The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Borgias
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Moon in the Gutter
Scarlet Street
ASC Close-Up
Unforgiven (1992)
20th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition
2.40: 1 (1080p High Definition)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Warner Bros., $34.99

Can it really be 20 years since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven first appeared in movie theaters, reviving a dormant genre and inaugurating one of the most remarkable directorial runs in American film history? Before the film sneaked onto screens in the late summer of 1992, few would have expected it to finish what Dances with Wolves started two years earlier; Westerns were an antiquated form, largely of interest only to scholars and cultists, and Eastwood’s recent films (White Hunter, Black Heart and The Rookie) were ambitious but largely overlooked. Yet upon its release, Unforgiven was embraced by the critics and public alike, and seemed to be that true contradiction in terms: an instant classic. Regular Eastwood collaborator Jack N. Green, ASC, was honored with an Oscar nomination for his evocative cinematography, and the movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Eastwood went on to direct A Perfect World, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, among other gems.

For all Eastwood has accomplished since, Unforgiven retains a special place in his filmography; the excellence of every one of its components and the serendipity with which they coalesce make it the Godfather of Westerns — a film simultaneously entertaining and thoughtful, concise yet richly layered, and romantic but brutal. David Webb Peoples’ screenplay sets up the kind of premise familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Randolph Scott or James Stewart cowboy movie: aging killer William Munny (Eastwood) decides to come out of retirement for one last job, that of assassinating a pair of ranch hands responsible for mutilating a prostitute. Munny is joined by an old friend (Morgan Freeman) and a new apprentice (Jaimz Woolvett), and all three think they are taking on a simple job but end up scarred by violence. Along the way, they cross paths with a sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman) and a dime novelist (Saul Rubinek), characters Peoples uses to examine the mythology of the West.

Indeed, Peoples and Eastwood manage to have it both ways, celebrating the romantic American image of a lone man with a gun while deconstructing its messy reality. As Munny’s journey turns from one of professional detachment to a quest for revenge, Eastwood deftly juggles the audience’s emotions, encouraging the viewer to identify with and root for Munny even while questioning his actions. This duality extends to every character in the film. Every man has his reasons, and the richness of the film comes from the fact it is dark and violent without truly demonizing its characters. Even Little Bill, the sheriff played by Hackman, can be seen as a man trying to keep the peace in a quickly changing moral landscape. The problem is that he, like others in the film, simply makes the wrong choices, and as the mistakes pile up, Unforgiven takes on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy.

Green finds the perfect visual analogue to the film’s moral view in his imagery, which alternates between gorgeous landscape photography that romanticizes the West and noir-like shadows that engulf the characters in the interiors. Containing both claustrophobia and expansiveness, it is a style Green and Eastwood developed in earlier collaborations like Heartbreak Ridge and White Hunter, Black Heart, but which finds its greatest expressiveness in Unforgiven.

Warner Home Video’s recently released 20th-anniversary Blu-ray contains what appears to be the same fine transfer featured on previous Blu-rays; the transfer faithfully reproduces the dynamic contrasts of Green’s photography with sharp edge detail and an appropriate amount of grain. The 5.1 sound mix is solid, with crisp presentation of the dialogue and thundering effects spread across the channels, although one wonders why Warners did not go for the full, uncompressed upgrade on this seminal title. (The disc has been advertised as “newly remastered,” but its picture and sound are indistinguishable from those of the prior Blu-ray release.)

Aside from a new booklet, the extras are all carried over from previous DVD and Blu-ray editions. Film critic Richard Schickel contributes a disappointing commentary track that, like his biography of Eastwood, tends more toward bland anecdotes than incisive analysis. Luckily, three Schickel-directed documentaries on the disc are more enlightening: the 68-minute “Eastwood on Eastwood,” 16-minute “Eastwood…A Star” and 23-minute “Eastwood & Co.: Making Unforgiven” provide fascinating behind-the-scenes footage and insightful analysis of Eastwood’s career and methods. An additional documentary, the 22-minute “All on Accounta Pullin’ a Trigger,” directed by Jerry Hogrewe, offers a slightly different and equally valid perspective on the same material. The package concludes with a theatrical trailer and a delightful episode of Maverick that starred Eastwood and was shot by Harold Stine, ASC.

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