May 11, 2007

DVDs, 5/11.

DK Holm finds startling disagreement among DVD reviewers regarding a new special edition. A few notes follow.

To Catch a Thief

In the old days, most mainstream film magazines were superficial and promotional, and it was the World Wide Web that offered the promise of truth, precision, detail, freedom from debt to publicists and corporate masters, and the sort of cozy intimacy found in niche market writing. But in the 11 or so years since the advent of the WWW the Internet has expanded to the point where lowest common denominator seems to prevail. More people would rather watch a pratfall on YouTube, and then watch it again, and then again, ad infinitum, than explore the intricacies of Jacques Rivette (which, thank god, they can do, via a new website). One hope offered by the early days of the online DVD review, which more or less coincided with the birth of the WWW, was that knowledgeable specificity, unbeholden to anyone, would prevail. Or at least consensus.

But what turns out to be the case is that DVD reviewers seem to be so excited to receive their product that they bend over backwards to praise the shakiest merchandise (remember the paeans to Mr Moto a few months ago?). There really is no excuse for a faulty or technologically ignorant DVD review on the Internet or anywhere for that matter. You can stop the film, use the subtitles to confirm dialogue or plot points, and compare and contrast the specs on the transfer with others. Yet more and more, DVD reviews feel rushed and un-researched, while pandering to the dictates of the publicist mentality. Such thoughts came to mind while surveying recent reviews of the new Paramount "Special Collector's Edition" of Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief.

To Catch a Thief For example, things begin ominously in Matt Brighton's DVD Authority review of To Catch a Thief. He at once gushes that the "names 'Alfred Hitchcock,' 'Cary Grant' and 'Grace Kelly' are truly the names of immortals," adding the familiar sentiment that they are "proof that 'They don't make 'em like they used to.'" After a brief production history, and a detailed plot summary, Mr Brighton concludes that To Catch a Thief "shows us classic Alfred Hitchcock," i.e., chases, romance, action and adventure, though he adds apologetically that the film has "a tame pace compared to today's action movies." Still, To Catch a Thief is "a sheer pleasure to watch."

Having echoed at length common sentiments about the film, the review suddenly changes its tone as it gets to the heart of the matter, the new transfer and new supplements. Here, the hammer falls. "To Catch a Thief looks exactly identical to the previous DVD offering.... The transfer wasn't ever that great to begin with, but it certainly wasn't bad, either." Further, "the only difference between this new Special Collector's Edition and the older disc (which is five years old now) is the commentary track on this disc." Mr Brighton concludes that "Paramount hasn't really jumped through any hoops for this new offering."

To Catch a Thief He makes a powerful case, carefully chronicling the steps of his research. And given Mr Brighton's views, it comes as a shock to read "JJB" in the DVD Journal stating that the disc's "foremost new feature is the most important one: The new anamorphic transfer (1.85.1) features a restored print of the VistaVision film, enhancing the color spectrum and eliminating the collateral wear that marked the original DVD." Noting that To Catch a Thief "ranks among the most emblematic of Hitchcock's films," JJB goes on to say that "the original monaural audio has been upgraded with a Dolby 2.0 Surround option," and that "new to the release is a commentary featuring filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau, both who offer several insights into Hitchcock's career." All are lavishly praised.

Even Dave Kehr at the New York Times finds little to fault in the "new" transfer. The film has "always been close to perfection as a romantic comedy; now it approaches that same state as a DVD, thanks to the superb widescreen transfer." Mr Kehr is the only reviewer to go into detail about the film's process itself, which happens to be "VistaVision, the wide-screen process that Paramount developed to compete with Fox's CinemaScope." Mr Kehr concurs with the transfers celebrators:

According to Paramount, the new Thief has been taken from a restored VistaVision negative, and it shows in far crisper detail, much deeper colors and a new sense of depth. Unlike the colors in the unfortunate Vertigo restoration, this film's have not been conspicuously tampered with, and it retains its warm, sun-soaked hues, as well as its inky nights.

Adam Tyner of DVD Talk, finds the film one of Hitchcock's "lesser works" and, after the inevitable aesthetic status report and plot summary, also maintains that "this revised collector's edition adds a stereo surround mix, an updated anamorphic widescreen presentation, and a newly-recorded audio commentary alongside the extras from the 2002 release." Mr Tyner is frank about the commentary track: "Skim through Hitchcock's Wikipedia entry and read through Truffaut's extensive interview with the director, and little of this will be revelatory. Bouzereau acts more as a moderator than a speaker, trying to stave off gaps in the discussion, but the two of them have so little to say about To Catch a Thief in particular that they veer into such side conversations as the first Hitchcock movies they'd seen."

