Archive for the ‘The Criterion Collection’ Category

Spine #938

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: July 17, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:40:09

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio (96kHz, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 32.18 Mbps

Note: Sony Pictures gave this title a Blu-ray release in 2009, but this new Criterion edition bests it by offering a superior transfer and a wealth of worthwhile supplemental material.

Title

“Video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events. We tend to think that we can experience things because we watched them on tape. For Graham this was an aspect of myself taken to an extreme measure. He needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism, even though I think voyeurism has mostly negative connotations. I guess it should. I don’t know.” –Steven Soderbergh (Truth or Consequences, Film Comment, July/August 1989)

Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape ushered in the golden age of independent filmmaking and proved that there is a market for small esoteric films that are aimed at adults. The then 26-year-old director worked from a script that he wrote in only eight days, and it told a rather simple story about the terror of true intimacy. Housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) feels distant from her lawyer husband, John (Peter Gallagher), who is sleeping with her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). When John’s old friend Graham (a magnetic, Cannes-award-winning James Spader) comes to town, Ann is drawn to the soft-spoken outsider, eventually uncovering his startling private obsession: videotaping women as they confess their deepest desires. The camera is a wall that Graham builds between him and any possibility of true connection. sex, lies, and videotape isn’t merely notable as the independent debut effort of a maverick filmmaker. It is also a film that holds up to repeated viewings.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 Stars

Steven Soderbergh’s indie classic has been given the Digi-book treatment with a semi-transparent plastic slipcover that makes the cover image look as if it were captured on an old-school television screen. It’s a nice touch, but it is a far cry from Criterion’s best designs as it employs the same image (only slightly off-center and rendered with less contrast) than the one utilized for the 2009 Sony release. When Criterion announced their July releases a few months ago, they illustrated the announcement with very different artwork. We’re not sure that it isn’t actually better than the final result.

Sony Cover

This artwork was used for Sony’s 2009 Blu-ray release.

Alternate Artwork

This artwork illustrated Criterion’s announcement of their release of sex, lies, and videotape a few months ago. Obviously, they didn’t end up using this design.

To be fair, it should be said upfront that Criterion has given the concept much more thought than standard Blu-ray packages typically receive. It’s no secret that I tend to prefer their standard clear-case packaging to their digipacks, but such issues are subjective and divide collectors. Luckily, this release includes a booklet instead of their standard pamphlet. What’s more, the text contained within this little gem is truly substantial.

An appreciative essay by Amy Taubin offers the reader a decent argument as to the film’s merit and place in independent cinema history, but the included excerpts from Soderbergh’s production diary—which includes an interesting self-penned introduction—is where the book really shines.

Menu

The animated menus feature footage from the film and are exactly in the style one expects from a Criterion release.

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

“…For this year’s restoration, we not only transferred from the original camera negative but also maintained 4K resolution throughout the whole process. The transfer was done at Deluxe in Culver City, California, and the final timing was done by Joe Gawler at Harbor Picture Company in New York, New York. The work on the dirt cleanup, etc. was redone again, this time at 4K.” –Larry Blake (Notes on the Remastering and Restorations of sex, lies, and videotape)

Having never seen Sony’s 2009 transfer of the film, it is impossible to state conclusively just how much better Criterion’s 4K restoration looks. However, it comes from a much better source and has been handled with more care. Those involved with the production would prefer that you see this transfer (which is really quite remarkable). The image is pristine with excellent color fidelity and black levels are handled perfectly without crushing any discernable detail—and “detail” is another element that will impress viewers. Density and depth will also impress fans of the film. The transfer maintains a filmic texture that should satisfy purists with its very fine layer of grain.

It can be said that those who own the original DVD edition of this film will be floored. It really feels as if you are discovering the film for the first time. It seems more alive somehow. Criterion earns their reputation with this release.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

“When it came time for the 2009 remastering, everyone felt that it was important to step back further to the original 1989 premixes in order to create an updated version of the track. The original 2″ Dolby SR-encoded 24-track analog premixes and the digital multitrack stems were transferred to Broadcast Wave files at the 24-bit/96 kHz standard… Extensive dialog editing was undertaken in Pro Tools to smooth out tone variations among camera angles, and to remove multitudes of snap and pops that we were unable to deal with given our 1989 dialog editing workflow. The music was “up-mixed” to full 5.1 from the original three-track (left-center-right) pre-mixes, although reference was made to the 1989 levels relative to dialog and sound effects…

…As happy as we were with this revision, one problem remained: there were considerable problems with generator noise during production, and we needed to go back to the original edited dialog tracks, before noise reduction and equalization had been applied during the 1989 premixing… The sound restoration took place at my company, Swelltone Labs, in New Orleans.” –Larry Blake (Notes on the Remastering and Restorations of sex, lies, and videotape)

Considering the number of masters this film’s audio has been given, it is difficult to judge how close this 5.1 English DTS-HD master audio mix is to the original theatrical version of the soundtrack, but it does seem like those involved have made every effort to be faithful to the original audio—or at the very least to the filmmaker’s original intentions. Apparently, minor improvements have been made in an effort to eradicate some of the blemishes inherent in the original audio. Technological advances have allowed the filmmakers to offer us a product closer to what they originally wanted in the first place.
It’s certainly superior to the DVD edition’s audio track, and the subtle 5.1 mix adds a bit of extra life to the track. Even stringent purists should find themselves in agreement with the changes made here. We graded this audio transfer with an understanding of the limitations that were inherent in the original source elements, and most should agree that it earns its perfect score if they do the same.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

In addition to a feature length commentary track (and a commentary for an additional deleted scene), Criterion offers over 1 hour and 41 minute of video based supplemental material for fans to devour.

Feature Length Audio Commentary featuring Steven Soderbergh & Neil LaBute

Those who have owned the film on DVD will recognize this 1998 commentary track, which finds LaBute leading a conversation with Steven Soderbergh that covers the writing of the script, production stories, stylistic decisions and intentions, the casting, various challenges of working on one’s first feature the film’s unexpected and overwhelming success after Cannes, and more. It’s a pretty decent track and does add to one’s appreciation of the film.

Deleted Scene (w. Optional Commentary by Steven Soderbergh) – (03:20)

The rough quality of this video-sourced footage should not dissuade viewers from checking out this deleted scene which finds Ann confessing to her therapist that she is considering not continuing her therapy after Graham makes a comment about not trusting anyone who he doesn’t know intimately with his problems. The therapist seems annoyed and counters that Graham may have had an agenda and she ends up deciding not to discontinue her therapy sessions. In the included optional commentary track for the scene, Soderbergh claims that the scene was cut because it made Ann appear too “pliable” and due to the fact that it wasn’t needed since the audience was already aware that she had been thinking quite a lot about Graham.

Something in the Air: The Making of sex, lies, and videotape – (28:55)

Andie McDowell, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher offer viewers much more than the usual generic navel-gazing comments that one expects from many of the more “making of” programs—but then this one was produced by Criterion. This retrospective look at the film’s production suffers only from the conspicuous absence of James Spader. The remaining three actors give candid accounts of how they were cast in their roles and then discuss their characters in some depth. MacDowell is an especially articulate and thoughtful subject and her presence is probably the highlight. They discuss the boost that the film gave to their careers and what it was like working with Steven Soderbergh on his first feature. This may very well be the crown jewel in this disc’s supplemental package.

1990 Steven Soderbergh Interview – (09:05)

It isn’t clear why this interesting archival footage was originally produced, but it finds a slightly awkward Soderbergh in Washington D.C. discussing sex, lies, and videotape shortly after the film’s enormous success. Topics discussed include the performances of each of the four primary actors, his inspiration for the film, his original trailer and the one eventually used by Miramax, the title, and more.

1992 Steven Soderbergh Interview – (13:31)

This interesting publicity interview is originally from an episode of The Dick Cavett Show and was meant to promote the release of Kafka (even though this film is only mentioned twice). However, Cavett is obviously more interested in sex, lies, and videotape and focuses on this film throughout the entirety of the interview. Fans will be happy to see it here. It adds enormous value to the disc despite the relatively short duration.

2018 Steven Soderbergh Interview – (06:17)

This “interview” or “introduction” is somewhat different from the fan Q&A that Criterion had originally planned. Apparently, Soderbergh was allowed to film this short piece on his own time, and this has resulted in a somewhat rambling fashion. The black and white footage is contains interesting information but is made less palatable by simply jumping topics without notice. The themes and structure of the film is discussed and he offers a comparison of his methodology during the production of this film and his more recent movies.

The Today Show: Interview with James Spader – (05:13)

This archival segment from a 1989 episode of The Today Show finds Gene Shalit and James Spader discussing the film’s enormous success. It is too bad that the interview couldn’t have been a bit longer since it is the only supplement that features Spader.

Cliff and Larry: Beginnings – (19:38)

Larry Blake (sound editor/re-recording mixer) and Cliff Martinez (composer) discuss the film’s music and sound design but get into detail about working with Steven Soderbergh and what they perceive to be unique about him as a filmmaker. It’s a light but revealing conversation that fans of the director and sex, lies, and videotape will appreciate.

Generators, Noise Reduction, and Multitrack Audiotape – (11:58)

Larry Blake’s video essay tackles the interesting subject of the film’s troubled sound mixes throughout the ages. Comparisons between the original Park City festival mix, the re-mix for Miramax’s eventual theatrical release, and this new 2018 mix illuminate just how rough the original location sound actually was before it was cleaned up for distribution and how Criterion’s new audio restoration improves upon the theatrical mix.

Trailers:

Trailer: Soderbergh’s Cut – (01:33)

Miramax’s Final Theatrical Trailer – (01:37)

Interestingly, there are two versions of the trailer included on the disc. The first is the unused Soderbergh cut which was too unique and indirect for marketing purposes. The second is Miramax’s final trailer for the film, which is noticeably more exploitive of the film’s sexual themes.

A Note on the Picture and Sound Restorations

This is a textual supplement that explains the differences in the various home video masters of the film and how each one was created. It is worth reading for anyone who wants to understand why Criterion’s transfer is so special and the ultimate version of this movie on home video.

