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

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Blu-ray Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train DVD front cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: 09/Oct/2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:40:49

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 29.91 Mpbs)

Main Audio: 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 768 Kbps, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio:

French Dolby Digital Mono

German Dolby Digital Mono

Italian Dolby Digital Mono

Spanish Dolby Digital Mono

Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono

Japanese Dolby Digital Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German SDH, Italian SDH

Ratio: 1.36:1

Bitrate: 31 Mbps

Notes: This title has also had a few DVD releases. The most notable of these is a 2004 2-Disc Special Edition (which contains the same special features that are included on this Blu-ray release).

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“For your information, Strangers on a Train was not an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with.” –Alfred Hitchcock

Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s undisputed classics. The film was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who would go on to write The Talented Mr. Ripley. The novel is quite different from the novel, but one can see why it appealed to Hitchcock. The wrong man scenario had already been a favorite of the director, but the line between guilt and innocence had always been clearly drawn. In Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines actually had murderous thoughts about his wife. He benefited from her death and this makes the familiar themes even stronger than in the director’s previous work.

Alfred Hitchcock originally had hired Raymond Chandler to work on the script, but the working relationship was unsatisfying for both men. Chandler had a disagreeable temperament and had infamously clashed with Billy Wilder when they worked together on Double Indemnity. His personality clashed with Hitchcock’s working method of being actively involved in the writing process. He became so aggravated with the director that he was not above making cruel passive-aggressive comments. One day Chandler remarked loudly (and within earshot of the director), “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!” Needless to say, the director looked elsewhere for a writer to help him adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel into a screenplay.

We’d sit together and I would say, ‘Why not do it this way?’ and he’d answer, ‘Well, if you can puzzle it out, what do you need me for?’ …The work he did was no good and I ended up with Czenzi Ormonde, a woman writer who was one of Ben Hecht’s assistants. When I completed the treatment, the head of Warner’s tried to find someone to do the dialogue, and very few writers would touch it. None of them thought it was any good.” –Alfred Hitchcock

To say that Chandler’s ego was bruised may well be the understatement of the century. He was livid and let Hitchcock know this in a letter dated December 6th, 1950.

“Dear Hitch,

In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing your mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a ‘far less brilliant mind than mine’ to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time. [Signed: ‘Raymond Chandler’]-Raymond Chandler (The Raymond Chandler Papers)

With all of the trouble that Hitchcock had during the scripting stage, it is even more amazing that the end result has become one of the director’s most recognized and well loved classics. Perhaps this is because the film featured one of the most memorable villains in Hitchcock’s canon. Robert Walker’s portrayal of Bruno is one of the highlights of the film. He exudes a slimy charm that does little to camouflage the character’s many kinks, but goes a long way in creating sympathy for the psychopath. The public adored the film, and critics seemed to disagree with Chandler’s opinion of the script. One such example is the warm review that was published in Variety.

“Given a good basis for a thriller in the Patricia Highsmith novel [script adaption by Whitfield Cook] and a first-rate script, Hitchcock embroiders the plot into a gripping, palm-sweating piece of suspense.” -Variety (December 31, 1950)

There were a few critics that were less than impressed with the film. Bosley Crowthers wrote a decidedly hostile review of the film.

“…Hitchcock again is tossing a crazy murder story in the air and trying to con us into thinking that it will stand up without support. And again his instigator of evil is a weirdly unbalanced young man who almost succeeds in enmeshing a young tennis star in a murder plot…

…Perhaps there will be those in the audience who will likewise be terrified by the villain’s darkly menacing warnings and by Mr. Hitchcock’s sleekly melodramatic tricks. Certainly, Mr. Hitchcock is the fellow who can pour on the pictorial stuff and toss what are known as “touches” until they’re flying all over the screen. From the slow, stalking murder of a loose girl in a tawdry amusement park to a “chase” and eventual calamity aboard a runaway merry-go-round, the nimble director keeps piling “touch” and stunt upon “touch.” Indeed, his desire to produce them appears his main impulse in this film.

But, for all that, his basic premise of fear fired by menace is so thin and so utterly unconvincing that the story just does not stand. And the actors, as much as they labor, do not convey any belief — at least, not to this observer, who will give Hitchcock character plenty of rope…

…Also, it might be mentioned that there are a few inaccuracies in this film that may cause some knowing observers considerable skeptical pause — such as the evidence that you get to the Washington Union Station by going into Virginia over the Memorial Bridge. Also a purist might question how a tennis star could race around Washington half the night and then win three grueling sets of tennis in a Forest Hills tourney the next day.

Frankly, we feel that Mr. Hitchcock is “touching” us just a bit too much and without returning sufficient recompense in the sensation line.” -The New York Times (July 4, 1951)

Needless to say, this opinion was not shared by the majority. The film was a massive success. The film is often listed as one of Hitchcock’s best and is essential viewing. Roger Ebert even included the film in his list of “Great Movies.”

