"Psycho -- 50th Anniversary Edition"

October 2010 

201010_psychoPsycho Looks, Sounds, and Scares Better Than Ever 

Universal 61112067
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****1/2
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Extras
****emptystar

Psycho broke the mold in so many ways that it has become often imitated but never surpassed. One of the interesting featurettes in the extras section has famous directors like Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin talking about Hitchcock’s influence on them, and there’s a separate featurette on François Truffaut and Hitchcock. The director’s name has even been absorbed into the English language as an adjective. If someone describes an event as Hitchcockian, we know exactly what they mean. 

While other movies come and go, Hitchcock’s films remain viable and entertaining without seeming dated. Psycho is no exception. It still stirs the blood and stimulates the senses, and though some of the original suspense might be tempered by our knowing what’s going to happen, we’re perhaps freed to admire the subtleties of the terrific acting team and take satisfaction in noticing how pivotal scenes are expertly set up. 

Universal has always done reasonably well by this masterpiece of terror. The LaserDisc and DVD editions looked very good, but the Blu-ray is even sharper, with contrast between dark and light that seems exactly right. You can enjoy in greater detail the minute twitches that enhance Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates and delight in the horrific details of Norman’s stuffed-bird collection. The Blu-ray reveals all, including the celebrated shower scene, where the water has more texture than ever. 

The soundtrack has received special treatment, sounding richer and fuller. Using new techniques, the sound engineers have constructed a 5.1 presentation from the original mono track. This process is thoroughly discussed in one of the featurettes. It’s mostly Bernard Herrmann’s masterful score for string orchestra that benefits from stereo separation and surround warmth, but there are also subtle sound-effect placements that make a great difference in the movie’s enjoyment. The people in charge here have wisely kept it subtle and not gone for any extreme surround effects so that the tracks still go well with the images on screen, but you will notice a difference in the way you react to certain parts of the film. It was already impossible to think of Psycho without Herrmann’s music, and now his score seems even more indispensible. 

I mentioned three featurettes, but there are many more, as well as lobby cards, advertising art, and some of Hitchcock’s droll trailers for the movie. Universal has done well by one of its most durable films and produced an anniversary edition on Blu-ray that’s truly a cause for celebration. 

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 7, with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) driving in the rain and discovering the Bates Motel. The rain is terrifically realistic, and you’ll marvel at how the motel emerges and takes shape and focus between arcs of the wiper blades.

 . . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Magician"

October 2010

201010_magicianIngmar Bergman’s Cinematic Sorcery Examines the Relationship Between Artist and Audience

The Criterion Collection 537
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2emptystar
Picture Quality
****1/2
Sound Quality
***1/2emptystar
Extras
***emptystaremptystar

Released right after the highly successful debuts of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician is often ignored as representative of the revered director’s best work. Its moods vary to the point that it’s difficult to know whether to call it a comedy, as did Bergman, or something darker. When it was released in 1958, it was somewhat scary and quite disturbing. I remember seemingly endless college conversations about the eyeball in the inkwell during the attic scene. But what was grisly then now seems tame, and you can finally focus on the movie as Bergman intended it: a revenge on his critics and a study on the relationship between an artist and his audience.

In the film, Max von Sydow plays Albert Emanuel Vogler, Bergman’s alter ego, a 19th-century alchemist and peddler who’s become little more than a charlatan deceiving his audiences with cheap tricks. There are hints that he was once a great theatrical artist, but in the movie he has a somewhat unsavory reputation, so much so that he’s been called before the officials of Stockholm to present a private performance so the bureaucrats (critics) can decide if his show is worthy of public consumption. Suffice it to say that Vogler still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and the tables get very effectively turned.

Deception is a watchword in this film. Vogler is not who he seems, and his young assistant, assumed to be a boy in the beginning of the movie, turns out to be his wife in disguise (acted by the radiant Ingrid Thulin). There are many other sleights of hand, the most remarkable being a mistakenly autopsied corpse. The whole affair is presented in stunning black-and-white photography that’s rife with shadow and light, and it’s supported by Erik Nordgren’s remarkable score, which proves that less can be quite a bit more. Some scenes are scored for only a single harp or for timpani, yet these sparse instruments are more effective than an entire symphonyorchestra.

