THE LETTER KING SOLOMON'S MINES ICE STATION ZEBRA IVANHOE RANDOM HARVEST
(WARNER HOME VIDEO)
It's difficult to imagine any true classic movie buff finding fault with most of the 2004 DVD Decision Winners, which supply hefty portions of romance, intrigue, and Technicolor adventure in gratifyingly copious amounts.
THE LETTER is the second of the stormy but wildly successful Bette Davis-Wiliam Wyler collaborations, and it is as fresh and riveting today as it was the day of its release. No director but Wyler was so continuously able to eliminate the occasional overbearing hamminess that marred a portion of Davis' work, and her performance here as an adulteress using her sexual wiles to escape a murder conviction is pure gold, as is the perceptively restrained work of Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and a sublime supporting cast. But make no mistake about it: it's clear from the very first "shot" (pun intended) that one of the most acclaimed directors in film history is firmly at the helm. One shudders to think how a lesser director might have reduced W. Somerset Maugham's play into melodramatic mush.
Not only is the full-screen black-and-white transfer as fine as it could possibly be, matched by a strong monaural soundtrack that brings out all the richness of Max Steiner's moody and magnificent score, but Warner's has included a recently discovered alternate ending sequence which, to my amazement, I actually prefer to the one used in the film. In my opinion, Warners has achieved the impossible ------ they've improved on perfection!
"What the !*#? happened to the !*?#!*? color?" Stewart Granger screamed after sitting down with me in his Santa Monica apartment to watch a key scene in KING SOLOMON'S MINES that he wanted to talk about in my interview with him for the Criterion laserdisc edition of SCARAMOUCHE. Indeed, the unimaginable had happened. This great adventure milestone, which was Granger's U.S. debut film, and won a richly-deserved Oscar for its superb 3-Strip Technicolor African location photography, now looked as if it had been shot in (gasp!) TruColor or AnscoColor! What had previously been rich and lush now looked pasty, washed-out and cheap. When the laser-disc was released there was no improvement, and through the years TCM's print remained depressingly drab and dank looking. And now, finally, we have the dvd, which, while a considerable improvement over anything seen in recent decades is, I must admit, occasionally too pale in some scenes to accurately reflect the gloriousness of its original look. For me the saddest thing is, given Warner's unparalleled record of continuous transfer excellence, I feel certain that better source material simply no longer exists. That said, KING SOLOMON'S MINES remains The King of African Adventures. It's never been equalled, and probably never will be.
Certainly the biggest surprise is the fact that ICE STATION ZEBRA, an intermittently engaging if rather pedestrian Cold War submarine thriller, was the third most requested title in this distinguished bunch. Though two-thirds of it works quite well, there's no getting around the fact that the last third is something of a let-down, and no help at all are the colorless monotone line-readings of Rock Hudson, the clueless high-school recitations provided by non-actors Jim Brown and Tony Bill, and the fact that poor Ernie Borgnine is saddled with a comic-opera Ruskie accent. However, there isn't sufficient space here to properly honor the thrillingly electric performance that Patrick McGoohan delivers. Just as he would decades later in the fatuous and numbingly self-important BRAVEHEART, this fine actor is the live wire that animates even the most mundane scenes with a fierce originality that is nothing less than awe-inspiring.
As for the transfer, I'm unable to find the appropriate words to describe the level of its perfection. I saw this SuperPanavison 70 film projected on a gigantic curved screen at L.A.'s Cinerama Dome and I promise you it never looked this great! On my seven foot screen the anamorphic images have a distinctly 3-D level of depth that I've never witnessed before on any dvd release (how did they achieve this?), the colors are beyond flawless and the remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is vibrant and alive enough to give your subwoofer a vigorous workout. All aspects of this transfer, in fact, are of demo-disc quality.
IVANHOE is that rare bird, a fantastically spectacular yet faithful adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's legendary novel about gallant knights, lovely damsels in perpetual distress and dastardly villains, that somehow manages to combine these familiar elements with a social conscience and, most wondrously of all, a truly literate screenplay that never caters to those simply seeking a rousing good time, which is not to imply that those so inclined will be disappointed by the spirited proceedings. Indeed, on a purely physical level, no film has ever equalled this one when it comes to the variety of jousting, ferocious mace and chain duels to the death, and fantastic assaults on burning castles that is so continuously and graphically on display here.
But the real miracle of this stirring IVANHOE is an intelligent screenplay that successfully mixes those crowd-pleasingly boisterous scenes with a bitingly frank depiction of Middle Ages anti-Semitism and political hypocrisy that never pulls punches, yet seamlessly blends with the clatter and clanking nature of the more energetic scenes. The cast (with the notable exception of a visibly bored and uninterested Joan Fontaine) could scarcely be improved upon. Not one false note from Elizabeth Taylor to George Sanders to the smallest bit player is evident at any time, so meticulously cast is this massive undertaking.
A word about Robert Taylor's delineation of the title part: it is easily the most difficult role in the film, for it would appear to be almost impossible to believably convey a character so completely steeped in unyielding nobility and chivalry without coming across as a bloodless and highly improbable figurehead, but Taylor manages to animate his role with a commandingly direct display of grim determination that unmistakably makes him the center of gravity in this truly exceptional film.
The IVANHOE laserdisc utilized a beautifully restored 3-Strip Technicolor print, and the dvd benefits from what appears to be the identical full-screen transfer, but is vastly sharper than that previous release, and the monaural sound crisply and confidently showcases one of the greatest musical scores ever, courtesy of Miklos Rosza.
I'd like to think that the inclusion of RANDOM HARVEST on this list indicates that maybe, just maybe, the spirit of true romanticism still exists for a select few of us in a cynical, blunt and brutal society that, at least on the surface, appears to view romantic sentimentality with a wink, a nudge, and a yawn.
For romance is the singular item that this RANDOM HARVEST supplies in abundantly glutinous and sugary 126 minute portions which would be thoroughly indigestible were it not for the fortunate fact that they are being spoon-fed to us by the smoothest actor in cinema history, Ronald Colman, and Greer Garson, one of the most charming actresses to ever grace the silver screen. It is they who single-handedly transform a love story rife with tears, rose blossoms, amnesia, and some completely fantastic coincidences and improbabilities into a fancifully romantic film that overwhelms the viewer with their sincerity and warmth, all to the strains of composer Herbert Stothart's perpetually weeping violins.
The full screen black and white image easily surpasses that of the laserdisc, and the clean and distortion-free monaural sound maximizes the effect of every sigh and sob.