Arsenic And Old Lace

Review by Guido Henkel

Arsenic And Old Lace  (1944)
Warner Home Video

Length:        118 mins.
Rated:          Not Rated
Format:       Fullframe
Languages:English
Subtitles:    English, French
Extras:        Theatrical Trailer

Frank Capra has brought us many memorable comedies that age astonishingly well. Although they all have a whimsical nostalgic charm today, the characters of old, are just as real as the ones today and with the romanticized portrayal of the 40s and 50s, Capra allows us to regularly sit back and dream about old times where everything seemed to be still alright. Well, unless you take the Brewster sisters from "Arsenic And Old Lace," that is. Nice, lovely, polite, charming and forthcoming old ladies on one hand, it soon turns out they have a secret that would break most men, making a mockery of the supposed perfection of this romanticized world. With a wicked story, grandiose slapstick comedy and a stellar cast, Frank Capra dares us to unveil the secrets of "Arsenic And Old Lace."

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a respected drama critic in New York who just got married. Flying off to his honeymoon, he stops by his aunts’ (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) house to gather a few things when the whole world seems to come down. Mortimer discovers that his innocent, dear little aunts are serial killers. Over the past months they have sent 12 men to Heaven, happily liberating them from their earthly sufferings. With poisoned wine the two charming old ladies are convinced they are doing the right thing and keep piling up bodies in their basement. Teddy (John Alexander), Mortimer’s raving-mad brother who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt, regularly helps in the little "undertaking," leaving Mortimer speechless.

Determined to protect his beloved aunts, Mortimer devises a plan to have his deluded brother sent to a sanitarium and blame him for the murders, when just at that moment, his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), the black sheep of the family, re-appears after a 20 year absence.

Looking like Boris Karloff, Jonathan has turned into a criminal on the run, and with him comes Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) to supply Jonathan with a new face. When they find out about the skeletons in the family’s closet, they try to turn things to their own advantage, and a seemingly endless night of riotous events and twists takes shape.

It is easy to tell that "Arsenic And Old Lace" is actually based on a stage play, as practically the entire movie is taking place in a single room. You won’t really notice while watching the film however, as the racy story and hilarious antics will keep you enchanted and rolling with laughter. The movie’s cast is phenomenal. It is mostly Cary Grant who is showing off his best rubber faces and exchanges his usual slick mannerisms of the gentleman for flabbergasted double-takes and the elegance of a clown, while the rest of the cast play their parts fairly straight and with a serious face. Most of the humor derives from that clash that no one seems to be actually perturbed in the least by the events, but Mortimer. With the sinister brother appearing, the sadistic looking doctor and an assortment of other eccentric characters, "Arsenic And Old Lace" makes for a great movie experience that will have you smiling, chuckling and smirking even after the movie is over.

Warner Home Video is presenting Frank Capra’s "Arsenic And Old Lace" in a beautiful presentation on this DVD. The transfer is a full frame presentation, reflecting the movie’s original aspect ratio. Wonderfully clean and without blemishes, you wouldn’t believe you are watching a movie that is almost 60 years old. The film exhibits practically no registration problems, creating a very stable image throughout. Although some slight grain is evident - which comes inevitably from the film’s considerable age - and an occasional scratch will appear in the print, never in my dreams would I have hoped for such a fantastic presentation of the movie. The transfer also has a very high definition, revealing details and nuances in the image that I had never noticed before.

The DVD reveals solid blacks, which Capra has used to very good effect. Everyone familiar with the movie knows that shadows play an important part in the film’s set-up and dramaturgy. These shadows are wonderfully defined without ever breaking up, creating bold lines and shapes that give the image a lot of visual depth. Highlights are equally good, providing a good contrast for the movie. With all shades of gray in between, the film’s highly atmospheric and oftentimes mystic cinematography is faithfully restored on this DVD. No signs of edge-enhancement are evident in the presentation, creating a very pleasing and natural look and the lack of compression artifacts such as pixelation also add to the wonderful impression the DVD leaves.

The DVD contains only the movie’s original monaural audio track. Presented as a 1-channel mix, that only uses the center speaker, the audio track has nonetheless held up surprisingly well. Without background noise or hiss, the audio is always clean and clear. There are no pops or blips, and with the high end fully intact, the ambient atmosphere of the recording is left fully intact. Dialogues are always understandable and entirely without sibilance. Even Teddy’s "Charge!" calls come through without distortion, giving the film a very rounded and solid audio presentation.

Always fascinated by gothic horror and all of its aberrations, I have loved "Arsenic And Old Lace" since I first saw it during my childhood, and not much has changed since. The skill with which Frank Capra weaves his magic on the screen is simply mesmerizing. Creating an atmospheric movie filled with thunder and lightning, one that has shuddering and grotesque elements that could come right out of a Universal monster movie, and combining these elements with witty light-hearted slapstick comedy rampant with outrageous characters, makes "Arsenic And Old Lace" a memorable classic that truly deserves to be seen. Warner Home Video now gives the film a new lease on life with this splendid DVD... but make sure not to touch the wine!

This title is scheduled for release on 8/29/2000
For more information on this title, please click here.
    

August 22, 2000

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