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March 27, 2020

Return from the Ashes

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J. Lee Thompson - 1965
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Hubert Monteilhet's source novel has been adapted three times by three very different filmmakers. The essential story is of a French woman, Elisabeth Wolf Pilgrin, a doctor, who literally returns from the ashes, that is to say a concentration camp, following World War II. She chooses not to reunite with her husband Stanislaus Pilgrin immediately, but chooses to undergo some cosmetic surgery to repair her facial scars to make her look as she did earlier. Meeting seemingly by chance, Stanislaus does not recognize Elisabeth as herself but as an unknown woman with an almost uncanny resemblance. A scheme is initiated so that Stanislaus will be able to legally get a hold on the wealth Elisabeth has inherited as a post-holocaust survivor. Elisabeth, still pretending to be someone else, is directed by Stanislaus to impersonate his wife.

It's probably no surprise that Henri-Georges Clouzot had first expressed interest in making a film version. Thematically it fits in his previous films with duplicitous characters, plus the novel discusses the concept of Jewish identity, something touched on by Clouzot in Manon. Claire Garrara has an essay of interest regarding the uncomfortable relationship of Jews in France during and after World War II. Clouzot, in his period of extreme artistic crisis sold the film rights to the Mirisch Brothers, with British filmmaker J. Lee Thompson making the first film version. A second version, for French television, was made by Josee Dayan in 1982. No version seems to be available, though what is intriguing is that as a French Jewish female filmmaker, Dayan is culturally closest to the characters of Elizabeth Wolf. Christian Petzhold's Phoenix is the loosest of adaptations, making his characters Germans in post-war Berlin. A more detailed look at the three adaptations can be found here.

Even with those three film versions, Monteilhet's novel is out of print, at least in an English language version. I did get ahold of a British paperback edition that was a tie-in to the 1965 release of Thompson's film. Julius J. Epstein has a screenplay that has simplified much of the novel, reducing the doppelgänger plot that is something of an inverse version of Vertigo, as well has the relationship between Elisabeth, called Michelle in the film, and Stanislaus being one of gamesmanship between the two. In the film, it is only Stanislaus, the professional chess player, who appears to be doing most of the manipulation.
One of the philosophical debates between Michelle and Stanislaus is from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. And it Epstein who wrote the film adaptation for Richard Brooks. One thing the film got right was casting Ingrid Thulin as Michelle. Originally cast Gina Lollabrigida may have been a bigger name, but physically inappropriate. Thulin looks more like the character as described by Monteilhet, and is especially convincing when she is first seen visibly aged from her experiences in Dachau. Thulin and Maximillian Schell were both the right age for their respective characters.

J. Lee Thompson has done good work in suspense previously, notably Tiger Bay and Cape Fear. It isn't until the last big scene here that there is any real sense of tension. I didn't mind Thompson throwing in a few Dutch angles, but the script spoils the fun by adding an unnecessary expository scene. The film eschews the ambiguity of the novel for a clear, moral ending. Even taken on its own terms, Return from Ashes comes across as an impersonal, compromised film with insights no deeper than glances at the concentration camp tattoo on Ingrid Thulin's arm.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:54 AM

March 17, 2020

The Passion of Darkly Noon

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Philip Ridley - 1995
Arrow Video BD Region A

From the moment Brendan Fraser is seen lying on the back of a pickup truck, is arms extended outwards, the religious symbolism in The Passion of Darkly Noon is hardly subtle. Fraser's character is named Darkly Noon, the first name picked at random out of the Bible by his extremely fundamentalist parents. His name connotes his own contradictory self, both the innocent alone and lost in a world he doesn't understand and as a vengeful spirit ready to condemn others. Having escaped from a small community of like-minded Christians that was destroyed by an unidentified, but more powerful group, Darkly finds both physical healing and an internal schism at the remote home of the mute carpenter Clay and his wife Callie.

Even though Ridley makes the film more location specific with the quick glimpse of a North Carolina license plate, this film, as Ridley's earlier Reflecting Skin takes place in an imagined America. And as in Ridley's most recent narrative film, Heartless, the stories are about lonely boys who misread and misjudge the world around them with their idiosyncratic filters. Darkly only understands the world within the confines of his former community and his parents. Callie awakens previously dormant sexual feelings that can only be addressed through self-mortification. While his hosts are generous and flexible in their personal beliefs as well as treatment of Darkly, the guest turns more rigid. To be best appreciated, Ridley's films need to be met on their own terms.

Darkly Noon never received a theatrical release in the U.S., going straight to VHS in 1997. I'm not sure if I understand why as it's no more or less extreme than other films that found their way in the arthouse circuit of the time. Ridley managed to make an independent film with a low budget that featured Brendan Fraser, getting top billing in mainstream films, and Ashley Judd, a rising star following Ruby in Paradise. Viggo Mortensen, as Clay, was on the verge of getting more attention. The usual genial Frasier shows his acting chops here as Ridley takes advantage of his childlike look of wonderment, but also pulls out a more fearsome persona. There may be debate about Ashley Judd's Callie wearing the shortest of skirts and dresses, and wether the male gaze strictly is that of Darkly or shared with the filmmakers. Judd is admittedly quite attractive with her normally dark hair dyed blonde. I've always liked her even in films unworthy of her ability, a classic face that reminds me somewhat of Myrna Loy. It is quite possible that Darkly Noon was considered to unusual for mainstream distribution, while conventional wisdom would hold that the art and indie crowd would not consider a film with the star of Airheads and The Scout.

