directionalized, hearty and robust. Fox has stiffed us again on the extras. Nada – except for a trailer. Given Marilyn Monroe’s supremacy at the studio and her enduring iconography throughout the world I would have thought Fox might have given us a definitive biography on the star somewhere in the canon of movies they have already committed to Blu-ray. Sadly not.  Oh well. We’ll wait in hope for a better showing of Monroe at a later date. Please, Fox. Pretty please.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

0      

DYNASTY SEASON 7: Vol 1 and 2 (Spelling 1986-87) CBS Paramount Home Video

By the mid-1980's the life expectancy of the prime time soap opera had already begun to show signs of inevitable decline. Even CBS’s venerable Dallas (1978-91) which had begun the profitable and prolific cycle of ensemble television melodrama a full three years before any other network followed suit, by 1987 had faint whiffs of formaldehyde to rival its outdoor freshness in tumbleweeds and cow patties; the ‘who’s bedding and/or backstabbing who?’ scenarios creaking with more than a hint of déjà vu that was ringing of ominous cliché. ABC’s Dynasty was in its seventh season in 1987. After a rough start in 1981, Dynasty had risen like a phoenix in the Nielsen ratings, running neck and neck with Dallas for both its third and fourth season, and actually beating the trend-setter in its fifth. By all accounts, the glitz and glam of the Denver Carringtons and Colbys was poised to conquer and stamp out the two-stepping Texas Ewing family.
It was not to be. For the producers of Dynasty – having been primped and primed with the prospect of an even bigger market share chose to split the series (and its cast) down the middle at the end of Season Five, launching Dynasty II: The Colbys in 1985. I recall the debut of The Colbys very well – its bombastic Bill Conti fanfare and all-star cast featuring no less Hollywood royalty than Charlton Heston and Barbara Stanwyck as its headliners; also Stephanie Beacham and Maxwell Caufield both of whom had miserably failed in other ventures but seemed tailor-made for this series, and, with special guest appearances by Ricardo Montalban. In a word – wow! Evidently, fans and critics agreed. The Colbys won an Emmy for Best New Series. The team responsible for Dynasty’s success had put their best foot forward on its offspring. This success, however, was not without fallout.
In retrospect, the exodus of longtime characters Jeff Colby (John James) and Fallon Carrington-Colby (Pamela Sue Martin/Emma Samms), to the new series left Dynasty with a narrative void that producers struggled to fill for nearly two years with infrequent success; the overlapping story lines forcing viewers to simultaneously invest in both shows (and in home video’s case has left perplexing gaps since only Dynasty but not The Colbys has made its way to DVD). Also, in hindsight it took Dynasty a long while to find both its audience and itself – the show’s initial concept of feuding oil tycoons more than faintly reminiscent of that ‘other’ aforementioned prime time soap that had prompted ABC to go headhunting for a like-minded money maker of their own. 
Season One of Dynasty, as example, was awash with forgettable characters and dead end stories. It was only after the introduction of what ABC had encouraged producer Aaron Spelling to cast as ‘the female J.R. Ewing’ – embodied by the sultry Joan Collins – that Dynasty truly found its fan base; female and plied with a mind-boggling fashion parade designed by Nolan Miller, whose weekly clothing allowance alone was enough to produce an entire episode of Dallas.
But Dynasty continued to waffle, adding new characters mid-season, before jettisoning them and others in the next, taking great pains to introduce and build up a certain character or narrative thread only to suddenly – inexplicable - lose interest in either or both without much ceremony or fanfare. Blame sloppy writing for Dynasty’s eventual downfall. The show’s weakest link was always its scenarios – though occasionally even these came together in unexpected and tantalizingly original ways. Yet, as time wore on even main-stapled characters were tossed under the proverbial bus or occasionally revised and/or rewritten – becoming something other than what had first made them popular. 
One recalls, as example, the series’ original Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) woefully miscast as the resident viper in Season One – true of heart to her father Blake (John Forsythe), but utterly scheming against his new wife, Krystal (Linda Evans) and frankly, heartless towards her own husband, Jeff Colby (John James) while carrying on with his uncle Cecil (Lloyd Bochner) and later, the family’s devious chauffeur Michael Culhane. But with the introduction of Alexis in Season Two Fallon was heavily revamped, the part of the resident shrew migrating over to Joan Collin’s Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter, etc. etc. for the remainder of the series.
