Monday, 9 July 2012

The Power of the Commentary: Some Excellent DVD Audio Commentaries

As the title suggests, this is a list of my favourite audio commentaries. It's the quality of the DVD package that I'm refering to, rather than the overall quality of the film concerned and whether I like it or not. If you're interested in criticism, or just a casual observer, the special features that DVDs provide are invaluable. You can listen to a commentary as often as you want, or only  just once and never again if  you've got a good memory. It's there on the disc for the asking, and whilst the films themselves are certainly good, the commentaries were terribly important to my understanding and enjoyment of them.  Of course this is all highly subjective.

 I should add with a certain amount of frustration, that a number of titles available in Region 4 are released without their special features, but  I don't know why this is so. Instead of opining about what I've missed, the purpose of this post is to alert people to an almost endless stream of high-quality commentaries that are out there. Sadly, it's impossible to say how much longer this will last, with the upheaval caused by digital technology and the film industry's struggle to keep a hold on Hollywood's preponderance, which appears to be precarious at best. But that's  just my humble opinion. Anyway, here's the list with my favourite title The Magnificent Seven,  coming in at last position:

There's always a catch
10. Catch-22 (1970), directed by Mike Nichols; audio commentary by Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, Paramount.  This isn't one of my favourite movies, but what I understand of it is mainly due to the informative commentary by director Nichols with assistance from Steven Soderbergh. Being in the minority for not having read Joseph Heller's book, I thought it would be convenient for me to watch the film. I was 20 minutes into the film on first sitting,  but honestly, did not have a clue what it was about. So, I started to watch the DVD over again with the commentary track turned on. It can be a schizoid experience dividing your concentration between the commentary and the movie but I was determined to know what was happening. Nichols is known for his erudition and he takes the viewer on an informative and entertaining ride explaining the difficulties of film making and casting (with some good vignettes about Orson Welles), and how difficult in today's Hollywood it would be to make a film of this kind.   For viewers either familiar with the book or not, the commentary is a superior and informative experience, but I leave it up to you if you are as silly as me, and  you need to listen to the commentary before you see the film.

9. Ryan's Daughter (1970) directed by David Lean; audio commentary by Lady Sandra Lean, Petrine Day Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Michael Stevens, Roy Stevens and a number of others; Warner Home Video. This is one of those films that's been re-appraised down the years. It was badly treated by the critics who attacked David Lean to the extent that he only  made one other, "A Passage to India" which was sadly his last. Some commentaries that are cobbled together with a lot of participants can be confusing when it seems they have no idea what the person before or after them is going to say, but this is seamless. All the participants worked on "Ryan's Daughter" and they are quick to point out its virtues, and the technicians who worked  behind the camera are touching in their obvious affection for David Lean.  Sarah Miles is funny, and loyal to her late husband Robert Bolt, Lean's long-time collaborator and has some good stories about working with Robert Mitchum in a role in which he seemed to be miscast. Leans' widow Lady Sandra Lean is respectful and informative throughout. This commentary is a real pleasure and enhances the movie greatly. I think it's really a beautiful film, and the commentary assists no end in convincing me of that opinion.

8.Blackboard Jungle (1955) directed by Richard Brooks; audio commentary by Peter Ford, Paul Mazursky, Jamie Farr and Joel Freeman; Warner Home Video. I discovered this recently, the movie itself which I had briefly seen years ago on television. The commentary is neat, informal and very entertaining. Peter Ford is the son of Glenn Ford who had a successful career in Hollywood playing parts like this, a teacher in a deprived neighbourhood trying to make a difference to the lives of his students. The film is frank for the period in its depiction of juvenile delinquency and it seems that racial issues were as much of a problem then as they ever have been. Peter Ford speaks with affection about his father, and Mazursky who became a reasonably famous director has some anecdotes about his  friends and acquaintances from New York and their efforts to break into the movies. Jamie Farr had an on-going role in the MASH TV series and seems grateful for "Blackboard Jungle" and how it helped his career. Also note Peter Ford's modest attribution concerning "Rock Around the Clock"  the film's signature tune, as well as numerous other insights into the careers of other cast members and director Richard Brooks.

"those glorious people out there in the dark..."
7. Sunset Boulevarde (1950) directed by Billy Wilder; audio commentary by Ed Sikov; Paramount. This is probably my favourite film on the list, and I'm glad the commentary chores were given to Ed Sikov, the  author of a brilliant book on the career of Billy Wilder, called, appropriately enough, On Sunset Boulevarde. Mr Sikov turns out to be a brilliant  raconteur as well as analyst, as he discusses the making of the film, the genesis of the script (as Wilder was a stickler for the written word) and the tone of the film itself, which one could only describe as ironic and bizarre. Most of the iconic stories about the film are for the taking on this wonderful commentary, as well as some others you may not be familiar with, including the (original) bizarre opening sequence that flopped with  preview audiences. Suffice to say, the replacement sequence, with William Holden face down in a swimming pool was a hit, as Wilder skillfully manipulates us into a world of Hollywood shysters and has-beens. The commentary is almost as essential as the movie.

