Talking Pictures TV showed another rare and intriguing British film this week with this strange offering from 1959, distributed originally by Renown, the company linked to TPTV. I’ve given both titles as the film was released in the US by Allied Artists and it stars two well-known Hollywood names from the period.
There are many strange aspects of the production. It is an adaptation of an A. J. Cronin novel. Cronin’s work was the basis for many films, most famously The Citadel (1937), The Stars Look Down (1940) and Hatters Castle (1942). These were UK productions, but other adaptations were produced in Hollywood and, I was surprised to discover, in various Indian language cinemas. There have also been several TV adaptations in territories around the world. Beyond This Place is an adaptation of a novel written in 1950 – when Cronin was resident in the US. It had already been adapted for US television with Sidney Lumet directing in 1957. All of this suggests that a Cronin adaptation should still have been a ‘prestige’ production of some kind, yet this 1959 film was shot at Walton Studios (once Nettlefold Studios and in the late 1950s mainly involved in TV productions) by an independent producer. It was made in black and white and presented in 1.37:1, almost as if was produced for television.
But though it may seem a low-budget production, there is a starry cast and some well-known creatives are involved. It’s the second directorial feature for Jack Cardiff, the celebrated cinematographer, and also an early outing for Ken Adam, listed as ‘Art Director’. The camerawork itself is in the hands of Wilkie Cooper, a major figure in British cinema since his first film as DoP on The Foreman Went to France (1942). The two American stars are Vera Miles and Van Johnson and the British actors include Jean Kent, Emlyn Williams and Bernard Lee.
The narrative begins in Liverpool with Irish migrant Patrick Mathry playing with his young son Paul in the park. The time appears to be early in the war when Liverpool was the second most-bombed city in the UK after London. We then see Mathry visiting a young woman, but he leaves angrily when the woman’s room-mate intervenes just before an air-raid. After the air-raid Mathry is arrested for murder. The story then leaps forward to the present when Paul Mathry (Van Johnson) arrives on a merchant ship from America. With four days leave he is determined to find out what happened to his father and he finds a helpful librarian Lena (Vera Miles). Paul discovers that his father was found guilty of murder but was not hanged and instead is serving a long sentence in HMP Wakefield. Shocked by his discovery (his mother had told him his father had been killed during the war and she and Paul had subsequently been evacuated to New York) he begins to investigate the murder case, helped by Lena.
This brief description should already raise questions. The murder was in 1941 so Paul should only be in his mid-twenties (in the novel I think he is a recent graduate, working on ships to see the world). Van Johnson was 42 when the film was shot in 1958. He was always a fresh-faced actor but it doesn’t make too much sense to cast him in the lead. Vera Miles, at the time under contract to Hitchcock after The Wrong Man (1956), would have been in her late twenties, possibly a little old for the part, but otherwise OK. The plot later reveals that she is Canadian, but her accent is not pronounced.
There is a considerable amount of location footage in Liverpool in the film and this is what originally attracted me. As in some other Liverpool set films, there are trips on the ferry, through the Mersey tunnel and around the waterfront and the docks. This latter location raises a set of questions about genre. A chase sequence through the docks at night is atmospherically shot, making great use of bright lights and dark shadows, reminiscent of John Alton’s late 1940s work. This sequence could come from a film noir – as could the delving into a past murder case and the character of the chief witness, the ‘other woman’ played by Jean Kent. But much of the rest of the narrative feels more like a family melodrama. Cronin was well-known as a writer of exciting dramas that often feature a crusading character and conflicts built around questions of social class, privilege and injustice. That’s the case here too. As Paul investigates it becomes clear that his father’s trial was a career breakthrough for both the prosecuting counsel and the senior police investigator. Lena is a potential romantic partner for Paul but she too has a back story that raises questions about social issues. When I watched the film I had the very strong feeling that I was seeing a film from 1950 rather than 1959. The Academy ratio and the noir lighting are probably the main reasons for this. Jean Kent became a star as a young woman in the 1940s often playing ‘good-time girls’, femmes fatales or darker characters in melodramas. A couple of years after Beyond This Place she played Queen Elizabeth I in ITC’s tea-time TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-2).