As the series wore on Dynasty’s reoccurring disadvantage became the writers’ inability to reconcile characters introduced in a previous season with plot lines evolving in the current one. In Season Two, as example, we were introduced to Nick Toscanni (James Farentino); a physician with ties to the Carrington household but a more sinister motive afoot: to see Blake pay for a crime against his own family that was later explained away in a brief scene in Season Three as never having been committed in the first place. Farentino’s fascinating blend of self-loathing and menace culminated in Season Two’s shocking cliffhanger; Blake left for dead atop a mountain retreat in the middle of a life-threatening storm. But when the series returned for Season Three, Nick Toscanni was nowhere to be found, and although Blake – who had obviously survived his near death ordeal – vowed to hunt Toscanni down and bring him to justice, this day of retribution never materialized.
In Season Seven the sacrificial lambs in this awkward trade-off are regrettably plentiful; beginning with Blake’s daughter – Amanda Bedford Carrington (played by Catherine Oxenberg in Seasons 4 and 5, but herein recast with the rather tepid and simpering Karen Cellini). Having bedded her mother’s lover, Dex Dexter (Michael Nader) in Season Three, and divorced her own one-time Prince of a husband (Michael Praed, who actually turned out to be quite a frog indeed) in Season Six, Amanda has moved on to a new love – Blake’s ex-chauffeur; the lazy-eyed, crooked mouth, rather goofy-looking bo-hunk, Michael Culhane (Wayne Northop). 
In Season One, Culhane had seduced Fallon in the hopes of extorting money from her inheritance. Instead he was given the old heave-ho by Blake and shortly thereafter expunged from the franchise until Season Seven – now reincarnated as a millionaire, but still masquerading as a chauffeur to get closer to Blake’s fortunes once again through Amanda in a convoluted story line that quite simply makes no sense at all and goes absolutely nowhere fast.
Before delving into Season Seven’s story lines, first toggle back a notch to Season Six’s cliffhanger – the torching of La Mirage; Fallon Carrington’s posh hotel and country club left in the care of the perpetually unstable Claudia Blaisdel (doe-eyed Pamela Bellwood). After cheating on her husband, Matthew (Bo Hopkins) in Season One with Steven Carrington (then played by Alex Corley, but later to be reincarnated as Jack Colman for the remainder of the series, and, whose sexual orientation the writers could never entirely agree upon), Claudia became the proprietress of La Mirage in Season Four, after begrudgingly spurned by Adam Carrington (Gordon Thomson). At the end of Season Six Claudia, on the verge of yet another nervous breakdown, elected to hold a pity party and candle-light vigil for herself in her stateroom at La Mirage, only to have one of the candles suddenly ignite some laughably ultra-flammable curtains and thus – decimate the entire complex in one fell swoop on the eve when everyone has assembled to celebrate the engagement of Dominique Devereaux (Diahann Carroll) to Jason Colby’s (Charton Heston) private solicitor, Garrett Boydston (Ken Howard). Boydston, who sired Dominique’s daughter, Jackie (Troy Byer) lied to her about being a married man to prevent their engagement some twenty years before. Exposed as a fraud, Garrett is dumped by Dominique.
In escaping the blaze, Michael Culhane rescues an unconscious Amanda and soon afterward an affair begins, one vehemently opposed by Blake who can see right through the upstart. Amanda’s vision, however, is blurred by love – or at least so it would seem. The other carry-over from Season Six’s cliffhanger is the demise of one of its most compelling new recruits – Alexis’ scheming sister, Cassandra ‘Caress’ Morrell (played with impudent venom by Kate O’Mara). In the previous season, Caress had attempted to blackmail her sister with a tell-all biography thwarted from imminent publication, first, by Alexis buying up the publishing house and thereupon the manuscript they had acquired, and later by Blake’s vial brother, Ben (Christopher Cazenove), who chloroformed Caress in the backseat of his car before shipping her back to the Venezuelan prison from whence she had been released but now was somehow being made to serve out the rest of her ten year sentence at Ben’s behest.
