Plot: What’s it about?
Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster) is a well known criminal who operates in plain sight, even the police know he is a thief and a murderer, but he remains a free man. This is because he has connections to the police force, so the his old friend, the corrupt Chief Brown (Reinhold Schunzel) keeps the police heat off Mackie. In his personal life, Mack has fallen for the beautiful Polly Peachum (Carola Neher) and the two were even married in a warehouse, in a private ceremony. This enrages Polly’s father Jonathan (Fritz Rasp), who demands Mack be arrested and executed. A trap is set to capture Mackie, but a prostitute hired to lure him in winds up helping him escape. When Jonathan threatens to have his fellow beggars revolt and turn the town upside down, will Mack be brought to justice, or is he one step ahead as usual?
This movie is a pleasure to watch, as the story is good, the direction is good, and the performances are good. I watched this when Criterion released it on laserdisc, but that release proved to be a disappointment. This time around, Criterion has delivered and this new transfer is excellent, not to mention the host of supplements. As for the movie itself, it comes off more like a play than a movie, but that is kind of unavoidable in this case. The story is based on Bertolt Brecht’s play and the story works well on screen, with lively characters and some effective social context. The tone is dark and corruption abounds, so likable characters and inspiring moments are absent in The Threepenny Opera. But the story unfolds at a proper pace and should draw in most viewers, thanks in part to some terrific performances. Rudolf Forster in particular as Mack is great and one of the major reasons the film works so well. Criterion’s two disc release is superb, an instant addition to most film buffs’ libraries.
Video: How does it look?
The Threepenny Opera is presented in full frame, as intended. This new transfer is a welcome improvement, free from most of the softness and shakiness found on the laserdisc. I think one could have gotten a headache looking at that transfer, but here we have a cleaner, crisper visual presentation. The image is still a touch soft, but detail is much better and overall clarity is much improved, a nice upgrade all around. No trouble with contrast either, as black levels look accurate at all times. I am so glad Criterion revamped the visuals here, as the movie looks great.
Audio: How does it sound?
The original German soundtrack is preserved here, via a clean mono track that isn’t memorable, but doesn’t disappoint. There just isn’t much to discuss here, as the included mono option is good, but won’t turn any heads, of course. The film could benefit from added presence at times, but this mono track is still solid. I heard no hiss or distortion of any kind, which is good news with a flick of this age, to be sure. No errors in terms of dialogue either, which is crucial and all, since this is a movie dominated by dialogue, to be sure. Not much else to report to be honest, although optional English subtitles were included, should you need them.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The most notable inclusion is the French version of the movie, shot by Pabst at the same at the German version. To watch both is interesting, seeing how different the casting choices are and how the material is adapted. I much prefer the German version, but this French take is worth a look and adds immense value to this release. There is also an insightful featurette that compares and contrasts the two versions, so don’t miss that. Scholars David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler discuss the main movie in an audio commentary track, with a lot of information shared. The two are experts on Pabst and Brecht, so they’re able to provide some great insights and this session is well worth a listen. Another in depth supplement is Pabst vs. Brecht, a documentary on how the play was turned into a motion picture. This piece runs just under fifty minutes and covers a wide array of topics, with a focus on how some elements were changed or were intended to be changed. This release also includes an archival introduction, an interview with Fritz Rasp, still photos & production sketches, and a multimedia presentation on the differences between the German and French versions of The Threepenny Opera.