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Universal is coming out with budget-priced collections of movies focusing on a single movie star. Even at full retail, this four-title set boils down to less than $7 a disc. The real bargain is the concurrently-released Gary Cooper Franchise Collection, with its rarely-seen surreal winner Peter Ibbetson, but this Marlon Brando collection has a couple of reasonably good movies as well.
There are too many books and articles about Brando out there for Savant to attempt a quickie summary of what happened to the career of the acknowledged best American actor. In the 1960s his energy and talent seemed to dissipate in projects unworthy of his talent. Movies he obviously cared about were flops and he gravitated toward small projects by directors with offbeat ideas. Only a few films were really worth the effort, and even they aren't considered masterpieces - The Chase, Burn!. The films presented here start with the relatively mainstream The Ugly American and go downhill into obscurity, with a bizarre side trip with little point but to humor the ego of Charlie Chaplin.
The Night of the Following Day
1968 / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min.
Starring Marlon Brando, Richard Boone, Rita Moreno, Pamela Franklin, Jess Hahn, G&ecute;rard Buhr, Jacques Marin
Cinematography Willy Kurant
Art Direction Jean Boulet
Film Editor Gordon Pilkington
Original Music Stanley Myers
Written by Hubert Cornfield, Robert Phippeny from a book by Lionel White
Produced by Hubert Cornfield, Jerry Gershwin, Elliott Kastner
Directed by Hubert Cornfield
The Night of the Following Day has long been one of those movies that nobody really likes but plenty of critics were willing to defend. 1968 was the heyday of the auteur theory, and the erratic director Hubert Cornfield both wrote and produced this humorless look at a botched kidnapping. Cornfield made the intriguing lowbudget noir caper film Plunder Road but is better known for the truly pretentious groaner Pressure Point, a message film about the psychology of a neo Nazi. This effort is well-organized, up to a point.(spoiler)
Multiple versions exist of the movie, or there is at least one alternate cut for television. The cut on this disc makes the entire plot into a fantastic daydream, with a crude flashback fashioned from found freeze-frames that indicate the whole structure was imposed in post production. The straight part of the story ends in a hopeless muddle that's neither emotionally powerful or dramatically satisfying, and the flashback structure seems a limp narrative cheat, to both relieve the misery and perhaps avoid censorship in some localities.
In a commentary track, director Cornfield explains that the original book was first optioned by Stanley Kubrick before he found out that the kidnapping of a child was verboten by the MPAA. Author Lionel White then swapped Kubrick the story that would become The Killing. Ten years later, Cornfield made the premise filmable by changing the child victim to a young woman instead.
The main problem of the film is that it carefully charts the kidnap plot and the double cross but neglects the characters. Pamela Franklin's kidnap victim has few lines and is seen very little in the second half of the show. Sicko Richard Boone molests and threatens her, but we only see the aftermath of his final attack (spoiler) .... it is unclear exactly why she dies in Brando's arms.
Cornfield's commentary is unusual in that he's speaking with the specially-taught diaphragm-pressure method used by people who have lost their voice boxes - he's exceptionally good at it but the track is slow going. He doesn't get into any of the controversies of the film - Brando's reported lack of faith in his director, Rita Moreno's personal problems - and acts as if the obviously desperate structure was intentional. He tells us he saw it in Dead of Night. But he must have known that the "it's all a dream" gambit is almost always rejected by audiences as pitiful storytelling, second only to using amnesia to plaster over plot-holes in a mystery. Cornfield is more interested in letting us know that his visuals of Richard Boone toodling across a broad beach with a bowler hat and umbrella are meant to conjure the art of Magritte ... in his dreams. The pretentious title comes from his story breakdown, which divides the narrative into four parts; A Day, That Night, The Following Day, and The Night of the Following Day.
The acting is all good but the characters are sketchy at best. Brando looks trim in his all-black outfit, an Aryan version of Diabolik running on the beach with a machine pistol. Moreno and Jess Hahn have little to do and Pamela Franklin barely registers. If this is supposed to be her daydream, how come she's not the central character? Only Richard Boone's slimy menace translates well to the short shrift given individual characters.
