THE DVD SHELF: "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Rebecca," "Notorious," "Annie Hall," "Manhattan" and More
By Steven Suskin
This month's column discusses the 50th anniversary Blu-ray of "To Kill a Mockingbird"; new releases of Hitchcock's "Rebecca," "Spellbound" and "Notorious"; Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan"; and more.
After 50 years, To Kill a Mockingbird [Universal] still looks pretty good. Or better, thanks to an excellent new Blu-ray transfer. This 50th Anniversary Edition of Robert Mulligan's classic, issued as part of the Universal 100th Anniversary Collector's Series, somehow seems even more impressive as the years pass. Back in 1962 it was dangerously provocative, yes, at a time when segregation was still alive and well and legal in the deep South. That overlay of controversy is gone, thankfully so; few viewers today are likely to argue in favor of the sadistic villain Bob Ewell. Thus, we can concentrate on the moral questions posed by novelist Harper Lee and screenwriter Horton Foote without being sidetracked by what was then a contemporary political discussion.
Gregory Peck stands out in his Oscar-winning role of Atticus Finch. It is simple enough to call this the performance of his career, although that might be disputable if you stop to consider his full body of work. In any case, Peck is wonderful here. (Some of this excellence, I suppose, has to be credited to Ms. Lee and Mr. Foote.) Peck is joined by a fine array of actors, with six of the nine featured players coming direct from Broadway.
Most remarkable of the group is Mary Badham as Scout, the girl at the film's center. (At ten, she was the youngest actor nominated for an Oscar; as luck would have it, she lost to 16-year-old Patty Duke in "The Miracle Worker.") Phillip Alford, too, gives a lovely performance as the boy Jem. The third child in the group was nine-year-old John Megna, as the Truman Capote-inspired Dill. Megna — who at seven played Tony Perkins' brother in the Frank Loesser musical Greenwillow, immediately followed by the role of Colleen Dewhurst's son in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play All the Way Home — is especially striking. Other performances of note come from Brock Peters, as the innocent man convicted of rape (direct from Kwamina); and a ghostly young Robert Duvall as the mysterious Boo Radley. If the off-screen narrator sounds familiar, that's because it's the uncredited Kim Stanley.
The new release is filled with worthy bonus features that will enhance the viewing experience for the film's many fans. These include "Fearful Symmetry," a documentary on the making of the film; "A Conversation with Gregory Peck"; Peck's acceptance speech when he won his "Mockingbird" Oscar, along with his acceptance of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award; a segment of the Academy's tribute to Peck, featuring daughter Cecilia; Mary Badham reminiscing about playing Scout opposite Peck's Atticus; and feature commentary from director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula. These appear on both the DVD and Blu-ray releases. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are "U-Control," which takes you behind the scenes with Peck's children Cecilia and Anthony Peck.
Universal has wrapped this "Mockingbird" in a handsome package. The 44-page hardcover slipcase contains an introduction by Peck's wife Veronique, who tells us that her husband's one request when he was dying in 2003 was that Brock Peters give his eulogy; a selection of posters, window cards, news clippings, and telegrams received by the star when he won his Oscar; storyboard samples; and assorted sheets from Peck's shooting script — with the words "fairness," "stubbornness," "courage," and "love" scrawled on the final page. There is also an introduction from novelist Lee, who became a long-time friend and shares with us Gregory Peck's secret: "When he played Atticus Finch, he played himself."
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I was sitting at the computer listening to them sing "My Cup Runneth Over" on the original West End cast album of I Do! I Do! — no fooling!, I really was — when the UPS man rang up with a package containing six January Blu-ray releases from MGM. Here is a truly breathtaking clutch of films in two favorite genres. Three master thrillers, in the Hitchcockian sense of the word, and three scintillatingly intellectual New York comedies of the sparklingest vintage. My cup runneth over, indeed.
High atop the master's masterworks stands Rebecca, the 1940 classic with which Hitchcock made his American debut (and his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar). Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine played the happy couple at the story's center. George Sanders is memorable as the raffish Jack Favell, while Judith Anderson is — well, has there ever been another film performance quite like the Mrs. Danvers of Judith Anderson? I suppose there has, but even so. Anderson was a major stage star for over 50 years — she even played the title role in Hamlet, at 73 — but this performance serves as her memorial.
