Welcome to the first of what will be a semi-regular feature on Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second. Join us, as we take a casual look at the best that the import market has to offer. In this edition, a pair of recent additions to the Criterion Collection come under scrutiny.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Stanley Kramer, US Import.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a film that has fallen out of favour in recent years. Stanley Kramer is an unfashionable filmmaker, and the kind of filmmaker ordinarily frowned upon in certain quarters. Having most recently seen the film in 2006 projected in 70mm on a bona-fide curved Cinerama screen personally speaking I struggled a surprising amount with a film once loved. While the film may have, admittedly somewhat ironically, worked really well when viewed on a 20-inch television in the humble space of my grandmother’s living room on a lazy saturday afternoon, with age came critical thinking, and a dismissal of a film once adored (as is often the case). The grandest, widest screen in the world couldn’t help it.
Were I not such a slave to niche formats this 5-disc box-set from the Criterion Collection wouldn’t have warranted enough appeal to seek out, but I’m pleased to report that with this occasion a renewed sense of affection was delivered. The film appeals especially to an only-recently fostered love and appreciation for the form of slapstick comedy that Kramer is here paying respect to, and with that comes a deeper understanding of a lot of the references and allusions within the picture. Time hasn’t been kind to the vast majority of the film’s extensive cast, many of whom stemmed from the vaudeville and radio of the first half of the 20th Century, and are now barely recognisable to modern eyes, not least those of us from outside of the US.
This release is driven by a relatively miraculous reconstruction of the film, which, standing at 197 minutes long and engineered by Robert Harris, is considered to be as close to Kramer’s vision as one could possibly hope to get 50 years on from initial release (the film was as lengthy as 210 minutes-long at one point, but any further footage is considered lost). This longer cut does suffer from some inconsistencies in source quality at times, due to the nature of the reconstruction, but the shorter cut of the film is note perfect, with the beautiful widescreen photography shining on Blu-ray (some are claiming that It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is actually the widest film ever released on home video, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1). The contextualising liner notes from Lou Lumenick are of great value, even examining the very phenomena that I outline above, of the film falling out of favour with certain types of audiences, which he pins largely on Kramer’s non-auteurist approach to production. Extra material is exhaustive, with the surface barely scratched at this point, but again helps to contextualise the film in a way that appeals to someone with a fraught relationship with the film such as myself. Capped off with a beautifully designed packaging, which relies heavily on Jack Davis’s legendary paintings.
Thief, Michael Mann, US Import.
I’ve got a larger piece lined up on Michael Mann’s joint best film (a position with Miami Vice, in case you were wondering), but thought it worth making a few broader points here. A “New digital restoration from a 4K film transfer of the director’s cut, approved by director Michael Mann” read the liner notes in reference to the credentials of this new disc from the Criterion Collection, which is, to resort to an overused phrase if ever there was one, a revelation.
There has been some speculation that Thief has recently acquired a teal tint along the road to definitive digitalisation. As someone who’s only familiar with Thief through the very first US DVD release of the film, which is lacking to say the least, it’s difficult to comment on, or clarify either way, but regardless, the transfer impresses heavily. The curious auteurist in me is fascinated by the mere idea of a filmmaker retrospectively tinkering with their work (expect more thorough notes on this phenomena soon). The film is the draw here, but the supplementary features impress aplenty. A weighty essay from Sight & Sound editor Nick James is included in physical form, while new interviews with Michael Mann, James Caan and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream, who composed the films iconic score. These interviews run to around 50 minutes in total, with Mann’s being the lengthiest and most interesting. Also included is the somewhat infamous audio commentary for Thief featuring Mann and Caan, and recorded in 1995 for the laserdisc release of the film (the laserdisc also puts an end to the rumours that the cover of this Criterion release of the film was chosen to capitalise on the success of Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive), and in which anecdotal discourse is punctuated by long bouts of silence.
Next time, we’ll be taking a look at Cohen Media’s new Godard discs, and Criterion’s recent Blu-ray of Bande à part. An impromptu Godard special!