Days of Heaven
The Criterion Collection
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One-of-a-kind filmmaker-philospher Terrence Malick has created some of the most visually arresting movies of the twentieth century, and his glorious period tragedy Days of Heaven, featuring Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros, stands out among them. In 1910, a Chicago steel worker (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his supervisor and flees to the Texas panhandle with his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) and little sister (Linda Manz) to work harvesting wheat in the fields of a stoic farmer (Sam Shepard). A love triangle, a swarm of locusts, a hellish fire-Malick captures it all with dreamlike authenticity, creating at once a timeless American idyll and a gritty evocation of turn-of-the-century labor.
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There are a few soft moments in the transfer, but nothing that jars the spell, and I can't imagine a person with sensibilities to enjoy this film will be anything but endeared to the moments when its age shows. Meanwhile the great majority of the time the screen is just stunning.
It seems to me that older color films with a lot of outdoor scenes (The Searchers looks amazing) might make the very best looking blu-rays. The newer special-effects, super-crisp movies are nice, too, and I guess technically more perfect images, but there is something heartmelting about the way the old ones come out.
Highly recommend this blu-ray.
When I need an example of absolute perfection - my opinion - in cinematography, this is the film I would always choose. So many isolated shots come to mind - a wine glass sitting on a riverbed underwater with a fish swimming by; five guys, conversing quietly in another language as they walk, bundled against winter; the panic of animals in a brushfire, a burning tractor coming out of a fire at night like a machine from hell - as well as spooky, ghostly sights of people around a campfire at night on a rivershore; faces that you would not normally consider beautiful taking on a luminous quality because of the talent of the filming. The story almost takes a back seat to the filmwork, although it is nearly a Greek tragedy; Bill, Linda, and Abby, migrant workers scraping to survive and stay together (Bill and Linda are sister and brother; Abby is Bill's lover) escape a situation in Chicago (Bill has inadvertently killed a bullheaded boss) by jumping a train loaded down with immigrants and ride to the wheatfields of the Texas Panhandle, where they become just three more harvesters until the owner, played with a sweet vulnerability by Sam Shepard, catches sight of Abby in the field and falls in love with her. Bill sees this in his unfocused mind as a way for his little group to advance, after he overhears a conversation between Shepard and a doctor which suggests that the young landowner is dying. Bill persuades Abby to accept the owner's offer of marriage - which, to her credit, she seems initially reluctant to do - reasoning that she can make the guy happy for the little time he has left and then the fortune he has will be all theirs. His plan hits a snag over three things; a suspicious foreman, who loves the landowner like a son and distrusts the trio of migrants right now; the landowner seems to hit his second wind after marrying Abby; and, the biggest bad thing, Abby falls in love with her new husband. Left out frustrated in the cold, suffering unending animosity from the foreman, Bill does the only intelligent thing he can think of and leaves, only to return some time later. From there things go very badly.
This movie gives a real flavour of what the early 1900s must have been like - the serendipity of a travelling circus, apparently out of gas, who land on the owner's property and give performances in exchange for room and board (and probably gas)- these things happened then, impromptu little entertainments that seemed to have little relevance to the surroundings but which were eagerly looked for - diversions were few and far between, folks - and at one point, the newformed family group runs to meet and wave at Woodrow Wilson's passing train. The ordinary people doing the harvesting, though only touched on, are clear and real; you've seen these people in town, working, playing, fighting. And the pathos of the underclass comes out in something Linda Manz's character says halfway through in a voiceover: "You're only here once, and you should have it nice."
This movie is tragic and beautiful, with good performances, especially from Linda Manz as the hapless younger sister who is at the mercy of circumstances she is powerless to control, and who learns the cruel lesson so many like her had to learn in those days; how to survive on your own. Ms. Manz pretty much disappeared from film after that and returned to private life. Too bad - she was a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways. In fact, the only people who really advanced filmwise after this were Richard Gere and Sam Shepard - although Gere isn't as good yet as he could be (again, my opinion) and Sam Shepard is underused or too preoccupied with his writing. I highly recommend this movie to cinematography aficianados and to anyone who likes a good period piece told with great sensitivity and minimal dialog.
The director of photography, Nestor Almendros, has obtained an Oscar for his work and the least one can say is that he deserved it. In fact, DAYS OF HEAVEN offers a breathtaking trip in the heart of America. Terrence Malick films as well the most little animals as the vast landscapes in order to emphasize the actions of Man on Nature. The machines brought by the industrial revolution in this idyllic land appear as monsters.
In this - Hell and Paradise - scheme, no wonder that humans seem doomed to sin. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams don't accept the poor and working life they're condemned to and, as soon as the occasion comes, will lie, cheat and kill.
The uneasiness we feel during DAYS OF HEAVEN comes from the strangeness of the commentary of Linda Manz, the 13th year old girl whose voice will haunt you for a long time. Her innocent vision of the events she witnesses is one of the reason DAYS OF HEAVEN stays, 20 years after its theatrical release, as an UFO in Hollywood production.
A DVD for the movie lover.
NB: Ennio Morricone gives here one of the best musical score of his career.