Say the name George Stevens to anyone born after 1980 and you may receive a blank stare in response. Despite his impeccable reputation, the Oscar-winning director of such classic fare as 'Shane,' 'Giant,' and my personal favorite, 'A Place in the Sun,' somehow doesn't enjoy the instant name recognition of a Hitchcock, Ford, Minnelli, or Hawks. Maybe it's because his understated style never calls attention to itself; maybe it's because he is equally adept at helming dramas, epics, musicals, westerns, and comedies, so he can't be easily categorized. Whatever the reason, Stevens disappears inside his films, putting story before style, and as a result, all his pictures – even his early frivolous efforts – have meaning and weight. In short, Stevens is one of the masters, and anyone who takes the time to explore his impressive body of work will become an instant fan.
Excellence is a standard most Stevens films meet, and 'The Diary of Anne Frank' is no exception. Yet the fact that this Best Picture nominee still doesn't rank among the director's finest efforts says something about Stevens' breadth of talent. A bit uneven and overly romantic, yet still brimming with the passion, warmth, and emotional truth that define his best work, this adaptation of the inspirational writings of a Jewish girl trapped and eventually thwarted by circumstances well beyond her control during World War II still packs a punch a half century after its initial release.
Few people on the planet remain ignorant of the Frank family, who went into hiding during the summer of 1942 to escape persecution and deportation at the hands of the Nazis in German-occupied Holland. For two years, they inhabited a tiny, secret annex in the rear of an Amsterdam office building, never leaving its cramped confines as they patiently awaited Allied liberation. (It never came.) In the film, Otto Frank (Joseph Schildkraut), his wife Edith (Gusti Huber), and their two teenage daughters, Margot (Diane Baker) and Anne (Millie Perkins), are also joined by Hans and Petronella Van Daan (Lou Jacobi and Shelley Winters), their 16-year-old son, Peter (Richard Beymer), and bachelor dentist Albert Dussell (Ed Wynn). Living in such close quarters under monumental strain produces a good deal of interpersonal strife, and 'The Diary of Anne Frank' is as much a chronicle of family dynamics, adaptation, and forgiveness as it is a coming-of-age tale or Holocaust indictment. With little else to occupy her time, Anne dutifully records her thoughts and feelings, dreams and fears in her diary, and for the most part, they reflect the ideals, struggles, and rebellious, headstrong attitudes of a typical adolescent girl.
Yet Anne's teenage musings resonate and endure not only because she possessed both a striking command of language and highly mature insights for one so young, but also because she expressed unwavering faith in humanity during one of history's darkest and cruelest periods. "I really believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart" may sound trite when taken out of context, but when looked at from Anne's perspective – stuck in a stuffy attic for years, always afraid of being captured and killed, never knowing if she'd be able to realize her potential and live a happy, normal life – those simple words take on new meaning. Amazingly, hope and optimism pervade Anne's diary, and Stevens manages to reflect this attitude in his film without making it seem contrived or saccharine.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play by veteran screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett ('The Thin Man,' 'It's a Wonderful Life'), 'The Diary of Anne Frank' never quite escapes its stage roots, thanks to its single location setting. Stevens, to his credit, refused to "open up" the play and took great pains to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the characters lived. Yet he cleverly uses cinema's basic elements - image and sound - to add new dramatic dimensions. Extended sequences of heightened tension that rely solely on reaction shots and audio effects often lend the movie a Hitchcockian feel, while Stevens' trademark slow dissolves (a process he pioneered) provide a unique lyrical resonance. Although the budding romance between Anne and Peter receives the standard Hollywood treatment, Stevens doesn't let it overshadow the film's weightier themes of courage and hope. At just under three hours, 'The Diary of Anne Frank' is a long film; occasionally it drags, but much of it is riveting, and that's due in large part to Stevens' marvelous visual sense, the fine performances he extracts from his first-rate cast, and William C. Mellor's Oscar-winning cinematography, which expertly manipulates light and shadow. (In all, 'Anne Frank' received eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Stevens' direction, and won three.)Stevens conducted an international search to find the perfect Anne, and after reportedly auditioning more than 10,000 girls, he settled on unknown model Millie Perkins. The choice has sparked spirited debate for decades, and though she masks her inexperience well, Perkins seems a little too prim and artificial for my taste, and her WASP-ish look goes against the film's grain. She still files a good performance, but is clearly overshadowed by her co-stars' excellence. Schildkraut, Huber, and Jacobi all recreate their stage roles and are uniformly superb, while Winters and Wynn nabbed supporting Oscar nominations for their colorful parts. (Winters won; Wynn lost.) As Peter, Beymer, who two years later would play Tony in 'West Side Story,' looks too much like a leading man to believably portray a teen, but he nevertheless conveys his character's awkwardness and uncertainty well.
