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Blu-ray Review: ‘Design For Living’ (Criterion Collection)
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Design For LivingDesign For Living
DVD | Blu-ray
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Starring Gary Cooper, Frederic March, Miriam Hopkins
The Criterion Collection
Release date: December 6, 2011

Now this is what this writer calls a change of pace.

Just a month following the release of what may be the company’s most important and dense release to date, The Three Colors Trilogy, the geniuses over at The Criterion Collection have come back with their sole new addition for the month of December, and it’s about as far from the meditative triptych of masterful art cinema as a single uproarious comedy could be.

A staple of the Pre-Code era, Design For Living stars the trio of Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins, in an adaptation of the beloved Noel Coward play. Adapted by Ben Hect, the Living is yet another entry into the Collection for director Ernst Lubitsch, and is one of what sounds like many to come for the frequent David Lean collaborator Coward (side note: his Blithe Spirit is rumored to be hitting with the next round of announcements this month).

Telling the story of a threesome unlike any other, the movie follows an artist, played by the ever magnetic Hopkins, who is caught in the middle of two men: a painter (Cooper) and a writer (March).  Ultimately falling into the arms of a wealthy man, the jilted lovers must find a way to get back into the life of their former main squeeze.  A racy comedy of innuendo and winking dialogue, Living is one of the more enjoyable, if flawed, films to hit Criterion in a while.

The true star of this film has to be the screenplay.  A pitch perfect piece of writing, the script gets at what made this era so utterly wonderful, and inspired.  With a trio that is both charming and gloriously sexy, Hecht knew exactly how to utilize the trio and their significant strengths within the structure of what Coward’s play was.  Taking liberties with the source material, Hecht was also able to change a few sequences (take the opening of the film for example), and not only make them fit within the film, but make them jump off the screen.

Cooper is fantastic here as the artist, and pairs well with the equally charming March, both of whom ooze charisma without coming off as cartoonish.  The dialogue seems to pour perfectly out of their mouths, and their chemistry with Hopkins is fire starting. Hopkins is great in the role of the sexually charged Gilda, a woman who knows what she wants and exactly how to attain it. Without a great central cast, a film of this nature would falter, and thankfully each actor involved here, even Edward Everett Horton who is killer in a supporting role here, brings their A game.

As does director Lubitsch.  Never the flashiest filmmaker, no filmmaker was as sly and subtle in their humor as he, and that hand is very much strong here.  Always one to show more than he told, his ability to direct performances and his ability to suggest, within the frame and within his performances, a far greater deal of material than his screenplays put forward, is at the forefront in Living. Allowing his performances to breathe, Lubitsch doesn’t take the reins here, as much as he is lead by the trio at the core of the film.  However, Living is quite a wonderfully shot film, and while this transfer isn’t perfect, it’s definitely a great looking picture.

Overall, despite its apparent flaws (the film does have some pacing issues and the transfer here is indeed a flawed one, Design For Living is a great little film.  Featuring a trio of wonderful performances and a knock out script, this is a must own for any cinephile, particularly those with a penchant for liking the work of Ernst Lubitsch. In spite of a dreadfully dull retrospective and select scene commentary (a real pain for those of us looking for the full thing, particularly with a thing like this), Criterion’s release not only features a fine transfer, but also context, something even more important.  The release features a performance of the stage play, and one garners even more appreciation for the film, when taking into account the difference when brought to the screen.  Simply put, this is a fine release from Criterion, and one fitting of such an entertaining bit of Pre-Code comedy.

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