The Criterion Collection presents both the English and French language versions of Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story on Blu-ray, presented here on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Both versions are presented in high-definition, encoded at 1080p/24hz, and both come from a restoration taken from 4K scans of the original negative and an interpositive. This release marks the home video debut of the film in North America.
Though both versions are of different lengths (the English version is over 58-minutes while the French version is around 50-minutes) the differences appear to come from slight trims and the use of alternate takes; the two aren’t significantly different from one another. Still, despite the fact they are technically two different films the same amount of effort has been put into both restorations and the two certainly come off looking very similar, if not the same.
Welles’ first colour film (which was a requirement from the producers, a French broadcasting company that planned to use it as the debut program for their switch to colour broadcasting) is fairly experimental in both terms of lighting and the layering of colour in the frame, and the Blu-ray presents said colours rather marvelously. The colours can lean warmer with a yellow hue, though I feel this is intentional since the film actually makes a fairly heavy use of yellow filtered lights in a number of scenes. The “love” scene also tones down this aspect a bit, with whites looking a little whiter. Black levels are decent, though shadow detail is limited in a number of darker scenes.
The restoration has been thorough and I don’t recall any real standouts in ways of damage. There is one shot that did look a bit odd in both versions, coming at about 3-minutes in. The shot in question features Welles sitting against a red background and it goes a bit fuzzy over the area that Welles occupies, which is most noticeable in his face. It’s an odd effect and I couldn’t quite discern if it was source related or an issue with the transfer/restoration. Whatever the case it’s the only instance of something like that in the whole film and the transfer does otherwise remain stable and filmic throughout the runtime of both versions. Overall I thought it looked very filmic.
(Note: All screen grabs below come from the English version) 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Welles fell in love with post-production dubbing in his later films and, like most home video releases of these films (like Criterion’s companion to this release, Chimes at Midnight), the shortcomings from that process get carried over to the PCM mono tracks for both the English and French versions. The French version does use alternate takes with performers speaking French (where they spoke English in a similar take in the English version) and the dialogue mostly matches the mouth movements here. But both Welles and actor Norman Eshley only spoke English for their scenes, so the French dubs for them don’t really gel and feel completely detached.
Still, having said that, it’s not like the English version is much better because even with Welles and Eshley’s characters speaking English the dialogue can still feel detached from the image, which can occasionally be distracting.
Getting past that (which is, of course, completely inherent in the film itself) the sound quality is at least rather good. Compared to Chimes at Midnight—which went through a vigorous audio restoration that also worked to fix many of the synch issues only to still have a few problems that make it hard to hear—the audio for both tracks are less distorted and dialogue is far easier to hear. But it’s still a bit tinny and flat, range severely limited. 6/10
Criterion nicely loads up this edition, which is a good thing considering the film is less than an hour long (the more value the better). As mentioned previously this release does feature both the English and French versions, running 58-minutes and 50-minutes respectively. It’s odd because despite the time difference there isn’t a huge difference between the two. Both versions appear to use most of the same material between them but the French version does use alternate takes where I’m guessing the film’s two French speaking actors, Jeanne Moreau and Roger Coggio, did the scenes speaking French (even though they would be dubbed over later). As to the shorter runtime of the French version I’m guessing it’s a matter of shorter takes or more trims on the end of scenes because nothing stood out as being completely cut out in comparison to the English version. The one disappointing aspect to this release is that there isn’t a feature that compares the two versions, with only François Thomas bringing up the two versions in his interview on this disc (and the only difference he points out is that the French version goes out of its way to mention that Welles’ character is American, which doesn’t happen in the English version). I’d have to do a side-by-side I think to point out all of the differences but when one gets down to it I didn’t notice any major cuts or additions that altered the story.
To this Criterion then adds a number of excellent materials starting with an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, which has been recorded over the English version. It’s less than 59-minutes long but it’s a packed track, Martin going over Welles’ desire in adapting this story and other stories by its author, Karen Blixen (writing here under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen). He spends time going over the production history of the film, Welles’ intentions with it, and even gets into what the story (and Welles) is trying to convey, but also likes to talk about the filmmaker’s use of colour and how he uses it in his compositions. Apart from this film he also talks about Welles’ late career, going over some of his other works, including his unfinished films. Martin’s commentaries are always welcome (this one was actually recorded for an overseas release of the film) and here he yet again offers a solid scholarly contribution, even at less than an hour.
Criterion then packs on a few other intriguing supplements. The most interesting one is the 43-minute documentary simply called Orson Welles, which was created for French television to coincide with the (eventual) premiere of the film on the station. It’s an oddly put together documentary that looks to have been made while Welles was working on The Immortal Story (we get footage of Welles working on the film along with Jeanne Moreau popping up every so often). The piece primarily follows the director around catching his general philosophical musings and stories, whom he shares with whoever will listen, which is just about anybody since he can so easily grab an audience. While we get some fascinating fluff like how Welles prepares a salad, he talks extensively about his work as well, commenting on a piece written about Chimes at Midnight by Cahiers du cinéma, a magazine he criticizes because they “look for symbols that are not there,” calling the whole thing “utterly stupid.” But we also get footage of him talking about his favourite filmmakers, though admits he doesn’t watch many “good” movies for the reason he’s afraid they might influence him in some way (there’s also a rather amusing moment where he jokes with someone about Winston Churchill’s love for That Hamilton Woman and recalls a screening he once did for him of one of his works). Its structure can be a little off-putting: it’s very New Wave in nature and structure, which ultimately doesn’t help it much, but the footage is really good and this supplement ends up probably being one of the gems just for that fact.
Criterion then gets a new interview with actor Norman Eshley who amusingly recalls getting the part and shooting the film (and how horrified he was having his hair dyed blonde). He also shares one large regret he still has. With this Criterion also provides an older interview from 2004 with director of photography Willy Kurant, who was pulled in after the original photographer left because, as Kurant says, he was nervous around Welles (in his interview Thomas says he was fired). Despite not having a lot of experience (he had worked on documentaries and Godard’s Masculin feminine prior to this) Welles wanted his New Wave experience and found his input in using colours to define depth and space rather valuable. Despite the apparent protest of others over what they saw were Kurant’s bewildering techniques (compiled with the fact he was still a novice) Welles was still open to his suggestions and was very happy with the results.
Both interviews, running about 14-minutes each, offer solid stories about the production and Welles working style with both actors and crew, Kurant’s particularly showing that Welles was willing to put his complete trust in them.
Scholar François Thomas then offers up a 25-minute interview, covering the film’s production from early inception (as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle) through its looooong post-production process because Welles was taking forever editing it in between just taking off to work on other projects. This of course led to many issues with distributors and the broadcasting company that wanted its premiere to coincide with its change to colour, who all grew impatient (it of course missed the colour switchover date). Thomas also talks about the rather unique aspects of the film, its style very different from Welles’ other work, and he focuses on the editing and sound design of certain scenes, chiefly the “love” scene and the use of crickets in the audio. He also talks about how Welles would create multiple edits, saving the details on each one so he could jump back and forth between them (he points out Welles would have probably loved modern digital editing, where he could easily save any number of edits). Again it’s a very good overview of the film’s production, working as a nice addendum to Adrian Martin’s already detailed commentary.
The release closes with an insert featuring a short essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who writes mostly about the story’s author and Welles’ fascination (bordering on infatuation) with her, sharing a story where Welles even traveled to see her only to chicken out. It’s short but a great read and wonderfully closes of the package.
Though I would have maybe liked a short piece that explored the two versions a little more closely, I still feel overall that Criterion has put together an near-impeccable package here, covering the film from a good number of angles. 9/10