"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"
It is certainly easy for the extra clarity of high definition to seduce a viewer, and Studio Canal's HD DVD rendering of the classic 1967 comedy "The Graduate" is seductive stuff, even if it's not in the very top echelon of high-resolution video or audio. However, note that at this time if you want the disc in HD DVD you will have to obtain it from France (try Amazon France or Xploited Cinema). In the U.S., MGM Studios own the film, and as they are a Sony company, they are not too likely to do it up in HD DVD anytime soon.
Anyway, the real question is whether "The Graduate" still holds up well enough to justify the cost of buying a European import simply for the small additional realism of its reproduction. I'd say the answer is yes. "The Graduate" remains a classic, and even if the uncertainties facing our current crop of young people are different today than they were some four decades ago, I'm sure the problems of the here and now are every bit as daunting as they were back then.
Of course, the late sixties were a time of tremendous social change, and that left many of its younger generation more than a bit dazed and confused. Think about the changes wrought by the sexual revolution, desegregation, women's lib, the Vietnam War, the emerging drug culture, the drop in church attendance, the increase in divorce rates, the disintegration of the family unit, the beginnings of the two-job household, the evolution of technology, and on and on. It's a wonder those of us emerging from college back then could concentrate on any kind of future at all. And "The Graduate" addresses some of these same problems of alienation people face in our present world.
The charms of both "The Graduate" and "Easy Rider" touched a lot of people in the late sixties, two very different films with similar themes about the alienation of youth. Of the two, however, it's "The Graduate" that holds up best today, as funny and effective as ever. Not too many young persons are taking off and dropping out anymore, but they still often have that empty feeling that comes from being on their own for the first time and facing a seemingly meaningless and indifferent universe.
Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is about to turn twenty-one; he has just graduated from college, and he has returned to live temporarily with his parents before deciding what to do with the rest of his life. What he sees does not encourage him. His father (William Daniels) is a successful lawyer, his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) a housewife, their home a luxurious affair in an affluent suburban neighborhood, with a swimming pool and every imaginable convenience. He recognizes in them, and in their disposition toward him, a hollow materialism. They live for things, not people. Ben has merely become another of their objects of display to friends and relatives, a fancy cog that eventually must fit into the larger machine of existence. One of his dad's friends tells him that his future lies in "plastics," an apt description for the artificial people and attitudes around him. Ben can't stand it. He doesn't want to turn into his parents.
But without the background necessary to make strong and decisive value judgments, he flounders. As a matter of personal rebellion, he reluctantly enters into an affair with a manipulative older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner (Murray Hamilton) and a woman who has known him since he was born. The affair is the only thing at that moment that relieves him of his boredom and the dismal prospects of his future. But Ben eventually sees the affair for what it is, another vain and purposeless gesture.
Ben's saving grace comes in the person of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross), the Robinsons' daughter, a young woman of such honesty, innocence, and beauty that she completely wins him over. For perhaps the first time in his life, Ben recognizes someone of merit, somebody to whom he can make a commitment, something of virtue worth fighting for. He learns that a sincere personal relationship is more important than the pursuit of wealth or temporal interests.
If any of this sounds preachy, let me assure you it is not. In fact, director Mike Nichols goes out of his way to make the film as humorous as possible and any messages as subtle as they can be. For instance, whether Ben retains any of the lessons he's learned from his experiences or eventually becomes what he hates most about his parents, we never find out, as the story ends on a vaguely ambiguous note.
Interestingly, Hoffman, looking younger than his age, was actually twenty-nine when he made "The Graduate" his film debut. Bancroft, acting older, was only thirty-six. Such are the illusions of Hollywood. The Academy nominated the film for seven Oscars in 1967: Best Picture (Lawrence Turman, producer), Director (Nichols), Actor (Hoffman), Actress (Bancroft), Supporting Actress (Ross), Cinematography (Robert Surtees), and Screenplay (Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, based on the novel by Charles Webb), the movie winning for Best Director.
