2016년 11월 8일 화요일

Preparing myself for a Donald Trump presidency

I originally wanted to write something much longer, putting into words the anxieties, anger, frustrations and a few nuggets of genuine insight into the American mentality that I have gained through this disastrous and shameful presidential election campaign (for which Democratic Party must take some, if not a huge chunk, of blame), but I am now thoroughly exhausted, and it is already past midnight into November 8.  I will keep it short.

I am not writing this for anyone else out there, but for myself, to take a brief stock of what it is that I need to do when Donald Trump becomes President of the United States.
This is, for various reasons, unlikely to happen but not impossible.  And 2016 has been if nothing else the Year In Which Complacent Expectations Got Backstapped with Sharp Stilettos.

Trump's presidential candidacy has been the most toxic spectacle, the single most damaging incident to American democracy I have witnessed in my lifetime (I have lived in the States for 33 years).  And I thought George W. Bush was a horrifying failure!  I still have not changed my mind about Bush's and especially Dick Cheney's war crimes, but Trump has already dragged the office of POTUS through the pigsty's floors many times over even before he could be elected to one.

The fact that he is merely unqualified would be bad enough, but what gives his presidency a truly nightmarish quality is his clear, undeniable connection to the "white nationalism" i. e. the ideology of white supremacy, and his hideous denigration of and hostility directed at everyone other than white males: women, blacks, Jews, the disabled, Muslims, LGBT community.  (Let's not get into his possibly treasonous capitulation to Vladimir Putin for now.  Haven't people got EXECUTED in the United States for selling the state information to the Soviet Union?  Is the FBI going to even investigate this orange lardball's involvement with Russia?)

The fact that millions of Americans not only willfully ignored his nakedly racist rhetoric and hateful discourse, but egged him on, indeed showering him with encouragement, I must admit, shocked and disturbed me profoundly.

I won't be a courageous fighter.  I will know when things are going to be truly dire, when we see black people shot in the streets routinely and the perpetrators are not prosecuted (which has already happened multiple times), when pogroms take place against Muslim communities (and then to Jewish communities, again), when Mexicans and Latinos face their own version of Kristallnacht, when all progresses made for women's reproductive rights and social equality are systematically reversed: when these things take place all over the country under the Trump presidency-- or whoever succeeds the fascist government he has initiated-- then perhaps I should heed the examples of the Jewish emigres who escaped the Nazis.

But before that happens, before things deteriorate that far, there are things that I could do, that I commit myself to, as a college professor who has served California's pre-eminent public university for 19 years.

1).  I will first and foremost put my energies into protecting my minority and immigrant students, reassuaring them that Trump's vision of "Great America" is a rotten anachronism, an idea that a handful of racists/white supremacists are trying to impose on the globalized, new America of twenty-first century, demographically and sociologically already transforming into something beyond their grubby reach.  That they need not cower in fear or lose track of their ambition.  He will only be the head of the executive branch, and an unimaginably wobbly one at that: after all, I have genuine lived-in experiences to tell the students that even under military dictatorships, the grounds had been laid to overturn them through ordinary citizen's activism and everyday challenges to oppression.

2). I will re-double my efforts to deepen my commitment to academic diversity as well as research subjects that promote peace and understanding among different ethnic and cultural groups.   And oh, I think the Trump presidency, as much as the 9/11 had killed off the "postmodern" carny shows, will kill off many "theories" that disparaged "liberalism" in the name of some radical one-upmanship.  Communitarianism, my toenails.  But in truth, I desperately do not want to see that happen either.  A Trump presidency is too much of a sacrifice to pay for the wimpy pleasures of being able to say "I told you so."

3). As I stated above, I am not a fighter-- I will flee the furnace when I begin to smell the burning stench of my own hairs on fire-- but, as much as I can still withstand the heat, I will no longer sit complacently just facing institutional racism or violent languages of exclusion that would no doubt be emboldened by Trump's "success."  I am now at the age when I have to be a responsible adult.  You won't see me in a cafe phoning my friends in South Korea and blithely telling how this country is going to seed.  Instead, I will reach out to the organizations, activists, programs, projects and groups determined to take back the country from Trump and his racist enablers, and work with them to bring the country back to the direction of progress and diversity.

