(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949). Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is transformed by writer-director Robert Rossen into an Academy Award-winning film, but while the subject matter remains as timely as ever, the production itself has lost some of its potency over the years. Broderick Crawford stars as Willie Stark, a self-proclaimed "hick" whose popularity with the common folk helps disguise the fact that he's spearheading a corrupt administration dealing in graft, blackmail and even murder. (The character is based on real-life Louisiana politico Huey Long.) A one-note actor, Crawford landed the role of a lifetime and makes the most of it, even if there isn't much variation in his eventual change from the earnest Stark to the evil Stark. Far better are John Ireland as Jack Burden, the idealistic journalist who joins forces with Stark, and especially Mercedes McCambridge in her film debut as Sadie Burke, the cynical political aide who eventually becomes one of Stark's mistresses. A subplot involving Stark's strained relationship with his son Tom (John Derek, before he turned director and unleashed Bolero and Tarzan, the Ape Man on an unsuspecting world) takes time away from the more interesting aspects of the story; still, for all its (minor) flaws, this is miles ahead of the wretched 2006 remake, with Sean Penn delivering one of his worst performances as Stark. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including writing and directing bids for Robert Rossen and Best Supporting Actor for Ireland), this won three: Best Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress (McCambridge).
Blu-ray extras include an isolated track of Louis Gruenberg's score and the theatrical trailer.
THE BEST OF BOGART COLLECTION (1941-1951). There are still numerous Humphrey Bogart titles waiting to be released on Blu-ray, but don't expect to see any of them in this collection. Instead, this set brings together four Bogie flicks that have long been offered in the hi-def format. Still, the collection's moniker doesn't lie, as these four films are widely considered to be the star's greatest celluloid achievements.
The Maltese Falcon (1941), written and directed by John Huston (adapting Dashiell Hammett's novel), finds hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade (Bogie) mixing it up with all manner of criminal vermin (unforgettably played by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr.). "The stuff that dreams are made of," comments Spade about the elusive black bird of the title, a sentiment easily applied to this indisputable masterpiece that earned three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Screenplay for Huston and Best Supporting Actor for Greenstreet).
Rick and Ilsa. Laszlo and the letters of transit. Captain Renault and his charming corruptibility. "As Time Goes By." "Here's looking at you, kid." You know the routine. So round up the usual accolades for Casablanca (1942), which is always cited along with Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and The Godfather as one of the four or five greatest Hollywood films ever made. It needs no plot synopsis, no cast breakdown, no further championing. True film enthusiasts know all about it; those who don't care a whit are merely film pretenders. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including bids for Bogart as Best Actor and the incomparable Claude Rains as Best Supporting Actor; that year, Ingrid Bergman was nominated for For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of this), the movie won for Best Picture, Director (Michael Curtiz) and Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, adapting the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick's).
My favorite Bogart performance also happens to be one for which he inexplicably failed to snag an Oscar nomination. Clearly, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) found favor with Academy members, as it was nominated for Best Picture and won three major awards for Walter Huston (Best Supporting Actor) and his son John (Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay). But Bogart's snub remains one of the great mysteries in Academy history — in their invaluable book Inside Oscar, Mason Wiley and Damien Bona even wrote, "Nobody had an explanation." Yet the actor is phenomenal as Fred C. Dobbs, a decent guy destroyed by his lust for gold, and the film itself is one of the immortals of cinema.
I'm not as enamored as others are with The African Queen (1951), though I can understand its popularity: It's a breezy yarn that casts Hollywood legends Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as, respectively, a drunken riverboat captain and a tightly wound missionary who battle each other when they're not busy taking on Germans during World War I. John Huston scored Oscar nominations for writing (with James Agee) and directing and Hepburn nabbed one as well, but it was Bogart who finally won his Best Actor statue. It's an amusing performance (easier to take than Hepburn's, at any rate), although it doesn't compare to his work in High Sierra, Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In a Lonely Place, The Caine Mutiny and a handful of other indelible turns.
Blu-ray extras accompanying the various films include audio commentaries; making-of featurettes; vintage cartoons; and theatrical trailers. The set also includes mini-poster reproductions for Casablanca and The African Queen and lobby card reproductions for The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The Maltese Falcon: ****
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: ****
The African Queen: ***
THE SWIMMER (1968). A woefully forgotten gem from the 1960s, this adaptation of a John Cheever short story casts Burt Lancaster as Ned Merrill, who as the picture commences is seen stopping by the house of some acquaintances and requesting a lap in their pool. He quickly realizes that this Connecticut suburb is strewn with pools that lead all the way to his house, so he makes the decision to "swim" all the way home. By all initial evidence, the cocky and cheerful Ned is a successful businessman, a loving husband and father, and perhaps even a pillar of his community. But with each successive dip in a pool — and with each encounter with the various neighbors, many of whom are decidedly not friendly — the truth about Ned Merrill emerges, and the movie ends on a scene of devastating power. Working from a script by his wife Eleanor Perry, director Frank Perry has crafted a penetrating piece of introspection that was clearly ahead of its time. The picture could easily be subtitled The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie, taking a harsh look at the cruelty and conformity of the upper middle class while also remaining tantalizingly vague about some of the details surrounding the crash-and-burn of Ned's American Dream. A haunting and moody drama, this has stuck with me ever since first catching up with it approximately a decade ago.
Blu-ray extras include a five-part, 2-1/2-hour making-of documentary; the original New Yorker short story read by Cheever; photo galleries (including one with shots of deleted footage); TV spots; and the theatrical trailer.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). One of 2013's most hotly debated titles, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is an ambitious yet overbaked adaptation (by Terence Winter) of Jordan Belfort's memoirs about his success during the 1990s as a crooked stockbroker whose wealth was matched only by his hubris. While this is the weakest of the five collaborations between Scorsese and his star player Leonardo DiCaprio, that's not putting any of the blame on the actor's shoulders. He's sensational as Belfort, who rises from an eager Wall Street newcomer to a whiz kid great at the shady sale to a millionaire whose bad habits and bad deeds mean he's primed for a fall. Like American Hustle (as well as many other 2013 titles, including DiCaprio's The Great Gatsby), the film is a look at American success and excess, a tale of unchecked consumerism and capitalism, but it feels like it's late to the party. Its Wall Street setting makes it more familiar than other recent films in this vein, and there's little here that expands on corporate raider Gordon Gekko's mantra (in Oliver Stone's 1987 Wall Street) that "Greed ... is good." Creatively, it's a step back for Scorsese: Replace the violence in his gangster flicks with the copious nudity here, and it doesn't feel like the needle's moved much. Yet because it's a work from this master moviemaker, it looks great, and it features a few powerhouse scenes. Despite (or because of) the controversy, this earned Oscar nominations for Scorsese, Winter, DiCaprio and co-star Jonah Hill, as well as one for Best Picture.
The only Blu-ray extra is a making-of featurette.
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