"Beauty is only skin deep" may be a well-worn adage, but it fits the 1941 version of the venerable bullfighting saga 'Blood and Sand' to a T. Beautifully filmed by director Rouben Mamoulian and cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan (who won Oscars for their exquisite Technicolor photography), and starring the beautiful Tyrone Power, beautiful Linda Darnell, and ravishing Rita Hayworth (sorry, but "beautiful" is just too mundane an adjective to describe the breathtaking actress who soon would be dubbed The Love Goddess), 'Blood and Sand' also showcases sumptuous sets and colorful costumes, and captures the arena's eye-popping pageantry and spectacle. But, sadly, beneath all the lavish trimmings and animal magnetism lies a protracted, tiresome, and predictable tale that lacks any spark or fervor. Sure, it's all lovely to look at, but without an underlying and sustaining emotional thread, it's impossible to connect with the material.
A remake of the classic 1922 silent film starring European heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, 'Blood and Sand' is based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and chronicles the life of matador Juan Gallardo (Power), who dreams of following in his dead father's footsteps as a famous matador against the wishes of his long-suffering mother (Nazimova). After a decade of apprenticeship in Madrid, Juan returns to his rural hometown, where he marries Carmen (Darnell), his childhood sweetheart, and at last achieves success and notoriety in the ring. Sexy temptress Dona Sol (Hayworth), however, knocks his perfect world off its axis by shamelessly seducing and corrupting him, which in turn dilutes his laser focus and incites a dizzying fall from grace.
That's the long and short of the plot, and it's not enough on which to hang a two-hour movie. A few more bullfighting scenes might have quickened the pace, but screenwriter Jo Swerling concentrates instead on pompous, bloated dialogue scenes designed (unsuccessfully) to lend a straightforward story more depth and meaning, and Mamoulian favors style over substance at every turn. The result is a dull, draggy film that lacks the core element around which the story is built: passion. Passion drives Juan to pursue bullfighting, marry Carmen, and allow himself to be consumed and manipulated by the delectably venomous Dona Sol. And though we can intellectually identify that ardor, very little of it shows up viscerally on the screen.
We see it most in the orgasmic reaction shots of bullfighting critic Natalio Curro (Laird Cregar) as he rhapsodically watches Juan spar with, tease, and torment the wild animal in the ring. We also notice it in Hayworth, whose clenched teeth and wild eyes betray her sexual hunger and desperate need to devour Juan's soul. 'Blood and Sand' doesn't possess much of a pulse until Hayworth appears almost an hour into the film's running time, and like a defibrillator, she jumpstarts the picture's internal engine. Though she portrays a heartless vamp who subsists by consuming others, it's almost impossible not to root for and champion her. She's that alluring.
Darnell, a mere 17 years old at the time of the film's release, is a sight to behold as well, and though she's supposed to be the sainted opposite of Hayworth's she-devil, her goody-two-shoes portrayal often comes off as insipid. Despite working together three times previously, her chemistry with Power seems muted here, but that may be more his fault than hers. The matinee idol is strangely wooden throughout most of the movie, relying on looks and attitude to put his role across. Occasionally he comes alive, but seems bored and detached most of the time. At his best, Power can be a riveting presence (as in the noir-ish 'Nightmare Alley'), but like so many handsome, hunky stars, he often coasted on charm, and here it seems as if he's just going through the motions, another decorative element in a meticulously appointed film.
Yet those decorative elements salvage the picture. The cinematography, production design, and costuming are all top-notch and keep the eye engaged when the story sputters and stalls. As a peek inside the world of bullfighting, 'Blood and Sand' isn't very enlightening, nor is it a captivating tale of love and betrayal, ambition and ego. But as an example of exemplary Hollywood moviemaking, it ranks quite highly. The beauty of 'Blood and Sand' may be only skin deep, but oh what a lovely skin it is.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Blood and Sand' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'Blood and Sand' won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1941, so expectations ran high when Fox announced the Blu-ray release of this Technicolor classic. Unfortunately, though, the film's original negative was most likely destroyed in the 1970s, thanks to a misguided house-cleaning directive by idiotic studio executives, so all subsequent transfers have been culled from "safety dupes." That's a shame, of course, and this high-def rendering often looks like a pale imitation, with "pale" the operative word. From the moment the Fox logo hits the screen, it's evident the three-strip Technicolor flaunts a wan look, and for at least the first half of the movie an anemic quality afflicts the image. While it's not uncommon to slightly temper the garishness of Technicolor hues, the picture here lacks appropriate vibrancy, with contrast levels often a hair off and the image as a whole looking a bit like a Xerox copy of the original, which, essentially, it is. The saturation quotient increases as the film plugs along, but the wow factor is conspicuously absent, which is especially disappointing given the flashy nature of the material and gorgeous physical specimens on display.
