One of the great things about the Russian Cinema Council’s epic DVD project is the way it blends established classics (Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, various Cannes and Oscar winners) with far more commercial genre pieces that have mostly been completely unseen in the West - and which are for the most part unknown as well.
Up until now, Russian sci-fi basically meant the ultra-slow, intricate, rarefied likes of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker (both part of the Ruscico collection, incidentally) as far as I was concerned, and although Professor Dowell’s Testament is still distinctively “Russian” in that it strongly favours philosophical discussion over all-stops-out action set-pieces, it’s nonetheless likely to be much more familiar to fans of, say, The Incredible Shrinking Man or The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, to cite two very similar American films that turn schlocky sci-fi premises into something surprisingly profound.
It starts out as a mystery - brilliant scientist Professor Dowell has recently died in a car crash, and his colleagues Drs Korn and Laurent and his son Arthur are trying to come to terms with their loss, though for different reasons: Arthur’s is purely emotional, Korn’s strictly practical, and Laurent’s a mixture of the two, since it’s clear her interest in Dowell went beyond mere professional admiration.
And the local police are equally intrigued by the case, since there’s evidence that more than one person might have been in the car - and the finger of suspicion is pointing at Korn, who has been spotted in talks with representatives of a sinister global corporation called Mercury, which has expressed considerable interest in Dowell’s discoveries.
So far so conventional, but things change dramatically when a chance encounter reveals that Dowell is in fact still alive - though “alive” is stretching the term to the absolute limit. This might be considered a spoiler, were it not for the fact that not only is that fact given away on the poster and indeed the DVD cover, but also the nature of his present existence - he’s a disembodied head mounted above a box of scientific apparatus, in the centre of which is a flask of fluid that constitutes all that remains between him and oblivion - and it’s running out fast. Yet in order to stay alive, he must reveal the formula to Dr Korn, who will naturally take all the credit for it and sell it to Mercury, even though it’s clear that he doesn’t really understand its full implications.
And matters get still more scientifically and morally convoluted when it transpires that Dowell is something of a Frankenstein, masterminding an operation whereby two recently deceased women are effectively fused together, the head of one grafted onto the body of another - and while this is a success technically, it’s a disaster emotionally, as the resulting creature, nicknamed ‘Eve’, is hopelessly confused about who or what she is - and the fact that her body just happens to be that of Arthur Dowell’s ex-girlfriend does nothing for his own mental state when he runs into her on the beach.
So Dowell’s laudable aim to discover the secret of immortality and thus preserve the finest minds so that they can share their genius with the rest of the world for all eternity ends up running into a tangled thicket of moral, emotional and practical complications. Most impressively, these themes are given a genuinely novelistic density in the way they’re developed throughout the narrative - not too surprisingly, since this was adapted from the work of Alexander Belayev, Russia’s closest equivalent to Jules Verne, and on this evidence he very much shares Verne’s gift for turning rarefied scientific concepts into genuinely gripping stories.
Professor Dowell’s Testament can’t stand serious comparison with the two Tarkovsky films mentioned above, and even though it’s a lot more conventionally paced it’s still probably a little too slow for Western audiences (it only resembles ReAnimator in terms of the most basic subject matter!), but it’s nice to see a sci-fi film based on ideas rather than visceral set-pieces (in fact, a shootout in a bar aside, there are precious few of those). That said, the penultimate scene ties up all the various dramatic strands in a commendably satisfying and surprisingly moving way, helped immensely by Olgert Kroders’ performance in the title role - it takes considerable talent to convey real gravitas and moral seriousness when in a more than mildly undignified position.
This is for a most part a very pleasing transfer indeed - technically, there’s very little wrong with it at all: the picture is admirably sharp and clear, there’s plenty of detail, colours ring true and black levels are spot on, with none of the encoding problems that I noted with Ruscico’s Viy: in fact, I didn’t spot any significant artefacting.
It’s framed at 4:3, which I think is the correct aspect ratio - Russian film-makers carried on using 4:3 long after it ceased to be fashionable in the West (Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Stalker, for instance), and I couldn’t see anything strange about the compositions that would indicate cropping or pan-and-scan. Obviously, this means that anamorphic enhancement wouldn’t have been necessary.
My only real quibble is that the print isn’t exactly pristine - certainly, it’s not bad, and it’s not exactly riddled with spots and scratches, but you don’t have to look too hard to find them. Compared with, say, Solaris, which is twelve years older and in truly remarkable condition, this is a tad disappointing - but not a major problem.
The sound, as is usual with Ruscico titles, is mono remixed to 5.1 (though plain stereo options are available too). And again, as usual, the result is mostly mono, with a few surround effects added where appropriate (directional gunshots, an explosion, a helicopter), and the whole remix has been carried out very sensitively, so it’s unlikely even purists will be that bothered. There’s not a lot to say about the recording quality - it’s more than up to early 1980s standards in terms of dynamic range and fidelity, and the remix has given it extra body than it presumably possessed in 1984.
For review purposes, I listened to the Russian soundtrack and dipped into the English one - the latter is technically acceptable but far less convincing and, as ever, only really recommended to those who simply can’t stand subtitles. Incidentally, while I can’t judge the quality of the translation, I can certainly confirm that the subtitles are in excellent, clear, grammatical English and very readable. There are twenty chapter stops, which is plenty for a 91-minute film.
Compared with some of the other discs in Ruscico’s collection, Professor Dowell’s Testament is disappointingly lacking in the extras department, though it does at least cover the basics. Curiously enough, though the animated menus look terrific at first glance, the images of blimps and cable cars drifting over abstract futuristic cityscapes don’t actually relate to anything in the film itself (they’re also somewhat confused, claiming that the film’s English title is The Testament of Professor Dowell), and these lead to various sub-menus containing the standard Ruscico package of promotional trailer for Ruscico’s output in general, the trailer for Professor Dowell’s Testament, a stills gallery (ten stills plus poster, all in colour and all selectable via thumbnails) and filmographies for writer-director Leonid Menaker, cameraman Vladimir Kovzel, composer Sergei Banevich and actors Olgert Kroders, Natalya Saiko, Valentina Titova and Igor Vassiliev.
The only other extras are three trailers for Hamlet, Crime and Punishment and Treasure Island, all in the same “Original Story By’” series. Curiously enough, they’re each given programme notes, something denied to Professor Dowell’s Testament itself. Indeed, there’s no factual information about the latter at all - and, even more surprisingly given the fact that it’s part of Ruscico’s collection of literary adaptations, there’s nothing about original author Alexander Belayev apart from a brief paragraph on the back of the box - which is a great pity, as I’d liked to have known more about the 1925 source novel and his other works (at least one more of which was filmed - and Amphibian Man is also in the Ruscico series).
All in all, I’d file Professor Dowell’s Testament into the “worth a look” category rather than give it a firm recommendation - the film itself is often fascinating, if never especially outstanding, and the transfer is generally very pleasing, but the DVD misses quite a few obvious opportunities, and it’s one of the least well-specified Ruscico discs I’ve come across to date. Still, I shouldn't complain too much - because the fact is that someone's bothering to release films like this on DVD at all, for which I'm obviously only too grateful!