Discs be my destiny

Discs be my destiny – films on laser disc

Richard T. Jameson

For all its vibrancy, brightness, and wellnigh infinite capacity for detail, one of the most beguiling aspects of the laser medium is the sheer peculiarity of what, every now and then, you’re invited to savor in it. The primo offerings of a given season – say, Paul Verhoeven’s ferocious sci-fi satire RoboCop (’87), new from Voyager/Criterion in a dazzling, and dazzlingly packaged, CAV disc – usually make impeccable sense as laser selections. The cyborg hero (Peter Weller); the witty commingling of urban slumscapes and spiffy fascist architecture; the sardonic deployment of “Eyewitness News” TV textures, POV cybergrids, and instant-replay atrocities; even the variegated portraits in cheerful corruption supplied by the unclean likes of Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox – all seem designed to justify laser as a vehicle for cruising alternative realities. And how not to love a movie that offhandedly imagines the zapping of two ex-Presidents, California favorite sons, when a Star Wars satellite misfires over Santa Barbara?

On the other hand, who ever decided that the laser aficionado needed The Brave One? The film qualifies as a supreme instance of the forgotten-footnote-to-(film-)history syndrome, except that the footnote is all anyone remembers about it. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was handing out the Oscars for 1956, The Brave One copped a writing award for one Robert Rich. Trouble was, there was no Robert Rich present – or, indeed, anywhere. It soon became known (though eighteen years would pass before the Academy formally acknowledged it) that “Robert Rich” was Dalton Trumbo of Hollywood Ten fame, who had been doing pseudonymous scriptwork for the King Brothers production company throughout the blacklist years. The subsequent industry-wide embarrassment (reinforced by a gaffe involving another verboten screenwriter, Michael Wilson of Friendly Persuasion, the same year) was the beginning of the end of the blacklist.

Understandably, then, Lumivision banners The Brave One as “Dalton Trumbo’s Masterpiece,” though masterpiece would be flagrantly misstating the case even if Trumbo himself hadn’t described his effort as “a simple – if not simpleminded – little story.” The scenario (Robert Rich was credited only with story, though Trumbo claimed the screenplay as his, too) has to do with a Mexican lad (Michel Ray), a child of poverty who raises a bull, Gitano, as his personal pet and de facto member of the household. When the kindly rich ranchero-sportsman who smiled on this arrangement dies in a racing accident, Gitano is auctioned off by the estate and sent to certain extermination in the bullring; whereupon the boy sets off for Mexico City to save him.

Though the material for salt-of-the-earth allegory is readily apparent, the only property Trumbo appears to have been concerned with was supplying a salably sentimental one for the King Brothers’ Disneyesque requirements. There’s even a benign intercession by another kindly authority figure, a Presidente of Mexico who commutes Gitano’s sentence while giving a fair impersonation of Lionel Barrymore in heavenly overseer voice. The film was directed by Irving Rapper, who had a weakness for quasi-divine interventions and shoots the Presidente in the oblique, you-never-see-his-face mode customarily reserved for sitting U.S. Presidents, Jesus Christ, and, perhaps, Robert Rich.

Yes, I’m being unkind. But I’m also prepared to admit that, as Gitano enters the bullring despite all the boy’s best efforts, The Brave One unexpectedly locks into a genuinely powerful climax. The movie was made on location, and while Rapper relentlessly shoots for travelogue-picturesque, and cravenly frames the corrida material to exclude any glimpse of the slaughtered bulls being hauled out of the ring, the sheer size and awesome architecture of the arena – and the cinematically verifiable grandeur of Gitano’s spirit – finally deliver the dramatic goods. Watching the movie, one frequently chuckles, “Oh wow!” Watching the finale, one breathes, “Wow.”

So, yeah, I’m glad somebody decided that laserworld had a place for The Brave One. As laserdisc and as movie, it speaks to the inherent strength and beauty of each medium. Mostly, Irving Rapper had only the tritest sense of what to do with the wide screen; there’s no end of textbook illustrations on how to squander place, movement, emotion. Yet CinemaScope itself reigns. I kept mentally reframing the images as pan & scan compromises within the conventional TV format; it would have been unwatchable. The Brave One is eminently watchable – a movie not in, but by, CinemaScope.