Final words: from November 8 on, whatever the result of the election is, all you arrogant white male Americans who condescendingly looked down on Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea and other nations and disparaged their "inability to grasp the essence of democracy" or some such American exceptionalist crap, stop bullshitting to my ears.

American democracy is DISEASED.  The young ones are probably up to the task of curing it but meanwhile, kindly stop telling me how "great" American democracy is, while allowing the low-grade charlatan like Trump to become the head of its executive branch.  There is nothing "great" about the American system that allows this to happen. You have forfeited the right to be ignorantly and arrogantly complacent.

 -- Donald Trump bust in the Georgia campaign office.  image credit: WSB-TV

2016년 7월 20일 수요일

Taller Tales Fall Down Harder- THE FALLEN IDOL (1948) Blu Ray Review

 THE FALLEN IDOL. A London Film Production, distributed by Selznick Releasing Organization, British Lions Films. U.K. 1948. 1 hour 35 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.37:1, Mono RCA Sound System. Director: Carol Reed. Screenplay: Graham Greene, based on his own short story "The Basement Room." Cinematography: George Périnal, Music: William Alwyn.  Production Design: Vincent Korda, James Sawyer. Assistant Director: Guy Hamilton, Producers: Carol Reed, Philip Brandon. Executive Producer: Alexander Korda.  

CAST: Ralph Richardson (Baines), Michelle Morgan (Julie), Bobby Henrey (Philipe), Sonia Dresdel (Mrs. Baines), Dennis O'Dea (Inspector Crowe), Jack Hawkins (Detective Ames), Bernard Lee (Detective Hart), Torin Thatcher (Policeman), Karel Stepanek (First Secretary).

This review has been requested by Knox, one of the readers of M's Desk. The content will be replicated in my M's Desk webpage.

Carol Reed (1906-1976), a well-honored Englishman whose directorial career traversed the fledgling British film industry in the prewar era and its '50s and '60s glory days, is nonetheless often cited as a journeyman director, a mere "good storyteller" devoid of his own style or serious stakes in the cinematic medium, especially during the height of the auteurist critical trend driven by the international successes of the French nouvelle vague. Perhaps most famous for directing The Third Man (1949), his own contribution to that seminal postwar thriller has often been overshadowed by that of its flamboyant star Orson Welles, and, to a lesser degree, by that of its screenwriter Graham Greene. Reed, a notoriously generous director with many episodes indicating his gentle approach to the filmmaking process (the current Blu Ray supplements repeat some of these anecdotes, including his advice to a novice director, "Never humiliate an actor"), has not surprisingly received a surge of counter-auteurist critical support in recent years, as more formalist and genre-conscious film criticisms have come to appreciate the native Londoner's delicate yet firm control over the entire filmmaking process. And after so many movies have come and gone, an ability to tell crackling good stories on screen no longer appears so easy today, as it must have been to the Young Turk cineastes of '60s.

The Fallen Idol, usually discussed in conjunction with Reed's two other masterpieces from the immediate postwar period, The Odd Man Out (1947) and the aforementioned The Third Man, is deceptively simple-looking motion picture, tightly controlled and "engineered," yet giving the illusion of a fully naturalistic, opened-up world to the first-time viewer. Its moral concerns are also a lot more ambivalent and complex than it appears at the outset. When I had first seen it at the Cambridge, MA's Brattle Theater sometime in '80s, I immediately became immersed in it as a intelligently constructed mystery film, that, like the best of the Italian gialli made twenty years later, hinges on the misinformation conveyed through the act of seeing (and believing wrongly that one had seen something, when he/she in fact had not). It appealed to me as the type of boardroom thriller that the British were typecast for doing a great job with. Only after multiple viewings spread over more than three decades, I came to realize that the film is much more than a mere thriller, overlain with complex psychological dynamics, and suffused with a highly compassionate sensibility that could have only come from a generation that had reflected hard on the cruelties and absurdities of a devastating war.