In Season Seven, Dex is back to his renegade ways, choosing to divide his time between running the multi-million dollar Lex-Dex Corporation, presently involved in a natural gas deal with Blake, and, indulging his private time between bedding Alexis in seedy out-of-the-way places and his own particular brand of third world freedom-fighting, this time with the assistance of Clay Fallmont (Ted McGinley), whose brother, Bart’s (Kevin Conroy) promising political career was destroyed by a scandal in Season Four when Adam revealed to the media that Bart was a closeted homosexual.
Dex and Clay break Caress out of the hole Ben’s left her in without much of a hassle, the trio returning to Denver where it seems Caress has decided to forgo her animosity toward Alexis – after the latter refuses to pay out with some blood money. Instead, Alexis offers Caress a job at her newly acquired newspaper, presently embroiled in a smear campaign to ruin Blake’s reputation. It’s overkill however, as Alexis has already ousted her ex-husband from his company, Denver Carrington, with a bit of underhanded espionage, and also reclaimed the lavish Filoli Mansion where they once happily lived seemingly centuries ago. Alexis has it all, leaving Blake and Krystal to take their few pre-packed belongings to the Carlton Hotel where Blake plots his own sweet revenge.
In the meantime, Clay – a randy playboy who toyed with Amanda’s affections in Season Six – has suddenly decided that Krystal’s niece, Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear) is the gal for him; at least, temporarily. Sammy Jo, you will recall, began her tenure in the series as little more than scheming trailer trash, who rued the day she married the confused Steven Carrington in Season Two and bore him a child, Danny (Matthew Lawrence), then promptly and selfishly left the pair to pursue a career as a failed New York model and actress, only to return at the end of Season Four as the long-lost estranged daughter of Daniel Reece (Rock Hudson) – the millionaire who owned the profitable Delta Rho stud farm and stables but placed the entire estate in Krystal’s trust, not only because he had an affair with Krystal in a previous life, but also because he knew just how misguided his own child is.
In Season Five Sammy Jo went on to concoct a bizarre scheme to have Krystal kidnapped and impersonated so that Delta Rho could be signed over to her, before inexplicably maturing and doing the right thing – freeing Krystal and sending her former friend and imposter, Rita Miller (also played by Linda Evans) on the run with her deranged crony, Joel Abrigore (George Hamilton). But in Season Seven Sammy Jo is just too good to be true. She’s reconciled with Steven, has a relationship with their son and is making inroads into a loving relationship with Clay, after a false positive test reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Only she isn’t and this leads to all sorts of tensions; compounded by the fact that Clay’s father, Buck (Richard Anderson) is a fall-down drunk whose wife, Emily (Pat Crowley) had an affair with Ben Carrington on the eve that Ben’s mother – an invalid he was supposed to be looking after - burned to death in a house fire later blamed on Blake, while Ben was off sweating up the sheets with Emily.
Emily’s indiscretion has been kept from Buck throughout their marriage, but is now destined to come to the surface because Caress is desperate for money and has decided to blackmail Emily for some quick cash. The most compelling aspect of Kate O’Mara’s Caress in Season Six was that she was telescopically focused in her hatred toward her sister who was hinted at being partly responsible for placing her in prison. Better still, as portrayed by O’Mara one could wholly believe in her as a viable combatant against Alexis and Ben – essentially playing their game with like-minded implements of destruction at hand. 
But the build-up to an epic cat fight between Alexis and Caress that never happened in the previous season was further diffused when Ben knocked Caress out cold, mailing her back to that third world hellhole with the very real prospect she might spend the rest of her days there. That the brain trust behind Dynasty never bothered to reinstate or even revisit this scintillating scenario after Season Six’s cliffhanger is an oversight fans have yet to forgive.
In Season Seven Blake gets wind of Caress’ blackmail of Emily. Despite Buck’s hatred of the Carringtons – including Sammy Jo – Blake has always harbored a soft spot for Emily; the arbitrator of common sense and a good heart. Regrettably, Emily becomes increasingly unhinged by Caress’s repeat telephone threats. Blake assures her he will take care of the situation – and does, paying Caress enough money to get out of town and start her life anew elsewhere. This, Caress does with gratitude – ending Kate O’Mara’s brief run on the show on a note of utterly bland and very disappointing confusion. Unconvinced that she is in the clear, Emily confesses her affair to Buck who flies into a drunken rage at the Carlton Hotel. Fleeing the hotel, Emily runs into traffic and is rundown by a taxi. She dies, but not before giving Blake a hand-written confession that she urges him to use in his defense against Alexis and Ben to regain control of his South China Seas oil leases that were wrongfully taken from him.
