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High-def Watch

Get the latest Blu-ray/DVD reviews and info for upcoming titles. And, we’ll sprinkle in some hot HDTV news.

Three film greats get high-def treatment

 

 

“THE HUSTLER: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”

Blu-ray widescreen, 1961, unrated

Best extra: The commentary with Paul Newman, film historian Jeff Young, film critic Richard Schickel and others

“TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH”

Blu-ray full-frame, 1949, unrated

Best extra: The revealing commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer and several World War II historians

“THE COMANCHEROS: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION”

Blu-ray widescreen, 1961, unrated

Best extra: A 20-minute high-definition documentary on the history of the Comancheros and Comanche Indians

WITH MEMORIAL DAY and Father’s Day just around the corner, the Hollywood studios are releasing some classic guy flicks on Blu-ray. Fox has restored all three completely and included hours of extras featuring legends Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, and John Wayne.

How many of our moms swooned over those blue-blue eyes back in the 1960s? “Paul Newman was handsome without being handsome,” author Eric Lax says in a new high-def documentary on “The Hustler: 50th Anniversary Edition.” As Newman’s biographer, Lax is a good choice to highlight the actor’s career at 20th Century Fox.

Ohio native Newman stumbled into acting after being kicked off the football team at Kenyon College. Eventually, he headed to New York City and became a Lee Strasberg disciple at the famed Actors Studio. His 1953 debut on Broadway earned good reviews for his role in “Picnic.” Newman originally signed with Warner Bros. and got his first major role as boxer Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956). Some labeled him a Marlon Brando copycat since both used the Method Acting technique picked up from Strasberg.

In 1961, Newman gave an extraordinary performance as Fast Eddie Felsen, a cocky pool shark in director Robert Rossen’s grim urban masterpiece, “The Hustler.” Fast Eddie is an amazing pool shark, until he takes on Minnesota Fats played by Jackie Gleason. That’s when Eddie learns the game isn’t about talent, it’s about character.

“The Hustler” garnered nine Academy Award nominations, but only won for Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Art Direction. Most of the cast received Oscar nods, including Newman, Gleason, George C. Scott as Bert Gordon, and Piper Laurie as Eddie’s girlfriend. “West Side Story” swept the Oscars that year.

The Blu-ray presents an exquisite high-def picture with the right-amount of natural film grain and deep blacks. Wide-shots are full of detail and depth during the high stake matches, filmed on location at a prestigious New York City poolroom near Times Square. You couldn’t have created a better movie set. Audio gets a boost with a new uncompressed DTS HD soundtrack, giving new life to the jazzy score.

Originally, Frank Sinatra optioned the rights to “The Hustler,” a novel by Walter Tevis, but backed out. The story bounced around Hollywood, but no one could figure out how to make it into a movie, Rossen’s daughter Carol explains during the commentary. Her father was the only director who could pull it off. Much of Rossen’s early life was spent in a pool hall, avoiding an impoverished home life. He became known as a pool hustler. Rossen was also nominated for the adapted screenplay, which features some classic lines: “Boy, he is great. Jeez, that old fat man. Look at the way he moves … like a dancer,” Eddie says, describing Minnesota Fats.

Gleason was an accomplish player, while Newman was only a rookie with a pool cue. During the commentary, Newman describes his commitment to the role and talks about how he replaced his dining table with a pool table to train with the legendary Willie Mosconi.

The disc also provides a short HD featurette on Gleason’s career along with several standard-def documentaries carried over from previous DVD collections, including A&E Network’s biography on Newman, “Hollywood’s Cool Hand.”

The Blu-ray is housed in a 24-page book with cast bios, photographs and trivia. It is a lasting tribute to one of America’s great onscreen heroes. 

“Twelve O’Clock High,” the introspective drama made several years after World War II, delves into the psychology and relationships between leaders and their troops, says film historian Leo Braudy during one of the four standard-def documentaries carried over from the previous two-disc DVD collection. The film brilliantly captures the stress facing the U.S. Air Corps flying B-17‘s during daylight bombing missions over Germany.

