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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

The Robe [Blu-ray]

 

(Henry Koster, 1953)

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: 20th Century Fox

Video: 20th Century Fox

 

Disc:

Region: 'A'

Runtime: 2:13:31.003

Disc Size: 48,511,910,199 bytes

Feature Size: 34,257,039,360 bytes

Average Bitrate: 34.21 Mbps

Chapters: 20

Case: Custom Blu-ray case

Release date: March 17th, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

Bitrate:

 

 

Audio:

DTS-HD Master Audio English 3427 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 3427 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 24-bit)
Dolby Digital Audio English 448 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 448 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 448 kbps 4.0 / 48 kHz / 448 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio French 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Portuguese 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps
DTS Express English 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps / 16-bit
DTS Express English 96 kbps 1.0 / 48 kHz / 96 kbps / 24-bit

 

Subtitles:

English, Chinese (traditional and simplified), French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, none

 

Extras:

• Introduction by Martin Scorsese (1:20)

• Commentary with Film Composer David Newman and Film Historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman

• The Making of the Robe (3:23)

• The Music of The Robe : Isolated film score

• The CinemaScope Story featurette (18:39)

• From Scripture to Script: The Bible and Hollywood featurette (24:39)

• Vintage Celebrity Introductions by Richard Widmark, Susan Hayworth, Robert Wagner, Clifton Webb and Dan Dailey (TOTAL: 1:35)

• Interactive Pressbook

 

BONUSVIEW picture-in-picture mode:

[a] The Robe Times Two: A Comparison of Widescreen and Standard Versions

[b] A Seamless Faith: The Real-Life Search for The Robe featurettes (TOTAL: 38:08)

Inspiration, The Clothes of Christ, Clothes in Biblical Times, Clothes of a King, A Seamless Garment, The Robe on Page & Screen, The Robe and Politics, The Robe in Our World, The Robe in France & Russia, History vs. Drama

Audio Interview with Screenwriter Philip Dunne (1969) (22:23)

Movietone News  (TOTAL: approx 6 min.)

           CinemaScope Hailed by Public and Press

           Broadway Hails The Robe in CinemaScope

           The Robe (Christian Herald Award)

           Millionth Patron Sees The Robe

           CinemaScope and The Robe Win Oscars

Still Galleries

Trailers / TV Spots

Poster Gallery / Lobby Cards

 

 

Synopsis: One of the best Biblical epics of all time, based on a best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. It tells the story of a Roman, played by Burton, who was in charge of the Crucifixion of Christ and who later is converted to Christianity. The first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope. Academy Award Nominations: 4, including Best Picture, Best Actor--Richard Burton. Academy Awards: Best (Color) Costume Design, Best (Color) Art Direction-Set Decoration.

 

 

Comment:

Fifty-eight years ago on September 30, 1952, the Cinerama process was introduced at a single theatre in New York City.  Tickets were sold as if for a play, with reserved seating and premium prices making "This is Cinerama" was the highest grossing film of the year.  But for all its dimensional, immersive qualities, Cinerama had serious technical limitations to say nothing of its requirement of a major reconstruction of the screen, loudspeaker system and projection booths.

 

It was a time when the influence of television, even with black and white sets hardly much larger than 15-inch diagonals, was siphoning potential audiences out of the theatre and back into their homes.  For all its demonstrable power Cinerama was limited in its ability to make a dent in the effects of the little giant.  And then one year after its introduction, in September of 1953, came The Robe in CinemaScope, advertised – right on the theatre marquee as 3-D without needing glasses.  An exagerration to be sure, but an effective marketing ploy. 

 

 

 

CinemaScope's projected image was nearly twice as wide of nearly all movies until then.  It had stereophonic sound, approximating the location of the actor on the screen, as well as offering a hint of surround sound.  And, best of all, it required only a special lens for filming plus two extra microphones for stereo, and for theatrical showing: only a slightly curved extension of existing screens across the stage (though in actual practice the screen usually remained flat), a modest reconstruction of the speaker layout, and the appropriate projector lens to expand the squeezed 35 mm image to widescreen whilst maintaining correct proportionality of the actors – more or less.