Blake does not want to make the letter public. Instead, he uses it to blackmail Alexis into giving him back the mansion and his company, much to Ben’s strenuous objections. Alexis, however, has begun her romance anew with Dex, and this leaves the scheming Ben – who began his tenure on the series with maniacal designs to destroy Blake and possess Alexis – with little else but to skulk around Denver, and later discover he has an estranged daughter, Leslie (Terri Garber) living in Australia. Leslie eventually moves to Denver with the express purpose of wreaking havoc on her father’s new life. You know what they say about payback...
In the meantime, Clay – newly estranged from Sammy Jo after having discovered she is not going to have their child – has decided to pursue Leslie. The affair gets hot and heavy until Buck reveals to Clay that he may be Ben’s son - not his - and therefore Leslie’s brother! Yuck! Ben and Buck take a paternity test. But Clay has had enough and elects instead to go off to parts unknown in the wilds of Canada, leaving Leslie – who has segued from bitter to broken-hearted – merely to pout.
The biggest problem with Season Seven is that the writers have inexplicably mucked around with too many of the characters – both their mannerisms and their motives - affording more leeway to evolve into entirely different people than as first presented in the series and thus giving certain characters far more narrative responsibility than perhaps is necessary or even possible for them to sustain within the framework of the show. 
Case in point: after pledging his undying devotion to Blake in the very first episode from Season Seven (and this after three seasons of ice-water in the veins driven and occasionally very warped back-stabbing perpetrated on all of the Carrington clan), Adam has his finger on the chicken switch yet again, shifting his alliances over to Alexis in the very next episode; disillusioning Blake yet again, as well as Blake’s ever-devoted secretary, Dana Warring (Leann Hunley) who has recently become Adam’s lover. Adam cannot abide Ben, so he flies to Australia in search of dirt, and finds plenty when he accidentally locates Ben’s illegitimate daughter, Leslie.
Even greater inconsistencies abound in Season Seven. First to go is Ben’s vitriol towards Blake; his imperiously psychotic hatred inexplicably turned to gumbo when, during an oil rig explosion in the South China Seas he saves Blake’s life by freeing him from a collapsed stairwell moments before another explosion topples the rig into the sea. From here on in, Ben begins to increasingly reassess and grow ashamed of his fraternal motives. Yet without his evil spite, Ben Carrington implodes; becoming an emasculated fop and dewy-eyed paternal figure for Leslie who, at first cannot stand his guts, then weeps at the announcement he has decided to go away.
Other characters also experience their own inconceivable epiphanies. After being told by a school therapist that their son Danny is drawing ‘unhappy’ pictures, Sammy Jo and Steven come to an understanding about rearing the boy as a united front. Their decision is rather ridiculously begun when Steven comes to Sammy Jo’s aid by beating up Clay. This, of course, convinces Clay he wants no part of Sammy Jo. In the meantime, Dominique – a character largely discarded within the series in general, but particularly within Season Seven – has sent her daughter Jackie away for burn therapy following the blaze at La Mirage to an undisclosed city from whence she will never return, necessitating Dominique’s infrequent disappearance from the cast roster – returning to pursue a meandering relationship with thorny rigger, Nick Kimball (Richard Lawson), who eventually proposes marriage.
And then there are Alexis’ motives towards Blake. Since Season Two Joan Collins’s uber bitch had been ensconced as the venomous arch nemesis to Blake’s ever-precariously perched empire – spiteful, destructive and smoldering with fiery sex appeal. By the end of Season Six, Alexis has decimated Blake’s holdings and his professional reputation, causing him to charge up the stairs and begin to choke the life out of her as Krystal helplessly looked on, subdued by a positively contemptible Ben. At the start of Season Seven Alexis runs true to form, continuing her tirade against Blake.
But then she suddenly retreats – almost willingly - into a gushing mid-season pixie – particularly after the oil rig explosion leaves Blake thinking it is 1969 and he is still married to Alexis whom he presumably loved at one time. For Season Seven’s cliffhanger the viper that was Alexis is unfathomably reduced to a wailing self-destructive cry baby after being admonished by Dex for being a heartless fool. She inadvertently drives her car off a bridge, her vision impugned by some tear-stained streaking mascara. What?!?    
