Blu-ray Blues

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Blu-ray is dead. Long live Blu-ray. Last month a new home video format was released to replace it: Ultra HD Blu-ray, which offers quadruple the resolution of regular old BD. Compatible only with 4K televisions and UHD players, the new format is likely fated to become the niche of a niche. The original Blu-ray was never ensconced in most Americans’ living rooms, instead becoming the choice of collectors, cinephiles, and home theater geeks. DVDs were still too new and cheap, and the rapidly expanding accessibility of streaming video made the relatively expensive Blu-ray an afterthought.  Today Blu-ray and DVD are considered as interchangeable formats, lumped together in narratives of physical media’s decline (according to DEG combined sales dropped by 12% in 2015 – though it is still a six billion dollar business). Anecdotally, it is remarkable how few of my film friends own a BD player, even though their prices have dropped to DVD levels these last few years. As audiences seemed to shrug at BD, Hollywood studios became wary of investing too much in the format. They were nearly twice as expensive to author, so new releases made it to Blu-ray, but library titles would have to wait. It has taken a few years, but the Blu-ray dam is leaking a bit, if not yet broken. Take for instance, the recent releases of Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (via the Twilight Time label, only available for purchase through Screen Archives), and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, released courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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Twilight Time was founded by Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson, two studio employees  who used their connections to license classic movies and start their own label. Redman works as a consultant for Fox restoring film music, and Jamieson was the Senior VP of Marketing for WB Home Video International for 30 years. They release their films in limited edition Blu-ray runs of 3,000 units, with some of their titles selling out within minutes of release. They only sell their Blu-rays through Screen Archives or their own site, so they never receive the discounts of a big chain like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. This causes some grumbling from the buying populace, but if you can get your hands on it,  Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is a gorgeous B&W transfer, filmic and detailed. Director Otto Preminger made it right after his hypnotism noir Whirlpool, and it maintains that film’s somnambulant dread, and returning star Gene Tierney. She is paired with Dana Andrews, reuniting the haunted duo from Preminger’s Laura. Here Andrews plays disgusted police detective Mark Dixon, a proto-Taxi Driver who wishes he could wash the scum off the streets. Except unlike Bickle, he has legal backing to do so, so he takes his inner violence out on the beat.

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Dixon is repeatedly accused of abuse and harassment, and these violent outbursts keep him from being promoted. While interviewing a dopey witness to a mob murder conducted by Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), Dixon pops the witness in the mouth and accidentally kills him. The victim is the estranged husband of Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), a department store model who thinks she can soften Dixon’s hard edges. This is a cold and hard movie in which Dixon, the purported hero, is a rageaholic killer who is coming apart at the seams. Dixon has to cover up his murder, so he investigates as normal and tries to pin it on Scalise – a supercilious gangster who worked in the mob with Dixon’s late father. The film uses a series of repeated low-angle camera set-ups to emphasize the how fate is slowly sneaking up behind Dixon. The crime has to be walked through by the investigators, so he sees everything again, pushing in his own lies when necessary. But in this movie the camera doesn’t lie, and Preminger uses looming close-ups of Andrews’ gradually tightening face of a man imploding in on himself. Twilight Time has also released Preminger’s devastatingly decadent drama Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and the paranoid child kidnapping thriller Bunny Lake is Missing (1965).

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Warner Brothers has been reluctant to license their films to third party distributors, and though they have released a ton of their library onto their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, they had not done a ton with their back catalog for Blu-ray. That is starting to change, as their releases of The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and The Wrong Man would attest. Another of their recent Blu-ray releases is Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), which I watched for the first time this past weekend. Hitchcock considered it one of his weaker films, calling it “rather heavy-handed…lacking in humor and subtlety.” It is a resolutely Spartan production shot in Quebec City about a priest (Montgomery Clift) who hears the confession of his handyman Otto (O.E. Hasse), who admits to the killing of a local lawyer. The priest must abide by his vows and remain silent, but the circumstantial evidence gathered by the police points to him as the main suspect. The priest acts as if he has absorbed and taken on Otto’s guilt for him. The style is as pared down and restrained as Clift’s performance, in which he barely emotes. One has to imagine the thoughts dancing around in his head, of how much anger and anxiety is suppurating in there. But Clift, and Hitchcock, give nothing away. The priest remains an impenetrable cipher throughout. Whether you find this enervating or transfixing depends on your opinion of Montgomery Clift’s eyes. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote that: “In this story, in which the lips of the hero are voluntarily sealed, only these looks give us access to the mysteries of his thought. They are the most worthy and faithful messengers of the soul. We are not to be blamed if the tone of our commentary is somewhat inflated. The majesty of this film invites as much, and leaves little room for humor.” iconfess04

