The sad thing about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that people assumed that because it embraced its niche-oriented demographic’s interests, in its ad campaign and in its content, that it was destined for cult status and nothing more. This prediction was sadly realized by the film’s disappointing box office returns, which seemed to confirm the unqualified prediction that the movie was about and hence for nerds, not normies.
Still, anyone so hung up on the fact that Edgar Wright’s new movie is about the precious existence of a dopey little geek (the first volume of cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original comic is entitled Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, after all), missed the most visually exciting, funny, and emotionally involving studio-produced film of the year. More so than the exact but minor comic gem that is Shaun of the Dead, or even the endearingly bombastic Hot Fuzz, this is the film that announces Wright’s presence as a real force to be reckoned with. It’s a comic book adaptation whose acceptance and celebration of its protagonists’ navel-gazing personality speaks to a level of nuance that easily surpasses its wildly inconsistent source material. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was the summer’s main event, and while it quietly slipped in and out of theaters, its new DVD release will hopefully prove how long its legs are.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a self-absorbed little dope, albeit a very sympathetic one. He’s not quite a hipster, nor is he completely a geek, which is to say that he plays in a shitty little band named after a minor villain in the Super Mario Bros. video games and is socially active and engaged, but only to the extent that that engagement involves himself in some way. So while Scott, a 22-year-old post-grad, uses Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) to get over his year-old breakup with pop star Envy Adams (Brie Larson), he also winds up falling in love with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His gay roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), and various other members of Scott’s cabal of friends warn him that he must dump either Knives or Ramona (preferably Knives), and Scott drags his feet until he has to make a choice. And that’s when things start to get really screwy: To date Ramona, who may or may not literally be the girl of his dreams (he first meets her while he’s dreaming), he finds out that he has to fight her seven evil exes.
Both Wright and O’Malley are very upfront about the fact that Scott Pilgrim is a self-absorbed little moron. In their eyes, that’s a good part of what makes him funny and sympathetic in the first place. Cera’s performance is knowingly affected and self-absorbed throughout scenes depicting Scott and Knives’s awkward dating: He takes any opportunity to change the subject of a conversation to heaping unearned praise on himself. The film’s tendency to celebrate his obsessions is justified because Wright goes out of his way to acknowledge his protagonist’s callow narcissism, much more so than even O’Malley did in his original comic.
A great example of this is the way that Wright’s Scott lives right across the street from his old family home. Scott’s living arrangement with Wallace was always meant to comically achieve the same effect, especially as the two even share the same bed. But even the way Wright visualizes that gag surpasses the way that O’Malley only underscores Scott’s basic insecurities. In one scene, Scott suddenly wakes up in Wallace’s bed after dreaming of Ramona, then Wallace wakes up beside him, then Wallace’s one-night-stand, also named Scott, wakes up next to him. That gag works better in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World because there’s a sense of timing and use of space that speaks to Wright’s remarkable sensitivity for comic precision.
Wright makes his protag’s shortcomings the source of the film’s comedy is how miniscule. Scott’s attention span is proudly miniscule: We see him read an email from Matthew Patel (Staya Bhabha), the first of Ramona’s evil exes, in what appears to be great detail (the words “a duel,” “to the,” and “death” are intercut with shots of his oblivious face in steadily tightening close-ups), but he totally doesn’t process the letter’s meaning. In the comic, Patel just shows up and incredulously asks Scott if he bothered to read his email. This happens in the movie too, but again, here the joke is that we’ve seen the email and know more than Wright’s oblivious protagonist. In that way, Wright perfectly enunciates the dull-witted nature of his character in ways that O’Malley only teasingly hinted at.
Wright’s film similarly employs allusions with such verve and intelligence that it’s very easy to ignore the way his detractors lazily accuse him of pandering to a fanboy fanbase. For example, Scott and Romana’s courtship recalls the playful cynicism and bubbly hopefulness of Osamu Tezuka’s manga. Whenever they float around in the limitless expanses of negative space, together as a unit or separately, their body language recalls the romantic way Tezuka’s protagonists flit about each other, as if unburdened by gravity. When Scott closes his eyes and sees Ramona close up just before they kiss for the first time, she’s practically glowing, her eyes radiating a generous warmth that evokes Tezuka’s most beatific women. Ramona and Scott are filled with a magical inner light, a naïve hope for their future that also happens to be affably self-possessed. Scott’s first date with Ramona just happens to naturally end with them in bed together. There’s no guile, nor any deception to that progression: They just go from not clicking at all to spooning sweetly under Ramona’s comforter. They don’t have sex because just lying next to each other is enough: “But this is nice,” Scott murmurs. “Just this.”
