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Last year (almost exactly a year ago, as a matter of fact) Fox and MGM released one of 2012’s best Blu-ray collections – Forever Marilyn. This set included seven of actress Marilyn Monroe’s Fox and MGM-owned films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, and The Misfits (the last two were previously available outside this release). Every film was brilliantly restored, especially the gorgeous CinemaScope and Technicolor features. The restoration alone was cause for celebration, but River of No Return and There’s No Business Like Show Business don’t exactly hold up as well the other films in the set and some fans lamented the absence of some of the actress’ better Fox/MGM-owned features, like Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock, and Richard Sale’s Let’s Make it Legal. Fortunately for us, two of the most requested films in Fox/MGM’s Monroe catalogue, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara and Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop, have been given the same HD restoration and are available in separate Blu-ray releases. Extra-fortunately for me in particular, I’ve never seen either of them before.

Note: these films are being released separately, not as a group, and only feature a collection of Monroe trailers for extra material.

Fox Marilyn Monroe Double Feature

Niagara

(1953)
At its base, Niagara is the story of a newly-married couple on their honeymoon in Niagara Falls that meet another couple at the end of their marriage. This Bergmanesque plot is merely complicated by the fact that the unhappy couple, played by Monroe and Joseph Cotten, are homicidally unhappy. Director Henry Hathaway is not a ‘name’ on the level of Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder, but he did head a decent collection of well-known westerns ( How the West Was Won, True Grit), some well-respected noirs ( Kiss of Death, The House on 92nd Street), and was even nominated for a Best Directing Oscar ( The Lives of a Bengal Lancer). Niagara sees him flexing those noir muscles while keeping an eye on his relatively mainstream audience. Unlike many of his other noir flicks, he shoots this one to look lush and colourful without depending too much on moody, stark expressionism (though there’s plenty of that, too). Niagara is tonally dark and somber enough to alienate fans of Monroe’s more enduringly popular films. Monroe, who is something of a supporting player here, does a pretty good job with the whole femme fatale thing, proof that she could work against type – though Hathaway is sure to play up the actress’ blond bombshell image and includes a dash of comedy with his melodrama. Jean Peters and Max Showalter excel in the more thankless position of the sweet-natured couple witnessing Monroe and Cotten’s plans. Peters in particular ends up carrying a whole lot of the film on her likable performance. Cotten himself isn’t given a whole lot of range to perform with, but does a pretty good job conveying a sort of pathetic, accidental villain. In the end, Niagara is less of an actor’s film than it is a very well-told story and an incredibly well-shot film – some of the more dramatic set-pieces rival similar bits in Hitchcock’s films.

Niagara was shot on 35mm and released in Technicolor. This 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer (slightly reframed from the original 1.37:1) is super vibrant and very sharp. Effectively, it looks like it could be a brand new movie if it wasn’t for the fact that Technicolor has definitively dated qualities. But, my God does Blu-ray do amazing things with the process. It’s difficult to single out a specific piece of incredible colour quality, but Monroe’s blazing red bolero jacket is certainly a highlight, especially when it flecks the otherwise earthy environment in wide shot. The image has been somewhat scrubbed of natural grain, though the lack of grain is more damning than the presence of actual DNR artefacts. The image is a bit soft at times, but not in an unnatural way, except for maybe a handful of slightly blobby backgrounds. Fine textures are relatively crisp and the complex textures are as tight as the hyperactive hues. Dynamic range is high, though if I have one issue with this transfer, it is that the whites appear a little blown-out, sometimes at the risk of subtler colours and smaller details. Black levels, however, are very nice.

Niagara was originally mixed for mono sound and is available here on both DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. Against my better judgment, I’m going to suggest the 5.1 track here for everyone but the purists in the house. The bulk of the sound (dialogue, incidental effects, more expressive effects) rests snugly in the center channel and is a smidge more consistent than the same sound is on the mono track. The stereo and surround channels are used in moderation, though they very effectively convey the scale of the title’s falls, especially during a brief sequence where rushing water is the only noise on the track. The multi-channel design also gives Sol Kaplan’s score more scope and dynamic range.