One of the standard interpretations of the film, that this is a well-told story of a young boy being forced into adulthood, a variant of Bildungsroman, has never really worked that well for me. I have always found it exceedingly difficult to identify with the little Philipe, the eight-year-old French Ambassador's son who idolizes the Embassy's butler, Baines, who is carrying out an extramarital affair with a beautiful French typist, Julie, right under the nose of Mrs. Baines, a vindictive and disciplining authority figure for the kid. Perhaps because I have since a very young age always been so easily seduced by the great yet subtle acting, the pretend-games these marvelous British actors play, every time I have seen The Fallen Idol my focus is inexorably drawn to Baines. When he is so pathetically and, in my view as an empathetic viewer, so unjustly reduced to his "real" self in the second half, my heart unfailingly goes out to him.

Indeed, from my POV the film leans toward Baines's story of coming to terms with the lies, not just the "innocent" ones such as tall tales he has been regaling to the boy, but the much darker and despairing truths hidden beneath them, beginning with one that his marriage has become an empty husk, and more importantly, that he is too much of a weakling to dismantle or, conversely, save it. Philipe is a catalyst, or a lens through which he is now finally able to see what an untruthful life he has led so far. Baines is at his heart a kind, considerate man, but he shares certain qualities with an archetypical film noir protagonist: he lets himself become a victim of circumstances by refusing to take control of the trajectory of his life. Although Julie is far from a femme fatale, her encounters with Baines are swathed in the anxious atmosphere of deception and suppression, which perhaps for Philipe, and for the audience, stokes the flames of romantic allure. We are drawn to these pretend-plays knowing that they cannot end well.

The Fallen Idol in my opinion is a premier example of a work of classic cinema that deceptively assumes the guise of a play, yet enriched by meticulously thought-out application of cinematic techniques. There is a sense of an exquisitely designed, invented world, halfway between a child's imaginary castle and an aristocratic abode, no doubt abetted by Vincent Korda's grandiose artistry, matched by terrific dynamism of the camera (masterminded by Geroge Périnal, René Clair and Jean Gremillon's prewar partner-- it is easy for us to forget that a British film like The Fallen Idol was in fact put together by a multicultural, multilinguistic crew and cast, including French, Hungarian, German and Czechoslovakian talents) and, of course, the kind of cinematic performances cued toward the discerning eye of the camera and the editor's rhythm rather than the paying audience seated in the front row.

Bobby Henrey, a non-actor who was largely cast because, like Philipe, he had grown up in France and was capable of speaking English with a French accent, apparently had to be cooed, cajoled and at one point bribed (via a conjurer's tricks) into giving the reaction that Reed wanted. Yet, the end result is completely natural performance, including the shots showing uncomprehending terror (this could not have been easy on his or Reed's part). Henrey's performance is fascinatingly un-self-conscious, quite unlike great performances given by professionally trained child actors, for instance, Mark Lester in Reed's own Oliver! (1968): a closest corollary to Henrey's performance I could think of is the one delivered by Kelly Reno in The Black Stallion (1979). 

However, for me, The Fallen Idol is really dominated by Ralph Richardson. It is truly remarkable that three of the British theater's greatest twentieth-century actors, John Gielgud, Laurence Oliver and Richardson, had such a long and distinguished career as film actors as well (There were those theater giants whose cinematic sojourn was relatively minor, such as Paul Scofield). Richardson had a singularly productive relationship with Alexander Korda throughout '30s and again this might have extended to his casting as Baines in The Fallen Idol, a production that can be characterized in a way as Korda's way of enlisting Greene as a reliable source for his films. While he could definitely have dialed up the impish, even slightly sinister side of Baines, Richardson eschews easy theatrics and provides a strikingly restrained performance, a textbook showcase of "less is more:" it is a thoroughly cinematic turn, not relying on the Old Vic director's oratorical skills at all, conveying so much through delicate facial expressions and rigid postures rather than "acting" as such.
The Fallen Idol is not exactly a neglected gem: it was both a commercial and critical hit upon its release, and has continued to claim a honored position in the postwar British cinema (it was not imported to Japan until 1953, beating The Quiet Man, Shane and The Sound Barrier to claim the rank of no. 4 among foreign imports in the year's prestigious Kinema junpo list). Yet due to its small scale and the plot that easily renders itself to simplification, one could lose sight of the degree to which the film's "simple" qualities are in fact a reflection of superlatively fine-honed filmmaking artistry, both in front of and behind the camera. It is a classic motion picture not bound to its particular era or milieu, capable of touching and shaking us beyond generational and cultural divides.

