Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes

DVD - The Best Thing That's Happened To Widescreen
I guess most of us are aware of the phenomenon known as DVD - Digital Versatile Disc. Since its introduction in 1998 it has taken off faster than video ever did; beyond anyone's most optimistic expectations. These CD lookalikes have exploded into the public's imagination from their modest little displays of half a dozen titles on a remote shelf in the back of a Virgin or HMV video department and blown VHS out of the water.

And well they might. Because they never really tried very hard with VHS, did they? In its early days, the pre-recorded tapes that went out into the sell-through market were hugely overpriced. I can remember paying �24.99 for MGM's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (it's always been a favourite!) - and that turned out to be a washed out, pan-and-scan, mono print. At the time, I was just glad to have the film - to actually own a copy - to play any time that I wanted. And it was a new medium, so they could charge what they liked; and I guess they did. Of course, 16mm and 8mm film collectors had been doing this for years; but they were prepared to pay much, much more for their prints, some of which were 'scope as well. So VHS had, at least, given the general public access to their favourite films; and the prices did creep slowly downwards. Especially after the VHS victory over the superior Betamax format - mainly because of the former's access to the huge THORN-EMI film catalogue.

So, VHS coasted along, complacently, leaving the widescreen film fan high and dry. And then another medium came on the scene: The Laserdisc. Now, this was more like it: Cheaper than 16 and 8mm; in 'scope more often than not; and a lot of them came with behind-the-scenes documentaries and interviews - and the picture quality was twice as good as VHS, Strangely, it was never promoted with much enthusiasm in the UK, and never did very well here, but it took off in America, Europe and Japan.

Meanwhile, VHS trundled along, and it was not until the release of a "Widescreen Version" of Jesus Christ: Superstar in 1980, that a film was presented in its correct ratio on tape. The response was underwhelming to say the least, but that was more than likely down to the fact that it was a crap film anyway. But it was a breakthrough, and at least the tide was beginning to turn; and soon more of these "Letterbox Editions" would be released to video. Of course, it went without saying that the widescreen versions would be a couple of quid dearer than the pan-and-scan ones. Rip-off Britain in action, again - but don't get me started on that!

Another thing I can remember is a university lecturer telling me: "Take my word for it; the next Big Thing will be Cdi." And it may have been for a couple of weeks; but it came and went so quickly, nobody noticed. But it paved the way for the real "Next Big Thing":DVD.

Now, who knows what DVD will evolve into, or be replaced by; but, if you want your favourite film, (a) in the same ratio in which it was shot. (b) with decent sound. (c) not to wear out, jam, or get chewed up by the machine, then DVD is the way to go. It would also seem that the studios have embraced DVD with far more enthusiasm than they did VHS. The long awaited documentaries are there; out-takes; deleted scenes; alternate endings, and commentaries. Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS surround sound, with widescreen and fullscreen versions on the same disc, are some of the delights that await the film-fan who decides to explore the world of DVD. How can you resist?

And apart from all these bonus features, there is another, more important, fact to be considered. The restoration and digital scanning of many classic movies for DVD means that they will be preserved forever, in pristine condition; never to fade or decay. It is both horrifying and depressing to realise that over 80% of all the films that were ever made have been lost forever. Maybe the DVD revolution can help to stop this, provided that the restoration is a genuine attempt to preserve the actual film elements and not a cynical quick digital clean up of a single print for DVD release (while the original negative continues to decay in the vaults!).

Major films, such as Spartacus, Ben Hur, Lawrence Of Arabia; or Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and The Third Man, to include some non-widescreen classics, have never looked this good since they were first released. Even Jesus Christ: Superstar has been improved. (Only kidding - even DVD isn't that good - Norman Jewison, we know where you live!). But with the wealth of CinemaScope and Panavision movies available right now, and many, many more being prepared for release, the future for widescreen looks very bright on DVD.