Philip Ridley's commentary track is quite helpful in explaining how there was a deliberate attempt to make the film visual unrealistic with the use of yellow and blue. The opening sequence is overly bright, with an exposure adjustment at the end culminating with a shot of Callie standing in the rain. A giant shoe floats aimlessly in a lake, used later for the striking image of a Viking style funeral as it is lit on fire. Ridley discusses his art school background regarding some of his visual choices, as well as how the film thematically follows up on Reflecting Skin.

Among the supplements are an investigation into the themes of Ridley by James Flowers, interviews with with cinematographer John de Borman, and editor Les Healey. An interview with composer Nic Bicat covers the three films done with Ridley as well as their collaboration on other projects. An older interview including Viggo Mortensen has been ported over from the British DVD of Reflecting Skin. I was only able to review the blu-ray, but those who purchase the first pressing will also have included a booklet on Ridley and his film written by the usually capable Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:48 AM

March 13, 2020

The Rare Breed

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Belgian poster

Andrew McLaglen - 1966
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Rare Breed could almost serve as a proxy for Andrew McLaglen's life. The plot revolves around the attempt to introduce the British Hereford cattle to the United States, cross-breeding with the American long-horn. It is so easy to forget that with the many westerns he's directed, that Andrew McLaglen was born in England and raised in the United States. The Rare Breed was second of four films McLaglen made with James Stewart and certainly the lightest of their collaborations.

Much of the film depends on the screen personas of the three leads - Stewart, Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith. They each bring a certain amount history from previous roles either with each or their connection, along with that of McLaglen, with John Ford. The cast also includes Ford stock company actors Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. in supporting roles. The cast does not quite transcend the episodic nature of the script written by Ric Hardman, whose credits are primarily from 1960s television series. As such, the film is packed with a barroom brawl, a stampede, a fistfight between Stewart and Keith, and a couple of romantic entanglements, plus a running gag with the Hereford bull only responding to the whistling of "God Save the Queen".

O'Hara, and Juliet Mills as her daughter, bringing the British bull to America, are almost caricatures of 19th Century Englishwomen adrift in the wild west of 1884. Brian Keith, as a Scottish cattle baron, is even more exaggerated, introduced with a mop of flaming red hair and a lengthy beard, speaking with a noticeable burr. It's up to Stewart to provide the gravitas, again playing a man obsessed, in this case with the idea that the crossbreeding will succeed in spite of the nay-sayers, going as far as seeking out the bull in a snow storm to check on its survival, putting his own life in jeopardy. Admittedly, this is not quite like the revenge seeking Stewart of the Anthony Mann westerns, or the search for Kim Novak's doppelgänger. The film was the last credited to actor turned producer William Alland, whose credits include several inspired B pictures and modestly budgeted films as a house producer at Universal. It seems possible that The Rare Breed may have been intended as programmer at a time when the traditional western was fading away, only to have benefitted from casting of iconic stars and genre director on the rise.

Andrew McLaglen has positioned himself as the last of the traditionalists, rising from working as an uncredited 2nd Assistant Director on John Ford's The Quiet Man, to Assistant Director on several films with William Wellman. It was John Wayne who had McLaglen direct a couple low budget films for the star's Batjac Productions. Following several years primarily directing the television series Gunsmoke and Have Gun will Travel, McLaglen's career got a boost when he served as director on McLintock!, essentially a western remake of The Quiet Man with Wayne reunited with O'Hara, with an overload of broad humor primarily at the expense of Ms. O'Hara. McLaglen's cinematographer, both on The Rare Breed and his other early features was William Clothier, who had also worked on several of John Ford's last films. Clothier also was cinematographer on Sam Peckinpah's debut feature, The Deadly Companions, starring O'Hara and Brian Keith. The Rare Breed appeared at about the same time as McLaglen's Batjac peer, Burt Kennedy, was making westerns that tweaked the genre.

As if there wasn't enough previous history among the actors, Maureen O'Hara had previously acted with Juliet Mills in a TV version of Mrs. Miniver. Not only did O'Hara play the part of Mills' mother in The Rare Breed, but she was the onscreen mother of Juliet's sister, Hayley Mills (as twins) in The Parent Trap, with the onscreen father played by Brian Keith.

Simon Abrams discusses some, though not all, of these various relationships in his commentary track. Maureen O'Hara's autobiography and Gary Fishgall's biography of Stewart are primary sources, along with some reviews and news articles from the time of production. Abrams is particularly helpful in pointing out a sequence that was primarily the work of stunt coordinator, and future director, Hal Needham. The information that the budget was two and half million dollars would place the film at the low end of what was considered a mid-budget film at the time of production, Universal still being the most tight-fisted major studio. There is also information on the real history of introducing Hereford cattle to America, as well as the ways The Rare Breed ignores geography both in the narrative and filming locations. The Rare Breed may be of greatest interest to genre historians as an unintended representative of a genre that seemed to be coming to end, only to be revitalized by crossbreeding done by unknown filmmakers with unpronounceable names in a west created in film studios in Italy and Spain.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:04 AM