The Robe - Special Edition Blu-ray Review
Restored by Lowry Digital, the people currently scrubbing-up the Bond movies, The Robe's MPEG-4 transfer does Fox proud. Presented here in its 2.55:1 aspect, from its original anamorphic source (the film was also released in 2.20:1 for 70mm Roadshow print), the image is actually spectacular. Where Quo Vadis suffered from some slight mis-alignment in its colour strips from time to time, The Robe is wonderfully consistent in the transfer of its glorious Technicolor palette. Bear in mind, though, that The Robe was shot with single-strip Technicolor and not the more resplendent three-strip variation that fired-up the likes of Quo Vadis. Some say that this gives the film a more natural look, but I was still blown away by it. Immediately ravishing in its display of a vibrant spectrum, it is extremely doubtful that the film has looked this good since its initial theatrical run. Any previous home video release of the motion picture is now rendered useless in comparison to this. Colour correction has taken place, but I'm assuming that with the likes of Lowry performing the miracles found herein, this has been totally approved. In fact, the film looks nothing short of stunning from start to finish.
Midnight blues are awesome, reds are raw, bold and vivid, with blood and the robe, itself, incredibly well etched. Greens, oranges and yellows are equally as splendid - the little lanterns of flame have a soothing amber blend and the slave market, Tiberius' chamber and the final trial in the courtroom of Caligula exhibit wild combinations of rich colour, texture and hue. Shadow play is spot-on and black levels are never compromised, as evidenced by the terrific scenes set down in the catacombs beneath Rome or Demetrius' search for Jesus through the streets. They are not inky, however.
Detail is wonderful. There is much more on display than I have ever seen before in this movie, the difference between this and prior versions (I have not seen the new restored SD version that was released alongside this BD from the same source, though) is literally night and day. Now, we have glorious textures in the sand, in the wood of barns and dwellings etc, in the costumes and in the rough stone walls. We can now easily see the pockmarked skin on Burton's face and the intricate patterns on the armour of bronze and leather or the blue sequins on Diana's gown, and the palatial décor is much more pronounced and vivid than ever before, with even the cool veins in the marble pillars more keenly revealed. I'm not kidding when I say that this is the kind of image that you yearn for with these older classics. DNR, which I'm sure has been applied, has been governed superbly and the tool used wisely. You see any waxy faces here, folks, and I'm afraid that it is down to Hollywood make-up artists and nothing else. Certain scenes are worthy of individual praise. The detail of the rain lashing Demetrius' face when he tears the robe from Marcellus is immediately apparent, making the image strong, vital and vivid. Lightning flashes are bright and the powerful lighting that ignites the scene at the foot of the three crosses is beautifully conveyed. The mist that pervades the dockside farewell with Diana is smooth and tangible, the little lanterns providing a genuine warmth. Equally, the reunion of the two lovers on the cliff-top provides an absolutely gorgeous vista of blue seas with very clear streams and channels visible in the coastal surf. And this scene is as good as any to mention the infamous backdrops that so many like to bemoan. Yes, they are obvious, folks - the city of Jerusalem as seen from the crucifixion site, particularly - but I love them. They are genuine works of art. The fact that they seem more overt in 1080p is no detriment whatsoever. As I said in the main review, this is all part and parcel of the intense, semi-surreal atmosphere that pervades the movie and, as such, I believe that they look better in hi-def.
The transfer does not suffer undue edge enhancement. Smearing does not occur and there are no banding or artefact issues. Some vague elements of contrast and colour shimmies at the point of scene changes still happen on occasion, but this is the sort of thing that tends to creep into vintage colour movies no matter what the level of restoration they have received - and it is certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of this video transfer. Original source damage has been almost completely eradicated. No spots, flecks, burns or lines appear and the image is blissfully stable throughout. Grain is intact and although it is consistent throughout, it is relatively light, seen most prominently, perhaps, against blue skies. Noise may be spotted but this poses absolutely no problem. The old anamorphic lenses, though, mean that some background elements can still appear soft, and that old bugbear of slightly squashed right and left frame extremities can still be seen - Centurion Paulus leading his detachment of troops out of Cana, for example, has some obvious distortion at the far right of the image.
But, altogether, this is an excellent transfer, folks. Vivid, colourful and detailed.
Although Fox have brought over the film's original 4-channel mix, which is also apparently on the new SD special edition release, I preferred the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track. Sounding both clearer and louder, this makes for a reasonably vigorous experience. It may not be as adrenalised and bombastic as more elaborate modern-day mixes, but there is definitely plenty of life and vitality to it. Voices have some bite to them, although directionality across the front can be very slightly awkward at times - some off-screen voice steerage sounding a tad hollow and stagey. There really isn't any emphatic sub activity to speak of, although there is a fairly constant bass presence that lends weight to the score and the thunderous moments of ominous anger from the Heavens. The wagon/horse chase towards the end is also bolstered with some degree of power.
