• Anastasia

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: May 15, 2016
    Directed by: Anatole Litvak
    Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, Akim Tamiroff, Martita Hunt, Felix Aylmer
    Year: 1956
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, an unspeakable tragedy occurred. The Romanov Family—Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, and their five children (along with several of their supporters)—were marched into a dank cellar in the city of Yekaterinburg and shot down in cold blood. Because diamonds had been sewn into some of the daughters’ clothing, not all of them died instantly, and those who survived were either shot again or speared by bayonets. Their bodies were then taken into the woods nearby and buried in an unmarked mass grave. Yet, according to reports at the time, two bodies were unaccounted for: the Romanovs’ youngest daughter, Anastasia, and their only son, Alexei.

    Rumors quickly spread that either Anastasia and Alexei, Anastasia and Maria, or Alexei and Maria had somehow escaped the carnage. In 1920, a young woman attempted to kill herself in Berlin and was institutionalized. At first she refused to identify herself, but after her release, she claimed that she was, in fact, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaevna Romanov of Russia. The surviving Romanov family members denied the woman’s claims, and, in 1927, Anastasia’s uncle, the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernest Louis, hired a private investigator to resolve the matter. The investigator identified the woman as a Polish laborer, Franziska Schanzkowska, who had a history of mental illness. Louis sued, and a German court found that the woman, who went by the name of Anna Anderson, had not sufficiently proved that she was indeed Anastasia. Her claims gained traction, however, and she eventually immigrated to the United States, where she married an eccentric history professor in Virginia who insisted that she told the truth about her identity. She died in 1984 at the age of 87 from pneumonia, having spent much of her life in and out of asylums and nursing homes. She was even the subject of an episode of In Search Of.

    It didn’t take Hollywood long to capitalize on the story. One of the most memorable takes remains the B-horror movie Secrets of the French Police, in which a Fu Manchu-like villain of Russian and Chinese descent hypnotizes a poor Russian girl into believing she’s Anastasia so that he can steal the Romanov Estate. Anna Anderson’s story also proved alluring to Broadway. On December 29, 1954, the play Anastasia, written by Guy Bolton and Marcelle Maurette, opened at the Lyceum Theatre and played until September 24, 1955. Fox quickly snatched up the film rights and hired Bolton (joined by Arthur Laurents) to adapt the play for the big screen. Cast as the fictional Anna Korov was Ingrid Bergman, returning to movies after a forced four-year Hollywood hiatus. Yul Brynner, hot off the success of The King and I, was cast as General Bounine.

    The film debuted on December 13, 1956, and proved a hot property. Shot on a lavish budget of $3.5 million, it garnered $5 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales alone. Following surprisingly closely to the plot laid down by Secrets of the French Police (minus the horror subplot and grisly murders), Anastasia has a nightclub owner and former Russian general, Bounine (Yul Brynner), stumble upon a beautiful amnesiac, Anna (Ingrid Bergman), wandering the streets of Paris. The woman reveals that she has just been released from an asylum, but just before she’s about to throw herself into the Seine, she is saved by Bounine. Soon, she’s being used as a pawn by Bounine and his acolytes to dupe solicitors of the 10 million pounds Tsar Nicholas II had left in a British bank. Their goal? To convince the Romanov family that young Anna is in fact Anastasia, the last heir of her father’s fortune. At first, the family refuses to believe it, but as Anna grows more comfortable in her new role, things take an unexpected and dramatic turn.

    Anastasia is a fantastic film, one of the best in a decade that produced many greats. From its rich performances (not only are the leads terrific, but so too are the supporting cast, including Helen Hayes, Martita Hunt, and Felix Aylmer) to its beautiful sets and costumes, it’s lush score and striking direction, Anastasia is a masterpiece. Director Anatole Litvak made a number of interesting films in his twenty-plus-year career, including Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Night of the Generals (1968; also available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time and reviewed by Rock! Shock! Pop!), but Anastasia was his best. The film also proved a hit with critics and was nominated for several Oscars at the following year’s Academy Awards. Ingrid Begman took home her second Academy Award for Best Actress, though, having formerly been blacklisted by Hollywood producers over an affair she’d had with an Italian director, she did not attend the ceremony, instead directing her friend, Cary Grant, to accept it for her.