To Catch a Thief

As usual, Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver prefers to focus on the technical issues, thus raising expectations that he will lambaste the transfer (if Mr Brighton is correct), but he finds the new disc to be a "significant improvement in every area. The restored image is far smoother, less artifacts, less damage marks and colors are dramatically different - a strong improvement especially noted in skin tones."

Fernando F Croce at Slant also feels the need to clear his throat for a few paragraphs while positioning To Catch a Thief in Hitchcock's oeuvre. But after concluding that it has merits, turns his attention to the transfer, and surprisingly concurs with Mr Brighton:

For a movie of such visual luxury, the transfer can sometimes be surprisingly fuzzy. The ripe Riviera colors go from velvety to slightly drained, particularly noticeable during the instances of back-projection, though never so jarringly as to disrupt the film's gliding flow. Not among Hitchcock's strongest audio designs, the sound is pleasantly captured.

Thus, on the new To Catch a Thief, there is no consensus, and so the World Wide Web still demands that the consumer somehow make up his own mind.

- DK Holm

Busby Berkeley Collection "For my money, its the production numbers and not the story that make Gold Diggers of 1933, in the words of filmmaker John Landis, 'sheer entertainment,'" writes Thom at Film of the Year. "I enjoyed it so much that I thought I'd research some of the movie's history. Wow, does it have a lot of history."

A parenthetical remark from Craig Keller: "One barely cognates Lubitschian mise-en-scène; apprehension happens faster than you can incant 'cathexis-anti-cathexsis!!!'"

"Arguably the most anticipated boxed set of the year, this is exhaustive genre excavators Anchor Bay's finest single-director collection to date." In the Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov on The Mario Bava Collection: Volume 1. Also, Shawn Badgley on The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Odienator commemorates the 40th anniversary of the appearance in the US of Sergio Leone's No Name Trilogy at Edward Copeland on Film.

Scott Balcerzak at Dr Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope on Songs From the Second Floor: "The overall film is, as critics have pointed out, Bergman and Python and Buñuel and canvas art and countless other things all rolled into one. But it is also so intensely bleakly postmodern at times that it transcends all these influences."

"God Spoke sees the birth of self-importance in [Al] Franken, mingled with the rise of genuine concern and conviction," writes Sean Nelson in the Stranger. "His joke about being called by God to shame the right wing might not have been such a joke after all. You see him begin to believe not only that the people he's gunning for deserve to be taken down - which they obviously do - but that he's the man for the job. That isn't a sin, and Franken's recent campaign announcement for the Minnesota senate bodes well for his sincerity and brains - but goddamn if it doesn't make for a cloying, obnoxious documentary subject."

A few DVD roundups: Erika Baldt for Identity Theory; the Evening Standard and the Telegraph. And keep an eye on the Guru.

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Posted by dwhudson at May 11, 2007 11:47 AM


I think it's worth pointing out that Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver actually posts screen grabs so you can compare the two editions for yourself. That comparison makes it crystal clear that the Collector's Edition is a significant improvement.

Posted by: Tom Charity at May 11, 2007 5:48 PM

I hate to disagree with a fellow DK, but what's the controversy here? There's a huge difference between the old transfer and the new one; the only mystery is why you're wasting so much space on DVD Authority's erroneous review.

Posted by: Dave Kehr at May 12, 2007 9:50 AM

I sent the To Catch A Thief piece to Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere (as he had been excitedly awaiting its re-release), and he responded to it with a post of his own.
His verdict: there's a difference.

Posted by: Ju-osh at May 12, 2007 1:00 PM

Thanks, Ju-osh. Glenn Kenny comments as well...

Dave, I read DK's point as a warning that not all self-professed authorities are truly authoritative. Doesn't seem like a waste to me, particularly for a DVD-watching readership and particularly, too, in the wake of a recent across-the-blogs discussion of "cloggers" and the challenge of determining whom to trust.

Posted by: David Hudson at May 12, 2007 1:23 PM

Excellently written article about an issue that concerns all serious collectors, especially those with multi-region players, who often have to choose from as many as five versions of the same film from different countries.

Posted by: jon pais at May 12, 2007 8:57 PM