Lumivision’s transfer is impeccable. The visual master was a pristine British 35mm IB Technicolor print. Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Barefoot Contessa, did not rise here to the sensuous splendors of those Technicolor masterworks, but his images are crisp, the colors saturated. And even the occasional unpersuasive day-for-night effect or tone-shifting dissolve is curiously moving to behold: the laserdisc is so true to the original, and to the technical capabilities of its era, one feels time-warped back to a first-run moviehouse in the Fifties. In another department, though, we can be grateful that absolute fidelity to the original was not observed. Working from three separate soundtracks – a four-track stereo release print, a 35mm optical composite, and a separate music and effects track – Lumivision has superbly served the last music score by Victor Young, grievously underrated in his lifetime but now securely ensconced on Hollywood Parnassus. The jacket blurb proposes that the disc sounds better than the movie did on first release, and there’s every reason to believe it.

Similarly, The Premature Burial and Titles of Terror, out on a letterboxed double disc from Orion Home Video and Image Entertainment, surely haven’t looked this good since their first unveilings in 1962. And probably not even then, if you caught them at the drive-in.

These were the third and fourth in Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures. Like House of Usher (’60), The Pit and the Pendulum (’61), The Raven (’63), The Haunted Palace (’63 – really an H.P. Lovecraft tale with obligatory Poe title stuck on), The Masque of the Red Death (’64), and Tomb of Ligeia (’65), they were shot in Panavision (2.35:1). Many 16mm distributors offered them for nontheatrical rental over the years, but never, as far as I know, in anything but the pan & scan format. That was a pity. Corman worked with ace cinematographers: the veteran Floyd Crosby on the first six, Nicolas Roeg and Arthur Grant, respectively, on the British-based Masque and Ligeia. Given the minimal budgets, recycled sets, interior-for-exterior locations, and the tacky Pathe Color process with its paper-thin textures (you feel you could reach up to the screen and scratch the color with your fingernail), they achieved remarkably handsome results.

The script lacks wit – and the marquee lacks Vincent Price, who starred in all the others – but Premature Burial is exemplary in matters of design and execution. Set in a mansion, a crypt, and a permanently fogbound garden/cemetery/thicket in between, the action is as claustrophobia-inducing as the coffin Ray Milland fears to be buried alive in, but Corman, Crosby, and art director Daniel Haller use every inch of the available space for atmospheric effect and visual balance. There’s an early composition linking heavy front door, entrance hall, staircase, and adjacent library with windows onto the misty out-of-doors; as Hazel Court – her red hair the one index of vitality in Milland’s gloomy world – traverses and penetrates this space, one can almost hear the collaborators trading high-fives offcamera (“Look how big the place seems! And ya know, it didn’t cost that much either”).

Tales of Terror is a trilogy of Poe stories, best remembered for the central “The Black Cat” (with a nod to “A Cask of Amontillado”) and its central scene, a hilarious wine-tasting duel between the epically epicene Vincent Price and the blowsily bibulous Peter Lorre. Elsewhere, unfortunately, the episode displays the literalminded excesses and sub-sophomoric humor Corman could fall prey to – in particular, a tedious overuse of optically distorted imagery (footage shot as if for a “flat,” nonanamorphic feature and then spread out with the anamorphic lens) to convey Lorre’s delirium tremens. Les Baxter’s music only ups the egregiousness.

Still, as laserdisc presentations the films are unimpeachable, the prints sharp, fully colored, and immaculate. Orion/Image had already brought out House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum as a double disc last year, and The Raven (with Price, Lorre, Court, Boris Karloff, and Jack Nicholson) and Masque of the Red Death are due in early July.

And speaking of future releases . . . Scarecrow Video is an enterprising Seattle outfit that recently staged a complete retrospective of the works of (sometime Corman associate) Monte Hellman, including, in most cases, the only known 35mm prints of the director’s work. Among these was the Universal archive print of Two Lane Blacktop. This absurdist gem, written by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry and featuring the great Warren Oates, has been all but unseen in the 24 years since its brief theatrical release; even TV showings (pan & scan, poisonous color) are rare. MCA/Universal has no plans for the film. Scarecrow is circulating a petition, 2000 for Two Lane, seeking signatures in support of a letterboxed release of the Techniscope film on video and, better yet, laserdisc. I contributed signature #636 on June 8. Your space is currently blank. Help MCA – and this definitive road movie – see the light by phoning 1-800-700-8554, faxing 206-524-4851, e-mailing scarecrow@uspan.com or http://www.film.com/film or walking into Scarecrow Video, 5030 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle WA 98105. Tell them G.T.O. sent you.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group