I enjoyed many aspects of the film despite its flaws. The Cronin story was adapted by Kenneth Hyde and the screenplay then produced by Ken Taylor. There are several changes to the original story and I get the impression that too much might have been crammed into the script. I found the film fast-moving but several commentators complain it is slow-moving. Perhaps this is connected to the confusion over genre expectations? The Liverpool setting works well in terms of location shooting but like those other Liverpool set films produced from London (e.g. The Magnet, 1950 or Waterfront, 1950), there are no genuine scousers, or at least actors with recognisable scouse accents, amongst the cast. I’m not sure the UK title helped the film – what does it mean? (The US title is more generic, but at least it offers something familiar.) I realise that I don’t really know the Cronin novels or the other film adaptations, though I have heard episodes of radio serials and of course as I a child I couldn’t avoid the BBC adaptation of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for 8 seasons between 1962 and 1971. Cronin (born in 1896) was Irish-Scottish by background (Paul in the novel of Beyond This Place lives in Belfast) and trained as a doctor. His medical training perhaps turned him away from religion to which he returned in the 1930s when illness and convalescence turned him towards writing which came to him very easily. Religion and medicine are both important elements in his stories. He was one of several popular novelists whose novels were adapted during the studio period of filmmaking. Some of that solid storytelling is certainly evident in Beyond This Place and I think I’ll now be more prepared to look at some other Cronin adaptations.
This was the second of my forays into the ‘Classic Features’ now available online from the London Indian Film Festival and it proved a very rewarding experience. The film’s title Runway refers directly to the home of the film’s central family who live beneath the flight path of aircraft landing at Dhaka’s international airport. The airport is so close that some of the lights indicating the landing path are situated close to the family’s shack. There are also vaguely metaphorical/symbolic readings associated with the title. At one point a small boy aims his catapult at an aircraft that roars over him as it lands. The father of the family is away trying to earn money in Kuwait and for his son Ruhul, who is effectively the ‘man of the family’, life is refusing to ‘take off’. He can’t find a job and he and his sick grandfather are the men at home supported by the earnings of Ruhul’s sister Fatema who works in a clothing sweatshop and his mother Rahima who keeps a cow, bought with a loan from an NGO. The shack’s location is also close to the local river system and Ruhul watches the fishermen with the static Chinese nets.
Runway was made by the husband and wife team of Tareque (director) and Catherine (producer) Masud, whose previous international success was The Clay Bird (2002). Tareque was killed in a car accident in 2011. Catherine is now the curator of the couple’s back catalogue of features, documentaries and shorts. The Masuds’ work seems largely self-financed or ‘independently’ produced and low budget and in a way this film is a reminder of aspects of the similar Indian independent films of the 1970s/80s, except that it doesn’t use the kinds of avant-garde techniques of New Cinema or feature the professional acting and literary/theatrical riches of much of Parallel Cinema in India. The main cast of this feature appear to have been non-professionals at the time apart from the actor who plays the grandfather. Some smaller roles are taken by professionals. Fatema’s friend Sheuli who lives close by is played by Rikita Nandini Shimu who went on to become the lead in Made in Bangladesh (2019), which was very impressive at the London Film Festival last year. The whole cast are very good and the technical standards of the film are high despite what seem to be budget difficulties.
Along with the performances, I was most impressed by the script which manages to to interweave the stories of all of the characters to demonstrate the complexities of life in a country like Bangladesh. Everyone faces financial and moral dilemmas and their actions have an impact on each other. The film never ‘preaches’ but it shows us these lives in such a way that we recognise the problems but also see that there is respite in the love for one another and the beauties of the natural world. It’s a life-affirming film even when it presents us with jihadism and its consequences. Although the events are linked to actual events in Bangladesh earlier in the 2000s, all the characters are fictitious.