Similarly, whenever Wright tosses more nerd-culture references at his audience than is strictly necessary in any given scene, it’s with good reason—and a simple one, too: Scott loves Ramona. The visualized sound effects and bad puns that recall Adam West-era Batman, even the silly Zelda references, are the nerdy manifestations of butterflies in one’s stomach. Scott’s just not quite himself around Ramona (“I sort of feel like I’m on drugs when I’m with you”) and the same is true of Ramona: She admits that she refuses Scott access to her emotions because she similarly has problems with completely sharing herself with a partner. Ramona’s not Scott’s own personal growth spurt and neither is Knives, who eventually realizes that, as Wallace tells her early on, she deserves someone better than Scott. Scott, Knives, and Ramona are flesh-and-blood characters living a very surreal life.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is so much more than the sum of its parts. The film’s penultimate 15 minutes is the only time Wright goes overboard and winds up making the characters too insufferably cute to tolerate. Everything else plays to the young tyro’s strengths, especially his expert comic timing as in exhibited in the joyful rhythm of the fight scenes’ choreography, the montage sequences’ hyper-kinetic editing, and the seemingly effortless precision of the characters’ hilariously constipated verbal jousts. Wright’s cast has never looked this good, especially Cera. In Scott, he seems to have found the best expression of the gawky young man personality that he pretty much owns now that Jesse Eisenberg has decided that the only way to grow as an actor is to move on to bigger things. If Cera and Wright’s efforts in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World prove anything, it’s that refining what already works is clearly just as worthy a career path.
There’s nothing noticeably wrong with Universal’s DVD release unless you’re comparing it with the studios Blu-ray release. The Blu-ray replicates the smooth, colorful, rich texture of the film’s original 35mm master while the DVD appears less rich and vibrant. The DVD release’s comparatively homely qualities don’t exactly jump out at you, but if you were to just buy the DVD of the film and ignore the fact that such a new-fangled thing as a Blu-ray of the film exists, you wouldn’t really be able to notice that there’s anything wrong with your purchase. The richly layered audio mix is, however, just as great on the film’s DVD release as it is on the Blu-ray edition. Wright really outdid himself in the attention he paid to the way the various sound effects, music tracks, and dialogue tracks interact with one another. The 5.1 surround English track flawlessly replicates the way the film sounded when it was theatrically released.
The collection of extras is a mixed bag. Both the 10-minute blooper reel and the optional trivia track are fun but seriously padded; there are a few really funny and noteworthy allusions and gags, but otherwise, there’s not a whole lot about them worth recommending. The audio commentaries, at least, are entertaining; the one where DP Bill Pope and director Edgar Wright shoot the shit about the look of the film and the way they organized the characters’ world to suggest a video game is especially instructive. The 27 minutes of deleted scenes from the film are kind of amusing, but they aren’t new so much as redundant, or just plain negligible, clips that begin many of the scenes that are still in the film’s theatrical cut.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was the summer’s main event and while it quietly slipped in and out of theaters, its new DVD release will hopefully prove how long its legs are.
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza Director: Edgar Wright Screenwriter: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2010 Release Date: November 9, 2010 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral
This edition boasts a strong collection of extras, but that can’t make up for the 4K scan’s imperfections.3
The moving romance contained in Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t the central love story between likable layabout Charles (Hugh Grant) and carefree American Carrie (Andie MacDowell), who gradually fall in love over the course of the film’s four weddings and one funeral. Theirs is a pretty dull romance, a pairing of two attractive but innocuous socialites whose only impediment to getting hitched is bad timing. Grant brings his signature stuttering, fidgety charm to the role of Charles, but he has a hard time generating much chemistry with the affectless MacDowell, whose Carrie seems almost bored at the prospect of falling in love.