Blu Ray Presentation:

British Film Institute/Studio Canal. Region B. Video: Academy ratio 1.37:1, 1080p. Audio: Mono Lossless PCM. English (HOH) Subtitles. Supplements: Interviews with Bobby Henrey, Guy Hamilton, film historian Charles Drazin, director Richard Ayodade, Location featurette with Richard Dacre, Restoration comparison. Street date: May 2, 2016.

The Fallen Idol has previously been released as a Criterion DVD and is possibly geared for a Blu Ray update in the near future (Odd Man Out is already out) but this Blu Ray edition is the Region B version put out by the British Film Institute in conjunction with Studio Canal. The film has been restored by the BFI (I assume it is 2K remaster), cleaning up a large chunk of debris, nicks and scratches, but not all to the point it became waxy and featureless. There is a healthy layer of grain especially in the outdoor shots, and the black levels are sharp but stable. There has apparently been some vertical stretches due to encoding problems in early copies, but as of June 30, 2016, this problem seems to have been addressed. Overall it is a sparkling restoration that does the film's classic status justice. The lossless digital mono soundtrack is also uniformly of high quality. Only English subtitles are included.

The BFI has arranged a nice array of extras for the film. Assistant director Guy Hamilton gives a nice overview of the production process, focusing on Carol Reed's directorial style, generating a bit of controversy perhaps by commenting that Bobby Henrey's attention span was that of a "demented flea." Surprisingly, Bobby Henrey, now an octogenarian old gentleman, gives a game interview discussing his experience (he does not quite deny Hamilton's characterization of himself as lacking in attentiveness, although he comes across quite a bit more thoughtful in his own words). Both interviews are very informative and clocks around at 16 and 18 minutes. In a separate interview (appx. 20 minutes) Charles Drazin discusses the production background from the angle of Graham Green and Alexander Korda's participations. Young director Richard Ayoade (The Double) expresses his admiration for the film in question and especially Carol Reed's approach to acting. I sometimes find a fellow filmmaker's tribute to a classic film largely perfunctory or tangential, but Ayoade makes an excellent case for Reed's directorial skills and soundness of the latter's approach, especially his determination to have every character-- no matter how minor-- to "fully speak for him or herself" throughout the film. The supplements are rounded out by a brief restoration comparison and Ryan Gilbey's rather substantial booklet essay, which should not be read prior to watching the film, as it is full of spoilers.  As I have stated above, Criterion might issue its own Region A blu ray of this film in the near future, so it is up to you to stick out for it, but if you have a region free or region B-exclusive machine, I can vouch for the high quality of the BFI-Studio Canal presentation of this exceedingly well-crafted little cinematic gem.

2016년 3월 17일 목요일

Pirates of the Bermuda Triangle- THE ISLAND (1980) Blu Ray Review

THE ISLAND. A Zanuck-Brown Production, distributed by Universal City Studios.  U.S. -1980. 1 hour 49 minutes, Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 (Panavision).  Director: Michael Ritchie. Screenplay: Peter Benchley based on his novel The Island. Music: Ennio Morricone. Cinematography: Henri Decaë. Production Design: Dale Hennesy. Costume Design: Ann Roth. Visual Effects: Bill Taylor, Albert Whitlock. Producers: David Brown, Richard B. Zanuck.

CAST: Michael Caine (Blair Maynard), David Warner (John Nau), Jeffrey Frank (Justin Maynard), Angela Punch McGregor (Beth), Frank Middlemass (Dr. Windsor), Don Henderson (Rollo), Dudley Sutton (Dr. Brazil), Colin Jeavons (Hizzoner), Zakes Mokae (Wescott).

After what many must have considered a dumb, B-movie project about a big man-eating shark terrorizing a North Atlantic resort town, entrusted to a 28-year-old young turk, demolished the box office of 1975, the movie's producers David Brown and Richard B. Zanuck, not surprisingly, tightly held on to the author of the bestselling novel from which the prodigious hit was adapted, Peter Benchley.  His source novel essentially welded the setting of Henryk Ibsen's Enemy of the People to sensational monster-movie shenanigans with just enough hints of local verisimilitude and pseudo-scientific realism to entice the summer mass-market-paperback readership. It was a winning formula, at least for a commercial success, but Benchley's true interest seems to have been early modern history of the Caribbean Islands, especially Bermuda (he allegedly had pitched a nonfiction book about the North Atlantic pirates to the publishers prior to the submission of Jaws).  Some of these interests are reflected in Peter Yates-directed The Deep (1976), which does not quite gel as a compelling thriller, despite an attractive cast headlined by Jacqueline Bisset, beautiful underwater cinematography and John Barry's beguiling score. 

