Judge Bill Treadway had to put this classic on pause while he went and danced on a nearby beach.
Arguably one of the most passionate studies of human nature ever put on film.
In the year 1964, a small independent venture was about to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Although it was based on a well-loved novel and starred an established Oscar-winning actor, the supporting cast and director were little known outside of the critical establishment and a small circle of film buffs. The project had been turned down by every major studio in town. It was a small black-and-white film released as widescreen color photography was beginning to become the absolute format of choice.
However, when Zorba the Greek arrived on the scene on December 17, 1964, few would anticipate the immense critical and commercial success that would be lavished on the film. It even received seven Oscar nominations, winning three in a particularly tight year.
Just in time to celebrate the film's fortieth anniversary, Fox has issued Zorba the Greek in a beautifully restored DVD edition that truly deserves the status of studio classic.
Facts of the Case
British author Basil (Alan Bates, Far from the Madding Crowd) decides to tackle his writer's block the only way he knows how: by going to a faraway location. He decides to return to Crete, the site of his late father's now-closed mine. While traveling to the island, Basil meets Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn, Lust for Life), a gale in the cookie jar of life. Zorba's brash demeanor and lust for life are in stark contrast to the reserved, shy Basil, but he manages to talk his way into a job at the mine.
At Crete, both Basil and Zorba end up entangled in romance and adventure. Zorba's romance with the lonely Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova, A High Wind in Jamaica) manages to change the lives of both Zorba and Basil, with the latter realizing that life is meant for living, not dwelling in misery and aloofness.
Zorba the Greek was adapted from a novel by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. Michael Cacoyannis, who wrote, produced, and directed this film version, keeps the ingredients that make Kazantzakis's novel so memorable: the emphasis on both the flaws and the strengths of human nature. Cacoyannis's screenplay isn't so much about plot as it is about character and mood. That is a good thing, as the fractured plot helps give the film the feel of a genuine existence rather than a series of manufactured events.
Zorba the Greek isn't quite a comedy, although there are hearty laughs in it. It isn't quite a drama, despite some heartbreaking scenes. Some would consider such interchanging between genres sloppy, but I feel it ideally fits the theme of the film perfectly. Life is often an episodic journey of ever-changing emotions and events, over which we have little to no control. Cacoyannis's screenplay aptly captures this theme with accuracy and heart. Likewise, the silky black-and-white photography is just right for this material: Color would have been too much of a distraction with the vistas and location shooting. By going with black-and-white, Cacoyannis and cinematographer Walter Lassally allow the audience to concentrate on areas color photography would detract from. Black-and-white gives the film unique, moody atmosphere and also places extra emphasis on the characters.
The primary reason Zorba the Greek works so well after forty years is the magnificent Anthony Quinn performance. Quinn was often a larger-than-life figure who lived life to the fullest, and he brings that very real quality to Zorba. In the hands of a lesser actor, Zorba would have been played completely over the top toward high camp. Quinn realizes that by keeping Zorba rooted in the reality of his surroundings and humanity, a much richer and fully realized characterization is the result. Quinn isn't merely playing Zorba; he is the zesty Greek dynamo. He touches on all human notes possible; joy, sorrow, exuberance, and anger are all there on screen. He was robbed at Oscar time when somehow Rex Harrison's good but routine performance in My Fair Lady was deemed more worthy of the Best Actor prize. Watching both pictures back to back today, that decision is even more grotesque now than before.
Although Zorba's dance on the beach has become legendary, it almost didn't happen. According to some Quinn biographies, he had broken his ankle the day he was to perform an elaborate dance comprised of leaping and assorted wild moves. Still wanting to work on the film, Quinn improvised a small, subtle shuffle. When asked by director Cacoyannis what kind of dance it was, Quinn merely said it was a traditional dance and made up a name on the spot. In many ways, the slower improvised dance ended up working for the film's benefit. While a faster, crazier dance would have been fine for the character, the slower dance allows us to savor and really feel the inner energy in a way a faster dance wouldn't have.
