Paths of Glory appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. Though not as glorious a presentation as some other Criterion Blu-rays for 1950s black and white flicks, I felt impressed by the transfer.
Across the board, sharpness was good. Occasionally, I saw slightly soft elements, usually during semi-dim interiors; a few battle scenes could be a little ill-defined as well. Nonetheless, most of the movie exhibited nice clarity and definition, and the majority showed borderline excellent material. Jagged edges and moiré effects remained absent, and I saw no signs of edge haloes or artifacting.
With a natural – and non-intrusive – layer of grain on display, I discerned no problematic digital noise reduction, and source flaws weren’t a factor. I noticed some minor spots on a couple of occasions, but nothing major. Indeed, the defects I witnessed were small and barely noticeable; I had to go back to recheck them and make sure I’d not been mistaken.
Paths came with a strong black and white presentation. Blacks were deep and dark, and contrast appeared dynamic and distinctive. Shadows offered good clarity. Like I mentioned earlier, a couple of those shots were a little soft, but they came with nice balance. I really liked this consistently strong image.
While not as good, the monaural soundtrack of Paths was more than acceptable given the film’s age. The biggest problems materialized during battle sequences. With all the mayhem and explosions, those scenes could come with some distortion and harshness. Those issues weren’t massive, but they created some distractions.
The rest of the track satisfied. A few lines came across as a bit edgy, but most sounded surprisingly good, as the majority of the film’s dialogue appeared natural and concise. Effects never quite impressed, but when they weren’t on the distorted side, they seemed fine; despite the dated elements, they showed reasonable clarity.
Don’t expect much music from Paths, as the film lacked a prominent score. When music did appear, however, it sounded fine. As with the effects, those elements weren’t really impressive, but they appeared perfectly solid when I factored in the flick’s vintage. Source noise wasn’t an issue. The distortion in the battle sequences almost knocked my grade down to a “B-“, but since those scenes didn’t occupy a lot of the movie – and the rest of it sounded so good – I thought the audio deserved a solid “B”. The mix has held up nicely over the last 50-plus years.
How did the picture and sound of this Blu-Ray compare with those of the 1999 DVD? Both showed substantial improvements. Audio demonstrated the biggest step-up, mostly because the old DVD sounded so awful. It was a shrill, distorted mess that suffered from harsh, sibilant elements. Even with minor flaws, the Blu-ray’s audio demonstrated an enormous improvement.
While I thought the 1999 DVD looked decent, in no way could it compare to the Blu-ray. The new release offered more detail, fewer print flaws, and greater overall clarity. It took a mediocre presentation and slaughtered it with a very attractive transfer.
Almost no extras appeared on the old DVD, so the mix of components we get here offer yet another improvement. We open with an audio commentary from film critic Gary Giddins. In his running, screen-specific discussion, Giddins covers cast and crew, sets and locations, the source novel and its adaptation, music, cinematography and editing, themes and interpretation, cast, characters, story and performances, and some thoughts about Kubrick's work and career.
Giddins delivers a brisk, informative chat. He goes into a wide variety of appropriate topics and does so in a compelling manner. Really, I can think of nothing to knock here; Giddins offers exactly the kind of solid overview I want from a critic/historian.
More audio comes from an excerpt of a 1966 Stanley Kubrick Interview. In this two-minute, 18-second clip, the director chats about how he came to the film, its reception, and meeting his wife on the set. This is a pleasant piece but not a revealing or especially informative one; it’s just way too brief and perfunctory.
Another vintage piece arrives via a 1979 TV Interview with Actor Kirk Douglas. This program runs 29 minutes, 29 seconds and looks at his life and career. Douglas touches on Paths only briefly; he discusses it around the 21:30 mark and moves on to other topics before too long. The interview has some value and is certainly entertaining, though it has a “well-rehearsed” feel, as I suspect Douglas told a lot of these stories many, many times over his career.
A selection of new Interviews involve a mix of participants. During these, we hear from producer James B. Harris (21:09), actor/Kubrick’s wife Christiane (6:59) and Kubrick’s long-time collaborator Jan Harlan (9:08). Harris looks at aspects of the film’s development, casting, collaborating with Kubrick, and other aspects of the production. Christiane goes over meeting Kubrick, aspects of Paths and her subsequent life. Finally, Harlan goes over his experiences with Kubrick and his thoughts about the director’s work.
While the clips from Harlan and Christiane have merits, they tend to feel more like attempts to further the legend of Kubrick. Harris’s piece, however, delivers a more informative take on matters. The producer digs into various aspect of the productions well; his interview is by far the most valuable of this bunch.
For info about the case that inspired the film, we go to the three-minute, 12-second Theophile Maupas. This is a short news telecast report that gives us basics of what occurred, with an emphasis on Cpl. Maupas. Mostly the clip follows attempts to clear Maupas’s name. It provides a moderately interesting segment, but it’s not a great history.
In addition to the film’s trailer, we get a 20-page booklet. It delivers an essay from film historian James Naremore. Though this isn’t one of Criterion’s most extensive booklets, it’s still a classy, useful affair.
While not as well-regarded as Stanley Kubrick’s more famous films from the 1960s and 1970s, I think 1957’s Paths of Glory deserves to be viewed as one of the director’s best effort. It offers one of his most provocative and stimulating films. The Blu-ray gives us very good picture and audio as well as a decent collection of extras highlighted by an excellent audio commentary. Paths remains a fine film, and this Blu-ray becomes by far its most satisfying rendition.