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Fox Studio Classics Wrap-Up 2

In Old Arizona

Some films are expressly notable for technical achievements and some of these achievements are more impressive than others. At best, these movies are also pretty good aside from their mechanical and/or scientific merit, but, experience tells us that the first person to do something is not usually the best person to do that thing. In 1929, directors Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh made the first movie entirely made for sound and the first talkie to be shot on outdoor locations. That film was In Old Arizona, the third film adaptation of O. Henry’s (pen name of William Sydney Porter) classic story of the Cisco Kid. Unfortunately, In Old Arizona is not a transcendent work, outside of its technical achievements. It’s stiffly acted by actors unfamiliar with the intricacies of acting for film with sound. The one standout is lead William Baxter, who pitches his performance somewhere between naturalistic and arch (and who replaced co-director Walsh when he was forced to drop out after a jackrabbit jumped through his car window and damaged his face so badly that he lost an eye). Baxter’s textured, amusing performance won him the Academy Award for Best Actor – the first time an American had won the award since the Oscars began. Edmund Lowe, who appears as secondary lead Sergeant Mickey Dunn, is also enjoyable, though he’s mostly mugging for the cameras as if he’s acting for a silent picture. Cummings and Walsh (who were co-nominated for Best Director) opt for a point-and-shoot look and rigidly edit scenes together without much concern for the kind of style or energy that John Ford and his contemporaries would start experimenting with in the years that followed. Pacing issues aside, Tom Barry’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, is pretty funny (especially the sexual double entendres) and strong from a character standpoint.

In Old Arizona is, as you may have guessed, very old and was, for a time, missing altogether from the home video market, so it’s not surprising that this new black & white, 1.20:1, 1080p transfer leaves something to be desired. I want to give the disc’s producers the benefit of the doubt, especially since they weren’t working from a particularly large restoration budget like the producers of the recent Wings Blu-ray, but the film is in bad enough condition that I can’t see much reason to experience it in HD, rather than SD. The details are limited by period cameras, but are clear enough to discern some of the finer background textures and clothing patterns. Problems arise in terms of print damage artefacts, including scratches, blotches, flecks of dirt, and some really thick scan lines that never really go away.  The disc comes with two audio options, a ‘restored’ DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track and an ‘unrestored’ Dolby Digital 1.0 track. I switched between the two tracks quite a bit and couldn’t really tell the difference outside of lossy vs. lossless volume levels. I’ll just have to assume that there are bits of noise missing here and there and that I happened to have missed them. Both tracks seem to represent the material well, including all the problems you’d expect to follow the first film with shot entirely on-location audio. The dialogue is muddled, inconsistent, and harshly cracked by the louder sound effects. The effects themselves are flat and there’s basically nothing in terms of ambient noise, because the technology wasn’t yet available for capturing intricate aural texture. Complaints aside, again, I’m not sure there was much else the disc’s producers could do with the material. With the disc’s subtitles activated, I found the experience perfectly enjoyable.

Fox Studio Classics Wrap-Up 2

Blood and Sand

Not to be confused with the four or five other movies with the same title, Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand is a remake of a 1922 Rudolph Valentino feature. The story follows a bullfighter named Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power), who rises from obscurity to prominence, only to collapse back into obscurity, thanks to lust and hubris. Mamoulian is probably best known for Mark of Zorro (also starring Power and Darnell). He focuses less on innovative storytelling or imagery and more on capturing romantic, old school Hollywood grandeur. The film is best remembered for its Academy Award winning photography, which is credited to both Ray Rennahan ( Gone with the Wind) and Ernest Palmer ( Cavalcade). The use of Technicolor is important, but the stage lighting and stark shadows are more evocative and enduring. Mamoulian is sure to include a sequence of epic coliseum action, but he and Rennahan seem to be most comfortable when dealing with their impressionistic stage sets. The major bullfighting scene features brisk camera work (including bulls-eye views) and some striking editing between elegant close-ups and ravishing overhead angles. Jo Swerling’s screenplay (based on Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’ book) covers an epic time-span very efficiently (there’s a bit of a pacing dip in the middle) and stands out when embracing the good-natured humour of the otherwise very typical story (so typical that it seems to happen to real-life celebrities all the time). It’s not very interesting on a plot level, but the characters are charming and their plights genuinely moving. The star-studded cast includes Linda Darnell as Power’s wife, Rita Hayworth as his mistress, and supporting turns from John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, and Anthony Quinn. But Laird Cregar steals the show as a dandy, Vincent Price-like writer/critic/man-about-town that sings Juan’s praises in the flowery prose of a true sycophant.