Somewhere in the middle of all this mess is a subplot involving Krystal and Blake’s pluperfect moppet, Krystina (Jessica Player) who suddenly develops congestive heart failure, necessitating a transplant. The girl from whom a heart is harvested to save Krystina’s life is related to Dex; her mother – Sarah Curtis (Cassie Yates) – later invited by Blake and Krystal to partake in Krystina’s healing process. Regrettably, this act of kindness causes Sarah to suffer a mental breakdown and kidnap Krystina, whom she is unable to distinguish from her own lost daughter. This narrative thread goes nowhere fast – introduced too late in the season to acquire its necessary legs before being quickly dispatched after Blake and Kyrstal discover a nearly incoherent Sarah cringing inside her squalid little apartment. 
This leaves Season’s Seven cliffhanger without any real or even remotely viable impetus for creating nail-biting tension. What we are given instead is a wedding. Adam – conflicted over his own birthright after new evidence from Montana has surfaced to suggest he might not be a Carrington after all – instead emerges as Blake’s undisputed son; Blake and a remarkably chaste Alexis co-sign Adam’s adoption papers to make everything official moments before Adam weds Dana. Nick proposes to Dominque and she accepts. Ben reveals to Leslie that he cannot remain in Denver any longer – presumably having suffered an attack of conscience. He leaves the wedding without saying goodbye; bound for parts unknown. Dex attempts a détente with Alexis, one that turns bitter and sullen, but leaves Alexis tear-stained and ridiculously careening over the edge of a nearby bridge after driving away in haste from the mansion in a stolen car. In a last ditch effort to raise a few eyebrows, and possibly the series sagging Nielsen ratings, the finale resurrects the character of Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins); not seen since the end of Season One and long presumed dead after Season Two, but who now miraculously returns to the Carrington household with a small army of mercenaries, slightly mentally disturbed to boot, to reclaim Krystal for his own. And that’s about it.
With such thoroughly misguided scenarios clashing and tearing the series apart at the seams is it any wonder that Dynasty – the highest rated program on television a scant two years earlier – dropped to #24 in the ratings by Season Seven’s end? Shoddily slapped together, the writing is regrettably on the wall for all concerned by Season Seven’s finale. Although an infusion of new and old blood, most of the latter migrating over from The Colbys after that series was cancelled in this same year and only into its own second season – thanks to a complete and utter rip off of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of a Third Kind (1977) (Fallon gets sucked up by a spaceship at a railway crossing…no, I’m not kidding) Dynasty endured the indignation of being in business for another two seasons.
As a cost-cutting measure producers hired high-priced alumni Linda Evans and Joan Collins for only a few episodes sporadically scattered throughout the rest of the series run, merely to suggest, though never entirely regain, its continuity. Secondary characters continued to come and go while stories were introduced then inexplicably dropped. At the end of Season Nine, rather than wrap up its loose ends, Dynasty chose to place virtually all of its central players in mortal peril; the show’s cancellation leaving a giant question mark in 1989 that was in no way resolved in 1991 with the failed attempt at a mini-series. Dynasty: the Reunion that neither reunited all the principle cast for one last hurrah nor made the attempt to resolve at least half of the many scenarios left open-ended by 1989’s cliffhanger.
CBS Paramount has released Dynasty Season Seven in Two Volumes – a ridiculous marketing ploy that continues to hold some bizarre yet innate fascination for this studio. One can choose to buy these volumes together: preferred since the price point is a few dollars cheaper than buying them separately. Earlier seasons of Dynasty were given at least some care in their remastering – particularly Seasons Two through Five. Season Six showed some lapse in overall commitment on the studio’s part to clean up the original elements for home video. But even these efforts were miraculous compared to what we have for Season Seven. While certain episodes are remarkably clean, with bright colors and solid contrast, a goodly number featured herein suffer from exactly the opposite; weak contrast, darker than expected image quality, colors that are inconsistently rendered and a grain structure that at times seems exceptionally thick and not in keeping with the original elements, all of this exacerbated by the added impediment of edge enhancement infrequently cropping up throughout.