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Final Words:

“One never says never with restoring films, but this time, we think it’s for real. Steven [Soderbergh] asks that you destroy all previous copies.” –Larry Blake (Notes on the Remastering and Restorations of sex, lies, and videotape)

We feel that this quote says everything. Criterion offers the definitive home video transfer of the film with this release. It has been approved by the director and comes with an overwhelming amount of supplemental material that will add to one’s appreciation of the film. It comes highly recommended.

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Spine #909

Blu-ray Cover (No Sticker)

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 13, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:36:36

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 35.67 Mbps

Title

“Well, the question of race was the furthest thing from my mind. When I was writing that character, I was thinking about the disintegration of family, the whole idea that people can’t cooperate, even when faced with a disastrous situation they just stick to their own agendas, arguing about whether to go upstairs or downstairs instead of facing the problem. When John Russo and I wrote the screenplay, [the character] was a white guy… So when Dwayne [Jones] agreed to play the role, we all had a conversation and decided that it was a bold move to not change the script. That was it. The same things happened to him when he was white. The redneck posse came and shot him, because they thought he was a zombie, not because they knew he was black. It was an accident really, in the end, a happy accident. The night we drove the first print to New York we heard on the radio that King had been assassinated, so of course, the film immediately took on a completely different slant.” –George A. Romero (Little White Lies)

Most of the participants who worked on Night of the Living Dead substantiate Romero’s above quote (and many others like it). George A. Romero and John Russo probably didn’t write an allegorical social document about race relations in the 1960s, but it is impossible to believe that the filmmakers didn’t know what casting Dwayne Jones in the pivotal leading role would do for the material. Frankly, whether the original script was meant as a comment on racism in America or was simply an exercise in macabre suspense is immaterial at this point. The fact is that the film as shot so perfectly reflects the social atmosphere of the time in which it was made that it is impossible to see it as anything else.

The most interesting aspect of the entire film has nothing to do with zombies. The characters could be protecting themselves from anything in the world: zombies, a homicidal cult, aliens from outer space, murderous hillbillies, or any other threat. To be honest, the zombie sub-genre is one of my least favorite brands of horror. The entire concept strikes me as rather ridiculous and not even remotely scary. Night of the Living Dead manages to rise above this personal prejudice against zombie films—and this is because we spend much more time with another kind of threat: paranoid human beings. It ratchets up a good deal of suspense because the zombies gathering outside can represent anything at all. They are abstractions. The social commentary is always on point (whether it was intended or not), and this only adds to the viewer’s sense of dread. The overall effect is simply chilling, and the devastation that we feel has nothing at all to do with flesh eating zombies.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 Stars

The Criterion Collection has given this release special Digipak packaging. Like many other collectors, this reviewer really prefers Criterion’s usual clear case presentations. However, it must be said that the design is overwhelmingly attractive. The artwork by Sean Phillips resembles a graphic novel and should please fans of the film. Also included is a folded pamphlet containing artwork on one side and an essay by Stuart Klawans entitled “Mere Anarchy is Loosed” on the other side. While a booklet in addition to the poster would have been preferable, the text gives the reader contextual information about the cultural climate at the time the film was made and released. Of course, the usual technical credits are also included.

MenuMenu 2

There are two discs contained in the package and both utilize static menus that feature different film specific artwork. It all falls in line with what one has come to expect from Criterion. They are both attractive and fairly intuitive to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Night of the Living Dead was restored in 4K by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation. Funding was provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation.

The restoration was overseen by George A. Romero and Image Ten, Inc.—especially Gary R. Streiner, Russell W. Streiner, and John A. Russo. The original 35 mm camera negative was scanned in 4K resolution by Cineric, Inc., in New York City, with audio digitization performed by Audio Mechanics in Burbank, California.” –Janus Films

The restoration team primarily utilized the original 35mm camera negative but a 35mm fine-grain from 1968 was used for portions of the negative that weren’t usable (approximately 1% of the film). Criterion’s transfer of the film’s immaculate 4K restoration is the best the film has ever looked on home video. It is immediately evident that there is more information on the left and right sides of the 1.37:1 frame. Black levels have also been significantly improved upon when one compares the image to earlier releases as they appear deep without crushing detail. There is an organic layer of grain that adds to the transfer’s filmic presentation without becoming unwieldy. Fine detail also impresses as there is a crispness to the image that hasn’t been evident in any of the previous releases. Depth and clarity are also significantly improved. Frankly, it’s impossible to imagine Night of the Living Dead looking any better on home video.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

The film’s audio has also been meticulously restored:

“…After the evaluation of eighteen separate source elements, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered under the supervision of Romero and Gary Streiner from the original quarter-inch mix masters, quarter-inch premix audio tape, a final composite 16mm magnetic track, and the 16mm magnetic mix units. The restoration was performed at Audio Mechanics, led by John Polito.” –Liner Notes

The resulting audio was given a faithful LPCM transfer in the film’s original mono, and the only limitations of the track are those inherent in the original production methods. The dialogue is clearly rendered and the imperfections aren’t at all distracting. Most age-related blemishes have been carefully removed by the restoration team. This is a vast improvement over the 40th Anniversary DVD put out by Sony a decade ago. The film’s library source music is predictably flat, but it would be ridiculous to expect a dynamic sound mix for this particular film. The important thing is to present the original mix in the best possible condition, and this transfer certainly does this quite well.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 Stars

There is no denying that Criterion’s supplemental package is superb, and those who focus on what is here while ignoring what has been left off of the disc will be perfectly satisfied. In addition to a feature-length work print of the film (which features an alternative title), there is also a second disc that features over 3 hours and 16 minutes of video-based supplements included here. These features cover a lot of territory and add considerably to one’s appreciation of the film. Unfortunately, there are a few supplements that were feature featured on earlier DVD editions of the film that have not been carried over to this edition. Most of this material is more than adequately replaced here as some of the interviews with Romero covers the same territory as the interviews featured on those discs. However, there was a rather interesting feature-length documentary entitled One for the Fire: The Legacy of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ that would have added a considerable amount of value to Criterion’s edition. Frankly, its absence is the only thing that keeps this supplemental package from earning a 5-star rating.

Introduction to the ‘Night of Anubis’ Workprint

Russell Streiner introduces the work print and this introduction does a truly outstanding job of putting the footage in the proper context. He explains many of the odd blemishes the viewer sees throughout the print. It is an essential ingredient in an outstanding supplemental package. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t have been worth including the entire work print (minus the one reel) without this introduction.

Night of Anubis – (01:25:09)

Night of Anubis

Night of Anubis was the original title of the film (Anubis was the God of mummification in ancient Egypt), but this was changed after it was realized that this esoteric title was unlikely to interest a mainstream public. This never-before-presented 16mm work-print edit still carries this title.

The raw footage is presented here and hasn’t been corrected or restored in any way. It is included here for comparison purposes and is missing the final half of its second reel. However, it should be of great interest to fans and scholars as it features the aforementioned alternate opening title and a zombie shot that the original distributor had them remove. It also shows more information as it includes the negative edges. Unrestored audio from the final edit has been synched as well as it could be to this silent footage. There will be a few viewers who will wish that they had simply included the deleted zombie footage and the credit sequence since these are the only significant changes, but including the entirety of the remaining footage allows one to see how the film was constructed and the hard work that went into it.

Audio Commentary by George Romero, John Russo, Karl Hardman, and Marilyn Eastman

A lot of fans will remember this commentary track from several other home video releases. It was originally recorded in 1994 for the first “official” release of the film on laserdisc. It has since graced a number of DVD editions (including the 40th Anniversary DVD restoration). There’s something about commentaries for low budget independent features that one can’t help but love. They can be even more interesting than listening to brilliant auteurs talk about big budget masterpieces because guerilla films are made with blood, sweat, tears, and compromise. The filmmakers are forced to use what is at their disposal. These tracks truly inspire (especially when the film has become an undisputed classic). Romero seems to take in his mistakes with an admirable sense of humor and an incredible amount of modesty (as none of them hurt the film), and the same can be said of the other participants. Everyone involved seem to remember the communal effort and various idiosyncrasies of the production.

Audio Commentary by Bill Hinzman, Judith O’Dea, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner, and Vince Survinski

Most of what was written about the previous track apply to this track as well—and while the conversational nature of this track is similar, there is not a lot of informational overlap. It is another enjoyable track that should please fans of the film as well as future filmmakers looking for inspiration. It is nice to have both tracks carried over for Criterion’s release.

Introduction to the Dailies Reel – (03:41)

Much like Russell Streiner’s introduction to the work print, Gary Streiner offers contextual information for the dailies presented on the disc. It is an informative preparatory piece that increases one’s appreciation for the dailies and for the film itself.

Never-Before-Seen 16 mm Dailies Reel – (18:04)

It is a rare opportunity to be able to witness the raw dailies of a classic film, so these eighteen minutes are really quite special as they give the viewer the opportunity to compare various takes of shots used in the film. The downside is that the sound elements for these shots no longer exist. What’s more, many of these takes have been flipped and there was no effort made to flip them back to their original state (which would’ve taken only minimal effort). This makes these comparisons slightly more difficult to digest. However, it is remarkable that they are available here in any form at all.

1967 Newsreels – (02:49)

This ‘behind the scenes’ footage from the film’s production was taken from a VHS recording of silent 16mm B-roll shot for a Pittsburgh news broadcast and is said to be the only existing footage of the film’s actual shooting. Jeff Carney provides original music to accompany the footage. The footage largely consists mainly of footage taken during the shooting of some of the film’s television news footage—specifically that which features an interview featuring Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille (who actually saved the footage), and the shooting of the helicopter. There isn’t much here, but it is certainly nice to have included here considering that it is the only footage that offers fans a brief glimpse behind the curtain.

Higher Learning: Interview with George A. Romero – (45:31)

This post-screening Q&A with George A. Romero was held at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 and is hosted by Colin Geddes. The conversation is a casual but lively and incredibly informative one and is a pleasure to watch. Romero discusses the film’s production history, his writing habits, dispels a few myths, his embarrassment at the mistakes that he made during the film’s production, and his feelings and confusion about the immense popularity of the so-called “zombie film.” It may very well be the crown jewel in a supplemental package that is full of wonderful treasures.

