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DVD SAVANT

Lee Broughton Region 2 Review:

THE NINTH CONFIGURATION


The Ninth Configuration
Blue Dolphin
1980 / Colour / 2.35:1 / 115 m.
Starring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Neville Brand, George DiCenzo, Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia
Cinematography Gerry Fisher
Production Designer William Malley
Film Editor Peter Taylor, T. Battle Davis, Roberto Silvi, Peter Lee-Thompson
Original Music Barry DeVorzon
Written, Produced and Directed by William Peter Blatty, from his novel

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

In the UK, it's not that easy for the issue of an American feature film on DVD to take you by surprise.  If a major title gets a US release, we hear about it and can usually expect a UK release to follow a few months later.  And experience tells us that many of the lesser known titles that are released in the US simply won't get a UK release at all.  Needless to say, the chances of a British DVD label taking the initiative and preparing their own issue of an obscure American film, that hasn't even had a US DVD release yet, are virtually zero.  So I was particularly surprised to find William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration on the shelves over here.  There is no region coding information on either the disc or the packaging but it is probably best to assume that it is PAL Region 2, unless you hear otherwise.

It seems that there is no halfway house in the appreciation of this film.  Those who have seen it either like it very much or don't really care for it at all.  To me, the film plays like it should have been the last great film of the 1970s.  Unfortunately, it became the first lost film of the 1980s.  But maybe its commercial failure in the 1980s is actually a perverse kind of compliment.  In the decade where gross public displays of greed, self aggrandisement and boastfulness were seemingly encouraged and celebrated in some quarters, a poignant and emotionally charged film, about a selfless individual who unashamedly reveals his love for his fellow man in an attempt to assist those who need his help, didn't stand a chance.

Synopsis:

In the Pacific Northwest of America, an imposing Gothic castle is being used as a special psychiatric hospital, housing mentally disturbed military personnel.  A brilliant but unorthodox psychiatrist, Colonel Hudson Kane (Stacy Keach), is posted there with orders to determine the true nature and origin of the inmates' mental breakdowns.  It won't be easy, but Colonel Kane is convinced that if he can cure just one of the men, the example will lead to a cure for the rest.  Assisted by Medical Officer Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), Colonel Kane strikes up a rapport with Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut whose sudden and unexplained psychosis resulted in him aborting a mission to the Moon.  A series of intense, but fragmented, philosophical and theological exchanges take place between Colonel Kane and Captain Cutshaw but progress is slow and is possibly even hampered by Colonel Kane's personal struggle with his own inner demons.  His sleep is disturbed by a recurring nightmare, the content of which was originally imparted to him by his late brother, a legendary Marine whose exploits earned him the moniker 'Killer' Kane, and he appears to be taking items from the patients' drugs cabinet for his own personal use.  In a bold attempt to break the impasse, Colonel Kane agrees to completely indulge the eccentric whims of his patients.  If this approach should fail, he has resigned himself to employing enforced shock treatment.  But just what kind of shock treatment would be needed to jolt these men back to reality?

Most viewers seem to agree that the first half of this film plays like a very intense, and sometimes disturbing, fusion of elements from Catch 22, M*A*S*H and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  Certainly, our initial introduction to the inmates here is not particularly easy viewing.  The unofficial suggestion from the military is that these men are putting on an elaborate act, a la Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H, in order to escape active duty.  The military may well have a point: Lieutenant Reno (Jason Miller) is simultaneously rewriting and casting the works of Shakespeare for canine actors, Major Nammack (Moses Gunn) believes that he is Superman, Lieutenant Bennish (Robert Loggia) believes that he is a Space Marine who is being held captive by shape shifting Venusians, 'Dr' Fromme (William Blatty) thinks that he is the Medical Officer etc.  Then again, they all seem genuinely disturbed, the likelihood being that something experienced in combat has pushed them over the edge.  But if that is the case, what could possibly have turned the astronaut, Captain Cutshaw, into an individual who frequently flips from being a mischievous, sub-Harpo Marx figure to a manic and aggressive troublemaker?

When they are together, the inmates' behaviour and interaction is a seemingly unending flurry of frenetic bizarreness: strange insubordinate rituals, like attending roll call in a circle instead of a line and, when finally in line, performing group sing-a-longs, acting out a 'famous lines from famous movies' game and unleashing an absolute barrage of super fast one-liners, nonsensical observations and insults, which must have been expertly rehearsed to achieve such fluidity and timing, but which are almost enough to wear the viewer down during their first viewing of the film (a degree of patience is definitely needed initially).  Is this behaviour really just the inmates' way of attempting to regain a degree of control while finding a release for their inner frustrations?  Or is it part of a more sinister agenda to deliberately confound and infuriate their officious military guardians?  Either way, such behaviour will not ruffle the unbelievably receptive and incredibly understanding Colonel Kane.

