A black sedan races across the desert. Honking madly, passing cars on blind hairpin turns. Accelerating. Swerving. Engine roaring. Trying to hold on... Until the driver launches off the highway and flips down a rocky embankment.
Four vehicles stop at the crash site. Five men -- J. Russel Finch (Milton Berle), Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters), Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), "Dingy" (Mickey Rooney), and "Benjy" (Buddy Hackett) -- rush down to find a mangled car and a dying man (Jimmy Durante) raving about $350,000 he claims is buried under the "big W" in Santa Rosita State Park. After the mysterious man kicks the bucket (literally AND figuratively), our five guys decide against mentioning the money to arriving police. But they're all getting an idea, see.
Driving away, Finch talks to his wife, Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and loudmouth mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), as Crump talks to his wife Monica (Edie Adams), as Dingy and Benjy talk to each other, as Lennie Pike talks to himself, wondering...
Should we drive down to Santa Rosita and dig up all that loot? Realizing everyone's having the same thought, our eight main characters try to work together, but there's a big problem. They can't figure out a fair way to divvy up the treasure.
So they're all off. Every man for himself. A mad dash, cross country race of stolen car chases and slapstick sight gags and drunken plane rides and endless betrayals.
But our ever growing cast of greedy, awful people are not alone. The ever watchful eyes of various police departments are reporting back to Santa Rosita Captain T.G. Culpeper (the top-billed Spencer Tracy), a man who has been obsessed with solving a 15-year-old robbery of, you guessed it, $350,000. Culpeper rightfully believes our characters know the location of the lost money and is simply going to let them do all sorts of bad things as long as they lead him to the cash.
Directed and produced by Stanley Kramer, written by William and Tania Rose, 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' (heretofore known as 'Mad World') was the third highest grossing film of 1963. It was nominated for numerous technical Oscars, and ultimately went home with the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.
The original version of 'Mad World' was released as a 202 minute road show edition, where it ran in Cinerama theatres. The filmmakers then cut it down to a 163 minute (35mm prints were 157 minutes and exclude the overture and entr'acte music) general release. For the purposes of this Blu-ray, Criterion includes the general release version as well as an extended version, which was recreated by Robert A. Harris and a team of digital restorers who scanned heavily damaged and faded 70mm elements from "road show trims." For me, it's great to have this extended cut of the film for historical purposes, but the general release represents the stronger cut in terms of story and visuals.
Imagine the early 1960s as a dark place for Hollywood. TV was booming, which was great for studios producing television, but extremely bad for movie producers and cinema houses. (Dwindling cinema attendance? Sound like a familiar story?) Studios and distributors and filmmakers responded by increasing resolution and frame rates (still sounding familiar?). Thus was born: the widescreen era, where every studio created their own wider-than-TV-screens format.
'Mad World' used Ultra Panavision, which combines an anamorphic lens on 65mm negative film
(in this case, shot at 30 frames per second), creating the ultra wide 2.76:1 asptect ratio where it could play in Cinerama theatres without needing to be filmed and distributed with three cameras/projectors. Oddly enough, some Cinerama productions used Ultra Panavision to pick up a few shots / scenes where they couldn't fit the enormous Cinerama rigs.
In this widescreen era, I sometimes forget these huge Hollywood productions weren't all David Lean dramatic epics. In truth, we could argue these films are akin to the modern Comic Book Movie. Not in the superhero sense, of course, but in the way they tell grand stories, feature huge movie stars, and mash up genres and tones in order to create entertainment for audiences of all ages and nationalities. And just like our current Comic Book era, the widescreen blockbuster era was just another trend. According to the documentation in this Criterion Blu-ray, after 'Around the World in 80 Days' was a resounding success and won the 1956 Academy Award for Best Picture, Hollywood jumped on the "let's throw a hundred stars in cameo roles into one picture" bandwagon (we assume Hollywood "used to be different/better/whatever," but nope. It has always chased form over function trends).
All of this to say, I've never quite seen a film like 'Mad World'. Sure I've seen road show cuts like 'Lawrence of Arabia' because it's, like, the best big screen movie ever, but I haven't seen enough of the lighter, comedic ones. 'Mad World' is an impressive combination of archetypal characters doing overtly broad comedy (of various styles that are much less popular today) and insane stunts that, save for the film's gut busting climax, eschew visual effects for practical gags. The film's aeronautical action is particularly jaw dropping. Real performers doing real things in the real world remains thrilling some fifty years later. It truly is an onslaught of spectacle in the truest sense of the word. From a production standpoint, there's just so much apparent care in the framing, blocking, and pacing of each shot.