Tomorrow with Tom Snyder: George A. Romero & Don Coscarelli – (18:18)

This selection from the July 3, 1979 episode of NBC’s Tomorrow pairs Romero with fellow horror director, Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) as Tom Snyder interviews the directors about the horror genre. The downside of the interview is that Coscarelli seems to hog most of the answers, but it is nonetheless an extremely entertaining archival interview.

Interviews with Duane Jones – (21:56)

Some might see this as a carry-over from the 40th Anniversary edition DVD release of the film, but this earlier disc didn’t include as much of Jones’ interesting and extremely rare interview as Criterion includes on this release. What’s more, there are a number of still photographs that illustrate this interview that are exclusive to this release. The interview was conducted and edited by Tim Ferrante on December 13, 1987. Jones discusses why he prefers to distance himself from the film despite the fact that he is grateful to George A. Romero and the crew of Night of the Living Dead for allowing him to be a part of it and to the fans for the acclaim that they give him. He also discusses what he considers a smooth and enjoyable production—and mentions that there were only two incidents that he considers unpleasant memories. One of these incidents wasn’t included on earlier discs, and it is probably the more important of the two as it is an example of the uneasy racial tension that was so prevalent at the time of the production. It is clear that the parallel between the film’s events and that situation isn’t at all lost on Jones.

Interview with Judith Ridley – (10:42)

Those who have the early Elite laserdisc or DVD edition of the film will have seen this interesting interview with Judith Ridley. It is great to have it carried over for this release. It is a decidedly light-hearted reminiscence (although Ridley doesn’t seem completely comfortable). She recalls how she came to be involved in the film and discusses her time on the set as well as why she didn’t continue making movies. It nice to have her perspective included here.

Light in the Darkness – (23:41)

Light in the Darkness is a “featurette” produced by Criterion that features new interviews with Guillermo del Toro, Frank Darabont, and Robert Rodriguez. It is essentially an appreciation of the film that carries a sort of charm due to the admiration shared by the three participants. Guillermo del Toro probably offers the most analytical comments about the film and its legacy, but Darabont and Rodriguez both offer interesting insights as well. One doubts if any of these insights will be new to most die-hard fans, but those who may be new to the film will find that their appreciation is intensified after watching this nice addition to the supplemental package.

Walking Like the Dead – (13:05)

This new featurette focuses on some of the actors (or extras) who portrayed the film’s “ghouls.” Interviewees include Kyra Schon (a.k.a. Karen), William Hinzman (the ghoul at the cemetery), Ella Mae Smith, William Burchinal, as well as a number of other participants. Each of these individuals seem to delight in their memories of the production. The footage was originally shot for Autopsy of the Dead (which covered the making of Night of the Living Dead in some detail). It’s a nice addition to the disc, but one wishes that Autopsy of the Dead could have been included either instead of or in addition to this featurette.

Tones of Terror – (11:15)

Even better is this video essay by Jim Cirronella about the film’s expert utilization of Capitol’s “Hi-Q” prerecorded library music. This subject is covered in more depth than one might expect considering the short duration of the essay. This is truly one of the packages surprise gems as it is certain to increase one’s appreciation of the film and the work that went into making it a reality.

Learning from Scratch – (11:58)

This featurette is based on an extremely interesting interview with John Russo about the Latent Image crew and how they learned by making industrial films and commercials. This piece utilizes quite a bit of footage from some of these commercials in order to illustrate the information being relayed throughout these twelve minutes, and there are even several color stills from the production of Night of the Living Dead to sweeten the deal. There is a lot of background information packed into these twelve minutes and fans are sure to be delighted.

Limitations into Virtues – (11:57)

Those who are familiar with Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos and their Every Frame a Painting videos will know what to expect from this analytical essay that zeros in on how the film was shot due to the limitations of the production. The style of the film is even compared to a clip from a Draft beer commercial that was previously shot by the Latent Image crew. It is an enjoyable and instructive essay that should please fans.

Venus Probe – (00:33)

An interesting addition to the package is this short newsreel clip about the Mariner 5 spacecraft and its findings during a probe of Venus. Those familiar with the film will remember that the subsequent malfunction of the Mariner 5 inspired vague theories as to what causes the dead to rise in the film.

1968 Theatrical Trailer – (01:49)

The heavy-handed nature of the original 1968 trailer makes it an amusing experience. It is interesting to see how far trailers have come since the film’s original release.

2017 Restoration Re-release Trailer – (01:13)

Janus Film’s re-release trailer offers an opportunity to see how the film was marketed to modern audiences, and they really did a wonderful job with it.

TV Spots

Rare television shots give fans a deeper glimpse into the film’s original marketing and both are interesting additions to the disc.

Radio Spots

It is interesting to hear these vintage radio spots from the film’s original release and some of the film’s re-releases. One gathers that at least one of these spots has been mislabeled as being from a 1970 re-release of the film considering that three films mentioned in the ad (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, and The Exorcist) were released a few years later. However, this is just a bit of nitpicking.

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Final Words:

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is one of the great stories of independent cinema: a midnight hit turned box-office smash that became one of the most influential films of all time. After decades of poor-quality prints and video transfers, Night of the Living Dead can finally be seen for the immaculately crafted film that it is thanks to a new 4K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative and supervised by Romero himself. Stark, haunting, and more relevant than ever, Night of the Living Dead can finally be seen as it was intended in high definition.

When Mill Creek Entertainment released a sub-standard Blu-ray edition of Night of the Living Dead last October, we recommended that fans wait for Criterion to release this painstaking restoration transfer of the film. Those who followed our advice will be well rewarded with this release as it surpasses our initial expectations.

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Spine # 13

Blu-ray Cover (No Sticker)

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 13, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:58:47

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 3948 kbps, 24-bit)

2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1722 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 34.63 Mbps

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“It was all there. This brilliant novelist Thomas Harris, at the peak of his powers, telling this classic American story, with this great leading woman part. I was like, ‘Oh my God, yes.’ I just knew it could be scary as hell, an incredible picture. Ted Tally did a remarkable job on the screenplay. But every night we were shooting, I’d study the scene for tomorrow, and I’d also go back to the book and read what Harris had written, all the levels that were going on there. I’d arrive on the set just tremendously fortified, from the Harris point of view and the terrific Ted Tally script.” -Jonathan Demme (Deadline)

Can I make a confession? I’ve harbored a dark dirty secret for a ridiculously long time now, and I have to come clean about it before I begin writing about this film. Here goes: I’ve always had a fondness for well-made films concerning serial killers, and this might very well be the best of the genre. It is one of the few films that features a protagonist that is nearly as interesting as any psychopath. Actually, Silence of the Lambs features two serial killers (the most interesting of which spends most of the film locked up in a cell for the criminally insane). I can’t help but go into “fanboy” mode when writing about this film. However, even those who don’t have the same biased affection for it that I do should at least agree that it is a compelling story that is brilliantly told.

The structure of the film is based around a series of patriarchal power plays in which Clarice has to hold her own against various men who use different methods of asserting their control over her. This is how the entire film is structured, and this structure is personified in the film’s first twenty minutes—which is built of a trilogy of encounters that Starling has with three very different male figures.

The first interaction is with Jack Crawford (the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science unit). Crawford becomes a kind of surrogate father—or mentor—to Clarice, but the relationship that he has with Clarice is centered on his role as an authority figure. As a matter of fact, their first conversation in the film begins with a reminder to Clarice that he is the teacher and she is the student (although this is communicated indirectly in the guise of encouragement). In fact, he might be completely unaware that he is doing this:

Crawford-Starling First Interaction

Crawford

Throughout this exchange, Crawford seems to have Starling under a kind of invisible microscope. For example, how will she react to the crime scene photos that are displayed on his wall and scattered throughout his office? Apparently, she passes inspection satisfactorily enough for him to give her the “interesting errand” that will begin her career as an agent. This immediately catapults her into another encounter—this time with the lecherous Frederick Chilton. Unlike Crawford, Chilton is all pretense and condescension. He sees her as a possible lover and immediately hardens when he is tactfully rejected. What’s more, he suggests that her only qualification for interviewing criminals (in this case, Lecter) is her attractiveness to the male sex:

Chilton - Starling Conversation 1

Chilton

The scene continues as he leads Starling down into a dungeon that houses the worst of the institution’s insane criminals as he spews the institution’s safety rules in an almost antagonistic manner that suggests that he might be speaking to a child. The phrase, “Do you understand me?” is a perfect example of this. To make matters worse, he intentionally throws her off balance by showing her a grisly photograph of what happened to a nurse that didn’t comply with his rules:

Chilton - Starling Conversation 2
Luckily, Starling has the last word as she informs Chilton that she intends to question the inmate alone. After Chilton leaves her company, she continues down a catacomb-like corridor that leads to a cell at the end. The cell leads to one Dr. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter—and their conversation is the act’s third and final interaction. This is one of cinema’s most interesting verbal dances—an unsettling push-and-pull that leaves a permanent mark on both parties. Lecter’s dialogue is in turns vaguely patronizing and directly insulting—his insults peaking whenever the questionnaire she is there to administer is mentioned as he resents any effort to probe his psyche. He would much rather penetrate Starling’s psyche as he finds her fascinating despite his initial resentment (perhaps because he senses her intelligence):

Lecter - Starling Conversation 1
Lecter
Dr. Lecter’s question to Starling about whether she “knows Florence” is a good example of how he tries to make Starling feel inferior. He knows quite well that she isn’t well traveled and uses this question to reinforce her obvious insecurity. This is, of course, in addition to several more direct attempts. Meanwhile, he sizes up her investigatory abilities and intelligence—but she seems to pass his tests. Her intelligence and tenacity are very much on display despite her insecurity. The good doctor finds her fascinating despite his resentment—although, one must wonder if he would be as interested if her insecurities weren’t also on display. His verbal cruelty may very well be as much a test of her ability to withstand it as any real effort to hurt her (but it is impossible to say for certain). In any case, Starling manages her own manipulations in the face of this and probably earns his grudging respect. She proves herself to be his equal.

First Edition
The brilliance of Ted Tally’s script owes quite a lot to the original Thomas Harris novel as elements of the dialogue are nearly taken verbatim from the original text, but it also owes a good deal to the film’s excellent cast. Could anyone imagine anyone else as Hannibal Lecter after seeing Anthony Hopkins in the role? I certainly couldn’t—even after seeing Brian Cox in Manhunter and Mads Mikkelsen in the atrocious Hannibal television series. Jodie Foster was no less brilliant in her role of Clarice Starling, and her absence was sorely felt in the film’s sequel.

