MOD Movies: More from Fox
A look at recent releases from 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives
Every studio that has entered the manufacture-on-demand realm of disc distribution has fumbled its way through technical issues but most quickly settled into a strong track record of good-quality releases.
Except for 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives. A studio with not only a big library of classics in the vaults but their own cable movie channel, you would think they were poised to start rolling out the movies. Unfortunately, the quality of releases is wildly inconsistent, with the worst offences coming from pan-and-scan editions of widescreen movies (and this from the studio that introduced CinemaScope!) and non-anamorphic versions of those widescreen editions that do arrive intact.
Here's an overview of Fox MOD discs released over the past couple of months. I tried to steer clear of widescreen movies (no need to confirm disappointment) and focused on films that interested me personally and, I hoped, would be high quality releases. For the most part, they are. A few film reviews and notes on the digital masters are below.
"The Power and the Glory" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is something of a legend in some circles for a couple of reasons: the 1933 production is built on an early, ambitious original screenplay by Preston Sturges (one of the great Hollywood comedy directors ever); and its fractured narrative, jumping back and forth in time to tell the story of a controversial industrialist's life, anticipates the unconventional structure of "Citizen Kane." This is no "Kane," mind you. Director William K. Howard drags the film out with sluggish, static scenes and favors mawkish sentiment over the more interesting elements of character and conflict that the screenplay explores in its circuitous structure. Yet it covers a lot of story in its brief 75 minutes (it feels longer) and young Tracy gets to show off his potential as a heavyweight actor through is evolution from uneducated working class guy to powerful tycoon. And along with a few graceful camera moves, there is a striking image near the end of the film where a beam of sunlight pouring into Tracy's study, an image picked up in the Thatcher library scene in "Citizen Kane."
The credits were reconstructed in 1983 and the opening theme doesn't sound like the original music, at least compared to the rest of the score (an abrupt audio cut when the film starts is a dead giveaway). The print itself is scuffed and patchy and the soundtrack hissy and full of pops and jagged edits. It really needs a good clean-up, not to say a full restoration, but given the condition of the print and film's age and legacy, the disc is good enough until something better comes along.
"Stanley and Livingstone" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), made six years later with Spencer Tracy and significantly more studio resources at director Henry King's disposal, stars Tracy as newspaperman Henry M. Stanley, sent to Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone (Cedric Hardwick). Immortalized by the line, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," this highly fictionalized film looks far better on disc than "The Power and the Glory," nicely mastered from a well-preserved print for a fairly strong and clean image with slight pulsing.
"Slattery's Hurricane" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), starring Richard Widmark as a private aircraft pilot in Florida who inadvertently gets tangled up with drug smugglers, is a crime film with exotic locations, noir edges, and (as promised in the title) a hurricane. Andre de Toth, a genresmith whose career looks increasingly more interesting as his filmography rolls out on disc, keeps the film grounded in compromised characters, adult relationships, and personal (ir)responsibility, and he gives his ex-wife, Veronica Lake, the most challenging role and poignant character of her career: a woman chained to her corrupt boss by a drug addiction (never explicitly stated, of course, but the references are pretty clear). A real-life addict and alcoholic, Lake plays the role without her trademark hairdo, and she looks heartbreakingly frail and worn out. Linda Darnell, John Russell, and Gary Merrill co-star and de Toth makes the Caribbean locations and dynamic weather just as much a character.
Unfortunately, this is a disappointing disc from a non-HD video master, with a soft haze of digital noise on HD monitors.
"Inferno" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a lean, leathery drama starring Robert Ryan as a business tycoon with broken leg left to die in the unforgiving heat of the Mojave Desert by his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover (William Lundigan), straddles the hard-bitten no man's land between film noir and survival thriller. British director Roy Ward Baker keeps the film pared down to the elemental essentials and observes Ryan's drive to survive with gritty efficiency, accompanied by terse, to the point voice-over. The 1953 film was originally shot and released in 3D but Baker doesn't go for the clichés of the format. Rather, he explores the space, the vastness of the empty plain, the feeling of isolation and vulnerability in the sun-beaten desert.
The disc features the "flat" version of the Technicolor film and there is a slight greenish hue to the picture (was this from the "green" side of the 3D diptych?), but the image otherwise is quite good, nicely mastered from a clean print with strong color.
"That Lady in Ermine" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is the final film from legendary director Ernst Lubitsch, and one of his most inconsequential. Betty Grable stars in this even lighter than usual costume operetta of romance and flirtations in the world of the European aristocracy, with a dramatis personae filled with witty royals, handsome soldiers, and wily servants. She's a beautiful princess about to be married to Cesare Romero when her kingdom is invaded by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., as well as her 300-year-old ancestor, who steps out of a painting to save her kingdom and castle through romance and song. Lubitsch died before shooting was complete and Otto Preminger took over, reshooting some scenes and deleting musical numbers. The result is fun and at times energetic, but while Preminger is a master as silky noir and nuanced melodrama, he does not have the Lubitsch touch.
Like so much of 1940s Technicolor, this film revels in the bright colors of the film stock and the disc is well mastered from a vibrant print: bright, vivid, clean, and sharp.
"The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is another final film, this one the last Hollywood picture finished by Preston Sturges, starring Betty Grable, this time as a saloon singer in the old west who packs a six-gun and isn't shy about using it. Terrific-looking master from a solid print, with colors that pop right out of the frame.
"Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) – Henry King's slice of Americana is oddly judgmental of folks who don't embrace his affection for small town life—you might say it's quite intolerant of them—which makes this light drama with a dark undercurrent more interesting than it might first appear. Image is a little dark and not quite as vivid as "Ermine," but clean and good-looking.
"The Fan" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is Otto Preminger's 1949 adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's fan," with a few changes to appease the production code censors. Good looking transfer of a good-quality print, with only slight pulsing and barely perceptible jitter.
"A Hatful of Rain" (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) - Under other circumstances, this film would warrant a full review, but this disc is a pan-and-scan version of a CinemaScope film, and a poor transfer on top of that: pre-HD master of an unrestored print, noisy and jittery. It's a fail by any measure.