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Days of Heaven 4K

by Glenn Erickson Nov 25, 2023

Terrence Malick and Néstor Almendros rewrote the rule books for imagery and narrative on this story of quiet desperation in the agrarian America of a bygone age. We discovered Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard; Linda Manz joined the ranks of cult names.


Days of Heaven 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 409
1978 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 94 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date December 5, 2023 / 49.95
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert J. Wilke, Jackie Shultis, Stuart Margolin, Timothy Scott, Gene Bell, Doug Kershaw, Richard Libertini.
Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Production Designer:
Art Director: Jack Fisk
Film Editor: Billy Weber
Costume Design: Patricia Norris
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Produced by Bert Schneider, Harold Schneider
Written and Directed by
Terrence Malick

Days of Heaven remains a touchstone for filmmakers that place special value on work made from natural elements. We students weren’t ready for Terrence Malick back in the day, when he previewed his Badlands at UCLA. The film’s narrative didn’t follow any previous storytelling pattern. Malick presented such dry post-screening comments, one might have thought he was a government official reporting on census tallies. I remember ungenerously wondering if the industry would accept it as suitable for commercial release. Yet the picture took off with the critics, who saw it as the work of a new star director.

Three years later Days of Heaven premiered at the Bruin, the Westwood theater commemorated in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was in 70mm, and the Bruin screen wasn’t large enough to really sell the format. We do remember that the picture seemed to have a wider contrast range, and little or no grain. This time around, the buzz was as much about the cinematographer as the director. Malick’s show is an unending parade of beautiful images of agricultural America by the Spanish-born cinematographer Néstor Almendros. I remember that cameraman Richard Yuricich on Close Encounters considered Almendros to be an inspiration, a god.

 

At the time, we didn’t realize that both of Malick’s shows used the same style, a straightforward pictorial realism. Despite a non-standard continuity we had no difficulty following events. The rambling voiceovers were not to explain the story, but to reflect the thoughts of people living the events we saw, as if recorded on a different plane of reality.

The strategy became clearer years later with his epic war movie The Thin Red Line. Malick filmed a fullly-scripted adaptation of James Jones’s multi-character novel complete with scores of dramatic subplots. In editorial, he jettisoned as much ‘story’ as possible in favor of impressions of scenes stripped of dialogue. The result was overlaid with even more semi-abstracted voiceovers ruminating on the personal war experience.

The consistency in Malick’s films can be seen as late as The Tree of Life, much of it through Jack Fisk’s continuing role as art director. Much of Tree takes place in no-sidewalk residential neighborhoods similar to what we saw in Badlands back in 1975.

 

All of these films are presented in small impressionist strokes, immersing us in the feel of nature. The stories play out with a minimum of dramatic embellishment. Direct dramatic confrontations are infrequent and we hear few composed speeches. When people do talk, we sometimes can’t hear what they say. Malick instead offers frequent voiceovers from the youngest of the main characters, observations that advance the plot only tangentially, and add a verbal counterpoint to Néstor Almendros’ breathtaking visuals. Criterion’s 2010 video edition of Days of Heaven felt like a demo disc for the then-young Blu-ray format. This new edition does the same thing for 4K.

The story begins in the early 1900s in Chicago, where steel worker Bill (Richard Gere) strikes his foreman (Stuart Margolin) and flees from the law. On the run with his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), Bill avoids detection by passing Abby off as another sister. The three join a group of itinerant harvesters in the Texas panhandle, working for a wealthy gentleman Farmer (Sam Shepard). They labor under open skies; the world is clean, raw and unforgiving. While keeping the peace with the harvest Foreman (Robert J. Wilke), Bill overhears that the Farmer has a serious health problem, and has only a year to live. When the Farmer takes an interest in Abby, Bill formulates a plan that could make the three of them rich: if Abby were to marry their employer . . .

 

Even though it ends in violence, Days of Heaven plays out not as a rural thriller but as a delicate study that emphasizes the natural landscape even over character. The laborers have a hard life but the world that surrounds them is vast, clean and stunningly beautiful. A generous shooting schedule gave Néstor Almendros the freedom to experiment with his visuals, shooting scenes without studio lights. Stanley Kubrick had made news a couple of years before by filming the interiors for his Barry Lyndon only using candlelight. Malick and Almendros routinely film in pre-dawn shadow and post-sunset darkness, and come up with magical-looking footage. The film is photographically organic, eschewing standard Hollywood short cuts. Even the fades are created in the camera, as was done in silent days.

The show is not slowly paced. A couple of diversionary episodes seem included for their own sake, like the visit by the airplane barnstormers. For one memorable scene, fiddler extraordinare Doug Kershaw performs by firelight. But Malick communicates the rural pace of living by contrasting days of hard work with weeks of idleness — life seems to drift by. Linda’s poetic voiceovers provide a verbal expression of interior feelings, giving the film a sense of a living diary: “Nothin’ to do all day but relax, walk. I’m telling you the rich got it figured out.”

 

In this natural setting relationships cannot be hidden. Rather than invent psychological complications for his characters, Malick simply observes their behaviors. America is touted as a classless society, but owners don’t normally talk with laborers. We need only see the Farmer start a conversation with Abby to know of his interest in her. The Farmer has little to say when his Foreman suggests that Billy and Abby are running some kind of con game.