Nearly every sequence could be dissected and probed for meaning and nuance—and these three scenes could be dissected further as this review hasn’t made any real attempt to scratch the surface. The Silence of the Lambs demands repeated viewings. Those who haven’t tasted this classic owe it to themselves to indulge. There are no empty calories here. Bon Appétit.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 Stars

The Criterion Collection has given this release special Digipak packaging—which this reviewer isn’t always a fan of if he is completely honest. However, the packaging is quite sturdy in this particular instance and the design is really quite remarkable. The concept is based upon a macabre combination of the Rorschach test and blood stains that hints at the psychological profiling evident in the film—the bloodstain inkblot are in the shape of the deaths-head moth that has always been a prominent part of the film’s marketing art. It really is a great design. In this instance, the Digipak design is actually above criticism.

Criterion sweetens the deal by adding a rather thick booklet that includes a short Introduction by Jodie Foster, a nine-page essay entitled “A Hero of Our Time” by critic Amy Taubin, two writings by Thomas Harris that were originally published as introductions to newer editions of “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” (the first is entitled “Dr. Salazar” while the second is called “A Forward to a Fatal Interview”). Both of these texts probe the origins of Hannibal Lecter. The final offering “Identity Check,” which is a very nice seventeen-page interview with Jonathan Demme by Gavin Smith.
The book makes for very nice reading and elevates the value of Criterion’s package considerably.

Menu

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There are two discs contained in the package and the first utilizes animated menus that features footage from the film that has been slightly altered while the second features artwork that utilizes close-ups of both Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector. It all falls in line with what one has come to expect from Criterion. They are both attractive and fairly intuitive to navigate

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

We can say without any qualifiers that Criterion’s transfer of Silence of the Lambs offers a substantial improvement over all previous home video releases. The 4K restoration (which was approved by Tak Fujimoto) has resulted in an impressive filmic image that looks as if the film was shot rather recently (albeit on film instead of the all-too-common digital format) as it is free from age-related blemishes. It certainly honors Jonathan Demme’s memory to see the film treated with the reverence that it deserves. It is a sharper more well-defined image with much-improved depth and clarity. Color has also seen subtle but substantial improvement over the previous releases. This new transfer also looks much better in motion.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

The Criterion collection offers the viewer a choice of two different audio options. The first is a 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio track and is a faithful reproduction of the theatrical mix. The second is a more dynamic 5.1 re-mix created for modern home entertainment systems. Both are extremely effective in their own way. Purists will no doubt opt for the 2.0 track, but those open to the 5.1 mix will have to admit that it is an above average sound bump that respects the original intentions of the filmmakers and never becomes obnoxious. Fans will want to experience both options and decide for themselves as to which choice they prefer. In any case, neither option leaves a lot of room for complaint.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

Most of Criterion’s supplemental features are carried over from previous DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film. However, a few items from previous releases haven’t been carried over. The list of missing features includes Breaking the Silence—a picture-in-picture feature that blends text based trivia with video based interview excerpts from several members of the cast and crew. Most (if not all) of this information is available in the various supplements that have been carried over for this release. In addition to this, there is also an Original Teaser Trailer and a dozen Television Spots that haven’t been carried over to this disc. However, none of these omissions should really be missed. Frankly, Criterion’s commentary track is less annoying and more engaging than MGM’s Breaking the Silence feature, and most people won’t miss the teaser or television spots.

Those who already own previous editions of the film may wish for more as the only truly new feature is an interview with Maitland McDonagh (although the commentary track will be new to fans who don’t already own Criterion’s first DVD edition). There is, for example, an excellent episode of the Biography channel’s The Inside Story focusing on the film that would have been most welcome here. However, in all fairness, this episode merely covers the same territory as the included documentaries. The fact is that Criterion’s package covers the entire scope of the film in some depth and viewers don’t really need any new bells and whistles.

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Disc 1

Feature Length Audio Commentary with Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally, Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and John Douglas

The included feature length commentary track was originally included on Criterion’s 1994 Laserdisc release of the film. It actually contains information and insights that aren’t included in any of the other supplements and is well worth hearing. The track seems to be compiled from a number of individual interviews or commentaries by each participant.

Deleted Scenes – (37:58)

Who doesn’t love deleted scenes—especially when it comes to classics like The Silence of the Lambs? They offer viewers an opportunity to glimpse the creation and refining of the film in question. They are invaluable learning tools for the analytical future filmmaker and an interesting treat for the fan. This particular reel also includes a number of outtakes and a silly answering machine message by Anthony Hopkins. Some of these aren’t in the best condition but this is to be expected.

Interview with Maitland McDonagh – (17:58)

Maitland McDonagh discusses America’s fascination with serial killers and their prominence in American cinema. Various films are mentioned before she focuses in on the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. While the mention of the horrible television series leaves a bad taste in our mouths, her comments about the series do offer food for thought. One wishes that more could have been said of the Manhunter and Red Dragon films but this is a minor complaint.

Theatrical Trailer – (01:49)

It is nice to see that Criterion has included the primary theatrical trailer for this release. It is unnerving that so many Blu-rays don’t bother including the theatrical trailers. It is the least that a disc can offer fans and it is ridiculous when they are ignored. One does wonder why the teaser trailer hasn’t also been included here, but this is probably the more interesting of the two.

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Disc 2

Inside the Labyrinth: Making of ‘The Silence of the Lambs – (01:06:25)

Inside the Labyrinth is a 10th Anniversary retrospective that covers the production and the release of The Silence of the Lambs in some detail. The meat of the documentary is provided by numerous interviews with various participants, including Ted Tally (screenwriter), Jodie Foster (actress), Anthony Hopkins (actor), Ted Levine (actor), Scott Glenn (actor), Anthony Heald (actor), Brooke Smith (actress), Diane Baker (actress), Roger Corman (actor), Howard Shore (score), Mike Medavoy (co-founder of Orion Pictures), Ron Bozman (producer), Craig McKay (editor), Tim Galvin (art director), Kristi Zea (production designer), Karen O’Hara (set decorator), Carl Fullerton (special makeup effects creator), Colleen Atwood (costume designer), Skip Lievsay (sound designer), Christopher Newman (production sound mixer), Tom Fleischman (re-recording mixer), Raymond A. Mendez (moth wrangler and stylist), Kenneth Utt (unit production manager), and Amy Taubin (film critic). It is much more comprehensive than either of the other two programs covering the production and it is really nice to see that it has been carried over for this release.

The Silence of the Lambs: Page to Screen – (41:07)

Those familiar with Bravo’s Page to Screen series will know what to expect from this 2002 premiere episode. After a brief (and pointless) introduction by Peter Gallagher, viewers are taken through the production of the film with a special focus on how it was adapted from the original Thomas Harris novel. Included are interviews with the likes of Ted Tally (screenwriter), Edward Saxon (producer), Mike Medavoy (co-founder of Orion Pictures), Jodie Foster (actor), Gene Hackman (actor), Anthony Heald (actor), Scott Glen (actor), Kasi Lemmons (actress), Richard Marek (book editor), and John Douglas (former FBI agent). It covers much of the same material as Inside the Labyrinth but approaches the subject with a slightly different slant. It is nice to have it included here.

Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster – (52:31)

The previous two documentaries didn’t really include any insight from Jonathan Demme (the film’s director), so this particular program is quite welcome as it adds his voice to the conversation. Jodie Foster’s interview also seems much more straight forward than some of the more generalized statements included in the previous features. Some might argue that the other two programs provide a more comprehensive account of the production, but this piece makes a great companion and the new perspective is essential.

Understanding the Madness – (19:33)

Understanding the Madness finds various FBI personnel discussing criminality, psychological profiling, investigatory procedure, and the origins of the film’s two serial killers. The featurette was originally produced in 2008 for one of the film’s DVD editions, but it is exactly the sort of program that Criterion may have produced themselves as it examines the film’s subject in a more practical “real world” manner and therefore adds to the viewer’s appreciation of the film itself. Anyone with an interest in this subject should find this a very welcome addition to the disc. The following retired agents lend their perspectives: Michael R. Napier, James R. Fitzgerald, Richard L. Ault Jr., R. Stephen Mardigian, Roger L. Depue, and Robert R. Hazelwood.

Scoring the Silence – (16:00)

Scoring the Silence is an archival interview with Howard Shore produced in 2004. Shore discusses the score and reveals that it represents the internal emotions of Clarice Starling instead of offering the typical scares one expects in such films. Some viewers may be turned off by the inevitable navel-gazing in this piece, but it is instructive and rather interesting if one happens to have any interest in film scores. Actually, one might describe it as a select scene commentary as it relies heavily on footage from the film itself. The scene being discussed is used to illustrate the Shore’s revelations.

Original 1991 Behind-The-Scenes Featurette – (08:07)

Less instructive is this vintage EPK featurette about the film. Various participants discuss the story and the characters that inhabit the film. One does see some interesting ‘behind the scenes’ footage, but there isn’t anything particularly revelatory being discussed. It was strictly a promotional tool and a rather heavy-handed one. However, it is an interesting marketing artifact.

Storyboards – (04:11)

The disc is rounded out with what is essentially a video slideshow of various storyboards from the film’s pre-visualization that were illustrated by Kalina Ivanov.

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Final Words:

This chilling adaptation of the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris is perhaps the best “serial killer film” ever made and is one of the undeniable highlights of Jonathan Demme’s career. It swept the Academy Awards as it won an award in all of the five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Actor) after being nominated for seven awards (it lost in the Best Editing and Best Sound categories). This is a major accomplishment when one considers how the Academy has an unfortunate tendency to ignore genre films entirely. The Criterion Collection offers up the best home video transfer and supplemental package that it has ever received and arrives with our enthusiastic recommendation.

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[Note: There were changes made from the script to the actual film. However, this article refers to the scenes as written since the inevitable changes do not actually alter the meaning and subtleties of the scene in any significant way.]

