Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes

Issue 2


Film On DVD - Part II…

In our first issue I made some comments regarding films on DVD. Some people out there seem to have got the idea that I prefer DVD to film; that I think it superior in some way; that film is dead etc, etc…
They missed the point by a mile, so I will try to clarify my position - speaking as a member of the cinema-going public who buys his tickets like everybody else and is therefore entitled to have an opinion about what's on offer these days.

First let's separate the two issues involved here. They are "film" and "films". The former is the medium - like the paper that novels are printed on; the latter are the novels themselves - the words, in other words! So, lets consider "film" first. It has been around for a long time now - over a hundred years - and it has served us well and continues to do so. Its chemical make up has been altered and improved over this period to provide clearer, sharper images, greater durability of the stock and enhanced image stability. Ingenious technicians have created the wonderful widescreen processes (that this magazine was created, in part, to remember and celebrate) so that the movie going audience might experience an even greater sense of involvement in the action on bigger and wider screens. And this has been a good thing. Nothing, it is said, comes close to film when it comes to the quality of the projected image. Most technical people I speak to feel that the new DLP (Digital Light Projection) technology is not yet up to the quality of conventional film projection. I've only seen theatrical digital presentation on two occasions, the "films" being shown were Toy Story 2 and Vertical Limit, and they looked OK to this viewer - and I was looking for faults, but what do I know? Well, what I do know is that theatrical DLP equipment is hugely expensive, so exhibitors will not be rushing to embrace this technology until the cost comes way, way down.

But to return to "film". From the basic principle of motion picture technology evolved the glorious wide screen systems that we know and love and were only available in cinemas. TV just couldn't compare, and still can't really.

But we didn't just go to watch the systems, did we? We went to watch "films". Back in the fifties and sixties, when most towns had at least a couple of cinemas, they would probably be independents that had more flexible programming than the big chains such as Odeon or ABC. They would often rerun older films when they couldn't get a new release - I saw Doris Day in Calamity Jane in one such cinema, and Kirk Douglas in Ulysses in another (yes, I know they weren't widescreen features) - in 1962! These were also the days of the Double Feature and the supporting film was often a much older one than the main feature. The point is that films were still circulating years after they were first made, and were being presented in their original aspect ratios. With one or two rare exceptions, this just doesn't happen today. With the rise of the multiplex cinema, double features disappeared, and we had to rely on the TV for reruns, until the advent of home video, and widescreen was out of the question! At least, since the advent of letterbox videos and subsequently laserdiscs and DVD's, the film makers get the chance to see their work presented to an audience in its correct shape, if not size. Which, as an aside, reminds me of another modern cinema experience. A couple of years ago, I went to see 13th Warrior in a Manchester multiplex. I sat through the adverts and trailers etc. - on this fairly small screen - in anticipation of this film which I knew to be in a 2.35:1 ratio. When the main feature starts, instead of the screen getting wider, the masking rose up from the bottom of the screen, making it even smaller! And of course, as an added bonus, the sound system practically blew my eardrums out. Cinema is supposed to be a visual medium, after all, but when these kinds of presentations are inflicted on a paying audience, the original purpose of Panavision/CinemaScope is defeated.

And here's another fact to consider. When film restorers use their considerable skills and infinite patience to retrieve a classic movie from the point of extinction, practically frame by frame, it will more than likely not appear at your local multiplex anyway. You will probably have to travel a considerable distance to see it unless you are fortunate enough to live near a specialist venue.
(I am speaking of the United Kingdom here - I don't know about the rest of the world.) So all that care and painstaking work would be for precious little audience return. But when those restorations are transferred to DVD - along with commentaries, outtakes, documentaries and all the other fascinating stuff they often put on them - the films in question then have a real chance of, once again, reaching the audiences they were made for.

No, it's not the genuine "cinema experience", I agree; it's a compromise. But having them available in this form has to be better than not having them at all. As I said in issue one, it is estimated that around eighty percent of all the films that were ever made are gone forever; a depressingly awesome situation that must not be allowed to continue. I also made a comment about "cynical clean ups of a single print for DVD while the negative continues to rot in the vaults", and on reflection I think I was a little harsh to use the word "cynical". It really all comes down to cost in the end, and most films were made on strictly limited budgets in the first place, so a full, frame-by-frame restoration of the vast majority of films would cost more than they did to make in the first place, so it's simply not going to happen. But if "films"- any films, not just the high-profile productions or "classics" can be saved, albeit in a different format, then what's wrong with that?