Fox Marilyn Monroe Double Feature

Bus Stop

(1956)
Bus Stop follows a dopey cowboy named Bo that journeys to the big city (Phoenix, AZ) with his best friend/father figure Virgil to compete in a rodeo and find himself a city girl. That supposed ‘angel’ ends up being Chérie, an ambitious hick trying to escape her own rural upbringing. Bo’s social retardation ensures that he misunderstands all of Chérie’s advances and ends up basically kidnapping her instead of wooing her. Director Joshua Logan was more famous for his work on Broadway than his work in Hollywood, but did find monumental success with musical features, like South Pacific, Fanny, and Camelot. Though not a musical, Bus Stop plays well to his strengths with widescreen song-and-dance numbers. He treats the natural landscapes like he would a Broadway stage and fills the CinemaScope frame with all the pomp & circumstance of the rodeo. At the same time, it’s plenty obvious that the film is based on a stage play, especially when he orchestrates a fistfight in a deluge of soap flakes and ice chips. Bus Stop isn’t the most intricately written story, but it’s a pretty strong character piece, at least in terms of the kind of slightly cartoony characters audiences wanted to see in the mid-‘50s. Screenwriter George Axelrod, working from William Inge’s play, doesn’t aim for subtlety and neither do the actors. Every person in the ensemble cast – including Monroe, who was nominated for a Golden Globe, and Don Murray, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – are basically playing Disney versions of rednecks for most of the film. Both Monroe and Murray begin the film somewhat obnoxiously naïve, but end up growing on the viewer once their sincerity is normalized through repetition (though Murray’s character is never really sympathetic). Monroe plays a yet another blonde ditz, but this might be her most intelligent and uniquely comedic performance. Instead of being confused by circumstances because she’s stupid, Chérie reacts naturally to a wacky situation. She is entirely naïve, but she’s playing a straight (wo)man for most of the film, not an idiot.

The CinemaScope fad and Monroe’s comparatively brief career with Fox overlapped, which means an awful lot of her films were shot using the process. This new Bus Stop Blu-ray features an impressive 1080p transfer and is presented in the original CinemaScope 2.55:1 framing. Detail levels are nice, though sharper textures are limited by cinematographer Milton R. Krasner’s use of wider-angle shots rather than close-ups. The depth of field is effective during the widest shots and the complexities of costume patterns are crisp without a lot of aliasing effects or edge haloes. Bus Stop was shot using DeLuxe, a color system that was popular with animation prints, because of its strong, solid hue quality. It usually looks a little weird with live action, though. Naturally lit sequences don’t look particularly natural because the colour quality is kind of limited to primary hues. Skin tones, dust, and wood are sort of orangish (though Monroe’s flesh is awfully pale with caked-on make-up). Cooler hues all look irregularly homogenized as well. On the other hand, the flashier lighting gels are really, really vivid and the pop of those less than natural highlights are pretty impressive. The bigger issues with this particular transfer are weaker black levels and somewhat flat contrast in the darker sequences.

It’s not often you see an original 4-Track Stereo soundtrack reproduced in 4.0. Usually, you either get a Pro-Logic version, or a studio remixes it for 5.1. Well, Fox has gone and done the unusual in supplying this Blu-ray with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 soundtrack. It’s an interesting experience. The idea was to spread the sound over the massive CinemaScope screen, so you have to imagine that the stereo speakers are behind your set to get the original effect (except those of you with big projector screens – you can just experience it as intended). It’s no wonder that modern surround mixes settle most of their dialogue and simple effects in the center channel, because stretching the dialogue between three discrete front speakers sounds pretty invasive. Odd dialogue positioning aside, the 4.0 mixing sounds great during the parade and rodeo sequences, creating an immersive experience. The music is mostly source based, especially Arthur O'Connell acoustic guitar playing, which, like the dialogue, sits in the correct speaker based on the actor’s on-screen placement. Alfred Newman’s score and a couple of brief singing bits sound quite warm as well.


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