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Natural, The (Blu-ray Review)

12 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$24.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey.

Why in the world would Sony not release director Barry Levinson’s far superior 2007 Director’s Cut?

Well, first things first. Even before Levinson tinkered significantly with its editing structure — especially in an almost incomparably improved opening act — the once underwhelmed critical tide had begun to turn on his large-scale and much more upbeat rethinking of Bernard Malamud’s novel, which launched Tri-Star Pictures as major studio for a few years (today, it’s TriStar without the hyphen and a home to junky screen ephemera).

But the 2007 DVD was a game-changer — something a little akin to how perceptions were transformed when Fox released the snappier 70mm version of Oklahoma! on DVD after decades of only having the comparably listless 35mm prints in circulation. This isn’t an exact parallel: Oklahoma! was actually shot as two separate films, both released to theaters, while The Natural was rebuilt years after the fact. But both were revelations, and it’s just amazing to me that anyone would prefer the soggier opening of the Blu-ray’s 1984 original, where it takes the Roy Hobbs character three times longer to get to the train station where he first spots the fatal mystery woman played by Barbara Hershey. Levinson said that the rush to get the film into theaters for the official Tri-Star launch (especially, I bet, after the ignominy of the having the studio’s first release being Where the Boys Are ’84) compromised the editing process in the first place.

If this version remains strikingly inferior, there is still some good news. With the passage of time, one appreciates even more the bang-up cast Levinson assembled and how much of an iconographic role that Hobbs now seems in the career of lead Redford, who was 47 when he played the aging pitcher-turned-slugger/outfielder with maybe one good season left. Seeing Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth in the same dugout is like drinking a $7.50 stadium beer that someone else has paid for on an 80-degree day 

Redford and Levinson knew that the reading audience, at least, would have it in for the changes made in the film’s Roger Towne-Phil Dusenberry script, an admission divulged in one of the copious extras on transferred from the director’s cut to the Blu-ray.

One of these — on Philadelphia Phillies Eddie Waitkus, whose non-fatal 1949 shooting by an obsessed female fan inspired Malamud’s novel — is an especially welcome programming brainstorm. But missing from the very first DVD of The Natural (it wasn’t on the two-disc 2007 edition, either) is a wonderful 44-minute featurette where Cal Ripken Jr. discussed his affection for the film.

As for the transfer, the close-ups do justice to Caleb Deschanel’s justly celebrated photography, though I think the long shots lack the sting you see in ‘A’-plus Blu-rays (recently, say Bigger Than Life or The African Queen). The sound, though, is impressive. Even whispers and other soft tones register fully, and there are many here.

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