Friday, November 22, 2019

Not-so-hot Blu-ray transfer for Anthony Mann's very good 1954 western, THE FAR COUNTRY

Arrow Video's Blu-ray transfers are usually so good (second only to Criterion's--and maybe no longer even second) that coming upon a new transfer, the quality of which looks like something between an old VHS tape and a DVD, is quite a surprise. Unless I received an incorrect shipment, the quality level of transfer for THE FAR COUNTRY is way below par for Arrow. Which is especially too bad because the film itself holds up well enough to be taken seriously as one of Hollywood second-tier "classic westerns."

Handled so well that we're kept on-track at all times by journeyman director Anthony Mann (shown at left) and starring James Stewart in one of his grumpy-on-the-outside/decent-on-the-in roles at which he became expert in the middle-to-late stage of his career, and with a crackerjack supporting cast surrounding him, the movie also boasts a better-than-average screenplay (by Borden Chase of Red River and Winchester '73) that is by turns witty and smart and also on target with dialog that is wonderfully good at getting around Hollywood's childish/hypocritical production-code "ethics" of the time.

Stewart (above, left) and his elderly partner (played by the great Walter Brennan, above, right) bring a hard of cattle into the 1800s town of Seattle, where they then board (along with the cattle) a ship headed north toward gold prospecting areas. Stewart finds himself in trouble with the law almost immediately after boarding, and things only grow worse, once he and Brennan land in gold country.

The local town is controlled by a particularly nasty fellow named Gannon (a fine, alternately sleazy/smart performance from John McIntire), whose retinue of bad guys kill off anyone Bannon can't control or buy. On the distaff side are Ruth Roman (above), long-time expert at playing good bad-girls (or is she a bad good-girl?), and Corinne Calvet, below left, trading her usual glamour-girl image to play a sweet but sassy local with an eye and heart for Stewart's grumpy good guy.

This being an adult western, as many important good guys die as do bad ones, and characters are left with life-changing choices that sometimes end those lives. Sure, coincidence flourishes (this is 1950s Hollywood, after all) and morality finally triumphs. But at a cost. (That's wonderful character actor J.C. Flippen, below, left.)

As usual with Arrow, Bonus Materials abound, including the film shown complete in two different aspect ratios -- 2.00:1 and the original 1.85:1 (yet both look equally poorly transferred) -- and an excellent new appraisal by critic Kim Newman of both this film and the career and westerns of Anthony Mann, and there is even a feature-length documentary on Mr. Mann to entertain us further in this huge array.

Distributed here in the USA via MVD Visual and running 97 minutes, The Far Country hit the street in its two-disc set last week -- for purchase and (I hope somewhere) rental.

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