Spine #834

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 20, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 01:35:55

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 30.92 Mbps

Notes: Criterion is also making this title available in a DVD edition. Blood Simple is also available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment, and there are also a few other DVD editions of the film. This Criterion edition seems to be the superior release.

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“[To make Blood Simple] we followed the example of Sam Raimi. Sam had done this trailer, almost like a full-length version of The Evil Dead, but on Super 8. He raised like sixty or ninety thousand dollars that way, essentially by taking it around to people’s homes to find investors. He financed the movie using a common thing people making exploitation movies had used, which was a limited partnership… So Sam, also told us how to set that up and we did that in conjunction with a lawyer here and then went out and shot a two-minute trailer in 35mm… The trailer emphasized the action, the blood and guts in the movie. It was very short. We had a very effective soundtrack, which was cheap to do. And we schlepped that around for about a year to people’s homes and projected it in their living rooms and then got them to give us money to make the movie… If you call people up and you say ‘Can you give me ten minutes so I can present an opportunity to invest in a movie?’, they’re going to say, ‘No I don’t need this,’ and hang up the phone. But it’s slightly different if you call up and say, ‘Can I come over and take ten minutes and show you a piece of film?’ All of a sudden that intrigues them and gets your foot in the door. That’s something Sam made up wise to which was invaluable in terms of being able to raise the kind of money we were trying to raise… I think there ended up being about sixty-five investors in the movie, most of them in five or ten thousand increments. I think sixty to seventy per cent of them were from Minneapolis.” –Joel Coen (My First Movie, 2002)

It would be an incredible understatement to say that the Coen’s efforts had paid off. When Blood Simple was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public in 1984, it was clear that the film was a rarity among independent films. It wasn’t an esoteric art-house exercise, but the neo-noir qualities that made it commercially viable didn’t limit the film’s merit as an art film either. It was the best of both worlds! The Coen Brothers had created an undeniably effective debut film, and the film industry paid immediate attention.

“…In the United States, Circle Releasing (which already had arranged to handle other neophyte independents, like David Lynch) not only agreed to distribute the film, but also offered the brothers a deal they could hardly refuse. Circle would provide financing and distribution for their next two productions, over which they would have more or less complete artistic control, including script selection and the determination of the final cut. In January 1985, Blood Simple opened in selected American art houses, with quite surprising box office success, though not on a scale of later independent blockbusters like The Blair Witch Project. Wider release soon followed, as did a cable TV run, an unusual achievement for a production that had begun life as a mini-budget independent.” –R. Barton Palmer (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2004)

Most critics were overwhelmed by what was obviously an auspicious debut film, and their reviews indicated an excitement over the prospect of more films to come. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect score.

“A lot has been written about the visual style of Blood Simple, but I think the appeal of the movie is more elementary. It keys into three common nightmares: (1) You clean and clean, but there’s still blood all over the place; (2) You know you have committed a murder, but you are not sure quite how or why; (3) You know you have forgotten a small detail that will eventually get you into a lot of trouble.

Blood Simple mixes those fears and guilts into an incredibly complicated plot, with amazingly gory consequences. It tells a story in which every individual detail seems to make sense, and every individual choice seems logical, but the choices and details form a bewildering labyrinth in which there are times when even the murderers themselves don’t know who they are.

Because following the plot is one of this movie’s most basic pleasures, I will not reveal too much… The movie has been shot with a lot of style, some of it self-conscious, but deliberately so. One of the pleasures in a movie like this is enjoying the low-angle and tilt shots that draw attention to themselves, that declare themselves as being part of a movie. The movie does something interesting with its timing, too. It begins to feel inexorable. Characters think they know what has happened; they turn out to be wrong; they pay the consequences, and it all happens while the movie is marching from scene to scene like an implacable professor of logic, demonstrating one fatal error after another.

Blood Simple was directed by Joel Coen, produced by his brother, Ethan, and written by the two of them. It’s their first film, and has the high energy and intensity we associate with young filmmakers who are determined to make an impression.” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, March 1, 1985)

Variety also praised the film, albeit with less flourish and authority.

“An inordinately good low-budget film noir thriller, Blood Simple is written, directed and produced by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Aside from the subtle performances, usually lacking in a film of this size (around $1.5 million)… Performances are top-notch all around, Walsh in particular conveying the villainy and scummy aspects of his character with convincing glee.” –Variety (December 31, 1983)

The loudest voice of dissention came from Pauline Kael, who wrote a negative review of the film that is as obnoxious as it is obtuse. Some of her points aren’t totally inaccurate, but her reaction to them is usually biased and inappropriate. However, her opinions usually completely contradict those of her contemporaries (for example, her negative reaction to the acting in the film), and they are often way off base.

Blood Simple has no sense of what we normally think of as ‘reality,’ and it has no connections with ‘experience.’ It’s not a great exercise in style, either. It derives from pop sources—from movies such as Diabolique and grubby B pictures and hardboiled steamy fiction such as that of James M. Cain. It’s so derivative that it isn’t a thriller—it’s a crude, ghoulish comedy on thriller themes. The director, Joel Coen, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Ethan, who was the producer, is inventive and amusing when it comes to highly composed camera setups or burying someone alive. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the actors; they give their words too much deliberation and weight, and they always look primed for the camera. So they come across as amateurs.

The movie is set in a familiar, cartoon version of Texas… The one real novelty in the conception is that the audience has a God’s-eye view of who is doing what to whom, while the characters have a blinkered view and, misinterpreting what they see, sometimes take totally inexpedient action. Blood Simple gets almost all its limited charge from sticking to this device, which gives the movie the pattern of farce—it works best when someone misinterprets who the enemy is but has the right response anyway. (It’s like a bedroom farce, except that the people sneaking into each other’s homes have vicious rather than amorous intentions.)…

…When Abby, practically overnight, turns out to be living in a magnificent loft with huge arched windows, you may do a double take—she didn’t seem to be that chic a girl. Is it a gag when bullets are fired into a wall of her loft and the holes might have been made by cannonballs? I don’t know, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Blood Simple isn’t much of a movie; it’s thin—a rain-on-the-windshield picture that doesn’t develop enough suspense until about the last ten minutes, when the action is so grisly that it has a kick.

At moments, the awkwardness of the line readings is reminiscent of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but Blood Simple doesn’t have the genuine creepiness of the Romero film. And though the dialogue is much sharper and smarter than Romero’s dialogue, the actors talk so slowly it’s as if the script were written in cement on Hollywood Boulevard. The picture is over calculated—pulpy yet art-conscious. It has the look of film noir, but it lacks the hypnotic feel, the heat and the dreaminess of effective noir. Even when the material leads us to anticipate something nasty, it often doesn’t payoff. When Ray goes to see Marty and tries to collect the two weeks’ pay that’s due him, they talk together while we look out the window that’s between them: there’s a huge, blazing incinerator behind the Neon Boot, and a couple of people are tossing large objects into it. In a movie as uninhabited as this one, if a gigantic prop like the incinerator isn’t going to be used for body disposal, surely whatever it is used for has to be comic? Coen sets up an inferno and then, except for a bloody jacket being thrown into it, nothing comes of it, one way or the other. Nothing comes of Opal, the German shepherd, either; she disappears, and nobody seems to notice—not even Marty. (This happened in Rocky and Silkwood, too. Sometimes I get the feeling that The Current Cinema is turning into The Lost Dogs Department.)

Joel Coen may flub the point of some of the scenes, and toss in inane close-ups of a bludgeoning weapon to show us that it’s a piggy bank, but he knows how to place the characters and the props in the film frame in a way that makes the audience feel knowing and in on the joke. The film’s technique is spelled out for the audience to recognize. Coen’s style is deadpan and klutzy, and he uses the klutziness as his trump card. It’s how he gets his laughs. The audience responds (as it did at Halloween) to the crudeness of the hyperbole, and enjoys not having to take things seriously. The cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, works in ghouls’ colors—thick, dirty greens, magentas, and sulfurous yellows. The film looks grimy and lurid; it seems to take its visual cues from the neon signs in the bar and a string of fish putrefying in Marty’s office. What’s at work here is a visually sophisticated form of gross-out humor…

…Film students looking at old movies seem to find it exciting when a cheap B thriller or an exploitation picture has art qualities, and they often make draggy, empty short films that aren’t interested in anything but imitating those pictures and their ‘great shots.’ (The student directors of those shorts never know what to do with the actors—there’s nothing for them to express.) Blood Simple is that kind of student film on a larger scale. It isn’t really about anything except making a commercial narrative movie outside the industry.

The Coens, who live in New York (Joel graduated from N.Y.U. film school), raised their million-and-a-half budget from private investors, most of them in Minneapolis, where the boys grew up. In interviews, the brothers (Joel was twenty-nine when he made the film and Ethan only twenty-six) are quick and bright; they sound as if they’d popped out of a Tom Stoppard play. But I don’t quite understand the press’s enthusiasm for these two young, well-educated Americans, the sons of college-professor parents, who want to make the most commercial kind of Hollywood movies but to do it more economically and with more freedom outside the industry. What’s the glory of making films outside the industry if they’re Hollywood films at heart, or, worse than that—Hollywood by-product? Joel and Ethan Coen may be entrepreneurial heroes, but they’re not moviemaker heroes. Blood Simple has no openness—it doesn’t breathe.

The reviewers who hail the film as a great début and rank the Coens with Welles, Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Sergio Leone may be transported by seeing so many tricks and flourishes from sources they’re familiar with. But the reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there’s nothing else going on. The movie doesn’t even seem meant to have any rhythmic flow; the Coens just want us to respond to a bunch of ‘touches’ on routine themes. (These art touches are their jokes.) Blood Simple comes on as self-mocking, but it has no self to mock. Nobody in the moviemaking team or in the audience is committed to anything; nothing is being risked except the million and a half.” -Pauline Kael (The New Yorker, Plain and Simple, February 25, 1985)

Of course, time has proven that Kael’s review to be nothing more than the bitter rantings of yet another pretentious film critic. The Coen Brothers have become one (or rather two) of cinema’s greatest contemporary auteurs (a word Kael would have loathed), and Blood Simple stands as one of the great independent debut films of American cinema.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 Stars

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Michael Boland’s original artwork is brilliantly conceived and probably equals the film’s original one sheet artwork. An added bonus is the wonderful fold out pamphlet featuring an essay entitled “Down Here, You’re on Your Own” by Nathaniel Rich.

Menu
The disc’s menus utilize footage from the actual film coupled with Carter Burwell’s original score and other sounds from the film.

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

It is worth noting that Joel Coen and Ethan Coen supervised this excellent 4K restoration of Blood Simple in an effort to ensure that the final result would reflect their original vision, and they both approved this transfer (as did Barry Sonnenfeld). It must be said that the end result is gorgeous. As always, the film’s restoration is explained in technical detail in a leaflet provided in the disc’s case:

“This new digital transfer was created in 4K 16-bit on a Scanity film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Image Systems’ Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise reduction… Additional restoration was performed by the Criterion Collection using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.” –Liner Notes

The image is vastly superior to the earlier MGM Blu-ray transfer as it boasts richer colors and better detail, depth, and clarity. The image is appropriately darker than earlier releases, but this is an intentional creative choice that reflects the filmmaker’s original intentions. It should also be mentioned that unlike MGM’s release of the film, this transfer doesn’t tend to crush any important detail. The transfer is also less noisy than the earlier releases, but Criterion manages to maintain the film’s original grain structure (which never becomes unwieldy). The improvements here are absolutely revelatory!

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion’s 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio is also quite an improvement over MGM’s flatter 2.0 sound mix. The track is rather subdued, but there are some very subtle separations that enhance one’s viewing experience without calling attention to itself. This is especially evident in the film’s score. Every aspect of this track is sensational, and the overall result is a pristine audio track that comes as close to replicating the theatrical experience as the viewer has any right to expect.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion gives cinephiles an incredible assortment of supplemental material, which is more than welcome after decades of suffering through MGM’s spoof introduction and commentary by a fictional scholar named “Kenneth Loring.” These comedic additions to the previous MGM releases probably had a fan base, but it should be said that this reviewer loathed them. It is actually very pleasing to see that they aren’t included in this terrific package.

Shooting Blood Simple – (01:10:29)

It’s difficult to state conclusively that this is the best program featured in the disc’s supplemental package, but it is probably the most substantial. It reminds this reviewer of a commentary track with NFL-like Telestrator video illustrations to help Barry Sonnenfeld and the two Coens illustrate their statements. A good deal of time is spent on lighting and camera choices—with all participants lamenting what they perceive to be mistakes (although, this reviewer feels that they are much too hard on themselves). They occasionally pause, rewind, and fast-forward through footage to either address something more clearly or get the footage to a different part of the film. Only occasionally do we cut away from the film to show the three men together as they discuss a point. This is a unique feature that should appeal to anyone interested in the technical aspects of film production.

Conversation with Dave Eggers – (35:00)

Conversation with Dave Eggers really should’ve been called Conversation with the Coen Brothers or The Coens onBlood Simple’ because Dave Eggers is hardly the focus of this interesting interview. Eggers guides the Coens through a conversation that covers the process of making Blood Simple—including the difficult process of finding investors. The discussion took place in May of 2016, so there is a retrospective quality to the interview. It might very well be the best supplement on a disc full of terrific bonus materials.

Interview with and Frances McDormand – (25:05)

Frances McDormand is an articulate and personable interviewee that clearly goes through her experiences on Blood Simple. Far from navel-gazing self-congratulation, McDormand’s recollections add to one’s understanding of the process from an actor’s standpoint while illuminating the Coen’s working methods at that early point in their career.

Interview with M. Emmet Walsh – (16:33)

M. Emmet Walsh expands on McDormand’s interview but his particular point-of-view is quite different. He too reminisces about his experiences while shooting this small independent debut film. It seems he may have been slightly combative on the set but also claims to have enjoyed the finished product.

Interview with Carter Burwell (composer) and Skip Lievsay (sound mixer) – (23:45)

Carter Burwell (composer) and Skip Lievsay (sound editor) discuss the film’s music and sound design in a surprising amount of detail and is an incredibly informative resource and every bit as enjoyable as the aforementioned programs included here.

Fund Raising Trailer – (02:08)
Frankly, this disc would seem naked without this essential artifact from the Coen’s fundraising campaign. The trailer was made so that they might interest prospective investors. Bruce Campbell’s appearance in the trailer is evidence of the well-known fact that Sam Raimi was responsible for giving the brothers the idea to shoot something to show people as he had done for Evil Dead (which also starred Bruce Campbell).

Original Theatrical Trailer – (01:34)

The film’s original theatrical trailer is a moody time capsule that makes interesting use of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more macabre quotes: “…It [is] very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man.” Hitchcock was commenting on the infamous murder scene from Torn Curtain, but this vintage trailer uses the quote in effective bid to generate interest in Blood Simple. It was really a rather appropriate way to create a mystique around the Coen’s debut feature. It is nice to have it included here.

Theatrical Re-Release Trailer – (01:50)

This trailer was created to advertise the theatrical release of Janus Films restoration of Blood Simple, and it is actually very well done. Some will probably prefer it to the original trailer.

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Final Words:

Criterion has given the director’s cut of Blood Simple a wonderful Blu-ray release, and one can only hope that other Coen titles will follow.

Spine # 897

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: October 17, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 03:05:12

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 4051 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.66:1

Bitrate: 27.19 Mbps

Title

“The American press was predominantly enthusiastic about the film, and Time magazine ran a cover story about it. The international press was even more enthusiastic. It is true that the English press was badly split. But from the very beginning, all of my films have divided the critics. Some have thought them wonderful, and others have found very little good to say. But subsequent critical opinion has always resulted in a very remarkable shift to the favorable. In one instance, the same critic who originally rapped the film has several years later put it on an all-time best list. But, of course, the lasting and ultimately most important reputation of a film is not based on reviews, but on what, if anything, people say about it over the years, and on how much affection for it they have.” –Stanley Kubrick (Interview with Michel Ciment)

We can announce with some certainty that there are enough admiring cinephiles to call Barry Lyndon a classic. In fact, there are those who would call it Kubrick’s masterpiece—although one might argue that his filmography is full of them. However, one doesn’t wish to imply that it is uniformly admired by general audiences. There are plenty of people who would agree with the following condescending words written by Pauline Kael:

“This film is a masterpiece in every insignificant detail. Kubrick isn’t taking pictures in order to make movies, he’s making movies in order to take pictures. Barry Lyndon indicates that Kubrick is thinking through his camera, and that’s not really how good movies get made—though it’s what gives them their dynamism, if a director puts the images together vivifyingly for an emotional impact. I wish Stanley Kubrick would come home to this country to make movies again, working fast on modern subjects—maybe even doing something tacky, for the hell of it. There was more film art in his early The Killing than there is in Barry Lyndon, and you didn’t feel older when you came out of it…” —Pauline Kael (Kubrick’s Gilded Age)

BTS

Frankly, any critic who hopes that a brilliant director will shovel out the same twaddle being shoveled out by lesser directors should throw their pen or typewriter in the garbage and tape their mouths shut. Kael somehow earned a great deal of respect as a film critic—no small accomplishment considering the fact that she was wrong more often than she was right. She was wrong about Alfred Hitchcock, she was wrong about the Coen brothers, and she was wrong about Stanley Kubrick.

When one is making cinema, details are never insignificant. They are used to build a very distinct world for the viewer, and those so-called insignificant details transport the viewer back in time with an efficiency that has rarely been matched by other directors.  What’s more, Barry Lyndon’s pacing isn’t slow—it is deliberate.  This distinction is an important one, because Kubrick has obviously worked the pacing out with the same meticulous attention. It is the sort of film that requires quite a lot of the viewer and will reward their effort. One must allow the images to wash over them with an understanding that the journey of this film is more important than the destination.

SS01

The Presentation:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion has really been on the ball lately as their beautiful package for Barry Lyndon is one of several exceptional releases in a matter of months. Other examples include last month’s 2-Disc Blu-ray package for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and a stellar 2-Disc/2-Version release of Orson Welles’s Othello earlier this month. This release for Stanley Kubrick’s period masterpiece is in every way their equal.

On the surface, this 2-Disc edition looks exactly like Criterion’s standard single disc releases. Both discs are housed in their standard clear case with a cover sleeve featuring a slightly altered and more simplistic incarnation of Jouineau Bourduge’s one sheet design for the film. Charles Gehm also contributed a design to promote the film, and Warner Brothers utilized it as the primary poster for Barry Lyndon’s original theatrical run. However, Bourduge’s more simplistic alternative one sheet design has become the most iconic image associated with the film. It is no wonder that Criterion decided to utilize it and they made the right choice!

Charles Gehm's One Sheet

Charles Gehm’s One Sheet Design

In addition to the two discs, Criterion houses an above average 40-page collector’s booklet that includes a scholarly essay by Geoffrey O’Brien entitled “Time Regained,” and two pieces that were originally published in a special March 1976 issue of American Cinematographer that was devoted to the film. The first is an incredibly in-depth interview with John Alcott entitled “Photographing ‘Barry Lyndon’” and it essential reading. Alcott goes into some technical detail about how many of the film’s innovative technological effects were pulled off—so much technical detail that some readers will find themselves ill-prepared to completely understand some of the information. The same can be said about a short article by Ed DiGiulio (president of Cinema Products Corporation) about the special equipment alterations and inventions that Kubrick needed for the film. It is entitled “Two Special Lenses for ‘Barry Lyndon’” and is well worth reading. This all adds up to an incredibly substantial booklet—which we prefer to Criterion’s single essay pamphlets.

One does wonder why Michel Ciment’s famed interview with Stanley Kubrick about Barry Lyndon hasn’t been included within these pages (especially since Ciment was interviewed for one of the disc’s supplements). However, to question why this hasn’t been included makes one feel like an unappreciative brat.

Each disc has its own menu design and features its own piece of music from the film, and both are attractive and intuitive to navigate. Anyone familiar with other Criterion discs will know what to expect.

