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View From The Couch

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TITANIC (1997). Sure, the Titanic may have been a big boat, but even its enormity couldn't have competed with the size of writer-director James Cameron's ego. Am I wrong, or is the new Special Collector's Edition of Titanic the first instance when a director had the gall to place himself on the cover artwork alongside his actors? At any rate, given the skeletal Titanic DVD that's been on the market for years, it was only a matter of time before the record holder for biggest box office hit ($600 million, handily surpassing Star Wars' $460 million), most Oscar nominations (14, tied with All About Eve) and most Oscar wins (11, tied with Ben Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) would be rewarded with a lavish DVD release. Years removed from all the hysteria that surrounded this film (which was accompanied by best-selling tie-in books, a couple of CDs, TV specials, etc.), it's easier to step back and assess it more soberly. As storytelling, it's exceedingly shaky, with a touching love story (beautifully enacted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) hampered by one of the worst villains in film history (Billy Zane, even more cartoonish than Snidely Whiplash) as well as Cameron's often laughable dialogue. But as movie spectacle, it's a towering achievement, and the second half of the film, featuring the destruction of the "unsinkable" ship (the visual effects are seamless), is as harrowing as any cinematic vision I've experienced over the last decade. The three-disc DVD set includes a wide range of extras, including audio commentary by Cameron, a second audio commentary with Winslet and other cast and crew members, a third audio commentary from a historical perspective, 45 minutes of deleted scenes (including an alternate ending), various making-of features, and, of course, the music video for Celine Dion's ubiquitous "My Heart Will Go On."

Movie: ***

Extras: *** 1/2

THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953). Nitroglycerin figures prominently in the plot of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, but it's the movie itself that's truly explosive, a powder keg of social outrage and cinematic thrills. This isn't one to watch on the couch with Grandma or the kids: If the level of nail-biting suspense doesn't kill them, then the piece's nihilistic worldview will surely lay them out. Set in a Latin American hellhole named Las Piedras, an impoverished town that hasn't been helped in the least by the American company that's been raping the surrounding land for its oil, the film focuses on the international denizens who have come to the area and are now in search of the means to escape it. When the US company seeks volunteers to drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin over 300 miles of rocky terrain (one bump could mean bye-bye), many apply but only four are chosen: gruff Mario (Yves Montand), bullying Jo (Charles Vanel), ice-cold Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) and blustery Luigi (Folco Lulli). Although Clouzot treats everything in his film with the same lack of sentimentality, the movie garnered a reputation in this country for being anti-American; as Dennis Lehane reports in the essay booklet that accompanies this set, Time magazine wrote that The Wages of Fear is "a picture that is surely one of the most evil ever made." The most interesting extra feature in this two-disc DVD set, then, is a look at the cuts that were made for the film's US release back in 1955, trims that were mandated mainly to downplay the unfeeling actions of the American oil company. Other extras include a documentary on Clouzot and a 1988 interview with Montand.

Movie: *** 1/2

Extras: ***

LIFEBOAT (1944). There are many reasons to watch Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, but chief among them is the opportunity to catch a rare film appearance by Tallulah Bankhead. A legendary stage star whose movie career never took off, she was handed her meatiest screen role by Hitchcock and didn't let him down. In real life, she was as saucy as Mae West with the sexual innuendoes, and as quick-witted as Bette Davis with the lethal put-downs (it's no surprise she and Davis hated each other). The movies obviously neutered these scandalous traits, but Lifeboat nevertheless offered her a chance to show the masses a bit of that temperamental spark. She plays a self-centered writer who finds herself stranded on the title vessel after the ship on which she's traveling gets torpedoed by a German sub. Among the other passengers are three seamen of varying dispositions (macho John Hodiak, happy-go-lucky William Bendix and pensive Hume Cronyn), a millionaire industrialist (Henry Hull), a level-headed nurse (Mary Anderson), a soft-spoken steward (Canada Lee) and, most troublesome, the duplicitous captain (Walter Slezak) of the U-Boat that shelled their ship in the first place. Working with a story concocted by John Steinbeck and scripted by Jo Swerling, Hitchcock and his crew insure that the movie never feels constrictive even though it was all filmed on a single set (a feat he would repeat four years later with Rope). Incidentally, if you're wondering how Hitchcock managed to include his customary cameo when all the action takes place on the ocean, check out the "before" and "after" weight loss ad in a newspaper floating by in the water! Bankhead did earn the Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics, though the Academy bypassed her completely and instead nominated Hitchcock's direction, Steinbeck's original story and Glen MacWilliams' cinematography. DVD extras include audio commentary by film professor Drew Casper, a short making-of feature and a photo gallery.

Movie: *** 1/2

Extras: ** 1/2

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