New to Blu: Désirée + Bell, Book and Candle

This week’s for playing catch-up here at Wtf-Film, where I’ve been effectively useless for the past many days thanks to a particularly nasty season of allergies. Much to my disgrace I’ve as yet been unable to even cover Twilight Time’s fine Blu-ray issue of the equally fine Bite the Bullet, released alongside Demetrius and the Gladiators last month, even though the label’s latest round of limited editions has already arrived!

As such, here’s a quick peak at the Twilight Time’s two latest Blu-ray releases - Désirée, from 20th Century Fox in 1954, and Bell, Book and Candle, from Columbia in 1958 – to tide you over until your humble host can sweat out the full reviews. As always, these are available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront, and are reviewed from screeners graciously provided by Twilight Time.

Those disappointed with the overall fidelity of last month’s Demetrius and the Gladiators can rest easy with Twilight Time’s latest offering from Fox – the studio’s restoration of Désirée, lavishly produced in extra-wide 2.55:1 CinemaScope and DeLuxe color, is up to the same high standards set by Sony’s Picnic and Fox’s own The Egyptian. The film’s vintage anamorphic lensing (and some intentional diffusion besides) doesn’t lend itself to particularly sharp visuals, but the texture of it is quite impressive. Damage is minimal and, aside from the comparatively ragged DeLuxe transitions, this is a magnificent looking and naturally film-like presentation. Twilight Time seem to have standardized their technical approach to Blu-ray, but with the sort of specs that should be standardized rather than the corner-cutting measures that are all too frequent in the industry. The 1080p Mpeg-4 AVC image is encoded at a robust average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and artifacts are of no issue. Audio is strong and accurate to the original release, presented in DTS-HD MA 4.0 stereo, though as usual for TT’s Fox catalog releases there are no subtitles. Supplements are limited to an excellent isolated score track (in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo), an original theatrical trailer (HD), and another essential set of liner notes by Julie Kirgo.

Sony’s recent restorations have all been at the top of their class and Bell, Book and Candle is no exception. The flat 1.85:1 image is every bit as precise as should be expected, with an appropriate level of detail, strong contrast, and an exceptionally rendered layer of film grain. Greens and reds show most prominently in Bell‘s Technicolor design, and are wonderfully saturated. The technical specs for the image are identical to those for Désirée - 1080p Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and artifacts are so negligible as to go unnoticed. Audio is an unadorned DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic track that sounds very strong to these ears, and yes, optional English SDH subtitles are included. Supplements are a bit more robust this go around, and in addition to the expected isolated score (in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo - George Duning’s score for this film is lovely stuff, and essential listening), theatrical trailer (HD), and booklet of liner notes by Julie Kirgo, the release also features two brief documentary subjects – Bewitched, Bothered and Beautiful (10 minutes, SD) and Reflections in the Middle of the Night (15 minutes, SD).

Those of you who have been following my other Twilight Time reviews know what to expect of the label by now – Désirée and Bell, Book and Candle are well in keeping with the sort of quality the label has come to be known for, and make for a wonderful start to their second year in business.

The Blu-ray screenshots for this article were gathered by the means that has become standard for this site – full resolution .png images were captured in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Twilight Time: The Egyptian

The Egyptian is available on Blu-ray (and DVD) in a limited edition of 3000, and is offered exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and their Amazon storefront.

It may come as something of a surprise to the most frequent readers of this site to find that if this humble non-believer has a soft-spot for any one genre of cinema, it’s the grandiose religious epic that flourished in the mid-20th century. I grew up enraptured by airings of Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and so on, and even in my more jaded adulthood it’s impossible for me to pass on anything baring the names of Wyler or DeMille. Adapted from the novel by Mika Waltari and released in late 1954 as a giant-sized thematic follow up to the earlier success of The Robe (which received its own direct sequel in the same year’s Demetrius and the Gladiators, which is due from Twilight Time next month) Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian is a religious epic of another color entirely, and though it may be concerned with the workings of a civilization long before the time of Christ that doesn’t keep it from being preoccupied with the faith born of him.

