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.

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“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.

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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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Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, ‘Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?’ Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

– Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood)

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times, August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

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Box Set Art 1

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The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

Menu 1

Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” –The Criterion Collection

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell