Bought a copy yesterday afternoon of Warner Home Video’s just-released DVD of Peter Ustinov‘s Billy Budd (1962). Black-and-white scope is one of my favorite visual formats, and what an exquisite and luscious silver-toned transfer this is — spotless, velvety smooth, ultra-crisp perfection with each carefully-lit value and tiny detail on view, and assembled exactly right.

(l.) Terrence Stamp as Billy Budd in ’62; as Wilson in The Limey some 37 years later

The film itself is taut and intelligent and finely sculpted. If you have the character to get into a film that delivers in an exacting, step-by-step way and which uses the technique of just-so dialogue and characters that build and build upon themselves, it will hold you every step of the way. The dialogue is plain and straight in the way that seamen and gentlemen officers once spoke (“I’m sorry for the manner but not the matter”), but heavy with the irony and immense sadness of Herman Melville’s classic tale, which is basically about a meeting of child-like innocence and craggy evil about a British warship in the 1790s.

And the performances! Much better than I remembered them, especially Robert Ryan‘s Claggart , Melvyn Douglas‘s wise old Danish sailor (I forget the character’s name) and Terence Stamp‘s Billy — one of the more striking debut performances ever.