Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Bicycle Thieves – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 374 

BD Box Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA) 

Release Date: March 29, 2016 

Region: Region A

Length: 1:29:27

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: Italian Mono LPCM (48kHz, 24-Bit)

Alternate Audio: English Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 Kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.96 Mbps

Notes: Criterion has also released a DVD edition of this title.

title

“My aim, I have said, was to reintroduce the dramatic into quotidian situations, the marvelous in a little news item, even in the smallest news item, considered by most people throwaway material.” -Vittorio De Sica

The story of Bicycle Thieves probably wouldn’t be printed in any major newspaper if it had happened in real life. Editors would consider it “throwaway material.” After all, newspapers tend to give facts void of any real emotion. Journalists rarely get into the really interesting aspects of their stories. The humanity is hidden somewhere between the words, but we fail to grasp it because it isn’t made concrete. These human elements must be inferred by the sensitive reader. This is where cinema can be superior. Humanity can be found in every single action that a character does (or doesn’t do) on the screen. Even a look or expression can contain limitless drama. The true strength of neo-realist masterpieces like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is in the simplicity of the story. Audiences aren’t wasting their attention on complex plot detail, and this frees them to absorb the humanity inherent in every character.

Bicycle Thieves is a textbook example of neo-realism. It is the simplest of stories but contains complex human emotions. A synopsis of the story wouldn’t hint at the raw emotion and brutal honesty that overwhelms nearly every frame. The film was perhaps too honest for the Italian public, because it wasn’t particularly successful in its home country. However, the rest of the world certainly took notice. American critics were unanimous in their praise of Bicycle Thieves, and the film won the Academy Award in 1949 for the Best Foreign Language Film. This is certainly ample evidence to suggest that Hollywood was paying attention.

Vittorio De Sica

Vittorio De Sica while shooting “Bicycle Thieves” on location:  “We sought to redeem our guilt… We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were, and to seek salvation.” -Vittorio De Sica

What is especially surprising is the effect that it had on Alfred Hitchcock. The director had a nasty habit of making slightly disparaging remarks about neo-realism to the press, but this was simply a ruse that he used in order to explain the difference between the kind of films that he made and the new trend of realism that invaded many Hollywood productions after the success of Italy’s neo-realistic efforts. (This trend was extended after the later success of the French New Wave).

Charles Thomas Samuels once interviewed Hitchcock and in an attempt to make a point about how other cinematic methods could also be quite effective, he used Bicycle Thieves (a.k.a. The Bicycle Thief) as an example. Hitchcock evaded the argument.

“You’ve got to remember that The Bicycle Thief wasn’t a success with the Italian audience… We have a home in Northern California, and in the period of The Bicycle Thief, we happened to have an Italian couple working for us who spoke not one word of English. One day my wife and I took the mother and her daughter into San Francisco, where my wife and the girl had to do some shopping. Since I didn’t know what to do with Mrs. Chiesa, I decided to take her to see The Bicycle Thief. It was an Italian movie, I thought it might interest her. There was a knot of about twenty people in the theater—it was a road show, I remember, at the Geary—and we watched the film. Do you know, she only gave one exclamation the whole time: when the father cuffed the little boy. So when we got outside, I asked her how she’d liked it. She said, ‘Okay. But why didn’t he borrow a bicycle?’ Of course, she demolished the whole thing. So I said, ‘Mrs. Chiesa, what films do you like’ ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘I like a Betty Grable musical.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Encountering Directors, an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, 1972)

This anecdote is misleading. It suggests that Hitchcock wasn’t fond of the film, when this was far from the case. One will notice that he substitutes his housekeeper’s opinion for his own. This is because his opinion would have allowed Samuels to make his point, because Hitchcock was actually quite impressed by the film. Patrick McGilligan commented on this in his biography of the director.

“In interviews, Hitchcock sometimes disparaged what he (and some critics) called ‘kitchen sink’ neorealism, telling the press that he and his Italian housekeeper watched Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in San Francisco one day, and that his housekeeper was half bored by the masterpiece. He didn’t always describe his own reaction, but he was impressed by the film, and once told the New York Times that The Bicycle Thief was a perfect double chase—physical and psychological. Hitchcock’s love for Italy was genuine; and he kept up with the postwar cinema there…” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

In fact, it was Hitchcock’s admiration for Italian neo-realism (particularly Bicycle Thieves) that inspired him to make The Wrong Man—a down to earth film about real people whose lives derail because of a false accusation. He also had planned to make a few other films inspired by Italian neo-realism (and perhaps the French New Wave) in the 1960s. Unfortunately, but these projects never made it into production.

