The Criterion Collection has some of the most anal-retentive fans in the history of collecting. So I wonder how fans might stock 3 Women and The Four Feathers. Perhaps just by the number in the catalog, but with 3 Women – the Robert Altman film from 1977 starring Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duvall – does it get to go in a number section or in the T’s? And if you have a number section, shouldn’t Four Feathers – the 1939 adventure spectacle from Zoltan Korda, starring John Clements and Ralph Richardson – go in it? However you file them both are now out on Blu-ray and our reviews follow after the jump.
When talking about Robert Altman’s career, I like to say that he’s the Howard Hawks of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation. Like Hawk,s he spent his career jumping all over the map of genre films. He made war films (M*A*S*H), westerns (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), films noir (The Long Goodbye), musicals (Nashville), horror (3 Women), Hollywood comedies (The Player), and numerous stops in-between, Altman has made films in nearly every genre and has always put his stamp on his work. And more so than Hawks, Altman’s imprint is so obvious and overwhelming that his genre-hopping tendencies can get lost under his auteur sensibilities. Altman’s 1977 film 3 Women is another one of his genre-hops, and one of the last good films he made in that heady 70’s period.
Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) is a shy, waifish girl who finds work in a solarium and is immediately attracted to fellow coworker Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), a chatty space-cadet forever obsessing over making recipes she’s learned from magazines. When Millie’s roommate moves out, Pinky takes the opportunity to get even closer to her idol. Though Pinky may think Millie has her stuff together, in reality she’s treated poorly by most of the people around her, which Millie either brushes off or is totally unaware of. But Pinky is fascinated, spending her time alone, snooping around, and reading Millie’s journal. And when Millie is around, Pinky tries to appease her and fit in, but she never understands how to act around adults.
The third woman is Willie Hart (Janice Rule), a mostly mute and pregnant character who spends her time painting violent murals, while her husband is the talkative, heavy drinking, philandering, would-be cowboy Edgar (Robert Fortier). After a night in which Millie sleeps with Edgar, Pinky makes a suicidal jump into their apartment complex’s pool and ends up in the hospital. Though Millie had grown tired of Pinky’s weirdness, the accident makes Millie take after Pinky – even going so far as to find Pinky’s parents and quitting her job. But when Pinky wakes up from her coma, roles are reversed when Pinky becomes the vixen Millie’s always wanted to be and attracts the people Millie has always tried to impress.
And from there the film takes another turn that unites the three women after a tragedy and a comeuppance that one wants to wonder if David Lynch saw before making Mulholland Dr. – though both owe something to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Paced in a deliberately dreamlike quality, with Altman using his patented long, lackadaisical takes that drift around and pick up on whatever conversation seems to be happening around the camera, 3 Women is a tonal piece that is more interesting than great. The film’s reputation had grown – perhaps out of proportion – due to its unavailability (it wasn’t until Criterion issued the film on DVD in 2004 that it was ever on home video) but there is much to recommend. Shelley Duvall creates little middle ground with her acting techniques, but she simply “is” on screen; one of those performers who may not have much range but is never fake, while Spacek does a masterful job of conveying both the virginal Pinky and her later incarnation as a vixen. And though the ending may not make a lot of narrative sense, the dreamlike nature of the piece makes it satisfying in and of itself.
The Criterion Collection presents 3 Women in widescreen (2.35:1) and DD 1.0 audio. This transfer is a modest improvement over the original DVD release – obviously you’re getting the benefit of better picture quality, but the master and color are the same. All of the supplements are also replicated, with a great commentary by Robert Altman. He talks about how the film was conceived in a dream while his wife was sick, and he talks about his process and happy accidents, and his technique. It’s a great talk from one of the masters. The disc also comes with two trailers, two TV posts, and still galleries.
The nice thing about Criterion issuing The Four Feathers is that it gives the film a leg up as a classic. It was released in 1939, and that was one of those freak cinematic years, an anomaly of riches. A brief list of films released in 1939 would include Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Gunga Din, and The Rules of the Game. Today, whenever a cinematic year feels like a stacked deck of great movies, ’39 becomes the measuring stick. Now, The Four Feathers is a ripping adventure yarn that’s one of the best of its kind. And if it gets aced out of a “best of” 1939 list, it’s only because there’s so much to choose from. Still it’s a really good.
The Favershams have a long history of being involved in the military, so it is expected of son Harry (John Clements) to do his duty to Crown and country. But having been raised on tales of bitter victories, when it’s announced his crew is to ship out to the Sudan, he decides to resign his post, in part because of his looming marriage to Ethne Burroughs (June Deprez). Logical though it may be, his three best friends send him feathers to denote his cowardice – the coup de grace is the fourth feather, this one from his fiancée.
Saddled with the charge of desertion, Harry concocts a plan to reach the front by pretending to be from a tribe of mute Arabs, and then he helps his friends in order to return their feathers. His first feathered friend is Capt. John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), whom he must not only keep safe from a midnight raid, but must also look after as he’s gone blind from staring at the sun – and Harry refuses to reveal his identity. Durrance was the other beau after Ethne’s heart, and when he is sent home, the two get engaged – but if Harry survives there might be another battle for her hand.
Those weaned on digital spectacle may find The Four Feathers a bit slow, and a bit British, and — like many movies from its time — politically incorrect (the Sudanese are referred to as “fuzzy wuzzies” both in the film and the trailer, which might be more offensive if it wasn’t so antiquated). But as it builds to its prison-break conclusion, one can see why A.E.W. Mason’s story has been adapted for the screen seven times (most recently in 2002), and why the 1955 version Storm on the Nile borrowed footage from this release. It’s an epic adventure film with a very simple story about honor and respect, and 1939’s adaptation remains definitive. This is a grand story well told, and it’s easy to see why Criterion would want it in their collection.
Criterion presents The Four Feathers in a good original aspect ratio transfer (1.33:1) and monaural DD 2.0 audio. For a Technicolor production, the film did not go the 4K restoration route, so it doesn’t look as sharp as the Warner releases of Gone with the Wind or Wizard of Oz, but it looks better than it’s ever looked on home video. Extras include a commentary by Charles Drazin on the film and its makers. Solid track. The director’s son David Korda (23 min.) talks about his father Zoltan, while “A Day at Denham” (10 min.) is a newsreel that goes behind the scenes at London Film Production’s studio while the film was shooting. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.