Once again, Criterion has achieved a triumph with a black-and-white film. The high contrast is perfect, allowing blacks to be inky and whites to be very bright. Detail in hair, clothing, and set decoration is perfect, and the English subtitles that translate the Swedish soundtrack are placed at the very bottom of the 1.33:1 frame where they’re easily read. The sound is also excellent, especially considering the film’s age. Only the extras disappoint. There are two brief interviews with Bergman, one in Swedish with subtitles and one in English, and a good but very brief visual essay by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie. There are also good essays in the supplied booklet by Olivier Assayas, Geoff Andrew, and Bergman himself. Were this not a Criterion release, that would be enough, but by Criterion’s usual standards things feel a bit lean.

By all means, if you haven’t seen this film, rent or buy it. There’s much to enjoy and many mesmerizing images to see.

Be sure to watch for: In chapter 7, the camera discovers two servant girls working in the foreground of a kitchen while Vogler and his disguised wife are eating in the far background. The detail of both foreground and background is exceptional, as is the accurate delineation of set details and costumes, with Vogler and his wife in black and the maids in cheerful stripes with bright white accents.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Beauty and the Beast: Three-Disc Diamond Edition"

October 2010

201010_beastDisney’s Blu-ray of Beauty and the Beast boasts Perfect Picture and Sound

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment 104629
Format: Blu-ray/DVD

Overall Enjoyment
****1/2
Picture Quality
*****
Sound Quality
*****
Extras
****1/2

I’ll confess it: Every time I come to the end of this animated classic, I get a lump in my throat and my eyes well up with tears. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast resonates in a very deep place that knows no boundaries of age or background. And now Disney has brought it to home video in versions that are technically flawless. Versions? Yes, you can obtain it as a three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack either in DVD packaging or in Blu-ray packaging, and there’s also a two-disc DVD edition.

With music by Alan Menken, Beauty and the Beast plays like the ultimate Broadway show. The biggest difference is that it’s not limited to stage action, and since it’s animated, it can use special effects not available to live productions. But that didn’t stop it from becoming a hit Broadway show that has gone on to be a favorite production for local theater groups all over the US. The voice casting is perfect, as is the editing, and the story flows without a hitch or dead spot. The Blu-ray offers three versions of the movie: the original theatrical release; an extended version, which seamlessly reinstates the musical number “Human Again”; and a picture-in-picture storyboard edition with commentary by producer Don Hahn.

The DVD included in this set looked awfully good, especially when upsampled on my Oppo Blu-ray player, but the Blu-ray Disc is perfection that I can’t find fault with. The notes tell us that Disney technicians found some water spots on the master that weren’t noticeable on DVD but would have been on Blu-ray, so they cleaned up the entire print with loving care -- and a great deal of expertise, I might add. There’s not a spot, hole, jaggie, ghost image or any other aberration here. The vivid colors seem to leap off the screen, the definition is beyond reproach, shadow detail is ideal, and blacks are really black. This is HD video done to perfection.

The audio has been re-mixed into 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and it, too, is ideal. The front stage is lively, with dialogue often distributed left to right rather than being all in the center, and the rears are alive with sound throughout virtually the entire film. I believe that Robby Benson’s voice performance as the Beast is one of the greatest voice characterizations of all time, and it comes across well on this Blu-ray, ranging from loud roars and rants that involve the LFE channel to softly spoken inner-directed asides. Audio for the music is focused and transparent, and nothing is slighted in this mix, which is one of the best I’ve heard for any film, animated or live action.

The extras (spread across all three discs) are what you’ve likely come to expect from Disney’s Diamond Edition releases: They’re plentiful and meaningful, and they’ll enhance your appreciation of the movie considerably. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remains a timeless classic that you can view over and over, and it now stands as a Blu-ray demonstration disc with few peers.

Be sure to watch for: The film opens and closes with drawings of stained-glass windows that tell the story. At the end of the movie, we see the final one close-up, and the camera then pulls back to reveal the window frame adorned by vines and flowers. The window retains its astonishing sharpness all the way from close to distant.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Babies"

September 2010

201009_babiesAn Appealing Look at the First Years of Four Infants 

Universal 62112181
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2emptystar
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Extras
*emptystaremptystaremptystaremptystar

For this entertaining and somewhat striking documentary, director Thomas Balmès followed and filmed the lives of four babies from their birth to their first steps. The quartet of infants was selected from four widely varying cultures: Ponijao was born in Namibia, Bayar in Mongolia, Mari in Tokyo, and Hattie in San Francisco.

Cynics will dismiss this film as too cute, but that’s what cynics do. Not being one, I found it to be a movie montage that delighted my eyes and ears while pointing out a universality that transcends cultural differences. Balmès must have filmed for a very long time to capture the defining images that made his final cut. The four children are shown playing, eating, crying, gurgling, and laughing while interacting with parents, pets, and the rest of their newfound environment. Animals, especially cats and goats, figure heavily in the scenario.

