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DVD SAVANT

Hour of the Wolf


Hour of the Wolf
MGM DVD
1968 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame (on corrected discs) / 90 min. / Vargtimmen 24.98
Starring Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin
Cinematography Sven Nykvist
Production Designer Marik Vos
Editor Ulla Ryghe
Original Music Lars Johan Werle
Produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman



Also available in The Ingmar Bergman Special Edition DVD Collection Boxed set (112.96, street date April 20, 2004), with Persona, Shame, The Passion of Anna and The Serpent's Egg.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A Rebuttal from Nick Wrigley about the disc recall is at the bottom of this review. 4.03.04

Hour of the Wolf is one of Ingmar Bergman's shorter, simpler films. Although it confuses many viewers, it's actually quite clear about its content: It's a horror film, and a good one, even though Phil Hardy in his Encyclopedia of Horror Movies disparages Bergman as less existential than being about "people unable to see further than the ends of their noses who have all the time in the world to concentrate on their favorite (and only view)." Well, good for Bergman. Even Travis Bickle warned against the pitfalls of morbid self-attention.

Synopsis:

Alma Borg (Liv Ullmann) partly narrates a remembrance of her husband Johan (Max von Sydow), a frustrated artist. Creatively dry, he succumbs to both drink and his inner demons, telling Alma about his drawings of the island inhabitants as freaks and monsters. An invitation to the castle of the local landowner becomes an uncomfortable exercise in humiliation and confusion. Then jealousy over an old love affair and the confession of a horrible crime appear to push Johan over the edge of madness. He shoots Alma and returns to the castle, which has now changed into a maze of cold catacombs ...

Liv Ullmann provides the pained humanity, Max von Sydow the tortured artist/Ingmar Bergman substitute, and the rest of the cast are the Dementia - like demons that haunt his soul. Ullman's Alma Borg talks about emotional sharing so she sometimes sees them too, even if only figuratively. For all we know, the couple may be the only inhabitants of their island, because all of the encounters with the spectral creatures who live there seem to take place in a different dimension. The suspicious old lady come to warn Alma is completely white. The sexually precocious, demon-like boy who harasses Johan is seen in a flashback effectively styled with high grain and contrast. Johan's old love Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin) appears like a lamia out of the horror film Incubus. Bergman's original title was The Cannibals and although these demons put on a good show of quasi-normality, they strike out and bite without warning. They can behave invitingly, but their intent is to destroy.

The reality of going insane and imagining persecuting creatures might really be something like Hour of the Wolf, for Bergman's fantasy sequences have an oneiric bite, the sweaty texture of nightmares. It's true that Roman Polanski made films that more effectively transform the normal into the nightmarish, but Bergman's hallucinatory castle is more than intimidating. It's possible that these terrors were specifically dreamed by the director.

Bergman also gets the concept right. The script solemnly states that the Hour of the Wolf is the time of the night when people die and babies are born, but we know better. It's that strange period between about 3:30 and 4:45 AM when one's psychological defenses are at their lowest ebb. I'm partly Swedish and I have to say I empathize with Bergman, for every so often I'll wake up scowling at some crazy dream where I'm once again frantic about some petty self-judged offense from 30 years ago, or still worried about school responsibilities from college. Petty crimes like not watering the grass or following through on something seem like hanging offenses, the kind of things that make you feel isolated and hopeless even as you know they're illusions.

Johan's going through the same thing, only his fantasies have taken over completely. He believes he has murdered a young boy, which may be completely imagined, just as he seems to assume that his gunshots have killed Alma. Just as in Dementia, he's "guilty, guilty, GUILTY."

The phantasmagoria inside poor Johan's head is excellently expressed. Shamed husbands walk on ceilings, and personalities that before were just irritating are now militantly perverse. We see in action the old lady that Johan described as "taking off her hat, and her face comes with it." The castle is now a bottomless crypt full of demonic crows and delirious pigeons. Johan is made up like a stage actor (or a painted "fairy") and placed in a ridiculously compromised situation, to be laughed at like an artist his host once described.