Where the Sidewalk Ends and I Confess were released rather late in DVD’s lifespan (2004 and 2005, respectively), and it took Blu-ray equally as long to get there (I would place the UHD ETA for these in 2046). But with studios like 20th Century Fox and Paramount licensing to boutique distributors like Twilight Time, and Warner Brothers continuing to mine their library through their “Archive”, we are entering a secret golden age of Blu-ray releases. In this fallen age of physical media, I will take what I can get.

21 Responses Blu-ray Blues
Posted By robbushblog : March 8, 2016 4:40 pm

I hope Blu-ray survives. I have amassed a decent size collection in the past few years and would hate to switch to yet another medium. It sucks that the 4k isn’t compatible with Blu-ray, like Blu-ray is with DVD. And Blu-ray is beautiful. It even makes DVDs look better.

I have extolled the virtues of I, CONFESS to Morlocks readers before. I’ll do it again. I think it is Hitch’s most underrated movie, and I’m happy it’s coming out on Blu, although I already have a DVD copy of it. And WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS is pretty darn good too.

Posted By swac44 : March 8, 2016 5:12 pm

The quest for ultimate resolution is getting a bit ridiculous. With VHS, laserdisc and even DVD, I could always see the room for improvement, but with blu-ray, I finally felt I was getting the best picture quality I could hope for in a home video format. I saw a demo of 4K and frankly wasn’t that impressed. It’s great if you like movies that look more like video, but as a film buff who also loves technology, it’s easy for me to say the buck stops at blu-ray.

Posted By chris : March 8, 2016 8:38 pm

Don’t get rid of your blurays when you go 4K bluray, robbushblog. The new 4K bluray players are backward compatible with bluray discs. I don’t know about DVD’s though.
Swac44, the neat thing about 4K is that it is essentially the same format that is used in movie theaters, meaning that if you had a 4K player, a 4K bluray disc, a 4K video projector you can project on the same size screen as a movie theater and it would look just as good.
Personally, I’ll wait til the price goes down, though(or they stop making bluray players or discs).

Posted By robbushblog : March 8, 2016 8:40 pm

What is “backward compatible”?

Posted By robbushblog : March 8, 2016 8:48 pm

4k UHD players WILL play DVDs. Okay then. No worries.

Posted By Mitch Farish : March 8, 2016 9:55 pm

I guess to a generation that doesn’t mind seeing inferior images on smartphones and YouTube, blu-ray is not worth even the modest prices they go for today. But last night I watched the Criterion blu-ray release of Chaplin’s The Kid, and it was like I was in a movie theater in 1921, the quality was that good – maybe it even looked better than it did in 1921. That kind of experience is worth investing in blu-ray. Also, I like having movies for repeated viewings. Until I can buy my own digital HD copy to keep from worrying that it may not be available tomorrow, I’ll stick with BD for the films I want to see more than just a few times.

Posted By LD : March 8, 2016 11:00 pm

Coming from a time when owning a movie was unthinkable, I treasure those that I have. I also keep films on DVR (I won’t be erasing WHIRLPOOL or WHERE THE SIDEWALKS ENDS any time soon). I have both DVD’s and Blu-rays but the thought of another option is not good news to me. Also, if I am watching a film in bed and not wearing my glasses just how good does the picture have to be anyway? You can only see as well as your eyes can. Really.