Ruhul’s uncle runs a small internet/telephone parlour which Ruhul visits to search for job opportunities. Over a few days he becomes friendly with Arif, a university dropout who appears confident and well-groomed. Ruhul is being recruited into a jihadist group. He is aware of what is happening and of course the group leader promises him that he can get a job at the airport. Will Ruhul become a martyr? His dilemmas are several. He feels that he is living off his mother’s and sister’s earnings. He must get a job, but becoming a jihadist will alienate them and ‘fail’ them. He knows they love him. Sheuli is the girl he loves but he feels he can’t marry her and be supported by her work. Will his father return from Kuwait where industrial disputes threaten the job market for migrant workers? Rahima misses her husband so much that she begins to fantasise that he has returned. It all sounds desperate but Ruhul has the capacity to stay calm. Can he pull through?
Runway is available to watch free online (via registration) until 19th August and is well worth a look.
This is writer-director Nimrod Eldar’s feature debut and an accomplished one it is. The opening is a beautiful shot of a fairground ride slowly revolving and it lasts so long it’s clear it has some symbolic value. It’s a daring start, not seeking to engage audiences immediately into the narrative and the film itself takes a distanced view of the dysfunctional daughter-father relationship of Roni and Yoram. It’s the subject of melodrama. However, Eldar dials back to emotions to reflect the numbness felt by the protagonists who are superbly played by Zohar Meidan and Menashe Noy.
Yoram works as a vet in a safari park (he’s better with animals than with people?) though the scenes there reveal little of his character and one encounter with ‘stupid visitors’ seems pointless. Similarly, we only see Roni when she’s with her Dad and though it’s clear that the characters are withdrawn because of the loss of a mother/wife there’s no sense Yoram was any better at connecting before their tragedy. There’s one intensely dramatic scene which is shown ‘from a distance’, from the father’s perspective, but is nevertheless effective. However, the film would have benefited if both characters’ ‘back stories’ had been given a little more detail.
Even though we see his failings as a dad, at least Yoram tries to do something to resolve the crisis and they visit their extended family headed by a racist patriarch. This allows Eldar to, tangentially at least acknowledge, the constant crisis Israeli lives are overshadowed by: their subjugation of Palestinians. However, as the film is about family and not politics it’s understandable that the issue is not dealt with in detail. There’s also a scene were youngsters ‘perform’ the song ‘I love Israel’ and the expressions of the protagonists tell us all we need to know what they think about the sympathies of this right wing family. Even though Yoram may have had good intentions he can’t get through his male stupidity and it seems he feels the victim rather than his 17-year-old daughter.
Eldar’s direction is subtle, for example there are long takes of the protagonists in a car which require the leads’ strong performances as they wordlessly wrestle with their difficulties. Sound is important too, simple things like a cheering football crowd in the distance are given resonance, and the tricky, because potentially sentimental, ending is handled very well.
If some areas are under-developed there’s more than enough to thoroughly engage us in the private grief of two alienated individuals.
Charlie Bubbles is the most personal and affecting film of the late 1960s for me. It suffered distribution difficulties at the time and was considered a failure – not least by its principal creator Albert Finney who directs and stars. It was one of the first films produced by Memorial Films, the company set up by Finney and Michael Medwin who acted as producer of Charlie Bubbles. For a long time it was unavailable in the UK (it was shown in the US in 1968, but only in festivals I think) and it was not until 2008 that a Region 2 DVD was released. The IMDb response to that release encourages me into thinking that its reputation is now being improved. (It has since had a Blu-ray release from Indicator in the UK.) The script was written by Shelagh Delaney, another creative talent from Salford, born only two years after Finney and here with her third film writing credit.
The film’s narrative is quite simple. Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney) is a successful writer living in London with a housekeeper and butler and a PA/Secretary in the form of an American student (Liza Minnelli) who hopes to develop her own writing career. He is clearly disillusioned with the way things have turned out and decides on a trip back to his roots in Salford to visit his estranged wife Lottie (Billie Whitelaw) and his son Jack, now living in a farmhouse in Derbyshire. The trip is not really a success and the film has an open ending leaving the audience to wonder what happens to Charlie (and all the other characters).