 

CinemaScope itself would soon give way to an assortment of other widescreen processes with names like SuperScope (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers), CinemaScope 55 (The King and I), Todd-A-O (Around the World in 80 Days) and later: Techniscope (A Fisftful  of Dollars).  It was only 3 years after The Robe that Cecil B. DeMille would remake his own Ten Commandments in VistaVision, and in 1959 William Wyler would remake Ben-Hur in a process called MGM Camera 65.

 

(An historical description of CinemaScope, its anamorphoscope lens and how the process compared to Cinerama appears HERE.

 

CinemaScope was not the first example of a widescreen process for motion pictures.  Abel Gance used a 3-strip system for his 1927 Napoleon, and William Fox himself employed a 70 mm format for his Grandeur process for John Wayne's first important starring role for The Big Trail in 1930.

 

But The Robe had something else going for it.  The studio was smart to delay distribution of How to Mary a Millionaire, their first movie to be completed in the new process, until The Robe was ready to demonstrate the new process. How to Mary a Millionaire was a pleasant enough piece of romantic comedy and had plenty of star power in its own right but, except for its widescreen and sound, it wasn't the right movie to persuade the public that CinemaScope was the new power in town. The Robe was just the right movie at the right moment.  It had SPECTACLE. 

 

After The Robe reintroduced us to the historical costume drama, movies would never be the same again.  The Robe, like The Ten Commandments, is fairly static in terms of camera movement, but it only took a couple of years (e.g. Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo) before directors and crew were comfortable enough in the new medium that the art form kind of caught up with itself again.

 

I guess even an introductory comment can't acquit itself without at least a passing nod to the cast.  Richard Burton had already begun to make a name for himself in My Cousin Rachel (with Olivia de Haviland, also directed by Henry Koster) and The Desert Rats (with James Mason as Field Marshal Rommel and directed by the late Robert Wise).  It would be his starring role as the anguished Marcellus Gallio that set the stage for Burton's unique style of speaking, which might be described as groaning with melody. 

 

Jean Simmons made her mark in movies at the age of 17 in David Lean's Great Expectations and the following year in Michael Powell's Black Narcissus. Over the next few years he was slowly allowed to blossom into a woman in front of the camera, and by the time she was cast as Diana, now 24, she was a knockout, and a good actress as well.  She provides the emotional rudder for Burton's Marcellus.

 

Much has been said elsewhere, unfairly I have always felt, about the casting of Victor Mature as Demetrius.  It's his voice and delivery I think. OK, maybe it doesn't quite fit the idea of an educated Greek, but otherwise he is as intensely detached as a Roman slave as he is passionate in his love of Jesus.  And, in a way that would become the signature cinematic Christian, the way he affects his love of Marcellus, a man who hated everything that Demetrius stood for.  Not many actors could have stood up to Burton so convincingly as when he offers him the robe, knowing that it will tear Marcellus to pieces.

 

Finally there's the madness of the Emperor Caligula, the dream of every character actor, one would imagine.  Jay Robinson, who belies his mere 23 years, nails the arbitrary insanity that John Hurt would flesh out in the BBC's 1976 masterful production of I, Claudius.  (Some of you might remember Robinson from the Star Trek episode "Elaan of Troyius".)  He never had another role that quite equaled the effect of Caligula, which must have been discouraging.  Jay Robinson is till with us by the way, and I hope he has a chance to catch himself out again on this gorgeous new Blu-ray presentation.

 

 

 

The Movie: 8

Synopsis:

Based on a best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, The Robe tells the story of a Roman centurion named Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) who is sent to Jerusalem, charged with overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Marcellus, a cynical and hardened man, wins the robe Jesus wore to the crucifixion while gambling with other Roman soldiers.  He later becomes convinced that his hallucinations and violent outbursts are the result of a curse received from the robe, which is now in the possession of his escaped slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature).  Emotionally unable to connect with the love of his life, Diana (Jean Simmons) Marcellus sets out to find Demetrius in order to destroy the robe and the curse.

 

Image: 8/9   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.

