Warner Archive: Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) on Blu-ray

The pastoral romantic epic Far From the Madding Crowd is now available on Blu-ray in a new release from Warner Archive.

Based on Thomas Hardy's first literary success, the film stays close to the novel's plotline, taking its time, but moving along smoothly through its nearly three hour running time. Set in the countryside of England during Victorian times, it tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), the strong-willed owner by inheritance of a large farm and her romantic entanglements with three men.

In his review of the film Roger Ebert called Julie Christie, "too sweet and superficial" to handle the complexities of playing Bathsheba. While I haven't read Hardy's book, and can't comment on whether Christie captures Everdene as conceived, I thought that the way she used sweetness to charm, while often behaving in a less becoming way, was a good choice.

She plays a woman who doesn't know the extent of abilities: for attracting men, for feeling passion. She doesn't see how her sweet nature draws admirers and conceals her more turbulent personality. While she knows that she is strong, the complexities of that strength are not yet clear to her, and Christie effectively communicates her developing awareness of herself and the way she affects others.

The men who romance her, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp are also well cast. As a sheepherder who is at first overconfident in his ability to win Bathsheba, Bates is cast against type as Gabriel Oak, a strong, decent man who otherwise is rightfully certain of his skill and what he has to offer. Finch is appropriately tense and awkward as Boldwood, the neighboring gentleman farmer who takes Bathsheba's joke valentine too seriously and becomes romantically obsessed with her. There's a dangerous hint of sociopathy to Stamp's portrayal of a reckless sergeant, who faces tragedy before he begins to regret his behavior.

Director John Schlesinger has created a beautifully detailed world. You can feel the weight of the farm work and the cast performing it looks authentic, as if he came upon them all by chance and decided to turn on the camera. Aided by director of photography Nicholas Roeg, who would eventually become an accomplished film director himself, he captures a heightened landscape, in which the light turns blades of grass silver and sun rays appear to reach out and caress Christie's face.

The gorgeous spectacle of it all just about distracts you from the curiously flat feel of the drama. Though it centers on romance, it seems lacking in passion. Even in a famously thrilling scene where Stamp demonstrates his skill with the sword by repeatedly endangering Bathsheba, there is excitement, but somehow the romantic element doesn't ignite. You understand why this reckless man would get her blood pumping, but you don't feel it.

It is enjoyable to watch the film though, because Schlesinger trusts his audience to understand all that is necessary. He lets the world of his characters unfold with natural ease. When Bathsheba's sheep begin to collapse from bloat, you don't get a lecture about the danger of livestock eating clover, but the urgency of the situation is made clear. In one of the most revealing moments, Bathsheba and Gabriel work frantically together to save her barley ricks, and you can see how well matched they are, even if there is no moment when the music rises and they lock eyes. In the upcoming version of the film starring Carey Mulligan, the scene has that moment, and loses the subtlety of their strengthening connection.

The picture is sharp and clean, but with enough grain to retain the nostalgic, bucolic feel. This is an extended version of the film, with three additional minutes that were not included in the original North American release. Special features include a trailer and a featurette made at the time of filming, with footage of Christie examining the filming locations.

Far From the Madding Crowd is a lush, inviting film and deserving of a wider audience.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Review: Jazz and Heroin in Shirley Clarke's The Connection (1961)

Milestone Films continues its six-year effort to release iconoclastic filmmaker Shirley Clarke's films on DVD and Blu-ray with her feature debut, The Connection (1961). In it, eight heroin junkies wait for their fix in a rundown Manhattan loft while a filmmaker and his assistant document their tortured existence.

Freddie Redd
Based on a 1959 play by Jack Gelber, Clarke cast most of the actors from the original off-Broadway production. Half the junkie quota is filled by The Freddie Redd Quartet, led by a hunch-shouldered Jackie MacLean on the alto sax and Redd on the piano. Warren Finnerty reprises his Obie-winning role as Leach, the boil-inflicted owner of the apartment while Clarke's lover Carl Lee plays the smoothly amoral dealer, Cowboy. Roscoe Lee Brown is heard more than he is seen as the filmmaker's assistant, but he is charismatic and handsome in this early role and clearly the actor in the cast on the way to greater things.

I'd been warned that it could take a while to get into the film, and it's true, the first few minutes feel like a mess, full of wild chatter and overdramatic gestures. You wonder where this ragged bunch is headed. Once you're locked in its groove though, it's hard to look away.

