View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (Photo: Paramount)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
BEAU TRAVAIL (1999). This admirable effort from French writer-director Claire Denis may be loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, but its direct screen antecedent would seem to be Terrence Malick’s 1998 adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. Crafted as a picture that’s meant to be experienced rather than explored, Beau Travail, like Malick’s poetic WWII drama, is guaranteed to quarantine those who find it pointless and dull from those who respond to the beauty and mystery of its startling imagery. Set at a small Foreign Legion outpost in East Africa, the film centers on the tragic developments that arise once a seasoned officer (Denis Lavant) finds himself irritated — and doubtless aroused —by a wholesome young recruit (Grégoire Colin). Yet the story is clearly secondary as far as this movie is concerned (if the actors were paid by the word, then Lavant was the only one who collected a decent paycheck, as his voice-over narration provides most of the talk). Instead, working alongside director of photography Agnès Godard, Denis has fashioned a dreamlike drama that captures the fetishistic nature of sweaty, hard-bodied men going through the rigorous rituals of military training.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary on select scenes by Godard; a conversation between Denis and filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight); interviews with Lavant and Colin; and a video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne.
THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) / THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940). Regarded in many camps as the greatest all-around entertainer of the 20th century (and he has the record-setting number of awards to back that claim), Bob Hope found success in virtually every field, including radio, television and, of course, cinema. The Kino Studio Classics label has just released two of his biggest hits on Blu-ray.
A mere year after making his motion picture debut in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (in which he sang what would become his signature tune, the Oscar-winning “Thanks for the Memory”), Hope became a consistent audience draw with The Cat and the Canary, a box office winner in which a group of relatives is gathered at an isolated estate for the reading of a will. It proves to be a bumpy night: The sole benefactor (Paulette Goddard) will lose everything if she’s declared insane, so strange things begin happening to her that force the others to doubt her sanity. Only one person, a chatty actor (Hope), believes in her, but, like the others, he’s often distracted by the news that a homicidal maniac nicknamed The Cat has escaped from an asylum and is lurking in the area. Hope established the wisecracking, cowardly persona that would serve him well throughout his career (as well as influence countless other comics, Woody Allen chief among them), and the film offers a nice mix of humor and haunted-house thrills.
Hope and Goddard proved to be so popular together that they were paired again the following year for another horror-comedy blockbuster. The Ghost Breakers finds Goddard’s Mary Carter inheriting a house in Cuba that’s reportedly haunted; Hope co-stars as radio personality Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence (“My parents had no imagination”), who, falsely suspected of murder, hightails it to Havana with Mary. An even better mix of terror and titters than The Cat and the Canary — there’s even a real zombie shuffling around the appropriately atmospheric sets — this not only finds Hope and Goddard pleasingly mixing it up but also gives Hope a fine sparring partner in Willie Best as his personal assistant. The racist aspects of the role can be unsettling, although Best at least was billed under his real name; that wasn’t the case in a few films like Kentucky Kernels (recently reviewed here), where he was credited as Sleep ‘n Eat. But there’s no denying the actor’s natural thespian talent and impeccable comedic timing; in a later era, he might have been a big star.
Extras on both Blu-rays (sold separately) include audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and the theatrical trailer; The Ghost Breakers also includes a Trailers from Hell segment.
The Cat and the Canary: ★★★
The Ghost Breakers: ★★★½
FLYING LEATHERNECKS (1951). Director Nicholas Ray stamped his indelible style on many a movie (In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, etc.), but this ain’t one of them. Instead, this World War II drama is more a product of presenter and financier Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire who was just plane-crazy, and star John Wayne, who never met a jingoistic speech he didn’t like. Wayne stars as Major Daniel Kirby, who’s charged with overseeing a group of Marine Corps aviators on Guadalcanal. Kirby believes the men to be soft and immature, the direct result of being coddled by his second-in-command, Captain Carl “Griff” Griffin (Robert Ryan). Despite Griff’s complaints, Kirby doesn’t yield an inch, realizing that a mission can only be truly successful if the commanding officer is willing to send his men to their deaths. Those looking for any subtext might be drawn to the fact that this finds ultra-conservatives Hughes and Wayne mixing it up with ultra-liberals Ray and Ryan (since Hughes holds the purse strings and Wayne holds top billing, it’s not difficult to guess which way the film is going to lean). On the surface, though, this is a standard WWII yarn from the era, with a tough leading man, a largely interchangeable group of young actors playing the various pilots, and ample action scenes — in this case, aerial battles that mingle actual combat footage with manufactured ones. Jay C. Flippen offers some amusement as the grizzled master sergeant who steals needed supplies as deftly as Flippen steals scenes. For a far superior picture with a similar theme, check out the 1949 classic Twelve O’Clock High.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953). A star was born with Roman Holiday, as the unknown Audrey Hepburn became a household name with the release of this utterly disarming romantic comedy. She’s cast as Princess Ann, who, bored with her lot in life, escapes during a goodwill tour to Rome and takes in the sights of the city. She’s accompanied in her escapades by an American reporter (Gregory Peck) who feigns ignorance as to her true identity in the hopes of landing a great story. Naturally, the pair fall in love. The chemistry between Peck and Hepburn is palpable (they remained lifelong friends), and there’s a riotous supporting turn by Eddie Albert as the newspaper photographer who aids Peck’s journo in his covert assignment. The “Mouth of Truth” scene is a genuine classic, but the film is packed with equally delightful interludes. Although Dalton Trumbo was the film’s principal writer, the heinous Hollywood blacklist meant that his name was nowhere to be found in the credits; it wasn’t until 40 years later that his contribution was officially acknowledged (and even longer before his name was added to the on-screen credits). Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Albert), this earned three statues: Best Actress for Hepburn, Best Motion Picture Story for Trumbo (whose widow accepted the award on his behalf in 1993), and Best Black-and-White Costume Design for the legendary Edith Head.
Blu-ray extras include a new conversation about the film with critic Leonard Maltin; pieces on Hepburn and Trumbo; a featurette on the costumes; and a look at Paramount in the 1950s.