As we’ve already discussed, The Mountain was lensed by Franz Planer in VistaVision and in Technicolor. It is the province of deep focus landscapes, stark contrasts, vivid imagery, bold and entrancing colours and intense close-ups. It can look absolutely jaw-dropping on Blu-ray – just have a gander at The Searchers, North By Northwest or, especially, The Ten Commandments. The amazing results from such restorations as those benefitted from are not to be found in the releases from Olive Press because they don’t possess quite the funds that cater for them. Their previous releases that I have looked at – Crack in the World and Hannie Caulder – have been very respectable indeed, and I do doff my cap to them for their no-nonsense attitude and determination to source the best possible masters.
As such, Olive Films present the film on Blu-ray with an AVC encode that does not appear to have had any restorative work done.
Now, whilst the 1.78:1 image we get here has moments that really do shine, this transfer is often quite poor-looking, as well. Grain is certainly apparent for much of the time, although there are scenes and shots in which it strikes me that some degree of noise reduction may have taken place. Mid-ground to background faces in films from this period – the photographic style, the processes involved, the makeup applied etc – often appear a touch waxy and even blurred, but there are times, here, when even close-ups can appear that way. Most usually, it is Spencer Tracy who is on the receiving end. He has such a craggy and character-filled face that we come to appreciate all those wrinkles and grooves like the rock-walls the man, himself, struggles to find purchase on, and when they suddenly to vanish in the occasional shot, this can appear jarring. They aren’t often, these shots, but they are a noticeable element of inconsistency.
Added to this is the all-too prevalent damage and wear-and-tear to the print. We have lots of flecks and pops throughout. There are those little fixed dots that can stay throughout an entire scene, even migrating into the next, that you spot immediately and cannot take your eyes off. Worse yet, there are frequent horizontal lines that can be either little flashes of green like a meteor-streak, or even darker ones that totally bisect the frame right across the middle for a few seconds at a time. You definitely get used to them, but it is a shame that more couldn’t have been done to remove them, or merely lessen their effect. And then there is the wavering contrast and colour, which is an almost continual blight. Of course, this is the sort of thing that you expect to see with many vintage films, but sadly The Mountain really seems to make, ahem, a “mountain out of a molehill” with them. The fluctuations ceaselessly flutter about the frame. As Zachary climbs the “chimney”, the image goes through an irritating cycle of yellow and green alterations, for example. On really large screens I can imagine this to be quite annoying. Another and altogether weirder visual irk is when the rock-face, during some close-ups as Spencer Tracy is hanging off it, appears to positively undulate. Now, I’m not at all sure what is causing this because the part of the frame that Tracy occupies is perfectly fine and stable, as is the background behind him. It’s just the rock that seems to roll about as shimmering under some supernatural shock-wave.
There are other problems too. Now, given the VistaVision process and the strong natural lighting during the filming of the exterior location daytime scenes, you should expect some sort of haloing to occur around figures and objects. But there is an awful lot of it during these earlier sequences, folks, and I’m convinced that an unfair amount of it stems from digital tinkering. Edges are surely being enhanced here. Look at the buildings and the ridge-lines, fence posts and railings, or the surrounding edge of Zachary’s beret. You can see that a layer of detail has been removed around such objects during these and a few other moments dotted around the movie. Some of this haloing is also coloured – there’s silver and purple and greenish edges – and I know that this can be attributed to the photography (though not all of it), but it looks simply horrible at times, nevertheless. One of the first shots of the brothers beginning their climb – a shot that can also be seen behind the disc’s menu screen – is just dreadful, with very poor definition and blurred, silvery gleaming haloes existing around virtually everything.
Now, all this said … The Mountain can still look very appealing on a lot of occasions. The Technicolor palette is wonderfully bright and robust. Reds absolutely leap from the screen. One of the constant visual reference points is Zachary’s bright red shirt, which really pops so much that you’d swear it could stop traffic in the next street over from yours. But the greens of the meadows, the blue of Chris’ jacket, the flames of the plane-crash, the various hues of the rocks and the sky all make the image a lively one. Contrast is a touch too high, and we can have a few hot gleams now and again, but the white snow and the ice is kept well at-heel without glaring and the figures seen against it are nice and stark. Black levels are pretty decent too. Interiors look nicely atmospheric as a result. And midnight blues offer a sublime sense of mystery during the crash.
