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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Black Swan (1942) (Blu-ray)
The Black Swan (1942) (Blu-ray)
Fox // PG // December 3, 2013 // Region A
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 12, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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The long-simmering conflict between Britain and Spain has at long last come to an end, and it looks like much the same can be said of piracy on the high seas. The infamous pirate Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) not
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only defied death but has been knighted, promising to rid the Atlantic of his former comrades-in-arms on his way to the governorship of Jamaica. He offers his friends a regal pardon and a hundred acres of land a piece if they hang up their Jolly Rogers once and for all. If they don't, well...they'll be staring down the same hangman's noose that Morgan somehow escaped. Captain Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), himself recently on the wrong side of a Spanish torture rack, eagerly sets sail alongside his longtime friend. Not much of anyone else shares Waring's enthusiasm. Too many other pirates, among them Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders) and Wogan (Anthony Quinn), sneer at Morgan as one of the king's spies. The residents of Jamaica are even more leery, suspicious that Morgan and his men could ever give up their wicked ways. They're desperate for Morgan and the hangman to face each other once again, and if they have to feed the likes of Billy Leech inside information about well-stocked ships to raid and embarrass their unwelcomed new governor, then that's just what they'll do. Oh, and if preening English gentleman Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley) rakes a captain's share of the loot in the process, all the better. Unfortunately for Morgan, Ingram's ploy works all too well, and every effort thus far to hunt down Leech and company have been stymied.

Facing another cry for impeachment, Morgan sends his best man after Leech in one final, desperate attempt to prove himself worthy of his governorship. Jamie Waring is up to the challenge but has to make one quick pitstop first, stopping to see Lady Margaret (Maureen O'Hara). It's not enough of a humiliation that Morgan replaced her father as governor or that Waring is now sleeping in her former bedchamber, but Margaret is dragged kicking and screaming onto a ship by a man she finds utterly repulsive...and on the eve of her wedding to Ingram, no less! Everything seems to be going Waring's way. He's finally gotten his hands on the girl of his dreams, even if Lady Margaret wants to stab her kidnapper in his sleep. He discovers who the traitor is that's trading privileged information to Leech, and at long last, he even tracks down his former brother in piracy. The only downside is that this all happens at the same time, and Waring doesn't stand a chance. The ships of Waring's enemies outclass his in speed and firepower, so he can't run, and he can't fight. Like they
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say, though, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. That charade buys Waring a little time, sure, but that's destined to leave him staring down even more cannons than before...

More than seventy years later, The Black Swan remains an infectiously fun swashbuckler. Boasting an 85 minute runtime and a screenplay by Ben Hecht (Notorious; His Girl Friday), among others, the film is remarkably lean and uncluttered. The Black Swan is bookended by sprawling sequences of swordplay, moments made that much more frenetic by speeding them up a touch. Though filmed on a soundstage rather than the high seas, its massive models remain surprisingly convincing these many decades later, heightened by the breathtaking Technicolor cinematography of Leon Shamroy. Though Shamroy was the only member of the film's cast and crew to take home a statuette, Alfred Newman was rightly nominated for an Academy Award for his rousing, high adventure score. As far as the premise goes, there's just something I find endlessly engaging about pirates trying to make good despite the best efforts of supposed gentlemen with no moral character. It's fast, it's breezy, it's thrilling, and a cast with the likes of Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara on the bill ensures that The Black Swan is almost always a joy to watch.

Of course, the downside of a film swirling around reformed pirates is that the middle stretch of the film is disappointingly light on action, and far less of The Black Swan is set on sea than one might expect. I certainly wouldn't have minded at least one more battle somewhere in the middle; the closest it comes is the blink-and-you-miss-it siege on the Prince Consort, literally ending in seconds. The middle act is dominated by Waring's infatuation with Lady Margaret, and there's a reason I hesitate to use the word 'romance'. Lady Margaret can barely stomach the sight of this overly persistent and not altogether charming pirate, and though she inevitably falls for the man who kidnapped her as the film draws to a close, her swooning abruptly comes out of nowhere. As much as I enjoy The Black Swan, it just doesn't approach the heights of Errol Flynn's most memorable swashbucklers. Not quite a classic but still a great deal of fun and very much Recommended.

