Championed by Jean-Luc Godard as "cinema," the legacy of Nicholas Ray is most often associated with his direction of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). That's because many of his films were either mistreated, poorly panned and scanned, or simply not released on video. Like Sam Fuller, and Budd Boetticher, Ray was a scrounger, bouncing from one studio to the next, occasionally finding a commercial audience, but never regaled with the populist passion that filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder enjoyed. Such isn't all that surprising Ray's idiosyncratic vision never was an easily marketable one, and his cynicism (as seen in 1950's In A Lonely Place, 1952's On Dangerous Ground, and 1957's Bitter Victory) offers little respite. Victory is another stunning entry in his canon. Set during World War II, it stars Richard Burton as Captain Leith, a no-nonsense solider who is partnered with Major Brand (Curt Jergens) on a secretive mission to stage an attack on Rommel's headquarters. Before they head out with their men, it's revealed that Brand's wife Jane (Ruth Roman) has a past with Leith, which adds to the men's already-growing hostilities. The situation becomes even worse when during their raid Brand balks at killing a man in cold blood, an act Leith has no problem with, since it's a part of their assignment. On their trek back through the desert, the two are separated when Leith must finish off two wounded soldiers, and it's in this passage the film reaches masterpiece status as Leith must first kill a German officer who begs for his life and shows pictures of his family and then one of his own. In the end, Leith decides to try and save the Englishman, but as he is mortally wounded, nothing can be done (as Leith utters: "I kill the living and save the dead.") From there the rivalry between Brand and Leith reaches a fever pitch as murder looms on the horizon, while the men around them grow divided on Brand's ability as a leader and others lose their minds. From his striking widescreen compositions, to his talents with performers (Burton, renowned for the thespian skills that were often put to service of terrible movies, has rarely been as good on-screen as he is here) to the perfect uncompromised ending, Ray delivers a modest masterpiece that turns a genre exercise into a exceptional film about the price of cowardice in war. Columbia TriStar presents Bitter Victory for the first time ever on home video in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and in monaural DD 2.0 audio, and the transfer is a stunner. Bonus trailers, keep-case.
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