Stevens always wanted to make a film honoring World War II, and though 'The Diary of Anne Frank' lacks the scope and violence of a typical combat movie, it quietly and poetically salutes the heroics of war better than most genre pictures. Like its characters, the film has faults, but it remains an important, moving document of both humanity and inhumanity, and proves even unspeakable horrors cannot quash the spirit of youth and, more importantly, hope. Few directors could do justice to such strong, vital material; George Stevens is one of them.
'The Diary of Anne Frank' was nicely restored for its 2004 DVD release as part of the now defunct Fox Studio Classics series, and this 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer appears to be taken from the same master. Unfortunately, when compared to its standard-def counterpart, the HD upgrade does not provide significant improvement. Yes, the image has more distinct clarity, blacks are a tad richer, and contrast is more pronounced, but when compared to other classic Fox Blu-rays, such as 'The Robe' and 'South Pacific,' it doesn't measure up. Though black-and-white film stock can look just as jaw-droppingly beautiful as Technicolor when presented in 1080p (I offer up 'Casablanca' as proof), additional care is often required to achieve superb results, and it doesn't seem as if Fox has gone the extra mile in this instance.
The same defects that afflict the 2004 transfer are present here – a smattering of nicks and tiny blotches, and some faint vertical black lines. Such imperfections are understandable given the film's age, but fresh remastering would undoubtedly minimize most of those occurrences. Although grain is present throughout, some scenes (and some cutaways within scenes) display a heavier layer than others, and the patchiness becomes slightly annoying over time. Close-ups, however, enjoy striking detail; Anne's hair appears especially vivid in several shots (much clearer than on the DVD), and the stark contrast between the black strands and her pale skin is often quite stunning.
Blacks across the board possess terrific depth (several silhouette shots are gorgeous), but shadow detail can be a bit muddy. (On the commentary track, Stevens' son, George Stevens, Jr., remarks that his father often intentionally lit scenes on the dark side to force the eye to dig out details.) The varied gray scale lends the image lovely texture, and the masterful, Oscar-winning cinematography of William C. Mellor exquisitely heightens tension while lushly depicting the tenderness of adolescent love. Edges occasionally appear sharpened, but thankfully DNR is absent.
All in all, this is a good transfer that accurately reflects the source material. Sadly, though, that source material was not properly prepped for Blu-ray, and as a result, we don't get the eye-popping high-def upgrade I and many others hoped for and anticipated.
This Blu-ray edition includes a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track in addition to the excellent Dolby Digital 4.0 mix that appears on the 2004 DVD. Though I commend Fox for including lossless audio, I expected more punch and subtlety from the track. The absence of surround effects doesn't bother me in the least, but the front-heavy mix doesn't seem to have benefited much from the DTS-HD upgrade. Dialogue is still crystal clear and always easy to understand, and all age-related imperfections, such as pops, crackles, and hiss have been meticulously erased. That's especially good news, because silence is as important to this track as sound. With so much tension pulsing through the picture, dead quiet is an essential element that ratchets up the sense of fear and dread constantly consuming the characters. And juxtaposed against it are highly effective accents that range from faint to jarringly bold. On the soft end, footsteps, creaking floorboards, distant sirens, snow flurries, even a cat gnawing on a piece of toast are all marvelously rendered, while screams, gunfire, police whistles, alarm bells, and the rattling of pots and pans pierce the silence with controlled power.
The overture and exit music sound pleasant enough, but lack that sonic oomph that really gets the blood flowing. Only during the main feature does Alfred Newman's lovely, Oscar-nominated score come alive, but even then it's in fits and starts. Some well-rounded bass infuses the music with good weight, but during the bombing raid, low-end frequencies don't possess the necessary heft to make the sequence realistic. The attic apartment shakes on screen, but my living room felt nary a rumble.
Again, this is solid audio, but the differences between the lossless track and the DD 4.0 mix are negligible at best.
This 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition ports over all the supplements from the 2004 DVD (which are substantial), and adds a slew of new ones to delight the film's fans and classics aficionados. All the material is in standard definition, but content far outweighs presentation in this instance. Fox's continuing commitment to high-quality extras on its classic Blu-ray releases deserves commendation, and the studio maintains its fine track record here. If you purchase or rent this release, make sure you set aside enough time to experience and absorb all the wonderful material that resides on this disc.
Previously Released Supplements
An important story, sensitively told, 'The Diary of Anne Frank' honors the memory of a tragic young heroine whose words have moved and inspired millions. George Stevens' epic production never loses focus, and its artistry and emotion reflect the director's passion for the subject and hope that the events depicted never repeat themselves. Though the video and audio don't take full advantage of the high-def format, they're still a nice improvement over the previous DVD transfers, while the terrific supplemental package alone makes this 50th anniversary edition truly special. Recommended.
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