The supporting performances also help augment Quinn's sterling performance. Alan Bates is appropriately stuffy and withdrawn as the mousy Basil. Part of the brilliance of Bates's performance is how he subtly suggests inner awakening through the simplest acting; it's so subtle that some will undervalue the difficulty of this kind of acting by saying it's an easy, one-note performance. It is not, but rather a difficult and complicated one to successfully pull off. Oscar winner Lila Kedrova won her well-deserved statuette for her portrayal of the sympathetic Madame Hortense. It is a role that matches Quinn's for vigor and vitality while adding a unique texture of the reality of loneliness. Irene Papas is also first rate as the object of Basil's affections. Also keep an eye out for future Rambo and Tombstone director George P. Cosmatos as a lonely poet who becomes a transcriber for the simple Zorba.
For the 21st entry in their ever-growing Studio Classics series, Fox presents Zorba the Greek in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. For those who may be wondering how a Fox release in 1964 could be in 1.85:1 rather than the standard CinemaScope ratio, this film was made independently and later sold to Fox. I believe this is the first-ever home video edition of Zorba that is offered in widescreen. Previous full-frame video incarnations were an ugly sight, with the black-and-white image often looking murky and muddy. Fox's new transfer restores the luster and sparkle that has been lost over the past forty years. The silkiness of black-and-white is fully restored; now one can see why Walter Lassally's cinematography earned the Academy Award. There are some blemishes that still remain, such as the pesky white specks and scratches. However, the grain has been greatly reduced from previous transfers, resulting in a much improved contrast. This is the best Zorba has ever looked.
Audio is offered in both Dolby Digital 2.0 surround and mono sound mixes. The stereo mix is surprisingly good, lacking the tinniness and hollow acoustics of many reprocessed-for-stereo mixes. The original mono mix is also superb, sounding particularly strong and as zesty as Zorba himself. Both mixes are devoid of serious defects and imperfections, resulting in a bold, clean sound that will have the viewer dancing along with ecstasy.
This being a Studio Classics release, Fox has compiled some interesting extra content. We begin with a feature commentary track from writer-producer-director Michael Cacoyannis. While his Greek accent will cause some confusion at first, once you get accustomed to it, this is quite a good commentary track. Cacoyannis shares interesting stories, anecdotes, and trivia that you will not hear or read anywhere else. There are some gaps, but those are nicely filled in with separately recorded comments by Kazantzakis expert Demetrios Liappas. He delves into the background of the original novel, giving those who have not read it a good feel for how good Cacoyannis's adaptation is.
For years, it had been rumored that an alternate introduction had been filmed for Zorba. Now that rumor has been confirmed, since Fox has unearthed the footage in question. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, this alternate opening features Quinn costumed as legendary Greek god Zeus. The Mount Olympus set looks incredibly hokey and Ed Woodish, resulting in snickering rather than the moodiness Cacoyannis was aiming for. I am glad that this opening was deleted, as it would have gotten the film off to an unintentionally funny start.
An episode of the popular A&E cable series Biography is offered here as a unique bonus. "Anthony Quinn: A Lust for Life" suffers in trying to condense the life of a larger-than-life personality into a compact forty-minute running time. There are some interesting stories here, but there are far too many holes left behind in terms of his life. It is worth checking out, but of all the bonus features, this is the one you'll be apt to skip.
What is listed on the case as "Movietone News Footage" is nothing more than two snippets of silent outtake footage. One snippet gives us a look at the making of Zorba, while the other is of the world premiere. Both are interesting from a historical perspective but of little value otherwise.
Three theatrical trailers for Zorba the Greek are included, all in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The teaser trailer and theatrical trailers are almost alike in content and tone, while the third trailer, listed as a TV spot, is highly suspect. I doubt TV spots in 1964 aired in letterbox format. A skimpy behind-the-scenes still gallery closes out this interesting but ultimately uneventful package.
Zorba the Greek does what all great cinema should: invigorate and reaffirm good feeling in the viewer. The movie is expert in showing genuine human emotion, and as a result, we are carried along on this satisfying journey. This disc may be wanting in the extras department, but the pristine video and audio transfer helps make this disc the finest edition of Zorba the Greek we're bound to see for some time.
Alexis Zorba may be eccentric, but his zest for life is infectious. Not only is he acquitted of all charges, but Fox is commended for beautifully restoring this life-affirming masterpiece. The only thing I ask is that they take a harder look at their extra content in the future. Quality is far better than quantity.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Director Michael Cacoyannis and Kazantzakis Expert Demetrios Liappas
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