Cinematographer George Barnes won the film's other Oscar, for cinematography (black-and-white), and his work stands out on Blu-ray. Composer Franz Waxman did not win the Oscar for which he was nominated, but his music is highly effective. Special features include commentary from Richard Schickel; "The Making of 'Rebecca'" and "The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier; and screen tests.
Hitchcock's 1945 offering was Spellbound, starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. This is the one where the stars are psychiatrists, or perhaps Peck is not. The whole thing hinges on repressed memories, featuring a wildly arresting dream sequence from Salvador Dali himself. This film did win the Best Score Oscar; Miklos Rozsa built his decidedly eerie score around the theremin, an electronic instrument that doesn't lend itself to easy description. Eerie, I suppose, will have to do.
Special features include commentary from film professors Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg; the documentaries "Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali" and "Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing 'Spellbound'"; and a 1948 radio-play version with Bergman and Joseph Cotton. "Spellbound" is a great favorite in some circles; it never quite grabs me — despite the combination of director, stars, and screenwriter Ben Hecht — but don't let that dissuade you.
Hitchcock followed "Spellbound" with the 1946 Notorious, which unlike its predecessor ranks high on my personal Hitchcock list. The key to the wine cellar that pays such an important part in the story . . . the wine bottles, and what is hidden inside them . . . the look of abject terror on the face of Claude Rains when he helps Ingrid Bergman escape in the final sequence. There are a half-dozen Hitchcocks that I watch frequently, with the story peaks grabbing me time after time. "Notorious" is one of them.
This is your typical Hitchcockian spy thriller, with Cary Grant in pursuit of Bergman while Rains — leader of a ring of Nazi refugees in Brazil — looks on. It is also high entertainment of the finger-nail biting variety. It's hard to call Grant's performance good; he is playing Cary Grant, after all, and he is just as effective and enjoyable as he is in Hitch's "Suspicion" and "North by Northwest." Rains, of "Casablanca" and "Now, Voyager," gives a nuanced, sympathetic performance as the villain. They are all, however, wiped off the screen by Leopoldine Konstantin as Rains' mother, Madame Sebastian. Konstantin is as astonishing here as, well, Judith Anderson in "Rebecca." A 60-year-old Austrian refugee — she appeared in the original 1906 production of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening in Berlin — this was Konstantin's only American film appearance. Memorable, scarily so.
Special features include commentary by film professors Rick Jewell and Drew Casper; the documentaries "The Ultimate Romance: The Making of 'Notorious'" and "Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster"; a restoration comparison; and yet another 1948 radio version starring Bergman and Joseph Cotton.
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It is but a short leap from Hitchcock to Woody Allen. The two filmmakers made decidedly different films, sure; but they created bodies of work unlike that of their peers, strongly reflecting their own enigmatically unconventional personalities. MGM brings us Blu-ray editions of what might be Allen's two greatest films, Annie Hall and Manhattan.
"Annie Hall," from 1977, was Allen's 11th film, but this is arguably where he went from being a director of popular comedies to an acknowledged genius — and where he won his first two Oscars, as director and author. Diane Keaton, of course, is the Annie Hall of the title. Tony Roberts plays Woody's friend, as he did for more than a decade, and I wonder if he was at his best in this guise. Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Chris Walken and Colleen Dewhurst (as Keaton's mother) add to the joys of the film.
The 1979 "Manhattan" is Allen's love-letter to the city in question, enhanced by the music of George Gershwin and the black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis. Has Manhattan — the island — ever looked so romantically evocative? Stars Allen and Keaton are in this instance joined by Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Anne Byrne, Wallace Shawn and soon-to-be-superstar Meryl Streep. Allen shared screenwriting chores with Marshall Brickman, who also served as collaborator on "Annie Hall."
