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.

Demetrius and the Gladiators

dir. Delmer Daves
1954 / 20th Century Fox / 102′
written by Philip Dunne
director of photography Milton R. Krasner
origianl music by
 Franz Waxman
starring Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Debra Paget, Anne Bancroft, Jay Robinson, Barry Jones, and William Marshall
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Demetrius and the Gladiators is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3000, and is offered exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and their Amazon storefront.

Pushed into production before The Robe had even wrapped by producers content with the likelihood of that film’s success but not with the thought of wasting its expensive dressings, the 1954 sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators is understandably a bit smaller and less refined than its epic progenitor, but that doesn’t keep it from being gobs more fun. Ostensibly a religious drama about the ebb and flow of one (very) early Christian’s faith in Caligula’s Rome, Demetrius punctuates its piety with hearty helpings of good old-fashioned violent spectacle – ‘gladiators’ isn’t in the title for nothing.

Demetrius and the Gladiators finds The Robe‘s eponymous artifact – the robe worn by Christ to Calvary – in the protective custody of that titular Demetrius (Victor Mature reprising his role from the previous film) while its chief protector, the apostle Peter (Michael Rennie in another carry-over role), is away on urgent church business. Unfortunately for Demetrius the increasingly mad Roman emperor Caligula (returning player Jay Robinson in a delightfully outrageous turn) wants the robe for himself, convinced that it possesses a power that will render him literally divine. It isn’t long before the Praetorian guard are knocking at Demetrius’ door, and when a scuffle with them turns violent the devout ex-slave finds himself involuntarily inducted into Strabo’s (Ernest Borgnine!) gladiatorial academy and destined for combat in the Emperor’s private arena. There he captures the fertile imagination of Messalina (Susan Hayward as a Code-friendly variation on the nymphomaniacal third wife of future Roman emperor Claudius), who finds perverse gratification in forcing the good Christian to fight against man and beast.

Demetrius’ devotion to peace and good will doesn’t last long, however. The presumed death of his potter girlfriend Lucia (Debra Paget, The Ten Commandments) at the hand of a fellow gladiator soon has the pectoral hunk renouncing his faith and slaughtering his co-combatants wholesale, much to the delight of Caligula and his Praetorian guard, who appoint him to their ranks as a tribune, as well as Messalina, with whom Demetrius begins an affair. Meanwhile Caligula goes madder, hallucinating that the gods are walking his palace’s halls and becoming increasingly paranoid of plots (both real and imagined) against him…

Limited to just a handful of admittedly gargantuan sets and over and done with in a sight less than two hours Demetrius and the Gladiators really can’t help but feel on the small side compared to its mega-produced big brother The Robe, but it’s a distinction that ultimately works in the film’s favor. Focusing on just a few of that previous film’s surviving players and adding but a handful more, Philip Dunne’s capable screenplay works perfectly well as entertainment even as its ramshackle contrivance becomes increasingly obvious. The obligatory religious dramatics are more a means to an end than anything else, and leave poor Demetrius to seem more than a little the flake – one moment he’s ready to die for his beliefs, the next he’s tearing through Caligula’s private arena with a sword in each hand. The degree of Demetrius’ faith seems wholly dependent on the fate of his girlfriend here – an odd turn to be sure for a character whose Christianity was previously affirmed by no less than witnessing the crucifixion first hand, but it does get the action moving towards the arena, an essential development for a film whose credits spell out THE GLADIATORS at a scale considerably larger than that granted its eponymous hero.

The Hays Code may have put the kibosh on any possibility of overt blood and gore, but Demetrius and the Gladiators still offers audiences plenty of lavish arena-bound action. The show-stopper, despite the obviousness of its artifice, may be Demetrius’ first go in the arena when, after surviving a round with the King of Cartoons (a young William Marshall as Glycon), Caligula orders that the tigers be loosed upon him. A skillful blend of composite effects and stunts with trained animals make the sequence a real thrill, even when the tigers inevitably end up appearing more friendly than threatening. With skilled stuntmen and fencing instructor Jean Heramans (Scaramouche) at his disposal, all-purpose director Delmer Daves (Dark Passage, 3:10 to Yuma) proves himself more than adept in delivering Demetrius‘ big-screen action set pieces. Though essentially bloodless (Demetrius typically finishes off his opponents by bopping them on the helmet, complete with a sanitized, meatless sound effect) the choreography and set-ups are quite good, particularly when Demetrius is in his revenge-fueled dual-bladed frenzy.