Despite the filmmakers' technical achievements, everything takes a backseat to the all-star cast. It feels like everyone who was famous in 1962 is in this movie. For fans of this era, you'll instantly recognize all your favorites. Or if you're a little like me and my wife, the experience will be more akin to: "Hey, that guy… I love that guy! [looks up on IMDB to see credits and name]" This style of cameo type-casting allows audiences to instantly know a character, to instantly like a character, which means nearly everyone can be a pretty terrible person who succumbs to greedy, amoral behavior. Not only does this make the characters feel more human (given the overt broadness of the performances, calling it more "real" doesn't feel right), but it would be nearly impossible today. I can just hear the development notes now. "Why do we like these people?"
But that's the thing. You don't have to like them. You just have to understand their motives -- they want to be rich -- and because you understand, part of you is rooting for them while the other part relishes in the setbacks, failure, and comeuppance. It's basically the same style of comedy, structurally speaking, as 'Seinfeld' and/or 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'.
I wish I could write more, but I'm a relative novice to this particular production. For a full in-depth analysis, the Audio Commentary on Blu-ray Two (see below) is exceptional, and there's a great essay by the New York Post's Lou Lumensick in the booklet. The one thing I will add, however, is how 'Mad World' added to my appreciation for Steven Spielberg's early works. Not only will you see numerous 'Duel' shooting locations, but 'Mad World' is the blueprint for '1941', a movie I really like, though admittedly is a bit all over the place. 'Mad World' is the type of film, whether or not you've actually seen it, where you probably already know a good deal of its cinematic language and/or influences, 'Rat Race' being the most recent example.
Watching 'Mad World' on Blu-ray (for the first time all the way through, I shamefully admit) made me fall in love with the movie. It sucked me in, amazed me, and by the end, I was literally roaring with laughter, rolling around my couch. I can't wait to catch it on the big screen with a larger audience, or to perhaps have a few friends over to watch it. If you love epic-style filmmaking and classic, broad comedy, this movie is well worth your time.
Blu-ray Disc: Vital Disc Stats
'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection in a 5-Disc Dual Format Edition. Blu-ray One includes the 163 minute General Release along with Special Features. Blu-ray Two contains more Special Features as well as the 197 minute Extended Version. DVDs One, Two, and Three house the same content in standard definition. Inside the packaging, you will also find 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Map', which details the shooting locations of key scenes across Southern California, and the aforementioned booklet featuring an essay by film critic Lou Lumenick.
General Release Version (163 minutes)
From Criterion: "The general release version of 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.76:1. Black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are normal for this format. The digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an Imagica 65 mm film scanner from the 65 mm original camera negative and the 65 mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS."
This 4K restoration, encoded in MPEG-4 AVC at 1080/24p, is a reference quality revelation. Aside from minor, minor quibbles -- a few white flecks in Saul Bass' opening title sequences, a few odd opticals, and maybe a few focus issues -- this is the best 70mm film I've seen thus far on Blu-ray.
In comparison, 'Lawrence of Arabia' may be superior and more interesting on a visual level (cause, you know, it's the best 70mm movie ever made), but the 'Mad World' source materials seem to have been in better condition. Plus, there are more closeups just swimming in resolution and detail. Every stitch of fabric, every wrinkle, every follicle of hair simply pops off the screen. The colors are equally gorgeous, especially the blue desert skies and Mickey Rooney's bright red sweater. Black levels are exceptional too; in particular, the opening shot of a lit fuse appearing on screen that begins the film's post-intermission "second act" (I mean act more in the theatre sense, than traditional Hollywood structure sense).
Honestly, this movie looks so great, it kinda makes me hate my 16x9 display because this picture screams for constant height projection. I can't heap enough praise onto Criterion and the team that worked on this Blu-ray. It's extraordinary.
