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The Phantom Carriage Blu-ray Review

Discussion in 'Archived Reviews' started by Matt Hough, Sep 19, 2011.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Charlotte, NC
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    Matt Hough
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    Victor Sjöström was a filmmaker of longstanding repute, acting in films from 1912 until his death in 1960 and with a directorial career that spanned both the silent and sound eras. The Phantom Carriage is one of his most widely praised films combining a supernatural tale with a rather modest domestic morality drama very much a part of its era. For its time, the special effects are striking and most evocative, and Sjöström manages to make what could have been a wildly melodramatic exercise in maudlin sentiment into a noble and earnest family drama.

    The Phantom Carriage (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Victor Sjöström

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1921

    Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1   1080i   AVC codec
    Running Time: 106 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0; PCM 2.0 Swedish intertitles
    Subtitles: English

    Region: A

    MSRP: $39.95

    Release Date: September 27, 2011

    Review Date: September 19, 2011

    The Film


    On her death bed, Salvation Army Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) asks that notorious ne’er-do-well David Holm (Victor Sjöström) visit her at her bedside. Holm had actually been the person to infect her with consumption, but he refuses to honor her request. Two cronies of David’s, however, are outraged he’d not honor a dying request and beat the man to the point of death. In this state, he’s visited by his old acquaintance Georges (Tore Svennberg) who’s now the driver of the death chariot, the grim reaper who takes the souls of the dead and loads them into the carriage. He reminds David of the many good turns Sister Edit had done for him in his life, all accomplished in the name of love, forcing David to ponder his misspent life and callous, heartless treatment of his loved ones including his wife (Hilda Borgström).

    Seen today, The Phantom Carriage has many silent movie conventions: the iris ins-and-outs, the fairly immobile camera which might swivel during a scene but seldom makes forward or backward movement, tinted sequences (the entire movie is tinted in various shades of amber, magenta, and cyan), and emotions that often border on the extreme and involve ruthless husbands who either ignore or mistreat their angelic families. Despite this, Sjöström’s script and direction bring out the positive attributes of the tale he’s telling though the multitude of flashbacks (sometimes flashbacks inside of flashbacks) make strict attention to the screen mandatory. The double exposures used to represent the ghostly death carriage are deftly handled and most have been greatly unsettling to audiences of the period. (A sea and subsequent underwater sequence is especially evocatively handled.) The first glimpses of the phantom carriage are along bleak landscapes that also conjure up feelings of sickness and death, wonderfully atmospheric. Sjöström also keeps a tight handle on overly histrionic acting. With all the death rattles, tubercular patients, suicide attempts, not to mention the carriage carrying the grim reaper making periodic stops to gather up the dead souls, it would have been easy for the actors to wallow in the misery and melancholy of the piece, but everyone’s restrained and controlled in their acting, and it makes the last third of the movie where redemption is expected and achieved much easier to swallow.

    Victor Sjöström naturally goes through the most permutations of character during the narrative, and he carries them off beautifully. Astrid Holm makes a lovely and pious Sister Edit. Tore Svennberg as David’s garrulous friend Georges who dies on New Year’s Eve and (according to the legend) must assume the role as driver of the phantom carriage effects a dexterous segue from lover of life to über-serious reaper of death. Hilda Borgström’s mistreated wife comes closest to the brink of overacting, creeping up on Sister Edit with gnarly outstretched fingers in order to strangle her out of jealousy and fury and later overdoing her suicidal depression a bit.

    Video Quality


    The film has been framed at 1.37:1 and is presented in 1080i using the AVC codec. As one would expect of all but a handful of silent films, there are problems with the transfer of this ninety-year old work. Sharpness is very good throughout, but there are very few frames that don’t have some kind of age-related problem from scratches to dust specks and hairs and print damage. The entire film retains the tinting of the original with most of the film in hues of amber while select outdoor night scenes are in cyan and an occasional magenta tint to other scenes. Shadow detail is occasionally problematic with the tinting present. The Swedish intertitles are subtitled in English with white lettering and are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.

    Audio Quality


    There are two soundtrack scores available for selection. The default track is a DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 sound mix of a traditional chamber orchestra music score composed by Matti Bye. The alternate music score is a discordant experimental track composed by Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malley (together known as KTL). It’s encoded in PCM 2.0. Both offer nice spread of music through the soundstage channels, and depending on your mood, the viewer may find either one a viable alternative.

    Special Features


    The audio commentary is provided by film scholar Casper Tybjerg who brings his considerable knowledge of world cinema and Sjöström’s works in particular to make for a very informative and most welcome commentary experience.

    A 1981 interview with Ingmar Bergman finds the filmmaker talking about his personal and professional relationship with Victor Sjöström with clips from other Sjöström works and from two films the actor made for Bergman. This 1080p feature runs 15 ¼ minutes.

    “The Bergman Connection” is a video think piece with film expert Peter Cowie comparing the works of Victor Sjöström to those of Ingmar Bergman showing Sjöström’s tremendous effect on Bergman as a filmmaker. A generous selection of clips from Bergman’s works enhance this 18 ¼-minute vignette presented in 1080i.

    Archival footage on the construction of the movie studio Rasunda north of Stockholm is presented in 1080i. These 1919 silent film shots of the studio in the process of construction (The Phantom Carriage was the first film to shoot there) run 4 ¾ minutes.

    The enclosed 18-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, some color illustrations, and critic Paul Mayersberg’s examination into the style and importance of The Phantom Carriage.

    The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

    In Conclusion

    4/5 (not an average)

    A silent film that deserves to be far better known than it is, The Phantom Carriage mixes domestic melodrama with the supernatural in a deft fashion. A nice selection of bonus features helps illuminate the film’s importance in the annuls of world cinema making it a recommended title.

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC 


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