DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Essential Classics: Dramas

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  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    Essential Classics: Dramas
    The Maltese Falcon (1941)/Citizen Kane (1941)/Ben-Hur (1959)

    Studio: Warner Brothers

    Year: 1941-1959

    Rated: Unrated

    Film Length: Various

    Aspect Ratio: Various

    Subtitles: English, French, Spanish (+ Portuguese on "Kane")

    Release Date: April 24, 2007

    With "The Essential Classics" collections, Warner Home Video are re-packaging previously released DVD titles from their classic film library into attractively priced "instant collection" box sets. The discs in the box sets are identical to the most recent masterings of the titles at the time of release, but they do not include any discs that were devoted exclusively to extras.

    Since the discs in "The Essential Classics" collections have all been previously released, I will be departing from my usual format of comprehensive reviews, and focusing instead on highlighting the contents of the discs in a more general sense.

    The Films

    The Maltese Falcon (1941 - Warner Brothers - 100 minutes)

    Directed By: John Huston

    Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ward Bond

    Included here is the first disc of the "Maltese Falcon Three-Disc Special Edition" released on October 3, 2006. This was also part of "Humphrey Bogart: The Signature Collection Volume II" released on the same date.

    Extras on this disc include a screen specific audio commnetary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax, the film's theatrical trailer with unique footage featuring Sydney Greenstreet, and a slate of short subject materials under the Warner Night at the Movies banner. These include: a trailer for "Sergeant York"; newsreel footage of a meeting at sea between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill; "The Gay Parisian" - a 20 minute Technicolor musical ballet set to the music of Offenbach, starring and choreagraphed by Léonide Massine and directed by Jean Negulesco; "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt" - a Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies cartoon that features Bugs Bunny spoofing on "Little Hiawatha"; and, finally, "Meet John Doughboy" - a Bob Clampett Looney Tunes cartoon with Porky Pig introducing a series of wartime newsreel themed blackout gags.

    For a comprehensive review of the film and an assessment of the audio and video quality, check out the applicable sections of Herb Kane's forum review of "Humphrey Bogart: The Signature Collection Volume II" by clicking on this link

    Citizen Kane(1941 - RKO - 119 minutes)

    Directed By: Orson Welles

    Starring: Orson Welles, Jospeh Cotten, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins, George Coulouris

    So much has been written about "Citizen Kane", that I can not really see myself adding much of new value to the record. Suffice it to say that Orson Welle's audacious debut film is not just by general consensus the best debut film by a director in the history of Hollywood, it was something of a culmination of the cinematic arts at the time of its release, mastering and extending the lexicons of cinematography and editing that had been established in the silent era, had regressed with the introduction of sound, and had been gradually reclaimed over the subsequent 12-13 years, while also fully exploiting the possibilities of sound, no doubt aided by Welles' experience in staging dramatic radio plays.

    Beyond its technical achievments, it also put itself out on the edge thematically, being a none-too flattering fictionalization of the life of powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Most importantly, the innovative flashback structure, the expressionistic lighting and dutch angles of cinematographer Gregg Toland, the innovative use of sound, and the tabloid appeal of its subject matter all serve to tell a compelling story that is satisfyingly dramatic on its surface with nuances that can be appreciated over multiple viewings.

    Included here is the first disc of the 2-disc "Citizen Kane" DVD, originally released on September 25, 2001.

    The video transfer is clean almost to a fault, with very little visible film damage or grain. The digital tools used to smooth over the film grain occasionally contribute to a hint of softness, and a little searching on the internet will lead to pages of discussion of how the grain removal tools removed bits of image such as raindrops and snowflakes from certain scenes which I will not elaborate on any further in this review. Contrast and shadow detail are impressive, doing justice to the moody chiaroscuro lighting set-ups of Welles and Toland. Compression artifacts are negligible, and there is some light but pervasive ringing visible along high contrast edges.

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 English audio track is very clean, with little hiss, and decent dynamics for its vintage. Critical listening will reveal some noise reduction artifacts. There are no alternate language dubs available.

    Extras on the disc include: a not-too useful menu screen listing the cast and crew, a very well-researched and constructed screen-specific audio commentary by film critic Roger Ebert; an audio commentary by Director Peter Bogdonavich which occasionally overlaps with Ebert's more thorough comments, but offers some unique insights owing to Bogdonavich's association and access to Welles during his life; 40 seconds or so of footage from the film's New York premiere; an entertaining theatrical trailer with unique footage of the cast and off-screen narration by Welles; a collection of stills montages under the heading "The Production" that include storyboards, call sheets, and production photos (with additional commentary from Ebert); a collection of stills montages under the heading of "Post Production" that include storyboards and photographs from deleted scenes, ad campaign materials, press book materials, and photos and correspondence related to the films opening night in Hollywood; and a set of text-based "Production Notes" that look at the film's genesis, active production, subsequent influence of the film and careers of its creators, and the awards and recognition received since its release.

    There are even a couple of Easter Eggs: a just-under six minute retrospective interview with actress Ruth Warrick is accessible by clicking on the sled visible in the "Special Features" menu, and a just over three minute interview with Citizen Kane editor/future director Robert Wise is accessible by clicking on the sled that appears on the last page of the "On the Set" portion of the "Production Notes".

    Ben-Hur (1959 - MGM - 222 minutes)

    Directed By: William Wyler

    Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe

    Included here are the first two discs of the "Ben-Hur Four-Disc Collector's Edition" DVD set originally released on September 13th, 2005.

    Extras included on these two discs are a commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher with Charlton Heston (recorded separately and edited together) and a full-length music-only track highlighting Miklas Rozsa's Oscar-winning score.

    For a comprehensive review of the film and an assessment of the audio and video quality, check out Herb Kane's forum review of the "Ben-Hur Four-Disc Collector's Edition" by clicking on this link.

    Packaging

    The discs come in a four-disc digipack with artwork on all sides, including behind the clear plastic disc trays, which is housed inside an attractive foil-highlighted case. The discs themselves have exactly the same art silkscreened on them as they did in their previous releases. This can create a mild disconnect when, for instance, the packaging refers to "Ben-Hur" as "Disc Three" and "Disc Four", but the artwork on the "Ben-Hur" discs say "Disc 1" and "Disc 2".

    Summary

    This package represents an attractive and economical way of picking up the latest and greatest DVD presentations of these three acknowledged classic films if you don't mind foregoing the extras that came on the previously released bonus discs for all three titles. There is some minor confusion caused by the old disc labeling not connecting with the new packaging, but with a manufacturer suggested retail price of under US$31, this set represents an excellent value if you do not already own these films on DVD.

    Regards,
     

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