Worse yet, for Johan there's no coming back. Alma relates a contrasting description of events in which an unresponsive Johan is overcome by his inner demons and disappears into the marshes. Bergman leaves us with the added horror of responsibility, of someone loving and caring now equally tormented. Will Alma deteriorate as did Johan, or is her psyche made of stronger stuff?  1


MGM's DVD of Hour of the Wolf was recalled and the pricey box set it came in was delayed, while new discs were pressed of this title and Shame. The decision was made to do this at the last minute after research confirmed what a mini-storm on the internet claimed: Both films were officially 1:33 but the first pressings of the discs were 1:66, with very narrow letterbox bars top and bottom. I hate to sound like a phillistine to the purists, but in my practical experience the overmatting on the average television monitor can alter the Aspect Ratio of a DVD image almost as much as this mistake.

Whether the recall was the right thing to do I can't say, but I'm sure it made for some upset people at MGM, where this kind of attention being lavished on a marginal-profit tier of film isn't supposed to blow up in their faces. Sure, aspect ratios should be gotten right, but if that was a rule enforced by law, MGM would have to recall a couple of hundred titles. I can't see that happening.

What I can see happening, however, is the next person at MGM who proposes a swanky special edition disc set to please the fans of rarified art films, being handed his head. And that's too bad.

I'm still reviewing Hour of the Wolf from the 1:66 original disc I was sent, the framing of which has yet to offend me or inspire me to make demands online. The transfer is exceptional. What looked murky or indistinct on VHS is cured here; when Johan walks into the black swamp, we don't need to guess at forms in the darkness any more. A tree branch is just a tree branch after all.

The extras for this disc are part of the same package of interviews and docus conducted in 2002 with prime talent Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, and they're great. Ms. Ullmann must have wanted to speak out on the subject, because she tells all openly and without reserve while still impressing us as a great lady. The weak link is the commentary and docu presence of Bergman author Marc Gervais. I haven't read his work, but here he persists in pointing out the obvious and framing most of his comments as open-ended questions or blind theories, a series of thesis statements with no discussion to back them up. Being informed that Persona was Bergman's psychological opus and this film his investigation into madness, isn't all that revealing.

The still galleries are nicely appointed, as are all of the menus and overall design of the DVD. The Lopert (presumably U.S.) trailer contains beaucoup nudity, but appears to be a genuine 1968 release item.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hour of the Wolf rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais, The Search for Sanity featurette, Interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, Photo galleries, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2004


Footnote:

1. There are probably many more references like this in Woody Allen films, but if you remember the scene in Starlight Memories where Allen wanders the woods following the trail of bodies left by his alter ego and finds a group of aliens, it can somewhat mitigate the seriousness of Alma's nighttime trip into the swamp.
Return

A Rebuttal from Nick Wrigley of the Masters of Cinema website, 4.03.04:

(Mr. Erickson,
You wrote in your review above:)

I hate to sound like a phillistine to the purists, but in my practical experience the overmatting on the average television monitor can alter the Aspect Ratio of a DVD image almost as much as this mistake.

I think you'll find that a lot of folk are completely avoiding TV overscan by either, a.) using the factory menu to get rid of it; b.) using a computer projection system (no overscan); or c.) using an LCD display (no overscan). So OAR is very important to many fans of cinema, even if you don't think so yourself.

Claiming that we suffer this kind of cropping anyway because of overscan is just lazy and ignorant. You're making excuses.

Whether the recall was the right thing to do I can't say.

Really? -- You can't say?

The AR problem was discovered 5 months before the discs were pressed. They were notified of errors in the press release back in November. They recalled the discs at the very last minute after the online furore. Sales would have suffered tremendously if they hadn't recalled. So they were forced into recalling.

I can see they may not like this, but this is what happens when a mistake is made. It's unfortunate of course, but it was entirely avoidable.

... but I'm sure it made for some upset people at MGM, where this kind of attention being lavished on a marginal-profit tier of film isn't supposed to blow up in their faces.

