The wonderful black and white imagery of Truffaut's The 400 Blows comes to Criterion Blu-ray in its original 2.35:1 aspect and has been encoded via MPEG-4. And, hey, it looks great.
Although there is still some damage on show, this transfer is a very strong and reliable one. The vintage-related wear and tear is actually limited to only a handful of scenes and tends to look like sheets of rainfall - wispy vertical pale lines - but this is the only real detriment to an, otherwise, excellent image. Besides, on a couple of occasions it actually is sheets of rain coming down!
Essentially, contrast is consistently maintained, blacks are strong and don't appear to smother any detail, whites only bloom when Truffaut has intended them to and the greys have a definite variance of shade and texture, adding immeasurably to the sense of visual depth and three-dimensionality.
The picture is awash with detail and the film looks like it is a high-definition transfer at all times. Facial detail is strong, with Antoine's determined semi-scowl always at a premium of clarity. Material and building textures are well delineated, with scenes in the apartment, the factory in which Antoine dosses-down and his friend's dusty, palatial house all proving to be highly revealing. Look at the faces of the kids in the audience at the Punch And Judy show and the depth of the image during the scene. Truffaut's noted travelogue-style scene-setting also allows for plenty of highly mobile shots of the plentiful monuments, the Eiffel Tower and boutique frontages - and the transfer copes with all of this with ease. The bric-a-brac in the Doinel apartment is sharply rendered, as are the school-books, satchels and coats in the school. Distance shots of the city and of the countryside during the final act are usually very good, as well, and if there are times when the image may lose some detail in the background, I am certain that this is no error of the transfer, but simply the vintage quality of the print and of the photography employed. But, speaking of photography, there is some terrifically sublime camera-work from Henri Decae and the detail that can be seen in the street scenes, especially in the great “looking-downward” shot of the school PT lesson that sees the kids all dispersing into various shops, alleyways and back yards behind their instructor's back, is quite astonishing. Sharpness is generally fine, with only one or two lapses here and there, but, again, this is down to the limitations of the print and not the transfer. The film is well showcased by an image that is rock-steady and positively inviting of scrutiny. There is something about black-and-white photography that makes the high-definition image seem to glow with that inner life that cinema, particularly from this period, is all about. Done right, the experience is extremely rare and scintillating - and Criterion have got it right with this one, that's for sure.
This transfer does not exhibit any untoward edge-enhancement, smearing or artefacts and looks resolutely film-like at all times. Grain is ever-present and does not tend to fluctuate and I can see no sign of excessive DNR having been applied anywhere in this image.
A fine looking transfer.
The 400 Blows has an uncompressed mono audio track that is actually quite impressive. Criterion have a history of excellent audio restoration and I have been continually surprised and rewarded by the sheer depth and detail that they manage to call forth from many vintage mono tracks. Just check out the mix for Robinson Crusoe On Mars (SD edition reviewed separately - and what about a BD release soon, eh?) to see just how clear, crisp and somehow dimensional they can get things to sound.
And The 400 Blows certainly delivers this type of quality sound as well.
For one thing, the dialogue is excellently reproduced and there is never a time when you cannot hear, or plainly discern the juicy French verbiage that issues forth. Indoors or out, the voices have a distinct presence and postioning witihn the soundscape. Classroom babble is loud and accurately dimensional, with Sourpuss's tirades genuinely cutting. Conversations in Antoine's apartment, or out on the street suffer no distortions and the mix has a natural and authentic sound at all times. With a considered and respectful restoration having taken place, there are no pops or crackles and no hiss to be heard throughout the movie. The excited hubbub of the kids watching a Punch And Judy show and the sound from the cinema are as detailed as the bustling streets, themselves. Even the voices from the correctional centre's inmates playing football, and the impact of their boots on the leather of the ball are beautifully rendered.
The pleasant, and devoutly French score from Jean Constantin is actually one of the main assets of the sound-mix. Strongly delivered, yet warm and well-balanced, the music becomes the soul of the movie - unhurried and decorative - and is excellently transferred to this disc.
All in all, this is an excellent track and it is doubtful that it could ever have sounded better than this. A strong 8 out of 10.