Thereafter, Benchley came up with a rather strange idea for his next novel, The Island, that the descendants of the “buccaneers” from 17th century, an inbred, cackling horde of British and Spanish pirates dressed in mismatched rags and wielding rapiers and (looted) M-16s, have somehow survived in one of the islands in the Caribbean, frozen in time and raiding yachts and commercial ships passing through the nearby seas.  And this, he posited with a straight face, was the real cause behind the disappearances of ships and people in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle!”  And I always thought it was the pink jellyfish… Given the box office success of The Deep, the Zanuck-Brown team decided to try their luck with Benchley one more time, although the weird premise described above should have signaled a full stop to any producer shopping for a summer blockbuster material. 

The Island is in fact competently directed, expertly lensed in the Panavision widescreen mode by the great Henri Decaë (responsible for many French classics including The 400 blows and Purple Noon, later rendering his skills to Anglo-American blockbusters such as The Boys from Brazil and Bobby Dearfield), set- and costume-dressed by top-notch Hollywood talents, and graced by Ennio Morricone's ethereal and (when needed) suitably suspenseful music score. And yet the film in the end is no re-discovered masterpiece: it is most notable for its bizarrely mismatched tonalities that undermine any sense of fun.  It is also severely miscast, the point to which I shall come back shortly. Despite all these negative traits, The Island somehow remains compulsively watchable, the kind of fascinating train wreck that is just well-made enough to make you imagine what it could have been under different circumstances.

Directing duties were performed by Michael Ritchie (1938-2001). Ritchie in such films as The Candidate (1972), Prime Cut (1972) and Semi-Tough (1977) certainly demonstrated that he knew how to bring together daringly naturalistic attitudes toward sex and violence and pitch-black satirical interpretations of the “mundane” details of American life. It is possible that Ritchie conceived of the current project as a black comedy, a wry (in truth, nasty) commentary on the way “civilized” city liberals in '70s were turning their noses away from the gun-obsessed “hicks” in the heartland. The modern “buccaneers” in The Island are deliberately designed to appear as un-romantic and uncouth as you could possibly fancy them to be. They indulge in vicious, ugly acts of violence both physical (a slobbering pirate bloodily slashing the throat of a young mother) and psychological (their leader, John Nau, convinced that the captured Maynards are the descendants of Robert Maynard, a Royal Navy lieutenant responsible for killing Robert Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, decides to adopt the boy Justin as his own, precipitating a series of very uncomfortable sequences in which the boy is brainwashed through sleep deprivation and other means of psychological conditioning).  Their "raids" are frequently interrupted by pointedly ridiculous slapstick actions but are scored to the majestic tunes of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, obviously telling us to savor the gap between these toothless, unwashed wonders and the romantic, mythical imagery of them as seafaring adventurers. 

Okay, we got that.  But so what?  John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, equally uncouth and ridiculous in spots, at least exuded the conviction of the filmmaker's quasi-fascistic, anti-'60s philosophy.  The Island lacks such conviction, for better or worse, and we sit in front of the screen wondering what it is that we are supposed to feel, as the (by and large talented) cast members do their best to make sense of their gnarly, unsympathetic characters. 

Jeffrey Frank, who plays the boy, is not bad, but his character is basically an unpleasant twit. The little girl who initially entraps him is obviously meant to be another survivor brainwashed to accept the pirates as her surrogate parents: again, her acting is rather convincing but this whole set-up seems straight out of a nasty horror film, like an adaptation of a Ramsay Campbell story (not to mention reminding us of the truly sickening possibility of sexual abuse she would have been exposed to in a real-life situation similar to this). 