The film is split into three sections, designated by location. In the first we see Charlie in London, in the second on the journey north in his Rolls and in the third his ‘adventures’ in Manchester and the Peak District. The tone and style of these three sections varies considerably. The opening section seems at one point to suggest that the film will be part of the ‘Swinging London’ cycle, with comedy scenes featuring Charlie’s old mate played by Colin Blakeley. The second phase is the most anonymous, characterised by a long and ominous standoff in a garage in Hendon and then in a deserted motorway service station. The third is both nostalgic about Manchester and Salford and positively rural in Derbyshire.
Everything about this film is personal for me. I saw it in, I think, 1970 at the Hendon Classic, then a good cinema for waifs and strays on release (the BBFC entry is for 1970). For the previous three years I had travelled by train or on the night bus from London to the North West, visiting home from university. I thought I understood what Finney was trying to say. It would be 20 years before I faced the inevitable and moved back North, missing London but knowing I’d chosen to reconnect with my roots. In the first flush of appreciating movies as the centre of my cultural life in 1970 I thought Charlie Bubbles said it all.
There are several key scenes that had a big impact. The first is the stop in the motorway café in the middle of the night. Everyone disses the motorway services these days. They have no real attraction except that the driver gets a rest. But back in the 60s I remember we drove from Blackpool just to see one of the first at Forton on the M6 south of Lancaster. Just like airport buildings, these places were ‘modern’ and exciting then. Stopping at these services was part of the experience of travelling home on the night bus from London (or hitching). They were sites which seemed to mark the change of environment from South to North. British travellers will remember the sign on the M1 which read ‘Hatfield and The North’ or mainly just ‘The North’ – it really was moving from one culture to another. In the service station Charlie meets a character played by Yootha Joyce, an earlier RADA graduate known for working-class roles on TV but who here plays a woman who appears to have moved into upper middle-class circles. In a highly stylised scene, Finney the director seems to use the clash of cultures between this character and her group with both Liza and a young RAF man played by Alan Lake (a lad from Stoke, another RADA graduate who married Diana Dors in 1968) as a kind of exercise in non-communication, but which is still loaded with potential meanings. Finney the actor is completely distracted during the whole scene and into the next when he gives a lift to the young man.
The second key moment is when Charlie in his Rolls tours those parts of Manchester and Salford that have yet to be redeveloped after wartime bomb damage. These are the same streets and large areas of wasteland featured in the BBC documentary Morning in the Streets (1959) and which also feature strongly, in a different setting in Newcastle, in the sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-4) and in Jack Gold’s Liverpool setting for The Reckoning (1969). I remember too, visiting a friend in Liverpool to watch the World Cup together in 1970 and drinking in pubs which stood alone among the ruins of streets of back-to-back houses. Here’s a clip which also includes a marching band – oddly reminiscent of a scene from the short documentary Spare Time (1939) by Humphrey Jennings which caused a minor furore at the time (Jennings was accused of patronising working-class culture).
The third key moment is Charlie in the new Piccadilly Hotel in the centre of Manchester meeting an old friend of his father (played by the great Joe Gladwyn, another Salfordian) who is now delivering room service. Again, this is an uncomfortable scene in which Charlie is embarrassed when tipping the older man. Immediately after, he faces an awkward encounter with Liza who has told him she has family in Salford and wants to research the community. Behind these hotel scenes lies the issue for the successful young men (all men at that time and women might might be affected differently), like Finney himself, who felt uncomfortable returning to their roots. The same issues were well-presented in the Nigel Barton plays written by Dennis Potter for BBC Play for Today in 1965.
The fourth moment is when Charlie arrives at Old Trafford having picked up his son. They end up in the equivalent of the modern ‘executive suite’ where the son feels uncomfortable and separated from the real fans and the players on the pitch (see the still at the head of this post). For many working-class lads in the UK, one of the rites of passage in those days was being taken by your father to support your local team. In the sixties this still meant standing on the terraces, perhaps sitting on his shoulders or standing on a stool in one of the less crammed parts of the ground. Manchester United were still a local team for Salford in 1966 when the film was shot. The scene in the box eloquently displays Charlie’s lack of understanding and Jack’s realisation that his father has failed him. The point is emphasised visually in Lottie’s house back in Derbyshire with the estranged father as isolated as possible in the room.
