There are countless reiterations of A Christmas Carol, but I never took the time to familiarize myself with 1951's Alastair Sim starring Scrooge (later renamed A Christmas Carol for its American release). Friends and acquaintances alike have told me time and time again that this was the definitive version of Charles Dickens' classic tale on film, and although I respect their opinions dearly, I was concerned their ringing endorsement would have set up my expectations high enough for a letdown. That being said, I've seen most of the other classic holiday films a bajillion times, so this year I found myself looking for something fresh to throw in my holiday film rotation. My tree was up, the lights were on, the snow was predicted to fall, and then fate ironically presented me with the opportunity to review this highly praised film on Blu-ray. My expectations were still pretty high thanks to my 'nose in the air' film snob friends (I'd consider myself to be more of a Joe six-pack, if you will), but now that I've finally seen the supposed 'definitive' version of this Christmas ghost story, I can say with certainty this film absolutely deserves its labeling as a classic.
Ebenezer Scrooge is as heartless as they come, but he wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, he used to feel for his fellow man. He used to smile, laugh, and dance... he even used to love. Life has a tendency to test even the best of us from time to time however, and Ebenezer was no exception. But instead of rising above those negative experiences so he could better himself, the lesson he found from within his pain was 'look out for number one', and his new bleak outlook on life ultimately caused his heart to chill to its very core. Ebenezer devoted his life to acquiring wealth and power ever since, and despite knowing the hardships that come along with being one of the 'little guys' (being stricken with poverty, hunger, etc), Ebenezer showed no interest in helping his fellow man. Be it the less unfortunate or even his own employees, his warmth and compassion had completely vanished. How about some heat for his associates during business hours? Bah. How about letting them have a paid holiday so they can spend some time with their families? Humbug. He couldn't have even cared less about the death of his business partner and close friend. No, Scrooge lives for nothing but cold hard cash now, an obsession that has unquestionably tarnished his soul. Three spirits visit Scrooge on a fateful Christmas Eve to show him his past, present, and future, to warn him that the path he's chosen in life may very well doom his soul to an eternity of torment. However, if Scrooge can learn to open his heart to the world once again and stop solely worrying about material things, he could very well earn his redemption.
For me, the greatest achievement of A Christmas Carol, is that for a story that so blatantly takes the moral high ground on greed, corruption, and just simply being kind to your fellow man in general, it doesn't come off as being overly preachy. I instantly disconnect with any film that makes me feel like there's an enormous imaginary finger being maliciously pointed at me, but that never happens with Dickens' classic tale. Sure, the message is there so all of us can benefit from it, but the audience doesn't have to internalize that message as guilt, because they're simply observing the message as it's being conveyed to Scrooge by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. Of course, making sure the overall theme of the film stays within the confines of the story largely depends on the actor that's playing Scrooge. I've seen the role attempted more times than I can count on fingers and toes combined, but I'd only have to use the digits on a single hand to tell you how many times I've actually seen it done well. Much to my surprise, Alastair Sim is the best Scrooge I've ever had the pleasure of seeing. Most other actors who have played the bah-humbugger merely appeared to be grumpy old men, but Sim? I could feel the ice emanating from his skin, and I was chilled even further by the emptiness in his soulless eyes. For the first time in a very long time, I didn't feel as if I was watching a mediocre stage version of A Christmas Story shot on film. I bought Sim's portrayal as Scrooge like no other, and this justified the rest of the story in its entirety in far more engrossing ways than I've ever bared witness to.
My sole complaint is that I think the director could have done a better job. Don't get me wrong, this version of A Christmas Carol is definitely the best I've seen personally, but there were a few moments in the film that were dangerously close to taking me out of the moment. For example, I didn't buy Michael Hordern's performance as Jacob Marley, not one bit. Marley is the first apparition to appear to Ebenezer, and he's supposed to show through his own pain and suffering what Scrooge will one day become. Unfortunately, Hordern was borderline comical at times, and this drastically reduced the severity that the situation was supposed to convey. Also, as great as Alastair Sim is as Ebenezer Scrooge, there are a few moments in the film where he over emotes, and I feel this could have been easily corrected if there was some better direction.
Is it the definitive version of A Christmas Carol? It's certainly the best I've seen, but it's hard to classify something as 'definitive' when there are so many reiterations of this classic Dickens' tale out there, at least certainly many more than I'll ever have the chance to see. If you prefer your holiday classics to have something most modern holiday films lack - heart - then this is a film you simply shouldn't miss.
