- John Huston's 1956 Film Moby Dick:A 60th-Anniversary Appreciation
Twilight Time. Blu-ray Release. 2016.
A film director who risks an adaptation of a hallowed work of American literature such as Melville's Moby-Dick is sure to attract a murder of critical crows. It is rare that any attempt to film a literary classic is powerful enough in its own artistic integrity to break free from the inevitable dismissals and to shine forth with a life of its own. John Huston's 1956 film, Moby Dick, is such a rarity, and it can now be revisited for a fresh evaluation. Twilight Time has released a 60th-anniversary video release of the film in a 1080p high definition/1:66.1 format. The edition is limited to 3000 units. The disc includes an isolated track of Philip Sainton's acclaimed film score. An audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman, occasionally marred by inaccurate recollections of Melville's novel, runs through the entire film. A large collection of posters, lobby cards, and production stills is surprisingly engaging. The original theatrical trailer is included, as is an option for English subtitles.
Greg Kimble, a master in film restoration and visual effects technology, spent eight months registering three-color negatives, cleaning dirt and mold, and color timing the film, often frame by frame. Timing is a tedious process that tames harsh color differences between scenes and harmonizes the look of the entire print. A special feature, "A Bleached Whale: Recreating the Unique Color of 'Moby Dick,'" with voice-over by Kimble, offers a short history of the neglect and poor condition of the original film elements and demonstrates the complicated process of rebuilding the sixty-year-old artifact.
The overall results of Kimble's work are revelatory. One example will suffice here. At 3:32 in the new Blu-ray print, the figure of Ishmael can clearly be seen as he runs along a darkened, rainy street, hand clutching his coat at the neck to stay dry, and finally reaching the door of the Spouter-Inn. In my old 2001 MGM DVD edition, this scene is so smudged, blurred, muddied, and dirty that one hardly knows what is going on. The definition, contrast, and cleaning are evident in every scene of the new print: Moby Dick has never been seen at this resolution on any home video format. Legendary Director of Photography Oswald Morris had created a retro-silvered pictorial style for [End Page 111] the original release. It was designed to capture the look of nineteenth-century whaling prints with their muted colors and silver sheen. State of the art film restoration technology was used to replicate, as closely as possible, the original subdued, moody look intended by Oswald Morris and John Huston. Robert Harris, the master technician who saved David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and pioneered the new era of film restoration, offers high praise for Greg Kimble's efforts and Twilight Time's commitment: "It was done out of love for cinema and respect for their Blu-ray audience. What they, and Mr. Kimble, have given us is a wonderful job, allowing us to get far more than a glimpse of what might have been." The old cliché actually applies to this new reconstruction: other than faded memories of viewing the movie in the theatrical release (as I did at a drive-in theater at the age of eight), we are seeing the film for the first time.
The restored widescreen aspect ratio of 1:66.1 frees the image from its decades-long imprisonment as a contracted, full screen pan-and-scan edited VHS and DVD. Process scenes, especially of the crew in whaleboats, once garish and often cast in a ghastly, cold bluish tint, are now integrated within a uniform color palette that no longer jars and distracts the eye. The mono sound track has been skillfully remastered. The dialogue is focused and balanced and sound effects are artfully handled and often surprisingly subtle. Philip Sainton's now legendary musical score has been equalized to remove the tubby mid–range imbalance that is characteristic...