It isn’t any wonder that Bicycle Thieves was a source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock. It has been a source of inspiration for countless directors since the film’s 1948 Italian release. What else can anyone expect from what is one of the few undisputed masterpieces of world cinema? De Sica’s masterpiece stands as one of the best films ever produced. The socio-political issues surrounding the story might be dated, but the basic truths in Bicycle Thieves will never go out of date. Critics still rave about the film, scholars still study it, and audiences are still moved by Antonio’s struggle to provide for his family and Bruno’s coming of age as he discovers hard truths about life.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 Stars

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The film related artwork isn’t quite as fabulous as one might expect from Criterion, but it is rather attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated book featuring an essay by Godfrey Cheshire and reminiscences by Vittorio De Sica and his collaborators. This booklet is actually special enough to set this release apart from most Blu-ray titles.

Menu

The disc’s menus are also appropriate, attractive, elegant, and quite easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion’s is a 4K digital restoration is presented at a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (which is higher and wider than most releases), which represents an uncropped version of De Sica’s masterpiece. The transfer was also presented at a higher bitrate (34.96 Mbps) than many Blu-ray releases. The image is absolutely stunning with a filmic texture that should please purists. Like so many Criterion transfers, this release reminds us just how gorgeous a black and white image can look on Blu-ray. Details are crisp and clear with an attractive and rich contrast that beautifully displays every shade of grey in between.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

The Italian Mono LPCM audio sounds as good as anyone has any right to expect and doesn’t have as many of the distracting flaws that are usually evident in films of this age. Those who aren’t familiar with Italian neorealist cinema might find fault with some of the film’s quirky dubbing techniques, but frankly this reviewer doesn’t remember any noteworthy dubbing issues. The soundtrack was well done by the filmmakers involved, and was lovingly restored by our friends at Criterion. There doesn’t seem to be any valid reason to nitpick.

An English Dolby Digital audio track is also included, but has not received the same loving restoration from Criterion. However, the track holds up pretty well (though it showcases a few flaws that the Italian track doesn’t).

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 Stars

*All Italian Language Documentaries include English Subtitles*

Working with De Sica(22:43)

Utilizing contemporary interviews with Suso Cecchi D’Amico (screenwriter – Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan), Enzo Staiola (actor – Bruno in Bicycle Thieves), and Callisto Cosulich (film scholar), this documentary is both informative and entertaining. These participants discuss De Sica and his work on the film. Staiola’s stories are particularly engaging when he discusses how he was cast in the film.

Cesare Zavattini – (55:42)

This 2003 documentary about screenwriter and longtime Vittorio De Sica collaborator, Cesare Zavattini, was directed by Carlo Lizzani. Many sources are interviewed for this informative look at Zavattini’s cinematic achievements (Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D, and others). It will add exponentially to the viewer’s appreciation of Bicycle Thieves, as well as their understanding on neorealism.

Life as It Is – (39:57)

This documentary featuring scholar, Mark Shiel, discuss the origins and qualities of Italian Neorealism and the seven films that Shiel believes are central to the movement. (Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti are all represented here.) His detailed explanation is usually pointed back to Bicycle Thieves without doing any disservice to the other films in question. This is an interesting and informative look at Italian cinema.

Each of these programs are excellent and add a wealth of value to this excellent Blu-ray release.

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Final Words:

Bicycle Thieves is without a doubt one of the best films ever produced, and its influence can still be felt today. De Sica’s masterpiece is an absolutely essential film that belongs in everyone’s collection, and Criterion’s Blu-ray is the best way to experience the film outside of a theater.

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Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s Bicycle Thieves page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/210-bicycle-thieves

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Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Carol

Carol Cover

Distributor: Starz / Anchor Bay 

Release Date: March 15, 2016 

Region: Region A

Length: 118 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4 AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: A DVD edition of this film is also available.

