Honoring the Greats: Treating Classic Films on Blu-ray

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The Blu-ray format can prove a wee bit problematic for anything released, say, pre-The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.  That enhanced resolution works wonders for films taking into account 4K magnifications and 3D details, but for older entries in the canon, Blu-ray can show the seams on once-effective makeup or turn a shimmering black-and-white print into a film-grain nightmare reminiscent of the Biblical Plagues.

When an older film gets the treatment it deserves, we raise our glass in praise, and today, we salute Twentieth Century Fox/MGM and Universal.  Over the last couple of weeks, they’ve done classic films right—true film aficionados would be wise to pick up the next five titles.

We start in 1946 with Alfred Hitchcock’s spy romance Notorious.  More than anything else, I adore Notorious because it is a masterclass in defying expectations.  Ingrid Bergman’s heroine is a debauched party girl, Cary Grant’s “dashing” American agent is consistently cold and brutal, and the most sympathetic character is Claude Rains’ Nazi collaborator, who may have sold his soul to the Devil but tries his damndest to get it back when he falls for Bergman.  Rains has no idea she and Grant are playing him; despite the severity of his crimes, we hurt just as much when Rains discovers her betrayal.

Fox/MGM has given the film a crisp 1.37:1 transfer with a moody and enveloping monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track.  Supplements best those on the old Criterion disc—two commentaries (with film professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper), three behind-the-scenes featurettes on Hitchcock and on the film’s production, a trailer, an isolated music track and audio-only interviews with Hitchcock, a restoration demonstration, and a 1948 Notorious radio play starring Bergman and Joseph Cotten.

Then, skip ahead to 1960’s Best Picture Winner The Apartment.  Misleading Blu-ray cover art aside, The Apartment is a bleak, cynical “comedy” about C.C. Baxter (the great Jack Lemmon), a cheerfully amoral business executive who climbs the corporate ladder by letting his bosses use his apartment to “meet” their mistresses.  Problem is, Baxter falls for his venal CEO’s latest assignation (Shirley MacLaine, looking like Renee Zellweger, circa Jerry Maguire), but Baxter may be too far down the rabbit hole to merit a happy ending.

Writer/director Billy Wilder pitches the movie between the screwball hijinks of Some Like It Hot and the coal-black noir of Double Indemnity; despite Baxter’s forced jollity (I love the scene where he makes spaghetti with a tennis racket), the ultra-wide Cinemascope frame confines Baxter in his predicament as if it were a tomb.  Fox/MGM’s Blu-ray gives The Apartment a sharp digital picture and strong 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio as well as informative bonus features that include a commentary from film historian Bruce Block, a making-of featurette, the original trailer, and a warm tribute to Jack Lemmon.

1962 marked the debut of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was nominated for Best Picture and probably would have won if it weren’t for that meddling Lawrence of Arabia.  In some way, director Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of the Harper Lee novel is the better film because it sneaks up on you, rather than loudly proclaiming its genius, as Lean’s great film does.  The first half of the film feels like the most idyllic and wistful live-action Disney cartoon never made (think the movie version of a “Silly Symphony”), as we float along with siblings Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout Finch (Mary Badham) during their summer vacation.  They goof around with the new kid in town (John Megna, playing a character inspired by Truman Capote), avoid drawing the ire of their stern father Atticus (Gregory Peck, doing his finest screen work), and scare them themselves with tales of the neighborhood boogeyman, the unseen Boo Radley.

Slowly but surely, though, reality seeps in when Atticus defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, and Jem and Scout see their childhood reveries hardening forever.  To date, the best movie about just how damn hard it is to do the right thing.  Universal’s two-disc 50th Anniversary Edition is one of the studio’s Blu-ray Bests, with a wonderfully textured HD image, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and loads of bonuses, from a commentary with Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, conversations with Peck and Badham, a full-length documentary on the making of the film, and four featurettes honoring To Kill a Mockingbird‘s critical legacy.

Annie Hall is the greatest auteur transition film ever made.  Here, you see Woody Allen bridging the gap between his “earlier, funnier pictures” and the Bergman-esque psychoanalysis of his second filmmaking act (roughly 1978 – 1998), but the end result has none of the awkwardness that normally occurs when the great filmmakers shift gears (Scorsese faced this when he made Casino; Spielberg got a taste with The Color Purple).  Annie Hall is perfect; Allen’s trademark absurdism—breaking the fourth wall, numerous fantasy sequences (one of which is animated)—has never been funnier, but his command of human behavior is so sharp that now, when he wants to make you cry, you do.

Case in point: the moment at the end when Allen’s Alvy Singer and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton, in an Academy Award-winning performance) bump into one another long after their breakup.  Their encounter is pleasant and seemingly inconsequential, but Alvy’s narration, coupled with the use of “Seems Like Old Times” on the soundtrack, tells a different story.  These were two people who could have been soul mates, but that time has passed.  Alvy Singer isn’t the same after Annie Hall, and neither is Allen the filmmaker.  MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray looks and sounds fine (Allen’s visual style here is unspectacular, though the monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track works wonders), but we get no features other than a trailer.

Made only two years after Annie Hall, 1979’s Manhattan reveals Allen’s total mastery of his second phase, even if it did take the relative failure of his drab, inert Interiors to work out the kinks.  Manhattan is a far more serious picture than Annie Hall, trafficking in themes that would consume the filmmaker (example: anyone surprised by his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn never saw Manhattan), but what it lacks in humor, it makes up in visual and aural splendor—think of the film as the City Lights to Annie Hall‘s Modern Times.  Along with cinematographer Gordon Willis, Allen created one of the silver screen’s aesthetic miracles, a black-and-white, widescreen fantasy of the New York City that never was.

Manhattan‘s opening four minutes and eight seconds, scored to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” is Allen’s entire filmmaking career in microcosm; as his Isaac Davis tries to describe his relationship with New York over an electrifying montage of the city itself, Allen is by turns wry, ridiculous, understated, often self-effacing, sometimes pretentious, silly, and always humane.  Manhattan is Allen’s best looking film, and MGM/Fox gives it a near-flawless HD transfer, with that extra-wide frame and pleasing grain.  The disc has a punchy monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track and—because Woody Allen doesn’t like them—no supplements outside the trailer.

Notorious, The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, Annie Hall, and Manhattan are now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE for Amazon’s respective page listings.

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