Detail is also pretty impressive at times. We can clearly see rock striations, wood-grain, detail and definition in hair, clothing, wool and in the equipment that the climbers use. The face on Zachary’s watch is quite clear in even a fleeting reveal that we get. The debris of the place wreck, the fluttering snowflakes, leaves and blades of grass – all nicely rendered. Close-ups are mostly good and accurately held with lots of texture apart from those odd discrepancies I mentioned earlier. Mountain ranges may occasionally wobble and blur, but then a fair few of these are actually matte-painting. The real stuff tends to look just fine.
Now, I’m no expert on how VistaVision should transfer to BD, but I have seen some very sterling, nay, incredible examples of it. The Mountain, sadly, does not come close. And yet, it still offers a very arresting image that can, quite often, take the breath away.
Well, we’re off up The Mountain with our pitons clanging, packs jostling and the wind whistling in DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono. The track is obviously very limited, and it is also beset with age-related problems such as hiss and crackle, and at least one glaring volume drop that occurs during a conversation early on, but it still manages to evoke the space and the might and the beauty of such a rugged locale.
I never once had any issues with discerning the dialogue. I’ve also never heard my own Christian name uttered or shouted so often throughout the course of a film – which I actually found quite unusual. It is never muffled, drowned or submerged by action, effects or ambience in the mix, although one early exchange with heated words becomes quite harsh and brittle. The score from Daniele Amfitheatroff can lose detail when it becomes more soaring and choral, the angelic voices becoming murky and ill-resolved but, in the main, it comes across well.
The level of detail in the mix is actually quite impressive. The wind may not exactly whistle and howl all around us, but it is nicely atmospheric to hear it as the duo get higher and higher. The bleating of sheep and the barking of the dog comes over well, as does the babble of the café and hotel down in the village. But the most incisive use of sound effects is the simple bashing into the rock of steel pitons with the axe and the surprisingly clean and crisp sound of the buckles, straps and clasps that carry a very authentic metallic cadence, and a nice little echo. There is even a dislodged rock that is merely an aside but one that we can see hear bouncing off the rock wall for hundreds feet below the climbers.
You shouldn’t expect too much from this track, then … but I’m sure you will be surprised at how subtle and detailed it can be.
A crying shame ... but Olive Films give us nothing extra.
The Mountain is a magnificent movie. A rugged, heroic tale struck through with morality and darkness, inspiration and grandeur both in terms in of the visual sweep of the setting and the breadth of human emotion that it creates. Tracy is pure genius at work, as believable as a long-suffering, yet ever-doting brother as he is as a steel-nerved, ice-blooded rock-jock. His face bears the crags, crevices and fissures of the very spire that he climbs, becoming as weathered, as implacable and as irresistible as any mountain calling its challenge down from on-high. Wagner is also terrific, allowing his greedy, self-centred swine to be strangely sympathetic and understandable at the same time as making our blood positively boil.
The film works as a barnstorming mood-piece, etching its characters as indelibly on the screen as the gash in the hide of the mountain that the pitons make. The tension rises as the climbers do, and even if the eventual reaching of the crash-site marks a plateau that cleanly delineates our two pseudo-rescuers, dampening things down a tad with the presence of Anna Kashfi’s charming survivor, it foretells of a fate that we all know just has to be lying in wait over the next ridge.
Olive Films deliver an image that has its share of problems – the edge enhancement and print damage to their best to rob the glorious Technicolor Vistavision of its panoramic lustre and definition – but there are still moments when this transfer shines, allowing the majesty of the landscape and the action much of the beauty that they so crave. The audio has some wear and tear too, but it more than holds it own with some nice little details thrown in. Sadly, the label once again fails to offer anything in the way of extras which, with a film of this quality really is a shame.
But even with such misgivings and a comparatively low overall score, I wouldn’t hesitate for one second in recommending The Mountain.
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