Though Bayar and Ponijao must cope with cultures that have low sanitation (Bayar, in particular, always seems to have insects crawling over his body) while Mari and Hattie enjoy the latest technologies that Japan and the US can offer, they all share an innate inquisitiveness; an unwavering desire to taste, touch, see, and learn; and sense of delight in their triumphs as they learn first to crawl and then to walk.

The movie was shot in HD, but its picture quality varies with the different locations. It’s never short of excellent, but often, as in establishing shots of Tokyo and San Francisco, it’s of astonishing, five-star quality. There is no dialogue as such in this movie, so the DTS soundtrack is devoted to Bruno Coulais’ evocative music and various sound effects. The Blu-ray’s sound is full and focused, using mostly the front channels but opening up effectively to the rears on more than one occasion. The extras aren’t much -- just a very short featurette of the director visiting the four children three years on to show them the movie and an even shorter featurette honoring the winners of “Your Babies Sweepstakes.”

Babies is a remarkable achievement. Without using dialogue, Balmès has created a cohesive and charming opus, a rhapsodic “symphony” to babies that will make everyone chuckle, smile, and remember. All but the cynics, and too bad for them.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 9 opens with a scene in Tokyo of a woman with an umbrella walking toward the camera on a bustling city street. Notice how both background and foreground are sharp and clear. The scene has a compelling three-dimensional feeling, without glasses!

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Breathless"

September 2010

201009_breathlessGodard’s Masterpiece Emerges Alive and Fresh

The Criterion Collection 408
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
***1/2emptystar
Extras
****emptystar

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is often credited as the movie that changed cinema and solidified the French New Wave. Some will say there’s before Breathless and after Breathless. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1960, and it seemed fresh, alive, and daring -- it was filmmaking unfettered by convention. Amazingly, it still feels that way today. Unlike many movies from that period, Breathless doesn’t seem dated. This is partially due to the timeless themes involved, but credit must also go to the effervescent performances of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Belmondo plays wannabe gangster Michel Poiccard, and Seberg plays Patricia Franchini, a young American girl working for an American newspaper in Paris. Poiccard is on the lam for killing a policeman and wants Patricia to escape with him, but she won’t budge. Spoiler alert: she rats him out and he’s caught. The plot is about that simple, but its characters are complex. Poiccard is a rounder but has such charisma that we can’t help liking him. Patricia is young and naive on the surface, but her subtle expressions indicate that there’s a lot going on underneath her gamine exterior. The bulk of the film is concerned with the two talking to each other, all while Poiccard is trying to avoid the police. The plot seems slight, but Breathless is a movie where style becomes substance.

Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is at the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. As usual with Criterion, the black-and-white images are exceptionally clean and crisp. Contrast is fairly high and helps to highlight detail. The monaural soundtrack has been remastered, allowing every bit of dialogue to be heard clearly while providing enough dynamic range that Martial Solal’s jazzy music score has lots of punch. The movie is in French, with English subtitles that are easy to read unless there’s white at the bottom of the picture.

The extras provide valuable information that enhances the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie. There are archival interviews with Godard, Belmondo, Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville, the French New Wave director credited with starting the movement. There are some excellent featurettes, including a portrait of Jean Seberg that traces her career from age 17 to her tragic suicide at just 41. An 80-minute French documentary studies the making of the film and its shooting locations, and there’s a very good print of Godard’s 1959 short film, Charlotte et son Jules, the first meeting of Belmondo and Godard.

Breathless is an undeniably important film in the history of cinema. It paved the way for the use of techniques that are now commonplace, but, far from being dry film history, it’s a very appealing and entertaining movie that gets better with time. Criterion has put it on Blu-ray Disc with care and attention to detail.