There's little I could say about the high points of this presentation of The Black Swan that this single screenshot doesn't convey far more effectively:

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Despite the original camera negative having been lost for decades, the levels of clarity and fine detail showcased on this disc are often startling. Its fine, filmic texture has been faithfully preserved on Blu-ray, afforded a healthy bitrate to ensure that the grain is rendered as accurately as possible. Contrast is, at its best, robust enough to inspire a convincing sense of depth and dimensionality. There is essentially nothing in the way of wear or damage to intrude. No excessive filtering, artificial sharpening, or awkward digital manipulation ever rear their heads either.

Its reproduction of The Black Swan's Technicolor photography, described by actress Maureen O'Hara and film historian Rudy Behlmer in the disc's audio commentary as being painterly and impressionistic in approach, is more problematic. In the early moments of the film, fleshtones are uneven, sometimes coming across as claylike. The faux-tropical sets uncomfortably alternate between lush, vivid foliage and sickly, pale greens. The first act is overly dominated by teals and assorted blues, to the point that it's difficult to believe that sequences such as the one excerpted below could ever have been a deliberate artistic decision:

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Though it's not a chronic issue, contrast does occasionally come across as harsh and dupe-y. Shadow detail is often problematic, with one particularly disappointing case-in-point provided below:

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The original Technicolor elements for The Black Swan were almost certainly junked by Fox in the 1970s, saddling the team behind this presentation with a heavily faded (and likely
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clumsily combined)
single-strip source. Given the severe limitations of what Fox was left to work with, what they've accomplished with this Blu-ray release borders on miraculous. Still, it will forever remain a crushing disappointment that short-sighted and poorly implemented decisions from forty years ago prevent us from fully appreciating these films as they were originally meant to be seen.

The Black Swan arrives on Blu-ray at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and its AVC encode devours most every available byte on this single layer disc.

The Black Swan boasts a 24-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that leaves little room for complaint. The hiss lurking in the background is too mild to pose any sort of distraction, and there are no clicks, pops, or dropouts to tear viewers away from the swashbuckling adventure. The audio is respectably clean and clear, and dynamic range isn't limited to any greater extent than anticipated. Not exceptional but in no way disappointing.

Also offered here are Dolby Digital monaural dubs (192kbps) in French and Spanish. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH) and Spanish.

The restoration comparison from the DVD didn't find its way onto this release.
  • Audio Commentary: Carried over from the previous DVD release is this feature-length conversation between actress Maureen O'Hara and film historian Rudy Behlmer. It's an extremely charming interview
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    reflecting on O'Hara's career and the Golden Age of Hollywood, although The Black Swan really isn't the central focus. O'Hara does speak about The Black Swan's cinematography, color testing, makeup, swordplay, effects work, legendary studio brass, and co-stars, though her comments are often in more general terms and largely about the way films from this era were made overall. There are brief notes about how drastically this film diverges from Raphael Sabatini's novel and how the ending was replaced, but neither Behlmer nor O'Hara touch on how the end product differs. I would've liked to have heard more about the production of The Black Swan in particular, but I found myself hopelessly won over by O'Hara's kinship with other Irish actors, such stories as the actress yanking her stolen mink coat off a lapdog, and later being in a position to put an alarm clock on top of the camera to indicate when she's leaving for the day, even if she were in the middle of a take. A terrific and very worthwhile listen, if not quite the commentary I was hoping to hear.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): The only other extra is a theatrical trailer.

The Final Word
The Black Swan may not be a great film, but it is a fun and thrilling swashbuckler, one that its many fans voted to see on Blu-ray as part of Fox's Voice Your Choice promotion. Though this disc is unavoidably compromised thanks to Fox's misguided view of film preservation in the '70s, this is as strong a presentation as anyone could reasonably hope to see with the elements available, and the very modest asking price of $15.99 on Fox Connect makes The Black Swan that much easier a recommendation to make. Recommended.
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