Demetrius and the Gladiators is rarely great film making, but it is never less than good enough. The wonderfully erratic work of Jay Robinson, whose Caligula slithers about his palace with cool, reptilian menace, and the bosom-heaving performance of Susan Hayward, tempting enough despite being but a shadow of the notorious historical Messalina, help to elevate the show beyond the cash-in ambitions of its producers, while the much maligned Wtf-Film favorite Victor Mature seems well at home in yet another religious epic (following his turns in Samson and Delilah, Androcles and the Lion, and The Robe). This is good stuff, provided you don’t take it too seriously, and essential viewing for sword and sandal buffs.

Whether due to deficiencies in the available source materials, the age of the HD transfer, or both, Demetrius and the Gladiators looks substantially weaker in its Blu-ray debut than either its predecessor The Robe or the impossibly vibrant The Egyptian - Fox’s other lavish CinemaScope religious epic from 1954. The presence of a variety of damage, ranging from minor dust and debris to larger blemishes and even a few nasty vertical scratches, indicates that at the very least Demetrius hasn’t been treated to the same level of restoration Fox has bestowed upon those other films. As such Demetrius offers perhaps the weakest HD video presentation yet for niche label Twilight Time, but I still found it an imminently watchable disc and easily the superior of past editions.

Presented at the appropriate extra-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p transfer has a lower level of detail than even the limitations of early CinemaScope lenses can explain – a factor compounded by an especially course, unrefined grain structure (just compare the grain in the screenshots here to that of the DeLuxe CinemaScope The Egyptian or the Technicolor CinemaScope Picnic). While contrast is strong color saturation rarely follows suit, falling short of the sort of lushness Demetrius‘ original Technicolor prints would have exported and often lending the film a dusty, subdued appearance – the image also appears unnaturally dark and overly red to these eyes. Even with all that in mind the presentation still thoroughly trounces that of the older DVD edition (released a decade ago), and the imperfect image is free of any undue digital manipulations. Twilight Time provide their typically strong technical backing as well. The video is Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at a healthy average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and the relatively short feature (at least by epic standards) stretches comfortably into dual layer territory.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Far less troublesome is the audio, which presents Demetrius and the Gladiators‘ original 4-track surround mix in lossless DTS-HD MA. The separation here is notable, and obviously intended for BIG theatrical projection – even the dialogue makes full use of the track’s right, left, and center channels. While the dialogue and sound effect sound as strong as can be expected from the vintage mix it’s Franz Waxman’s exhilarating score (which also incorporates themes adapted from Alfred Newman’s score for The Robe) that really wows. Waxman’s compositions are as essential Demetrius‘s epic style as its enormous sets and color CinemaScope photography, and I found his heroic opening melody bouncing about in my brain long after the imagery had faded. The only drawback on the audio front is, again, a lack of optional English subtitles. Fox’s own editions always come with a mix of them, and that they aren’t even providing Twilight Time with an SDH track is a crying shame.

Supplements are light, as expected (and advertised), with an original trailer (in SD) providing the only video extra. The only other supplement is of excellent stuff, however – Franz Waxman’s score, included as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. The Film Score Monthly CD issue of the same is long out of print, and the importance of its addition here should not be understated. Twilight Time’s typically excellent packaging (which amusingly reverses the trend of giving the word “GLADIATORS” dominance over the name of the film’s hero) is again highlighted by a liner essay from the esteemed Julie Kirgo, who clearly has a ball discussing the film even screenwriter Philip Dunne labelled a “harebrained adventure”.

Demetrius and the Gladiators may be a harebrained adventure, but it wouldn’t have retained a quarter of its substantial appeal if it were anything else. Though loaded with compulsory attempts at evoking the pious gravitas of its predecessor Demetrius is ultimately all about seeing its eponymous hero break as many commandments as his test-of-faith (and the Code) will allow, and while the final product may never reach the dizzying heights of vintage DeMille-ian excess (Sign of the Cross this isn’t) it still offers plenty of that indelible old-Hollywood spectacle. For their part Twilight Time have offered another solid Blu-ray treatment, even if the HD materials leave something to be desired. Recommended, if for the keen lossless audio options alone.

