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As the new high-definition format continues to grow, it is becoming a more and more interesting prospect for classic film lovers. Message boards have been filled with young technophiles asking ‘But how can a film made before High Definition look anywhere near as good as movies made today?’ Others are quick to point out that a 35mm frame is far higher resolution than the highest HD currently available. Below are the few titles to be excited about on the new format, and indeed you couldn’t do far worse than wind up on a desert island with these six.

 

1. Black Narcissus (Great Britain, Michael Powell,1947) Probably the title I am most excited about. My DVD copy, released briefly during the early days of the format, is a mangled picture of washed out colours. Being one of the most gloriously colourful of all films, it’s incredible to see what a difference can be made using the new format. A tale of repressed passions amongst nuns in an Indian convent, this is surely one of the greatest of all films?

 

 

2. Great Expectations (Great Britain, David Lean, 1946) Black-and-white British films are often neglected in favour for American product, even where seasoned filmgoers are concerned. They are often equated with war movies, cut glass accents and the afternoon slot on TV. As a fan of the novel, I had seen David Lean’s Great Expectations before but its full power came to me when watching scenes from a newly-restored version from the front row of NFT1 at the BFI Southbank. Watching Magwitch threaten young Pip was a powerful and elemental scene, turning every viewer back into a child. This edition is especially important due to the degraded quality of earlier DVD releases.

 

3. The Seventh Seal (Sweden, Ingmar Bergman, 1957) I don’t know how long this next pick will be available since Tartan Video only recently closed its doors. A pretty tragic affair; Tartan has long been, along with Artificial Eye, the premier distributer of art-house cinema. Long before DVD came about it was only the distinctive design of Tartan and Artificial Eye tapes that lined the World Cinema section. They put out some very important releases on their time, including a heavy emphasis on the films of Ingmar Bergman. Fittingly, their first (and last) Blu-Ray release was Bergman’s most famous, The Seventh Seal. Featuring glorious black and white cinematography – the ominous skies of the opening are not far from Great Expectations – this is a film that actually contains more humour that it is ever given credit for, and is a dense text that warrents many a repeated viewing. In fact, I think I’ll watch it again soon.

 

 

4. Rio Bravo (U.S., Howard Hawks, 1959) The first of two classic westerns on the list. Revered as one of legendary director Howard Hawk’s finest films, Rio Bravo is a western driven by a simple and effective set-up. Misfits John Wayne, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan are left to protect the small outpost in a world comprised only of a prison, bar and hotel. When the gang of outlaws ride into town, the distance from which they appear seems like an almost mystical place far beyond the trio’s world. The simplicity of the film turns it into a succinct allegory of good vs. bad, but the real joy comes from watching the interplay between Wayne, Martin and Brennan, all in their element.

 

5. The Adventures of Robin Hood(U.S., Michael Curtiz, 1938) Michael Curtiz directed Errol Flynn in many of his films throughout the 1930s, defining the swashbuckler’s persona in his first starring role in Captain Blood. Flynn would go on to repeat that successful formula in period dramas, pirate adventures and westerns. But perhaps it was the vivid Technicolor of The Adventures of Robin Hood and its pure adventurous spirit that turned it into one of the best loved of all adventure films. I suspect it has a lot to do with viewers’ childhoods and how they connect to the film when they were young (Indeed it was Tony Curtis’s favourite film as a child). Also featuring Olivia de Havilland whose elegance played well against Flynn’s exuberant performance. But as always it is Flynn who acts as the driving force: charismatic, dashing, playful and intense, it’s not hard to see why he was so successful.

 

 

 

6. The Searchers (U.S., John Ford, 1956) There are other great westerns and other great films by John Ford, but over the years The Searchers has risen to become one of the most revered of all films. With its wide open vistas of Monument Valley and the classic images of John Wayne returning home at the beginning and framed in the doorway at his exit at the end, this is an impeccable example of the genre. But with its themes of family, race and redemption it is also particularly complex and sensitive. Ultimately it is the open-ended and almost spiritual quest that Ethan Edwards (Wayne) must set out upon that keeps viewers returning.

For me the most important aspect of these films on Blu-Ray is the clarity of the image. Even if you know these films very well, there will be a definite sense of rediscovery when watching these six titles in High Definition. As a set of bone fide classics – to the point at which we can tend to take them for granted – these six early releases are certainly worth watching and rewatching.

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Mad Detective on Blu-Ray

Only recently had Criterion announced upcoming titles on Blu-Ray, and now it looks like Masters of Cinema has also. The only title so far to have been announced is Mad Detective (Sun taam, Hong Kong: Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai, 2007). Although a recent title, the Masters of Cinema are known for their very rare titles, many silent and many from around the world.

If you don’t know the Masters of Cinema which is a UK label, they produce world-class editions including incredible prints of obscure titles and are highly recommended. Check out their great catalogue here.

I predict an exciting time for lovers of silent, world and classic Hollywood cinema – it looks like there may just be something in Blu-Ray for us too…


Criterion Blu-Ray

Some very exciting news. I just received a message from Criterion announcing that they will be releasing titles in Blu-Ray, and that we will see them on shelves in October.

Criterion have revealed that, ‘These new editions will feature glorious high-definition picture and sound, all the supplemental content of the DVD releases, and they will be priced to match our standard-def editions.’

And here are their first titles:

The Third Man
Bottle Rocket
Chungking Express
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Last Emperor
El Norte
The 400 Blows
Gimme Shelter
The Complete Monterey Pop
Contempt
Walkabout
For All Mankind
The Wages of Fear

It will be interesting to discover how far these Blu-Ray editions from Criterion, who are of course known for their high standards in image quality, enhance the viewing experience of films of varying ages. I am optimistic that the result may very well be worth the wait.

There is currently no information on their site here, but I will keep you posted on any further developments.

How the West Was Won (1962)

Although Cinemascope was the first of the new widescreen processes to hit the screen with the high-profile The Robe in 1953, a rival technology called Cinerama was premiered in September 1952. By using three adjacent 35mm cameras, an extremely wide image could be created. It actually required five projectionists operating three projectors to view these films. Uniquely the image was projected onto large screens that was literally curved. This would provide the viewers with a spectacular, almost three dimensional, image.

How Cinerama Is Projected

Outside of exotic travelogues intended to exploit the Cinerama experience (much like many IMAX films today), only two fiction films were shot in genuine Cinerama: How the West Was Won (1962) and The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm (1962). Later films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were filmed in Super Panavision 70 and then presented in a 70mm Cinerama image rather than the 3-Strip image of the original films.

Well now you can view this fascinating process from the comfort of your own home. How the West Was Won, starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart (above), will be released in a new Blu-Ray edition in August. This will include a special feature known as ‘SmileBox’ which will recreate the curved Cinerama image. This seems to be a simple distortion of the image designed to create the illusion of Cinerama, as in this frame from the SmileBox website:

SmileBox

It will be interesting to see how effective this new stab at old technology is, but it sounds like an admirable attempt to present How the West Was Won as it was originally meant to be seen. Until then you can find more information on Cinerama, including some great stills of film frames, at the highly recommended Widescreen Museum.

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Christian Hayes
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