“…The movie is usually ranked among Hitchcock’s best (I would put it below only Vertigo, Notorious, Psycho and perhaps Shadow of a Doubt), and its appeal is probably the linking of an ingenious plot with insinuating creepiness. That combination came in the first place from Highsmith, whose novels have been unfairly shelved with crime fiction when she actually writes mainstream fiction about criminals…” -Chicago Sun Times (January 1, 2004)

Those who have yet to see the film are advised to remedy this unfortunate oversight.

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The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is housed in the standard blue case with new cover art. I must admit that I prefer the artwork used for the 2-disc Special Edition DVD release of the film. I believe that it used some of the original promotional artwork for the film.

Strangers on a Train DVD back cover

The static menu utilizes the same artwork and is supported by music from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for the film. 

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers provides Hitchcock fans with a near perfect image transfer. The film is notable for being the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s successful collaboration with Robert Burks, who would work on all of the master’s subsequent films through Marnie (with the notable exception of Psycho). Burks’ noir-esque cinematography looks especially crisp on this transfer. The contrast is stark and solid with rich blacks and solid whites. Shadow detail is also excellent and free from crush. The picture exhibits wonderful clarity and the added resolution enhances details that were lost in standard definition transfers of the film. The film remains faithful to its celluloid source and features a cinematic layer of grain. There is no noticeable DNR or Edge enhancement marring the image. The only issue that one might notice is the occasional nick or speck of dirt on the print (and they would have to really be looking for them to notice their existence).

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Sound Quality: 

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The lossless 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio sounds better than it has ever sounded (and likely as good as it will ever sound in the future). The track exhibits remarkable fidelity, but there is a certain thinness to certain areas of the track (notably with the music). These issues seem inherent in the source and are never distracting. The dialogue and effects were well mixed and the track represents the best possible listening experience available.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Preview Version of Strangers on a Train – (SD) – (01:42:57)

The infamous “Preview Version” of Strangers on a Train was once referred to as the “British Version” due to a labeling error. The film was previewed prior to release with this version and then altered for release. This version of the film was given a limited theatrical release in 1996.

This early cut of the film runs about two minutes longer and ends differently than the theatrical cut. The theatrical version has the superior ending, but I prefer the longer opening train sequence on this cut of the film.

This feature is presented in standard definition, but looks a bit better than it did on the 2004 DVD release of the film.

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Audio Commentary

The commentary track includes quite a long list of participants (some more engaging than others). I was surprised that one of the more interesting commentators was Andrew Wilson (Patricia Highsmith’s biographer), who discussed the film’s source novel. There is also a short interview excerpt from Whitfield Cook (who worked with Hitchcock on the film’s treatment). This was one of the more interesting inclusions. Actress Kasey Rogers discusses her memories of shooting the film and her comments are extremely welcome. Perhaps the best commentator was Hitchcock himself (via his interview with Peter Bogdanovich).

Less engaging are comments from people who worked with the director on later films. Joseph Stefano seems a bit out of place here. He discusses Strangers on a Train, but the fact that he is discussing a film that he wasn’t involved with is a bit awkward. The list goes on. This is certainly an engaging listen, but it is a rather uneven track. Warner Brothers should be applauded for their efforts in attempting to provide fans with an informative commentary track. One must remember that the film is 62 years old and most of the cast and crew who worked on the film are now deceased.

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Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic – (SD) – (00:36:40)

This is the closest that the disc comes to a “making of” documentary on the film. The documentary features Farley Granger, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, Robert Walker Jr., and several film scholars and biographers. The piece is consistently interesting, and offers viewers a few ‘behind the scenes’ stories from the set. Andrew Wilson also discusses differences in the novel and Hitchcock’s film and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is briefly mentioned as well. This is not as comprehensive as one might prefer, but this 2004 supplement is worth seeing.

Strangers on a Train: The Victim’s P.O.V. – (SD) – (00:07:22)

Kasey Rogers (alias Laura Elliott) discusses portraying Miriam in the film. One wonders why Mrs. Rogers wasn’t included in the disc’s “making of” documentary, but this featurette is extremely welcome and possibly one of the better supplements included on the disc.

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Strangers on a Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan – (SD) – (00:12:46)

Contemporary director, M. Night Shyamalan discusses his admiration of the film. It is a curious addition to the disc.

The Hitchcocks on Hitch – (SD) – (00:11:20)

This feature includes home movies of Hitchcock and his family supplemented by interviews with his daughters and granddaughters about their memories of Alfred Hitchcock. This featurette focuses on Hitchcock’s family life and this makes it a slightly more sentimental experience. Fans of the director will welcome this featurette.

Newsreel Footage: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Historical Meeting” – (SD) – (00:01:08)

This silent newsreel footage is a curious inclusion. It is difficult to decipher what is happening without the sound.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (00:02:34)

This is perhaps not as amusing as some of the director’s later trailers, but it is always interesting to see how classic films were sold to audiences.

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Final Words:

Warner Brothers has given Strangers on a Train a wonderful Blu-ray release that includes a near perfect high definition image and a respectable collection of supplementary material

Review by: Devon Powell