Boo hoo for MGM. Many other companies get it right every week. To make excuses for MGM's mistakes and then to suggest that we should be grateful for their errors because we might not get any more art films, is utter tripe.

Sure, aspect ratios should be gotten right, but if that was a rule enforced by law, MGM would have to recall a couple of hundred titles. I can't see that happening.

So what's wrong with notifying them about their errors and preventing it from happening in the future? --- do we just put up with shoddiness?

What I can see happening, however, is the next person at MGM who proposes a swanky special edition disc set to please the fans of rarified art films, being handed his head. And that's too bad.

That may be the case, but it's their own stupid fault. Maybe they'll get some better people in who actually look at what they're doing. - Nick Wrigley, Editor Masters of Cinema

Savant Note - Masters of Cinema has a useful attitude toward presenting films on DVD, and I respect it. I have a different attitude toward ARs and studio compliance with my aesthetic ideas on movies: I'm glad that they even acknowledge the vocal DVD fan base. If it sometimes seems like studios don't care, part of it is because of the mass of conflicting, hostile and (Not Masters of Cinema) uninformed demands they get from readers and websites.

The only thing that really begs to be corrected about the above is the statement that MGM was informed months before the release. Since there is no mechanism at most studios to handle undirected email, the people who needed to know at MGM were never informed of the mistakes. Wrong or right, they were honestly surprised by the last-minute response to screeners. This I know for a fact, from more than one source, including the producer of the disc's extras. One can say "it's their own fault" for not being responsive to messages, but the fact is that undirected electronic mail is not read because of the enormous volume. I'd be surprised if anyone reads any of it. With a thousand emails a day asking for a part in the next Bond movie, an alarm that Pearl Harbor is about to be attacked or that icebergs are ahead is almost certain to be lost.

Like it or not, when it comes to movies in their libraries, the studios are the gatekeepers. I could rail against studios for all kinds of issues reasonable and un-, but I'd like to think that calmer inquiries do more good. There are high-profile websites with good personal contacts within studios, who often tip them off to problems ahead of time. Some studios have responded to discs with publicized flaws by quietly instituting replacement programs. These show that they value opinion on the web, even if they don't come out and "admit guilt" for making mistakes ... I'm thinking of Warners and KISS ME KATE in this context.

Yes, MGM made a mistake and I minimized it in my review. I personally did not suffer when the AR of these particular films changed, and perhaps that's a reflection on my lack of commitment. Frankly, when I saw some of these movies in theaters, they were projected wider than 1:66 ... older transfers of theatrical prints show the subtitles to be high in the frame, proving they were expected to be shown cropped in some venues. Don't think I'm making excuses, here. Official MGM records confirmed that these two films should have been 1:33.

In these days when commerce bashes art in all directions, being called a "purist" at a studio is taken as a slight - people honestly concerned with the details can be lumped in with the DVD Weenies who scream because they think WIZARD OF OZ needs to be letterboxed. Companies are bureaucracies. Most armies have solid organizations that make sure that crucial orders don't get passed along, right? Why should DVD companies be any different?

I have a few sideways contacts of my own at MGM but usually don't press them for information, reserving my outside meddling for issues that I care most about (don't get any illusions, I have no influence). But I know concerned individuals who have several times averted DVD disaster by letting the right person know in the right way at the right time. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't.

This may be a jaded attitude, but believe me, studio executives don't sit around tables telling each other, "How can we make the concerned readers of DVD Savant happy?" If you think about it, they put out DVDs every month of marginal movies demanded by small groups of devoted fans. I'm a fan; I have my own list. When the titles finally come out, do I write thank you letters to the studios? No, I'm already keen for the next wanted title, another one that me and perhaps 20,000 other fans - max - are willing to plunk down cash in advance for.

I liked Mr. Wrigley's rebuttal, by the way. He's promised to keep correcting me and I've offered to pass along any important information to the studios in the future (yes ... DVD Savant, pretending to be an important cog in the works of art ...). Glenn Erickson




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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