Yet this is still a solid effort in many ways. The transfer possess a fine grain structure that maintains the feel of celluloid, and no nicks, scratches, or errant marks litter the pristine source material. Clarity is quite good - the beads and sequins on Power's bullfighting regalia sport fine degrees of texture - and details in background elements show up well. (The heightened definition levels also make it easy to discern Power's double in the bullfighting sequences.) Blacks are rich and deep (especially Power's raven-colored hair), whites are crisp, fleshtones lean a shade toward the orange side, and patterns resist shimmering. Close-ups can be striking at times, and the lush, impeccably appointed sets enjoy a marvelous sense of depth. No crush creeps into shadowy scenes, and banding and noise are absent, too.
While one can only imagine what a transfer struck from the original camera negative might have looked like, what we have here will satisfy most viewers. Though far from perfect, 'Blood and Sand' still looks good on Blu-ray, especially considering its advanced age, and Fox technicians should be congratulated for getting the most out of what they had to work with.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies solid, well-balanced sound that nicely complements the film. Though more than 70 years old, the track - thanks to meticulous clean-up efforts by Fox technicians - exhibits none of the age-related defects that often afflict movies of this vintage. Hiss, pops, and crackles are not in evidence, which allows Alfred Newman's rousing, Latin-infused score to shine, while a wide dynamic scale handles all the orchestral highs and lows well, resulting in audio that's both crisp and nuanced.
Ambient crowd noise during the bullfighting scenes is surprisingly distinct, giving the illusion of surround activity, and accents, such as a train whistle or the shattering of glass, add appropriate punch without disrupting the cohesiveness of the mix. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, whether spoken with authority or intimately whispered, making this track an unqualified success, especially when one considers the source material's advanced age.
The sole supplement is an audio commentary by Richard Crudo, a director of photography who was also the president of the American Society of Cinematographers from 2003-2006. Crudo's remarks pertain almost exclusively to the film's photographic elements, and he provides a primer on cinematography. He explains low-key lighting and "day for night" photography, describes the Technicolor process and the difference between soft and hard light, and discusses such topics as composition, aspect ratio, and the hierarchy and duties of the photographic team. He also salutes the movie's Oscar-winning cinematographers, Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, and notes how they and their colleagues of the day considered themselves technicians, not artists. Though astute and enlightening, most of Crudo's comments are maddeningly general, with very few pertaining specifically to 'Blood and Sand.' And when the film is directly addressed, it's solely from a visual standpoint. Those who crave information about Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, and Anthony Quinn or seek background details on the production and source material or pine for an analysis of the plot will be sorely disappointed. Why Fox didn't see fit to pair Crudo with a critic or historian like Richard Schickel or Rudy Behlmer to provide a more balanced presentation is baffling to me. Crudo does a fine job, but his specialized perspective makes the appeal of this commentary limited at best. If you're not especially interested in the nuts and bolts of photography, then by all means skip this single-minded track.
Beautifully filmed but emotionally empty, the 1941 version of 'Blood and Sand' gets stuck in the mud, failing to fully capitalize on the pageantry of bullfighting or maximize the magnetism between Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Rita Hayworth. A plodding script encumbers this exotic tale of ego and excess, and the stunning visuals only marginally lighten the heavy load. A solid but unspectacular transfer and dearth of supplements further hinder this classic catalogue release that never provokes the same passionate responses as the daring toreadors in the ring. The film is certainly worth a look for its Oscar-winning cinematography, but unless you're a fan of the trio of stars, a purchase is not recommended.