by Tony Dayoub
Today is the fifteenth, the point mid-month when the Criterion Collection typically reveals what new DVDs and Blu-rays they have in store for us three months from now. As we await with bated breath, let's take a brief look at two of their newest Blu-ray releases, the classic Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) and The Magician (Ansiktet).
What can one say about Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai that hasn't been said before and better? So let's talk technical specs, then. For a film that has sometimes eclipsed even the likes of Citizen Kane as all-time best feature, it's difficult to believe any edition, past or future, could ever outdo Criterion's new Blu-ray as a proper showcase. With plenty of opportunities for flaws to appear, such as the many night scenes, scenes in the darkly lit huts, or the climactic battle scene set in the rain, I'm happy to say I found nothing to mar the wonderful black and white picture. Very slightly windowboxed to give us the film in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, I didn't see one instance of digital artifacting (even in the visually chaotic rain scene I just mentioned). Blacks only rarely get a bit murky, but this is understandable given the unavailability of the original negative. And the transfer preserves the original grain without reflecting any edge enhancement which would exaggerate it. The sound is available in Dolby Surround which sounded a little shrill to me at times. I much prefer the 24-bit original monaural soundtrack (also included) which has been cleaned up quite a bit. All supplemental features are a direct port-over from Criterion's 2006 3-disc DVD iteration of the film.
To sum up, this may be the closest you will ever come to experiencing Seven Samurai as only theatergoers did upon its initial release.
Ingmar Bergman's The Magician has little in common with Kurosawa's movie. Neither as significant in world cinema nor in its director's oeuvre as some of his better known films, it is still an intriguing piece. Coming a few films after, but still on the heels of the previous year's The Seventh Seal (1957), it does have some thematic ties to that film and Bergman's overall body of work. The traveling theatrical troupe at the center of the film, Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater, could almost be the same troupe in Seal. I say almost because from the outset, Vogler's troupe seems a little darker, harder-edged, conniving, and colder than the earlier film's troupe. If that earthier group of performers were students of the same harsh metaphysical lessons as Seal's hero, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), then these slick performers are teachers, imparting the dangerous power of the supernatural to the laughing, godless elitists who skeptically interrogate them before allowing them to perform for their amusements.
The enigmatic figurehead of the troupe is Dr. Albert Vogler, played by Von Sydow in long jet-black wig and makeup that appropriately evokes both the messianic Jesus he would later play in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the sinister Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980). Vogler is mute, unable or unwilling to respond to his interrogators who wager over whether magic and the metaphysical are real or simply the creations of an immature mankind. As layers get peeled back, Bergman divulges the identity of the scammers behind the public veneer of the Magnetic Health Theater. But even the revelation that Vogler's abilities are only sleight of hand is debatable given a cryptic conversation he has midway through the film with a character who died earlier.
Bergman bolsters this minor film's importance by adding another level to the subtext, one in which Vogler could be seen as analogous to the director himself. On that plane, the director appears to be responding to those who seek to peer behind the curtain, as it were, to get a glimpse at the artistic process only to denigrate it when they see how seemingly simple it is.
In the case of both films, Criterion deserves kudos for championing not only the well known classic movies of world cinema, but also the smaller underappreciated films worthy of re-discovery.
The Magician is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray. Seven Samurai comes out this Tuesday, October 19th, on 2-Disc Special Edition Blu-ray.