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Melvin Van Peebles
Harry Baird, Nicole Berger, Hal Brav
Melvin Van Peebles
A Black American soldier in France romances a white woman and deals with consequences.
Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
English/French PCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 88 min.
Price: $124.95
Release Date: 9/28/2021
Available as Part of “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films” Collection

• Introduction from Writer/Director Melvin Van Peebles
• “Warrington Hudlin and Nelson George” Conversation
• 1968 Segment from Pour le plaisir
• 2021 “Scholars Panel”
• 1968 Black Journal Episode
• 3 Short Films
• Trailer
• Booklet


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The Story of a Three Day Pass: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1967)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 12, 2021)

Four years before he created the influential hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles made his feature film debut. Unable to get anywhere in Hollywood, Van Peebles went to France to create 1967’s The Story of a Three Day Pass.

Black American Turner (Harry Baird) serves in France at a US air base. His racist commander Captain Lutz (Hal Brav) views him condescendingly as a “good obedient Negro”, so Turner gets both a token promotion and a three day leave pass.

Turner uses this time to visit Paris, where he embarks on a brisk romance with white Frenchwoman Miriam (Nicole Berger). In addition to the personal connection between this pair, we view the repercussions Turner experiences back at the base.

Sweetback offered my first experience with a Van Peebles film. To say it didn’t go well would act as an understatement, for while I respect its place in cinematic history, I found the end result to seem borderline unwatchable.

This led me into Pass with lowered expectations, of course, and the film’s “indie” roots meant I didn’t think I’d much get into it as well. A “French New Wave” influenced effort from a neophyte filmmaker didn’t bode well.

As such, I can’t call Pass a disappointment. On the other hand, I also can’t claim the movie becomes an especially compelling experience.

My summary gives the plot more dimensionality than we actually get, as Pass tends to provide a loose narrative structure at best. An impressionistic affair, much of the film feels like a long music video as we follow Turner through the streets and dance clubs of Paris.

This means no one should expect much of a character affair here. Turner remains sketchily depicted at best, and we learn next to nil about Miriam.

Racism becomes a sporadic theme, though not to the degree one might expect. Much of Pass seems like a precursor to 1995’s Before Sunrise, though without the latter’s long character conversations, as our leads barely chat.

Neither side of Pass works all that well. As mentioned, we don’t get to know the leads in a fulfilling manner, which may’ve been intentional, as perhaps Van Peebles wanted to keep them as vague to the audience as they are to each other.

This makes more sense in terms of Miriam, for it seems logical that the viewer only knows her as well as Turner does. However, it feels less sensible for Turner himself. We see the movie almost entirely from his point of view, so superior exposition would make the film work better.

As for the racial angle, it pops up sporadically. We see how Turner’s literal reflection in the mirror mocks and criticizes him, and we also view “fantasy” moments in which he imagines different scenarios.

These vary in terms of how well they work. Some seem far too cartoony and obvious, but others impart the tone nicely.

In particular, a sequence in which Turner and Miriam rent a hotel room becomes the movie’s highlight. After many shots in which ebullient music accompanies our characters, Van Peebles strips the score from the film, a move that automatically connotes a more serious tone.

The desk clerk doesn’t come across as obviously racist, but the absence of music gives the scene an ominous tone, and the employee’s attitude conveys just enough condescension to add impact. This becomes almost certainly the movie’s best segment.

Unfortunately, Van Peebles undercuts matters almost immediately when the characters get to the hotel room. As Turner spies the only bed – with the connotation that he’s gonna get some – Van Peebles elects to give the bed a triumphant glow and a perky musical flourish.

This relates to probably the biggest issue with Pass: its awkward shifts in tone. Van Peebles bites off a lot – romance, drama, social criticism, comedy – and he fails to find a good way to integrate all these elements into one fairly seamless package.

Still, as erratic as Pass can be, it does show promise, as the movie offers glimmers of cinematic potential. I can’t call it an especially good movie, but it occasionally shines.

The Disc Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C-/ Bonus C+

The Story of a Three Day Pass appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though it betrayed its low-budget roots, the visuals seemed pretty good overall.

Definition usually seemed satisfactory. While never what one would call razor-sharp, the image looked fairly tight and concise, with only sporadic instances of softness. The worst instances occurred during shots that took place on a car ride, though these seem caused by “fake zoom”, as they blew up the original frame and looked pretty weak.

I saw no issues with jagged edges or moiré effects, and edge haloes remained absent. With obvious grain, I didn’t suspect problematic use of noise reduction, and print flaws were pleasantly modest. The occasional speck or blemish appeared, but most of the movie seemed clean.

Blacks felt pretty deep and dense, while shadows offered nice delineation. All in all, this became a more than satisfactory presentation.

I felt the PCM monaural audio of Pass seemed lackluster but adequate given the movie’s age and origins. The lines felt edgy and metallic much of the time, though they remained intelligible.

The score tended to appear shrill and rough, and effects followed suit, though those played a modest role in this character drama. Again, when I factored in this movie’s era and low budget, the mix was acceptable, but it still sounded pretty rough.

As we head to extras, we open with an introduction from writer/director Melvin Van Peebles. Shot in 2004, this clip runs two minutes, 46 seconds and offers Van Peebles’ explanation of how he made his debut film in France. Nothing revelatory appears, but this acts as a decent opening.

Pour le plaisir brings a February 1968 episode of a French TV series. Here we get comments from Van Peebles, actors Harry Baird and Nicole Berger and others connected to Van Peebles.

During this 22-minute, 43-second segment, we learn about… not a whole lot. We get some basic biographical elements related to Van Peebles but much of the program opts for goofiness or filler like the not very good song Van Peebles performs. This becomes worthwhile for archival reasons but the show itself seems less than informative.

Also from 1968, an episode of Black Journal goes for four minutes, 58 seconds and brings a short chat with Van Peebles. This becomes too brief a piece to tell us much – especially since clips from Pass take up a fair amount of space – but it becomes another semi-intriguing archival segment.

From 2021, we get a Conversation with Film Producer Warrington Hudlin and Music Historian Nelson George. Conducted over computers, this piece runs 21 minutes, three seconds.

The discussion examines aspects of Van Peebles’ life and career through his first four movies. Expect a mix of useful notes and praise for Van Peebles.

In addition to the trailer for Pass, three Van Peebles Short Films appear: 1957’s Sunlight (9:43), 1957’s Three Pickup Men For Herrick (8:40) and 1961’s Les Cinq Cent Balles (12:05). None of them strike me as especially interesting or compelling, but they remain intriguing as historical artifacts.

The package concludes with a booklet that mixes art, photos, credits and essays from film scholars Racquel J. Gates, Allyson Nadia Field, Michael B. Gillespie and Lisa B. Thompson. It adds value to the set.

As Melvin Van Peebles’ first feature film, The Story of a Three Day Pass offers a historical curiosity. We end up with an inconsistent film that occasionally shows glimmers of cinematic talent. The Blu-ray offers generally positive picture along with mediocre audio and a decent set of supplements. While not a memorable film on its own, Van Peebles fans will still want to give Pass a look.

Note that this Blu-ray from Story of a Three Day Pass comes as part of a four-movie “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films” set. It also features 1970’s Watermelon Man, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song and 1972’s Don’t Play Us Cheap.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
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