Sunday, February 12, 2006

Revel in Evelyn

There is a mind set prevailing, even among those of us who have HD television and should know better, that there is only so much that old black-and-white movies can deliver in high-definition. When Monsters HD premiered THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) last weekend, I watched them both and came away pleased, but with mixed feelings -- the sort of mixed feelings that become possible after you've lived with HD television long enough to begin to accept it as commonplace.

There is no denying that both films looked better than ever, even better than on DVD, as HD decompresses the visual information. But SON looked better than BRIDE... possibly because it was a richer-looking production, and possibly because the art of cinematography had advanced in that four-year difference. I could even see, for the first time in SON, the slender black wires supporting the weight of Bela Lugosi's Ygor as Boris Karloff's Monster carried him to the family crypt, but I can't say that I noticed anything new in terms of nuances of performance. As wonderful as these films are, they are played pretty broadly; you can "get" all their performances have to offer in low-def. BRIDE and SON were fun to watch in HD, but when all is said and done, neither presentation really knocked me out.

The K.O. came last night, when Monsters HD celebrated the 100th birthday of Lon Chaney, Jr. by premiering Universal's THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1942). I found the further advance represented by the look of these two films almost startling. They shared with the two Frankenstein films a heightened sense of detail, which brought all of the grace notes buried in the art direction and set decoration to the forefront, but what I found most impressive was their heightened sense of depth, emotion, and temperature.

I never realized it until now, but much of THE WOLF MAN is filmed on studio sets with vast floors, both interior and exterior; the whole look of the film is a celebration of image in depth. A shot of Evelyn Ankers running through the woods, which in a duller presentation one's senses easily reduce to the essential information of her action, is now like watching a beautiful woman who once lived and breathed running through the cinematic equivalent of a magnificent painting. We sense that it must have been a delightful moment for her to perform, as a professional. The fogbound studio sets are a marvel of depth with their receding trees, shafts of light, and rolling fog.

As one might expect, one does tend to see better all the individual yak hairs on Chaney's face, but also hidden recesses of performance. To watch Chaney's performance as Lawrence Talbot in HD is to see much of its seeming bluntness smoothed away. True, he wasn't the actor whom screenwriter Curt Siodmak envisioned when he wrote Talbot as the prodigal son of an old English family and had him using expressions like "chap," but Chaney had an expressive face, the necessary inner turmoil, and the talent needed to convey all the tragic dimensions of the character and story. And then there's the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman Maleva. In my earliest acquaintence with these movies, I can remember thinking that Madame Ouspenskaya was not the most expressive actress in the world. No, she doesn't make a meal of the scenery like some of her co-stars, but seeing her performances in high-def, one can better understand her mastery of film acting technique. She was calibrating her performance to the sensitivity of the camera lens and trusting it to deliver the emotions she was projecting on a more intimate keel. Seen in HD, closer to the readability of a 35mm big screen viewing, Ouspenskaya's Maleva is pitch-perfect: tremulous, fearful, brave, and wearily wise to the mysteries of the world. Even the sound quality is improved, making her muttered dialogue more easily understood.

Another of the uncanny things one can pick up from THE WOLF MAN in HD is a hint of body heat. For example, the scene in THE WOLF MAN where Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), under the boughs of a tree, gifts Gwen Conliffe (Ankers) with the medallion given to him by Maleva; Gwen says she was taught never to accept presents without giving one in return and offers him a penny for it, and Larry says it's not enough -- moving in for a kiss. Their kiss is interrupted before it gets started, but the blossoming of detail in this scene awakens its intended, long-dormant sense of intimacy and makes it surprisingly hot to watch.

Monsters HD general manager David Sehring knows and loves these movies, and one can see his awareness of their chronology and content in the fact that THE WOLF MAN was booked to be shown in tandem with its direct sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. The opening graveyard scene where Chaney is revived in his tomb by a couple of unsuspecting graverobbers, long a top favorite among Universal buffs, is beautifully revitalized in HD. The exterior crane shots come alive in vivid detail -- blowing leaves, twitching trees and a lone crow; when the wind picks up, as one of the graverobbers runs away, the shot conveys a similar thrill to the coming of the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Inside the Talbot family crypt, one can more clearly read the names on the surrounding name plates inside the Talbot crypt, including one for Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains' character from the earlier film) and another for Lawrence and Anne Talbot, presumably the Wolf Man's grandparents. Seeing the two films en suite like this, one can also better appreciate the ironic arc they represent, as Chaney's character is initially infected with lycanthropy by Bela Lugosi, then seeks the answer to deliverance from this curse from the Frankenstein Monster, whose makeup is worn in the second picture by none other than Lugosi.

In short, Monsters HD gave Lon Chaney, Jr. the best possible present for his centenary. They gave his body of work a new lease on life. And so let it be said:

"Even someone so impure in heart as to shun films in black-and-white may become a fan if they watch Monsters on VOOM, where the picture's so sharp and bright."

PS: Since we last remarked on Monsters HD's introduction of the onscreen station bug, they have further reduced its frequency to only once per hour, so it now appears only once in any film they are presently broadcasting. We thank them for being so responsive to the wishes of their viewers!

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