Release Date(s)1980 (July 6, 2021)
Studio(s)AVCO Embassy Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
After the critical and commercial failure of The Choirboys in 1977, author Joseph Wambaugh took an active role in the next two adaptations of his books. While The Onion Field garnered a lot of well-deserved attention in 1979, The Black Marble slipped through the cracks the following year. That’s not surprising considering that it wasn’t a serious docudrama like The Onion Field, but rather a return to the blackly comic tone of The Choirboys—or at least to the tone of the book, which was quite different than the film. In this case, the novel The Black Marble and the film are more closely aligned. While there were many classic black comedies released during the 80s, most of them weren’t particularly successful, and unfortunately The Black Marble was no exception.
Wambaugh raised the money for the film along with director Harold Becker and a few others, meaning that he was able to retain creative control and his shooting script wouldn’t be rewritten by anyone else. He didn’t have much to fear from The Onion Field veteran Becker anyway, as the two were clearly simpatico. The story has alcoholic Russian-American L.A.P.D. detective Sgt. Valnikov (Robert Foxworth) teaming up with a new partner Sgt. Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss) to solve a dognapping case perpetrated by a dog trainer with serious gambling debts (Harry Dean Stanton). But that narrative is mostly a framework on which to hang yet another examination of the ways that individual officers deal with the pressures of their jobs, and the psychological toll that police work can take on them. Everything culminates in an unusual but surprisingly effective chase scene which proves conclusively that there’s no need for quick cutting or shaky camerawork to keep things moving—this chase is actually agonizingly slow, but it’s no less tense because of that fact. It’s one of many ways in which The Black Marble subverts expectations and takes its own eccentric path.
Becker filled out the rest of the cast with some interesting choices including Barbara Babcock, Judy Landers, Anne Ramsey, and Michael Dudikoff (making his feature film debut). He also brought back two veterans from The Onion Field, James Woods and Christopher Lloyd—although the latter may be difficult to spot. The humor is frequently a matter of taste. It’s worth pointing out that some of the darkest material revolves around animals, so the film may be uncomfortable for some viewers. But for those who are willing to take a chance, The Black Marble is a quirky but fascinating chapter in the history of Joseph Wambaugh adaptations, and it deserves rediscovery.
Cinematographer Owen Roizman shot The Black Marble in 35 mm using Panavision Panaflex cameras and anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. For this version, Kino Lorber used a recent 4K restoration from the original camera negative which was supplied by StudioCanal, and it’s a big improvement over the master that Universal provided for The Choirboys. The differences are obvious right from the opening scene set in a Russian Orthodox church, with the robes and headdresses worn by the priests showing plenty of textural detail, as well as much more natural color reproduction. The transfer displays those qualities throughout, but there is softness in some shots where Roizman used diffusion filters, and during the optically printed titles as well. There’s also been a bit of noise reduction applied, but it doesn’t impact the sharpness and detail as much as the softness which was already inherent to the original cinematography. Overall, this a faithful representation of the intended look for the film.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional English subtitles. Everything sounds clean and well-balanced, with clear dialogue. While it would have been nice to have heard Maurice Jarre’s score in stereo, it’s still reproduced here with good fidelity.
Extras include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Harold Becker
- The Black Marble Trailer (SD – 2:31)
- The Onion Field Trailer (SD – 2:00)
- Malice Trailer (Upscaled HD – 1:58)
- The Choirboys Trailer (SD – 1:49)
- I, The Jury Trailer (SD – 1:54)
- Not for Publication Trailer (SD – 1:50)
Becker’s commentary was originally recorded for the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD release of the film. He talks about the nature of black comedies, defining them as a way of telling uncomfortable stories by putting them in a humorous light—though he does admit that dog lovers will have issues with some of the story elements in the film. He gives details about raising money for the independent production, his relationship with Wambaugh, the L.A. locations, and all of the actors. He also praises Owen Roizman, and points out how the creative cinematography disguises the low budget nature of the film. No one was paid very much, so Becker describes the production as a labor of love. While he does occasionally lapse into brief silences, this is a generally strong commentary track with plenty of interesting information about the making of the film.
Like any black comedy, The Black Marble won’t be for everyone—a fact that is exacerbated by the way that it treats some of the animals in the film—but it’s an interesting journey nonetheless. Thanks to a quality transfer from StudioCanal, Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray is the best way to take that ride.
- Stephen Bjork
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