IT SOUNDS GREAT on paper. Issued July 15, this nine-disc collection of Billy Wilder's work would seem to beg for the full Criterion-style treatment of bonus tracks, learned commentaries, and sundry extras that befit the late writer-director's genius. And you might expect a studio with MGM's heritage to put a little money and pride into the effort.
Not so. I asked MGM to send the special-edition set of Some Like It Hot and the relatively rare Kiss Me, Stupid, and what do I get in reply? Avanti!, one of Wilder's worst, and Witness for the Prosecution, a stage-bound Agatha Christie adaptation. I open the latter's DVD boxes, and what do I see? Nothing but the single disc and an empty space on the left flap where those little black clips are supposed to hold an informative booklet or something. This is the kind of cheap, bogus affair that will have our friends at Scarecrow (and Criterion) laughing in scorn. It's not like you couldn't at least try to emulate Criterion. Couldn't MGM have had an intern illegally download and copy some Wilder info from the Internet, then stuff it inside the DVD cases?
Properly done, DVDs are about two things: quality of transfer and the extras. If you're going to take the trouble to digitize something, clean it up first. Then, among the musty classics, find out who if anyone is still alive to help provide commentary tracks. Failing that, hit up the film scholars (or critics, who work even cheaper). Ransack the archives and period newsreels, then cram the ephemera onto the disc. Just do something.
What about the 1957 Prosecution? Marlene Dietrich's courtroom histrionics, provoked by Charles Laughton's cross-examination, sum up this entire collection: "Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!"
FOR THE FLIP side of packaging a DVD, turn to Criterion as usual for its superior treatment of De Sica's 1952 Umberto D. Among several July 22 releases, the crystal meth comedy Spun and the death-obsessed Final Destination 2 yield acceptable jolts and sensations for younger viewers. Director Atom Egoyan provides a commentary for his rather grim and overstudied Ararat, as does Douglas McGrath for his considerably more cheerful Nicholas Nickleby. Godard's uneven In Praise of Love bears a crotchety romantic streak. Far better is the tidy French noir thriller Read My Lips. BRIAN MILLER