The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale.  The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

 

Next to the DVD or any video or theatrical presentation in memory, this Blu-ray is a revelation, which is not to say that it is always perfect, but where there are difficulties, I feel comfortable in attributing them to the source.  The image most often has the feel of a painting in motion, which I imagine was the intended effect.  There is an almost pastel quality to the color.  The lighting is deliberately evenhanded most of the time, not natural at all, but in stark contrast to the dramatic material in Palestine that concerns the robe itself: the crucifixion and Marcellus' crisis most especially.  In those scenes, blacks are intense and the color deep and sinister.  Some of the darkly lit interior scenes get oversaturated the point of blurring detail – the result is not subtle, and certainly not intentional.  Artifacts , enhancements or noise reduction do not appear to be visited upon this Blu-ray. 

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 6/9

The audio in either the 5.1 DTS HD-MA or the original 4.0 is serviceable, but not without some inherent distortions of the music and effects.  The effects are minor and are neither overruled nor made more apparent by the lossless track.  Yet it baffles me that Blu-ray production studios still haven't gotten the hang of uncompressed audio formats.  They seem to feel that its only importance in regards older films is in boosting a reconstruction of the original audio track.  Oftentimes that track is in mono (witness the early Bond films), but others, such as The Robe were stereo, even with surround, though not a full 5.0 or 5.1.  To give the reconstruction a DTS HD-MA, but not the original simply passes understanding.

 

Operations: 5

I'm not a supporter of the idea that every menu design should be unique and whose navigation should be a kind of video game.  My idea of a proper menu is that the background should be appropriate to the main attraction, and that the windows that come up should present a brief summary of the bonus features with timings and whose navigation should be crystal clear.  I also prefer to see all of the extra features in one go, then click on each for details if there are a lot of them.  This menu fails in nearly every category, though once I got the sense of it, I was able to use it without much fuss.

 

 

 

Extras: 9

As befits a movie of such historical importance, Fox has loaded their Blu-ray with high definition extra features, all of which are new to video. (It came as a surprise to me that the most recent DVD from 2001 had none.)  There are actually two commentaries: one is continuous and concentrates largely on how the music is used in the film.  The other is incorporated into one of the two Bonus View features: The Robe Times Two: A Comparison of Widescreen and Standard Versions.  Here Rudy Behlmer and Aubrey Solomon tell us about the two filmed versions of The Robe: the one in CinemaScope and the other filmed in alternate takes or by a second camera positioned elsewhere for regular theatrical academy ration projection (just in case the new format didn't catch on.)  I found this feature more interesting than the main audio commentary.  The picture-in-picture mode was, for a change, used to remarkable and insightful advantage.  The commentary is discontinuous with significant gaps from time to time, but it is relentlessly instructive about photography and editing.

 

Most of the other features are what can be expected from the title: A Seamless Faith: The Real-Life Search for The Robe is a series of featurettes that consider the question of Jesus's clothing and Biblical and Roman costuming in general.  It also discusses some of the historical, political and legendary manifestation of Jesus' robe.  The CinemaScope Story is just that: very EPK, but still informative. From Scripture to Script discusses the Bible as a resource for motion picture scripts.  If you hadn't noticed already, the Bible has been a source of cinematic inspiration from Day 2.  And for good reason: it sanctions sex and violence without condoning it.  Brilliant!

 

There's about six minutes worth of Movietone News clips advertising The Robe.  (That's "Fox Movietone News" - right!)  The Vintage Celebrity Introductions are a hoot.  Each celeb recites about two sentences in the most deadpan delivery imaginable inviting the viewer to see this most awesome of movies.  Clifton Webb's is almost too sinister.  We just know he's lying, but does his character?

 

 

Recommendation: 10

Perhaps the historical importance of The Robe is of more significance than the movie on its own terms. It's hard for me to separate out, since I was there at the Roxy very early on. That aside, The Robe is a great ride. Everyone but Simmons and Rennie overacts and yet it all works. God knows how. The image quality has never been this good since the movie's first run I imagine – and it looks all the better in my home theatre since I repainted my Goo Screen with their latest Ultra Grey paint formulation. The extra features are entertaining, if occasionally redundant, and often instructive. A must-own.

Leonard Norwitz
March 19th, 2009

 


 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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