New York City, 1975. Howard Beale (Peter Finch), veteran news anchor for the UBS Network, is given a week's notice due to falling ratings. Beale, a childless widower, announces live on television that he will kill himself live on air the following week....
Network's main title is followed by the credit "by Paddy Chayefsky". Cinema is most often thought of as a director's medium, but Network is very much a writer's film, with the director (Sidney Lumet) and a very high-powered cast putting themselves in his service. Rightly so, one of the Oscars the film won was for Best Original Screenplay.
Chayefsky's satire of the small screen has proven itself considerably prescient. If there is a sense that he is using the larger screen and senior medium to dump on its junior sibling (and making use of licence to use the profanity that TV at the time would not allow), that's not to deny that he and Lumet were both deeply rooted in the medium and Network is a howl of outrage and what it had become, and would go on to become. Of course, boundaries have shifted since then. I'm old enough to remember when with a few notable exceptions, the American television we got to see in the UK was considered trashy and disposable and there was too much of it. Now there's less, and often on cable or satellite channels, and contemporary US television is often used as a stick to beat the British variety with. Also, cinema and television have moved closer together, with many directors preferring to make quality work for the small screen than deal with increasingly risk-averse major studios. Technically, the two are closer together, with HD television and high-definition discs like the present Blu-ray being virtually the same resolution as the vast majority of cinema screens projecting from digital files rather than celluloid. Via the character of new head Max Schumacher (William Holden), Chayefsky seems to be lamenting a period now gone where television did mean something, and a younger generation (such as Faye Dunaway's executive Diana Christiansen) now know little of life except from what was shown to them via a cathode ray tube. In his words, Diana learned about life from Bugs Bunny. That was in 1976, and a child born in that year could be a grandparent now and his or her children or grandchildren are probably more active online and in social media than watching television on a rather bigger television set than was available at the time of this film. But the medium is still there, and much of what Network says about it still applies.
Chayefsky (1923-1981) began writing after his War service, at first with radio scripts and short stories, one of the latter being adapted for the cinema in 1951 as As Young as You Feel. He broke into television scriptwriting at the end of the 1940s and soon became a leading, and prolific, name of what has since become a golden age of American TV drama. One of his television plays, Marty (1953) was remade for the cinema, the film version going on to win Oscars for Best Picture and for Chayefsky for his screenplay. He is one of only five writers to have won three screenwriting Oscars and the only one whose wins were all for solo scripts: Marty, The Hospital (1971) and the film at hand.
In the early years of television drama, on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a sense that it is more akin to the theatre than the cinema. In the 1950s it was almost always performed live. There's also a sense with Chayefsky as with many other leading television writers in the USA and UK that their works are very much written: whatever William Goldman says about screenplays being fundamentally about structure, you notice the dialogue. In Network characters drop words like "emeritus" and "peccant" even in the midst of a marital row. Network is a very, very dialogue-driven film, but that's a virtue when you have dialogue like this. From Howard Beale's jeremiads to Louise Schumacher's devastating takedown of her husband (a single scene out of a total of some five minutes onscreen – three scenes in all - for Beatrice Straight, one of the shortest performances ever to win an Oscar) you're in no doubt who's running the show. Chayefsky doesn't spare anyone. Schumacher may be the voice of decency, but he's an adulterer. Revolutionaries are just as compromised as anyone else. Beale may be serving the American public their naked lunch (when you see what's on the end of every fork) and he has, in his own words, run out of bullshit, but he's clearly also revelling in the attention he's being given, far more than he had recently.
Sidney Lumet himself began in television and had in fact in 1952 directed "The System", an episode of Danger written by Chayefsky. He didn't direct Reginald Rose's TV drama Twelve Angry Men in 1954 – that was the work of another film director to be, Franklin J. Schaffner – but the 1957 cinema version became his big-screen debut, and he kept up a prolific output for the cinema since then. His films were very varied in genre, and – no doubt as a consequence of working so constantly – they have their share of misfires, but his best work adds up to a considerable body of work. He was particularly known for realistic films energised by the streets of Lumet's native New York City – of which Network is one, though it's not a crime drama like many of the films he is best known for. Visually, he was always quite a self-effacing director, though he paid more attention to the cinematography and camera movement in his films than many would give him credit for. However, he was one of the great directors of actors of his time, and many produced their best performances under his direction. You'll rarely find a bad performance in a Lumet film, even in the smallest roles, and Network is no exception. Not for nothing did it gain five Oscar nominations for acting, making it one of only fifteen films to date to be nominated in all four acting categories and one of only two (along with A Streetcar Named Desire) to win in three of them. Peter Finch had been ill with a heart condition during the film's making and died in January 1977, going on to become the first posthumous acting Oscar winner (and the only one before Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight). Faye Dunaway, a very fine actress in the right part, won Best Actress and, as mentioned, Beatrice Straight (a stage veteran who had made few films, though one of them was The Nun's Story which had also starred Peter Finch) won Best Supporting Actress. William Holden was also nominated for Best Actor and Ned Beatty was for Best Supporting Actor.