Standing midway between Hitchcock and Allen on the distinctive-filmmakers-with- unusual-but-astonishingly-good-films list is Billy Wilder. How many times can you watch The Apartment? I always find this amoral tale — about a low-level executive who trades the key to his Upper West Side walkup for professional advancement — to be darkly delicious. Here is Jack Lemmon at his comic best; here is Shirley MacLaine at her brightest; and here is Manhattan, circa 1960, without the sort of filters Woody and Willis applied to their picture of "Manhattan." Here, too, are screenwriters Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, razor-sharp. The pair won an Oscar for their screenplay, with Wilder also taking one as director and a third as producer of that year's Best Picture. And let's not forget the sweepingly grand musical theme by Charles Williams. "The Theme from 'The Apartment'" was borrowed music, actually; Williams first used it (under the title "Jealous Lover") in the 1949 British feature, "The Romantic Age." I, for one, quite enjoy Promises, Promises, the Broadway musicalization of "The Apartment." Wilder's film is considerably better, though.
Unlike the Hitchcocks that accompany them in this grand six-film bouquet from MGM, the three comedies are light on special features. But as far as I'm concerned, these films from Allen and Wilder are special features in themselves.
Among this year's Best Picture nominees over in Oscarland is Moneyball [Sony], the immensely entertaining Brad Pitt movie about two major American pastimes, baseball and money. There are any number of pleasures here, including Mr. Pitt and the deft screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Also of interest is the performance by Jonah Hill as the out-of-place Yale economist whose computer reconfigures the sad sack Oakland Athletics into pennant winners. Hill has provided amusement as an awkward misfit in such films as "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." Here he demonstrates that he can act, too.
Of more than passing interest is the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the crusty, old and stubborn manager of the team. Hoffman is just now in rehearsal for the Mike Nichols production of Death of a Salesman which is soon to move into the Barrymore. Is the 44-year-old Hoffman too young to play Willy Loman? Anyone accustomed to watching the actor will already know the answer, but Hoffman's "Moneyball" performance in itself suggests that his Willy Loman will be compelling.
All but lost and forgotten for more than 75 years is Hollywood Party [Warner Archive]. This 1934 opus was one of those "all-star" cavalcades thrown together from time to time when MGM had under contract "more stars than there are in heaven." The stars in question were not from the top tier of the lot; the carelessly thrown-together plot tells of a gala party thrown by a fast-fading movie star desperate to safeguard his career. Schnarzan is his name; if you’re one step ahead of me, you've already guessed that this was Jimmy Durante. That's the main joke, folks. Durante in a hair suit and loin cloth, wrestling an obviously stuffed lion, is actually rather amusing.
This is the sort of all-star party in which people like Laurel and Hardy come to the door as gatecrashers and wind up playing a scene in which they smash raw eggs into the chest of Lupe Velez, who crushes one down Hardy's trousers. At the gates, unable to crash the party, are the Three Stooges getting smacked in the head. Jack Pearl appears in the guise of Baron Munchausen, Charles Butterworth mumbles around the place as an oil millionaire, and there's even a bonafide Broadway star circa 1906 on hand in the person of comedian/lyricist/librettist/director Richard Carle.
Among the guests at the party is a mouse named Mickey (voiced by Walt), who taunts Jimmy — for a moment we even get Mickey with a Durante schnozz — and then introduces a Disney Technicolor short built around the Nacio Herb Brown/Arthur Freed song "Hot Choc'late Soldiers."
Speaking of songs, there are three from the then-struggling Broadway team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The title song is quite catchy, actually; it's sung by Frances Williams — who introduced "As Time Goes By" on Broadway in 1931—and a bevy of girls. These girls are kaleidoscopically used; there are several numbers that seem to want to out-Busby Busby Berkeley. The other two R & H songs are special material for Durante, "Hello" and "Reincarnation." Both are extended, and unusual; the boys wrote more of the same for Jimmy the following year, in the Broadway musical Jumbo.
Let us also add that this film came just before the Code cleaned up Hollywood's act, as can easily be seen in the costumes on the girls. Ms. Velez — "The Mexican Spitfire," they called her — wears a dress unlike any you might have seen, then or even now.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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