On a recent trip to Portland I was digging through old VHS tapes and LaserDiscs (yes, I have a working LaserDisc player, and quite a nice collection of those big old silver platters!) in the cobwebbed confines of the Varley Vault in Mom’s basement. I came across a copy of this, which for some reason has become quite the rarity. It seems there was a DVD release, but it must have been quite early in the progress of that format, as it is now out of print, and selling for … take a deep breath… $80 to $200 at Amazon! That seems insane to me, and I can’t figure out why it hasn’t been re-released to go along with the recent re-make. (Sort of. It seems Harold Pinter completely re-wrote it. I’m very dubious, but I haven’t seen it yet.) So I brought it home, along with some other rarities like Nights of Cabiria, Kurosawa’s Stray Dog and Ikiru, and my treasured set of all 10 episodes of “Cop Rock.” Totally unavailable, anywhere! Alas, my VHS player had recently given up the ghost, so I had to go looking for a new one … and did you know that no one makes a VHS deck anymore, except for those “dual” VHS/DVD players that are bottom-rated by Consumer Reports … ?
Extensive, bemused aside: It’s odd to look back over the electronic graveyard, isn’t it? If you’re my age it is, anyway. In my life I’ve seen the tail end of 78 rpm breakable recordings (my Aunt Cokie had quite a collection), 33 1/3 hi-fi monaural, stereo, and quadraphonic vinyl (some audiophile companies still release a few “virgin vinyl” records, whatever that is), and 45 rpm singles, the staple of my rock ‘n roll youth. I once had some commercially recorded reel-to-reel tapes of groups like the Tijuana Brass. Most people have never even seen one of those. The 8-track went the way of the dodo, and if the cassette tape is still being manufactured I’m not aware of it. (I’ve got a ton of them!)
LaserDiscs flourished for a while among cinemaphiles—the quality was amazing!—but were killed by the DVD. There was that RCA high-speed needle-in-a-groove video system, SelectaVision. I saw a big stack of them in a thrift store a few years ago. Who the hell has a player for one of those? Turns out somebody does.
The Betamax died an early death, and then the victor in the war, VHS, bit the acetate. CD sales are flagging, and those in the know say they’ll soon be dead. Ditto, if you can believe this, the DVD, which only appeared last week.
I used to shoot film in 8mm with a Bolex camera. There was also a Super-8 format. Both long gone. In video cameras there was the VHS and VHS-C formats, which were bulky, and then the 8mm, which was not. DVD read-write cameras had hardly got off the ground before they began to be replaced by hard-drive, Tivo-like cameras. Go into Best Buy today and you won’t find any tape cameras, and what you will find is about half DVD and half hard drive. I suppose I could still find a projector somewhere for my 8mm film, but how can I play my 8mm videotapes? The camera died, and I don’t have a player. (Okay, eBay sells them.)
The TRS-80 desktop computer used floppy discs that were really floppy, and the size of an LP. Then there was the 5-inch disk in cardboard, and the 3 ½-inch “floppy” in a semi-rigid plastic case. (I have a reader for those sitting on my desk. I don’t know why.) I recently went through a stack of CD-ROMs in the Vault and threw all of them away. Why bother, when the info is much broader and easier to access on the Internet? The next computer “standard equipment” was the CD burner, and the computer I’m writing this on has a DVD-CD burner that will read a bewildering variety of formats. Units on sale today are all Blu-Ray read/write capable. But who needs that, when you can buy a 4gig flash stick smaller than a stick of gum for $50, or a terabyte (a trillion bytes, y’all!) external hard drive for $250?
The HD-DVD was killed before it was even off the ground, and those same experts say the Blu-Ray movie is doomed, too. Five years, ten at the most, you’ll never have heard of it. MP3s and movie downloads, that’s the coming thing, for sure, they say.
I’m sure some of you younger readers have never even heard of some of these formats. Feel pretty smug, don’t you? I’ll bet you think the MP3 file is the be-all and end-all of audio formats, don’t you. Nobody could possibly improve on it. Well, don’t count on it. There’s something out there that will make it obsolete. And soon.
And now, back to our story … I found one place online that sold VHS players. It was called Overstock.com, and they had half a dozen models, all of them from crappy manufacturers like Sylvania and the one I ended up buying for $45, Emerson. 4-head, Hi-fi … a piece of crap, but in many ways much more sophisticated than my first VCR, a top-of-the-line (at the time) JVC that must have weighted 30 pounds, was built solidly as a brick, had a wired remote with PLAY, STOP, FF, and REW only, and cost me a cool $1300. The Emerson weighed about 12 ounces, and worked fairly well … for about two days. Then it started switching itself off after about 30 minutes of play, and crinkling my priceless tapes when you pulled out the cartridge! It’s currently back in the box, to be mailed back for a refund. I hope. So we went out to a pawnshop and bought a Toshiba unit for $20. Works okay, though the tracking can be a bit iffy … and it didn’t come with a remote, so many of the functions are not available, as only the basics are on the front of the machine these days. Which means I can’t turn off the friggin’ on-screen counter at the top … oh, the trials and tribulations of the owner of an obsolete format! I read the postings of some people at Best Buy and Circuit City, and a lot of them are buying one, two, or even three VHS/DVD machines to put up in the attic against the day when you just can’t find a new one!
Enough of that. Long digression, wasn’t it? Now, the movie. This is a movie review … and Sleuth remains one of my favorites. Given its unavailability I’m sure many of you have never seen it, so I won’t give away any of the plot. It was the last film of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of the greats. Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine both got Oscar nominations, and deserved them. (Marlon Brando won, for The Godfather.) The huge mansion set is wonderful, and an important part of the plot, jammed as it is with the games that Agatha Christie-style detective novelist Andrew Wyke loves to play. The story line is improbable, but that’s okay, in that it’s mainly spoofing these sorts of movies, though it has a vicious bite in some scenes. It twists all around, and the chief delight is the dialogue, by both of the actors, and Alec Cawthorne, as Inspector Doppler. Wonder why we never saw him again?
Two nice bits of trivia: The portrait of Wyke’s wife, Marguerite, the bone of contention between the two men—the mcguffin, if you please—is of Joanne Woodward. And Michael Caine was terrified to be paired with Olivier … and who wouldn’t be? According to the IMDb, he didn’t even know how to address him, so he got up his nerve and asked. And Olivier replied: “Well, I am the Lord Olivier and you are Mr Michael Caine. Of course that’s only for the first time you address me. After that I am Larry and you are Mike.” Neat.