This brings us to the casting of Michael Caine as the foppish, "liberal" journalist Maynard and David Warner as the pirate leader Nau. Caine is as always fine and is above trying to sell an "East Coast American accent" or do something equally distracting. Yet he is clearly not finding the right purchase on this character, either.  He spends most of the film bound, leashed and abused by various cast members and we either expect him to remain an ironic, passive catalyst for the whole tribe to implode unto itself, due to the inevitable contamination from the modern world, or grow into a cool action hero in the mold of Harry Palmer and save his son from the clutches of the Wrong Father.  The film reluctantly settles on the second path, what with Caine beginning to shoot lethal glances out of the corner of his eyes, but then again Ritchie pulls the rug out of under the actor's feet, by saddling him with a silly, hyper-violent solution to all the mess, a textbook definition of deus ex machina (intended as such as an ironic statement on the destructive capacity of modern civilization. Sure, sure)

David Warner is, like Nicole Williamson, one of those brilliant Shakespearean actors Hollywood seemingly did not know how to handle through '70s and '80s.  Here, he is intelligently menacing and restrained, with hints of madness glinting behind his quiet eyes, but it is pretty obvious that applying such subtle levels of acting to this character, Nau, was like preparing a delicately sculpted parsley flower to decorate a tray of Big Mac.  What was required was a loud, even scenery-chewing performance obviously in on with the joke: Max Von Sydow's Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon comes to mind.  Another thing: I believe Warner in real life is probably a tall man (much taller than me for sure!), but in The Island his extremely gaunt physique is mercilessly exposed: he in fact looks positively emaciated, if not actually ill. At no point in the film I could persuade myself into believing that Maynard was in any physical danger from Nau, armed with a sword or whatnot, which for me pretty much killed any sense of suspense during their climactic confrontation. 

Blu Ray Presentation:

Scream Factory.  Region Free. Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, 1080p. Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 2.0, Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. No subtitles.  Supplements: None. Street date:  December 11, 2012.

Scream Factory, the horror-thriller imprint of Shout! Factory label has released The Island in a DVD-Blu Ray combo edition. Perhaps unable to procure any participant who could have said positive things about the production, they disappointingly let out a bare-bones edition.  At least Shout! Factory does not try to sell it as some romantic swashbuckling adventure.  The case is marked as Region A but the disc itself is region free.

The transfer looks fine, if not spectacular, with fine sheets of grain present in night scenes and conveying detailed textures of seawater and wood well.  In some scenes the movie has that strangely powdery, pastel-tone look of an '80s American film: it is not the dominant visual scheme of the film, thankfully.  Overall The Island sports a gritty and humid countenance rather than a sunny, postcard-pretty one. 

As for the audio, Ennio Morricone's score (chronologically written between the masterpiece Days of Heaven [1978] and the misused but still interesting The Thing [1982]) comes off okay but is in my view mixed rather indifferently.  The maestro's main theme is almost elegiac, and in the pirate's dens he let loose with surrealistically weird, atonal music (a sliding whistle that goes up and down in ear-scratching glissando, for instance), all of which accurately captures the crazy tonal shifts of the movie.  The dialogue comes off cleanly. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles. 

The Island is a strange film, a quasi-black comedy in search of a proper subject to satirize, a generally well-made production full of unpleasant and incongruous elements, a few of which are admittedly fascinating in the ways probably unintended by its makers.  It is primarily recommended to the fans of Michael Caine and connoisseurs of bizarre Hollywood fares.

2016년 2월 10일 수요일

Who Says Crime Does Not Pay?- ROBBERY (1967) Blu Ray Review

ROBBERY. An Oakhurst Ltd. Production, distributed by Paramount Pictures and Embassy Pictures, United Kingdom, 1967. 1 hour 54 minutes. Aspect ratio 1.66:1

Director: Peter Yates, Screenplay: Edward Boyd, Peter Yates, George Markstein, based on a treatment by Gerald Wilson, Music: Johnny Keating, Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe, Art Director: Michael Seymour, Editor: Reginald Beck, Executive Producer: Joseph E. Levine, Producers: Stanley Baker, Michael Deeley.  CAST: Stanley Baker (Paul Clifton), Joanna Pettet (Kate Clifton), James Booth (Inspector Langdon), Barry Foster (Frank), Frank Finlay (Robinson), William Marlowe (Dave Aitken), George Sewell (Ben), Clinton Greyn (Jack), Glynn Edwards (Squad Chief), Rachel Herbert (Schoolteacher), Robert Powell (Young train conductor).

