It is a 1080p VC-1 encode that stretches what is, at times, a very appealing 2.40:1 image across the screen. Pale Rider, possibly hinted at with the title, is not a very colourful film, although when splashes of red, green or blue do flash out of the otherwise subdued and earthy palette, they do so with a pleasing degree of vibrancy. There are a lot of greens to be found in the forests and these can vary in both hue and clarity depending upon the sunlight which, as I will discuss, plays a huge factor in how the overall movie, and its subsequent transfer, appears. Skin-tones are fairly natural-looking with really only the unfeasibly cute face of Sydney Penny looking overtly “Hollywoodised”. What is nice is that the nip in the high country air has definitely had an affect upon the cast. When people move on up to town, their faces pale and their noses ruddy-up. Look at John Russell's beak in particular - somebody's sure got the sniffles, haven't they? The scenery possesses a convincing hue at all times, the cold, pale blue skies and the sun-dappled leaves, the muddy squalor of LaHood's mine and the frosted grass of the high plains all effectively rendered.
Since the film, shot entirely on location, is produced using natural light sources, the bright sunlight means heavy shadow and/or squint-inducing glares. Watching Pale Rider's sunnier scenes will leave most of us looking like we're doing Clint Eastwood impersonations. Beneath the brims of hats, faces can be lost in shadow. The interiors of cabins and LaHood's office can be pitched into severe swathes of inky blackness with only the shafts of light from windows, open doorways or lanterns left to illuminate them. The night-time meeting of the good guys around the fire is terrific - check out Clint silhouetted in the background - as there doesn't appear to be anything faked about the lighting as would almost always be the case otherwise, with everyone melding into the murk and only slivers of visages visible. However, this looks tremendous and reveals that contrast is absolutely top-notch. Although a genuine and natural aesthetic, it is, nevertheless, a stylistic flourish when compared to most other movies. Black crush doesn't appear to be a problem either.
Whilst there is no damage to the print and the image is superbly clean and clear, there is no mistaking that this is not a recent movie. Detail is far better than any other version I've seen - close-ups and mid-range information is excellent - with much more revelations found in the stores and building in the town, clarity better etched on leaves and branches, pots and pans and, very nicely, on the workings of Preacher's Remington, too. Grain is natural-looking and un-scrubbed, meaning that the visual texture of the film is intact. Edges have not been detrimentally enhanced and I saw no artefacts, unsightly noise or smearing. And, proving to be the icing on the cake, the film now has a marvellous sense of three-dimensionality about it. Almost any shot of someone moving against the vast landscape reveals this, but some simple and unshowy moments perhaps say it best with their subtlety - such as Barrett moving down the stream towards Preacher when he finds the little golden nugget, or Richard Kiel advancing upon the two by the big rock, or Barrett talking to Sarah by the washing-line (still not sure about the shadow dancing on Moriarty's back during this bit, though. If it comes from the clothes pegs how come it mysteriously vanishes from one shot to the next, when they haven't moved?). But, of course, it is the probably the grand and iconic imagery that stands out proudest of all. Preacher casually preparing for the showdowns that bookend the movie - at the start when he appears at the end of the street and catches McGill's eye, and then at the finale when he stands at the other end of the street to face down the vicious deputies - are awesome looking shots that bring the depth to the fore and present Bruce Surtees' immaculate framing to perfection. Look out for the great shot of Preacher atop his pale horse, gun pointing down the slope at Josh LaHood and his would-be rapist buddies for more distinct and scintillating three-dimensionality.
When it comes to violent activity, though, the track won't win any awards. Gunshots are certainly alright, but nothing more. Perhaps, in view of the enhanced natural qualities of the track, you could put this down to the open space and altitude dissipating the effect ... but, I think I'd still prefer much more raucous gunfire. There are several explosions to rock the scheme of things, too, but here, especially, the track comes up short with booms that do considerably less than shake the room. Plenty of dynamite is chucked about but you won't necessarily feel the force. The “hickory” skirmish provides some nice, clean tokks! and clacks! for the wood-on-wood impacts, and even a cool little stereo swish as Preacher twirls his own stave, but later instances of the big hammers being put to use of the massive rock in the stream seem a tad underfed in the syncopated the bash and bam of Eastwood and Moriarty. We do get some pretty forceful galloping of horses though - the opening melee is well done, with the sound of the raiders' mounts thundering around the set-up - and the cloppity-clop is accurately steered.
Dialogue-wise, almost everything works just fine. However, Eastwood's voice can dip a little low in the mix at times, though it is hard to tell if this isn't just a matter of his low, pre-husky tones and not a slight prioritisation error with the audio. Either way, folks, I'm really just nit-picking there and, overall, given the surprisingly subdued nature of Pale Rider, the TrueHD - which definitely sounds richer and more natural than the optional DD 5.1 track that is also on offer - does a fine job that rewards in all the smaller details that could so easily have been overlooked.
Pale Rider opened up the old territories once again, and the Western was temporarily reborn again during the mid to late eighties. Without Clint getting in the saddle once more there wouldn't have been Silvarado, and without Silvarado it is unlikely that Kevin Costner would have had the impetus and era-enhanced experience to make Dances With Wolves. Pale Rider may seem somewhat lacking when held up against Eastwood's true greats of the genre, indeed a pale imitation of his own classic High Plains Drifter, but when viewed today it definitely holds its own as a slice of entertaining hokum. The setting is terrific, the melancholy approach and complete refrain from any in-yer-face explanation for Preacher and his history is completely refreshing. It would be another seven years before the filmmaker would return to the American West for its powerful elegy with Unforgiven, but Pale Rider certainly nudges in the same sort of direction whilst still clinging on to the Old School ethics of righting wrongs and setting the balance straight again.
Warner's disc is extremely nice and presents the high definition image with heaps more detail than ever before and a glorious sense of depth that really helps bring the film to life. The audio is subtle but rewarding, the TrueHD track delivering ambience and natural sounds with clarity and realism. It is not bombastic by any stretch, but it is still sure to please those who know how the film used to sound. Extras-wise, this is a severe letdown with only a shameful pair of trailers to come along for the ride. But, for fans of the film and for Eastwood collectors, this is a great presentation of Pale Rider that they should not pass up.
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