Warner Bros (1974 / 2009), single disc, 2.40:1, 113 mins, Rated R, $19.98 (available online only from the Warner Archive Collection)
In the August of 2009, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced a somewhat groundbreaking new product line, the WB Archive Collection. The Studio has built up an impressive, if actually unwieldy, library of catalog titles, from the Warner Bros. Pictures they naturally own to the numerous buyouts of other output, most notably the immense number of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics through the acquisition of Turner Entertainment as well as those from RKO, Lorimar and various other smaller distributors including many independents. But what to do with all this content!? Turner Classic Movies provides at least one output for some of the more obscure titles in the line-up; titles that may have their fans but not the kinds of numbers clambering to own them and make a mainstream DVD release a moderate hit.
Step forward the WB Archives, where the current video masters for many of these films are dusted down and encoded using a propriety process to blank DVD discs, simultaneously providing fans with some of the hard to get titles they’ve been waiting patiently for and a way for the Studio to get some of their more requested (but way down the restoration line) titles out on disc (and bring in a little revenue on masters that would otherwise stay lined up on shelves). Some have bemoaned the lack of remastering, or the absence of extras, and especially the $20 price point. But I say “phooey!” to that: I remember a time back in the LaserDisc days when an average, no-frills disc would set one back almost twice that cost, without the anamorphic enhancement, or sometimes even the original aspect ratio.
So, for those that can deal with the fact that there is a cost implication to owning some rarities on DVD without any corner logos, and can appreciate that these are made to order discs, with fully printed packaging and, in many cases, the film’s theatrical trailer bundled in where available, the WB Archive Collection is for you. Serving up good quality prints that, while they may not have been restored to pristine condition, are still better than broadcast television or even LaserDisc, the series is proving to be a strong line for the Studio, who have even tackled the pricing issues by offering “two for one” deals, and the like, on themed collections (such as the Lex Barker Tarzans or a selection of MGM Silents). The collection is an eclectic assortment of old and new, and among the titles there are some that will probably temp hardcore cineastes…
By the time of Freebie And The Bean’s release in 1974, we had already seen tough cops throw out the rule book to dispense justice, with Steve McQueen as Bullitt and Gene Hackman in The French Connection, and tough cops with attitude, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry injecting a hint of humour into the genre. Before that we had seen such outright slapstick cops as Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, a role also taken on by Alan Arkin in a very odd 1968 film of that title. Arkin, a big star at the time after his standout performance in Catch 22 (and before finding renewed recognition in The Rocketeer, Edward Scissorhands and, more recently, his Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine), appears again here, teamed up with The Godfather’s James Caan in a prototype detective double act that would launch a cop duo genre of its own.
Unlike later team ups, both men here are slightly cuckoo; both good policemen but each willing to step out of line at the right – or more usually wrong – moment. This sees them bickering with each other like an old married couple while questioning a suspect, annoying the heck out of their weary Lieutenant and swapping some choice shtick while on stakeout (I also seem to recall an extra scene or two, but this is apparently full and uncut). Conventions that would later become staples in these kinds of movies, such as the two’s irregular approaches to their jobs and their love-hate relationship, still feel fresh, and it was fun to catch up with the film again, my not having seen it fully since watching it with my Dad back in the 1980s on TV. But be warned that this isn’t family fare, the strong language (though used for comic effect) and stronger violence do earn the adult R rating, as Freebie (so called for always trying to land something for nothing) and the Bean (short for his name Benito) attempt to keep a witness alive in – where else? – San Francisco but end up causing all kinds of chaotic mayhem.
There are some good set pieces too, including a good couple of inevitable large scale, over the top chases and a well played (as directed by Richard Rush) shootout climax at the Super Bowl stadium, and although some of the gags are dangerously un-politically correct by today’s standards, it comes as no surprise to find that the film was close to emerging as a commercial DVD release having been announced previously by the Studio. In any event, this disc is fine, with an added trailer likely to have been the only thing included on any such wider release anyway. By all accounts, Freebie And The Bean did well at the box office, and I was going to say it was a surprise that they didn’t come back in a sequel, or that the characters didn’t pop up on television for a run – but in fact they did, in a very short lived TV version with Hector Elizondo. Though that show didn’t prove to be a hit, this big screen Seventies slice of comedy drama cop work is an underrated movie whose influence is still being felt in every 48 Hours, Bad Boys or any number of Lethal Weapons and their like today.