There has been some considerable restoration with the audio tracks, with the terrific removal of any hiss or crackling, both tracks sounding clean and polished. Certainly the score now has a vibrancy that is simply electrifying. Play it loud and savour those keening high strings, the sonorous weight of the brass and the percussion and revel in the almost Korngold-style action fanfare when Marcellus leads the rescue of Demetrius. High ends and choral passages are clean and no longer shrill or prone to that vintage warbling that dampened them down. Even the beating of the cunning, two-faced Galilean guide, Abidor, sounds more emphatic - his pitiful screaming combined with Marcellus' slaps ripping forth with more power and clarity.
Surround activity is not a high priority, but there are still plenty of effects emanating from back there. Atmospherics and ambience, mainly, with some terrific lightning and thunder lending vigour to the crucifixion sequence and even the earlier moment when a “certain” stranger tells Demetrius his name and the Heavens ripple out their fury. The market scene near the start is also a little more fleshed-out in terms of detail and presence. The score is buoyed by the rears on occasion, too. Action sounds quite good and not as hollow as many soundtracks from this period can seem. The big fight sequence has some deliciously clanging swords and a really solid Krump!! when Paulus' blade cleaves through a stone wall. The ghostly clanging of the nails into Christ also comes over pretty well.
On the whole, I was more than satisfied with the audio presentation. The new lossless mix delivers everything I hoped it would, within reason and adds a great dimension to the movie experience.
Well, The Robe is certainly blessed in the extras department, too, Fox truly going the distance with this title. Not only do we get a commentary, a making of, galleries and featurettes, but we also gain two PiP tracks and Newman's ravishing score isolated in DTS-HD MA, in its entirety. Fans of the film really won't feel short-changed by any of this, either, as the respect and love for the movie positively shines through.
Things commence with a short Introduction by Martin Scorcese, who has a minute to inform us of the magnificent restoration job that had been done on the film, and of his own experience of first seeing it on the big screen.
Then we get a party chat-track from film historians and commentary-regulars Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, but in this case, they are joined by film-score composer, David Newman, who is the son of the great Alfred Newman, composer of the music for The Robe. Whilst the emphasis is on the score and its power and beauty, on Alfred Newman's career and forward-thinking innovative style, and on film music in general, the quartet manage to discuss the actors, the film-makers and the Cinemascope process as well. The chat feels warm and amiable, with each participant supplying plenty of information and trivia and revealing a true fondness for the movie. David Newman is good value even if his enthusiastic approach often traps him down the end of a path of stutters, stammers and stumbles and can even see him losing direction (just like me on our Podcasts, I should probably add!). Being a score lover, and a major fan of this score in particular, I revelled in this commentary, but I can appreciate that others not so enamoured by movie music would possibly want more a bit diversity.
Newman's score, such an integral part of the film's success, is awarded its own isolated track which, in rich, flowing lossless 5.1, can be heard in its entirety. Varese Sarabande's CD release only contains just over half of the score and it is a real treat to now have the full composition in restored glory. And, unlike that CD (which replicates Decca's original album release that Newman produced a month after actually scoring the picture), this track does away with the sound effects of rain and thunder and Christ's spoken words from the cross. Pay particular attention to the cues for “Farewell To Diana”, “The Carriage Of The Cross - The Crucifixion”, “Marcellus Returns To Capri” and “The Catacombs”. Excellent stuff, with good fidelity and instrument separation.
Departing from the film's SD special edition, Fox bestows the Blu-ray incarnation with a raft of new gubbins, plus a couple of great PiP tracks that take us even further in the film's world. Both Profile 1.1, the first, called The Robe Times Two, is quite a clever little piece that allows you to view the movie in its “flat”, or standard version in a box-out whilst the Cinemascope edition plays. Not as boring, or as unnecessary as you might think, this gives you a clear comparison of the two filming techniques, revealing slightly different emphasis and a tighter visual style in the “flat” format than its widescreen counterpart. Set-ups were different and the editing was far less languid, reining the film in a lot more and actually producing a different flow. Along with altered camera angles and a subtle change in performances, this makes for a fascinating new slant on the accepted classic, as well as pointing out what a radical development Cinemascope really was. With some explanations about these differences and their relevance from historians Aubrey Solomon and the ubiquitous Rudy Behlmer, this is an excellent feature that is well worth your time.