Taking place during ancient Egypt’s brief experiment with monotheism, The Egyptian tells the story of an orphaned child Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom) who, under the tutelage of his adopted father, grows to be a skilled physician. Sinuhe struggles to find success until a chance encounter lands him in the good graces of the new Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding), a worshiper of the sun god Aten who uses his newfound position to promote his faith. As quickly as the young doctor finds acceptance he goes astray, his obsession with Babylonian temptress Nefer (Bella Darvi) leading him to be banished from the kingdom for shirking his responsibilities. Accompanied by the sly but loyal Kaptah (Peter Ustinov) Sinuhe finds a fortune, but little fulfillment, abroad, and after years in exile returns to an Egypt in turmoil. His childhood friend Horemheb (Victor Mature), now commander of the armed forces, has his eyes on the thrown, and with the backing of the high priests seeks to violently oppress the practice of Atenism…

As was Waltari’s source novel, The Egyptian is as concerned with drawing parallels between the practice and purging of Atenism and the plight of the early Christians as it is with convincingly portraying Egypt during the 18th dynasty, and the combination of the two make it one of the more unusual of the classic religious epics. The Chrstian allusions are obvious, with the Ankh serving as a surrogate for the cross and the intricacies of Sinuhe’s story hinting strongly to that of Moses from the Old Testament. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the production is its focus on the tenets of the faith as opposed to the incidents of its history, and it offers messages of forgiveness in favor of the usual violent spectacle.

In terms of production this is another top-flight effort from the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck, marked by stunning color CinemaScope production design (at the original extra-wide 2.55:1) and bolstered by one of the best scores of its kind – contributed by not one but two of the medium’s greatest composers, Alfred Newman (The Robe) and Bernard Herrmann (Cape Fear). Still, its a handful of key supporting performances that really make the film so memorable. Jean Simmons is as enchanting as ever as a tavern maid selflessly devoted to Sinuhe – even the sultry Darvi is no match for Simmons’ understated elegance – while John Carradine makes a memorable bit appearance as a philosophical grave robber. Best of all may be the late great Peter Ustinov (Quo Vadis), whose wry, dry portrayal of the charming one-eyed vagabond Kaptah effectively steals the show. “Alas, no physician can restore my eye,” he says to Sinuhe, with as much humor as tragedy. “My first master put it out when I drank a jar of beer and refilled it in a manner which displeased him.”

The Egyptian was a box office disappointment upon release, and unlike its CinemaScope predecessors, The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, has dwelt in relative obscurity in the near 60 years since. As such its home video presence has been rather limited, and up until now dominated by a pricey letterboxed laserdisc edition from the early ’90s. Thanks are deserved to Twilight Time for making the film newly available for the digital age (and doubly deserved for graciously providing me with a review copy so long after the fact), and in an edition that’s as definitive in its quality as I imagine possible.

Twilight Time were offered Fox’s latest restoration of The Egyptian for their Blu-ray release, the label’s inaugural venture into HD, and the visuals here are, for all intents and purposes, flawless. Detail improves modestly but appreciably over the limitations of SD, but, as I find myself saying so often of these classic releases, its the texture of the thing that really impresses. The image is alive with unspoiled grain rendered with such precision that the filmic feel of it is retained even under the closest of scrutiny. Indeed, the image is deserving of the highest compliment one can pay to such a release – this doesn’t look like video, it looks like film. I’ve no idea as to the condition of the elements at the time Fox undertook their restoration, but if it was anything short of pristine then their efforts do nothing to belie it. The ravages of age are kept well at bay and the DeLuxe color seems impossibly vivid, making this one of the most attractive images I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing.

For the technically minded, The Egyptian is presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio via an AVC-encode that just flat out kills. The feature and audio (three tracks) is spread comfortably across a little over 40 GB of a dual layer BD-50, with a lofty average bitrate of 34.7 Mbps dedicated to the video alone. Encoding deficiencies, if any, are negligible, and I noticed absolutely nothing untoward in my examination. This is another of those discs that could be played theatrically with no one being the wiser – high praise indeed.

The only feature audio is a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix (the original presentation would have been in 4-track stereo). The Egyptian is dominated by its drama, with very little of its 139 minutes devoted to outright action, and as such it is the magnificent score from Herrmann and Newman that really benefits from this lossless encoding. You’ll hear no complaints from me on that front, and the rest of the dialogue and effects come through perfectly well. There are no subtitles.

In terms of supplements this is the best of the bunch for Twilight Time’s releases, and includes an excellent feature commentary track from historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (a duo who have provided such commentaries for a good number of other classic film releases). Otherwise you have the option to listen to Herrmann and Newman’s isolated score – presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo. The only other on-disc extras are a rough original theatrical trailer (SD) and similarly rough trailers for a few of Twilight Time’s other DVD releases. The package is fine looking all around, dominated by the poster image featuring all three of the film’s leading ladies (Simmons, Darvi, and the previously unmentioned Gene Tierney), and comes with another superb booklet of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

The Egyptian is certainly a strange film, but a good one, and far less concerned with the sensationalism that preoccupies so many of its ilk. For shear looks its expansive 2.55:1 CinemaScope production design is tough to beat. The only real drawback for Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is its price – $39.95 retail, still a sight less than the old laserdisc – but if you can bite that bullet you’ll have a terrific release on your hands. Recommended!