CARRIE (PARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT)

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (20th CENTURY FOX HOME ENTERTAINMENT)

STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET (SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT)

WE WERE STRANGERS (SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT)

RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE (20th CENTURY FOX HOME ENTERTAINMENT)

This Valentine's Day we wish to congratulate all of you out there blessed with deliriously romantic relationships. Congratulations! Now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow us in our minor way to throw ice water on your wretched ecstasy by reviewing five romantic films united in the belief that love ain't so grand. 

Faithful visitors to DVD CLASSICS CORNER are by now aware that we are part of that minute minority that not only doesn't consider, as most do, Laurence Olivier to be the finest actor ever, but in fact feel that, particularly during his final decade, he committed to film histrionics of an embarrassingly superficial nature (INCHON, DRACULA, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, A LITTLE ROMANCE , CLASH OF THE TITANS etc.) unequalled by any other similarly renowned thespian. 

But in William Wyler's poignantly powerful adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's then-controversial novel SISTER CARRIE Olivier's interpretation of a respectable upper middle-class family man who throws it all away for the love of a smalltown girl recently come to turn-of-the-Century Chicago, Olivier, clearly with the help of the meticulous Wyler, displays his character's soul-withering frailties with a precision and delicacy that fairly forces the viewer to emotionally participate fully in every heartbreaking step of his decline. Take it from us: this is a subtle yet bravura performance that dominates all around it yet never once calls attention to itself as an "acting exercise".

Paramount has delivered a rather good full-screen black and white transfer with decent monaural sound and even included a deleted "flophouse" scene that was correctly cut from the final product, as it may be the only instance in a long and distinguished career where director Wyler's usually invisible technique calls attention to itself. 

One of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen, Gene Tierney, received her only Academy Award nomination as a "perfect" wife whose compulsive and jealous behavior leads her to murder, while her handsome but dense husband, played in rather blank fashion by Cornel Wilde (Dana Andrews: where were you when we needed you?), remains blissfully unaware of his wife's homicidal tendencies until its almost too late. Make no mistake about it - while there probably is not one plausible moment (who needs them?) in this big budget romantic extravaganza, the very length and breadth of its sheer ridiculousness makes it almost hypnotically entertaining to witness, aided primarily by Leon Shamroy's unbelievably lush and imaginative Oscar-winning Technicolor photography. Mr. Shamroy is to Technicolor photography what John Alton was to black and white lensing. No greater praise can be given.

Fox's transfer of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is spotless and almost totally free of damage and a vast improvement over prior versions. However it must be stated that long shots are curiously soft-looking and that this is plainly not a 3-Strip Technicolor restoration, a fact made glaringly apparent by the curiously wax-like close-up appearances of the heavily made-up Tierney and, especially, Wilde. It's best to bypass the pseudo-stereo option and stick with the strong monaural option that does complete justice to Alfred Newman's robust and powerful score.

Director Richard Quine and glamour girl Kim Novak weren't known for exhibiting any discernible depth or sensitivity in their previous (or indeed, future) efforts, but those qualities are on display in such gratifying and surprising abundance in STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET (1960) that they fairly transform what could have been a mawkish and predictable chronicle of a frustrated architect-husband (Kirk Douglas) who strays with his beauteous but equally unfulfilled married neighbor (Novak) into a reasonably involving affair (pun intended) that maintains interest throughout its 117 minute running time. Not hurting matters in the least is a very good supporting turn by Barbara Rush as Douglas' hapless and helpless wife and particularly innovative comedian Ernie Kovacs as a restless and befuddled client of Douglas, who proves with this stingingly multi-faceted and original performance that, had he lived, he would have become one of our finest character actors. However, Kirk Douglas' rigid and stiffly unfeeling work here gives no hint that a scant two years later he would deliver the finest and most flexible performance of his career in LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. 

Considering the fact that the color process that Columbia used at the time, Color by Pathe(tic), was less than sublime, Sony has managed to put together a rather good anamorphic (2.35:1) transfer replete with confident monaural sound, that in no way detracts from the considerable enjoyment that this underrated romantic opus provides. 

Lastly, we must observe that the scenes in which Novak's strangely sullen and uninterested husband resists Novak's generously displayed charms are fantastic and unbelievable to such a degree that they almost thrust the film into the realm of science-fiction.

Strangers of a different stripe materialize in WE WERE STRANGERS (1949), the comparatively obscure John Huston film that surfaced in between two certifiable Huston classics, KEY LARGO and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE . While the story of Cuban freedom fighters who plan to execute the head of the senate and then assassinate all of Cuba's leaders at his well-attended state funeral certainly holds promise, a strangely uninvolving screenplay that suffers from a self-defeating similarity of tone, coupled with a singularly unappealing turn by unflatteringly photographed leading lady Jennifer Jones together combine to prevent the viewer from becoming continually involved in the proceedings. Additionally, it is quite dispiriting to see the great John Garfield try and fail to breathe life into an underwritten role. Here we have an isolated case wherein a sterling supporting cast including Ramon Novarro and Gilbert Roland as two of the primary freedom fighters and especially Pedro Armendariz in a compelling and invigorating stint as a vile and despicable police captain literally tie the entire show in a pink ribbon and walk away with it. 

While the full-screen black and white transfer is not entirely without very occasional minor damage, the sharpness and grey scale are way above average and complement the harsh camerawork and lighting to sometimes spectacular effect, and the monaural sound is crisp and clear.

While an excellent screenplay, top-notch direction, luscious photography and a talented cast miraculously converted PEYTON PLACE, a tawdry and trashy bestseller, into a distinguished and even critically admired cinematic triumph, its sequel RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE (1961) benefited from none of the above. It did  however, supply Mary Astor (and ultimately the grateful viewer) with, by leaps and bounds, the most spectacularly brilliant performance on view in both films. It's one thing to create a splendidly varied and creative performance in a well-written role under the supervision of a fine director. It's quite another to deliver the goods when your role amounts to yet another tired variation of the "domineering mother" syndrome, and the dialogue you're stuck with is nothing more than a superficial compendium of creaky cliches--compounded by the fact that you're also saddled with the non-existent guidance of a director such as heavy-handed hack Jose Ferrer. But, despite being surrounded by the kind of monstrous deficiencies that would defeat the finest of actresses, Astor prevails in absolutely incredible fashion. What we have here is one of the finest examples of inspired character acting ever committed to film, a performance so chock-full of inspiration and tingling with moment-by-moment creative power and invention that it fairly defies description. All the rest of the dull and listless cast can do is stand by in slack-jawed awe and envy, though Jeff Chandler, in his next-to-last role, does manage to inject a highly improbable role with a masculine directness and simplicity that does him credit. 

The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) color transfer is rich-looking and damage-free, and, as with all Fox pseudo-stereo reworkings of previously non-stereo material, it is best to bypass this function and stick with the strong monaural option.

--DICK DINMAN

 

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