Gregory Peck stars in the role of Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, the new flight commander of the 918th bomber group, taking over from an ineffective leader in England. The script is based on the experiences of Beirne Lav Jr. and Sy Bartlett, who served in the 8th Bomber Command. Fox studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck bought the rights for an astounding – at the time – $100,000, while the duo finished the book and screenplay. Unsatisfied with their script, Zanuck deleted the first 60 pages to help jump start the story.

Peck’s favorite director, Henry King (“The Song of Bernadette” and “Carousel”), was hired to orchestrate the production. King conducted a 14,000 mile scouting trip, piloting his own plane to find the perfect location for the movie. He settled on Eglin Field in Florida and a small airstrip in Alabama. The Air Force provided a dozen B-17s, with one being used for a belly-landing in the movie.

Nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, Dean Jagger gives a powerful performance as Harvey Stovall, who wanders onto the deserted airbase some years after the war. Jagger won an Academy Award for Best Supporting actor.

The high-def imagery is somewhat disappointing with a slightly soft picture, most evident in wide shots. It seems the HD master may be a generation away from the original camera negative – a possible casualty of an accident, age or poor storage. Whatever the case, the picture is still a leap up from the remastered DVD. Audio options include the original mono track or a preferred surround-soundtrack, with most sound coming from the front three speakers.

 

WITH MORE THAN 170 films under his belt, including masterpieces “Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and melodrama “Mildred Pierce,” Michael Curtiz decided to direct his very last picture with the legendary, John “Duke” Wayne. 

“Comancheros: 50th Anniversary Edition” follows Texas Ranger Capt. Jack Cutter (Wayne), who’s called into action to stop the flow of guns and liquor to the Comanche Indians from a gang of Comancheros. The HD documentary, “The Comancheros and the Battle for the American Southwest,” gives insights into the real-life Comancheros, descendents of Spanish colonialists and Native Americans. They were known for their trading skills – especially to Native Americans. The Comancheros and Comanches were also responsible for raids, thefts and kidnappings of homesteaders throughout the Republic of Texas and the state of Texas after it joined the United States.

The support cast includes Stuart Whitman as card shark Paul Regret, who’s on the lam for killing the son of a Louisiana judge during a duel. Then there’s Lee Marvin, wonderful as Tully Crow, a gunrunning middle man, who’s had half of his scalp wacked off.

The high-def imagery is surprisingly first-rate, with plenty of natural film grain and rich color – especially the brilliant reds. The larger your HDTV, the more breathtaking the scenery of Utah’s high desert country, subbing for Texas, it pops off the screen. The uncompressed DTS HD soundtrack gives the gun battles and Elmer Bernstein’s score the right amount of boost.

The Blu-ray also includes a 40-minute HD documentary on Wayne’s career at Fox, with interviews from film historians and his son Ethan, who describes how his father got into movies after a surfing accident, which cost him his football scholarship at University of Southern California. Initially a grip and a stuntman, Wayne moved in front of the camera in the late 1920s.

Director John Ford gave Wayne his first acting break, recommending him for Raoul Walsh’s western epic “The Big Trail,” which was a box-office disaster for Fox. For the next decade, Wayne would be stuck in “B-Western hell, making one cheap western after another,” says Rick Jewell, professor at USC. Wayne’s career finally skyrocketed when Ford cast him in “Stagecoach” (1939) as The Ringo Kid. Ford hoped to release the western with Fox, but studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck wanted nothing to do with Wayne. Wayne became a mega star with RKO and every other studio in Hollywood. Zanuck basically blacklisted Wayne from Fox for nearly 30 years, until he left the studio in 1956. Wayne ended up making a handful of films at Fox including “The Barbarian and the Geisha” (1958) from director John Huston, filmed in Japan; “North to Alaska” (1960) a huge hit for Wayne and Fox; “The Comancheros” (1961), and “The Undefeated” (1969).

The disc also includes a commentary originally recorded nearly 20-years ago for the laserdisc version, with Whitman, Wayne’s son Patrick, and others. It also features a digital copy of the comic book, “The Comancheros.” The draws of “Duke” are not bad.

The Blu-ray is housed in a 24-page book with cast bios, production photographs and trivia.

Fox, keep them coming, we’re craving more!

— Bill Kelley III 

Posted to: Classics Drama Oscar winner War Westerns

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