The mono audio sounds remarkable crisp, with clearly delineated dialogue, showing off Bill Conti’s iconic main title to its best effect. As is the case with previous seasons, there are NO extras – and this despite the fact that several well-informed bios and documentaries on the series and its cast have been made over the years. One hopes that Paramount is planning some sort of box set once the series is released in its entirety; perhaps with some new extras surfacing to mark the occasion. But this is mere speculation at this point. In the UK a box set of all the seasons has been available for some time. In North America we’re still waiting.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

NIAGARA: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1953) Fox Home Video

By 1953, the year Henry Hathaway’s Niagara had its theatrical debut the ascendency of Marilyn Monroe from contract player to certifiable stardom could no longer be ignored. 20th Century-Fox had done their damnedest to promote Monroe, but in some really tepid to downright forgettable camp romantic comedies; 1951’s Love Nest and 1952’s Monkey Business among them. On the whole, Monroe’s career had fared far better on loan out, first to MGM for John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), then later to RKO for Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952).
These movies gave Marilyn a chance to exhibit far more depth; a side to the Monroe mystique that regrettably was set aside altogether in favor of her trademark ditzy blonde bombshell after the release of Howard Hawk’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Niagara comes at the tail end of Fox’s blistering stream of dark and sinister film noirs. The last great noir in color had been John M. Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven (1945) – a vehicle that transformed Gene Tierney’s sultry screen persona into that of a diabolically disturbed viper.
In retrospect, Niagara does pretty much the same thing for Marilyn’s screen image; cast as the seductress, Rose Loomis; blatantly flaunting her robust and raw sexuality in public much to the chagrin of her husband, George (Joseph Cotten) who also happens to be recovering from a nervous breakdown. Only a year before Niagara’s release, Fox had cast Monroe as the crazed and threatening babysitter in Don’t Bother To Knock; another exercise of her formidable acting chops opposite the studio’s heavy-hitter, Richard Widmark.
Niagara really doesn’t take its star down this primrose path into loopy insanity, and yet there is an element of the damned and the perverse in Rose Loomis that begins to close in almost from the beginning; articulated in Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and Richard L. Been’s screenplay; more fully evolved by Joseph MacDonald’s eerie use of Technicolor – more shadow than light - to evoke this ever-constricting sense of claustrophobia.  Luminously photographed, Monroe is a sinful viper, the lurid pink, form-fitting dress she wears during an early outdoor party sequence positively radiating megawatts of cheap and uninhibited sensuality. There’s no doubt about it; Rose Loomis is a conniving tart. She smells of sex.
Of course, Marilyn was no stranger to sex appeal; having begun her movie career under a spurious cloud by appearing in the raw for a calendar and posing salaciously for the very first issue of Playboy Magazine. By now her body and her affinity for double entendre were well ensconced in the public’s mind – particularly the all-American hot-blooded (and presumably single) male who simply could not get enough of her frequently circulated pin-ups to add to his locker. For Niagara, Fox’s PR department decided one thing; nothing modest would do. Ad campaigns to promote the movie targeted its two greatest assets; Monroe and the Falls; the artwork showing Monroe stretched out across its precipice with the raging waters cascading over her curvaceous form.
The film never quite gets around to showing us anything so pointedly sensational. There are flashes of Monroe the sex kitten – most notably in the beginning of the film when she first meets the Cutlers; Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray (Max Schowalter), and later, a streak of Monroe’s bauble-headed trademark innocence that would become her stock and trade – and ultimately her cliché – just before George puts his hands around her throat to choke the life from her. 
We also get hearty dollops of Hurricane Monroe; the impenitent tigress bent on destruction as she seduces her tautly muscular lover, Patrick (Richard Allen) into committing a murder for lust. Too bad for Patrick, as well as Allan that Joseph Cotten’s George had both a stronger grip and more staying power at the box office. It’s a mystery, actually – because Fox had co-starred Allan in Susan Hayward’s classy biopic musical, With A Song In My Heart (1952) and had planned a big build-up for his career as a potential second string Lothario/stud muffin. Yet this never transpired beyond bit parts and cameos. Although Allan continued to work until 1962, and despite his dashing matinee idol good looks, his career was little more than a footnote.