Be sure to watch for: A little bit into chapter 15, Seberg puts a l’Oiseau-Lyre recording of Mozart’s clarinet concerto on a turntable. The camera stays with that image for a long time. The vinyl is so detailed and realistic that I suddenly remembered not only the sound of those wonderful old discs but their aroma as well.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Eyeborgs"

August 2010

201009_eyeborgsAn Indie Sci-Fi Discovery from North Carolina

Image EYE6567BD
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2emptystar
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Extras
***1/2emptystar

Eyeborgs is the kind of movie that most people won’t notice. But while many will pass it off as a schlocky science-fiction B movie without a second thought, I’ll say it isn’t so. Despite the film’s obviously low budget, its clever filmmaking tricks the audience into thinking it’s something more. The plot involves a not-too-distant future in which complete surveillance is the norm. Observation robots, called eyeborgs, have been created in various sizes and are linked to a central system that spies on everyone’s activities. The small, two-legged ones are actually pretty cute, until you realize what they can do to a human through electric shock. But there’s no question about the larger ones: they resemble giant spiders, and they have wicked built-in tools to harm. As the story unfolds, federal agent R.J. “Gunner” Reynolds (Adrian Paul) begins to realize that the eyeborgs are about much more than keeping the United States safe from terrorists, and he gradually uncovers an insidious plot for total domination. By whom? You’ll have to see the movie -- there will be no spoilers here.

The script, by Fran and Richard Clabaugh, is intelligent, and it’s acted with skill by a group of actors known for supporting roles on television shows. Richard Clabaugh is also the director, and because he teaches cinematography at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the production was centered in Winston-Salem, where the school is located. The eyeborg robots are CGI, though you can tell on only one or two occasions. The photography is solid, and the Blu-ray Disc reflects it with an honest, well-defined look and skin tones that are right on target. The dynamic soundtrack makes good use of surround possibilities, and the extras provide a clear and straightforward look at the film’s production and how the producers worked around the low budget.

Eyeborgs probably cost five percent of a Hollywood-budgeted CGI fest like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but it’s more effective in its simplicity (as opposed to Joe’s simple-mindedness), and whereas Joe had little dramatic impact, Eyeborgs scores as a solid science-fiction drama, too. Score one for Eyeborgs.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 10 places the viewer in the middle of a final shootout with the robots. Shadow detail is particularly good in these scenes, and it will let you know whether your brightness and contrast are adjusted correctly.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Black Orpheus"

August 2010

201008_blackorpheusCriterion’s Black Orpheus Is, in a Word, Irresistible 

The Criterion Collection 48
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
***emptystaremptystar
Extras
***1/2emptystar

Rio de Janeiro! Carnival! Dancing in the streets! Insistent, incessant, irrepressible drum beats! The birth of bossa nova! Bright colors and lavish costumes! A love story for all time! Any of these exclamatory phrases could be used to describe Black Orpheus, the award-winning movie that took the world by storm in 1959. Made by French director Marcel Camus, the film explored Brazil while wrapping it up in an appealing, superficial toy box worthy of MGM or Disney. Residents of Rio’s poorer sections, who are portrayed as constantly happy and always singing and dancing, bear as much of a relationship to reality as Gershwin’s romanticized Catfish Row denizens in Porgy and Bess or, “Ol’ Man River” aside, the joyful riverbank dwellers in MGM’s Show Boat.

The love story in Black Orpheus is an updating of the Greek Orpheus and Eurydice tragedy, and was based on the revisionist South American play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes. In this film version of the play, Orfeo (Breno Mello) is a streetcar conductor and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) is the new girl in town who steals his heart. But Eurydice is pursued by Death (Adhemar Ferreira da Silva in a slinky, death’s-head costume worthy of Carnival). The interesting truth underlying the romanticism is that all of the actors are of African descent. The American and European public had previously been exposed to South America via Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat, performers with Hispanic backgrounds, but Camus dared, in segregated 1959, to make it clear that Brazil also had a large black clear.

The Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá composed the film’s score, which shows the influence of the bossa nova beat on Brazilian music. But the drumming sequences just as clearly reveal African roots, and taken together, the two influences form a wonderful concoction that provides memorable melodies and rhythms, making it difficult to sit still while watching this movie. The Criterion mono soundtrack has been considerably cleaned up from the original optical version, and it’s offered uncompressed. The images on screen are as memorable as the sounds, and the almost overly bright colors of the costumes play very well on Blu-ray without any smearing or bleeding. The movie is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and in Portuguese with fairly easy-to-read English subtitles. There’s also an English-dubbed soundtrack, but you don’t want to go there. Stick with the original.

The extras include a full-length film, Looking for Black Orpheus, which offers a closer look at the racial makeup of Rio and the racism that has existed there. There are also archival interviews with Camus and Marpessa Dawn, as well as a contemporary interview with Brazilian cinema scholar Robert Stam, jazz historian Gary Giddins, and Brazilian author Ruy Castro, who discuss the film’s musical roots in great depth.

