Criterion // 1959 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee // March 24th, 2009
Can cinema save a soul?
On the list of essential art house movies, the inclusion of The 400 Blows is without a doubt. It was the first feature by critic-turned-filmmaker François Truffaut, and the highly influential film that kick-started the French New Wave. One of the Criterion Collection's foundation titles (spine number 5), it has been reissued a few times over the years. For cinephiles wondering if the high definition Blu-ray transfer warrants another purchase of the movie, in a word, the answer is absolutement.
Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud, The Pornographer) is a teen on the path to delinquency. His strict teacher, nicknamed "Sourpuss" by the students, has it in for him. His increasingly exasperated parents see him as an inconvenience. A day of playing hooky with his classmate René leads to an escalating series of lies and consequences. It isn't long until Antoine runs away from home and begins committing petty crimes. While it seems every adult in his life has given up on him, Antoine still possesses the will to aspire to something more.
Much has been written about this landmark French film and the DVD Verdict review of The 400 Blows: Criterion Collection from 2006 touches on many of the key characteristics of the movie. Cinephiles have accepted the greatness of this movie but what relevance does it hold for new viewers fifty years after its first release? I hope the timeless, lyrical quality of its storytelling that I connected with when I was a teen in the 1980s still has the same power today. The story of Antoine closely resembles Truffaut's own experience growing up and there's certainly something universal about the restless, young outcast discovering his place in the adult world. Many of us probably didn't have it as tough as Antoine but we remember that teacher who never gave us a break. We know what it feels like when parents and teenagers can no longer communicate. We definitely know the pleasure of finding escape and enchantment at the movies. In real life, his passion for filmmaking rescued Truffaut from the streets. On screen, a movie provides a brief moment of happiness for the Doinel family. Audiences of any age will continue to appreciate The 400 Blows because when even the saddest chapters of our lives can be made into a thing of beauty we can't help but be moved.
Having watched this movie over the years on television, DVD (directly comparing this version against the 2003 release), and a beaten up 16mm print at the local art house theater, I will state for the record that The 400 Blows on Blu-ray is the best I have ever seen and heard this movie. Criterion Blu-ray titles have been setting a high standard for restored, older, foreign movies but I was still amazed that this film from 1959 looks practically brand new on this gorgeous transfer.
The fine details are pretty evident in the buildings during the opening montage as the camera trucks through the streets of Paris. The high contrast monochromatic photography is beautifully rendered with clean, crisp whites and deep, solid blacks. The subtle gradation in the brightest area of the frame makes it quite clear where the sun is trying to burn through the overcast sky. Line details are smooth at every angle even in these scenes involving lots of lateral movement. Fine grain is visible throughout, reminding us of the physical properties of film. Chalk it up to individual taste but I love the grain on old black and white films and here it contributes to the gritty tone of this childhood tale. Viewers that are accustomed to the smooth, clean image that technological advances have given contemporary movies may find the visible grain takes some getting used to.
The benefits of the high definition image are apparent in the sharp texture of everything on screen. The improvement is most noticeable in the clothing. Many of the characters wear dark clothing and it's really striking how the different fabrics and individual patterns are easily discernible. Where one of the school kids appeared to be wearing a soft, fleece material on the DVD, his sweater obviously has a fine, distinct weave in hi-def.
This is not a digitally sanitized version of the film and I'm glad for that. There are still a few shots with a hair at the bottom of frame. Fine scratches and dust can be seen if you look closely -- the extended final shot, for example. I am willing to live with those imperfections as they speak to the realness of the source elements from which the transfer was made. A fifty-year-old film will show age but when the overall picture looks this good, it can wear those minor scars proudly.
The movie's lively soundtrack is the result of good post-production sound mixing. Most of the dialogue was rerecorded in a studio, and it's blended nicely with sound effects and lovely music. The audio presentation here, in uncompressed PCM mono, is excellent. There is no ambient noise, voices are clear and there is a very pleasing, warm tonal range.
The bonus material from the 2006 DVD release is ported to this Blu-ray edition better than intact. The audition footage of the young actors, the newsreel of Léaud in Cannes, two television interviews with Truffaut and a theatrical trailer are included. The archival audition and newsreel footage are still in their original 1.33:1 presentation but in the transfer over they've been given a 1080i upgrade. It doesn't improve the quality of the footage but your TV won't need to switch to standard definition to view these supplements.
The first audio commentary by Brian Stonehill is an academic and historical approach to the movie. Truffaut's history, the production of the movie and how it influenced subsequent films are just some of the topics he discusses. The second commentary with Truffaut's lifelong friend Robert Lachenay, in French with English subtitles, fills in more of the personal details of Truffaut's life.
The four-panel insert includes part of an essay by Annette Insdorf that functions as a great introduction to the film.
Criterion has again included the Timeline feature here, as they seem to be doing for all their Blu-ray editions. This interactive feature lets you search along a horizontal timeline representation of the movie indexed to the chapter stops as well as the topics of the two commentaries. Viewers can also add their own bookmarks for quick access to favorite scenes.
This Blu-ray release of the movie includes all the bonus material from Criterion's 2006 reissue on DVD, making it essentially the identical package but in hi-def. The one thing missing that would have made this the most complete package of The 400 Blows ever is the short film Antoine et Colette. That short chapter in the life of Truffaut's favorite protagonist, part of the anthology film Love at Twenty, was included in Criterion's The Adventures of Antoine Doinel boxed set, released in 2003, along with all the extras of the single-title disc. Owners of that boxed set should definitely hang on to it.
If you don't already have this movie in your collection, The 400 Blows is a must-have Blu-ray. Lovers of French cinema who already have one of the Criterion DVD releases will have to consider their purchase solely on the benefits of the audio-visual improvement. There are big gains to be seen on the image side, but the extras remain the same.
Still not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audition Footage