In some ways, Niagara also marks a definite loss of interest from Fox in Jean Peters’ movie career; a starlet the studio had heavily promoted and even starred in Anne of the Indies (1951) before relegating to supporting parts in forgettable remakes (1953’s Vicki) or travelogue fluff pieces (Three Coins in the Fountain 1954). Peters could play good as well as bad – but in Niagara she’s a counterpoint to Monroe’s wicked little tart, smelling more of soap than sex as Polly Cutler – a too good to be true ‘little woman’, fun-loving and good-natured. Peter’s is up to the task, although she really isn’t given all that much to do in the film except react in shock and awe to the action going on around her. Niagara also does little for Joseph Cotten’s formidable talents. Cotten seems slightly ill at ease as the lumbering/brooding George; more a flaw in his acting than an inherent character trait deliberate played to establish George’s devolving sanity that eventually causes him to seek a most delicious – if brutal - revenge.   
No, Niagara is undeniably a vehicle tailored to its star and Marilyn gives us all the va-va-voom a sex goddess can muster - plus ten. From our introduction to Rose Loomis, callously pretending to be asleep so that she doesn’t have to consort with her husband, a man she so obviously cannot abide even for a fleeting moment or two; the lids of her eyes slyly opening when George’s back is turned and fairly brimming with the seediest of contempt that translates without Monroe having to say a word; this is a Marilyn unlike any other we have come to know or ever again would after Niagara’s debut. It’s a tantalizing portrait. Monroe, the tawdry viper, the scurrilous femme fatale whose wiggle is enough to set anyone’s house on fire and whose penchant for being a devious tease inflames George’s wild desire to self-destruct.
It’s all just an act, of course – or rather, partly. For Rose has already decided upon a plan of action to rid herself of George for a playmate more her age and temperament with whom she believes she will be able to start a brand new life. But in order to make it all look like an accident George has to appear every bit the crazy sick man Rose tells everybody that he is. So, she sets the poor guy up – cooing seductive lyrics over a record to encourage the local male color to partake in her invitation to “Kiss…kiss me, hold…hold me…this is the moment of thrills,” all the while knowing George is frustratingly obsessed and upset by the spectacle as it unfolds. Rose knows exactly what buttons to push and when to put the brakes on – plying her wiles until George flips out, tearing apart their rented bungalow and inflicting damage to his hand.
Tended to by Polly – who insists to George “she’s a pretty girl…why hide it?” Polly perceptively reasons that there’s more to the Loomis story than first meets the eye. But she’s empathetic to a fault, even though George’s outbursts arguably frighten her. The screenplay is also clever about weaving in a minor subplot; the Cutler’s having come down for a Kellogg Convention after Ray has won a contest for the best new marketing slogan – garnering praise from his boss, J. R. Kettering (Don Wilson) who has also brought his wife (Lurene Tuttle) along.
When at the Falls do as the tourists do. The Ketterings and the Cutlers make a bizarre foursome as they pursue some of the more obvious pleasures, including a ride on the famed Maid of the Mist and a tour through the Rainbow Caverns carved beneath the Falls. It’s during this latter excursion, while encouraged by Ray to lean farther back against the soaking wet railings so that he can get a better picture of Polly that she encounters Rose and Patrick locked in a passionate embrace behind some rocks. The couple is too involved to take notice of her, but Polly hurries back to Ray’s side, suggestively hinting that Rose Cutler has found the perfect remedy for a splitting headache.
Returning to the cabin hours later, Rose is confronted by George, who once again has been stirred into a panic when she glibly refuses to tell him where she has been all afternoon. “I’m meeting somebody,” she openly taunts, “Just anybody at all…as long as he’s a man.” Determined to get to the bottom of things, George tails his wife around town the next day, believing that he is, in fact, following her to a preordained rendezvous. In actuality, Rose has set George up for a not-so-chance confrontation with Patrick – a man George has never met – but who has vowed to rid Rose of his nuisance by pushing George over the side of the Rainbow Caverns into the raging waters below.
Hathaway’s handling of the mystery – who has managed to kill who at the Rainbow Caverns – is heightened by a frenzied chase; Polly hunted down by a presumably dead and enraged George, the misdirection made known to us as George attempts to gain Polly’s compassion and trust, but nearly pushes her over the side by accident, before explaining how he killed Patrick in self-defense. Given what she has seen earlier Polly believes George. But she also encourages him to go to the police with his story to set the record straight. In the meantime, Rose has been called to the morgue to identify some newly discovered remains dredged up from the waters. When what’s beneath the white cloth proves not to be what Rose anticipated she spirals into a mini-breakdown of her own, necessitating a brief stay at the local hospital. But George is not through with Rose just yet.