Trivia notes, courtesy of John Eastman in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989): "Producer Lawrence Turman found Robert Redford too self-assured for the role of Benjamin Braddock, so he cast an awkward, nervous unknown. And the role made Dustin Hoffman a star. The bedroom seduction scene between Hoffman and Anne Bancroft proved difficult for both performers. Sensitive to Bancroft's modesty before scenes of undress became relatively common in movies, Nichols cleared the set and erected partition screens for her scantily clad sequences. (Doris Day had turned down the part because it offended her sense of values.) Young people, strongly identifying with the confusion that Hoffman projected, attended the film in droves, making it a blockbuster hit. Nichols won an Academy Award for Best Director, but his cynical final assessment also proved an accurate forecast of the yuppie Eighties: 'I think Benjamin will end up like his parents.'"
Studio Canal present the picture in a ratio that measures about 2.20:1 across my screen, very close to its 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The 1080 resolution is probably as sharp and clear as the original print, which was perhaps not all that sharp and clear to begin with but pretty good in any case. Where the HD DVD shines is in the presentation of its colors, which are quite realistic. On MGM's standard-definition disc, the colors often looked too dark, especially the skin tones. On the HD DVD, faces look vibrant and alive. What's more, even though the HD DVD delineation is not quite in the loftiest class, it is a distinct improvement over the sometimes fuzzy SD rendering, which has a touch of bleed-through in it. Most important, though, I noticed very little noise or grain on the HD DVD, except at the very beginning of the movie during the opening titles, making the high-def rendering a definite pleasure on the eyes.
We've heard news recently about some European disc reproduction being sped up in comparison to their American counterparts, the result of some European manufacturers making 24-fps transfers from 25-frame masters. A few listeners have noticed this slight increase in playback speed mostly affecting the sound, especially music, which can appear higher pitched. So, the first thing I did with this French Studio Canal HD DVD, with its abundance of Simon and Garfunkel music, was compare its sound to that of its American MGM SD counterpart, as well as to the Sony compact disc of the singers' greatest hits.
The results were harder to determine than I expected, though, because the Studio Canal engineers recorded the sound on the HD DVD at a higher level than it is on the SD DVD (not so with the CD, however). After noting the volume discrepancy in the two movie discs and making proper adjustments, I found the HD DVD did not display any unusual sped-up qualities. And, in timings, the two discs began each song and ended each song in exactly the same spot; one was not shorter or longer than the other, even by a second. Unfortunately, the CD comparison came a cropper because the filmmakers abbreviated most of the songs and used the music behind other noises, like voices and car engines. As a side note, I have to admit that what I did hear of the music in this comparison sounded considerably better on the CD than on either of the movie discs.
This does not mean, however, that the sonics of the two movie discs were identical. The HD DVD uses a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and the standard-definition disc uses an ordinary Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The DTS is much clearer, a little brighter, and more robust. Yet this does not mean that the sonics of the HD DVD are top-notch, either. The sound stage is narrow, the tonal balance is bright and forward, the bass is nonexistent, the rear channels get virtually no signal, and there is the tiniest bit of background noise, hardly noticeable.
Studio Canal do not offer many--or any--extras on their HD DVDs beyond the basics. Here, we get sets of audio and video calibration tests; on-screen information; twelve scene selections but no chapter insert; a promotional trailer for a number of Studio Canal HD DVD titles; English, French, and German spoken languages; and English, Danish, German, French, Norwegian, Finnish, and various other subtitles.
Lest I forget, the film is also notable for a couple of peripheral reasons: The songs of Simon and Garfunkel, things like "Mrs. Robinson," "Scarborough Fair," and "The Sounds of Silence"; and Ben's bright-red Alfa Romeo Spider, such an incredible publicity boon for Alfa that the company later renamed one of its models "The Graduate." The film (and to a lesser extent the automobile) remains a classic and deserves its new lease on life via HD DVD.