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From Renoir To Ellington: Scanning Recent DVDs

From Renoir To Ellington: Scanning Recent DVDs

I haven’t been able to keep up with Twilight Time’s limited-edition DVD and Blu-ray releases since the company launched last year, so it’s ironic that the first disc I’ve spent real time with—Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water (1941)—benefits least from the label’s innovative offering of isolated music tracks. That feature is much more valuable in other Twilight Time releases with scores by Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Hugo Friedhofer, et al., as well as Picnic, which I’ll discuss in a moment. It’s not that David Buttolph’s music for Swamp Water isn’t effective; there just isn’t that much of it. The film, however, deserves more consideration than it has received—even in my own Classic Movie Guide, I must confess.

It’s not perfect, and one has to accept the convention of familiar Hollywood actors playing backwoods types, but Dudley Nichols’ screenplay is intelligent, and the actors manage to dodge clichés that a lesser director might have tolerated, or even encouraged. Any cast headed by such seasoned pros as Walter Huston, Walter Brennan, John Carradine, Eugene Pallette, Ward Bond, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Russell Simpson and Joe Sawyer—and such talented up-and-comers as Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter (both of them impressive), and Virginia Gilmore—can’t easily be dismissed. Nor can the seamless blend of footage actually shot on location at Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp and a meticulous recreation on the Fox back lot and soundstages. Credit the estimable art directors Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright and set decorator Thomas Little, Fox veterans all, for their superb artistry, along with cinematographer Peverell Marley. (Apparently Lucien Ballard started the film and was replaced.) Twilight Time’s Blu-ray disc captures the film’s visual beauty, with its layered scenery and artful lighting.

The relationship of French expatriate Renoir, making his American directorial debut, and his central character, a man on the run played by Walter Brennan, is deftly explored by film historian Julie Kirgo in her eloquent liner notes. Her essays are, in fact, a highlight of every release on this label.

Being able to isolate the music track for Picnic on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray provides a virtual master class in film scoring. Like so many pictures of the 1950s and early ’60s, the movie opens “cold,” with action before the credits. A train whistle is the first sound we hear, and it’s a full minute later—timed to William Holden slamming a boxcar door shut—that George Duning’s music kicks in. Duning is somewhat underrated as a film composer, but this lyrical score is proof of his talent. About twenty minutes into the film there is a long (four-minute) cue that begins as Kim Novak is trying on a dress for her mother, Betty Field; a casual conversation turns serious, then erupts into an argument, followed by a reconciliation. Duning effortlessly supports every dramatic turn.

The big Labor Day picnic sequence is an even showier example of how music is integrated into the narrative, opening with a perfect simulation of an old-fashioned brass band, including some instruments that are out of tune!  Director Joshua Logan doesn’t reveal the uniformed band right away, but they’re in the scene; the isolated track enables us to hear for ourselves that the people on camera aren’t really playing on the soundtrack. The same is true for a barbershop quartet, two singing sisters, and a bit later, a dance band that plays the swing tune “One, Two, Button My Shoe” (with the great jazz guitarist George Van Eps taking a brief solo). Van Eps’ rhythm guitar is also crucial to the movie’s most famous scene, where Holden and Novak dance to “Moonglow,” which gradually becomes a backdrop for Duning’s “Theme from Picnic.”

If you’ve never explored the workings of a film score, Picnic is a great place to start. It’s especially instructive to see where music is absent.

The repeated use of “Red River Valley” in Swamp Water naturally brings John Ford to mind, although that Fordian anthem isn’t heard in his 1948 cavalry saga Fort Apache, just released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video. The first of the director’s “cavalry trilogy” looks terrific, and there is an excellent featurette about Monument Valley that was produced for an earlier DVD. The most compelling reason to revisit this classic in its new Blu-ray release is to listen to F.X. Feeney’s thoughtful and eloquent commentary. I never fail to marvel at Feeney’s gift of observation and way with words. He understands Ford’s visual symbols as well as the subtext in Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay. In short, Fort Apache is made all the more interesting by listening to this track.

Criterion’s release of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is cause for celebration. Here is a film that warrants the kind of scrutiny for which Criterion is famous; the bonus features are plentiful, in the accompanying booklet and on a second dvd. Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch examines the director’s life and career. Jazz critic Gary Giddins who talks about Duke Ellington’s landmark score. Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham discusses Preminger’s long and fruitful relationship with the gifted graphic designer, who was responsible not only for the opening titles but the posters and ad campaigns for Preminger’s pictures. There is newsreel footage taken during the filming of Anatomy in Michigan, and an interesting “down home” documentary featuring locals who share their indelible memories of the movie’s production. Excerpts from William F. Buckley’s Firing Line television show not only confirm Preminger’s feelings about censorship but provide a telling look at the filmmaker’s public persona. (I will never forget attending a college press screening of Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. A young reporter remarked that the film was a change of pace from the director’s recent large-scale productions, and wondered if this was a conscious move on his part. Preminger apparently had no patience for such queries, and replied obliquely, “Vee leave the details of my life to my obituary.”)

As for the film itself, years of TV shows like Law & Order may have taken some of the edge off Anatomy of a Murder, but Preminger’s canny use of natural locations and his superb casting still pay off one hundred percent. Watching James Stewart and George C. Scott parry in the courtroom is an unalloyed delight. And, needless to say, the crisp black & white production looks perfect in this Criterion release.

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