Baby! Baby!
6. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) directed by Wes Craven; audio commentary by West Craven and Peter Locke. Umbrella Entertainment. Better known today for his 'Scream' franchise, director Wes Craven is responsible for some touchstone horror films that have become vastly popular on DVD. This is one of those, which I first found on ex-rental video. Waiting for a DVD release was worth it, and the special features are awesome including a chatty and informative commentary by Craven and producer Peter Locke, as well as an enteraining look-back documentary with many members of the cast. As the film was shot on location in the desert, there are many funny and interesting stories about the gruelling conditions the cast and crew had to endure in their efforts to make it big in Hollywood, as most were young and unknown. Craven's other films including 'Scream' and 'Nightmare on Elm Street' also have excellent commentaries, but this package stands out as being the last word on the subject, packed as it is, the advertising states, 'with a bounty of bloody extras.' No truer words were never spoken.

5. Days of Wine and Roses (1962) directed by Blake Edwards; audio commentary by Blake Edwards. Warner Video. This is one of the most off-the-cuff commentaries you are likely to hear, but this only enhances Edwards' sincerity and lack of affectation. Based on a successful television play, Days of Wine and Roses is a harrowing portrayal of a married couple trapped in a loving but dysfunctional relationship that unfortunately includes alcohol as a third party. Edwards candidly discusses his own problems, and what you get is a riveting dialogue about Hollywood and its possible dangers. As well, Edwards has stories about stars Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick and what it was like to make movies in a  Hollywood that no longer exists. The beautiful title song written by long-time collaborator Henry Mancini also gets a nod. I have to say this is a terribly sad, but ultimately touching commentary that should not be missed. There's nothing self-aggrandising about it, Edwards just talks, and you have to listen. But it is great talk, and gives you an enormous amount of appreciation for the film you may not have had before.

watch Harper like girls
4. Harper (1966) directed by Jack Smight; audio commentary by William Goldman; Warner Home Video. William Goldman is a legendary Hollywood screenwriter and 'Harper' was one of his early writing successes. Based upon the Ross McDonald novel 'The Moving Target', the script caught the attention of Paul Newman as he was riding a wave of success in the mid-sixties, when it seemed he could do no wrong in the eyes of the audience. Goldman's audio commentary is fascinating as he alerts the audience to any number of difficulties that had to be overcome to getting Harper onto the screen, as cheaply and in as little time as possible, which apparently was the way they did things in Hollywood in the sixties. I also like William Goldman's audio commentary for 'Misery', directed by Rob Reiner in which he possesses the same amused irony of an ordinary bloke who wouldn't  dare dream of being accepted into Hollywood's inner sanctum. Goldman doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone, but he still seems baffled by the process of making a film and this is what makes this audio commentary so insightful and amusing for any attentive listener.

3. The Conversation (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola; audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola; Universal Studios. This is the film Coppola made between the two Godfather movies, and it's indicative of the director's desire to make more personal films without pressure from any studio to make it their way. The Conversation is one of a kind, and the audio commentary brings this home to the listener. Shot on location  in San Francisco, The Conversation is a frightening look at a paranoid wire-tapper who overhears (and tapes), a  benign conversation between two people. The fact that the conversation has been overheard has tragic ramifications, despite the wire-tappers efforts to withdraw himself from the consequences of his actions. Like a lot of great films when you attempt to encapsulate the plot, this hardly seems riveting, but it is. And the commentary is obviously the product of a talented filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants and how to achieve it. A lot of exciting extrapolation of plot and character, Coppola sounds like a born writer, and his stories of some grappling with the studio in order to make this film to the best of his ability, make for great listening. This is a fantastic film, and Coppola has done himself proud by contributing a fantastic commentary.

She's alive!
2. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) directed by James Whale; audio commentary by Scott MacQueen. Universal Studios. The work put into making the Classic Monster Collection is awesome  (and still is), and it was difficult to decide which title deserved to be on my list. I was a hold-out of the Bride, despite its reputation as the best Universal horror film. But after several watches and listening to the audio commentary, I was finally convinced. Scott MacQueen's commentary is thorough and exhaustive, especially relating to the censorship problems the film had in 1935. The means in which film makers got round the prohibitive censorship laws make for some informative commentary, and MacQueen explains with great clarity and interest how James Whale thumbed his nose at the censors by being outrageous in ways that were undetectable, and irreversible once the film had been released. I should also note the excellent documentary with  contributions from notables who regularly pop up in the special features of other titles in the Classic Monster Collection such as Greg Mank and Rudy Behlmer.

The 7 in action
1. The Magnificent Seven (1960) directed by John Sturges; audio commentary by James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Walter Mirisch and Robert Reylea. MGM DVD. I first saw this film on television and was taken in  by its confidence in its ability to entertain an audience, as deliberately naive as that may sound today.  Gun-slingers from north of the border defend a small Mexican town from a corrupt bandit and his bloodthirsty gang. A rousing adventure, the audio commentary of The Magnificent Seven reflects the film's sense of fun and adventure. James Coburn explains how the actors were cast, and basically how much fun they all had. There was a famous feud between Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen which involved the entire set whilst they were shooting in Mexico. Director John Sturges championed a young unknown German actor that nobody liked, but he stood his ground and made a mark for himself. There's a swag of information in this commentary with a lot of laughter and good times thrown in, explaining what The Magnificent Seven meant to those who made it, as well as to those who are its fans, with an excellent documentary thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!

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