“Our friendship wasn’t really about her work at that point in my budding career as a dramatist. She was so disappointed in all of the adaptations she had seen of her work, even great work, like Strangers on a Train. There was wistfulness about, ‘Gee, maybe when you grow up, and you’re able to do something, maybe you could see about doing a good one.’ It was vague and she would direct me to, actually, four or five of her other books which she was very keen on seeing done well. ‘The Price of Salt’, or ‘Carol’, as it had been re-titled by then, wasn’t on the list.” Phyllis Nagy (Film School Rejects, January 06, 2016)

Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember the name Patricia Highsmith. The director adapted her first novel into one of his most celebrated films: Strangers on a Train. Highsmith’s controversial follow-up was entitled, “The Price of Salt,” and was published under a pseudonym due to the controversial nature of the book’s subject matter.

The Price of Salt - 1st edition

This is the First Edition Hardback cover of “The Price of Salt.” Due to the controversial subject matter, the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” was used at the request of her publisher.

Carol follows two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York. As conventional norms of the time challenge their undeniable attraction, an honest story emerges to reveal the resilience of the heart in the face of change. A young woman in her 20s, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a clerk working in a Manhattan department store and dreaming of a more fulfilling life when she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage. As an immediate connection sparks between them, the innocence of their first encounter dims and their connection deepens. While Carol breaks free from the confines of marriage, her husband (Kyle Chandler) begins to question her competence as a mother as her involvement with Therese and close relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) come to light.

Highsmith fortunately had the opportunity to write about her trailblazing novel when it was re-published under her own name and re-titled Carol in 1990. Her memoirs about the novel are rather enlightening:

“…I had just finished ‘Strangers on a Train,’ but it wasn’t to be published until 1949. Christmas was approaching, I was vaguely depressed and also short of money, and to earn some I took a job as salesgirl in a big department store in Manhattan during the period known as the Christmas rush, which lasts about a month. I think I lasted two and a half weeks.

The store assigned me to the toy section, in my case the doll counter… One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted towards the doll counter with a look of uncertainty – should she buy a doll or something else? – And I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand.

Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light. With the same thoughtful air, she purchased a doll, one of two or three I had shown her, and I wrote her name and address on the receipt, because the doll was to be delivered to an adjacent state. It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.

As usual, I went home after work to my apartment, where I lived alone. That evening I wrote out an idea, a plot, [and] a story about the blondish and elegant woman in the fur coat. I wrote some eight pages in longhand in my then-current notebook or cahier. This was the entire story of ‘The Price of Salt.’ It flowed from my pen as if from nowhere – beginning, middle and end. It took me about two hours, perhaps less…

…I did not immediately start writing the book. I prefer to let ideas simmer for weeks. And, too, when ‘Strangers on a Train’ was published and shortly afterwards sold to Alfred Hitchcock, who wished to make a film of it, my publishers and also my agent were saying, ‘Write another book of the same type, so you’ll strengthen your reputation as…’ As what? ‘Strangers on a Train’ had been published as ‘A Harper Novel of Suspense’ by Harper & Bros, as the house was then called, so overnight I had become a ‘suspense’ writer, though ‘Strangers’ in my mind was not categorised, and was simply a novel with an interesting story.

If I were to write a novel about a lesbian relationship, would I then be labelled a lesbian-book writer? That was a possibility, even though I might never be inspired to write another such book in my life. So I decided to offer the book under another name. By 1951, I had written it. I could not push it into the background for 10 months and write something else, simply because for commercial reasons it might have been wise to write another ‘suspense’ book.

Harper & Bros rejected ‘The Price of Salt,’ so I was obliged to find another American publisher – to my regret, as I much dislike changing publishers. ‘The Price of Salt’ had some serious and respectable reviews when it appeared in hardcover in 1952. But the real success came a year later with the paperback edition, which sold nearly a million copies and was certainly read by more. The fan letters came in addressed to Claire Morgan, care of the paperback house. I remember receiving envelopes of 10 and 15 letters a couple of times a week and for months on end. A lot of them I answered, but I could not answer them all without a form letter, which I never arranged.

My young protagonist Therese may appear a shrinking violet in my book, but those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.

The appeal of ‘The Price of Salt’ was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.

Many of the letters that came to me carried such messages as ‘Yours is the first book like this with a happy ending! We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.’ Others said, ‘Thank you for writing such a story. It is a little like my own story…’ And, ‘I am 18 and I live in a small town. I feel lonely because I can’t talk to anyone…’ Sometimes I wrote a letter suggesting that the writer go to a larger town where there would be a chance to meet more people. As I remember, there were as many letters from men as from women, which I considered a good omen for my book. This turned out to be true. The letters trickled in for years.” -Patricia Highsmith (Afterward to “Carol,” 1989)

Patricia Highsmith

Phyllis Nagy enjoyed a friendship with Patricia Highsmith (author of “The Price of Salt”), and  she used the writer as a basis for her screenplay interpretation of Therese.

