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Tuesday Morning Foreign Blu-ray Disc Report: “The Black Shield of Falworth” (Rudolph Maté, 1954)

Over the weekend My Lovely Wife and I attended a delightful barbecue in scenic Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The hosts and most of the guests were all normal people—that is, not critics. Save for one, an uncle of one of the hosts, a fairly well-known and well-regarded (mostly) literary critic with whom I'm on pretty friendly terms. Truth to tell, C., as I'll call him, still kind of intimidates me a bit. Thus, I sat on my cute little pet theory that Edmund White's City Boy and Patti Smith's Just Kids are such apt companion pieces that they may well be two sides of the same coin, on discovering that while C. adored Patti's book just as I did, he positively loathed White's memoir. Things got a little touchier when film entered the conversation. Turns out C. hates Preminger—except he only knows the post-Advise and Consent '60s stuff. Rather than argue too emphatically about the visual beauty of The Cardinal (how I wish I had been able to pull Chris Fujiwara out from behind our host's meat smoker!), I instead insisted that one couldn't judge Preminger based on Hurry, Sundown (!), and steered C. to the likes of Fallen Angel and Whirlpool, politely requesting he check with me after he'd checked them out.

A little while later, Sirk's name came up, and C. said something along the lines of "Ugh. I like him even less than I like Preminger." Having rather exhausted myself in defense of Sirk just a few weeks ago, and not wanting to potentially spoil the digestion of the magnificent home-smoked ribs I was soon to tuck into, I swallowed my mute astonishment. A little while later, having recovered my composure a bit, and feeling somehow emboldened, I asked C. his opinion of Max Ophüls.

"Him I like," C. said confidently. "Everything except that last one...Lola Montes."


"Really? have you seen the..."

"...Restoration they did recently? Yeah..."

"I mean, Martine Carol is kind of the weak link," I sputtered.

"I just find it boring," C. sighed. You can't really argue with that. And I wasn't really there to argue.

"I really do love widescreen and color, though," I said, in a last-ditch attempt at I don't even know what. "Particularly Technicolor."

"Well, yeah," C. said, nodding. "But that's almost like a fetish, isn't it?"

He had me there. And he wasn't even being snarky about it. I felt he almost understood, even if he couldn't bring himself to approve.

The fetish for Technicolor and the fetish for widescreen are two different fetishes that often combine in the mind and heart of the cinephile. Like peanut butter and chocolate, they're two great tastes that taste great together. Among other things, they provide fodder for argument about technical minutiae the likes of which could conceivably make a NASA engineer's head spin. They provide potential grails for collectors of both film and video. I remember back in the day, word was on the street that the best Technicolor image available on laser disc (once upon a time the preferred home vid format for cinephiles) was reputed to be on a Japanese import disc of 1948's The Adventures of Don Juan, a Warner production starring a nearly past-his-prime Errol Flynn and Viveca Lindfors. The film was/is decent enough light adventure in the studio's longstanding tradition, but hardly a Robin Hood, but who cared, because, like I said, the Japanese disc, burned-in subtitles and all, had a spectacular Technicolor look. Similarly, while Fox Home Entertainment recently did a swell job of smartening up the Technicolor for a new DVD of Busby Berkeley's immortal The Gang's All Here, I and a few others still salivate at the memory of the then-new IB print of the film that screened at the Cinecon over Labor Day weekend, 1993. As for widescreen, don't even get me started. Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night can suffer a farrago of humiliation if he slips up and confuses Technirama with VistaVision.

Which brings me, finally, to the subject of this entry. The film itself is known, if at all, to most people as the film in which a supposedly medieval Tony Curtis intoned, in perfect Brooklynese*, "Yonda lies da castle of my fodda." But to widescreen/Technicolor fetishists, it's known as Universal's very first Cinemascope feature...and it's in Technicolor, too. It's not, as a line on the back cover of the excellent U.K. Eureka! Blu-ray disc of the film says, "the very first Cinemascope film in Technicolor"...The Robe and How To Marry A Millionaire preceeded it.

Nor is Black Shield, as it happens, a film in which Tony Curtis says "Yonda lies the castle of my fodda." If he were to have said it in this film, he would have had to have said it in the screen cap of the shot above, which in fact brings to mind the punchline of the "Camelot" number in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that is, "It's only a model!"  (Or, in this case, a matte painting.) In any event, he doesn't say anything of the sort, in part because for the most part the plot of the film obliges him to not talk too much about his dad. You see, while the characters played by Curtis and Barbara Rush seem to be genuine peasants, and were in fact raised as such, in reality they are...really kind of important in England, or something. And they have to keep their true identities under wraps while Curtis' character trains to be a knight

I honestly can't really tell you much about the plot of The Black Shield of Falworth because, for as many times as I have looked at this beautiful Blu-ray, which is playable on machines worldwide, I've never paid a whole lot of attention to the plot, or the acting. The picture is briskly directed by the former cinematographer Rudolph (The Passion of Joan of Arc! Gilda! The Lady From Shanghai!) Maté, who also helmed some very decent Westerns (The Violent Men, Three Violent People) and a sui generis tearjerker (Miracle in the Rain) during this period. Nevertheless, when watching this I just can't focus on what actually happens. Instead, each shot works on me like an abstract painting, and some particular detail, or cluster of details (the white and gold shine of Janet Leigh's head gear, the color of her lips, and her plunging neckline, in the screen cap at the top of the page, for instance) transfixes me.

Yup. A fetish. And a fetish object. As so many DVDs and Blu-ray discs can be. And why the hell not?

*A friend points out that Curtis hails from the Bronx, not Brooklyn. This is true. And yet, the nasality and enunciation seem to say Flatbush Avenue more than Arthur Avenue. I admit that I don't make as much of a study of this as I ought to, living where I do. I have a slightly older friend who recently took in the latest Broadway production of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge; his sole complaint was that the accents used by the actors were more Bensonhurst than Red Hook.

Bloom, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn? ’Bout to get his snack on with a plate of ribs? Oh, I hope so. That would be dope. One hitch: I don’t make Bloom for Patti Smith.
I wouldn’t put it above our good man Glenn to not know Harold Bloom.

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