He requests her favorite song, ‘Kiss’ to be played by the bell tower, the ominous chimes alerting Rose to the fact that George is still very much alive and probably preparing something awful for her. Stirred from her drug-induced sleep to check herself out of the hospital, Rose scurries to the bus terminal to buy a ticket to anywhere to escape her husband’s wrath. Regrettably, he has already anticipated her next move, stalking Rose to the bell tower where he cold-bloodedly murders her as the chimes fall silent. Unfortunately, George hasn’t thought through his next move. It is closing time and he is trapped in the tower with Rose’s corpse. Rather than sneak out after everyone else has gone home, George patiently awaits the morning crew’s arrival; then quietly skulks off after hiding Rose’s body upstairs. But Polly has alerted the police to the fact that George is alive.
As the dragnet closes in George attempts to flee in a boat the Ketterings have rented for an afternoon sail on the lake. Polly is trapped by George. He takes her as his hostage before charting the vessel into the dangerous undertow and rapids above the Falls. The engine stalls and the pair helplessly drifts toward the precipice. At the last possible moment George has a moment of clarity, forcing Polly out of the boat onto a craggy rock protruding from the raging surf. As Polly clings for her life to this slippery embankment George and the boat go over the edge; the evil that he has wrought upon Rose and Patrick returned to engulf and devour him too.
Niagara is a superb noir – albeit in glorious Technicolor. Apart from the obvious assets of its location photography and the sight of Marilyn looking utterly radiant in color, Niagara also boasts a heart-palpating score by Sol Kaplan. It’s over-melodramatic, yet lush and ominous in a way that almost compliments Joseph MacDonald’s vicarious cinematography. The supporting cast is competent but stick-figured at best; Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten about the only ones able to withstand the tidal wash of Marilyn and the Falls gushing in on all sides.
Max Showalter is a minor nuisance. Ditto for Don Wilson. Thankfully, both are relegated to the extreme backdrop where their annoying personalities can do little to no harm. Hathaway takes full advantage of both his spectacular outdoor locations and the spectacle that was Marilyn Monroe...her every curve generating a sleazy sensuality. A more prudent vacationer may not want to plan a trip to the Falls under similarly morbid circumstances, but Monroe proves a natural wonder in her own right that is both something to see and n’er to be missed.
Wow and thank you Fox Home Video for resurrecting Niagara in a resplendent hi-def Blu-ray worthy of both Marilyn and the movie. A year ago Fox released a compendium of Monroe titles to 1080p that were represented in less than pluperfect condition. Niagara was not among these offerings and, at the time, there was some speculation whether the movie would be released at all. The DVD transfer had suffered from horrible edge effects and reoccurring mis-registration of the Technicolor records that created distracting halos over at least half of the movie. Worse, the color seemed off – favoring a curious blue-bilious-green patina with purplish/pink flesh tones.
But now comes this 60th anniversary Blu-ray.  It is a wonder to behold. It should be noted first off that the former regime at Fox ditched virtually all of their original 3-strip Technicolor negatives in the mid-1970s, making masters from combined records instead. These continued to badly fade and break down over the years. Truthfully, I didn’t hold out much hope for Niagara ever looking anywhere near as good as it does on Blu-ray.
Not only has Fox gone back to ground zero with a new color density restoration and remastering effort that yields probably the truest hues indigenous to the original theatrical presentation, but fine detail has taken a quantum leap into the future. For the first time we can see Monroe’s trademark blond tresses strand by strand. Fabrics pop, background information comes to life and flesh tones look exceptionally natural. There’s no comparison. Your old DVD is now officially a Frisbee. Donate it to the public library and rush to buy this Blu-ray to add to your collections. It’s that good.
Better still is the remastered DTS audio – delivering a hearty mix that will astound. The rush of the Falls sounds refined and deafening, Sol Kaplan’s score rings with renewed clarity that really adds to one’s overall viewing enjoyment. This is an extraordinary transfer. We’ll be critical for just a quick minute to admit being disappointed over Fox not including anything in the way of extras to augment this classic noir. No audio commentary, or featurette or even some vintage newsreels. Nothing, except a few discarded trailers. Boo-hoo! But we won’t poo-poo it any further. Fox has spent their money where it has done the most good – on the transfer. Niagara is a must have. Own it today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

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