Charles and Carrie’s halting, labyrinthine path to the altar may form the film’s narrative spine, but its heart lies in the casual yet adoring relationship between quietly reserved Gareth (John Hannah) and ostentatiously chummy Matthew (Simon Callow), an older gay couple in Charles’s eclectic gang of friends. For the most part, Newell doesn’t call much attention to Gareth and Matthew’s love for one another; it’s simply a fact of Charles’s social circle, as stable and unchanging a reality as the miserable singleness of the rest of the group. But when Matthew suddenly drops dead—thus occasioning the funeral promised by the film’s title—Newell drops the otherwise unflagging tone of light-hearted farce for a nakedly emotional eulogy in which Gareth recites W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in his melodic Scottish brogue.
Four Weddings and a Funeral tells us that this is what true love looks like, and to a contemporary viewer, that acknowledgment looks remarkably ahead of its time. Two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, when such an idea was widely dismissed even by Democrats, here was a film presenting a gay couple as the very model of marital bliss. Without overt advocacy or even any apparent recognition that it was doing anything unusual—save perhaps for when an Anglican priest presiding over Matthew’s funeral pointedly introduces Gareth as the deceased’s “friend,” thus acknowledging social repression of homosexuality—Richard Curtis’s screenplay smuggles an incontrovertible argument for the equal rights of gay people into an otherwise completely mainstream romantic comedy: If Gareth and Matthew don’t deserve to get married, then who the hell does?
Well, whether or not they deserve to, plenty of bland, interchangeable white people certainly do get hitched in the posh social milieu in which Four Weddings and a Funeral takes place. The film’s greatest strength, and the source of its enduring appeal, is its ability to capture the buzzy conviviality of a friend’s nuptials. Curtis’s script, which was nominated for an Academy Award, has an intuitive sense of the expansive yet finite social atmosphere of the British upper crust, a milieu in which everyone seems to know each other solely on the basis of their shared social status. In one of the film’s more memorable lines, a character demurs that his family isn’t the richest in England—that would be the queen’s—but only about the seventh.
Newell navigates the film’s sprawling wedding scenes with a deftly observant eye, providing the audience with a rich sense of these grand social events while maintaining the focus on the film’s core group of characters. Unfortunately, we never really learn much about these people; they’re like pleasant acquaintances we keep bumping into, folks we might like to know more about but never get the opportunity to ask. For one, the anti-nuclear posters hanging in the apartment Charles shares with his punkish companion, Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman), hint at deeper layers to these characters the film never comes close to exploring.
Nevertheless, Four Weddings and a Funeral suggests in its stronger moments a P.G. Wodehouse farce as directed by Robert Altman. As it surveys the goofy foibles and incestuous interconnections of the British elite with a quietly amused sense of detachment, the film is only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, mostly courtesy of the ever-reliable Rowan Atkinson as a painfully awkward vicar. But the film manages to maintain an appealing air of light-hearted sophistication throughout. That’s thanks in large part to the ingenious structure of the screenplay, which fulfills the audience’s expectations while simultaneously playing with them. (Whose wedding will we see next? And whose funeral?) Curtis even manages to make it seem halfway plausible that Charles might go ahead and marry the wrong person.
He doesn’t, of course. And everything ends up just as you expect, with Charles and Carrie sharing a tearful denouement and rapturous kiss in the middle of a torrential downpour. “Is it raining?” Charlotte coyly asks in the film’s corniest line, “I hadn’t noticed.” Four Weddings and a Funeral might demonstrate a bit of subversiveness in its depiction of gay love, but when it comes to giving us the happy ending we crave, the film is as conventional as can be.
Four Weddings and a Funeral is no one’s idea of a gorgeous film, but Shout! Factory’s new 4K scan of the original camera negative at least manages to do justice to the film’s images, correcting the telecine wobble of MGM’s previous Blu-ray and the poor color timing of older DVD releases. This release also helpfully provides both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD audio tracks. The new scan preserves the original 35mm film grain, lending a pleasing texture and depth to movie’s soft, bright surfaces. However, Shout! makes no attempt to cover up some of the errors in the original negative, and there’s a notable amount of digital noise in the transfer. The scan ends up magnifying some significant A/V issues, including large flecks of dust and poor sound quality in some of the film’s outdoor sequences. Ultimately, this 4K scan, while visually and aurally superior to previous releases, feels like a fairly slapdash effort on Shout!’s part.
