Drive, He Said • A Safe Place
The two most overlooked films of the BBS era, Drive, He Said and A Safe Place are daring, personal character studies, and the directorial debuts of, respectively, Jack Nicholson and Henry Jaglom. Nicholson's feverish snapshot of the early seventies concerns a disaffected college basketball player and his increasingly radical roommate. In Jaglom's delicate, fantasy-faced drama, Tuesday Weld stars as a fragile young woman in New York unable to reconcile her ambiguous past with her unmoored present; Orson Welles also appears as an enchanting Central Park magician.
The Criterion Collection packs together two lesser known films from the BBS era, Jack Nicholson's Drive, He Said and Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place, both presented here in their original aspect ratios of 1.85:1, sharing the same dual-layer disc. This Blu-ray edition marks both films' debut on home video in North America. Both presentations are encoded at 1080p/24hz, and both have been restored by Sony. This disc is exclusive to Criterion's America Lost and Found box set.
Of the films in the box set, Drive, He Said possibly has the weakest presentation, regardless of being approved by Nicholson. Colours are okay, looking dull and muted, though this could be the intended look, but blacks look a little crushed throughout. The print is in fairly good condition with some damage, and grain is present but it unfortunately doesn’t always look natural. Sometimes grain can look a little blocky and compression artifacts can be visible in spots. Edge-enhancement also rears its head on occasion.
The image at least remains sharp and crisp with high levels of detail, but it’s still the most disappointing presentation in the set. I blamed the artifacts somewhat on the fact Criterion stuck two films on the same disc, but oddly A Safe Place doesn’t share all of the same problems. In fact, it looks pretty good.
The image is very sharp, and the film’s grain looks stable mostly with a few instances where it looks more like noise. Detail is fairly high, and colours can be very strong and vibrant, but I thought skin tones could lean on the red side at times. Blacks are fairly deep but are nothing spectacular.
The print has a few blemishes but nothing that truly calls attention to itself. In the end it’s certainly not the best looking transfer but it was still a pleasant surprise.
Drive, He Said (1970): 6/10 A Safe Place (1971): 7/10
Drive, He Said's linear PCM mono track is much better than I was anticipating but it’s still a little flat and lifeless. Dialogue, music, and general sound effects are clear, and there’s no damage or bothersome noise in the background, but it’s just lacking that punch and can be a little tinny.
I found I had to crank the volume a little for A Safe Place, but otherwise the linear PCM mono track is fairly clear and stable. The music that appears throughout sounds very strong but does show some wear and tear here and there (I think it may have more to do with the source used for the music, which Jaglom points out in the commentary were 78s.) Dialogue is clear (after you’ve cranked the volume mind you) and the track sounds clean.
Drive, He Said (1970): 6/10 A Safe Place (1971): 6/10
Criterion packs on a few supplements across both films, but oddly Drive, He Said gets skimmed over a bit and presents the most disappointing set of supplements. The supplements for each film are found under the respective film's submenu.
In fact, the film only gets one significant supplement, an 11-minute documentary called A Cautionary Tale of Campus Revolution and Sexual Freedom, it features interviews with Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Harry Gittes , Fred Roos, and Christophe Holmes. In it the group talks about the general production and recall some incidents from the set (including the real student protest they got caught up in and filmed.) In whole it’s not all that ground breaking and is basically a fluff piece, but Nicholson’s presence manages to make this one of the more entertaining supplements in the set. Nicholson spends most of his time talking about the nudity in the film, which goes against the agreement he made with the Oregon University he filmed at, who insisted no nudity be filmed on campus. An incident did arise because of this (which ended with a naked Jack apparently holding police at bay) but the nudity could have actually been a lot worse: Nicholson talks about a far more graphic locker room scene, which he refers to as a “symphony of dicks” said in a way only Jack could. He was of course talked out of this.