Blood and Sand is presented in 1080p, 1.33:1 video (slightly reframed from the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio). That Oscar-winning, Technicolor photography is well-represented in terms of overall hue strength and tightness, though the format’s unnatural hues and lack of pure black levels is also amplified. The result is an orange and blue palette that is flecked with occasionally lush, naturalistic greens and rich, thick reds (it is a bullfighting movie, afterall). The weak blacks come and go, depending on the lightness or darkness of the frame in general. Detail levels vary (sometimes, the depth of field is limited by softer focus or the use of shorter lenses), but are brilliant when Mamoulian is exploring the patterns and complex shapes of the massive sets and decorative costumes. Grain levels are thin without appearing particularly scrubbed, aside from a few suspicious blobs, most of which seem to be covering more destructive artefacts. The colour strips are slightly misaligned on a couple of occasions, creating the illusion of edge enhancement, but I didn’t notice much in the way of actual sharpening effects. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack has some impressive dynamic range for a single channel mix. The arena sequences are the clear standouts in terms of overall sound layering and complexity. The dialogue’s sound quality changes depending on location, but doesn’t lose overall clarity or volume consistency. I noticed no major issues with high end distortion. Alfred Newman’s music is a relatively common aural element and is incredibly rich, creating the illusion of stereo enhancement with deep, warm orchestrations. The extras include only a commentary from Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers between 2003-2006 and cinematographer in his own right.

Fox Studio Classics Wrap-Up 2

Panic in the Streets

Having thoroughly cemented his place on the Hollywood scene in 1947 with an Oscar win for Gentleman’s Agreement and braving some major controversy in 1949 with Pinky, director Elia Kazan turned his sights on making his first major studio picture – a relatively conventional noir entitled Panic in the Streets. The film gave Kazan a chance to experiment with the visual extremes of Fritz Lang and the hyper-realism of Vittorio De Sica. Richard Murphy and Daniel Fuchs’ hardboiled and concertedly naturalistic screenplay – a mix of a health epidemic thriller and a traditional gangster story – is certainly above average, but, for the most part, Panic in the Streets is an exercise in style and tone. Kazan often seems to be prepping himself for A Streetcar Named Desire, which a stagier, but similarly styled film (sort of German Expressionist meets Italian Neo-Realist). There are some similarities to On the Waterfront as well, but these are mostly incidental. Panic in the Streets is an occasionally uneasy blend of techniques with the more noir-ish moments standing out as dramatically superior to the cinéma vérité, slice-of-life stuff, but the bigger issue is that, even at a terse 96 minutes, it feels overlong. I suppose pacing wasn’t ever Kazan’s strongest suit. The director reportedly wanted to work with fresh/less-recognizable faces for the sake of further neo-realist authenticity, leading him to hire Richard Widmark, fresh off his star-making role in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, pre- Vertigo Barbara Bel Geddes, Zero Mostel in only his second major film role, and an entirely unknown character actor named Walter Palance, who would later change his stage name to ‘Jack.’ Palance is such a powerful presence, even at this young age that the whole movie suffers in his absence.

Panic in the Streets is presented in black & white 1080p video, framed in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio (head room does appear a little tight at times, leaving me to wonder if maybe a 1.33:1 transfer would’ve opened up the matte a bit). The image quality varies throughout, usually based on set versus location footage – the set-shot sequences are generally crisper along the edges and cleaner in terms of gradations. Details aren’t outrageously sharp, but there are many intricate textures and patterns that would likely go missing on an SD transfer. Most edges are well cut, with only minimal haloes on the roughest wide shots. Grain levels are inconsistent, but, again, this appears to be a natural effect of set versus location shooting, with the less stylistically lit scenes featuring a bit more fuzz. Film-based artefacts are limited to a few water damaged blobs and I didn’t notice any major digital blocking or CRT noise. The lossless, DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack maintains the original mono sound, spread here over the two stereo channels. This track is not among the strongest restorations I’ve ever heard, but is clear enough overall to understand dialogue and hear the more intricate effects. Like the image quality, the sound quality appears to depend on the shooting location. There are some slightly distorted higher volume moments (Mostel is quite a yeller), but the bigger problem is general murkiness in some of the dialogue. Alfred Newman’s score (yeah, him again) is nice and warm without any notable compression. The extras include a commentary with film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, Jack Palance: From Grit to Grace (44:10, SD) and Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters (44:10, SD), both of which are made-for-TV documentaries, and a trailer.