DVD Reviews
We're not necessarily looking at new films or new DVD's here, but rather those that I (in my humble opinion) think are well worth another look. Also, I've put my money where my mouth is and actually bought them; so don't think you can influence my opinion by sending me free copies to review. Unless you really want to, of course.
For our first issue I've selected a fairly mixed bag of recommendations, but in future issues I intend to include a few that I wouldn't touch with a barge pole, so you rip-off merchants out there beware-I'm on the case!
Most of the DVD's reviewed in this magazine have been purchased on-line from either Amazon.com for region 1, and Play.com for region 1 and region 2. The former offers probably the largest selection of widescreen DVD's and videos on the planet, but there are postal charges to pay. Play.com, on the other hand, don't have quite the selection of Amazon in region 1, but do have a huge catalogue of region 2 stuff - and postage is free! There are, of course many on-line suppliers - all cheaper than the shops - best to have a surf around I suppose; I merely speak whereof I know. Please let me know if you find a reasonably priced (and legal) source of DVD's and I'll be glad to post it here.

Billy Liar (Region 2)
It's nice to see this old favourite back after nearly forty years - and in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio at last. A comtemporary comedy when it was made in 1964, it's now something of a period piece; those of us over fifty will remember Twisting, like Billy, (Don't ask - you had to be there…) at the local Palais or Locarno, or our mums listening to Godfrey Wynn and 'Housewive's Choice' on the radio. Another era, really, but Keith Waterhouse's fantasizing hero is as fresh and comic as ever, thanks to Tom Courtenay's brilliant turn as Billy Fisher - undertaker's clerk, but aspiring comedy scriptwriter - who can never quite come to terms with reality. Director John Schlesinger complements Courtenay's performance with supporting cast of British stalwarts, all on top form. Mona Washbourne and Wilfred Pickles as Billy's mum and Dad. A pre Likely Lads Rodney Bewes, as his best mate; and a pre Rising Damp performance from Leonard Rossiter, as Shadrach, his boss.
The plot concerns several events in a pivotal day in Billy's complicated life, when his ambition to become a scriptwriter for current big-time TV comic, played by Leslie Randall, is thwarted; his two fianc�es find out about each other and his granny dies, - not to mention the whereabouts of the firm's Christmas calendars that Billy should have posted. A way out is offered by the enigmatic free-spirit, Liz- played by Julie Christie in her debut film- if only Billy has the courage to take it…
Billy Liar, surprisingly, for the subject matter, was shot in Cinemascope, and the print used for this DVD transfer is clean and damage free, with the crisp black and white images encoded anamorphically. The mono soundtrack seems to have been recorded at a low level, so you'll have to turn the volume up a bit, though. This region 2 version lacks the Schlesinger/Courtenay/Christie commentary of the region 1 Criterion Edition, and the BBC documentary, is also absent, but hey - it's a fraction of the price, and you do get the trailer! Highly recommended.

The Fly/Return of The Fly (Region 2)

This double feature package from Fox represents terrific value for money; with two classics sci-fi films for the price of one. Released in 1958, The Fly - for the benefit of anyone out there who might actually be unaware of the plot- concerns a scientist (David Hedison), whom, having invented a teleportation machine, decides to test it himself without realising that he has a fly for a fellow passenger. What emerges at the other end is not a pretty sight. However, you will be able to enjoy this chiller whilst eating your TV dinner, unlike the grisly David Cronenberg remake of 1987. Vincent Price is along for the ride as the sensible older brother who picks up the pieces - oh, and the ending has to be seen to be believed!
Excellent colour and CinemaScope compositions, and with Dolby 4.0 stereo sound, this George Langelaan original story, co-scripted by James Clavell and directed by Kurt Neumann, makes a welcome return.
And speaking of returns… Return of The Fly rounds off this two-disc set nicely. This - it must be said - less successful sequel was released in 1959, and picks up the story 15 years after the first one with the son of the deceased scientist/fly deciding to follow his father's example. Unfortunately, he follows it a little too closely and finishes up with a fly head of his own. (for some strange reason it's twice as big as the one in the first film. I've always been curious about that.) But this, coupled with a plot that involves treacherous partners and industrial espionage, gives our hero plenty of justification for roaming the Canadian countryside in search of some villain's henchmen to strangle. Great fun.
Shot in 'Scope, but black and white this time, Return of The Fly also has Dolby 4.0 surround. Both films have been given crisp 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers, and the prints are clear and damage free. As I said, an excellent package, and extremely good value for money.