I mourn the passing of the fifties-style big-screen, CinemaScope experience - that's what prompted the creation of this magazine in the first place. But I miss the films as well; and if we never, ever get to see them again, then they will be just something we saw a long time ago and can merely talk about now, as some dim and distant memory. And that would be the saddest thing of all.


DVD Reviews
MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (Region 1)

This is a must-have disc for any fan of classic horror/fantasy, being the (Hollywood style!) story of the great Lon Chaney as portrayed by the equally great James Cagney in this 1957 CinemaScope film. Chaney was the son of deaf-mute parents and the cruel prejudice that he and they suffered coloured his entire outlook on life, but ironically, it would also give him the drive to succeed, first as a sad-faced clown in vaudeville and then as the creator of the legendary silent horror film characters such as the scarred musician in Phantom Of The Opera and the deformed Quasimodo in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Cagney gives a heartfelt yet forceful performance as the tormented actor and is ably supported by Dorothy Malone as his first wife, the unstable Cleva, mother of his son Creighton - Lon Chaney Jr.; and Jane Greer as his second wife, Hazel, with whom he found lasting contentment.

Chaney Jr. is played by Roger Smith in an early role before his hit series 77 Sunset Stripas Jeff Spencer, and his subsequent off-screen role as the manager of his wife, Ann-Margret. Robert Evans, eventually to be the head of production at Paramount Studios in the 1960's and 70's makes his debut as Irving Thalberg who had the same job at Universal and MGM back in the 1930's.

The disc is one of Universal's earlier entries into the DVD market and as such is not encoded anamorphically, but letterboxed at 2.35:1 instead. The black and white picture is crisp and clear, with the source print clean and damage free. Sound is mono only, but nevertheless is as clear as the images. Frank Skinner's score is particularly memorable also. 7 out of 10.

BARABBAS (Region 1)

This 1961 Dino De Laurentiis production has been a long time coming to DVD. It's been available for some time as a rather indifferent VHS transfer - pan-and-scan, of course; but at long last this magnificent Technirama 70 epic is presented here, anamorphically, in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which would suggest a transfer from a 35mm print rather than a 70mm.

Anthony Quinn gives one of his most powerful performances as Barabbas, the thief and murderer who was released in place of Jesus. The plot, which is loosely adapted from Par Lagerkvist's nobel prizewinning novel, charts Barabbas' increasingly tormented life from the point of his release to his death, many years later. Unable to give up his old ways, he is once again captured and sentenced to life in the sulphur mines on Sicily. After an incredible twenty years of slavery he emerges into the light after inexplicably surviving an horrific cave-in - which is depicted with incredible realism - only to be trained as a gladiator and sent to the arena in Rome. At this point two more fine actors appear in supporting roles, Ernest Borgnine as the slave, Lucius; and Jack Palance as the truly psychotic gladiator trainer Torvald. Richard Fleischer's thoughtful direction is perfectly complemented by cinematographer Aldo Tonti's lighting and designer, Mario Chiari's colour palette. Particularly stunning is the awesome, genuine, total eclipse for the crucifixion scene (ready when you are, Mr. DeMille!) . The cast also includes Arthur Kennedy as Pilate, Silvana Mangano as Rachel and Katy Jurado as Sara. Notable also is Mario Nascimbene's innovative score, utilizing unusual (for the time) recording techniques and electronic effects. (If you can get hold of the vinyl LP release of the score, which was extremely rare and much sought after by collectors until its re-release in the late 1980's, there is a demonstration track on side 2, which, incidentally, isn't on the CD version).

Sound is Dolby 4.0 and the print is fine. The trailer is included, though sadly, no documentary or commentaries. Nevertheless, Barabbas is an essential addition to any DVD collection. 8 out of 10

IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD MAD WORLD (Region 1)

America's funniest comedians and Jerry Lewis star alongside Spencer Tracy in Stanley Kramer's fabulous 1965 crash, bang road movie, hereafter to be referred to as 4Mad World.
Career criminal Jimmy Durante sails his car of a cliff, witnessed by several drivers who happened to be following behind him.