Given the film’s rather plain images, it might seem odd that the only new feature on this Blu-ray is a lengthy interview with director of photography Michael Coulter. But while it’s over-long and seemingly practically unedited, this chat turns out to be remarkably enlightening, deepening one’s appreciation for the complicated, almost documentary-style camerawork that lends such a verisimilitude to the film’s many party sequences. The rest of the extras are held over from previous releases and provide a robust, if somewhat redundant, selection of documentary featurettes. The audio commentary by Mike Newell, Richard Curtis, and producer Duncan Kenworthy, recorded for the 10th anniversary DVD release of the film, provides a chummy collection of reminiscences and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
This new home-video edition of the film boasts a strong collection of extras, but that can’t make up for the 4K scan’s imperfections.
Cast: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, James Fleet, Simon Callow, John Hannah, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Bower, Charlotte Coleman, Timothy Walker, Sara Crowe, Rowan Atkinson, David Haig, Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, Anna Chancellor, Rupert Vansittart Director: Mike Newell Screenwriter: Richard Curtis Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 1994 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s Shame
Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer.4
Though stark and despairing, Ingmar Bergman’s films are essentially, perhaps inadvertently, celebrations of art in which erudite characters wrestle with their demons via their creative endeavors. Bergman conjures intricate worlds of sex and violence and creation, which ricochet off each other with a free association of tone that suggests the dream of a gifted and highly self-conscious god. Bergman’s films are catnip to cinephiles, critics, and theatergoers partially because they inevitably flatter such audiences, offering tortured artists of physical majesty whose struggles, to balance the varying privileged scrims of their lives, often suggest nothing less than the great existential plight of humankind.
In this light, it’s doesn’t feel coincidental that Bergman’s less acclaimed films tend to interrogate the foundation on which he’s built this reflexively flattering art, particularly a run of films he made in the 1960s, in which he chafed against his emerging status as a genius and tried to tear his art down and rebuild it from the ground up. In The Virgin Spring, religion (art) is pitifully ill-suited to prevent a series of atrocities, though it perhaps allows the remaining human characters to live with themselves. In Persona and Hour of the Wolf, Bergman attempts nothing less than to foster a cinema that eats itself alive, leaving the respective characters untethered and adrift. And in Shame, Bergman pushes his exploration of the potential futility of art, and artists, even further to the breaking point, following a bourgeoisie couple as they coarsen in the face of an unnamed and highly symbolic civil war.
Shame is a bitter brew that’s leeched of much of the pleasure that even a confrontational Bergman film like Persona can give. The filmmaker begins the narrative, however, in a characteristically evocative manner, mixing eroticism, ennui, and dread. Eva (Liv Ullman) arises from bed, her shirt open and revealing her breasts. She goes to a sink and washes herself, her bare back glistening in the shards of sunlight that are piercing through the shadows. Eva’s husband, Jan (Max von Sydow), gradually awakens, and they begin their morning routine. For many filmmakers, such a series of events would be a matter of setup, but for Bergman this sequence is a kind of ambiguous and ecstatic romantic scene. Eva is a beautiful woman, and her beauty will come to influence the couple’s ability to live in their war-torn country, but Jan has been married to her for years and isn’t struck by her as directly as others might be. (Though the film offers us a moment where Jan regards Eva by a creek, clearly swept up in his intoxication with her.) Yet their casualness together isn’t merely born of routine habitation, as it’s also sensual and nourishing, reflecting the fruits and the challenges of living with someone for some degree of time.
This sequence haunts Shame as the film moves into more violent and austere territory. In this powerfully acidic production, Bergman dramatizes the invasion of a countryside that presumably has never experienced hostile foreign occupation. And though Bergman is riffing on the Vietnam War, and on the remote safety of his own island home of Fårö, Shame’s images of a prosperous white couple reduced to a status of traveling refugees offer a timeless empathetic dare. Eva and Jan have tuned out atrocity until it came tumbling onto their doorstep, taking their music careers from them, recasting them as farmers and then as fugitives. Apart from their skin color, Eva and Jan come to resemble the sort of people that the United States and much of Europe would presently prefer to lock up or fence away.
