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_April 2004


A chance to work with legendary director Sam Peckinpah was enough to gather an excellent ensemble cast in 1983, when two producers with B-level credits went for the big-time by mounting a production of Robert Ludlum’s best-selling thriller, The Osterman Weekend.

20 years have passed since Peckinpah’s death in 1984, and as a swan song for the maverick, self-destructive director of The Wild Bunch, The Osterman Weekend is still a disappointing work.

More a casualty of muddled plotting, some overtly dated surveillance gear used by John Hurt’s character, and genuinely cliched dialogue, Anchor Bay’s commemorative 2-disc set should be seen more as a document of Peckinpah’s final years trying to ‘crawl back to the top’ after the debacle that was Convoy (1978). With a commentary track and scenes from a preview print, the DVD’s best attraction is an excellent documentary chronicling the entire production.

Narrated by Nick Redman, it’s an affectionate portrait of a hard-living man who nevertheless received respect from the impressive cast. Reduced pretty much to sound-bites, one of Lalo Schifrin’s 3 interview clips have the eminent composer describing his acoustic-synthetic approach to scoring the film, but he disappears for the rest of the doc until a final (and hysterical) montage that gathers closing comments from all of the interview subjects. The doc also includes clips from Peckinpah’s preview version – taken from a surviving VHS source, and archived in complete form on Disc 2 – which contains some extra/alternate scenes, and slightly different music in the roughly assembled soundtrack.

Fox’ DVD for John Ford’s classic western My Darling Clementine also contains a pre-release version, reconstructed from a surviving print (apparently 75% of the much longer Director’s Cut), that offers a truly fascinating comparison of the director’s original vision, and the release version trimmed and upgraded with some studio-imposed reshoots.

Ford’s longer version had yet to be scored by Cyril Mockridge, and with the exception of a few source tracks and some brief folk music, the film’s reliance on sound effects and location ambience makes it feel, well, oddly modern.

With contemporary viewers spoiled by the revisionist westerns of later decades and more nuanced works by director Sergio Leone, Clementine sans musique feels like a meditation on small town life radically altered when two warring entities settle and ultimately do battle. The aural spectrum is more reliant on a surprisingly detailed sound effects track – ambient material meant to mimic the natural sounds of the town – that forces a particular rhythm within each scene, and occasionally hyper-emphasizes certain performance gestures.

Restoration expert Bob Gitt provides a running commentary over a restoration featurette, and compares several scenes in the preview version with the final release version. Hardly an issue of right vs. wrong, Fox’ DVD essentially presents two very distinct versions of a classic film, and gives viewers the opportunity – with scholarly commentaries – to experience the fusion of art and commerce; a creative director’s more artistic version, and a tighter edit featuring elements designed to streamline the narrative for broader audience appeal, with obvious musical hits meant to clarify or sharpen elements studio bigwig Darryl F. Zanuck felt were weakly conveyed.

Also part of Fox’ Studio Classics imprint is The Grapes of Wrath, which features one unique goodie from the Fox archives: at the tail-end of a newsreel, actress Jane Darwell, clutching her Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the Academy presentations, is followed by Alfred Newman, holding his own statue, (awarded for his Tin Pan Alley score). Besides a ‘thank you,’ that’s all we see of the youthful composer, but it’s a rare treat for a man generally absent from the studio’s more star-oriented publicity machine.

The only score for which Bernard Herrmann won an Oscar, The Devil and Daniel Webster remains a marvelous fable of Americana, and Criterion’s transfer of the 106 minute version includes indexed score comments by Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith. Concise and informative, Smith gives some excellent background on Herrmann’s prior work for the CBS radio network, and explains the ‘singing’ telephone wires Herrmann used to achieve a truly weird, dreamy sound design; the approach is one of the most inventive attempts by a composer to mix sound effects with score, amid an already dialogue-heavy screenplay.

Other items of note on the DVD are some rare Herrmann stills, an essay, and 2 radio programs from the Columbia Workshop, featuring original Herrmann material: The Devil and Daniel Webster, from 1938; and Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent, from 1937.

Turning to a more comedic vein,  when Henry Mancini scored The Pink Panther, his career took a leap far beyond the popularity of his Peter Gunn music (which on its own spawned myriad cover versions and spin-off LPs.)

Evolving into a beloved franchise (and later devolving into a sad collection of outtake features, and weak imitations with revolving stars), the original Pink Panther film also propelled Mancini into the popular music realm, beginning with a brilliant title theme that remains one of the most recognizable pieces of music.

Though out of print as individual discs, MGM has assembled 5 films – The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Revenge of the Pink Panther, and Trail of the Pink Panther – into a ‘plushy’ album package, with a bonus disc featuring 6 De Patie-Freleng cartoons, and 2 bonus featurettes.

The cartoon featurette covers the development of the striking shorts that featured Mancini’s theme, while a separate half-hour featurette follows the series development via long interviews with a dryly funny Blake Edwards. Jon Burlingame also appears in a brief segment on the music, along with Edwards, who lauds Mancini’s ability to recognize the director’s nutty sense of humour and play off the gags and refine scenes to their optimum creativity.

Admittedly the focus is on the Inspector Clouseau character, actor Peter Sellers, and director Edwards, but it’s a shame some archival extras concerning the composer weren’t featured on the bonus disc. Given the celebratory nature of the set, it’s another lost opportunity to showcase the professional side of Mancini, who played such a vital role in the series’ global success.
Switching to the historical genre, the BBC’s Colosseum: A Gladiator’s Story, is given a deluxe treatment with a bonus program on Pompeii, and a surprisingly lengthy featurette on composer Ilan Eshkeri.