These moments are all very real to me and I’m sure other readings of the narrative will be possible, though the experience of returning to family and old friends must be universal. But what should we make of Finney as director and star? It can’t be coincidence that Finney in 1966 embarked upon this kind of questioning narrative after the enormous success of his breakthrough on the screen with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tom Jones (1963). In 1966, Finney was just 30. Did he feel already that his time had past as the iconic figure of a young man from ‘the North’? Was he conscious of what the Beatles and the mergence of British pop culture meant? He seems very ‘old’ as Charlie and the open ending of the film (which he approaches with a big cigar in his mouth) suggests that he is undergoing some form of very early mid-life crisis. Finney himself, as Keith pointed out recently, was also interested in his stage work and had already begun to work in international cinema. His other film (as an actor only) for Memorial Enterprises was Gumshoe in 1971. Written by another northern writer Neville Smith and directed by Stephen Frears it shares some elements with Charlie Bubbles, but doesn’t have the same ‘personal’ resonance.
After a third viewing I’ve found many more nuances in Charlie Bubbles and it seems to me a very fine film. Billie Whitelaw is under-used but powerful when she appears and Liza Minnelli, in her first film role for the cinema screen is very good. Her vitality and perky intelligence show up well in her interchanges with Charlie. I’d have liked to have seen Finney direct more films, but watching some of his later interviews I think I understand why he didn’t. When scholars discuss 1960s British cinema I think they should pay more attention to Charlie Bubbles, it has a lot to say.
Here’s a distinctly odd trailer which avoids presenting the ‘real’ Charlie and tries to fit the film into a more conventional mode.
MUBI seems to have a real interest in films that explore aspects of sexuality and the ‘erotic’. In the last couple of years they have streamed quite a range of different sorts of films dealing with sex and sexuality. Recently there was the art film melded with explicit porn in The Daughters of Fire (Argentina 2018) which addressed the male/female gaze question and is discussed on this blog by Nick. Over several months we were offered restored versions of American avant-garde/’independent’/’alternative’ soft porn ‘curated’ by Nicholas Winding Refn. I tried to watch one or two of these but gave up bewildered. Mostly MUBI offers us challenging festival films which query attitudes towards sexuality or more mainstream arthouse fare which features more overt depictions of sexual relationships than those in contemporary Hollywood films. But one of the recent offerings, Chloe from Atom Egoyan, seems to hark back to the cycle of erotic thrillers that were very successful in mainstream 1980s and 1990s Hollywood – films such as Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), both featuring Michael Douglas and, not a thriller as such, but certainly a different kind of romance, Indecent Proposal (1993), like Fatal Attraction directed by Adrian Lyne. There were also a string of more explicit erotic thrillers, many of which went straight to video release. These had their own stars such as Shannon Tweed. The genre of the erotic thriller has received attention from film scholars, most notably Prof. Linda Ruth Williams with her 2005 book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema.
I was attracted to Chloe, first because it is a film directed by Atom Egoyan, a director I feel that I have neglected and possibly avoided. I’m not sure why. I’m generally interested in Canadian filmmakers and Egoyan had a number of well-received arthouse films released in the 1990s but I saw only Exotica (1994) – and that because I was obliged to watch it after a student had written an essay about it. Chloe, like several of Egoyan’s films has an interesting cast featuring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried. I didn’t realise until after I’d seen the film that Chloe is actually a remake of a French film, Nathalie . . .(2003), written and directed by Anne Fontaine, whose more recent work I’ve enjoyed very much. I wonder if I would have responded differently to the film if I’d known that when I started watching it?