Some news for the soundtrack fans out there: Percepto Records have just released a fantastic 2 CD set of Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter's music from the three "Fly" films - the two reviewed here plus 1965's "Curse Of The Fly". Included in the set is a 56 page booklet describing the making of the
films, profusely illustrated with dozens of never-before-seen photographs. These wonderful scores are an essential purchase for collectors and the set is a limited edition of 3,000 copies. Price is $29.95 plus $3.50 shipping ($7.55 airmail to UK).

Percepto's website is at www.percepto.com and their postal address is: PO Box 70075, Pasadena, CA 91117, USA.

West Side Story (Region 2)

This Oscar winning musical is a must-have for any collector of widescreen movies, and is given a splendid treatment on this disc. Restored (it says on the sleeve) from the original 65mm negative (Super Panavision) the film is given a beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. I'm not sure how you get a 2.35:1 ratio from a 65mm source, but the image quality is astonishing, and the colour is gorgeous - remember, this is a film that's over forty years old! West Side Story won 10 Oscars in 1961 - still a record for a musical - including the only joint award for Direction, for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The Romeo and Juliet story - transposed to the tenements of New York, stars Natalie Wood (with the singing voice of Marni Nixon), Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn. Co-stars Rita Moreno and George Chakiris also won Best Supporting actress/actor awards. It has one or two good songs as well. 10 out of 10.

The Vikings (Region 1)

My favourite film arrives, at last, on DVD - and just as I am in the middle of preparing these reviews, so I've stopped the presses to include it! For me, this rip-roaring tale of 9th century England and Norway is the perfect example of the genre - it has the lot; a good cast; a decent story; brilliant set-pieces - the fight on the round tower, anyone? -; and absolutely stunning photography by Jack Cardiff. The whole package is delivered by director Richard Fleischer at break-neck pace, never letting a scene go on an instant longer than necessary.
Sneered at by some critics on its release in 1958 (and many since), who couldn't resist making lame "Norse opera" jokes, The Vikings was a smash hit for Kirk Douglas, who's own company, Bryna, had produced it - going well over budget in the process, and no doubt shredding the nerves of some United Artists executives. They needn't have worried - it made an awful lot of money. Telling the story of a Viking slave (Tony Curtis) and a Viking chieftan (Kirk Douglas) who go to war with the English king (a slimy Frank Thring) and each other, for the hand of the beautiful princess Morgana (a beautiful Janet Leigh), MGM, who now own United Artists back catalogue, have presented the disc in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Shot in "Horizon spanning Technirama", the double sized, horizontally running negative produced a marvellous image to begin with, and as all vertically running, anamorphic prints extracted from this were therefore reduction printed, the clarity of the screen image was remarkable. The print sourced for this DVD is immaculate, and I am wondering if there has been some restoration work done on it, so clear and detailed are some of the scenes. And the colour is gorgeous. The film is accompanied by the original theatrical trailer - also in 2.35:1 anamorphic, and a very informative interview with Richard Fleischer, who lets us in on some behind- the-scenes secrets, and includes plenty of production stills to round out the package. Unfortunately, sound is only mono - the only disappointment - but at least it's as clear and sharp as the pictures.
This one gets11 out of 10, without hesitation - buy it!

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Copyright � 2002 John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 18 June 2002

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