Midnight Express Blu-ray Review
With the same transfer as its American counterpart, Sony's MPEG-4 encode delivers Midnight Express's 1.85:1 image with a virtually flawless print that retains its grain - albeit not heavily - and does not seem to betray any hint of undue DNR having been applied. Certainly when compared to an earlier R2 copy that I have, this is a very definite improvement in terms of detail, depth and clarity.
The film has a deliberately subdued palette. Parker favours a dusty, desaturated scheme that is high on bright, glaring sunny whites, and keen to play up the sweaty, yellow stained squalor of the setting. This is a film that genuinely feels hot and clammy. The celluloid, itself, appears tainted in human brine and clouded with perspiration. Skin tones vary according to the character - ruddy for some, sickly yellow for others - but all appear perfectly natural to me. Once again, the atmosphere is distinctly cloying and tanned faces don't look healthy, they look jaundiced from poor hygiene and malnutrition. Clothing is obviously shorn of all individuality, prison inmate garb or prison guard ... that's really your lot. But this drab aesthetic makes for a dry visual sense that denies much of vitality to shine through. Of course, this is all intentional. Even the more colourful scenes for the airport or the streets of Istanbul lack much intensity, the sun having bled them dry. This suits the film and its desired look and style. Blood is thick and dark, eyes do not gleam.
Detail, as I have said, is definitely improved. Skin pores can be seen - not all the time, but close-ups are very definitely sharper and more vivid. Material can reveal its texture when called upon. Hair, faces and wounds are brought into a deeper, closer light that is fine when we are gazing upon Irene Miracle (though perhaps not as lustfully demented as Brad's Billy Hayes does ... but, then again ...) but not so welcome when it is poor Max, the spit 'n' grizzle of Rifki or the sweat-flood that is Paul Smith's Hamoud. And, speaking of sweat, every drop now looks more detailed and apparent. As does the mouldy old mortar that Billy, Jimmy and Max tease out of the wall-blocks, and the wood-grain that is behind the three judges in the courtroom, or the cracked, decayed masonry of the cells. However, this is still a soft looking film when compared many others. It lacks the visual bite of more recent fare, but it makes up for this with an utterly convincing look that you can almost taste.
Contrast is accurate for the type of image that is intended. Outside it is often hazy and stifling, unclean and unpleasant. Inside, we have deep black shadows that look terrific some of the time, yet, at others, can seem a little washed-out and vague - such as in the madhouse during the final act. Sometimes, such as during Billy's upended welcome-to-prison beating, the blacks can actually look a tad overdone, perhaps even crushing some detail within. Night-time scenes are generally quite stable though and, overall, I don't doubt that this is precisely how the film appeared when it was released.
Edge enhancement is on show during a handful of shots and scenes but not to much of a detrimental degree, and whilst artefacts can be seen, though they are rare. Digital noise is not a problem at all. The image looks robust and steady in the main, with some definite elements of enhanced depth due to the high definition transfer. Some of the corridors, the dank, fetid tunnels beneath the prison, the courtroom halls and certain pivotal shots - such as Max first seeing what has been done to his cat - look terrific, the transfer capturing the great compositions and offering a level of three-dimensionality that, whilst not great compared to many other films on BD, is miles better than Midnight Express has ever experienced on home video before.
A strong 7 out of 10.
It is nice that Midnight Express has received a lossless audio makeover, but it is debatable just how much it actually needed one.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that has been supplied is, thankfully, largely unobtrusive in terms of bogus surround activity. Where it wins out, however, over the original mono track that is also supplied, is in greater clarity and a more rounded presence that affords a little degree of welcome dimensionality, greater resonance to Moroder's score and a much more immediately aggressive presentation.
Sadly, there really isn't a great deal to either wax lyrical, or rally against with this audio track. Dialogue is clean and intelligible for the most part, with only a few hushed or background comments failing to properly register, though they are probably meant to sound that way. In much the same fashion as we are not supplied any subtitles for the numerous foreign speaking parts, this helps the feeling of place and setting, having us clutch, alongside Billy, for every word, every intonation. The original mono track, although I must confess I didn't stick with it all the way through, seemed to suffer from the same thing as well.
Whilst most of the audio is expressed via the front and centre, there is some rear support, though it is sporadic and restrained. We get some added bustle in the streets and bazaars of Istanbul - cars, babble, chicken squawks and whatnot - and the airport activity, particularly when the police and the military surround Billy and cock their weapons, but there really isn't much to describe. Beyond the off-camera shriek of Max's cat and the nice thunk! of a head against a clothes-peg, the violence of the film packs more of a visual and emotional wallop than it does the sonic approach. What I will say is that Georgio Moroder's synth-score has a fair bit more weight and presence to it in the lossless track than it does on the original mono. It throbs with more power, glistens a little more brightly and there are even times when its hypnotic blanket of gleaming electro-melodies reach as far as the rear speakers.
