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Blu-ray Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Due to the nature of this being a collector’s release for a movie that already has a previous edition on Blu-ray, this review will focus primarily on its technical aspects and bonus content.

The Movie

You can use less than one hand and count the number of movies that have swept the main categories at the Academy Awards. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became only the second film to walk away with trophies for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay (adapted). It received near universal acclaim, and part of that is due to the sheer audaciousness of Jack Nicholson’s pitch-perfect characterization of R.P. McMurphy, a criminal who evades prison by pleading insanity and is sent to a mental institution instead.

But the other part is due to the pitch-perfect roles from every other actor in the film. There is an earnestness to all the depictions of patients in this movie that gives a much-needed dose of raw humanity to their plight, which is something that is often missing from roles dealing with mental illness. McMurphy soon looks past his own petty scam and – perhaps more instinctively than premeditated – makes the betterment of his fellow patients his new mission. He becomes a strange but effective hero and Moses figure to those who had previously seen themselves as without hope. The film deserves its universal acclaim and is just as arresting (and relevant) today as ever.

Video/Audio

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not a visually slick film. Its color palette is dull and flat and its film stock looks noisy and was perhaps a victim of the movie’s low budget. And to be frank, the visual results found on this and the previous Blu-ray release are not going to bowl you over when compared to some other classic film restorations you may have seen. In spots, it almost feels like there isn’t any more detail to be had, and so the impression of this release is that it may be as good as it gets. However, it is good, and in fact it’s a noticeable improvement over however else you may have seen the film. Haskell Wexler’s and Bill Butler’s cinematography carries the day here, as things are finally void of distractions – faded or blown out colors, and jittery frames from the past – so that you can fully take in the lean but engrossing imagery of the film.

The audio carries a similar caveat, but ends up being a little more problematic. First off, the main bad news: there is no lossless track here, just the same Dolby Digital 5.1 audio as found on the previous Blu-ray (and ostensibly the previous DVD release as well). And the audio track that is there feels like it might be a victim of its source. Voices frequently sound either overly-compressed or slightly distorted at the high end, but it’s hard and probably unfair to squarely put the blame on the encode for any lack of clarity. Things improve a little more with music cues, where they show a more substantial amount of depth and body. Channel separation… well, it isn’t most of the time, although that’s not a huge issue given that this is a very dialogue-heavy film. The audio track isn’t terrible, certainly, but we’re also dealing with an unknown here. Could the audio have been better? The simple fact that there isn’t a lossless track indicates that Warner didn’t put much time, or restoration, into this area of the release, and that on its own is both frustrating and disappointing.

Bonus Content

Leading things off in the bonus section is the commentary track for the film, which features Milos Forman (director), Michael Douglas (producer) and Saul Zaentz (producer). This is a very detailed and interesting track, covering every conceivable aspect of the film, from its arduous writing phase to setting up production inside the original asylum from the novel. “Completely Cuckoo” (SD, 86:18) is the full (finally!) documentary about making the film, and is distinguished from some of the other bonus material by prominently featuring Ken Kesey, who authored the original book. It also features discussions with most of the actors – minus Jack Nicholson – and is one of the more comprehensive film retrospectives I have seen. This has been available previously in an abridged form, but has not been available in its entirety in many years.

Another new item to this release, and one that I found particularly fascinating is “Asylum: An Empty Nest for the Mentally Ill?” (HD, 30:58). It is a current look at the Oregon State Hospital, and contains interviews with both Dr. Brooks (director of the facility during the filming of the movie) and Michael Douglas, as well as others who shed light on the current state of mental health both at that hospital specifically and in America at large. Dr. Brooks details out some of the programs he initiated that, while radical at the time, bore quick fruit in helping to rehabilitate a large percentage of his patients. It’s a candid and interesting discussion regarding a segment of the population that is often marginalized and forgotten, and how a lack of priority and progress in these care facilities has reduced some of their institutional benefit in the past decades.

Also included is the original trailer for the film (SD, 2:44), as well as a collection of eight deleted scenes (13:34) which buck the usual trend of superfluous content and could have easily been impactful moments within the film.

Collector’s Edition Extras

Because the nature of this release is as much a physical collector’s box edition as it is an upgrade of content, I thought it only fitting to review the included “stuff” separately from the contents of the disc itself.

This collector’s edition is a handsome set and includes several items. The movie disc itself comes in a digipak-style case with a reproduction of the original promotional book for the film, which includes a publicity writeup about the film and its journey from the source text, as well as press clippings from stories about its subjects and production. Also included are four color reproduction cards of international movie posters for the film.

The main item is a hardbound 52-page book with more detailed essays and information about the film’s history and major players. This is much more comprehensive and substantive than the content usually included in Warner’s Digibook releases. It contains substantial photos from the production phase, but it’s primarily a written account of information akin to what you’ll get with a commentary track. A very interesting read, and something that actually bears revisiting (again, unlike their usual Digibook content).

Rounding out the package are a folder of actor photos, as well as a deck of playing cards. The actor photos are roughly the size of a Blu-ray case and are glossies taken from close-ups in the film. They are housed in a faux file folder with requisite institutional markings on the outside. The deck of playing cards is strictly for fun, and features character photos from the film (sorry guys, it’s not a reproduction of McMurphy’s nudie deck).

Conclusion

If you don’t already own the previous Blu-ray of One Flew… then it’s easy to recommend this edition of the film. Although it feels gimped by Warner due to their lack of attention on the audio front, it’s still not a bad presentation (and both Blu-rays are easily the best the film has looked). For collectors, the packaging is quite nice, and competitively priced at that. This is a classic and captivating film that has almost garnered the release it deserves.

(This release is available in both Blu-ray and DVD formats with the same content. Additionally, the film is available for download on iTunes with some of the bonus features.)

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About David R Perry

  • http://mcmurphy-voicesofsanity.blogspot.com/ McMurphy

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favorite books. Usually when you love a book so much, it means that however great the movie is, it’s going to disappoint you. Obviously, this movie-adaptation is the exception, for all the reasons stated in this post: Jack Nicholson’s role, Nurse Ratched and the amazing portrayal of the mentally ill by the supporting actors. But I always have a problem with Blu-Ray releases. I can’t help but see beyond them as more than a gimmick. As this post says, the sound and color are not going to be improved hardly at all. Sounds like there are some interesting special features that would suit collectors, though, and that might make the collection worthwhile. But other than that, I’m just fine with the original full-length movie, because nothing can compare.