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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Immortal Story (Blu-ray)
The Immortal Story (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // August 30, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted August 15, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

The Immortal Story was, famously, Orson Welles's first color film. An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Dinesen), the film also stars Wells in the lead role. Set in the Macao of the nineteenth century, here Welles plays Charles Clay, a successful albeit miserly and aged merchant. His bookkeeper (and the only person even close to being a friend to the man), Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio), tells him a folk story about a wealthy man who paid a lowly sailor a tidy sum to get his wife pregnant. After hearing this, Clay decides to play a game of sort but soon becomes somewhat obsessed with this story, wanting to make it actually come true as he has no one to leave his vast fortune to, and no wife.

However, there's more to it than just a strange man's strange obsession. Levinsky is sent off to find a sailor and a willing young woman to play the part. Some time ago Clay drove his business partner to commit suicide, and when Levinksy approaches the daughter that man left behind, the beautiful Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), she sees in this strange offer a way to get revenge. The company is completed when Clay recruits an English sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley) to do the deed. And from there, things get… complicated.

Welles' final completed fictional feature, The Immortal Story began its life as a project intended to debut on French television. This was initially conceived as the first of a series of Welles directed adaptations of Blixen's writings but it was the only one to actually get made by the infamously tempestuous filmmaker. It's a beautifully shot film thanks not only to the cinematography from Willy Kurant but also the gorgeous Spanish locations employed in the picture (much of which was shot outside Madrid where Welles lived at the time). The score is also very strong here. In fact, even if it were intended for television, there's no faulting the production values on display. There's a very grandiose feel to much of what we see, particularly when we are inside Clay's massive estate, but at the same time, it never feels like too much. For all its beautiful shot sets ups and exotic locations, the focus is very much on the characters and their plight. There's style here to be sure, but not at the expense of substance.

It'll come as a surprise to no one to note that the performances here are very strong across the board. Norman Eshley is quite good as the sailor, he has a bit of a sad-sack vibe about him, at least initially, that suits the part and the predicament that the character eventually finds himself in. Jeanne Moreau is a great choice for the woman scorned, bringing to the role she's cast in an intensity that rivals her beauty. She's a very striking looking woman with very piercing eyes and Kurant's camerawork occasionally captures this in some very memorable shots. Roger Coggio's part is interesting. He seems to be in servitude at times, but then, there are scenes of dialogue between he and Clay that alludes to more. Of course, Welles himself is a powerhouse. His voice is so instantly identifiable and so powerful that even the calmer moments of dialogue have an admirable strength to them. His take on Clay is impressive and memorable and he does very fine work in front of the camera.

This doesn't move at a particularly rapid pace and it isn't really all that concerned with realism, but as a filmed parable it is quite interesting and very well made.

The DVD:

Video:

The Immortal Story arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in a ‘new, restored 4K digital transfer of the English-language version of the film." Framed at 1.66.1 and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition on a 50GB disc, the movie looks really strong here. Some scenes are a little flat and there are a few sequences where colors look a tad under-pronounced but otherwise this is clean and very nicely detailed. This is a pleasingly film like presentation. There's plenty of grain but not to the point of distraction, but there's very little actual print damage outside of a couple of minor specks here and there. Black levels are pretty solid, there's impressive depth and texture and skin tones look quite good here too.

Sound:

The film receives an English language LPCM Mono audio track. Optional closed captioning is provided in English only. This single channel mix is limited in range and depth by the original recording but it sounds just fine. The dialogue is clean, clear and easy to follow and the track is free of any audible hiss or distortion. The score has a bit of impressive power to it in a few key scenes and the track is properly balanced from start to finish.

Extras:

The main extra on the disc is the inclusion of the ‘Alternate French Language' version of the film that runs about eight minutes shorter than the original cut of the picture. This cut is also presented in AVC encoded 1080p with identical 1.66.1 framing. The French language audio track is presented in LPCM mono and optional subtitles are provided in English only. Presentation quality is incredibly close to that seen in the English version, so again we get a very nice transfer of the material with solid audio. This is more of a curio than anything else, but it's an interesting inclusion here, particularly when you consider that it was originally intended for French television. The shorter running time would seem to be because some of the opening footage showing off the locations has been trimmed and some of the dialogue sequences between Charles Clay and the Levinsky have been truncated.

The disc also includes an audio commentary that was originally recorded in 2005 for the Australian DVD release with film scholar Adrian Martin. Available only over the English language version of the movie, this is a welcome addition to this release as it does a great job of covering how and why this quirky entry in Welles' filmography exists in the first place. Martin also covers the cast's work in front of the camera, the locations employed for the production, how Welles' came to make this project and what it would seem to have meant to him and some details on the literary source that inspired the picture. This is a nicely detailed track with a lot of great information in it.

Moving on to the featurettes, we get a forty-three minute documentary entitled Portrait: Orson Welles. Made in 1968 by directors François Reichenbach and Frédéric Rossif this is made up of various interview clips where Welles, speaking in French (with English subtitles), discusses his work as a filmmaker. New to this release is a fourteen minute interview with actor Norman Eshley, who played the sailor in the film. This was an early role for him before he went on to become quite prolific as a television actor. Here he talks quite candidly about working with a director of Welles' stature, his thoughts on the man's style, his experiences on set and how he feels about this project years after it was finished. Also on hand is an interview from 2004 with cinematographer Willy Kurant that runs fifteen minutes. This piece offers up some interesting technical information about shooting the film for Welles, what it was like collaborating with the man on the film, what he was involved with on set and a fair bit more. Also exclusive to this release is a new interview with Welles scholar François Thomas that runs approximately twenty-five minutes. This piece is quite interesting as it provides some welcome background information on how Welles became so enamored with the source material, why he wanted to make this film in the firsts place, a bit of background information on writer Karen Blixen (who wrote under the alias of Isak Dinesen), some information on how this film contrasts and compares with other Welles projects and more.

Included inside the clear Blu-ray case along with the disc is a color insert booklet that contains an essay on the film by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum along with some credits and information on the technical presentation.

Final Thoughts:

While it seems unlikely that The Immortal Story will ever garner the critical accolades afforded some of Welles' other, better known films it is certainly a picture with a lot of merit. The direction is tight and the performances are excellent across the board. The Criterion Collection has rolled out the red carpet for this one, making up for the feature's short running time by including an interesting alternate version and a very nice collection of additional extra features. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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