Black Orpheus is an important film in the history of cinema, but it’s also a very entertaining movie that’s full of life and romantic vision. I’ve seen it many times, but never looking as gorgeous as it does in Criterion’s colorful Blu-ray edition. It is, in a word, irresistible.

Be sure to watch for: I was struck by the beginning of chapter 11, in which the hillside community prepares to go down the mountain to celebrate Carnival in metropolitan Rio. The scene is a riot of blues: Serafina (Léa Garcia) is in a turquoise top with a bluish purple skirt, behind her is a building painted in navy blue and white stripes, and yet another steely blue can be seen in Rio’s harbor. All of these blues are set against a background of green grass on the left, and to the right of the screen are banners and flags bearing every conceivable color. It’s just as demanding as any color test pattern, but much more enjoyable.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Kalifornia"

August 2010

201008_kaliforniaKalifornia Is Propelled by Superb Acting

MGM M122542
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
***1/2emptystar
Extras
**emptystaremptystaremptystar

Kalifornia was released to a limited number of theaters in 1993, after which it was promptly forgotten. A few critics gave it favorable reviews, but by and large the thriller was ignored. It later resurfaced because members of its cast, including Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny (pre X-Files), and Michelle Forbes, went on to find fame. The film received a released in the early days of DVD, and it’s now one of the headliner titles in the recently launched Fox and MGM Blu-ray Plus DVD series.

This renewed interest is gratifying, because the movie really is top-drawer. Duchovny and Forbes play a yuppie couple who travel to California while gathering research for a book on serial killers, for which she’ll take photographs of sites where murders occurred and he’ll write text to accompany them. After placing a notice for someone to share the ride and expenses, they draw in Early Grayce (Pitt) and Adele Corners (Lewis), poor white trash and, in Early’s case, a killer. The rest of the movie depicts a road trip from hell as Early’s true nature slowly emerges. The script never descends into slasher-flick land, and the acting is as good as you’ll see anywhere, with all four principals fully embodying their characters. Lewis and Pitt are particularly good, turning in what might be the best performances of their careers. How they escaped award nomination is a mystery, as is the fact that the movie’s director, Dominic Sena, has gone on to make only two-star films like Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish, and Whiteout).

Bojan Bazelle’s cinematography is a major factor in Kalifornia, as he utilizes imaginative angles and focus points to generate just the right mood for each scene. These details come across very well on the Blu-ray. The audio is mostly up front, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks kick up a ruckus when required while always allowing for clear dialogue. There are no extras beyond a trailer, though we might consider the second disc to be one big extra. Using streaming video, it contains the film in both unrated and R-rated versions, in both widescreen and pan-and-scan. The Blu-ray contains only the unrated version, which adds about a minute of uncomfortable violence to the movie.

If you haven’t seen Kalifornia, you owe it to yourself to give this unheralded masterpiece a look. If you have seen it, have fun looking back at the early careers of the famous actors involved. You’ll easily see why they’ve been successful; these early efforts reveal superb talents.

Be sure to watch for: There are many shots in this movie that demonstrate Blu-ray’s ability to crisply reproduce backgrounds. At the beginning of chapter 20 there’s a helicopter flyover on a beach, with Michelle Forbes on the far left of the screen and a beach house on the right. As the helicopter fades in the distance, it keeps its shape and definition, giving the scene a three-dimensional depth.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Mother"

July 2010

201007_motherTo What Lengths Will a Mother Go to Protect Her Son?

Magnolia 10325
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar
Picture Quality
****emptystar
Sound Quality
****emptystar
Extras
****emptystar

Korean director Joon-ho Bong previously made the highly regarded horror film The Host in 2006. His newest film, Mother, cleverly reveals an in-depth study of mother-and-son relationships inside a mystery-suspense tale.

When mentally challenged Bin Won (Yoon Do-joon) is arrested for the brutal murder of a young girl, his mother (Hye-ja Kim) doesn’t believe he’s capable of such a crime, and she starts her own investigation into the case. As the movie progresses, the audience is given lots of red herrings about the murder mystery, as well as some unsettling insights into the relationship between mother and son. The film is slow and thorough but never plods, and Hye-ja Kim’s performance is a marvel -- grim and determined, his single-minded purpose slowly spills over into obsession. Kim delivers an electrifying, in-depth, and Oscar-worthy performance.

The dialogue is entirely Korean, but there are English and Spanish subtitles for the main film and the extra features. The Blu-ray picture has rich color, great contrast, and fine detail. Skin tones seem particularly realistic, and blacks are truly black. Much of the movie takes place in the rain, which darkens the picture without obscuring the images. There are over two hours of extras, including a one-and-a-half-hour production featurette, plus short features on specific aspects of the filming, including music, cinematography, and design.