Criterion pack a fair bit of extra material into this release and, for once, it is the vintage material from the time of the film's release and the period just afterwards that is the most rewarding.
We have two commentaries that probe the film and its creator. Both are far-reaching and highly informative. The first is from cinema professor Brian Stonehill, who looks at the film from its cultural standpoint and analyses its impact on movies in general and how Truffaut would evolve over time. The second is from author and lifelong friend of Truffaut, Robert Lachenay, who chronicles the director's style and the production of the film and what the story meant to Truffaut. Both commentaries are interesting and worth listening to.
Then we get an array of vintage footage, and this is excellent value, folks. Of particular note are the 6.24 mins of screen-tests for Jean-Pierre Leaud, Richard Kanayan and Patrick Auffay, which reveals two pure stars in-the-making in Leaud and Kanayan. Asked questions and just let loose to reply and/or act in whatever fashion they find appropriate, this is revelatory stuff from two lads who just came into the audition from off the train that morning. Whilst Auffay seems a tad nervous and, perhaps, out-gunned by Leaud's magnificent self-confidence, a real talent is clearly Kanayan who, despite only winning a relatively small part in the movie - that of the kid whose pen keeps messing up the pages in his exercise book- can characterise and sing and improvise with alarming alacrity and style.
Leaud also appears in the Newsreel Footage from the Cannes premier and delivers some very fine and well thought-out answers to his interviewer's quizzing on how he saw the role, what it means to him and the impact that he believes it will have upon his own personal life outside of acting. Much is made of his youth and the powerful narrative that he had to inject life into and he comes over exceptionally well. This lasts for 5.51 mins.
A 7-minute extract from the TV show Cinepanorama from 1960 has host France Roche interviewing Francois Truffaut after his return from New York, where The 400 Blows was named Best Foreign Film by the New York Film Critics Circle. The filmmaker discusses the global reception of The 400 Blows and delivers a self-critique of his work which is nicely poetic as he, himself, started off in the business as a movie-critic in “Cahiers du cinema”, the influential French film magazine.
In another TV extract, from the show “Cineaste de notre temps”, this 1965 interview features Truffaut discussing his own youth, his critical filmic appreciation for “Cahiers du cinema” and the development of the New Wave that he helped get underway, as well as the beginnings of the ongoing character of Antoine Doinel, first seen here in The 400 Blows and then carried on into Antoine and Colette and three other films. Other interviewees include Jean-Pierre Leaud, Albert Remy, who plays Antoine's stepfather in the film, and collaborator/friend Claude de Givray. This lasts for a good 22 minutes and is well put-together.
And then, besides the film's Theatrical Trailer, we have an 8-page booklet that contains the written essay on The 400 Blows by film scholar Annette Insdorf, as well restoration details on Criterion's transfer and credits for the movie.
Overall, this is a fine selection of extra features that replicates what was on offer with Criterion's SD release version of The 400 Blows.
Truffaut's classic film is soaked in 60's urban realism and its distinctive documentary resonance is emboldened with captivating performances, allowing his stylistic interpretation of his own childhood to positively thrive on the power of French New Wave Cinema. The story is glued with a quirky charm that makes the fly-on-the-wall approach utterly beguiling. Jean-Pierre Leaud is fantastic as the troubled Antoine, his innate maturity as an actor suffusing the role with a “once-in-a-lifetime” roguish innocence and a scheming naivete that is mesmerising to watch unfold. The film does have its faults, but they are easily brushed aside when you consider Truffaut's own relative inexperience and single-minded determination to bring his vision to the screen. So, even if the screenplay makes the odd narrative side-step, the thrust of this very simple, very intimate tale is supremely clear, driven and accessible.
Criterion have delivered the film to Blu-ray with all the extras that their SD version had and bestowed it with a wonderful transfer that makes it an unmistakable upgrade for those who may already have it on disc. For those who have never seen the film, this is the perfect opportunity to experience one of Cinema's greatest and most influential directors unleashing his first full feature with skill, dedication and flair. The Antoine Doinel films that followed did not quite live up to this superlative debut which acts as a singular piece of film-making in its own right. I would be lying if I said that it wasn't an acquired taste, but as an example of the quietly profound, The 400 Blows takes some beating.
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