The enhanced transfer of The Night of the Following Day looks fine, although the film element used is not pristine. The timing of the many day-for-night scenes is by and large quite successful. An unimpressive trailer is included.
A Countess from Hong Kong
1967 / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 108 120 min.
Starring Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Sydney Chaplin, Tippi Hedren, Angela Scoular, Margaret Rutherford
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Production Designer Don Ashton
Art Direction Bob Cartwright
Film Editor Gordon Hales
Original Music Charles Chaplin
Produced by Charles Chaplin, Jerome Epstein
Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin
There are reasons to enjoy A Countess from Hong Kong based on the cumulative overspill from his long career, but it's impossible to recommend the movie on its own merit. Ten years had passed since Chaplin's previous picture A King in New York, another thin critique of a stateless person looking for a home in a cruel world. Both Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando leaped at the opportunity to be directed by the great Chaplin, which makes this sad and unfunny farce all the more depressing.
A Countess from Hong Kong is actually less sophisticated than Chaplin's other sound films, His method and subject matter devolves all the way back to his earliest two-reel silents, to find a story idea we expect to be played out in B&W with Edna Purviance. The tired script has no sensitivity for anything like reality, or even a fairy-tale extract of reality. Natascha is the wholly incredible waif of parents abandoned by the Russian Revolution (fifty years before) who has somehow survived a harsh life to appear as a glamorous fashion plate in a simple but stylish designer dress. The idea that she's also an innocent is put across many times; Chaplin can't seem to decide whether she's a prostitute, the kept woman of a gambler, or just a delicate flower chased by a lot of bad rumors. Brando's diplomat is also a big joke; he recites pointlessly meaningless speeches about freedom, yet comes off as a sleazy whoremonger when his aide profers three svelte ladies of the night for their amusement in Hong Kong.
Chaplin perhaps wants Brando's aide Harvey (Sidney Chaplin) to come across as an arrogant American when he makes snide comments about poverty, but we only take it as Chaplin's point of view. Nobody in the story save his stars is worthy of Chaplin's approval, not an obnoxious Society Girl (Angela Scoular of Casino Royale) or the silly 'ugly' Miss Gaulswallow (Margaret Rutherford).
The direction is pure Chaplin and comes off as charmless. It's obvious that the master pantomimed every motion and every reaction because Brando, Loren and everyone else have no characters, just precise physical business modeled directly from Chaplin's example. Brando has a certain unflappable lightness but just isn't a clownish sort of guy. Loren is a naturally fun-loving type crammed into Chaplin's behavorial strait-jacket. A lot of Chaplin's direction is non-direction; many scenes seem to fade out before they are finished. Amusingly, Tippi Hedren's artificial pose-acting seems appropriate for Chaplin's style. But she's more often than not left at the end of scenes smiling vacantly off-camera, as if wondering what to do next.
The biggest pain is the production itself. Chaplin illuminates every set so flatly that after the lights were set the first day, the director of photography might as well have home and let the focus puller take over. The camera sometimes pans, but trucking shots are almost completely absent. Chaplin tries one in the very first scene and the view shakes and wiggles as we approach a sign for a dance hall. There are some very large, very underused sets but terrible rear-projection is used to place actors in Hawaiian locations. In one laughable shot, Loren hitches a truck ride from the Honolulu docks to the "Waikiki Hotel." What we see is her in a sarong, jumping on the back of a very English lorry that drives between what are obviously two brick Pinewood soundstages, with the background clogged with very un-Hawaiian foliage. Not too swift.
Chaplin's score is lovely - he bloomed as a songwriter as his movies went downhill. The main theme became a radio hit from Petula Clark: This is My Song.