Bergman prunes Shame of the overt theatricality of even his other ‘60s films so as to suggest a loss of art born of warfare, leaving the viewer to survey craggy, frazzled landscapes and the occasionally sensual, penetrating, unmistakably Bergman-esque close-up of Ullman and Sydow’s faces. And there’s little on-screen violence in Shame to give us a cathartic thrill, which might’ve turned this merciless parable into an action film. Bergman renders horror in terrifyingly fleeting and intimate slivers of imagery: of bodies lying in fields or water, of cars run off the road, of smoke billowing up in the background while military vehicles trundle across the landscape. There are also flashes of light and explosive sounds that aren’t entirely identifiable yet are clearly the product of carnage. Eva and Jan’s home, a synecdoche for this society and their imperiled relationship, is bombed and raided many times, leaving them to start over amid rubble while they castigate one another. Through it all, they compromise themselves over and over, and Jan, initially a coward, becomes a wolf. Which is to say that Bergman has staged a brutal lament of the impotency of war as it’s felt among the populace at its mercy—a bleak poem that’s nevertheless informed with the beauty of his craftsmanship.
Yet death and compromise aren’t the primary terrors animating Shame. Instead, Bergman confronts a realization of the possibility that rarefied society might be stripped of its baubles, including its art, and might have to face the superficiality of the things it loves. (In Bergman’s most obsessive and lacerating films, art is but another kind of mask.) Such terrors are real, of course, and have been faced, most infamously during the Holocaust, but Bergman’s lack of specificity here comes to suggest that war is inevitable and circular and will eventually engulf most of us, who might be currently enjoying the sojourns of Shame’s opening passage. Bergman fillets his interests in this film, forging a vision of annihilation that is, understood, itself, to be yet another bourgeoisie toy. In one scene, Eva wonders if she’s in a dream, and if such a dreamer is capable of feeling shame. The film’s existence is her unattainable answer.
The image, courtesy of a new 2K transfer, boasts a greater degree of detail than prior home-video editions of Shame. Minute textures—particularly of the damage wrought against people and land by war—seem to pop out of the frame, and the ocean of the film’s climactic sequence visually resounds with a newfound sense of clarity. Blacks and whites are well-balanced, which is particularly notable in a brilliant and seemingly found image near the beginning of the film where the central couple is separated by a diagonal shadow looming over their farm, casually foreshadowing their rocky future. Plenty of grit has been scrubbed from the image but not at the expense of character. The monaural soundtrack offers a clean and immersive soundstage, allowing small notes of life to resound alongside the vast clinging and clanging of war.
In a new interview recorded for Criterion, Liv Ullmann speaks candidly, if briefly, about her personal and working relationship with Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann discusses the unity that exists between films such as Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna, and vividly recalls the personal anxiety that drove Bergman to tackle these projects. Two short archive interviews with Bergman are also included on this disc, which find him addressing issues of artistic relevance with a candor that shames the puffy sound bites of today’s media. The best supplement of this package, though, is “An Introduction to Ingmar Bergman,” a feature-length documentary that includes extensive footage of rare films and longer interviews with Bergman, as well as intimate footage of him on various sets. A terrific essay by film critic Michael Sragow serves as the disc’s liner notes, rounding out a somewhat slim package.
Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer, though the supplements could use a bit more meat on the bones.
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Sigge Fürst, Birgitta Valberg, Hans Alfredson, Ingvar Kjellson, Frank Sundström, Ulf Johansson, Vilgot Sjöman, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: John Huston’s Beat the Devil
Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.4
It’s impossible to discuss Beat the Devil, John Huston’s 1953 send-up of the caper film, without addressing its tumultuous production, as that chaos very much worked its way into the fiber of the film. During the making of The African Queen, Huston spent as much of his energy hunting down an elusive elephant as he did behind the director’s chair, and two years after wrapping production on that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart vehicle, the filmmaker jetted off to the Amalfi Coast of Italy for another strange adventure. Once there, Huston, unhappy with Beat the Devil’s screenplay, tore it up and subsequently hired a young Truman Capote to help him churn out fresh pages, which were often delivered to the actors just hours before the cameras started rolling.