The Extended Version (197 minutes)
Like the General Release, the Extended Version is presented in the ultra wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio (encode in MPEG-4 AVC at 1080/24p). The original road show version of the film ran 202 minutes, but was cut down to 163 minutes for theatrical release. Much of the nearly 40 minutes of deleted footage has been lost, but historians were able to recover 20 minutes of footage from 70mm release prints. A 1991 MGM/UA laser disc presented the film with all available extra footage, but this Criterion Blu-ray represents even more discovered footage, as well as audio-only elements. In scenes where there was available audio, but no picture, still photographs have been used.
Additional Extended Version footage was scanned in 1080p high-definition on a Millennium scanner specifically designed for large-screen formats. Most of this additional footage was faded and damaged beyond repair. In order to "restore" it the best they could, Robert A. Harris and his team scanned this footage in black & white, and then grabbed the "color information" from the standard definition version from 1991. If that doesn't quite make sense, check out the Restoration Demonstration on Blu-ray Two.
Basically, they were able to map colors from the SD version onto the new HD scans, but the results aren't great. Colors are muted. Black levels faded. And apparent resolution seems to come and go. The extra footage, intercut with the perfectly restored footage mentioned above, just doesn't match. But that's okay. It's actually a lot of fun to see the film almost as it was originally presented. But it's a pretty far cry from a "restoration" in a visual sense. I hope that doesn't offend anyone involved with this work -- it's seems to have been an impossible job. I'm just judging this on the "how great does this look in high def?" scale.
Ultimately, I awarded this film 5 Stars for picture quality for the General Release, which is excellent. That being said, thank you so much to Criterion for giving us the option to see the extended cut, no matter how imperfect.
General Release Version (163 minutes)
From Criterion: "The original 5.1 surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit at Chase Audio by Deluxe in Burbank, California, from the 35mm 6-track magnetic tracks."
Encoded in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, 'Mad World' sounds terrific on Blu-ray. We've talked before about the inherent dynamic range issues of older recordings, including mild LFE, so there's no way it's going to be a highly articulate surround mix. For this era's films, however, this is an exciting track. Dialog clarity is critical to our audio reviews here at HDD. 'Mad World' is particularly impressive for its perfect panning and placement of character voices across the front soundstage.
Meaning, it's really surprising to see a 50-year-old film where the spoken dialog perfectly matches the character's position in the frame. According to the Audio Commentary, this type of accurate placement was possible back then, but it was time consuming, expensive and, therefore, hardly ever used. Regardless, it's impressive, given the numerous shots that feature three or more characters in frame.
The track's other highlight is Ernest Gold's wonderful musical score, which nicely fills out the entire surround sound environment along with the various sound effects of rumbling engines, squealing tires, buzzing airplanes, and crowd screams. It's all well presented.
The Extended Version (197 minutes)
From Criterion: "The audio for the additional footage was transferred from original full-coat magnetic tracks of the road-show version and 70 mm trims." The audio, where it exists (the end of a few extended scenes require subtitles), sounds pretty good.
The Criterion Collection brings 'Mad World' to Blu-ray with an incredibly complete set of bonus features. These include classic press and press junket materials, all new documentaries and technology demonstrations, a behind the scenes look at a rare cast reunion Q&A screening, and a top tier Audio Commentary. You also get a map, a booklet, and DVD copies of the film and all the special features... you know, for the road trip where you watch the movie while driving the film's fictional route and/or shooting locations.
'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' hit cinemas nationwide in the weeks after the Kennedy assassination, giving audiences a bit of levity in uncertain times. Critics called it the world's most expensive Three Stooges movie, for better or worse. It's an incredible time capsule of early '60s comedy/cinema, blending an all-star cast with state of the art production techniques and stunts that rival modern blockbusters for their ability to thrill. Personally, I'm so thankful to have requested this title to for review, and can't wait to revisit it again and again. If you ever get a chance to see 'Mad World' on the big screen with a large audience, do not pass it up.
As a Blu-ray, the Criterion Collection has really outdone themselves, perfectly restoring the General Release in 4K, while offering up an alternate Extended Version mastered in HD with some footage/audio no one has seen since 1963. The Special Features are also plentiful, including one of the best Audio Commentaries I've ever had the pleasure to hear (all 3hrs, 17mins of it!). If you're already a fan of 'Mad World', this edition is definitely a Must Own. If you're new to, or interested in, classical Hollywood filmmaking, 'Mad World' comes with our Highest Recommendation.