Liam Neeson plays David Stewart, a university professor in an arts faculty – which is certainly an interesting change for an actor usually associated with action roles. In 2009 he was probably best known for the first Taken movie the year before in which he has to rescue his daughter kidnapped by bad guys, though he’d had a number of major roles in a wide range of films before that including as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1993). Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, an upmarket gynaecologist with an office in a fashionable district of Toronto. David makes a trip to New York as part of his professorial role, not realising that Catherine has organised a lavish surprise birthday party for him in their designer house with a large number of guests. When he phones from New York to tell her he has missed his flight she is devastated. We wonder if he has taken up an offer of ‘a couple of drinks’ from a young woman. The marriage has not been going well and Catherine also deals badly with the realisation that her son Michael, a talented music student, has his girlfriend staying over on the night of the party without mentioning anything to her. Perhaps the actions of the two men in her life prompt her to take retaliatory action. She visits an up-market hotel bar and eventually singles out a young woman, the ‘Chloe’ of the title (Amanda Seyfried), as a high-class call girl. Catherine hires Chloe to make a play for David and then to report back what happens. We all know this is a crazy thing to do and that it will end badly. Why does she do it?
This is the set-up and you can probably write your own script as to how it works out – complete with an explosive finale. I think the only reason I continued watching was because of the relationship between Catherine and Chloe. The two women are well-cast and Julianne Moore is a fine actor who has taken on a wide range of roles. I know less about Amanda Seyfried but she’s very good in this, presenting the kind of steely determination that sometimes transforms her into an almost automaton-like figure, a simulacrum, a sex toy with a sharp brain – but with a fierce determination to get what’s best for her out of every situation.
At times this feels like a Paul Verhoeven movie. There is an early dialogue exchange with a patient in which Catherine dismisses the female orgasm as just a muscle contraction. Yet something is propelling her forward into the arrangement she has started and perhaps it is the excitement of the subterfuge as well as a substitute for what is not happening in the marriage? But it’s also something Chloe can manipulate. Catherine asks her to give her details of everything that Chloe has done with David and she is clearly aroused by hearing the details. Chloe knows how to exploit that arousal. But what if she’s making it all up? Chloe is like a stalker Catherine has invited into her family and inevitably Chloe will make a play for Michael. In fact Chloe will go wherever she pleases and every new action will increase her hold over Catherine. Catherine will try to stop all of these actions, but what if she can’t?
Unlike The Daughters of Fire, Chloe offers the audience a good deal of female flesh but seemingly without the suggestion that it is about female desire rather than the male gaze. Amanda Seyfried is presented dressing in lingerie for her sex work under the titles at the start of the film. Later both she and Julianne Moore will strip for the camera gaze – but Liam Neeson will remain clothed for sex with Chloe (‘real’ or imagined). It doesn’t seem a fair swap. On the other hand, this is clearly a female-centred narrative in which David and Michael are only there to fuel the desire that links Catherine and Chloe. As I watched I felt concern for Catherine – how exposed and vulnerable she was prepared to make herself. I’m wondering about how the French original handled Catherine’s desire for sexual excitement and her need for self-esteem in her failing marriage (and mother-son relationship). I found myself admiring Chloe’s cunning, her bravery and her ‘professionalism’ while being repelled by her coldness.
As one IMDB user suggests, one of the film’s attractions is to see Toronto playing itself rather than as a stand-in for a US city. It’s an upmarket Toronto in the snow and at times I wanted to shout at Catherine who seems oblivious to the weather with bare legs and high heels in the snow and slush. Chloe is actually more sensibly dressed for the outdoors. I can’t come to a final decision about the film. Its plotting did keep me watching, though I do feel it could have done more with the basic idea. The script was adapted from Anne Fontaine’s original by Erin Cressida Wilson. I’m intrigued to see that she was a film and literature academic and that she was involved in two other high-profile adaptations, Secretary (US 2002) and The Girl on the Train (US 2016). The three films make an interesting trio, each focusing on a form of ‘transgressive’ behaviour of a central female character. I think now I’ll have to look for the Anne Fontaine original of Chloe. I do wonder how this film would have worked out directed by a woman.