SS02

Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion has wisely secluded this three hour film on its own disc coupled only with a choice of soundtracks. This allows them to make the most of their new 4K digital restoration. The following information about the transfer was included in the collector’s booklet:

Barry Lyndon is presented in the film’s photographed aspect ratio of 1.66:1, as specified in a December 8, 1975, letter from director Stanley Kubrick to projectionists. This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film-scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. The high-definition transfer created in 2000 and supervised by Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s personal assistant, served as a color reference for this new master. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management…” –Collector’s Booklet

The result is a substantial improvement over the 1.78:1 Warner Brothers transfer, and the differences go far beyond the fact that Criterion presents the film in its intended aspect ratio—even though the earlier transfer was really quite wonderful from a technical standpoint. For one thing, Criterion’s handling of the film’s grain results in an organic and very clean representation that is in keeping with the original image without getting in the way of fine detail. The image is much sharper here despite the intentionally soft appearance of the cinematography. This is simply the result of a technically superior 4K scan and not the result of digital tampering. Black levels are gorgeous and deep without crushing detail in shadowy areas of the frame. The clean-up work undertaken by those who restored the film has resulted in an immaculate image. As a matter of fact, the improvements evident in this new transfer are at their most remarkable during the darker scenes. Density is another area that shows a marked improvement over the previous Blu-ray transfers.

SS03

Sound Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

The film’s sound elements have also seen a new transfer and restoration and technical details were included in Criterion’s collector’s booklet along with those concerning the image:

“…The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm magnetic DME (dialogue, music, and effects) track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX. The alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack was created in 2000 from original soundtrack stems by Vitali and audio engineer Chris Jenkins.” –Collector’s Booklet

Purists should be very happy to learn that the original mono track has been restored and included here along with the 5.1 mix. Both tracks are quite good and there aren’t any issues to report regarding either track as both sound incredible here.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

Making Barry Lyndon – (37:52)

A “making of” documentary about Barry Lyndon should’ve been made years ago, but Criterion has happily corrected this oversight with this thirty-eight minute look at the film’s production. The program features new interviews with several of Kubrick’s collaborators, including Jan Harlan (executive producer/Kubrick’s brother-in-law), Katharina Kubrick, Leon Vitali (actor), Dominic Savage (actor), Brian Cook (assistant director), Michael Stevenson (assistant director), and Richard Daniels (senior archivist at the Stanley Kubrick Archive). It also includes an archival radio with Stanley Kubrick that certainly adds quite a bit to the proceedings. This is a somewhat comprehensive piece that covers such topics as pre-production research, the script—or what there was of a script, the special challenges regarding the film’s innovative cinematography, the meticulous costume designs, and anecdotes from those who worked on the film. One wonders why some of the stand-alone interviews weren’t included as a part of this more comprehensive piece, but this isn’t necessarily a complaint. Obviously, this is the strongest and most instructive supplement on the entire disc (and this is saying quite a lot).

Achieving Perfection – (15:32)

Achieving Perfection is an excellent featurette that focuses primarily on the film’s visuals and the painstaking work that went into creating them. It features interviews with Douglas Milsume (focus puller), Lou Bogue (gaffer), and excerpts from an archival audio interview with John Alcott (cinematographer). This piece gives a more detailed account of the infamous lenses utilized by the production in order to achieve the scenes that were lit using only candlelight. The problems and their solutions of shooting with these special lenses are elaborated on in some depth as are other scenes and their respective challenges. It is an incredibly informative fifteen minutes that seems to fly by all too quickly.

Drama in Detail – (13:34)

Christopher Frayling (Film Historian) discusses the tense working relationship shared by Stanley Kubrick and Academy Award–winning production designer Ken Adam. Their relationship was difficult for Adam because of Kubrick’s insistence on knowing the logic or reasoning behind each and every design. His sets had to work for the director both aesthetically and logically, and this was difficult for Adam who had a very different approach. As a matter of fact, he declined the chance to work with Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey because his experience on Dr. Strangelove was so exasperating. Apparently, his decision to work on Barry Lyndon years later led to more than an Academy Award as he also had a well-earned a nervous breakdown.

Timing and Tension – (13:50)

Timing and Tension is a conversation with Tony Lawson who worked closely with Kubrick on the editing of Barry Lyndon. Lawson is modest about his contributions to the film and claims that he was not an equal partner during the interview, but it is clear that he was an essential cog in Kubrick’s well-oiled machine. His revelations about Kubrick’s approach to editing should fascinate the director’s admirers. The interview’s brief duration is rather deceptive, because there is an incredible amount of essential material here.

On the Costumes – (05:00)

This brief but fascinating interview excerpt with Ulla-Britt Söderlund (co-designer of the film’s costumes) was taken from a French television broadcast entitled Les rendez-vous du dimanche that aired on September 19, 1976. We see some of the costume pieces as Söderlund details the meticulous work that went into making them a reality. There is an incredible amount of information here considering its brief duration, and it is a remarkable addition to the supplemental package.

Passion and Reason – (17:35)

Michel Ciment’s interview is interesting and fulfills the disc’s need for a scholarly voice, but one feels it is one of the least interesting supplements on the disc. It isn’t as focused as it needs to be and the commentary is sometimes rather obvious. It works as an appreciation of the director and of the film but somehow falls short in terms of actual insight.

Balancing Every Sound – (10:13)

Balancing Every Sound is an interesting discussion with Leon Vitali (who eventually became Kubrick’s personal assistant). Vitali talks about the reason behind Kubrick’s decision to present the film with a monaural mix and how these same sound elements were later used to create a 5.1 mix. He goes into somewhat general detail about how their choices were guided by an honest effort to present the sound in a manner that was faithful to Kubrick’s original Mono mix. Several comparisons between the two tracks are offered.

A Cinematic Canvas – (15:04)

Adam Eaker discusses some of the artwork that influenced aspects of the film as well as some of the paintings that appeared in it. It wasn’t at all surprising to find that this scholarly discussion was one of the most instructive academic features on the disc. In fact, it is essential viewing for those who appreciate the film and its director. Artists discusses here include (in no particular order) Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, George Stubbs, Johan Zoffany, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Eaker discusses how the works of these artists directly influenced Kubrick’s vision in an incredibly clear and concise way that makes this an extremely worthwhile fifteen minutes.

Theatrical Trailer #1 – (04:07)

Warner Brothers probably knew that they had an unusual film on their hands—one that would be rather difficult to market to the film going public. Their concept for the trailers was to highlight the film’s artistic merit. It wasn’t “the thrill ride of the year” or the “most fun you’ll have at the movies.” It was a languid but beautifully crafted cinematic experience made by one of the undisputed masters of the art of film. Therefore, quotations from enthusiastic critics and a list of awards and nominations are recited from a distinguished sounding gentleman. This approach is probably not as unusual today as it was then, because one now sees these sort of trailers every Oscar season.

Theatrical Trailer #2 – (02:09)

The shorter second trailer highlights a few different scenes at certain points, but it is essentially a condensed version of the first trailer and utilizes the same “review and award accolades” concept.

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Final Words:

In the opening paragraph of a seven-page cover review of the film for Time magazine entitled “Barry Lyndon: Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble,” Richard Schickel wrote the following:

“In [Barry Lyndon], [Stanley Kubrick] demonstrates the qualities that eluded Thackeray: singularity of vision, mature mastery of his medium, near-reckless courage in asserting through this work a claim not just to the distinction critics have already granted him but to greatness that time alone can — and probably will — confirm.” -Richard Schickel (Time, December 15, 1975)

The film would’ve proven this prophetic statement about Kubrick’s greatness even if it had been the director’s only effort. It is a singular experience that cannot be justified in any review (including Schickel’s). It is an uncompromising film that divides viewers, but this can be said about nearly all truly great films. Cinephiles should abandon all preconceived notions as to what a film should be and how it should be experienced—and if it is being experienced on home video, Criterion’s new Blu-ray is the best way to do this.

SS06

Spine # 870

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: October 10, 2017

Region: Region A

Length:

European – 01:33:31

US/UK – 01:30:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate:

European – 30.51 Mbps

US/UK – 30.51 Mbps

Title

“I could never better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse. Follow thou the wars, defeat thy favor with an usurped beard. I say, put money in thy purse.” -Iago (Othello, Act 1, Scene 3)

Orson Welles’s Othello is probably known more for its legendary production history than it is for its cinematic merits—and it does have merit that goes well beyond what anyone should expect from a film made under the conditions in which it was created. Understand before we go any further that this shouldn’t suggest that it is perfect or even the “flawed masterpiece” that some scholars have labeled it. What’s more, the film wouldn’t hold up if one examined it as a proper adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. In fact, one would wager that purists will probably hate it without even giving a second thought to the film’s strengths. When examined as a mood piece or a small thriller quite separate from the original work, it holds up much better.

However, one shouldn’t be led into believing that the final film hasn’t been scarred by its production limitations. In fact, there is a blemish for every serious challenge that Welles faced throughout the four year production (1948-1951). Why did the production last four years? Well, the director didn’t have any money to put in his purse. The director would shoot scenes when money was available and stop when these resources dried up so that he could go find or earn more funds. In fact, he performed in The Third Man during one of these extended breaks in the production schedule.

There is a famous anecdote about a scene in the film depicting the murder of Cassio—a scene that Welles has set in a Turkish bath house for the simple reason that there weren’t any costumes available for the scene. Various participants give a contradictory accounting as to the reasons for this: some say that there wasn’t enough money to pay for them yet, while others claim that they simply hadn’t been finished. Either way, Welles couldn’t afford to shut down production until the costumes were available. The result is one of the film’s most striking and cinematic sequences.

Such issues were frequent throughout the shoot, and Suzanne Cloutier once claimed that “no one connected with the picture knew what would be happening from one day to the next.” It isn’t any wonder considering that the film seems to have been created with nothing but an incredible amount of tenacity—and the talent of Welles and his faithful collaborators. Unfortunately, tenacity couldn’t provide the resources necessary to provide adequate production sound, and nearly the entire soundtrack was created in post-production. The result is an out-of-synch soundtrack that is incredibly distracting to the viewer.

Other issues are the result of the aforementioned extended piecemeal production that spanned not only years, but also a variety of locations (including Morocco, Perugia, Venice, Rome, Paris, and Italy). There are times throughout the film when Welles will cut from an actor in one country to a different angle of the same actor in another country that was shot either years later or years earlier. It works better than one might expect, but it would be misleading to imply that the seams aren’t at times all too evident.

