New on Blu-ray: Hitchcock, Huston and the First Oscar Winner

1 February, 2012 (17:50) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

Hitchcock / Selznick: Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound (MGM)

Hindsight is 20/20, but teaming of British perfectionist director Alfred Hitchcock and American iconoclast producer David O. Selznick was doomed to conflict. Selznick, who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood with an exclusive contract, was a director in all but name. He micromanaged his pictures down to the shot, rewriting scripts, reshooting scenes, relentlessly tinkering well into post-production. Hitchcock plotted and planned his films in detailed storyboards from the outset. He had no use for Selznick’s interference or his barrage of memos, but he needed the entry to America and relished the generous budgets and access to technology. Their partnership makes a simultaneous case for film as a collaborator’s artform, and as the domain of the auteur. Three of the four films from that strained partnership between the perfectionist British director and the micromanaging producer arrive on Blu-ray and you can see the two creative personalities battle for control throughout.

Welcome to Manderlay

The gloriously gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940), a handsome marriage of the literate and the visual, remains their most financially successful collaboration and Hitchcock’s most studio-like film. Laurence Olivier delivers a fine performance as the haunted de Winter, still under the shadow of his controlling first wife even after she’s died, while Joan Fontaine’s naïve little girl in the big mansion is a bit precious but effective nonetheless. It’s an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. Ironically, Hitch’s only film to win a Best Picture Oscar winner, and the award went to producer Selznick; Hitch lost Best Director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, screen tests, two featurettes, three radio play adaptations, and archival audio interviews with Hitch.

The tensions (and I mean creative, not psychological tensions) are far more fraught in Spellbound (1945), an ambitious psychological thriller inspired by Selznick’s adventures in psychoanalysis and mystery as ludicrous as it is intermittently stunning. Gregory Peck is the tortured doctor with a repressed secret that psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman helps him unearth, with the help of dream therapy. The push-me, pull-you relationship can be seen in Hitch’s attempts to visualize heady concepts in bizarre dream sequences (designed by Salvador Dali) while the dialogue drags it all back to literalness. With commentary, two featurettes, a radio play adaptation and an archival audio interview with Hitch among the supplements.

For Notorious (1946), Hitchcock had everything he needed to make cinema magic: a brilliant cast of beautiful, seductive stars (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman at their most glamorous) and excellent character actors (Claude Rains and Louis Calhern), one of Hollywood’s smartest and most adept screenwriters (Ben Hecht), and best of all a producer too busy to interfere–for once. Selznick was drowning in Duel in the Sun and left Hitchcock alone (partly out of contractual obligation), and the result is one of his most sparkling romantic thrillers, smooth and silky with a dangerous, darkly suggestive undercurrent of sex, power, and sacrifice. Features two commentary tracks, three featurettes, a radio play adaptation, and archival audio interviews with Hitch among the supplements.

Their fourth and final production, the lugubrious The Paradine Case, is absent from this collection, and no one (completists aside) is really complaining. Hitch was bored by the assignment and his laziness with star Gregory Peck is exacerbated by Selznick’s prosaic writing (for which he took rare screen credit) and post-production tinkering. If it ultimately more resembles the verbal literalness of its producer than the psychological undercurrent of its director, perhaps it was Hitchcock’s parting shot to his interfering boss. You want a Selznick film? You got it!

The Roots of Heaven (Twilight Time)

John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven (1958) is a different kind of African wildlife adventure: the heroes are early eco-warriors, animals rights activists who (before it had become part of the public debate) took on both private elephant poachers and government indifference to the slaughter of animals in French Equatorial Africa in the years after World War II. The war hangs heavy over the film—Trevor Howard is a veteran who has fled the human world for the savannah, French songstress Juliette Gréco plays a French survivor of the German occupation, and Errol Flynn (in one of his final screen performances) is a former officer trying to drown his guilt in alcohol—and in part informs the film’s message. Howard’s Morel sees the elephant as a symbol of nature’s dignity and majesty, but you can also feel the rage of a man seeing the violence against the innocent, endangered animals as a continuation of the brutality he thought was over.

The glorious natural photography is somewhat marred in a couple of scenes by some obvious matting of actors against the expanse of herds in the background (the artifice is unfortunately enhanced by the clarity of the Blu-ray), but Huston shot most of it on location and fills the screen with the vastness of the savannah. And if the script tips toward melodrama and crudely-drawn betrayals, Huston’s commitment to the theme and the tone of disillusionment roused to action brought by the cast gives the film a spirit I find hard to resist. And maybe that’s personal on Huston’s part. Once a big-game hunter himself, I see the film as a statement of his changing attitudes, his way of acknowledging the cruelty and senselessness of “sport” he once embraced and bring the issue of preservation to the public. (Think of this as the flip side of White Hunter, Black Heart, a fictionalized account of Huston’s misadventures making The African Queen.) The Twilight Time release features its usual isolated score track and a booklet with notes by Julie Kirgo.

John McElwee offers some background on the film’s original release at his site, Greenbriar Picture Shows.

Wings (Paramount): The First Best Picture

Clara Bow takes top billing in Paramount’s lavish 1927 war drama Wings (1927) and Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen (both virtual unknowns at the time) play the buddies and fellow pilots at the center of the film, but the real star of this World War I picture is the amazing aerial spectacle: the dogfights in the sky over the battlefields. Director William Wellman, who was a World War I fighter pilot himself, invests us in the camaraderie of men in battle and fills the screen with the thrilling flight of the warriors. The magnificent dogfights, the sky swarming with planes, the downed ships spiraling down through the clouds with a tail of black smoke and yellow flame (color was digitally painted in for flourishes, just like the hand-coloring of the time) were all staged and shot for real and the budget soared to $2 million, making it one of the most expensive films of its era. Wellman makes sure it’s all there on the screen and in the process delivers a landmark: the last of the grand studio epics of the silent film era.

Wings will always have a place in film history: it won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, while Sunrise was handed a kind consolation prize for “Artistic Quality,” an award never again given yet effectively announcing the real purpose of the Oscars: recognizing the intersection of art and success. Sunrise remains one of the greatest films ever made while Wings, a romanticized look at war, shows what Hollywood does best: sturdy studio filmmaking with romance, bonding under fire and rousing “war is hell” action. And it marks the end of an era. The call of the sound revolution was ringing through Hollywood, as even the Academy (then merely an insider’s club picking the winners among themselves) had to acknowledge. The very same year that Wings received its “Best Production” award, the part-talky The Jazz Singer earned Warner Bros. a special award.

Paramount releases the film on DVD and Blu-ray (adding one more silent offering to the Blu-ray format) in a beautifully restored and newly remastered edition that preserves the texture of the photography, and offers a choice of two scores: a re-recorded score composed by J.S. Zamecnik, orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser and performed by a small orchestra featuring pianist Frederick Hodges with sound effects (from roar of engines to the rat-tat-tat of machine-guns) by Ben Burtt (of “Star Wars” fame); and an archival pipe organ score composed and conducted by Gaylord Carter. The organ score is stereo, the orchestral offers a dynamic 5.1 surround option.

There are three featurettes on the disc. The longest, “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky,” is more of a historical piece on filmmaking in the last silent era and runs under half-an-hour. Also includes “Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings,” a 15-minute piece on restoring and digitally mastering the film and recreating the store, and “Dogfight!,” a 12-minute look at aerial battles on World War I. All of the supplements are presented in HD on the Blu-ray.

Available at Amazon:
Rebecca [Blu-ray]
Spellbound [Blu-ray]
Notorious [Blu-ray]
Wings [Blu-ray]

Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment:
The Roots of Heaven [Blu-ray]

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