The we get a second Bonusview PiP track, A Seamless Faith: The Real Life Search For The Robe, offers us ten themed featurettes that can also be accessed separately from the interactive option. These featurettes - Inspiration, The Clothes of Christ, Clothing in Biblical Times, Clothes of a King, A Seamless Garment, The Robe on Page and Screen, The Robe and Politics, The Robe in Our World, The Robe in France and Russia, and History vs. Drama - take a justifiably religious angle and probe, via talking heads, clips, photographs and artwork, the myths and legends that surround the Biblical robe and the history of this period. Once again, even for a non-believer, this is compelling, detailed and intriguing.
Three more features that are unique to this BD release dive even more deeply into the concepts of the Biblical epic - why they made such a fabulous a story-ripe genre in the first place and how they ultimately lost favour - in the nattily titled “From Scripture to Script: The Bible and Hollywood” (25 mins); the technical innovation that took the motion picture industry by storm in the wake of The Robe in the excellent and highly detailed “The Cinemascope Story” (19 mins); and, in a terrific move, a frank and engrossing “Audio Interview with Screenwriter Philip Dunne” from 1969 (22 mins) that dissects the film - a gig that he only took on-board as a favour to Fox - and the whole process of wrestling a much-loved and successful novel into an audience-friendly viewing experience. Personally, as much as I love the movie, I think the screenplay makes a great many mistakes, but Dunne states his case, and the inherent difficulties the production faced, admirably.
The Making Of The Robe lasts for 31 minutes and is presented in HD. Doing a fine job of charting the history of how the movie finally came before the cameras after a decade of behind-the-scenes turbulence, we learn of the studios that were involved and the cast that almost was. Victor Mature's strange ways are discussed, although, thankfully, due praise for vastly underrated performance is paid. The difficult time in which the film was made - the blacklisted Hollywood Ten and the notion that a lot of screenplays were deliberately featuring coded metaphors for the McCarthyist regime - is a major point of interest, with the film's screenwriter suffering the ignominy of not being recognised for his work in co-adapting Douglas' original novel with Philip Dunne, for over forty years. To be honest, as good as this documentary is, I would have liked to have heard more about Burton and Simmons, although we do get to meet Jay Robinson (Caligula), who provides some nice anecdotes about his transition from stage to the big screen with making this picture.
There is an abundance of black-and-white and colour stills in an extensive production gallery, and the original 20-page press book is also made available under the banner of Advertising The Robe. Plus, we get to see various Posters and a selection of lobby cards, but a great little bonus are the Celebrity Introductions that did the rounds at the time of the film's release, with brief promotional ads from Fox contract players Robert Wagner, Dan Dailey, Richard Widmark, Clifton Webb and the lovely Susan Hayward all plugging the new movie sensation. And this is not all - we also get some archival footage of the film's premier, the new miracle of Cinemascope and associated Movietone News Clips, lasting for 6 minutes.
Oh, and a couple of trailers for the movie.
Every facet of the film's conception, production, impact and technical innovation seems to have been addressed with this comprehensive package. Excellent stuff.
The Robe is an excellent movie that rips through the fabric of what became known as the “Biblical Epic” and subverts the concept from ecclesiastical to an ominous hinterland that exists somewhere between the psychological and the paranormal. The sheer power of some of its scenes is viciously profound. The matte-painted backdrops - as obvious as they are - become a thing of beauty, ensuring that the visual feel of the film becomes something rather surreal and fantastical. With a score from Alfred Newman that possibly redirected movie-music in general - after the likes of Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann (whom Newman would collaborate with on The Egyptian), Miklos Rozsa and Alexander Korngold had already taken the medium on evolutionary bounds - and some electrifying moments of shock, awe and revelation, Henry Koster's film is an example of Hollywood's ability to provide an experience that is both sensory and emotional. As such, the historical importance of The Robe cannot be overstated. The first full mainstream movie shot in CinemaScope and the first time that audiences had their eyes not so much opened, as their vision broadened.
Burton hams it up, which is only to be expected, but still inhabits the role of Marcellus with nothing short of a theatrically “English” conviction that brings the character to life with heightened vigour. Mature does everything he can and should be applauded for confounding his critics with some devastating moments of devout characterisation. Simmons, admittedly, doesn't have to do much to get a thumbs-up from me. She is, typically, adorable. And the rest of the cast, better or worse, are always interesting, at the very least. And it is great to see so many horror and Sci-Fi faces cropping up in the Biblical cooking-pot, too.
Fox's BD adds some terrific extras to the package, with great kudos going to the two PiP tracks, the commentary and the isolated score. This is certainly a well-stocked and very comprehensive addition to any classic film-fan's collection - the icing on the cake being the fabulous transfer. At the time of writing, the clock has just turned over into Easter Sunday - an incredibly apt occasion for this movie. I wouldn't mind betting that The Robe is to be broadcast on some channel or other - but I can assure you that it won't look or sound as good as this.
Inescapably flawed, but still brilliant, The Robe comes highly recommended.
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