Otley (Screen Classics by Request)
It wasn’t long ago that Sony finally entered my good graces. Like a white knight for older films on DVD, the formerly most negligent of all studios picked up the slack left behind when Warner Bros. and Fox virtually abandoned proper releases of their back catalogs. Over the last two years Sony’s commitment to putting out Columbia titles in R1 has easily made it the leader among the major studios for the so-called classics. Star sets devoted to Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak, director collections for Michael Powell, Budd Boetticher and Samuel Fuller, and genre offerings like two volumes each of screwball and film noir goodies, plus another pair of separate Bad Girls of Noir releases, have really proven Sony’s commitment to consumers who’ve otherwise been largely snubbed.
Late 2010 and I’m suddenly a little worried about the studio’s plans for the future. Only a much-delayed Rita Hayworth set has been given an official due date. The New Hollywood set promised and prepped by Sony somehow ended up in the (quite capable, to be sure) hands of the Criterion Collection. More rumors and soft confirmations still exist, including the Frank Capra-Barbara Stanwyck collaborations, but the question persists as to when, and maybe whether, we’ll see more releases on the ever-aging and slowly dying format of DVD.
Particularly disappointing is Sony’s venture into Warner Archive territory with its own DVD-R burn-on-demand service deemed Screen Classics by Request. That’s not a name that exactly rolls off the tongue or stays in the memory banks. The initial selections have mostly consisted of things from the ’50s and ’60s onward as far as I can tell, still ignoring Columbia pre-Code titles. Some of these would seem prominent enough to deserve more attention. Films like Mickey One, I Never Sang for My Father, 10 Rillington Place, 711 Ocean Drive, and The Pumpkin Eater are given equal footing with a bunch of Hart to Hart TV movies. Even Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood, deemed important enough in the UK for an edition, has been thrown into the pit.
The prices are roughly in line with the Warner Archive, which is to say that they’re ridiculous. Expect to pay around $20 for a burned DVD-R without extra features or even a menu. For the dedicated, Deep Discount is a decent enough option. My curiosity recently got the best of me so I went for something I’d not yet seen nor even heard of previously. My choice, for better or worse, was Otley, a 1968 effort directed by Dick Clement and starring Tom Courtenay. It’s based on a novel written by Martin Waddell and centers on the ne’er-do-well title character who stumbles into a spy plot. Romy Schneider also gets above the title billing. You can glimpse a woman in a supporting role who bears a definite resemblance to Emma Thompson. That would be her mother, Phyllida Law, in a rare film part.
Courtenay plays Gerald Arthur Otley, identified as “a man you can lean on (if you’re desperate)” on the poster and DVD cover art. He’s facing eviction, even after sleeping with his landlady, and just trying to find a place to sleep for a few days. A pal lends Otley his couch only to be swiftly murdered at home. Otley was there when it happened, on a Saturday night, but doesn’t remember anything else when he wakes up at Gatwick Airport on Monday morning. The police want to speak with him and so do some shadowy men. Things, including the plot, get messy.
This is clearly not a forgotten gem by any means but I’d be reluctant to cite Otley as completely bad either. Courtenay was why I took a chance on the film and DVD-R, and it was nice to see him relish the character’s irresponsibility. He brings both a rakish quality and a more disheveled attitude to the picture. I still can’t find any other British actor of the era to compare Courtenay to in terms of being relatable and charming without taking himself too seriously. For me, he’s the main draw of Otley and, save for a few looks at Romy Schneider, just about the only one. The tone feels all wrong and confused as to whether to give way to the kookiness of something like The President’s Analyst or try to keep up the spy thriller ruse. Courtenay seems to belong in the former, though he was also quite good in a supporting part in A Dandy in Aspic, a picture that plays it straight. Otley really can’t play it straight throughout because its plot is too far-fetched and unconvincing. A lighter, more farcical take and maybe it would’ve been on to something.
As for the quality of Sony’s Screen Classics by Request DVD-R, I wouldn’t consider it to be a disappointment. Sony’s site boasts that Otley has been newly remastered and this seems believable. It’s in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The print is clean, with good color balance. It’s sharper at times than others but generally worth deeming as acceptable videowise. Maybe more noise than I would’ve liked, though the grain is balanced well. The palette has that familiar late ’60s look of other British films I’ve encountered, mostly on DVD or via TCM viewings. I was content overall with the image and really wish that a proper DVD could have been released. Audio is a modest English mono track, without subtitles.
Not even a menu has been provided, much less any bonus features. Just some legal warnings. The single-layered disc itself is white on top, with the film’s title repeated in the same font as used on the cover. Unlike with Warner Archive packages, there’s no mention here of the content having been made on demand (though it clearly was).