Clarke creates a gritty atmosphere, absent the gloss of mainstream films, but still artificial. You get a feel for real human weaknesses, from actors who are clearly putting on a show. The contradiction lends the production an odd excitement. Everything feels a bit uneasy and you wonder who will come lunging at the camera next. This is deliberately rebellious filmmaking .

Jackie MacLean
Making a film on one set is a dangerous pursuit, but Clarke has a way of shifting gears that constantly refreshes the scene. She whips the camera or completely darkens the image, bringing actors so close they are shadows and suddenly widening the view again. She zooms in on details, a crack in the wall, the cockroach scaling it, all the filthy details of this sordid life.

While the film portrays the addict's life as bleak, it has no moral message about drugs. These men are sick and desperate, but it is their human weaknesses and not the narcotics that are held up for scrutiny. This is clear in the final minutes, when an overdose empties the room of several men, their cowardice and lack of loyalty painted much darker than their addictions.

The jazz quartet is one of the most exciting elements of The Connection, giving the surroundings life whenever the confinement of the set starts to become oppressive. Though the musicians spend long periods slumped over their instruments, like they've got nothing left to give, they constantly come to life again, playing as though they have all the energy in the world. It's a great document of some fine jazz artists.

Though the film won plaudits at Cannes Film Festival, New York State censors rejected its release in the United States. Clarke decided to release the film without approval, but the screenings were shut down after two showings and the projectionist arrested.
The group waits

While the primary problem was said to be the number of times the characters used the s-word, usually in reference to their fix, there are plenty of other reasons censors had to object. A man looking at gay porn, the still-shocking sight of a needle going into Leach's arm as he gasps on the edge of anticipated euphoria and perhaps worst of all, the fact that black characters were painted as complex human beings, living in equality and nonchalant ease among white people.

With poor distribution, the film didn't make back its production costs, despite it being infinitely less expensive to make than a Hollywood production. It makes you wonder what movies would have been like today had it been readily available to influence budding filmmakers. Thanks to the efforts of Milestone, it now can do just that, and thrill new audiences with its adventurous spirit.

Disc bonus features include a trailer and photo gallery, a very cute home movie from the film set, conversations with the film's art director Albert Brenner and Freddie Redd, audio tracks of a pair of songs used to market the film in 1964 and four minutes of color footage featuring Carl Lee and a poodle named Max.

Many thanks to Milestone Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

All photos courtesy of Milestone Films

Quote of the Week

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The Oscar is a cruel joke hatched up by a cruel town and handed out in a cruel ceremony.

-Marion Davies

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Screenshot of the Week

Jerry Lewis, ready to strut in Cinderfella (1960)

Classic Links

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RIP Louis Jourdan . Such a beautiful man. I just hated him for breaking Joan Fontaine's heart in Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), but I understood why she fell so hard for him.

I can't believe there have been six ties in Oscar history. It seems like that would be almost impossible!

Though I don't watch enough new movies to be terribly excited about the upcoming Oscars, I always like to watch any big celebration of film. If only the classic stars in this amazing gallery of past ceremonies could be on the stage this Sunday.

This is an excellent history of some of the more contentious issues surrounding the Oscars.

I love Raquelle's list of new and upcoming books at Out of the Past, many of which will be reviewed here soon. If only I had time to read them all!

A retired "dentist to the stars" remembers Marilyn Monroe's beautiful teeth.

I see a bit of Gable Sr. in Clark Gable III, but not so much the confident strength he exuded. Definitely not the same career path!

The Great Villain Blogathon sounds like a lot of fun. Evil characters are always the most interesting.

This is a bit out of my usual timeframe, but I have to give props to Eddie Murphy for the sharp speech he gave about black actors in Hollywood before presenting the Academy Award for best picture in 1988. He spoke some harsh words, but ended up charming the audience. It had to have taken a lot of courage to do that.

Warner Archive: William Shatner Battles Himself in White Comanche (1968)

The new Warner Archive release  White Comanche features William Shatner playing half-breed twins at war with each other. If you like Shatner or the kind of oddball films that he picks, or more likely inspires with his presence, then this bare bones Western will not disappoint.