The book’s happy (or hopeful) ending was adopted for the film adaptation, and it is this element that sets Carol apart from other films about homosexuality. Todd Haynes directs Phillis Nagy’s screenplay with a level of subtlety and sensitivity that is rarely seen in films of this nature.

“I didn’t know that he would do the film because it’s the first thing he hasn’t written, and I know what that’s like. You might think you can’t, or you don’t want to, or you want to take it in a completely different direction. So I think we were all thrilled, no one more than me, when we spoke and realized that we were simpatico in very important ways. Todd encouraged me to take things that I had always thought were good for it but which had been changed over the years in various polishes for various people.

We went back to something approaching the early draft, which was smarter for having 18 years of experience. So that was great. Todd spoke to me about his love of framing devices and, in particular, Brief Encounter, and so I added that. We talked about a few other things. It was a very good, fruitful, easy process and I think probably easier than he thought it might be from some of his prior experiences.” Phyllis Nagy (Deadline, December 29, 2015)

Grace Kelly - Rear Window

According to Nagy, Carol’s character was expanded from the ghost-like fantasy in Highsmith’s novel using Grace Kelly’s character in “Rear Window” as a template. (“Reading from top to bottom,” that character’s name is Lisa… Carol… Fremont.)

The collaboration was more than simply enjoyable, it was also an enormous critical success. Living up to its groundbreaking source material, the film premiered to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival—and won the festivals’ Queer Palm award. Since this auspicious debut, it has continued to collect both adoration and accolades. The Academy Awards honored the film with six nominations (including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). The film also garnered five Golden Globe® nominations—the most of any film this year—including Best Motion Picture, Drama, alongside nominations for both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama. Blanchett and Mara also received Screen Actors Guild nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively. Other awards and nominations include: nine BAFTA nominations; six Spirit Award nominations; four wins from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography; nine Critics’ Choice nominations, and over 125 Top Ten lists.

Carol - Halfsheet Ad

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected by a standard Blu-ray case with the film’s one sheet art, which is attractive (if not particularly impressive).

The menus utilize footage from the film accompanied by Carter Burwell’s original score. They are at once attractive and easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Edward Lachman’s Oscar nominated Super 16 mm cinematography is represented with a respectable amount of accuracy here. The transfer showcases the film’s grain pattern without allowing the grain to become irregular or distracting. Colors are accurately represented, as are the contrast and brightness levels. Best of all, there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable digital anomalies to distract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The English DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive. The mix seems to pull the viewer into the world in subtle ways, and subtly is a rare commodity. Dialogue, ambience, sound effects, and music seem to be well prioritized at all times. This is a solid sound mix, and one would be hard pressed to find any reason for complaint.

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Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Q & A with Cast and Filmmakers – (29:25)

These excerpts from various cast and crew Q & A sessions is surprisingly interesting and informative. Instead of short clips of various interview statements padded with an overuse of footage from the actual film, viewers can listen to the cast and crew discuss the film and its creation. Fans of the film  should be happy to have this included here.

“Behind the Scenes” Featurette Gallery – (35:56)

While most of these featurettes don’t have a lot in the way of comprehensive “behind the scenes” information, viewers might find some of the commentary interesting. There is also some “behind the scenes” footage of the cast and crew shooting the film. There are eight featurettes in all:

Cate Blanchett as ‘Carol Aird’ – (04:02)

Rooney Mara as ‘Therese Belivet’ – (04:39)

Todd Haynes (Director) – (04:45)

Phillis Nagy (Screenwriter) – (04:58)

Edward Lachman (Cinematographer) – (04:56)

Sandy Powell (Costume Design) – (03:41)

Judy Becker (Production Design) – (04:03)

Carter Burwell (Original Score) – (04:53)

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Final Words:

Carol is a sensitive and engaging adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s follow-up to Strangers on a Train, but the film is worth seeing for other reasons. It has an elegant and graceful simplicity that is rare in contemporary cinema. It easily earns a recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell