It’s not perfect, and one has to accept the convention of familiar Hollywood actors playing backwoods types, but Dudley Nichols’ screenplay is intelligent, and the actors manage to dodge clichés that a lesser director might have tolerated, or even encouraged. Any cast headed by such seasoned pros as Walter Huston, Walter Brennan, John Carradine, Eugene Pallette, Ward Bond, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Russell Simpson and Joe Sawyer—and such talented up-and-comers as Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter (both of them impressive), and Virginia Gilmore—can’t easily be dismissed. Nor can the seamless blend of footage actually shot on location at Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp and a meticulous recreation on the Fox back lot and soundstages. Credit the estimable art directors Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright and set decorator Thomas Little, Fox veterans all, for their superb artistry, along with cinematographer Peverell Marley. (Apparently Lucien Ballard started the film and was replaced.) Twilight Time’s Blu-ray disc captures the film’s visual beauty, with its layered scenery and artful lighting.
The relationship of French expatriate Renoir, making his American directorial debut, and his central character, a man on the run played by Walter Brennan, is deftly explored by film historian Julie Kirgo in her eloquent liner notes. Her essays are, in fact, a highlight of every release on this label.
Being able to isolate the music track for Picnic on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray provides a virtual master class in film scoring. Like so many pictures of the 1950s and early '60s, the movie opens “cold,” with action before the credits. A train whistle is the first sound we hear, and it’s a full minute later—timed to William Holden slamming a boxcar door shut—that George Duning’s music kicks in. Duning is somewhat underrated as a film composer, but this lyrical score is proof of his talent. About twenty minutes into the film there is a long (four-minute) cue that begins as Kim Novak is trying on a dress for her mother, Betty Field; a casual conversation turns serious, then erupts into an argument, followed by a reconciliation. Duning effortlessly supports every dramatic turn.
The big Labor Day picnic sequence is an even showier example of how music is integrated into the narrative, opening with a perfect simulation of an old-fashioned brass band, including some instruments that are out of tune! Director Joshua Logan doesn’t reveal the uniformed band right away, but they’re in the scene; the isolated track enables us to hear for ourselves that the people on camera aren’t really playing on the soundtrack. The same is true for a barbershop quartet, two singing sisters, and a bit later, a dance band that plays the swing tune “One, Two, Button My Shoe” (with the great jazz guitarist George Van Eps taking a brief solo). Van Eps’ rhythm guitar is also crucial to the movie’s most famous scene, where Holden and Novak dance to “Moonglow,” which gradually becomes a backdrop for Duning’s “Theme from Picnic.”
If you’ve never explored the workings of a film score, Picnic is a great place to start. It’s especially instructive to see where music is absent.
The repeated use of “Red River Valley” in Swamp Water naturally brings John Ford to mind, although that Fordian anthem isn’t heard in his 1948 cavalry saga Fort Apache, just released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video. The first of the director’s “cavalry trilogy” looks terrific, and there is an excellent featurette about Monument Valley that was produced for an earlier DVD. The most compelling reason to revisit this classic in its new Blu-ray release is to listen to F.X. Feeney’s thoughtful and eloquent commentary. I never fail to marvel at Feeney’s gift of observation and way with words. He understands Ford’s visual symbols as well as the subtext in Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay. In short, Fort Apache is made all the more interesting by listening to this track.
As for the film itself, years of TV shows like Law & Order may have taken some of the edge off Anatomy of a Murder, but Preminger’s canny use of natural locations and his superb casting still pay off one hundred percent. Watching James Stewart and George C. Scott parry in the courtroom is an unalloyed delight. And, needless to say, the crisp black & white production looks perfect in this Criterion release.