    The film drops more than a few hints that Anna may in fact be the real Anastasia, and considering that none of the Romanovs’ bodies had yet been recovered, it must have seemed relatively plausible to many people at the time. In 1991, however, the bodies of nine of the 11 people murdered in that dark cellar in the early hours of July 17, 1918 were discovered in their forest grave. DNA testing proved that Anna Anderson was not related to the Romanovs in any way. In 2007, the bodies of the other two victims, Alexei and Maria (Anastasia had been among the original nine) were discovered in a separate burial spot, their skeletons partially burned.


    Anastasia arrives on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition and an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1. Some reviews have been a little unfair to the Blu-ray’s color reproduction, complaining that it’s dark and dull. What they don’t take into account is that the film was intended to look that way, thanks to stunning cinematography from Jack Hildyard. As Anna becomes more comfortable in her own skin and steps into the world of high royalty, the veil of muted blues and dull grays is replaced by burgeoning reds. (It should be noted that the opening credits feature beautiful reds and yellows.) Detail is quite good; close-ups feature a striking number of lines of reference, from the wrinkles in people’s faces to the fabrics in dressing gowns and military costumes, and the grain structure is apparent but subdued rather than overpowering. The only negative that can be said of the image is that, in a couple of instances, it shakes. This problem is not inherent in the original film, and the subtitles remain stables when it occurs. Regardless, the problem is by no means severe—it only lasts a few seconds each time—and shouldn’t interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of the film as a whole. In all, Twilight Time should be commended for presenting such a gorgeous transfer on BD.

    Twilight Time has offered a number of tracks with which to enjoy the film. First off, there’s an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which features a solid mix of music, sound effects, and dialogue. In general, the dialogue takes priority and is always cleanly presented with no interference. There’s also an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which is likewise solid. Alfred Newman’s Oscar-nominated score receives its own track, which is in DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 and features some interesting sound anomalies inherent in the original recordings. For those who are deaf or hearing impaired, there are English subtitles. And last but certainly not least, there are two—count ‘em, two—audio commentaries. The first is newly recorded and features the label’s resident film historian, Julie Kirgo (who also wrote the liner notes contained in the 8-page booklet accompanying the BD), along with fellow historian David Del Valle. It features exactly the kind of gossipy anecdotes for which Del Valle is known and is certainly entertaining enough, with Kirgo interjecting a fair number of historical tidbits to complement Del Valle. The second commentary contains screenwriter Arthur Laurents, actor James MacArthur, and film historians Jon Burlingame and Sylvia Stoddard. For this track, the participants clearly recorded their parts separately and a judicious editor put them together in a near-seamless way. Much of what is discussed in the above review is touched upon or explored in far greater detail in this commentary, which also features first-hand information from those who were on hand during filming. Some of the information is outdated and was clearly recorded before greater information about what happened to Anastasia and the Romanov Family was revealed. The commentary is superlative regardless, with a wealth of knowledge for those interested in the movie as well as the historical period during which it’s set.

    A fair number of extras are provided. These include Fox Movietone Newsreels from the period, featuring over seven minutes of promotions revolving around Anastasia; a demo for the song version of the Anastasia theme, which features Alfred Newman on piano and Ken Darby on vocals (the song was later recorded by Pat Boone); and the original theatrical trailer, which runs a little over two minutes. The trailer also offers the score in isolation.

    Anastasia has been placed on a 50GB disc, which helps alleviate problems with compression due to the length of the film and the number of extras. As with most Twilight Time releases, the Blu-ray is limited to 3,000 units.

    The Final Word:

    A great movie + a great transfer + great extras = a great release from Twilight Time. Anastasia is classic ‘50s melodrama, a soap opera in a historical setting. The Blu-ray looks and sounds beautiful, and there are a number of extras for fans, the best of which are the highly informative audio commentaries. It’s the perfect blind buy, the kind of Twilight Time release that deserves to sell out and sell out quickly.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Volume 2 of that series (covering the 1930s) is currently available from Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!