Miserable Cotten, Brooding Shatner
Just about everyone in Comanche seems lost. The hapless cast looks like it's dutifully following instructions from an elementary school drama teacher. The romantic lead appears to have missed a turn on the way to a groovy spy flick. As the sheriff of a dusty Western town, Joseph Cotten seems baffled, and maybe a bit angry to find himself so far from his Citizen Kane days. Even the soundtrack is confused, with its jazzy bass and heavy use of hi-hat cymbals you half expect to see Sammy Davis Jr. pop out of a bush to do a snappy number.

But instead you get William Shatner dressed like a cowboy, trotting through the hills on a horse, and not looking a bit lost. The best thing about Shatner is he always knows exactly who he is and where he is going, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks about it. His misplaced, but mesmerizing, confidence colors everything around him and transforms a forgettable flick into an amusing oddity.
Good Shatner

Made in Spain while Shatner was on a break from filming Star Trek, he approaches each of the twins with his familiar stoic, but somehow busy intensity. One is Johnny Moon, a good-hearted wanderer who lives among the white people, the other is Notah a psychopathic peyote addict who lives among the natives, when he's not attacking stagecoaches.

Clearly Moon is meant to be the strong, silent Eastwood type in this Espanol take on the spaghetti western. But as in his other roles, Bill plays the Shatner type by managing to overact underacting his role.

He plays the loud version of the Shatner type as Notah, his face smeared with war paint that looks like it came from a pre-school craft table. There must also be a good barber in the tribe, because he is always clean shaven and sports a haircut more appropriate for a desk job than ambushing white people. I smile every time I think of his version of a war whoop.

Evil Shatner
Everything about this film feels cheap, the tables in the saloon look like they might break before anyone gets shoved into them, and half the actors look like they're trying to remember when they're supposed to start shoving.

Joseph Cotten seems like the only one in the cast who knows that he is speaking horrible lines, but he somehow manages to pull off a credible performance. Maybe he couldn't be bad if he tried.

It would all be so sad if there weren't Moon Shatner fighting Notah Shatner, spitting out crazy lines, and inexplicably dressing himself exactly like his brother for the final show-down so you have no idea who is shooting who. It's a baffling experience, and that soundtrack burrows into your head for days, never letting you forget what you've been through.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review: Carole Lombard Lives on in A Touch of Stardust

A Touch of Stardust: A Novel
Kate Alcott
Double Day
Release Date: 2/17/15

I approached A Touch of Stardust with caution, because I am always wary of novels that fictionalize the lives of my movie idols. As Carole Lombard and Clark Gable are among my first silver screen loves, I felt especially on guard when I learned that they would be supporting players in this story about an aspiring screenwriter set against the backdrop of the production of Gone With the Wind (1939). Their portrayal is plausible for the most part though, and fits nicely into this story of love and ambition in the years leading up to World War II.

In the starring role is Julie Crawford of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who is working in the office of David Selznick as he ramps up production on the legendary GWTW. She and the producer's assistant Andy meet cute at the filming of the burning of Atlanta and begin a tentative affair. Not long after, Julie crosses paths with Lombard, and she is promoted to be her assistant when the star takes a liking to her.

Julie eventually connects with legendary screenwriter Frances Marion and begins to make a name for herself as a screenwriter while she endures a communications breakdown in her relationship with Andy. Lombard becomes her friend and confidante while Selznick's massive production surges on in the background.

For the most part, Alcott does well weaving movie history into her fictional world. Occasionally the details can be awkward (I can't imagine Lombard informing anyone that she is known as "The Profane Angel"), but for the most part I found the mix of fiction and fact entertaining and smoothly combined. I enjoyed the scenes on the movie set, which really gave me a feel for what it would have been like to be part of such a massive production.

The characterizations of Gable and Lombard are sympathetic and believable, and I appreciated that Alcott did not make Ms. Carole too cartoonish as has often happened in fictional portraits of the wild and crazy star. I also loved her saucy, intelligent rendering of Vivien Leigh.

While I found Julie's story engaging, at times her character didn't feel plausible. She never struck me as a 1930s woman. Even for a feminist ahead of her times, she felt overly modern in some respects. The rest of the characters, including those based on real people, fit into the era more comfortably.

Overall this is an interesting read though, with a great respect for the history it uses as a backdrop and just enough novel twists to save it from cliché.

Many thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of the book for review.

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