Lionsgate releases the inaugural Blu-ray releases of international classics in its “StudioCanal Collection” and it goes for the gold standard with definitive editions of Ran, Contempt and the original The Ladykillers.
I’m no expert in the technical details of converting European digital masters to American standards, but it appears than many of the problems that crop up in adapting PAL masters to NTSC DVDs are not an issue for Blu-ray. The frame rate is different but the lines of resolution are standard for high-definition across borders and, thanks to the technological advances in high-def TVs and Blu-ray players, region-free discs from Europe will play on American machines, which have the ability to adjust for frame rate. That’s prologue to acknowledging that these Lionsgate discs are in fact struck from StudioCanal’s digital masters (the folks at DVD Beaver, who are relentless about these things, have compared the Lionsgate Blu-ray editions to the European pressings and found them to be, with one exception, exactly the same) and StudioCanal has made an effort to create definitive editions for these films. Which means, not only are they freshly, beautifully remastered for Blu-ray with great care, but they are filled with substantial supplements worthy of the films. StudioCanal seem to be emulating Criterion’s commitment to fidelity and respectful tribute to their cinema classics and even the engineering of simple, uncluttered, quickly-loading menus. They don’t bother with flashy graphics on the screen. It’s all about the movies, and they are great.
Carol Reed’s 1959 Our Man in Havana makes its home video debut on Sony’s mixed-up “Martini Movies” imprint. The loosely connected group of titles have little (if anything) in common and Sony promotes them as a mix of camp, cool and nostalgia. And while that’s a somewhat misleading portrait of Our Man in Havana, a satire of international cold war espionage in the hot zone of Batista’s Cuba, it’s not completely off base.
The film was the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene and, although it’s a minor work compared to The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, it is a witty and entertaining film, a spy movie lite with dark corners and a great cast, led by Alec Guinness as a chagrined British vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana who is reluctantly drafted by the British Secret Service and fulfills his obligations by churning out fictitious reports and phantom agents, all of whom draw salaries that flow through Guinness and right into his bank account (which is immediately spent by his spoiled spendthrift daughter). Burl Ives is as an apolitical doctor caught in the middle of the shenanigans, Ernie Kovacs is perfectly sleazy as a corrupt Cuban officer with eyes for Guinness’ daughter, Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson are British intelligence officers and Maureen O’Hara is the secretary that they send to help Guinness manage his growing (and entirely fictional) stable of informants and agents. The tone is inconsistent but the atmosphere is marvelous. Reed shot on location in Havana and fills the film with scenes in the streets and bars and exclusive retreats of the very wealthy. And while he doesn’t comment on the politics of Cuba, the corruption and totalitarian power of the government and its police are suggested in comments tossed off in the course of banter.
Stephen Frears’ directorial debut Gumshoe, a cockeyed detective film starring Albert Finney as a small-time bingo caller who plays at being a private detective for fun and ends up in the middle of a real mystery, and Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five, a low budget, high concept film he produced independently, also arrive under the “Martini Movies” imprint. The black and white widescreen Our Man in Havana looks terrific and the color Gumshoe is fine (the colors have a drained look to them appropriate to its dispiriting Liverpool location). Five is less than stellar, but the grit and imperfection in the image that appear to be right in the master materials. The only supplements to speak of are the original trailers. The “Martini Minutes” featurettes are nothing more than tongue-in-cheek self-promotions. I dig deeper into the films in my weekly DVD column at Parallax View. Continue reading “DVDs for 2/3/09 – ‘Our Man in Havana’ and the Martini Movies Collection”