Previously available only in a lackluster pan-and-scan DVD, Robbery, one of the iconic '60s caper film, often paired in discussion with The Italian Job (1969) starring Michael Caine, receives a full special edition treatment from Studio Canal and Network's British Film series. The film unspools the yarn regarding one of England's most sensational crimes in modern history, the stealing of £2.6 million in used notes from the Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail train, in August 1963.  The gang of thieves, fifteen of them, carried out the heist with a startling efficiency resembling a military operation. The act grabbed public imagination like few other capers: so much so that, the Brits have taken to simply refer to it as "The Great Train Robbery."  Dozens of books based on investigative journalism, autobiographies and confessionals of the ringleaders of the gang, biographies of the policemen involved in the case, and of course numerous semi-fictionalized accounts have sprung up since 1963 (subsequent arrests, trials and sentencing of the major culprits literally spun off more stories for the insatiable public).

Not surprisingly, cinematic and TV adaptations soon followed.  The British public has not lost interest in the case even in the new century, as evidenced by the 2012 airing of ITV's mini-series Mrs. Briggs, which tells the story of the Great Train Robbery from the viewpoint of the wife of one of the ringleaders.  Yet, the very first theatrical film to present an account of the crime was not made in England: it was a black-and-white German production titled Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse (1966), originally a TV show in three installments.  In the end, 1967's Robbery, put together by the star Baker's Oakhust Productions, with the help from the American producer Joseph Levine, and helmed by the young TV director Peter Yates, coming off from a Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (1963), is generally considered the definitive, if significantly fictionalized, cinematic rendition of the whole event.

Robbery seems to have received somewhat cold shoulders from the mainstream critics upon its release. One reason seems to be what they perceived as inconsistency in its tone: the film mostly behaves like a semi-documentarian, British equivalent of The French Connection (1971), with totally convincing location shootings in parking lots, soccer stadiums, city parks, etc., but in other ways is strikingly stylized, very much a product of late '60s.  Mostly, though, it just smacks of clever and efficient filmmaking: Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) renders even the gritty elements of the film fine polish, and the editor Reginald Beck (The Romantic Englishwoman) endows the proceedings with a smart, kinetic rhythm.  Director Yates stages the opening diamond heist by Clifton's (Baker) gang (Barry Foster, William Marlowe and Clinton Greyn as the reckless driver) with a supremely adrenalin-pumping car chase that eventually involves a group of unsuspecting schoolchildren.  Supposedly it was this sequence that convinced Steve McQueen to hire Yates for Bullitt (1968), and it is every bit as exciting and dangerous-looking as the San Francisco car chases in the latter.  (It is also capped by one of the best police line-up sequences I have ever seen, with a great participation by Rachel Herbert as the understandably piqued schoolteacher)

The train robbery itself is reconstructed with meticulous attention to detail, bringing in as many authentic locations as possible (including a railway bridge in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire where the actual heist took place).  Only the mail carrier train was apparently a mock-up that did not look like the real thing (the banks cooperated with the production company but the post office allegedly refused).  Production quality is nothing less than handsome at all times.  It is true that Robbery does not exude the anarchic energy of The Italian Job, but the whole process of the crime, as shown in the film, still generates enough gripping suspense to keep the viewers attentive through its nearly two-hour running time.  The movie does not make the mistake of portraying police as pompous, incompetent fools, either.   

The cast is uniformly excellent, on both sides of the law. Barry Foster (his flashiest role was perhaps in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy), William Marlowe and George Sewell (most memorable for me from the TV series UFO) all leave strong impressions: Foster and Sewell even share an iconic moment of burning a pound note to light their cigarettes (Did John Woo get the inspiration for a similar image in Better Tomorrow from this film?).  Frank Finlay is a mousy embezzler who is reluctantly roped in by the gang due to his specialized knowledge about the financial ends of the job.  Hangdog-faced James Booth (Zulu) is also nicely cast as a Columbo-like detective who doggedly pursues minute clues, eventually zeroing in on the gang's hideout.  A harried young conductor of the Royal Mail train is played by Robert Powell, the subsequent star of more than one cult genre films (The Survivor, Harlequin) as well as Jesus of Nazareth in the Franco Zeffirelli-directed mini-series. 