The comedic wordplay, like the rest of the dialogue, is extremely clever and well-written.  However, the potentially serious and disturbing nature of some of the inmates' behaviour makes a truly humorous reaction to their shenanigans impossible.  But slowly, as Colonel Kane opens his heart to these men and gets a response, the atmosphere lightens a little and the hope is raised that the inmates can be helped.  Indeed, periodic exterior shots of the castle seem to reflect the confusion and turmoil found within its walls:  the castle is initially lost in the centre of a thick fog and then becomes tormented by a series of storms.  Surely the Sun is going to shine through at some point?

It's hard to discuss the story arc of the second half of this film without touching upon certain spoilers.  Some reviews of the film that I've come across do in fact include unannounced spoilers, so avoid these reviews if you really want to experience the full effect of the twists and turns that come along towards the end of the feature.

I'm assuming that those who don't care for the film have a problem with elements of the story line because, on a technical level, the film (Blatty's debut as a director) is virtually flawless.  The 2.35:1 scope picture presented on the DVD reveals consistently inch-perfect framing and virtually every shot, no matter how cluttered or busy, is amazingly well composed.  There are some nice camera moves displayed, too: subtle but effective.  The bizarre architecture of the exterior of the castle is mirrored inside and Blatty uses shots of weird archways, grand doorways, gargoyles, strange statues and religious artifacts to great effect.  Perhaps it's not surprising to learn that Blatty's cinematographer here, Gerry Francis, had previously worked on Harry Kumel's classic Euro fantasy, Malpertuis, another film set within the rambling confines of a bizarre Gothic mansion-cum-castle.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with all of the familiar faces among the inmates providing creditable performances.  Neville Brand and Tom Atkins are totally convincing in their roles as austere military figures.  Special mention goes to Ed Flanders' role as the pleasantly cynical but level-headed Medical Officer, Colonel Fell.  Although he doesn't fully understand Kane's techniques or approach, he offers the Colonel his full support while simultaneously jabbing him with a series of Groucho Marx-style witticisms.  But his emotional reaction when he finds out that 'Killer' Kane is dead, and his moving explanation of what he personally hopes to gain from working in conjunction with an unorthodox operator like Colonel Hudson Kane are expertly delivered.  There are also fine performances and intensely emotional deliveries from both Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson.  These scenes are greatly enhanced by Barry DeVorzon's beautiful music.  His melancholy, piano-led melodies are particularly effective: reminiscent, in parts, of the equally effective music that John Barry provided for They Might Be Giants.


The picture quality of the DVD is very good.  There's the odd fleck or scratch and the occasional shimmer from onscreen light sources but these don't pose a real problem.  The sound is good, too.  A handful of edits look a little ragged but maybe this is down to the reportedly large number of times that Blatty has gone back and re-cut the film?  This DVD edition is said to be Blatty's definitive cut....for the time being: in the interesting and informative commentary track, which also features long time Blatty champion Mark Kermode, Blatty confesses that he has a mind to restore a further 20 minutes to the film at some point in the future.  An insight into the various cuts of the film that have been previously released, or may yet be released, can be found in the extras section, which contains a good number of outtakes.  Other extras include an introductory featurette, and director and cast biographies and filmographies.

Although it is apparent that The Ninth Configuration doesn't work for everybody who chances upon it, many have found it to be something special.  A truly original, remarkable and thought- provoking film.  That the film should make its DVD debut courtesy of a British DVD label is, in its own way, kind of remarkable, too.  Let's hope that there's more where this came from.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ninth Configuration rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary track featuring William Peter Blatty & Mark Kermode, featurette, outtakes & alternate takes, double-sided chapter headings sheet, director and cast biographies & filmographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 22, 2001


READER RESPONSE 4/27/01: 'Gregor M'

I saw the review of the Ninth Configuration DVD, which I also just purchased and watched for the first time!

It had been recommended to me before, but I had heard that the fullscreen versions were especially bad, and that there were about 6 different cuts which the director had disowned, so I waited for this new LBX SE of it.

It is in fact region 0, although it is in PAL format, so any DVD player capable of playing PAL DVDs can play it, including any DVD-Rom drive!  (Apex, Raite, Sampo, and Oritron players amongst others can convert PAL to NTSC!  Pioneer players will play PAL in PAL so you need a multisystem TV to see it properly with them, but at least they'll play it...)

I found it interesting that the transfer of the feature was in regular 4:3 letterbox at 2.35:1, but all of the supplements (even the really ratty ones) were 16:9 enhanced!?!  It was really odd to have to switch to 16:9 mode for the supplements, and back to 4:3 for the film - usually it's the other way around...

In any case, this DVD looks like the best version there will be for a long time...  As always, keep up the great and informative work!  -GregorM


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