The Power

Year: 1968  Runtime: 109′  Director: Byron Haskin
Writer: John Gay   Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks   Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: George Hamilton, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Rennie, Nehemia Persoff,
Richard Carlson, Yvonne De Carlo, Aldo Ray

Professor Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) is the scientist in charge of a project researching pain to make NASA’s astronauts more durable. During a meeting that is supposed to introduce their new government contact, Arthur Nordlund (Michael Rennie), to the team, notorious crackpot Professor Hallson (Arthur O’Connell) gets a wee bit hysterical about the results of some intelligence tests he made with the members of the team. It looks like one of the scientists has climbed some additional steps on the evolutionary letter, and has an improbable IQ as well as the obvious perks that go with something like that, like mind control and telekinetic powers. The other scientists, including Tanner and his girlfriend Professor Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette), are more than just a little skeptical concerning their colleague’s ideas, but when Hallson convinces everyone to concentrate on rotating a piece of paper with the power of their minds, and the thing actually begins to rotate, they are proven wrong. Looks like one of them really must be the homo superior.

That very same night, the mysterious mutant kills Hallson with his or her mental powers. The scientist only leaves behind a note with the name “Adam Hart” on it, a name his wife (Yvonne De Carlo) will later remember to have something to do with her husband’s childhood. While he’s at it, the guy who definitely isn’t Professor X casts enough doubt on Tanner for the police to see the scientist as the main suspect for the Hallson’s murder. Hart, seemingly having a rather unhealthy sense of humour, then proceeds to turn Tanner’s very real academic credentials into fakes, which costs the Professor his job pretty quickly. Not satisfied with that, Hart then tries to kill Tanner (in what may very well be the film’s weirdest scene) with the help of a carousel.

Somehow, Tanner manages to survive the mutant’s attack. The events have made it quite clear to him that he can’t expect help from anyone, and that he certainly can’t trust his colleagues anymore, for one of them must be his hidden enemy. So the scientist sets upon the only course still open to him: trying to find Hart’s trace in Hallson’s hometown. Obviously, dangers to life and sanity, and Aldo Ray await him.

  
  
  

Byron Haskin’s George Pal-produced The Power is a surprisingly peculiar film that uses its SF thriller plot to create a film that unites elements of the pre-70s conspiracy thriller with scenes of a gleefully bizarre nature, and a generally pessimistic view of human nature, resulting in something halfway between Alfred Hitchcock and an acid trip.

Casting George Hamilton of all people as a scientist of some renown may sound more bizarre than clever, but his special brand of absent-minded vacuity works here as well as it would later do in Curtis Harrington’s The Dead Don’t Dieturning him into someone in whose shoes most every viewer would be able to feel comfortable, even if said viewer is less pretty and well-groomed. As we all know, this sort of thriller works well with an everyman character for audience identification in the lead role, and if Hitchcock could cast Cary Grant accordingly, Haskins could do the same with George Hamilton.

Haskin’s direction is interesting, but also a bit all over the place. The Power‘s main draft is the Hitchcockian thriller – some scenes seem to directly and deliberately echo The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest, especially, and a many of the film’s techniques for creating suspense are taken directly from Hitchcock’s playbook yet Haskin also has a tendency to include moments of broadest-stroke satire that always threaten to turn into melodramatic horror, and scenes that are mock-surrealist enough to belong into an Italian film from the 70s (see especially Hart’s fun fair attempt at killing our hero or the very strange final confrontation between hero and villain). However, there are also moments of truly disquieting nuance to be found here, like the moment when Yvonne De Carlo’s “funny”-drunk and oversexed middle-aged woman begins to show the cracks that Hart’s powers have left in her mind, or the emotionless, matter-of-fact way Aldo Ray’s character discusses that he’s been on the lookout for people asking for Hart so that he can kill them for these last ten years. These moments also go a long way to demonstrate how important a good supporting cast is to a) make a film better and b) help someone like Hamilton look good. These performances and what they stand for are also where the film’s rather pessimistic and paranoid stance regarding human nature can be seen most clearly. InThe Power‘s world, every character has mental breaking points and cracks that make it easy for them to be dominated by someone like Hart; everyone is corruptible and nobody is save from harm from the people surrounding him. This is not a position the film ever states outright, yet it is hidden in plain sight in every scene right until the end when a big question mark half-heartedly pretends to be a happy ending.

Less good than the supporting cast are the film’s special effects, or rather, their execution is more ropy than you’d expect from a film made in 1968. Unfortunately, the effects in the film’s grand finale are its weakest, with some very cartoony animation, a rotating skeleton and George Hamilton’s floating head standing in for a mental duel that would have worked better if the actors had just stared at each other while Miklós Rózsa’s dramatic music played. In The Power‘s case, we call them “special” effects for a reason.

Fortunately, a handful of badly executed special effects in conceptually interesting scenes is not enough to drag down a film as interesting and peculiar as The Power is. As a matter of fact, this is exactly the sort of imperfection that makes a film even more itself by revealing a humanity you don’t usually encounter in things that are perfect.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.