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Essential Classics - Dramas

Director: John Huston, Orson Welles, William Wyler
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Charleton Heston, Jack Hawkins

(MGM; US DVD: 24 Apr 2007)

Little needs to be said about any of these films individually. Enough ink has been spilt on each of these masterpieces to surfeit a small library on just this canonical trinity of landmark American dramas. This is not to say that such a critical cathexis is unwarranted. Each of these films is a cardinal expression of cinematic faculty. The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, and Ben-Hur mark those unique moments when paragon creativity meets polished technique, and it is appropriate that each of these films is entertaining as well as technically revolutionary.


The Maltese Falcon writes the archetype for the private-eye drama, painting the genre in bold strokes of harsh light and shadows, tipping its hat to expressionism. Furthermore, this film is often credited as the “first film noir”. Citizen Kane is ranked by the American Film Institute as the best American film ever made. Such accolade is well deserved. Citizen Kane is narratively brilliant, adroitly wielding flashback, point-of-view, and the issues of legitimization. Additionally, the film pioneers an extensive use of deep field, rendering Citizen Kane’s frames in a uniform sharpness that only adds to its grandeur.


Finally, Ben-Hur is the epic. Printed in a theretofore unseen aspect ratio which was almost three times wider than high, Ben-Hur’s elaborate costumes and sets immerse the viewer in a lavish Roman empire. The oft-discussed chariot race still stands up against million dollar, CGI-ed, fast and furious chase sequence as one of the most spectacular action scenes of all time.


The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon


If the only consideration when purchasing a film was the quality of films contained within, this review could end right now. Yes, these are great films and no collection should be without any of them. However, necessarily reverent prologue aside, there are many other factors (packaging, special features, etc.) that go into one’s buying of DVD’s and the remainder of my review will be spent on how Warner Brothers Home Video has compiled these three masterpieces and this collection which has ensued.


Superficially, this box set is incredibly sleek. The majority of the case is gorgeous light bronze foil, marked by svelte marquee titles and screen captures of unforgettable frames from these films. The muted colors and gloss of the collection combine to conjure an unmistakable feel of historicity. Warner Brothers has done a fabulous job in painting this box set as a time capsule of greatness. Furthermore, the foot print of this four-disc set is miniscule, taking up less room than two DVD’s alone and fitting gracefully onto any shelf.


Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane


However, the praise for this set ends here. Any sense of meticulous compilation is immediately fractured upon inspection of the DVD’s themselves. The Maltese Falcon’s disc is marked “Disc One: The Movie” but there is no disc two. At this point, it becomes obvious that rather than re-print the DVD’s, Warner Brothers has merely culled discs from previously packaged editions of each film. Perhaps it is pedantic, but, to me, these conspicuous discs ruin the cohesiveness of the box set for me. Had the labels been repressed in the antiqued brown, black, and white, of the rest of the set, the collection would feel complete rather than cobbled together to turn a quick profit.


No reference to these discs being “essential classics” is made on the DVD’s themselves, another fatal error. Upon opening this set, it just doesn’t feel like a set. Furthermore, it is obvious, by the dearth of special features (only what fit on the first disc of previous issues of each film) that Essential Classics: Dramas, is not intended for the film enthusiast, but rather the casual moviegoer who is willing to pay out 30-some dollars to own films that he is told he should like. Essentially, this collection is an archive which excludes the archivist as target audience. However, lacking the unity that consistent packaging—damn those discs—would provide Essential Classics: Dramas does not even function as a prettified gift piece.


Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur


Warner Brothers may have succeeded, with this collection, only in providing the only vehicle that most of these films will ever have for being tossed in the bargain bin next to a I’m Gonna Git You Sucka’ / Dolemite two-for-one deal. Nothing new is offered here to entice previous owners of any of these films to buy this set. Warner Brothers has presented the thesis that these films are “essential classics” and let them stand on their reputations without defending the claim.


There should be modern interviews talking about the impact these movies made, individually or collectively, or any attempt to put the movies in dialogue with each other, situating these pieces in the evolution of filmmaking. Instead, Warner Brothers abandons these films, much like the discs of previous issues are abandoned within this collection, and throws together this collection aimed at the absolutely lowest common denominator of viewers. For shame Warner Brothers, these films deserve much better.

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