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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Executioner: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
The Executioner: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // October 25, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted October 23, 2016 | E-mail the Author

Luis García Berlanga's The Executioner (AKA Not On Your Life, 1963) is widely regarded in most foreign film circles as the best Spanish film ever made; that's quite a lofty statement, but the film's unlikely release during Francisco Franco's lengthy dictatorship cements its status as a brilliant black comedy that crept in under the radar. A scathing critique of the death penalty by way of a lighthearted farce, our story revolves around affable undertaker José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi) and his dreams of being a mechanic. He's a lonely man who still lives with his older brother Antonio (José Luis López Vázquez) and is unable to get dates because of his morbid occupation...but everything changes once he meets Amadeo (José Isbert), an aging executioner with more than 40 years of experience.

José Luis becomes quickly attracted to Amadeo's charming daughter Carmen (Emma Penella), who suffers from the same social hang-up and returns his affections almost immediately. Once things get a little more serious, José Luis is inadvertently roped into taking over Amadeo's "business"...and try as he might, The Executioner pulls its protagonist, kicking and screaming, into his first (and possibly only) day on the job. It's a perfect downward spiral for the hapless man, who's forced to closely examine what many people casually accept from behind closed doors.

Even on the surface, The Executioner plays just fine as an off-center comedy; one with overlapping perspectives, noisy conversations, well-timed gallows humor, and terrific characters than don't so much bounce off one another as violently crash. And despite its dark and socially taboo subject matter, writer Rafael Azcona (a long-time collaborator of Berlanga) somehow manages to maintain a light atmosphere almost every step of the way. The main exception is The Executioner's final stretch, punctuated by that kicking and screaming (above) which the director admits to being his initial vision before fleshing out the other 90 minutes. It's a virtually life-changing sequence of events that punctuate the film's gradual tightening as the clock ticks away. Once The Executioner finishes its occasionally subtle but clear message, it's worth watching again almost immediately to pick up on what you missed the first time around. Featuring terrific cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli (who later shot The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America), it's a beautiful film about ugly subject matter.

The Executioner is also an (unfortunately) little-seen film outside of its native Spain, largely because of its absence on Region A/1 home video until now. Thankfully, Criterion delivers a strong package right out of the gate: The Executioner earns a terrific 4K-sourced 1080p transfer and several informative bonus features, which gives die-hard fans and newcomers alike a great reason to finally see this scathing, memorable slice of black comedy.

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this sparkling 1080p transfer of The Executioner (sourced from a new 4K digital transfer which, for now, appears to be exclusive to Criterion's Blu-ray) looks excellent on its Region A/1 home video debut. Black levels are consistently good, image detail and textures are very strong, and the film's light but noticeable grain structure is represented perfectly well from start to finish, which results in an extremely natural, clean, and crisp appearance. No obvious digital imperfections or heavy manipulation (including compression artifacts, interlacing, excessive noise reduction, etc.) could be spotted along the way, aside from a few stray missing frames and very light wear and tear at times. I can't imagine The Executioner looking much better on Blu-ray than it does here, so die-hard fans and newcomers alike should be extremely pleased with Criterion's efforts.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

There's less to say about the Spanish PCM 1.0 track, aside from that it's perfectly adequate and sounds better than expected for a film that's over 50 years old. Dialogue, music cues, and background effects are relatively crisp and clear without fighting for attention, although the high end can't help but sound a little thin on many occasions. Overall, this lossless mono presentation seems true to the source material and purists will appreciate the lack of surround gimmickry. Optional English subtitles are included during the film and extras for translation only.

Menu Design & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" keepcase with terrific cover artwork by illustrator Brian Stauffer. The fold-out Insert Booklet includes an insightful essay by film critic David Cairns and notes about the new restoration.

. .

Bonus Features

Two mid-length documentaries serve as this Blu-ray's primary extras, which definitely gives it a bit of added value. "The Bad Spaniard" (56:39) is the best and longest; this recently made and well-rounded profile of director Luis García Berlanga features interviews with his son José Luis, writers, Fernando R. Lafuente and Bernardo Sánchez Salas, film critic Carlos Heredero, and several others. A 2012 episode of Spanish program La Mitad Invisible ("The Invisible Half", 28:21) includes a few archival interview clips with Berlanga, as well as retrospective comments about the director and his most famous film (which had to undergo a few cuts for censorship's sake, not surprisingly); overall, it does a fine job of reinforcing The Executioner's cultural impact and lasting legacy.

Also included is a very brief Interview with fellow Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (3:56), who goes into modest detail about the The Executioner's meaning and importance to both himself and Spanish culture as a whole. Last but not least is the film's Theatrical Trailer (3:36), which is a bit spoiler-heavy but well worth having. As mentioned earlier, optional English subtitles are included during all applicable extras for translation only.

If you're aware of exactly what The Executioner is really trying to say under the surface, it's an extremely entertaining and important film that works on multiple levels. A perfect downward spiral as our harmless protagonist awaits the execution he's virtually forced to carry out, director Luis García Berlanga's incisive and brilliant critique of the death penalty holds up quite well more than 50 years later. Criterion's terrific and long-overdue Blu-ray marks the film's Region A/1 debut on home video, serving up a flawless 4K-sourced transfer and a handful of mostly recent extras that help cement its place in Spanish pop culture. This is a fairly well-rounded package for a deserving film, and one that should hopefully lead to more releases of the director's work on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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