Unfortunately this one lone supplement doesn’t get into much more detail about the film than in a fairly superficial way. Nicholson touches a little on the themes and explains a few things, but something more in-depth would have been welcome, even a commentary (in fact, this is the only film that doesn’t come with one in the set.) The film is an intriguing one, if nothing else, and certainly deserves more. The only other feature we get is a theatrical trailer, which manages to also pack in some nudity.
A Safe Place gets quite a bit more love. For this film Jaglom first provides an audio commentary for the film. Though I will admit I’m not terribly fond of the film, I was surprised at how engaging I found Jaglom’s track. He talks a little about the play it’s based on and some of the differences (Welles’ character doesn’t appear in the play, in fact, the character was made up on the spot to entice Welles to join the cast, knowing the actor was fond of magic.) He also covers the production, BBS, the film’s music, working with the various actors, and shares inspirations, though repeats himself a couple of times. What shocked me most was he actually explains the film, the characters, sequences, and general themes within, laying it out pretty simply in some cases. I must admit I appreciated this, and I do have a better understanding of what Jaglom was trying to do. I also liked listening to his experiences from making this film, lessons learned, and what he took from the harsh reception. But do I appreciate the film a little more now? Not particularly, but Jaglom’s track is at least still a fascinating one.
Next is basically a condensed version of the commentary, a 7-minute interview with Henry Jaglom, who again talks about the play, the thrill of directing his first feature, and then the themes in the film, as well as responses. Okay interview, but its inclusion is bizarre since, well, everything covered in here is covered in the commentary.
Notes on the New York Film Festival is a 29-minute interview with directors Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom, who talk with Molly Haskell about their respective films, The Last Picture Show and A Safe Place. It’s a little stuffy but worth viewing as the two talk about their styles (Jaglom apparently shoots a lot of footage, saying he could make another film, and it sounds as though he shot footage of Bogdanovich that never made it—and this isn’t surprising since Jaglom mentions in the commentary he spent a year editing the film.) Though Jaglom does talk about his film’s themes, along with the film’s editing style and structure, it actually feels more like Bogdanovich’s interview since Haskell seems more intrigued by his film, and the fact more clips are shown from The Last Picture Show than from A Safe Place. In fact there’s a bit of a discussion about the nature of “clips” after Jaglom has to explain the first clip from A Safe Place that would be completely disorienting to the viewer when not played in the context of the entire film. It’s not a great interview as Haskell doesn’t seem all that absorbed in it, and on a technical level it’s rough, but there’s some interesting comments from Bogdanovich and Jaglom.
Outtakes and Screen Tests presents 25-minutes worth of material. First we get about 5-minutes of outtakes with Orson Welles, followed by 4 different screen tests for other actresses trying out for the lead which of course went to Tuesday Weld.
The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer which can’t be accused of false advertising.
The box set overall offers some wonderful supplements, providing a comprehensive history of BBS Productions and the films they released (the set even coming with a 111-page booklet) and it may be one of Criterion’s more comprehensive collections. For A Safe Place I did like the commentary track, but could give or take everything else. Yet it was Drive, He Said I ended up being most disappointed with: the film gets the bum’s rush not just here but in the set in general, and that actually amazes me because I didn’t think the film, despite some of its glaring problems, was really that bad. It could come down to the fact there wasn’t much else they could get, but I’m sure we could have gotten some scholarly material, maybe even a scholarly commentary track if Nicholson couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide his own. Whatever the reason, this is easily the most disappointing aspect of what is otherwise a great box set.
America Lost and Found is one of the more fascinating box sets to come from anyone, offering a comprehensive look at one of the more important and interesting production companies to ever get into the business, making an impact that can still be felt today.
While A Safe Place gets a decent amount of love, Drive, He Said easily has the weakest presentation in the set, sporting a below average transfer and one lone supplement, not counting the trailer, that lasts 11-minutes and doesn’t add too much to the film. At least Nicholson is fantastic in it, so that at least makes it worthwhile and, ironically enough, one of the more entertaining supplements in the box set. Despite whatever one’s feelings are for the film, it does deserve a better edition.