Finding him conscious, but close to death, this motley bunch, comprising such talents as Mickey Rooney, Sid Caeser, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters and Buddy Hacket, all hear him gasp out the location of some buried loot "…underneath a big 'W'…". Cue the craziest car chase you've ever seen as they try to outrace each other to Los Angeles and the buried riches - the original 'equal shares' idea rapidly cast aside.

Kramer wanted to make the biggest, noisiest, most action-packed comedy of all time - hence the big-star line-up and the 70mm Ultra Panavision photography - and was largely successful. How successful, of course, depends on the viewer's opinion of the various comic talents on show. But funny it most certainly is, and the film is helped tremendously by Spencer Tracy's laid-back performance as the cop who watches them all from a distance, never upstaged for a second by some of the most notorious scene-stealers in the business.

Presented, allegedly, in a 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer, "…from the original 35mm theatrical version" - OK, we'll let that go, for now; the print is fine and clean, with good colour. Sound is Dolby Digital 5.1. It comes with the original trailer, the 1970 reissue trailer and a great documentary; Something A Little Less Serious. It also has the added bonus of Jerry Lewis only being in it for three seconds. Lose two marks for the "Original 35mm theatrical print" - where's the 70mm one?? 8 out of 10.

THE PHANTOM (Region 1)

I make no apology for being the only person to see this 1996 film, or buy the DVD. Discussing The Phantom with some of my more intellectually minded friends, I have often said that I can't understand why this film didn't perform better at the box-office. "Because it's crap" is the usual explanation offered. I beg to differ. It has Billy Zane in a purple rubber suit, and there's yummy Catherine Zeta Jones striding around in a jumpsuit, hitting people - what more could you want?

Kidding aside, though, The Phantom really deserved to be a success. Relying more on action and humour for its thrills, rather than special effects, director Simon Wincer delivers a high-speed adventure from the Indiana Jones era. The cast play it with their tongues firmly in their cheeks - and have a ball in the process! And speaking of cast, you can spot the underrated James Remar (remember him in The Warriors - the one who gets handcuffed to the park bench?) as an associate villain, and there is also a delightfully vicious performance from Treat Williams - another underrated actor - as ruthless tycoon, Xander Drax. Also featured is a voice-over and brief appearance by Patrick McGoohan as the Phantom's ghostly dad.

I reckon that its lack of success is really down to two other factors, rather than the quality of the production. The aforementioned paucity of effects (though what there are are first-rate), usually expected in super-hero films, is probably one reason; and the other is the character of The Phantom himself: he is simply of another age and today's kids are simply not in tune with him. The same condition afflicted the excellent Alec Baldwin vehicle, The Shadow, with similar results.

However, all that notwithstanding, don't let this one pass you by without checking it out. Anamorphic 2.35:1 framing and a beautifully rendered image, with excellent Dolby 5.1 sound, let down only by Paramount's usual policy of giving you zilch in the way of extras - apart from the theatrical trailer. Slam Evil!… with The Phantom - you'll enjoy it! 7 out of 10.

HELL IS A CITY (Region 1)

I could not let the release of this classic crime thriller (in December 2002) pass unnoticed. The redoubtable Anchor Bay have brought us a splendid transfer of this 1961 Hammer Films production, directed by Val Guest. Shot in and around Manchester, and starring Stanley Baker, as the hard-bitten police inspector Harry Martineau, Hell Is A City was considered shockingly violent in its day, though it's actually no worse than an average episode of The Sweeney. That said, the casual brutality of gangster-on-the-run, Don Starling, played by John Crawford, would probably have been an eye-opener at the time.

A jewel robbery that turns into the senseless killing of a young girl triggers a manhunt that draws Martineau onto the trail of his childhood adversary, Starling. These two equally ruthless protagonists embark on a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, each determined to outwit the other, no matter who gets in the way. Val Guest's taut screenplay was nominated for a British Academy Award, and the film is still powerful today with its gritty, realistic portrayal of life in a provincial city in the mid-20th century. Mancunians who were around then will have some fun spotting the locations in a city that has changed more than most in the forty something years since this film was made! Shot in black & white CinemaScope, the print used here is crisp and damage-free and is presented anamorphically in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with clear, mono sound. The disc also includes an entertaining commentary from Val Guest with journalist, Ted Newsome; an alternate ending; trailer and talent bios. An extremely welcome package for fans of the old British crime thrillers. 9 out of 10.



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Copyright 2002 John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 1 February 2003

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