But this is still a predominately quiet and reserved film, sound-wise, despite its harsh and angry content. The inclusion of newly mixed lossless surround track may irritate some purists, but they need not worry. This is a cleaned-up, richer and more enjoyable variation that does nothing haphazard to ruin the original design. And, hey, it's great to have the choice - so, a 7 out of 10 from me.
Surprisingly, the very brief contemporary making-of featurette (7 mins) - carried by “Portentous Voice-over Man” - is actually really good value. What this does is bring in the real Billy Hayes to speak about the film adaptation of his account and even pack him off to the Malta film set to get his seal of approval for Parker's attention to detail. The authenticity actually ends up giving him the heebie-jeebies. Just one look at the extras in their prison garb is almost enough to have him scaling the walls.
But the three-part retrospective is the real treasure in the chest. Literally chronicling the movie in its three tumultuous phases - The Producers, The Production and then the Finished Film, detailing its critical reception - this ropes in Peter Guber, David Puttnam, Alan Marshall, Oliver Stone, Alan Parker, and even Billy Hayes, who all give frank and candid background to a tale that they all agreed was too important not to tell. Some fascinating anecdotes are revealed, such as Guber's battles with the studio over the film's upsetting theme and, especially, the ending, Puttnam's screening-room tussle with a projectionist who got the reels mixed up, the bizarre lengths that Puttnam had to go to prove to the suits that Brad Davis wasn't cross-eyed, and the on-set Method eccentricities of the actor - and how John Hurt would take the mickey out of them. Whilst Guber seems determined to tell us about his status and the companies that he was involved in at the time, over and over again, his cohorts are wonderful at giving us the low-down on this important and very brave production. John Hurt provides some chuckles and all agree that the young, and unproven Oliver Stone was a creative whirlwind of energy. Stone, himself, admits - as, indeed, they all do at some point or another - that if they made the film today they would probably alter its supposedly anti-Turkish tone.
It is an excellent and pretty compelling chronicle of the film's genesis and production and how artistic intent and creative bravery will trounce the unthinking, unfeeling money-men every single time.
Although hardly overstuffed with extras, this making of is exemplary and thoroughly entertaining. But the disc goes a little further with the commentary from Alan Parker, that weaves in and out of much of the details learned in the documentary and laces in some more specific and frank reminiscences. He spends a fair amount of time during the pre-prison sequences telling us which shots were filmed in Valletta and which were actually in Istanbul, but once Billy is incarcerated we get to hear more about the actors and the set-design (or rather the fact that there wasn't much that needed to be done to the fantastic fortress location to make it fit the bill). He tells us about the over-zealous nature of Paul Smith, who could never quite grasp the idea that he was not supposed to really hurt his fellow actors, how Brad Davis got so totally into his “zone” that he terrified the crew during the filming of his big crazy scene, and how the actor dreaded the equally infamous nut-house visit he has with a very daring Irene Miracle. It is all good stuff, and although Parker has a slow, quite repetitive manner about him, the track is certainly worthwhile.
Things are rounded-off with BD-Live functionality, a couple of trailers and, better still, a 12-minute photo gallery of stills from the film and the production, itself. Set to Moroder's haunting score, this is a nice visual tribute to Parker's revolutionary movie.
Harrowing, disturbing and unforgettable it may be, but Alan Parker's Midnight Express is also supremely entertaining. As John Hurt's acid-drop con so aptly puts it, “This is not Stalag Luft”, but as with all the best prison sagas, the atmosphere is forged via the small victories, the tense subterfuge and the camaraderie-under-pressure that the system creates. However, the evocation of such a hellish prison and the almost demonic captors that lord over it is often the stuff of nightmares - the stripping away of all rights and dignity, the incessant beatings, the sweat-soaked taint of violent violation and, grimmest of all, the eerie, shambling treadmill procession of the nut-house. But it is in the finer details that the film excels - the tragic nuances of Hurt's feeble Max; the frantic escape-obsession of Quaid's surly Jimmy Booth; the tightening grip around the emotional necks of all within. Yet the one vital element that glues the whole ordeal together is the raw and moving performance from Brad Davis. The screenplay takes some of the reality into another dimension, but it is always Davis who makes it believable with a stark, laid-bare portrayal of fear, rage, madness and gut-wrenching trauma.
Parker's searing drama makes its way to Blu-ray with an image that is a definite lift from any previous version that I have seen on home video. The addition of its original mono audio mix is another nice bonus, but the fabulous 3-part making-of and Parker's commentary seal the deal. Midnight Express is provocative, powerful and pretty much essential.
Catch it now.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99
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