Don’t miss this stylish, absorbing mystery and dramatic showcase for Hye-ja Kim’s mesmerizing acting.

Be sure to watch for: During the opening credits, Hye-ja Kim is standing in what appears to be a wheat field. Looking straight at the camera with grim determination, she beings to dance and sway to soundtrack music that sounds curiously Brazilian. It’s one of those signature scenes you won’t easily forget.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Black Narcissus"

July 2010

201007_black_narcissusThe Archers’ Suppressed Eroticism Sears and Sizzles in Criterion’s New Blu-ray Release

The Criterion Collection 93
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****emptystar
Picture Quality
****1/2
Sound Quality
***emptystaremptystar
Extras
***1/2emptystar

Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger forged one of the most important partnerships in the history of film by founding their production company, The Archers. From 1942 to 1957, they made 19 feature films, including the masterpieces Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffman. 1947’s Black Narcissus, based on Rumer Godden’s novel, tells the story of an order of nuns who are sent to run a school and establish a mission in a community perched high in the Himalayas. The spot they occupy was once a lavish brothel, and the walls still hold many murals that suit that sort of organization. The nuns, led by Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), believe they can conquer the past and give the community a different future, but they quickly learn that the location’s hedonist history won’t easily fade. Worldly sins are manifested in Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a swarthy man of the world. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) becomes so conflicted by this man’s presence that she leaves both the order and her senses.

For this movie, Powell and Pressburger worked with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar in 1947 for his opulent photography. The colors vary from rich to subdued, but they always have life and presence, and they’re indispensable in setting mood and suspense. The sharp Criterion transfer preserves the supercharged nature of the film, which, by the way, was shot entirely on sound lots in the UK! The audio tracks are quite good for the period, though they show age more than the video. Constant wind successfully suggests altitude, and Brian Easdale’s huge symphonic score is performed by no less than the London Symphony playing it. Powell considered the score so important that he shot many scenes to correspond to the music, rather than vice versa. The optical mono track seems inadequate to reproduce the score at times, but overall it works with the visuals to create atmosphere, and the dialogue is very well served. One can only imagine how awful this optical track must have sounded before Criterion restored it!

The extras seem a bit slight for a Criterion release, but they’re quite good. There’s a commentary track with Martin Scorsese and Powell, recorded shortly before Powell passed away. There’s also a video introduction by director Bernard Tavernier, who also contributes “The Audacious Adventure,” a video piece in which he discusses Powell and the film. “Profile of Black Narcissus” is a half-hour documentary on the making of the movie, and “Printing with Light,” perhaps the most interesting extra included, examines the luminous, award-winning work of Cardiff. There’s also a 24-page booklet with an in-depth essay by Kent Jones and superb color photos of the film’s main characters.

Black Narcissus is one of the most important films in cinema history, as well as one of the most entertaining. Though they were prohibited from showing much at the time, the filmmakers perfectly convey a supercharged sense of repressed sexuality, and they make delicious suspense and melodrama out of the havoc that feeling creates.

Be sure to watch for: There are many memorable images in this very visual movie, but the one that stands out for me is at the end when Sister Ruth, dressed in secular clothes, bursts from her room bent on killing Sister Superior Clodagh, who is ringing the assembly bell at the edge of a frightening cliff. Her hair is wet and disheveled, her look maniacal and menacing. No villainess in film has been scarier.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

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  • SoundStage! Expert: All About Headphones and Earphones (Episodes 1-5)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Rockport Technologies Lyra Loudspeaker (November 2019)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Sonus faber Olympica Nova at World of McIntosh Townhouse (October 2019)
  • SoundStage InSight - Rockport Technologies Past, Present, Future (September 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert: Basics of Solid-State Class-AB Amplifiers (Episodes 1-5)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -  Paradigm's Dual Voice Coils (July 2019)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Audio Research's CD6SE and CD9SE CD Players (May 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Phono Stages - 1) Why You Need One (April 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Phono Stages - 2) Cartridge Types (April 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Phono Stages - 3) More on Cartridges (April 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Phono Stages - 4) Settings (April 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Phono Stages - 5) Internal vs. External (April 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Phono Stages - 6) External Entry Level to Extreme (April 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Record Care/Cleaning - 1) Hundreds of Thousands of Records (Mar. 2019)
  • SoundStage! Expert Record Care/Cleaning - 2) Handling Records (Mar. 2019)