Classic films get classy treatment on DVD

[16 December 2008]

By Randy A. Salas

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Orson Welles once said, “Every performance is better in black and white,” according to confidant Peter Bogdanovich.

“There is something about black and white,” Bogdanovich adds. “It’s the lack of distraction. You don’t sit there saying, ‘Aren’t those blue eyes beautiful?’ Or, ‘Isn’t that hair color nice?’ It focuses on the dramatic.”

It’s difficult to dispute any of those contentions when looking at the cinematic heavyweights that have been gussied up recently for home video: 1949’s “The Third Man” and 1942’s “Casablanca” on Blu-ray and the 1920s and ‘30s Hollywood work of F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage in a deluxe DVD set - Oscar winners all.

“The Third Man,” out Tuesday, heralds the esteemed Criterion Collection’s entry into the budding high-definition disc format ($40). Set in post-World War II Vienna, the British production has been praised as one of the finest examples of film noir.

Welles lurks in the shadows as the mysterious Harry Lime, a fugitive whose black-market dealings wreak havoc on the lives of his actress girlfriend (Alida Valli), a visiting American friend (Joseph Cotten) and a British military police officer (Trevor Howard). Their trek of intrigue wends through the divided Austrian city - “looking very photogenic after the war,” Bogdanovich says in an introduction on the disc.

Not only does the Oscar-winning cinematography of “The Third Man” look stunning in high-def, but the Blu-ray edition also boasts the scads of supplements for which Criterion is known. Besides Bogdanovich’s intro, they include commentary by big-name fans Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) and Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), scholar’s commentary, two retrospectives (one 90 minutes, the other 30), an hourlong 1968 interview with author Graham Greene, two 1951 radio adaptations and even more. Navigating them all is a breeze thanks to the elegant fly-out menus.

From one of the best film noirs, we go to one of the greatest films, “Casablanca,” featuring indelible performances by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as smoldering lovers and sweeping direction by the underrated Michael Curtiz. It has been released several times on DVD, including a high-def version on the ill-fated HD DVD format, so Warner has piled on for its latest version, “Casablanca: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” ($60 DVD, $65 Blu-ray).

To previously released extras on two discs - including commentary by critic Roger Ebert, an introduction by Lauren Bacall and two documentaries - a third disc has been added about the studio’s founder, “Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul.” (It’s in the DVD format, even in the Blu-ray set.) There also are a host of physical mementos, such as a “Casablanca”-themed passport holder and luggage tag and a 48-page photo book.

But that set is dwarfed by “Murnau, Borzage and Fox,” a 12-disc monstrosity that comes with two 128-page books to complement the many extras on the DVDs.

This engaging collection celebrates the Fox years of two of Hollywood’s finest early filmmakers: F.W. Murnau, who made the captivating vampire classic “Nosferatu” in Germany before heading west to make 1927’s “Sunrise,” winner of the only Oscar for “unique and artistic picture”; and Frank Borzage, the first winner of the Oscar for best director, for 1927’s “7th Heaven.”

Restorations of “Sunrise” and “7th Heaven” highlight the set, including the alternate European silent version of the former. There’s also Murnau’s final Fox film, 1930’s “City Girl,” and nine other films made by Borzage between 1925 and 1932: “Lazybones,” “Street Angel,” “Lucky Star,” “They Had to See Paris,” “Song o’ My Heart,” “Liliom,” “Bad Girl” (another Oscar winner), “After Tomorrow” and “Young America.”

Extras include several scholarly commentary tracks, a feature-length documentary, featurettes, new scores and a reconstruction of Borzage’s lost film, “The River.” One of the books examines Murnau’s lost film, “4 Devils,” while the other is devoted to photos from the pair’s films.

In case it’s not clear that the impeccably assembled set is aimed at true devotees of early cinema, it retails for $240 (but is being sold online through for $180) - a price many cinephiles will gladly pay for the catalog release of the year.

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