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Legendary cast and brilliant photography shine in “The Whales of August”


Director Lindsay Anderson was intrigued by the story of two elderly sisters played by Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. “The real conflict in making a film like this comes in terms of creative freedom. If it were dependent on traditional Hollywood financing, probably it wouldn’t have been made.” (Frame shots courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics)


Blu-ray; 1987; Not Rated

Best extra: “Peer Talk: The Raw September 1986 Interviews with Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern and Harry Carey Jr.”

TOP NOTCH acting, a fresh story, and brilliant cinematography create a memorable film by director Lindsay Anderson and writer David Berry.

The story about two sisters who have spent their summer holidays on an island in Maine for the past 50 years was one of the last films for legendary stars Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern and Harry Carey Jr. In one of several excellent bonus features on the Kino Lorber Classics disc, each one is interviewed by BBC journalist Tom Brook.

It’s a big plus for fans. Brook approaches each star with the same list of questions and, generally, receives detailed answers. In her 90s, Gish (“The Night of the Hunter,” “Way Down East”) began acting in silent films as a child. Known as The First Lady of Cinema, it was hard work with no studios. She was frequently locked in position for hours while cameras captured her lying on an ice flow or in similar discomfort. She has no sympathy – although a lot of professional courtesy – for Davis (“All About Eve,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”) who aggressively complained about having to film in a cold location setting on Cliff Island, Maine. The ladies have very different approaches to work; one business-like and sharp, the other sharp and confrontational.

“The challenge is working on location on an island miles from anywhere. I have to fight the sun, I have to fight the tides, the wind, the rain … we had every kind of weather except snow.” — Cinematographer Mike Fash

“The sensational cast [isn’t] the sort of people you can suddenly whisk from one part of the house to the other and suddenly catch something.” Cinematographer Mike Fash

Sothern (“A Letter to Three Wives”) is gracious, talkative and happy to be working. Back injuries had kept her away from the screen. Price of “Laura,” “Dr. Phibes,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Ten Commandments” and many other films, is the affable, intelligent gentleman he’s always been, sharing tales about his career and interests in wine and art. He’s the man you’d love to have dinner with. Carey (“The Searchers,” “Tombstone”) is another friendly conversationalist. He worked mostly in Westerns and talks about John Ford and John Wayne.

None have any idea about who or what “The Breakfast Club” is. You’d think Brooks would give up on his question, asking each actor how he or she might be a senior member of the club. Davis gives the shortest interview of the lot. Chatting with her is like to talking to a lioness in her den … just before she rips her prey apart.

Ann Sothern and Vincent Price co-star in "The Whales of August."

Additional extras include a commentary with producer Mike Kaplan moderated by film critic Stephen Farber; a “Behind the Camera: Raw September” interview with Anderson, cinematographer Mike Fash and production designer Jocelyn Herbert. There are additional interviews with executive producer Shep Gordon, and actors Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd and Tisha Sterling, who play younger versions of the ladies. Kaplan provides behind-scenes background on three different scenes, and Malcolm McDowell, who worked with Anderson on “Oh, Lucky Man!” (1973), provides a reading about him from his one-man stage show in “Never Apologize.” There’s also a music video and a 14-page booklet with an essay by Kaplan.

It’s as if Kino Lorber has touched down on Criterion territory – a very good place to land.

The story is simple in action, but emotionally complex. Two widowed sisters, Libby Strong (Davis) and Sarah Webber (Gish) have supported each other throughout their lives. Sarah, who lost her beloved husband in WWI, has become Libby’s caretaker. Both are frail, but Libby is now blind. What separates them is attitude. Libby thinks they’re too old “to be bothering with new things.” Sarah senses possibilities and keeps looking for the whales that swim past the island in August.

When Mr. Maranov (Price), an ex-patriate neighbor dependent on others for support, shows up after the death of his latest benefactor, Sarah welcomes him to dinner. Libby becomes more belligerent, sure he’s only on the lookout for a new home. Both sisters are intrigued by the gossip delivered by their old friend Tisha (Sothern), while local handyman Joshua Brackett (Carey), fumbles about repairing odds and ends, deaf to his own clatter. Sarah wants Joshua to bridge two windows in the cabin, and put in a large picture window overlooking the water. Libby doesn’t see the point of enduring renovation stress or spending money. She is quite certain this will be their last summer on the island.

Visuals on Kino Lorber’s new 4K master (1.85:1 ratio) down-converted to Blu-ray are similar to enjoying a print by Andrew Wyeth although color is brighter and more intense. Cinematographer Mike Fash uses a natural palette with fine film grain throughout. Exterior shots are filled with vibrant blues, greens, and gold. A full dinner plate looks like a masterpiece.

Cinematographer Mike Fash uses a natural palette, contrasting brilliant color in an aging interior environment.

Character shots are carefully framed. Davis, who had suffered years of illness including breast cancer and four strokes, looks magnificent. Her later films such as “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” showed her in heavy make-up. Here, Davis and Gish are studies in beautifully revealed, natural portraiture, with strong bone structure, sparkling eyes, and character-lined skin. Detail is solid throughout, contrasting the island’s vibrant landscape with the aging cabin. Flashback scenes in which Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd and Tisha Sterling (Sothern’s daughter) play younger versions of the women are sepia-toned.

A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack delivers clear dialogue, the ambient sound of wind, water and birds, and a musical score by Alan Price (“Casino,” “Suicide Squad”).

You don't have to be a senior to enjoy “The Whales of August.” Performances are mesmerizing as characters reminisce about their lives and wonder about their futures. Melancholy is more sweet than bitter in a thoughtful and memorable ensemble piece.ay

You don't have to be a senior to enjoy “The Whales of August.” Performances are mesmerizing as characters reminisce about their lives and wonder about their futures. Melancholy is more sweet than bitter in a thoughtful and memorable ensemble piece.

- Kay Reynolds



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