Thursday, April 5, 2012

The African Queen [dir. John Huston]

If The African Queen were to be made today, it would probably have more youthful stars (unless they went in for that old standby Harrison Ford, in which case it'd be called Indiana Jones and The Naval Juggernaut), a more convoluted and breathless screenplay, and far more elaborate stunts and explosions to qualify as an “adventure” film. But this was in 1951, when you could still have an old-fashioned romance with mature actors skilfully folded in with a rousing Boy Scout story about two people in Africa on a dinky little riverboat laden with explosives going on a mission to sink a German gunboat.

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, as a boatman and a missionary respectively, are the unlikely middle-aged couple that set forth on this foolhardy mission, and beyond everything else they are what keep this film afloat. Having previously encountered Bogie only as the hard-edged arrogant bitter protagonist (Maltese Falcon, Big Sleep, Treasure of Sierra Madre), it was a pleasure to see him going sweet, and he shows a fine talent for comedy here. Hepburn gives her character the required hauteur without appearing unnecesarily mean (although perhaps the scene where she icily dumps all of Bogart's gin into the river is a close shave), and the chemistry between her and Bogie makes their emerging romance endearing enough to gloss over its convenience. Yes, there are thrills, when the boat has to be steered over rapids, when they go past a German fort with snipers firing, when they get stuck in reed-choked swamp territory. But African Queen, as scripted by Huston and James Agee, is at heart a romance, one that is charming not cloying, innocent not naive. The dialog drips with wit and intelligence, and, equally important, it remains consistent to the characters. A lot of the film was shot on location in Africa which invaluably builds the atmosphere and mood, and Jack Cardiff's technicolor photography is not in the same league as some of his work for Powell & Pressburger, but it makes for a sufficiently sturdy and pleasant presentation.

African Queen is a wonderful example of the old-school romantic adventure. Curl up with your beloved (or just yourself), a big tub of popcorn in hand and settle down to enjoy a genuine example of Hollywood movie magic.

For those that want to know, Paramount's blu-ray gives a lush video presentation of the film. The image is not always pin-sharp but that would mostly be due to the technology and shooting style of the film. Primary colors when seen have a nice pop and there is still a good amount of fine detail to be enjoyed. The Dolby digital mono soundtrack is decent but ordinary and one wonders if a lossless track even in mono would have had more punch. The sole extra on the Paramount BD is a very worthy one, an hour-long retrospective that comprehensively covers the making of this classic, with new and archival interviews and lots of production stills (Better yet, it is also in HD). For those in the UK, there is a blu-ray by ITV which features the same presentation of the film and the retrospective, and in addition features a feature commentary by Jack Cardiff.


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