Orson Welles once stated that a director is a man “who presides over accidents.” This seems to paint a much better picture of the filmmaker than the decidedly erroneous notion of the “infant terrible” perfectionist that the history books seem intent on selling to the universe. In fact—in the case of Orson Welles—it might be said that the director is a man who presides over chaos.

Fortunately, all of the soul-crushing production headaches resulted in a kind of triumph for Welles. The film was lauded a triumph by European critics and it took home the Golden Palm award for best film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. However, the suits in Hollywood didn’t care about such success—a film is only successful if it sets the box-office on fire. Since the American public didn’t have much interest in a black-and-white Shakespearean art film, and it only pulled in around forty-thousand dollars when it was finally released in America in 1955 by United Artists. It was quickly pulled from distribution and went largely unseen until 1992 when it saw a somewhat questionable restoration by Michael Dawson, Julian Schlossberg, and Beatrice Welles. When the controversy of that release died down, it again descended into relative obscurity… until now.

SS01

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 Stars

Criterion has once again given cinephiles a beautiful Blu-ray package. The special 2-disc set looks like most of their standard single disc releases. Both discs are housed in their standard clear case with a cover sleeve featuring a new cover taken from one of the film’s frames (which was credited to Sarah Habibi). Inside the case, there is a leaflet featuring an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and the usual technical credits.

Both disc menus make use of stills from the film coupled with the film’s music, and they are up to Criterion’s usual high standards. Those who own other Criterion discs will know exactly what to expect.

SS02

Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion provides not one but two 4K restoration transfers on two separate discs:

The 1952 European Version was scanned in 4K resolution from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, and the resulting image is absolutely gorgeous. The film has never looked better on home video—although this isn’t saying nearly enough considering that it never really looked terribly good on home video until this release. Fine detail impresses here as does depth, clarity, contrast, and shadow detail. Any flaws are obviously inherent in the original source and never become problematic. The restoration work ensures that distracting anomalies such as dirt, scratches, damage, and other unfortunate issues never become problematic (even if the occasional speck of dirt remains).

The 1955 US/UK Version doesn’t look quite as good as the European transfer—especially in terms of density (which has some unfortunate fluctuation issues) and detail. The gradients between the various shades of gray aren’t as balanced as they appear in the other version either. However, these issues are source related and it would be a mistake to imply that the overall image quality isn’t remarkably better than anyone would’ve previously had reason to expect. It’s probably safe to say that this is the definitive transfer of the 1955 version of the film. On a positive note, there is slightly more information in the frame.

Interestingly, Criterion has chosen not to include the highly controversial 1992 restoration cut and its stereo sound mix. The reasons for this are probably obvious to Criterion enthusiasts.

SS03

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

The restoration team has also cleaned the monaural soundtrack (which was taken from composite fine-grain prints) so that listeners will not be bothered by such annoying issues as hiss, hum, crackle, clicks, thumps, or any other unfortunate audial blemishes. The LPCM transfer of this restored track is therefore the best anyone can really expect from this particular film’s original elements. Unfortunately, there are plenty of source related issues resulting from the troubled productions. Perhaps most distressing is the slightly uneven and not always entirely discernable dialogue (which can also be poorly synched).

Purists were infuriated when the team behind the 1992 restoration built the track from scratch and tweaked the edit to put the track in slightly better synch, because it wasn’t representative of Orson Welles’s original film. Criterion is devoted to presenting films as they were shown during their original release, and this track accomplishes this. The fact is that in this particular case, one cannot have it both ways.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

Feature Length Audio Commentary featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Myron Meisel

The 1955 cut of the film includes this archival commentary track with Peter Bogdanovich and Myron Meisel—two scholars who are well versed in Welles history. The track was recorded in 1994 and finds both Bogdanovich and Meisel in good form as they spend the duration of the track discussing its troubled production history and telling amusing anecdotes about the director. It is surprisingly informative and engaging for what is essentially a third-party track, and it adds an enormous amount of value to the package.

Filming Othello – (01:23:02)

Filming Othello

Criterion generously includes a nice 2K scan of Filming Othello taken from the film’s original elements. It is often cited as Orson Welles’s final competed film—although one has difficulty considering it as an official part of his official canon of work any more than one would place the Quentin Tarantino-directed episode of “ER” in the list of that director’s primary works. It belongs somewhere else—perhaps under the heading of “other projects.”

It’s certainly an instructive viewing experience, and one feels that the director relished the opportunity to dabble in his favorite medium once again—even if it is essentially a retrospective essay film produced for West German television that never approaches the creative brilliance of F for Fake. However, there is a certain poetry to the fact that this 16mm production was also produced over a period of four years (1974-1978).

The heart of the film is an extended conversation between Micheál MacLiammóir, Hilton Edwards, and Orson Welles that was shot in Paris, France, in 1974—but this conversation isn’t the only reason to see this film, which begins with an introduction by Welles himself as he sits somewhat stoically behind a moviola (an image that probably won’t surprise anyone who has already seen F for Fake.

“This is to be a conversation, certainly not anything so formal as a lecture, and what we’re going to talk about is Othello, Shakespeare’s play and the film I made of it,” he announces before he leads into the events that led to the troubled production and indeed some of the challenges that plagued him throughout the experience. This portion of the film isn’t terribly different from most interview footage, but he soon introduces the aforementioned conversation with MacLiammoir (Othello’s Iago) and Edwards (Brabantio) which he has brought upon his moviola for our benefit. The footage plays on this machine before we cut into the actual footage. The three gentlemen discuss the themes inherent in the original play and possible character motivations—including those added to Iago’s character by Welles for the film’s production. It’s an interesting conversation that should appeal to anyone who admires either the film or the Bard’s original play. When the footage of this conversation comes to an end, we return to Orson Welles as he announces that he ran out of footage well before they ran out of conversation.

Another interesting aspect of the program is the brief footage from a post-screening question and answer session held in 1977. It is much too brief, but one is grateful that it has been included in any case. Shortly after this portion of the film, Welles gives the viewer his closing statement. It is a perfect statement that probably says everything that the director felt about the film:

“…There are too many regrets, there are too many things I wish I could have done over again. If it wasn’t a memory—if it was a project for the future, talking about Othello would have been nothing but delight. After all, promises are more fun than explanations. In all my heart, I wish that I wasn’t looking back on Othello, but looking forward to it. That Othello would be one hell of a picture.”

Apparently, the film enjoyed a screening at the 1978 Berlin Film Festival, but it had fallen into obscurity until very recently (much like Othello itself).

Return to Glennascaul (1953) – (28:06)

Return to Glennascaul

Hilton Edwards directed this short film starring Orson Welles as himself and was made during a lull in the production of Othello. It tells a rather simple but diverting story: While driving in rural Ireland during a break in the shooting of Othello, Welles offers a ride to a man having car trouble. The man ends up telling him a strange story about a pair of women who once flagged the man down. It turns out that the women were ghosts. Other details are best experienced by the viewer as it is a charming diversion that should satisfy viewers. The short was nominated for an Academy Award and adds value to an already amazing collection of supplements.

The film includes a short introduction by Peter Bogdanovich.

Souvenirs d’Othello – (48:46)

Criterion also includes a French-Canadian television documentary entitled Souvenirs d’Othello about Suzanne Cloutier (Desdemona) directed by François Girard. The program centers on a few interviews with the actress as she remembers the production of Othello (which she claims was the highlight of her life). Her memories of Orson Welles and his drive to complete the film in the face of numerous impediments are of enormous value. There are a number of revelations to be found here, and they should all please those who—like Cloutier—admire the film work of Orson Welles.

Interview with Simon Callow – (21:55)

Simon Callow (author of Orson Welles: Road to Xandu, Orson Welles: Hello Americans, and Orson Welles: One Man Band) discusses the production of Othello in some detail. The discussion covers a variety of topics, including the changing cast decisions, the trials of the lengthy shoot, and the director’s relationship with actors. There is the occasional erroneous claim, and a few of these will be obvious to even casual fans (such as his claim that Filming Othello was produced in the late 1960s). One imagines that the producers of the interview chose to exercise diplomacy and not correct these false statements.

Interview with François Thomas – (18:12)

François Thomas (co-author of Orson Welles at Work) discusses the two different cuts of the film and the differences between them from the obvious differences between the spoken and written credits to the small subtle alterations made to the later version of the film. His observations are interesting and useful to viewers and should clarify a great deal for those who don’t wish to dissect such things for themselves. This should also add to one’s appreciation of the film.

Interview with Ayanna Thompson – (21:12)

Ayanna Thompson is the author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America and a number of other Shakespeare-related texts. Her discussion here is an interesting addition to the disc that covers territory that isn’t really touched upon in any significant way in the other supplements. Thompson reflects on the history of the portrayal of Othello by white actors and Welles’s historical voodoo production of Macbeth that utilized black actors. One actually wonders why the director didn’t cast Canada Lee in the role of Othello (since the director had worked with the actor on the stage). He would’ve been amazing.

Joseph McBride on Orson Welles – (32:44)

Finally, Criterion includes a 2014 ‘Fiction Factory’ interview with Joseph McBride (author of a number of film related books, including What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? – A Portrait of an Independent Career). A number of pertinent topics are covered here and they range from those specific to Othello to more personal subjects like the Hollywood blacklist, and Welles’s move to Europe. It’s another very solid addition to Criterion’s rich supplemental package.

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Final Words:

This is an essential package for Orson Welles fans! The prospect of owning incredible transfers of two different cuts of Othello would be incredibly exciting all on its own, but Criterion has seen fit to include a 2K scan of Welles’s feature-length film essay entitled Filming Othello in this package as well! In addition to this, they include an Oscar-nominated short film made by Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards during one of the many lulls in Othello’s piecemeal production, over an hour and a half of scholarly interviews about the film, and an informative commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich and Myron Meisel. Those who aren’t impressed will want to check their pulse and seek immediate medical assistance.

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hitchcockmaster

Spine #135

Blu-ray Cover (No Sticker)

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: September 05, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 02:10:40

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.69 Mbps

Notes:This title is also available both individually and as part of The Premiere Collection boxed set (both with different cover art) in the DVD format and was given an incredible release in the same format by The Criterion Collection several years before that release.

The film was later given a lackluster Blu-ray release by MGM Home Entertainment both as part of a three-film set entitled, The Classic Collection and as an individual release.

Title

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