When Malick wants to convey the fury of nature, he comes up with a terrific locust invasion and a subsequent fire. The spectacular sequences are not a cue for the visual effects people to take over. The film’s visual authenticity elevates it above the industry standard set by movies like The Good Earth, with its elaborate opticals and tricky montage cutting. For its storm of locusts, Days of Heaven’s only trick is to drop loads of almonds and peanut shells from a helicopter. When filmed in reverse, they look like a swarm of locusts taking flight.

 

Malick’s actors are certainly not pressed to perform theatrically. He instead coaxes natural behaviors from them in every scene. Brooke Adams’ footloose young woman is drifting into an uncertain future, riding atop a freight car — but she has a natural courage. (top image  )  Little Linda always has her defenses up. She just takes everything in, seemingly unimpressed. Sam Shepard could be called inexpressive and Richard Gere shallow, but they would seem to deliver the attitudes desired by their director. The most conventional character is Robert J. Wilke, whose severe manner makes the Foreman seem like an authentic survivor of the Real West. *

Malick’s script never imposes a moral on what we see, but simply observes that life is terrible for some and easy for others. The downbeat conclusion is treated as a natural consequence, as opposed to the workings of fate or cruel irony. Viewers expecting more focused dramatics may think Days of Heaven remote and muted, or simply lacking in emotional interest. Those sensitive to its expressive images will see a much bigger story unfolding. Human struggles and crimes pass and are forgotten, but the land continues . . . staying mostly in the hands of the wealthy.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Days of Heaven 4K is a new digital restoration supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick, camera operator John Bailey, and editor Billy Weber. The extras cover the movie’s extraordinary camerawork, which must have required shooting at specific times of the day and waiting for conditions to be just what Malick wanted — this isn’t the kind of show in which a sky is replaced with a matte painting, or some fill light is added to make dusk look like noon. When the workers are standing in the fields, we can practically feel the wind and rain hitting them.

The audio has been mixed in 5.1 Dolby, highlighting Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-nominated score. Morricone scores were nominated only six times, and not necessarily for his most creative work. The sixth nomination garnered his only competitive Oscar win, for a not-so-great picture.

The extras from the 2010 Blu-ray are retained exactly as they were. Terrence Malick’s collaborators have plenty to say about his quiet but effective filming style. Editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittenden sit in for a fascinating commentary, describing the film’s unusual production circumstances. Local Hutterite workers erected the impressive farmhouse on location in Canada. The director personally wooed playwright Sam Shepard for the role of the farmer, and young Linda Manz was discovered in a New York casting call.

A lot is said about the film’s glowing camerawork. Haskell Wexler remembers Terrence Malick’s command of film technique and talks about his own efforts to maintain visual continuity after Néstor Almendros had to leave the production early. The filmmakers remark on the Union-mandated Hollywood crew, which were unsympathetic about Almendros’ choice to minimize artificial lighting. Truckloads of lighting equipment were never used. A year later, the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Sam Shepard makes an appearance in a 2002 video interview, while Richard Gere’s memories are heard as an audio featurette backed with images from the film. A fat insert booklet contains a thoughtful essay by Adrian Martin and an entire chapter from the late Néstor Almendros’ autobiography. It’s some of the best camera-related movie writing to be found. Criterion’s disc producer is Kim Hendrickson.

 


 

*  Actor Robert J. Wilke indeed makes a strong connection with the past — the past of beloved movie westerns. He specialized in western bad guys, in dozens of oaters from  High Noon to  Man of the West, almost always as a heartless killer. When Walt Disney hired Wilke, he must have seen something bigger behind that villainous scoul. Days of Heaven is probably the only film in which a Wilke character cries, a moment that Wilke’s fans will surely appreciate.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Days of Heaven 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Audio commentary with editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden
Audio interview with actor Richard Gere
Interviews with Bailey, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and actor Sam Shepard
40-page color insert booklet with an essay by Adrian Martin an an excerpt from the autobio of Néstor Almendros.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc + one Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 20, 2023
(7031heav)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Jenny Agutter fan

That was Terrence Malick’s last good movie. Then he took a break for twenty years and started turning out pointless talkfests. He went from being a potential Stanley Kubrick to being the modern Ed Wood.

E HUNTER HALE

Fortunately Criterion doesn’t seem to agree with Jenny Agutter fan writers opinion of directer Malick.
My introduction to Malick was seeing DAYS OF HEAVEN on a 70mm presentation. So impressed was I that I returned a week later to re-experience the film at the same theater. Malick’s films that have followed to and including A TREE OF LIFE have invited many returns for additional viewings and thus have been must own Criterion titles. Reading Glenn’s comments on the 4K release of DAYS OF HEAVEN I was pleased to learn that the actor Robert J. Wilke was the villainous soul in two of Gary Cooper’s classic Westerns.

Rick Notch

I saw this in November 1978 in full 70 mm wide screen with 6-track stereo at the St. Louis Park Theatre
4835 Minnetonka Boulevard, St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It filled the very large and VERY WIDE screen.

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[…] and the movie reportedly put designer Giorgio Armani on the map. Gere had been well-cast in  Days of Heaven but only now was recognized as a full-fledged movie star… he had the kind of looks that could […]

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