The DVD of A Countess from Hong Kong looks fine in enhanced 16:9, with some scratches and dirt on the opening logo disappearing early in the show. Colors are fine. The IMDB shows a longer running time, which Savant cannot confirm but would easily believe after seeing those scenes that seem to fade too soon. A trailer tries to sell the film only with newsreel clips of Loren and Chaplin. A Countess from Hong Kong caused a lot of trouble for auteur critics in 1967: They didn't want to pan Chaplin's final film, but they also couldn't say it was any good.
1966 / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 99 min. / Southwest to Sonora
Starring Marlon Brando, Anjanette Comer, John Saxon, Emilio Fernández, Alex Montoya, Miriam Colon, Rafael Campos, Frank Silvera
Cinematography Russell Metty
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Film Editor Ted J. Kent
Original Music Frank Skinner
Written by James Bridges, Roland Kibbee from a novel by Robert MacLeod
Produced by Alan Miller
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
The Appaloosa is the least-criticized film in this collection, mainly because it works fairly well as a respectable but unremarkable revenge western. Like the other serious films in this collection, it has no sense of humor at all and eventually becomes overweighted. It is yet another movie about a troubled gringo who goes up against yet another cruel Mexican barbarian. He wins the girl, retrieves the horse and blows big holes in lots of sweaty, sneering vaqueros.
The film's asset is stylish direction by the much-maligned Sidney J. Furie of The Ipcress File fame. Critics trounced him on this picture as much as they had the Harry Palmer spy film, for constantly framing shots in distracting compositions, usually shooting through large foreground objects. In this movie, it's hats and shadowy faces; it's not unusual for six or seven shots to go by with Brando stranded in whatever sliver of the frame is left unblocked by a foreground sombrero. We get to know one character (Alex Montoya's Squint Eye) simply based on Furie's using him to crowd the camera. Other almost impossible views proliferate, as when boxes and other objects being carried by the actors are suspended in front of the camera. Audiences probably didn't mind but critics liked to point out these visual tics as a substitute for meaningful direction.
Furie clearly meshed well with his actors because Brando gives an assured performance. For once, he's captured by bad guys and not given a near-fatal beating, although he is stung by a vicious scorpion. John Saxon's Chuy Medina is yet another prideful psycho, and Anjanette Comer (The Loved One) is his kept woman who naturally defects with Brando. Emilio Fernández is Saxon's head honcho bad guy; I'd be really pleased to see a Mexican movie where the celebrated director didn't play a depraved pistolero.
The Appaloosa looks fine enhanced on DVD; the transfer throws us for a second because a flat logo has been spliced on the front and the Univeral globe shows up squashed like a pumpkin. The movie is in Techniscope and has the fine grain structure typical of that format; director Furie found the non-anamorphic Techniscope process essential to get the deep-focus needed for his eccentric compositions both here and in The Ipcress File.
The Ugly American
1963 / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 121 min.
Starring Marlon Brando, Eiji Okada, Sandra Church, Pat Hingle, Arthur Hill, Jocelyn Brando, Kukrit Pramoj, Judson Pratt
Cinematography Clifford Stine
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Film Editor Ted J. Kent
Original Music Frank Skinner
Written by Stewart Stern from a novel by William J. Lederer, Eugene Burdick
Produced and Directed by George Englund
(The Ugly American was previously reviewed by DVD Savant at this URL)
Univeral's Marlon Brando collection is kind of hit and miss and The Franchise Collection is an apt name: We get whatever came up "Brando" in the inventory. There's no attempt to analyze the films or make them cohere, so a trip to the library is recommended to find out why the acclaimed actor made all of these crazy career decisions. All we get for comment is one lumpy paragraph on the back of the package that brings tears to Savant's eyes - it condenses my typical word-usage and syntactical errors into one neat blurb:
"America's greatest film legend's diverse talent is remarkably displayed in this four-film collector's set. From gunslinger to aristocrat, from con artist to ambassador, Marlon Brando's performances and characters are unforgettable. This is a truly unique collection of the man who changed the face of American film acting forever."
But then again, this budget package is a bargain for Brando completists.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Marlon Brando: The Franchise Collection rates:
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