Talking of Oscars, Network was up for Best Picture in a very strong year, along with All the President's Men, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. Three films which have become classics in a very rich period for American cinema – and one I haven't seen (the last-named). However, they lost to Rocky which was something that people have resented that film for ever since. That's not to say Rocky is a bad film – it isn't – but you can see how with its Cinderella story (with Stallone writing the script and acting, it became that year's Little Movie That Could, and did) it appealed to Oscar voters more than the much more complex and troubling other nominees. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, this was an Oscar verdict not endorsed by history and hindsight. What should have won Best Picture that year is hard to say: I'm not sure I'd want to choose between the three other nominees I've seen. Network did pick up nominations for Lumet, for Owen Roizman's cinematography and for Alan Heim's editing.
Network is released on Blu-ray as part of the Arrow Academy line. As you might expect, given that this is a major-studio production (a collaboration between MGM and United Artists) the disc is encoded for Region B only.
Sidney Lumet never shot a film in Scope, and the Blu-ray of Network is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. Lumet and Roizman gave the film a look which they defined as being in three phases: naturalistic, realistic and commercial, i.e. at first using only available light but moving away from strict naturalism as the film went on as to the use of lighting. Needless to say there's quite a lot of grain, especially early on, but gritty and grainy were key words in Seventies Hollywood in realistic drama, and this is not untypical of that trend.
In 1976, Dolby Stereo had only just been introduced but the great majority of films were in mono. A dialogue-driven film like Network would certainly not be a candidate for stereo sound. Like Lumet's previous film, Dog Day Afternoon, there is no music score, all music we hear is diegetic. So Network was mono and remains in single-channel mono on this Blu-ray, and is clear and well-balanced. There are English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, which sometimes simplify the dialogue but have no errors that I could spot.
The on-disc extras begin with the episode of the American cable TV show The Directors devoted to Lumet (59:38). Made in 1999, Lumet is interviewed along with several actors who have worked with him (though no crew collaborators). The programme goes through Lumet's filmography in order, with many of the films illustrated by a still (not always keeping in synch with the narration) but stopping along the way to talk more about 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Family Business, Q & A, A Stranger Among Us, Night Falls on Manhattan and Gloria. With only an hour and a particularly extensive filmography to work through, inevitably the comments tend to be anecdotal rather than analytical, and it's odd that time is spent on two of those films which the narration admits were misfires: Family Business and A Stranger Among Us. It's also unfortunate that the programme ends with mention of a new film called Whistle, from a James Jones novel, which did not come to pass. With all that said, this is a useful primer on Lumet's work This item is presented in 4:3 and the film clips are presented open-matte in that ratio, apart from the clips from The Hill, Family Business and A Stranger Among Us, which are letterboxed. Viewers should be aware that this programme contains major spoilers for 12 Angry Men and Murder on the Orient Express.
"Tune in Next Tuesday: The Making of Network" (47:06) is a newly-produced video essay by Dave Itzkoff, which takes us through the inception, making, release and reception of the film, filling in a lot of the details not available elsewhere on the disc. Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (3:17) which is in 4:3 and looks like it was mastered from a VHS source.
Arrow's booklet runs to forty pages and begins with "A Very Humane Manifesto", an essay by Mike Sutton which, as its title suggests, highlights the urge for human decency that's at the heart of Chayefsky's caustic satire. It's a piece which elucidates what is going on in a complex film, and as such is well worth reading along with Itzkoff's video piece. Also in the booklet are a single page explaining the Nielsen ratings which are referred to several times during the film, and an interview with Owen Roizman from 1977, reprinted from American Cinematographer. The booklet also contains film and disc credits, transfer notes and plenty of stills.