Immersed in Blu-ray: The Criterion Colonel Blimp

Criterion’s new Blu-ray of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, is a revelation in HD and another must-own from the team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger.

Andrew Sarris was right: Colonel Blimp (1943) is the Citizen Kane of British films (and Molly Haskell has provided an impassioned essay in the booklet). The depth of emotion is unsurpassed in the Powell & Pressburger canon. The enduring friendship between Roger Livesey’s Clive Wynne-Candy and Anton Walbrook’s Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff is extraordinarily moving, and the recurring image of Deborah Kerr as Candy’s romantic ideal is surreal. No wonder it was Pressburger’s personal favorite — the structural complexity is the stamp of a writer’s film and Kretschmar-Schuldorff was fashioned after himself. And it was important to Powell as well: he was in love with Kerr and the outcome of World War II was still very much in doubt, yet the humanity on display transcends geographical boundaries and political disputes. Like all Powell & Pressburger films, it is uncommonly romantic.

There are so many delights, including the lead-up to the duel introducing the eventual best friends (the way the camera pulls out of the gym is very Kane-like and the wispy snowfall inspired the look of the snow in Hugo). But my favorite is Kretschmar-Schuldorff’s impassioned plea to seek refuge in England, the home of his wife and a place of happier memories.

Criterion used the same digital master from the Film Foundation’s 2012 4K restoration as ITV on its recent Blu-ray release. The restoration was carried out by the BFI, ITV Studio’s Global Ent., and Criterion all collaborating with the Academy Film Archive and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive, supervised the restoration with additional guidance and technical expertise from Schawn Belston, VP of Library and Technical Services for Fox Home Ent.

One of the problems of the restoration was that the circular film had been cut for the original release and even put into chronological order for the U.S. release. The reconstruction of the missing sections involved scanning fine grains as well as the original three-strip camera negatives. This was carried out both at Reliance MediaWorks and Point 360 in the U.S. Following the scanning, the digital work was carried out at Reliance in LA, where the team spent many hours cleaning up dirt and scratches and painstakingly reconstructing the missing elements from the scanned fine grains to bring it back to the full 163-minute version.

Like The Red Shoes, they encountered mold damage on the nitrate camera negatives along with shrinkage, and mis-registration of the three color strips causing softness and fringing around the images and color breathing. The digital color correction was carried out at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging by Ray Grabowski, the same colorist who worked on the acclaimed Red Shoes restoration in 2008. The use of Technicolor is a very important component of the film and the results are quite stunning.

“Every time I revisit The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which is once or twice a year, it grows — it becomes richer,” recalls  Scorsese. “With every passing interval of time — and that’s what the film is about, after all — it seems to have become more resonant, more moving, more profound. I’m fascinated by the unusual choices of Powell and Pressburger, and by the storytelling. You could say that it’s the epic of an ordinary life. And what you retain from this epic is an overpowering sense of warmth and love and friendship, of shared humor and tenderness, and a lasting impression of the most eloquent sadness.”

New bonus features include a video intro by Scorsese, a Profile doc, and interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, who told me how much she adores the film. She reveres how surprise and subtlety are on display everywhere from the use of Technicolor to the way the story unfolds. Livesey’s makeup and his performance as an old war horse astound her; She says Kerr was never more ravishing and spunky. And Schoonmaker sees something new every time she revisits the film. But like me, her favorite moment is Walbrook’s unforgettable soliloquy. And she credits editor Reginald Mills for helping it glide by so quickly and effortlessly.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Blu-ray, Clips, Movies, Tech

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