Curiously, the producer-star Baker does not seem fully committed to his role as the criminal mastermind. His Paul Clifton (This was an invented personage, originally set to be played by an American actor: no equivalent of such a "master planner" existed among the real gang) is the only character with enough time devoted to his private life and psychological dynamics.  Yet his interaction with the beautiful wife, Kate (Joanna Pettet, Night of the Generals), is the only part of the movie that feels clichéd.  We get little insight about why Clifton, despite enjoying his life in a posh apartment with a loving wife, is driven to commit bigger and more outlandish crimes.  He is more a collection of brooding gestures than a real character. Had the character of Clifton been fleshed out, the film's seemingly open ending might have made more sense as a statement with some point about the British society or politics (but then again, the ending may well have meant to be no more than a balloon floated to signal a possible sequel).

Not quite a classic on the same level as, say, Ipcress File or Zulu, Robbery is still an exceedingly well-executed piece of cinematic entertainment, brimming with professionalism and cool attitudes: it is definitely not a lugubrious exercise in kitchen-sink realism as a few other reviews inexplicably seem to suggest. 

Blu Ray Presentation:

Studio Canal/Network, The British Film Series.  Region B.  Video: 1080p HD, Aspect ratio 1.66:1, Audio: English Mono.  Subtitles: English.  Supplements: An interview with Producer Michael Deeley, Cinema: Stanley Baker documentary, German film The Great Train Robbery, Waiting for the Signal: The Making of Robbery, Behind-the-scene footage, Image gallery, Promotional materials (in pdf), Liner notes by film historian Sheldon Hall.  Street date: August 31, 2015.

Network remastered the film, scanning it from the 35mm original negative in 2K resolution, color-correcting and eliminating dirt and damage in the process (and, according to the technical notes, reinstating a ten second scene missing from the previous DVD version).  To my eyes the grain structure and stability of the image all look excellent.  Only in one device that I have played the disc (a laptop) the skin tone was somewhat inclined to ruddy red, but on a big screen TV via Momitsu Region-Free player everything looks natural and sharp as a tack.  It is doubtful that Robbery would come off any better than this in a revival-house screening today, even with a brand new print.  And not surprisingly, seeing the film in such a beautiful condition allows us to appreciate all the technical prowess and cool stylistic touches that went into its making.  Audio is mono but Johnny Keating's jazzy score comes off very well.  It is possible that some of the dialogues might have been tinkered to make the film "US-friendly."  I certainly expected much heavier regional or Cockney accents among at least a few of the players (either way, there are English subtitles).

The supplements are quite good, too.  The making-of documentary-- that collects together the surviving staff and cast members, including writer George Markstein, actor Glynn Edwards and others, for their reminiscences-- is a bit on the long side but chock full of funny and informative anecdotes nonetheless.  The Stanley Baker docu is a minimally edited series of interview footage, surprisingly transferred in HD, of a 1972 one he gave at Granada Television.  Some might consider the brooding, menacing-looking Baker less interesting than his compatriot Michael Caine, but I find him fascinating and he surely made more than just a handful of powerful and meaningful films in a career cut tragically short.  Perhaps the most unexpected extra is the inclusion of the entire German film The Great Train Robbery, the truncated, export theatrical version of Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse (this one unfortunately is not in HD).  I have sampled a few segments, but found it frankly tough going: it is rather talky and the English dubbing is for some reason extremely distracting.  Of course, it is possible that I happened to hit upon the excruciatingly boring parts. The Michael Deeley interview also goes into a lot of topics of interest for the fans of the British genre cinema. 

Finally, the insert essay by Sheldon Hall eschews the usual critic's opinionizing and concentrates on the history of production of the film. He painstakingly uncovers many relevant facts about Robbery, including a terribly frustrating one that, despite doing excellent businesses across the Atlantic, it ultimately lost money, due to the convoluted distribution deal (the same fate apparently befell The Italian Job, by the way, also made through Baker's Oakhurst Productions).  Overall, Hall does an excellent job of rehabilitating Robbery's reputation, without claiming it is a lost masterpiece on the level of Citizen Kane, and properly situating it in the historical context of evolution (and decline) of the British commercial cinema. 

While the movie is certainly not perfect, the Robbery Blu Ray edition is in my view one of Network's best-produced discs and I highly recommend it to any fans of the British genre cinema, or simply a well-made caper film.