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Over the last five decades, The Producers has become such a mainstream pop-culture staple, that I think we take for granted the anarchic genius of Mel Brooks' directorial debut. The smash-hit Broadway musical, and the 2005 feature that followed certainly did their best to re-establish 1967 original as a quirky comedy about a duo of kooky characters trying to put on a Broadway musical that's so bad that it's guaranteed to be a flop so they can get away with a scam. The premise alone is so famous that multiple films that followed, like Spike Lee's Bamboozled, tried to rip it off with diminishing returns. It's such a part of our culture that any time someone mentions a tax scheme, The Producers is brought up as a reference.
But let's take ourselves back to the mid-1960s and follow a well-respected comedy writer who gets his first big break to write and direct his own movie. Instead of relying solely on the comedy gold premise of his script, Mel Brooks opts for a tricky and brave tonal approach that can be summarized for lack of a better description as extremely well-timed chaos. As soon as the perpetrators of the scam at the center of the story, the shady producer Max (Zero Mostel) and the neurotic mess of an accountant Leo (Gene Wilder) meet, the sheer energy of their comedic performances shoots up to eleven.
The scenes with Mostel and Wilder are a pulse-pounding joy to watch as they scream, howl, spit, and sometimes even bite each other while coming up with the scam to rob old rich ladies of their inheritance money to finance their "flop". At the hands of a helmer with a less specific vision, such an anarchic direction could have resulted in a series of sequences full of nothing but over-the-top novelty that would immediately overstay its welcome. Instead, Brooks and his two leads create some of the most memorable and in-depth characters in comedy history while never veering away from the sheer silliness and anxiety of their performances.
After the plot's central scheme is established, the second act piles on one legendary character and performance that accompanies it after the other. The titular producers need to find their surefire flop, so they of course go after a comedy musical that worships Hitler, written by an insane Nazi war criminal in-hiding (Kenneth Mars in the performance of his esteemed career). This is followed by a flower child's wet dream of a flower child in the form of the show's lead, the appropriately named LSD (Dick Shawn, who builds upon his aloof surfer dude performance from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). The plot twist of how Max and Leo's scheme unfolds is well-known by now, but the reactions from Mostel and Wilder as they drink their sorrows away while the show is taking place is still worth rediscovery.
Kino advertises a new 4K restoration for this new 1080p transfer, but I couldn't see that much of a difference in clarity or color correction between this release and the previous Blu-ray release from the original studio. This being said, this transfer is aces, as we barely see any film scratches, while we get a healthy amount of grain that doesn't scrub the film's original look to turn into too much of a digital video look. Brooks mostly utilized realistic lighting and colors as he relied on the performances to deliver the laughs, and this transfer captures that vision perfectly.
We get a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 track that's ported from a surround remix that's from almost two decades ago. The track shows great range and clarity and really comes to life once the play within the movie is on display and we hear the glory of "Springtime for Hitler" as if we're amongst the theater audience laughing our butts off.
Commentary by Michael Schlesinger: The filmmaker and film historian provides a surprisingly calm and measured commentary compared to the content of the film itself, giving fans tons of trivia and historical information about the production and the themes of the film.
The Making of The Producers: This is a 65-minute making-of documentary that was included in almost all of the DVD and Blu-ray releases of The Producers, so chances are that you've already seen it. If you haven't, it's essential viewing as it dives deep into the production, with in-depth interviews with Brooks and the cast and crew.
Playhouse Outtake: A deleted scene that extends a climactic sequence in the final cut.
Peter Sellers' Statement: Director Paul Mazursky reads a letter by Sellers praising The Producers.
We also get a Concept Art Gallery, Trailer, and Radio Spot.
The Producers is one of the most influential and important comedies of American film history. But this doesn't mean watching it is akin to eating your cinematic vegetables. The insanity of the performances and Brooks' manic touch that keeps all this anarchy under control still feels fresh and hilarious as it did in 1967.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com