The American Society of Cinematographers

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Robin Hood
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Bigger Than Life
The Natural
Corman Duo
ASC Close-Up
The Natural (1984)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $24.95

After Barry Levinson completed his directorial debut, Diner, he met with actor Robert Redford, and the two discovered they shared a passionate interest in baseball. They were also both fans of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural, and Redford was attached to a screen adaptation of the book, which follows Roy Hobbs, a baseball player who takes a late shot at greatness after his once-promising career is sidelined for years. Levinson agreed to direct The Natural, a film that would eventually become an American classic.

Malamud’s novel was peppered with mythological references, and Levinson decided to run with them. In going against the realistic tradition of baseball films such as Pride of the Yankees and Bang the Drum Slowly, Levinson found a willing collaborator in director of photography Caleb Deschanel, ASC, who eventually earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the picture. Levinson was a great admirer of Deschanel’s work on The Black Stallion and wanted a similar approach to light and color; Deschanel obliged with images as beautiful as they are meaningful. The palette is rich and expressive, from the pale greens and golden yellows of the early Midwestern scenes to a succession of amber interiors when Hobbs returns to the game; later, the black, gray and green baseball sequences, penetrated by blazing sunlight, give a sense of games not as they are played, but as they are remembered.

The whole film is bathed in a kind of nostalgic glow, and the compositions are so precise nearly any frame from The Natural could be hung on the wall of a museum. Yet there is more to the cinematography than beauty; the lighting also serves a metaphorical function, as in a scene in which Glenn Close is backlit in a manner suggesting her character is bringing Hobbs out of his own personal darkness. (In an interview on the DVD, Close contends she owes her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination to Deschanel.) Indeed, throughout the film, Deschanel gives Close’s character an incandescent, angelic quality, which contrasts sharply with the presentation of the morally dubious other women in Hobbs’ life. The method extends to the men in the film as well; when we meet the villain, we know he is bad news, thanks to the noir-inspired shadows in his office.

The breadth of Deschanel’s color scheme and the subtle gradations of light and contrast in his frames have never been as evident on home video as they are on Sony’s new Blu-ray release. The transfer is impeccable in its attention to detail; every dust and dirt particle in the ballpark seems visible, and the wide array of colors — from gloriously blue skies and golden, magic-hour sunlight to hospital whites and deep, rich blacks — is well represented, along with skin tones that give the viewer a full appreciation of Deschanel’s gift for portraiture. The uncompressed, 5.1-channel mix is a home run as well, with plenty of atmospheric surround effects in the games, flawless dialogue reproduction, and an exemplary presentation of Randy Newman’s inspiring score. All one has to do to appreciate the dynamic range of the soundtrack is listen to the recurring storm effects, in which both the powerful bass of the thunder and the delicate drops of rain are heard with equal clarity.   

The disc is packed with entertaining supplements, the best of which is the 50-minute “When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural.” This making-of documentary traces the history of the production from Malamud’s novel to the theatrical release and contains illuminating interviews with Deschanel, Levinson, Redford and other members of the creative team. Additional interviews, including one with Deschanel about the film’s use of slow-motion, can be found in the seven-minute “Extra Innings” supplement, and “Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural” provides a nine-minute look at the film’s literary and allegorical aspects. The 44-minute “The Heart of The Natural” offers further perspective on the story’s themes in the form of interviews with Levinson and athlete Cal Ripken Jr. The remaining extra features focus on the game of baseball itself: the 15-minute “Clubhouse Conversations” consists of interviews with players and journalists who contemplate the enduring appeal of the sport, and the 17-minute “A Natural Gunned Down: The Staking of Eddie Waitkus” focuses on the true story that inspired Malamud’s book. Further information on the film itself can be accessed by clicking on a “Movie IQ” feature that provides trivia about The Natural for users with Blu-ray players connected to the Internet. 

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