Paper Moon Review
Peter Bogdanovich's rich vein of directorial form in the early '70s culminated with the conman caper Paper Moon, adapted from Joe David Brown's 1971 novel Addie Pray. Ryan O'Neal stars as Moses Pray, a chancer who's grifting his way across the dustbowls of the American midwest during the Great Depression of the 1930's. He stops off at a funeral for an old acquaintance, presumably one of the red light variety, and ends up being tasked with dropping off the woman's child - a young girl named Addie Loggins, played by Tatum O'Neal - to her only remaining kin: her aunt over in St Joseph, Missouri.
What ensues is a charming comedy as Moses (handy name for a Bible salesman) finds himself in hock to his young charge, having wheedled $200 dollars from those responsible for her mother's death without realising that the precocious Addie was listening in, and she wants her cut after he's already spent a big chunk of it. As he starts his swindling in earnest she picks up the tricks of the trade, from the selling of fancy gold-embossed Bibles to relatives of the recently deceased so there's no-one around to dispute the duplicitous 'order', to simple tricks involving dollar bills and bamboozled shopkeepers. Addie even becomes something of an asset as her projection of sweet innocence - contrasted by her liking for smoking behind closed doors - enables Moses to extract even more money from his marks.
The real-life father/daughter chemistry of Ryan and Tatum infuses their performances with genuine zest as they bicker and fight, Moses frustrated at having to cart around this little girl and Addie equally frustrated with 'Moze' when he gets suckered by a man-eating madam (a typically kooky turn from Madeline Kahn, supported by newcomer P.J. Johnson as her downtrodden maid) into spending some of their hard-earned cash on clothes and cars. By the same token you can also feel the grudging respect and even the nascent love between the two characters, all of which eventually landed Tatum the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and she's still the youngest ever winner of that particular statuette. It's never made clear in the film whether Addie is actually Moze's child (Addie herself isn't sure in the book) but the theme of family is threaded throughout the narrative as if to underscore the possible link between them.
The incongruity that lies at the heart of the film - being a sly comedy set in the midst of the misery of the Depression - helps to give it a wonderfully unique flavour, as does the black and white photography which adds an air of timelessness. In the director's own words, the movie doesn't seem dated all these years later because it looked dated to begin with! Other Bogdanovich idiosyncracies are present such as his penchant for long takes and the slow, deliberate push-ins that he uses, starting on a wider angle to establish the scene and then cinching ever closer to the actors, getting full value from both the sun-baked locations and his cast all in one shot.
There's a pleasing lack of sentiment too, aided by the tomboyish pugnacity of Tatum's remarkably naturalistic performance and the lack of any music other than diegetic source material that's heard by the characters over the radio. If it were made today the movie would no doubt be an awfully mawkish affair, burdened with a syrupy music score, but the cynicism and anti-establishment feeling which permeated cinema in the early '70s lends itself well to this particular story, coming as it did from the newly formed 'Directors Company' production stable which included Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Billy Friedkin (though the company would not exist for long, the monstrous egos of all three men proving difficult to contain). Paper Moon does still finish on a slightly Hollywood-ised note and Alvin Sargent's screenplay omits some of the larger big-time scams from the book, but that only adds to the 'small town' charm that the film carries and overall it's a delightful piece of work.
Eureka Entertainment has released the movie in a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD package under its 'Masters of Cinema' label, accompanied by a 36-page booklet featuring an essay on the movie by Michael Brooke (and a good one it is too). Eureka's website touts this as being a "glorious new 1080p transfer of the film", although no further information is provided on the transfer's heritage in the booklet. The Blu-ray is locked to Region B (no DVD sample was provided for review), and extra points to Eureka for the apologetic 'region mismatch' screen.
I'm informed that this is likely to be Paramount's extant HD master, the 1.78 aspect being a clear indicator of which because they have a tendency to change their 1.85 pictures to 1.78 (much like Warners). Naturally it's presented in the original black and white, having been gorgeously lensed by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs who used colour filters to give what he called a "deep sky" look, and he shied away from using any diffusion which makes the images look sharp as a tack and gives them a real sense of detail and immediacy. I'm pleased to report that this 1080p AVC encode does a terrific job of representing those aesthetic choices, with detail fine enough to count the hairs on Tatum's little arms and no excessive sharpening to spoil the effect.
The tonal range is beautiful, as the deep blacks anchor the rich, contrasty look without it seeming oppressively bright at the upper end of the scale. Grain is ever-present and looks largely unmolested, free from both egregious filtering and poor compression. You'll spot a few film artefacts like some occasional density fluctuation and a handful of shots which look decidedly dupey, as well as an infrequent array of blips, nicks and scratches on the film elements (which is probably an IP or fine grain master). It clearly isn't some rock-solid new scan as the image has some noticeable instability, especially in the opening scene which looks particularly jittery, yet it's not the worst case of telecine wobble I've ever seen. However it's still an admirable effort considering how badly Paramount have treated some movies in their Blu-ray back catalogue, especially those with older masters like this appears to be.
The original mono audio is presented in uncompressed PCM 2.0 and it sounds superb, with the dialogue having a surprisingly strong amount of clarity. You'll hear a few pops and crackles during the song used for the opening and closing titles, but I'm certain that's entirely intentional to evoke the sensation of it being played on an old record deck.
Extras have been ported across from Paramount's 2003 Region 1 DVD, including a commentary by Bogdanovich and three featurettes about the making of the film: The Next Picture Show (14 minutes), Asking For The Moon (16 mins) and Getting The Moon (4 mins). Bogdanovich' chat track is a little dry and he's got a chronic tendency to namedrop all the famous directors he's learned from but he keeps up a constant flow of information. The featurettes contain interviews with the director plus input from Laszlo Kovacs, production designer (and former wife of Bogdanovich) Polly Platt and associate producer Frank Marshall, with each piece focussing on a certain stage of production intercut with amusing outtakes from the shoot, and there's very little overlap with the commentary. There's nothing from either of the O'Neal's which is a pity but you'll still learn a fair bit about the making of the movie.
Paper Moon is one of Peter Bogdanovich's best movies, featuring sterling performances and laugh-out-loud humour, and this long-awaited UK Blu-ray release by Eureka does it justice with authentic AV quality and a small but high quality serving of extra features.
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