On the eve of America’s involvement in World War I, an accidental fugitive, Bill (Richard Gere), his partner, Abby (Brooke Adams), and young sister, Linda (Linda Manz), flee Chicago in search of safety. Bill and Abby masquerade as siblings as they cross the wheat belt into the Texas panhandle along with hundreds of poor laborers looking for steady harvest work. Eventually, this makeshift family finds itself in the employ of a wealthy, shy farmer (Sam Shepard), who watches over the laborers on his property. Over time, the farmer strikes up conversations with Abby, and it becomes clear he is taken with her. When Bill overhears a doctor explaining that the farmer doesn’t have long to live, he gets an unsavory idea, and Abby hesitantly agrees to play along. As time passes, Bill realizes Abby is truly falling for the farmer, who doesn’t seem to be getting any sicker.
Given that one of writer/director Terrence Malick’s goals on Days of Heaven was to capture “a drop of water on a pond, that moment of perfection,” it was crucial that a cinematographer with a sense of refined artistry and experimental adventure become part of the process. Producers Bert and Harold Schneider asked Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros, ASC (Wild Child, Sophie’s Choice) to work with Malick, and the result proved to be one of the most accomplished and often-imitated examples of cinematographic art in modern film history. Days of Heaven’s luminous visual quality owes considerably to Almendros’ appreciation for paintings by Vermeer and Wyeth, as well as Malick’s interest in turn-of-the-century American photojournalism.
Malick and Almendros wanted to emulate the naturalistic look of early silent films, so they agreed to film exteriors in natural light as often as possible and use artificial light sparingly in interior shots. Almendros took numerous risks with seemingly unorthodox lighting sources while trying to remain true to the intended look. When the film ran over schedule, the cinematographer honored a prior commitment to shoot another film in France, leaving his work to trusted colleague Haskell Wexler, ASC, who was able to emulate Almendros’ visual schematic so successfully that it was difficult for members of the creative team to distinguish which artist shot which scenes. Almendros’ efforts on Days of Heaven earned him an Academy Award.
Paramount Home Video released a fairly good, no-frills DVD of Days of Heaven in 1999, but The Criterion Collection recently reissued the film in this well-produced special-edition package, which boasts a high-definition image transfer from newly struck source elements. The transfer features exceptional color reproduction with minimal grain and excellent shadow detail that accurately reflects Almendros’ efforts. The DVD also offers a solid, noise-free Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio presentation direct from the original 4.1 magnetic tracks, giving fuller depth to the film’s intricate sound work and Ennio Morricone’s delicate music score. Compared to Paramount’s DVD, which exhibited excessive print dirt, this digitally scrubbed transfer is far superior, with no evidence of print dirt and better color balances.
This package is also stacked with excellent supplements, including interviews with Wexler, Gere, Shepard and John Bailey, ASC, who served as Almendros’ camera operator on the show and assisted with Criterion’s restoration of the picture. (See Post Focus, AC Jan. ’08). Also featured is an outstanding audio commentary by art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, film editor Billy Weber and casting director Dianne Crittenden. A booklet with an essay by critic Adrian Martin and a fascinating segment from Almendros’ autobiography, A Man With a Camera, completes the package.
Days of Heaven has long deserved this kind of lavish treatment for home screens, and this excellent DVD is a must for any fan. Newcomers, too, will revel in this definitive presentation of Malick’s sumptuous, haunting tale of a long-forgotten America.