Posted By robbushblog : March 9, 2016 1:52 am

Mitch – So it was beautiful, huh? I got my copy on release day, but haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : March 9, 2016 4:19 am

Right on, LD. I think we’re getting to a point where the resolution isn’t going to be visible to the human eye.

Posted By George : March 10, 2016 9:21 pm

“You can only see as well as your eyes can. Really.”

Yep. I’m not getting rid of my regular DVDs and regular DVD player. The best place to see a movie is still on a large theater screen. Any home viewing is going to be second best.

Posted By robbushblog : March 10, 2016 9:25 pm

If you upgrade to a Blu-ray player you can still watch your DVDs, they just look better, plus you can stream stuff.

Posted By swac44 : March 10, 2016 9:51 pm

Upconversion has done wonders with a number of DVD titles on my Oppo blu-ray player (not all, mind you), which also gives me access to Netflix, although the classic movie selection there is weak at best. Plus, I can play DVDs and blu-rays from overseas, which is a bonus considering the large number of titles from abroad that can’t be had from North American retailers. I can see how 4K might be useful if you had a large projection system at home, but most people are never going to get beyond a large flatscreen set, where I can’t imagine the difference between the 1080p image currently available and 4K will be all that remarkable, unless we’re talking about 3D without glasses, which would be something, I suppose.

Posted By Twilight Time : March 10, 2016 11:19 pm

Thanks for the kind words Mr Sweeney — just two small corrections — Nick is still to this day a consultant at Fox, and Brian was Sr VP of marketing for WB Home Video International — not a publicist.

Best,

TT

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : March 11, 2016 12:04 am

Thank you for the correction, Monsieur Twilight Time, and apologies for the mistake. I have made those fixes.

Posted By Mitch Farish : March 11, 2016 1:12 am

robbushblog;

The Kid was startling in it’s clarity at times; wonderful contrast.
http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film5/blu-ray_reviews_68/the_kid_blu-ray.htm

swac44:

Exactly why I went high-end for an Oppo. The upconversion is great, not exactly 1080p but not far behind. Some movies I just do not need in blu if the difference is minimal. You don’t know how good some DVDs can look unless you see them on a BD player.

Posted By George : March 11, 2016 1:12 am

Speaking of Netflix, here’s an amusing (but sadly accurate) piece by Matt Singer about their meager offerings.

“If you’re in the market for streaming serialized content, there are few better places to go. But if you’re in the market for classic movies, you’re kind of boned.”

http://screencrush.com/craziest-netflix-recommendations/

Posted By swac44 : March 11, 2016 12:26 pm

In the case of a lot of those classic foreign titles, it looks like Criterion licenses exclusively to Hulu, which isn’t available in Canada, sadly. (I really want to see those Japanese Carmen comedies that David Kalat recommended in his last post, but no dice.)

Posted By George : March 11, 2016 10:18 pm

Who cares about classic films? Don’t you know the Internet Movie Database’s users rank DEADPOOL above CITIZEN KANE?

https://features.wearemel.com/can-anyone-trust-a-ranking-system-where-the-shawshank-redemption-is-number-one-45f1e1b507d4#.h8bkeqny2

Posted By doug : March 12, 2016 8:17 am

I bought the 4k version of “The Fifth Element”, tested it on both a PS3 and regular Blu Ray player, on 50 and 55 inch Samsung (non-4k) TVs. Fantastic picture detail! Very cool, and I will buy more 4k films when they become available.

Posted By Coleman Shedman : March 16, 2016 5:44 pm

Doug, I’m guessing you bought the 4k MASTERED version of The Fifth Element. You weren’t watching it in 4K. It was mastered in 4K and (down)converted to 1080p for the release. If you really want to see 4K, you need a 4K tv or projector, player, and disc. And, unless you sit really close or have a 75 inch or larger screen, I doubt you would notice much difference (unless of course your 4K tv supports HDR video…I’m interested to see how much of a difference that makes myself).

Posted By robbushblog : March 16, 2016 6:17 pm

Mitch – I finally got around to watching my Blu-ray of THE KID and it is indeed glorious.

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