Being “manufactured on demand” titles, it’s understandable that the Warner Archive discs would be bare-bones, generally lacking subtitles and all using the same themed main menu, but occasionally they surprise with an added trailer here and there. Each disc opens with a sixty second promo for the Archive Collection concept, highlighting among some of the films available in the ongoing series. The discs are not chapter indexed but the films can be skipped through at ten minute intervals, so it’s easy enough to bookmark the nearest point to favorite scenes. Very welcome is the inclusion of the film’s original theatrical trailer, shown in 4:3 “fullframe” in pan and scan format, a little rough but satisfactory enough in presentation.
If there’s one area where the WB Archive Collection doesn’t quite shine as bright as their more commercially promoted cousins, it’s in the packaging. Not that there’s anything wrong in the artwork itself: though there’s a basic design template for these releases in place, each title retains their original logos and poster or publicity images, while the synopses and info on the back are tailor made, so while they all feel uniform, each is different. The lack of enthusiasm comes with the cases themselves, the sleeves being inserted into what can feel like second hand cases; bulky low cost versions of a regular keepcase that don’t come shrinkwrapped, which kind of spoils the excitement. I’ve instantly swapped these cumbersome cases for a clean set, but really these should feel “newer” than they do, especially for the price. Although the discs are not quite of the DVD-R variety (Warners say they use specific discs and software that make them more robust than home-made creations), the color surface print is as good as any commercial release, adding to the authenticity of these basic but official releases.
In terms of images, Warners has been very honest and very clear about the sources for these releases: no new restoration or remastering has been done and these are basically the current video masters for these titles. On closer inspection, one can see that a little care has been taken (what would be the point of simply reusing decades old transfers and asking us to pay for them?) and the results are pleasing. It’s obvious these are also new transfers of existing prints, since each film is presented in its original aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced in 16:9 where appropriate, a presentation that itself would require new transfers as opposed to the TV and LD copies of old.
The format can change between titles, with some progressively transferred while others can be interlaced, but the effect is the same: very good versions of otherwise hard to find movies. I was particularly impressed by the stability of the elements used and the solidity of the coloring and, despite a few nicks and flecks here and there, these are the best I’ve ever seen any of these titles looking on my display.
As with the image, Warners have been fortunate in sourcing very good audio for the tracks included on these discs. Considering that these masters have been either used for TV or LaserDisc transfers in the past, or have been newly minted for future use, one can feel safe in the knowledge that the mixes offered are well up to the Studio’s stringent quality levels. Rest assured that Warners hasn’t just simply used the nearest old print with a scratchy, humming soundtrack: these are all again as good as can be expected without going the whole 5.1 remix or restoration route.
Due to their age, most of the tracks are in their original mono configurations, but are all direct sounding and clear. Freebie And The Bean can feel a little muffled, though this is a result of the recording process and one may find themselves playing with the volume to find a happy medium between Arkin and Caan’s intentional mumbling of their lines and the screeching tyres and crashes.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
There really isn’t anything to worry about in going ahead and making some choice picks among the many titles already available and those being added each month. We’ve all had commercially pressed discs go wrong on us, and the worry about the DVD-R type discs here can’t be said to be warranted: each title played fine in the three or four different machines I tested them out on. With surprisingly better than expected audio and video qualities, and even a trailer often thrown in, the slightly high pricing is an issue, but will probably be overlooked by those that understand this is a decent effort from the Studio to get more films out into the marketplace, and the only genuine way for fans to own these titles. I’m a supporter, with another selection of titles already on my wish list, and a request for the likes of Hot Millions (starring Peter Ustinov), The Little Hut (featuring David Niven), and George Pal’s vastly underrated supernatural thriller The Power (directed by Byron Haskin) to be pulled from the archive and made available on disc. Keep collecting!
and many others directly from the online store at WB ARCHIVE COLLECTION