Running just over 17 minutes, “A Composer’s Story” follows Eshkeri’s selection by director Tilman Remme through composing, recording and mixing stages, and includes substantive interview segments with the composer, conductor Andy Brown, and music producer Steve McLaughlin.

Using a 60-piece orchestra, Eshkeri describes the obvious excitement when he entered Abbey Road Studios and heard his music performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra. With music orchestrated by Robert Elhai in the U.S., the score is unusually large for a television production, and Eshkeri relished the opportunity to write “big, Wagnerian, classical-styled music.”

Not much background is given on Eshkeri, but the featurette certainly uses the youthful composer’s crack at such a high-profile assignment to examine the score’s assembly. Aside from mandatory scoring session footage at Abbey Road, there’s some good material with supervisor McLaughlin at the mixing controls, going through the substitution of synth mock-ups with multi-track orchestral tracks.

Eshkeri’s use of synth and orchestra pays off in the final work, as did Steve Jablonksy’s efforts for his atmospheric score for the 2003 remake of Tobe Hooper’s still-horrific The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As producer Michael Bay states in the superb documentary that’s available only in the 2-disc DVD set, Jablonsky’s sound design in Pearl Harbor helped pave the way for his hiring on Texas – a film that needed a soundscape worthy of the film’s nasty terrain.

On its CD, Jablonsky’s score has received some hard criticisms as an unlistenable work, but the music functions extremely well in what’s essentially an affectionate tribute to the original film. (Amid the dismemberment and blood-letting, the movie maintains the unrelenting bleakness and near-terror of the original, albeit with dumber and more attractive twentysomethings.)

Whereas the movie showed no gore, the remake gets real nasty with MPAA-allowed violence that includes a great deal of indiscriminant savagery in place of the overtly female-oriented suffering, typical of Seventies slasher films. Even recent slasher efforts like Wrong Turn – using an effectively vicious score by Elia Cmiral – balanced the women in peril element with cruelties towards the men, and beefed up the gore to levels fans of Eighties slasher films can appreciate.

This ugly cousin of the horror genre (admittedly, a guilty pleasure) has nevertheless offered some extreme challenges to any composer: how do you create any thematic material when the visual landscape and murderous sound design are already geared towards maximum fright? How can you evoke human tonalities without drenching an already baroque scene into mordantly laughable bathos?

The production documentary doesn’t really address those challenges in proper detail, and largely sticks to more familiar press kit generalities. Jablonsky’s brief interview concerns his fleeting thematic material, and fusing an orchestral/electronic blend to create a score deliberately designed to exclude rock song montages. Director Marcus Nispel, a commercial director with an obvious Bay-like style, wanted surprisingly a dominant original score – even over the End Credits – which shows better respect for the slasher genre.

A more vintage horror film released in 2003 by Image Entertainment is Pupi Avati’s creepy House of Laughing Windows, a 1976 shocker involving small-town secrets and brutal murders. Little of Avati’s work is available in English, and Image’s transfer was made from an Italian PAL source that shows a lot of compression and artifacting in spots. The DVD, however, contains some significant extras, including a lengthy tribute featurette with the filmmaker and surviving crew.

Of note are a few moments with the film’s corpulent composer, Amedeo Tommasi, who performs the film’s 2 central themes on piano, which are performed in the film largely using piano, organ, and violin. With so little of Avati’s work available on DVD, chances are few genre fans are familiar with Tommasi’s work – something that should have been sketched much deeper in the DVD.

Moving to the more commercial realm, sometimes an influential director simply lacks the time to participate in a special release, so the basic edition – often just the movie and some trailers – covers the rental market and hungry fans; Black Hawk Down, Kill Bill Vol. 1,  and the Lord of the Rings films certainly fit that need.

With Columbia, the home video arm has been trying to figure out how to handle their Superbit line of high-end transfers that leave almost no room for extras. A case in point is the new 3-disc edition of Panic Room, which lacks the transfer from the previous single edition Superbit release, but adds a gargantuan body of edifying extras.

Based on a top-selling mediocre script by David Keopp, Panic Room’s high concept – a divorcee and her daughter trapped in a secured room while looters search the house - attracted director David Fincher, and transformed the novel idea into a marvelous filmmaking journey; the film’s still a passable thriller with some annoying cliches, but Fincher’s approach to making movies is fascinating.

Like obsessive director James Cameron, Fincher likes to push the envelope of DVDs, and not surprisingly turned Columbia’s special edition offer into a film school course; even passing film fans should find the extras – which trace every pre-, production, and post-production stage – pretty intriguing.

Disc 3 offers a showcase of Howard Shore conducting the orchestra through 4 cues: “Main Title,” “Sealing the House,” “The Phone Call,” and “Altman.” Using a few multiple angles filmed during the recording sessions and clips from the film, the segments can be viewed separately or simultaneously. Though there are no composer interviews on the disc, the recording footage at least reveals the composer in a less formal environment, and offers a minor glimpse at Shore’s relationship with the musicians.

In New Line’s Se7en DVD, Shore and sound designed Ren Klyce shared a commentary track, revealing the collaborative relationship these innovative men maintained to create that film’s unnerving soundscape. For Panic Room, Klyce appears in his own featurette, and his guided tour of sounds illustrates his uniquely philosophical approach to create sound effects and tonal tracks for a seriously nuanced final mix. Key in Klyce’s decisions is his communication with the composer, and Klyce uses a sequence where Jodie Foster runs from the panic room in search of a cellphone to demonstrate his near-organic transitions between score and sound effects throughout the film.


Mark R. Hasan (2004)

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