Beat the Devil evinces the free-wheeling spontaneity of a film constructed on the fly. Jacques Rivette once wrote that “every film is a documentary of its own making,” which certainly applies, and then some, to Huston’s ramshackle, whimsical farce—often considered the first cult film and the birth of cinematic camp. Huston’s original intention was to make a half-serious thriller with an anti-colonialist bent, but the gentle Mediterranean breeze seems to have dissipated any hint of import in the story and self-consciousness in the actors’ uniformly relaxed performances. Like the ship that’s been docked for “one day to a fortnight” in the small Italian town of Ravello so the captain can recover from a severe hangover, no one—not the cast, not Huston, not even the plot—appears in a hurry to go anywhere.
The narrative of Beat the Devil, such as it is, involves a motley crew of liars, criminals, and scoundrels, all of whom have either grandiose visions of their futures or fantastical delusions about their present-day realities. Only Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) is somewhat connected with reality, accepting his fate as the unwitting lacky of the film’s ostensible baddie, the jovial and ever-sweaty Peterson (Robert Morley), who offers Billy the only convenient way to continue paying his hotel bill. They and the rest of the film’s motley crew of international characters are heading to Africa, supposedly to either mine for gold, diamonds, or uranium, or to grow coffee. But Huston is scarcely concerned with any of this. Beat the Devil is all about the follies that happen while its characters are busy making other plans.
Nearly all of these eccentric types lie about their intentions, while others speak of global conspiracies and massive shadow organizations. Lorre plays a supposedly Irish lackey named O’Hara, who quips at one point that many Germans in Chile have taken such a name and happily loses himself in the international crowd, which is equally fueled by post-war paranoia as it is by aperitifs. As O’Hara dodges his national identity, likely because he was a Nazi, the British Major Ross espouses a strange fondness for strong men like Hitler and Mussolini. At the same time, a married couple, Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown), play at being part of upper-crust British society while not-so-secretly swapping partners with Billy and his beautiful Italian belle, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida).
Beat the Devil is a gleeful mess of narrative false starts and fake-outs, simmering in its own narrative ambiguity as everyone deceives everyone else as well as the audience. But a clear end game is always obscured by the pervasive aura of mistrust in the air. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but Beat the Devil isn’t trying to be a sensible film. For a spell, it even seems like there are invisible forces, like those at play in Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, preventing anyone from leaving town. For one, when Billy tries to head out for the day with Peterson, their car breaks down and they end up accidentally pushing it off a cliff. And once everyone finally sets sail, their ship, in a fitting metaphor for the film itself, soon breaks down. This dastardly bunch of ne’er-do-wells may have some pretty evil plans in place, but in thwarting their moves at every turn, Huston defuses their treacherous ambitions, inviting us to laugh at their increasingly disastrous blunders.
After decades of being stranded in the public domain, almost any half-decent transfer of the film would be welcome. But, fortunately, Twilight Time’s transfer of the 2016 4k restoration of Beat the Devil is better than one could have hoped. The film’s gorgeous Italian vistas are rich in detail, and the actors’ often exaggerated expressions now exude a clarity certainly unseen since the film’s theatrical release. The image also has a nice balance of blacks, grays, and whites, only occasionally losing a bit of detail in the more darkly lit sequences. If anything, the transfer is too clear, occasionally making such flaws as the edge of Bogart’s wig appear unmissable. The DTS-HD audio track is consistently balanced, though dialogue is a little muddled throughout a few outdoor scenes.
The audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman is, in the spirit of Beat the Devil, a bit scattershot. The trio covers an array of topics, from the film’s divisive reputation to the various differences between this newly restored cut and the public domain version that most people have seen before now. They are only too happy to tell us that Peter Sellers dubbed many of the Italian actors’ voices, and that a young Stephen Sondheim worked as the clapboard boy. But as light-hearted and conversational as much of the commentary is, Dobbs, Kirgo, and Redman approach Beat the Devil not merely as a great cult film, but as a great John Huston film. A short featurette, “Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil,” finds the son of Claud Cockburn, author of the novel upon which the film was based, throwing much shade at Truman Capote for taking credit for dialogue taken straight from the source material. An essay by Julie Kirgo, which offers additional context to the film’s bizarre production history, rounds out the package.
Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Mario Perrone Director: John Huston Screenwriter: Truman Capote, John Huston Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: January 22, 2019 Buy: Video