Route 66, the great American TV road show, started rolling out on DVD last year with a box set of the first 15 episodes on four discs. The mastering was, to be frank, a disappointment. The press materials claimed that it was digitally transferred from original masters “for the highest quality picture and audio possible,” but the old Columbia House VHS tapes looked cleaner. From the evidence on screen, the episodes looks like they were taken from 16mm syndication prints, nowhere near the original source material. The soundtrack is riddled with hiss, warbles, and hums, there is grit and scratches in the image is soft, not the sharp, clean mastering you get from such restored B&W shows like I Love Lucy or The Twilight Zone. But at least it was in the correct aspect ratio.
The balance of the first season was released in a second four-disc set. The visual quality was improved but it was mastered in 1.77 widescreen, the image hacked and bent to fill the modern HD screens. Oddly enough, it looked pretty handsome most of the time, the frame shaved at the top and bottom without unduly crowding the composition and at times picking out the characters from the background, but it wasn’t the original version.
Route 66: Complete First Season corrects that mastering gaff by remastering the ill-advised widescreen episodes in their correct Academy ratio. The first 15 episodes are still rough but the quality is perfectly adequate for its needs and watching on a high-definition set certainly emphasizes the weaknesses. But I love this show and this is likely the best we’re going to get.
Martin Milner is Tod the college boy, whose privileged life disappeared with his father’s bankruptcy and death. George Maharis is Buz the street wise ladykiller with a chip on his shoulder. Boyhood friends, they hit the road in Tod’s sole possession, a Corvette convertible (“My father gave me that car, just before he died. It’s the only thing I’ve got left”), Buz riding shotgun as Tod drives too fast through a whole lot of shortcuts and into a lot of drama, all of it shot on location across the country. It was kind of a Playhouse 90 on the road, with Tod and Buz – the naïve idealist and the rough and tumble pragmatist – as hosts and eternal guest stars as they traveled this great nation of ours looking for work. Every episode opens against the landscape of their new location with Nelson Riddle’s jazzy theme song providing the continuity. Created by writer Stirling Silliphant and producer Herbert B. Leonard (who both came from the similarly structured “The Naked City”), it was the best of its kind and back in the eighties, when I discovered the show in syndication on Nick at Night during my final year of graduate school, it instilled in me a wanderlust that resulted in my own coast-to-coast road with a buddy.
This season works its way from the shadowy deep south (the series debut, “Black November,” takes them to a gothic town frozen in time by its own guilt and shame and ruled over by a virtual dictator, Everett Sloane) across the gulf coast through the southwest desert states and over to the west coast. Along the way they roustabout on an oil rig, defend a bitter Suzanne Pleshette from a murder charge, go logging in Oregon, work as ranchers, field hands, pickers, crop dusters, and more. Tod drives a stock car, Buz boxes, they both do plenty of romancing, but nothing beats Joey Heatherton doing a sex kitten dance on a bar in “Three Sides.” Silliphant personally scripts more 75% of the first season, stamping the show with his brand of social drama and filling the dramas with troubled, tormented and just plain screwed-up souls looking for some peace. The shows don’t feel dated so much as dramatic time capsules – the language, the fashions, the details may change, but the characters are still dynamic and the the scripts bring out the best of the guest cast, a mix of aging stars, stalwart actor actor and up-and-coming performers: Janice Rule, E.G. Marshall, Leslie Nielsen, Jack Lord, Jack Warden, Lee Marvin, Patty McCormack, Sylvia Sidney, Walter Matthau, Dan Duryea, Robert Duvall, Darren McGavin and more. It’s still one of my all-time favorite TV shows.
I review the film in my MSN DVD column here.
Also notable in TV releases this week: the final season of the BBC series Foyle’s War: Set 5. Set in the south of England during World War II, they cast the traditional British TV mystery in the unique atmosphere and texture of British life during wartime, which evolves through the shows as the war turns this way and that and the citizens – from the folks left home to the returning soldiers – face the horrors and upheavals.
These stories (which follow the chronology of the war) begin in 1944, as the tide of the war has turned. The resignation of Detective Chief Inspector Foyle (Michael Kitchen) has left the police department in a crisis of leadership, but the brazen murder of his replacement brings him back to work, where his quiet style starts solving cases once more. This trio of mysteries takes Foyle and his team (Anthony Howell and Honeysuckle Weeks) to the end of hostilities and the marvelous series to the end of its run.
I review the series in the TV section of my DVD column.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
… an obscure but fascinating facet of German war history: the Nazi plot to counterfeit British pounds and American dollars to fund their nearly bankrupt war effort. Karl Markovics stars as Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a legendary Jewish forger in 1936 Berlin who is plucked from general population of the death camps and ultimately put in charge of the secret forging detail…. The framing sequence (featuring Dolores Chaplin, Charlie’s granddaughter) is a bit glib but the camp scenes are vividly realized and the central conflict – self survival versus self sacrifice – is made clear in terms we can understand.
TV: the six-episode Masters Of Science Fiction, the complete Masters Of Horror: Season Two Box Set and Star Trek: The Original Series: Season Two Remastered:
The original voyages of the Starship Enterprise get more than simply a digital buffing with this new release of the second season. …the special effects and sound effects that have been redone with digital technology. (Don’t worry, the cheap sets and sixties color scheme remain untouched.) The producers have been careful to match the look and style with the rest of the show so the new ship isn’t overly detailed or slick, but rather smoothly integrated into the existing footage.
Special Releases: Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko (a no-frills box set of two features), Perils Of The New Land: Films of the Immigrant Experience (1910- 1915) from Flicker Alley and Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon The Brain:
The second film in Guy Maddin’s “autobiographical trilogy” pushes his themes of sexual repression and guilt into even more disturbing dimensions with a weird family melodrama of incest and child abuse wrapped in the perverted horror movie. The fictional Guy Maddin remembers back to his childhood in a lighthouse orphanage run by his emotionally smothering mother and distant, workaholic scientist father, who feed off the youth of their charges (including their own children) like vampires. The perverse fantasy has elements of juvenile mystery and features cross dressing characters, boy crushes, Sapphic love, and a zombie.
Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones saddle up as aging cowboys and former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call with easy authority for one last big cattle drive from Texas to Montana. They take the reins of a posse of dynamic characters on their odyssey through the gorgeous landscape of the American Southwest, battling horse thieves, angry Indian tribes, and a renegade half-breed killer named Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest) along the way. Robert Urich, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Ricky Schroder, Diane Lane, Chris Cooper and D.B. Sweeney co-star in supporting (but by no means small) roles. The mini-series proved to be the ideal format for the story. Australian director Simon Wincer gives it a grandly epic feel and visual sweep while capturing an engrossing intimacy with leathery authenticity.
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