I sometimes remember the cinemas I have visited more clearly than the films I watched in them. This is certainly true of Fedora which I watched in the Theater Tuschinski in Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful cinemas I’ve ever visited, in December 1978 on its first release. I seem to remember being taken to our seats by a uniformed usher. I think some of the audience might have had glasses of wine (I might be making that up). At that time the 1921 art deco/art nouveau theatre was still a single screen. There now seem to be six screens in an enlarged complex. All this is, if not clear, at least a memory. About Fedora I remembered very little. Possibly I was too young at the time to understand it.
Fedora was the penultimate film directed by Billy Wilder, who helmed his last film in 1981 and then lived another 20 years, making it to 95. I hope he remained sharp until the end. Fedora is currently streaming on MUBI in its collection of ‘Perfect Failures’, which the curators suggest are films not appreciated at the time of their release but which are worth a second chance. It’s a strange selection so far. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly 2006) and The Countess of Hong Kong (Charles Chaplin 1967) are films I’ve never really been interested in seeing. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt 2013), however, is a film I found intriguing, perhaps not my favourite film from Ms Reichardt but in no way a ‘failure’. But what about Fedora?
Fedora sees Wilder returning to a film about ‘Golden Age’ filmmaking and specifically to his own key title Sunset Boulevard (1950), signalled by both its subject – ‘Fedora’ is a European star of Hollywood in the 1940s/50s – and its investigator played by William Holden. The plot is relatively straightforward. A prologue shows a woman in black leaping in front of a steam train followed by a TV report of Fedora’s death. Then a flashback shows us Holden’s character ‘Dutch’ Detweiler travelling to Greece to find the renowned star Fedora who is in a form of purdah in an isolated mansion on its own island. A further flashback will show that Dutch, as a young assistant director, once spent a night on a beach in Southern California with Fedora. Now he has a new script with which he hopes to lure Fedora out of retirement and into a new film he will produce as an independent.
What happens in the rest of the plot is fairly predictable. Most audiences will guess the twist in the narrative long before the ‘reveal’. But the film doesn’t seem to be too concerned about plot. I find myself having to agree with Roger Ebert whose review of the film back in 1979 nails it. He recognises that audiences could be easily bored by the predictability of it all and then suggests:
If you can see Fedora and not get hung up on what it’s about and who the characters are, which is admittedly a large order, there’s a real pleasure to be had in sitting there and letting it happen to you. It is not a great movie, but it has the form and feel of a great movie.
The script is actually an adaptation of a story by Tom Tryon, himself an actor in the 1950s/60s. I find it impossible to outline the plot without revealing the twist. As soon as you start to work out how old Fedora must be, you will realise what must have happened. William Holden was himself 60 in 1978 – he died just three years later. If he was supposed to have been a young man when Fedora was already a major star, she must be a woman in her mid-60s at least. The two ‘leading ladies’ in the film are Marthe Keller (born 1945) and Hildegard Knef (born 1925). It’s a strong cast. José Ferrer plays Doctor Vando, the physician who tries to keep Fedora young. Mario Adorf plays the hotel manager who takes pity on Detweiler as he tries to find a way into Fedora’s mansion – today in his 90th year Adorf has 219 credits for mainly Italian and German films. Henry Fonda and Michael York play themselves, Fonda as President of the Academy offering Fedora an honorary Oscar and York as the young man she fell for on her last production.
I watched the opening ten minutes of the film on MUBI and wasn’t overly impressed but I went back a day later and found myself watching the whole film. Ebert is right, there is a fascination in watching a master filmmaker who has scripted the film himself and knows just how to handle his starry cast. There is a one-liner which suggests that Wilder just couldn’t come to terms with a contemporary Hollywood “full of young men with beards” (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and others). Fedora is in fact a German-French co-production, based in Munich and Paris and widely distributed in Europe. I’ve always like William Holden and all the leading cast are impressive here. The latter part of the film is a joy, especially after we have dispensed with the reveal and can deal with the characters as they are. Wilder is astute in recognising the problems with what Hollywood was becoming in 1978 but I’m not sure he had enough energy left to sustain and attack beyond this feature. I haven’t seen his last film, Buddy, Buddy (1981), but the reviews aren’t that great. If you take note of Ebert’s verdict you may well enjoy Fedora.