The Story of a Three Day Pass
Melvin Van Peebles’s edgy, angsty, romantic first feature could never have been made in America. Unable to break into segregated Hollywood, Van Peebles decamped to France, taught himself the language, and wrote a number of books in French, one of which, La permission, would become the stylistically innovative The Story of a Three Day Pass. Turner (Harry Baird), an African American soldier stationed in France, is granted a promotion and a three-day leave from base by his casually racist commanding officer and heads to Paris, where he finds whirlwind romance with a white woman (Nicole Berger)—but what happens to their love when his furlough is over? Channeling the brash exuberance of the French New Wave, Van Peebles creates an exploration of the psychology of an interracial relationship as well as a commentary on France’s contradictory attitudes about race that is playful, sarcastic, and stingingly subversive by turns, and that laid the foundation for the scorched-earth cinematic revolution he would let loose just a few years later.
The first dual-layer Blu-ray disc in Criterion’s latest director-centric box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, presents his debut feature The Story of a Three Day Pass in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. Criterion is using a brand new 4K restoration conducted by IndieCollect, and sourced from a 35mm fine grain master and a 25mm duplicate negative. Both elements were scanned at 5K resolution.
Though there are a couple of weird “artifacts” that threw me off before I figured out what they were (and I’ll get into it) this ends up being a remarkable looking presentation when all is said and done. The black-and-white photography looks quite stunning, delivering superb black levels, sharp grays with clean gradients, and gorgeous looking whites that never bloom. Outside of some trick shots, still frames, and what might be blow-ups, all of which have a somewhat dupey look about them, the image has a very clean and very stable look much of the time. There are also a handful of fait tram lines and a few other minor marks but outside of those the picture remains sharp and stable.
The film is fairly grainy but it's rendered remarkably, staying clean and stable, though there are some odd effects that show up that had me wondering if there was maybe something artificial about it. Eventually it became clear what was going on and I’m ashamed to admit it took me a second or so to figure out what was going on: Van Peebles employs a filter, more than likely a stocking over the lens or something similar, in a few shots, creating this odd effect with the grain where it almost looks like it’s sitting still. Looking closer everything is up to snuff and fine, but the effect can look a little odd onscreen.
All-in-all it’s pretty spectacular restoration and a nice encode. It’s a great way to start out the set.
The English/French soundtrack is presented in lossless PCM 1.0 monaural. There can be a slight tinny edge to it but it’s clean overall. Dialogue is easy to hear (if a bit too sharp) and music sounds fine enough (it a bit harsh). The soundtrack is clean overall and nothing of note really stood out.
The supplements on this first disc in the set aim to introduce Melvin Van Peebles. This includes a new discussion (conducted remotely) between producer Warrington Hudlin and music historian Nelson George. For around 22-minutes the two go talk about Van Peebles’ influence and his importance in black cinema and independent cinema. They go over his move to France, which ended up being the only available path he had to filmmaking, before then going over The Story of a Three Day Pass the other films in the set (and I should warn there are spoilers of sorts). They spend some time looking at his filmmaking techniques, editing style (Story of a Three Day Pass showing some heavy French/New-Wave influences that he made his own), and also touch on how his work and films have impacted them personally. It’s a wonderful, loving appreciation of the director.
The rest of the material is more of the archival variety, starting off with a 3-minute video introduction featuring the filmmaker talking about the origins of the film, recorded in 1997. Criterion then digs up two television programs around the director and the film’s release. First is the full 23-minute segment from a 1968 episode of the French television program Pour le plaisir, which offers a profile around Van Peebles and his then-new film. What’s great about this program is that the features throughout the rest of the set cover the filmmaker’s work around this time in France but this ends up being more of a first-hand account since he's still there, getting interviews with those that worked with him, including at the magazine Hara-Kiri, with a French journalist also popping up to talk about his written work. There are also interviews with Story’s stars, Harry Baird and Nicole Berger. Following that is a 5-minute segment from a 1968 episode of the American program Black Journal, presenting a very brief profile on Van Peebles before interviewing him on why he had to make his film in France. Interestingly this is so far the only feature that mentions he had also worked at the post office, where “a lot of us have died spiritually”. Both are nice finds and worth viewing.
The disc also includes three short films by the director. The first two, made in the States in 1957 and entitled Three Pickup Men for Herrick and Sunlight, are rough but show early promise as the director maneuvers around the medium to tell his stories. Three Men is the rougher one of the two, an oddly paced 9-minute story about five day laborers waiting on a corner for work. A contractor (I assume named Herrick) shows up and starts looking them over, but there is a sense of desperation from the workers as Herrick only needs three. The film is essentially silent, Van Peebles’ own music playing over it, yet despite the rough editing and pacing the story is clear and there’s a certain suspense as the camera expresses the emotions through close-ups of the various men hoping for a job.
Sunlight has it’s rough spots as well but I thought it feel the more advanced of the two. The 10-minute story is a bit more complicated, focusing on a man who shows up unannounced to a wedding, his story on why he is there then told through flashback. Essentially, it’s a love story about a man desperate to do what’s right by the one he loves, only to go about it in an unfortunate way. This one was also filmed without sound, though Van Peebles seems to be more confident in his editing and staging, using silent film techniques to convey everything. He does loop in spoken dialogue, though I suspect he had issues synching the sound properly. He employed some clever editing choices to get around it and it works, especially since it enhances the character’s desperation.
The third one, Les cinq cent balles (500 Francs), was made in France in 1961 and focuses on a young boy who comes across a 500-franc bill in a storm drain, though he's blocked from getting it by a grate. The 12-minute film then shows the boys attempts at retrieving the bill. He’s soon aided by a man, though the man more than likely has ulterior motives. This one is the tightest and most polished of the three films, featuring some great shots and camera work. It’s also essentially a silent film with Van Peebles music, but again everything is clearly told through the images.
The first two films have had no restoration done, so they are rough, but thankfully the scans are at least decent. Les cinq cent balles looks to have gone through a full restoration process and it looks rather good here.
I had hoped for maybe features more specific to the feature films themselves (material of that nature is somewhat limited in the set) but the features here do a spectacular job in setting up one's journey through the rest of the set.
A solid looking restoration nicely delivered with a wonderful set of supplements to get viewers ready for the rest of the films in the set.