Fox Studio Classics Wrap-Up 2

Love Me Tender

Elvis Presley’s movie career was not exactly what even the most liberal critic would consider a valuable part of the Hollywood landscape. His presence on the silver screen throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s was, at its very simplest, akin to the likes of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber making feature appearances – he was there to sell tickets to teenagers, not to make great cinema. His movies mostly endure, because he was one of the most important pop icons of the 20th century, but not because they were particularly impressive. This isn’t to say some of his 31 dramatic features weren’t well-made or even entertaining. Richard Thorpe’s Jailhouse Rock and George Sidney’s Viva Las Vegas are good fun and Presley’s first movie, Robert D. Webb’s Love Me Tender, is actually a pretty good western…at least it is whenever The King isn’t on-screen. Love Me Tender was not conceived with Presley’s musical talents in mind (though it was later changed around to capitalize on the success of the ‘Love Me Tender’ single), which means it has more narrative purpose than the average Elvis movie (many of their plots are amusingly interchangeable with ‘70s porn in terms of basic story). The plot follows a trio of Confederate soldier brothers that steal a pile of cash from a Union station and return home to find that their family had been told they were K.I.A. Worse yet, ‘lead’ brother, Vance (Richard Egan), discovers that his ‘best girl’ (Debra Paget) has married the youngest brother, Clint. Unfortunately, this promising Civil War-era melodrama is consistently undone by Presley himself, who, besides being a weak actor who is made up to look like a greaser from the 1950s instead of a farm boy from 1860s, plays Clint like a borderline mental defective. His dopey naivety and aggressively violent outbursts are off-putting and his appearance, not to mention uncouth musical interludes, constantly draws attention away from the period setting and tone.

This may be the first time I’ve reviewed a black & white CinemaScope film, though this 1080p Blu-ray is presented in 2.35:1, rather than the full CinemaScope 2.55:1 (as was the original material, according to specs). This is a somewhat problematic, but overall strong transfer. The image excels in terms of cleanliness and clarity. Details are crisp, the edges are sharp without a lot of edge enhancement, and the depth of field is impressive. The lack of film grain is suspicious and, sure enough, there are signs of DNR. We’re not talking a waxy, plastic-looking build-up or anything, just suspicious little smooth artefacts here and there. The rich black levels are pure, but thick to the point of crush effects, while the somewhat muddied whites (all the lighter gradations lean a bit this side of brown) are keyed really high as well. This is the transfer’s main problem – contrast levels. I haven’t seen the film before and suppose it’s possible that Webb designed it to appear this stark, but I assume the lack of middle tones was intended, nor do I think the nighttime sequence were meant to be this dark. It’s a very attractive transfer, but not one that I suspect represents the source material. Like many CinemaScope movies, Love Me Tender was released in both mono and 4-Track Stereo mixes. Unlike their same day Bus Stop release, Fox hasn’t maintained the 4.0 spread, instead remixing it into 5.1 and presenting it DTS-HD Master Audio. The original mono is also included, also presented in DTS-HD MA (the box art and menu claims 1.0, but my system swears it was a 2.0 representation). I mostly listened to the 5.1 track for the sake of this review and, as per usual, found that it was basically a centered, single channel mix that only occasionally expands out to the stereo and surround channels. Obviously, music takes precedent, but this refers mostly to Lionel Newman’s traditional score, rather than a handful of songs Elvis sings to the young ladies in the audience. The extras include a commentary from film historian Jerry Schilling, Elvis Hits Hollywood (12:40, SD), The Colonel & The King (11:00, SD), Love Me Tender: The Birth & Boom of the Elvis Hit (8:10, SD), Love Me Tender: The Soundtrack (7:30, SD), and trailers.