Taking into consideration the film source is inconsistent and not exactly clean when compared to other black and white releases out there, this 1080p MPEG-2 encode (1.37:1) isn't that bad. That being said, there's definitely some issues the quality control department should have noticed before finalizing the disc for production.
Contrast is excellent more often than not. Inky blacks never seem to crush any detail, and whites are strong without any issue of blooming. Detail and sharpness can look impressive throughout much of the film, especially when it's pretty clear the source didn't undergo any sort of painstaking clean-up. Film grain is present throughout, and although there's plenty of scratches and marks throughout the feature in its entirety, it's not really distracting to the overall experience.
The main problem this release has is the film source itself, as it can be rather inconsistent. While much of the feature retains very nice contrast and clarity while retaining a film-like quality throughout, it all tends to fluctuate without warning. There are numerous moments throughout that look overly soft and murky. Film grain can lose its integrity from time to time, looking too digitized for its own good, and well, just downright noisy. The one thing I simply can't believe the quality control department let slip through their fingers however, is a pretty common occurrence of what appears to be missing frames. I view all my Blu-ray discs on an Oppo BDP-83, and this is not an issue I've experienced with any other title thus far. Usually, missing frames can cause the sound to become noticeably out of sync with the video over time, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. It's strange, but it's an occurrence that happens more than a few times and actually gets worse as you near the end of the film. At one point, I was pretty convinced the disc itself was to blame, but I didn't see any kind of weird rot, nor did I see any fingerprints, let alone scratches or scuffs. It was as clean as a whistle.
I know this sounds like it could be an absolute deal breaker for many of you videophiles out there, but this does appear to be a pretty nice upgrade from the DVD. This transfer does impress in high-def whenever the source allows it to, and I can't really blame the transfer on the shape the source material is in, but it's a real shame to see digital noise and missing frames occasionally rear their ugly heads. Overall, I would recommend this release based on video quality alone, if you can find this for a cheap price.
The audio is probably the biggest disappointment on this release. My first listen through was with the film's original mono track, and although dialogue remained easy to understand throughout for the most part, there were times where it sounded tinny, as if I was listening to a voice reverberating in a tin-can telephone. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is unlistenable, in my honest opinion. Whenever the musical score is quiet, dialogue remains just as clear and understandable as the mono track for the most part. When the music kicked in however, it came through the rear channels way too loud. The dialogue was difficult to understand whenever all 5.1 channels were active, and the additional channels made that tin-can telephone effect even more pronounced than it was on the mono track. To top off the disappointing audio presentation, neither of the tracks provided are in a lossless format. Bah humbug!
Audio Commentary with Marcus Hearn/George Cole - This was actually a pretty entertaining track. George Cole played Scrooge in his earlier years in the film, and is able to share interesting tidbits about numerous aspects of the film's production. Marcus Hearn, film historian, interjects whenever Cole starts running dry on whatever topic he's discussing at the moment, and this keeps the track lively throughout the entirety of the runtime. If you're a fan of this film, this is worth the listen.
Also included on the Blu-ray disc are some trailers and a trivia track.
As I've mentioned in my video quality comments, a DVD version of this film has been included.
This version of A Christmas Carol is going to find itself spinning in my Blu-ray player every year around this time, and frankly, I'm sorry I waited so long to see it. With new versions of the classic Dickens' tale spewing out of Hollywood too often to keep track of, it's nice to know there's at least one version out there that gets it right. There are many more versions of this story than I'll ever get around to seeing, so it's hard for me to say for sure if this is the definitive version of the film, despite my friends trying to drill that 'fact' into my head for years. I can say with certainty however, that this is the best version of the classic Christmas ghost story that I've personally seen. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray release is a little disappointing overall. The audio really needs a bit of work, and the video can be pretty inconsistent. I know, I know. I can't really blame the transfer for conveying the shape the source material is in, but there's really no excuse for digital noise and missing frames, and there's absolutely no excuse for lossy audio at this stage of the game. That being said, the video is noticeably better than the DVD version.
The film itself is a classic in every sense of the word, but these issues, as well as a very disappointing lack of supplemental material, leaves me with no choice but to give this a recommended rating, which is a shame because the film itself deserves much more than that. If you already own the 2 disc DVD set of this film however, I would recommend you rent this before making a decision to buy.