Wednesday 12 April 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare excavates the career of Jules Dassin via a new Olive Films edition of PHAEDRA (1962)

Tony Perkins as Alexis, about to drive himself off a cliff in a frenzy of Oedipal guilt, screaming out "Phaedra, Phaedra" to the accompaniment of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540 in what is very likely the most highly pitched moment of director Jules Dassin's hyper "Mercourial" phase in Phaedra (1962). Unavailable for years and then drip fed into an MGM VOD a couple of years ago the picture now takes pride of place in a gorgeous new Olive Blu-ray. The disc is Region Free.

Dassin's career is a vexing one, given the ups and downs, or perhaps more likely downs and ups. Like one of his own manic characters his career kick starts into several late 1940s' Universal and Fox Noir dramas of consistently high quality including Naked City (1948), Brute Force (1947), Thieves Highway (1949) and what I consider his masterpiece, Night and the City in 1950 in which RIchard Widmark plays a career peak Harry Fabian, the strongest and most moving expression of bi-polar or manic humanity in all of movies.

It was with that movie, which Zanuck and Fox sent him to England to make, that his American career was rudely terminated, courtesy of the McCarthy HUAC fascists, and Dassin would not make a return to the States again until the black power days of Uptight in 1968. After leaving his Fox contract he drifted into the sleepy French post war cinema revival and made two nicely crafted but overrated minor crime films, Celui qui Doit Mouirir (He who must die) (1957) and Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1955) the latter of which has been so overrated as to be claimed superior to any of his previous work. It's not. Sometimes subtitles blind people to the true qualities of good and average or derivative work. Then, in 1960 he met his muse, the glorious free spirit of Melina Mercouri who would share his life to the end and between them they made a body of life affirming pictures of highly variable quality if not undeniable energy, which really transformed the tone of his films into what Sarris used to call his Baroque period. There are things in 10.30 PM Summer (1966) and Phaedra especially which push the limits of emotional expressiveness into naked hysteria and whether or not this a good thing for cinema is at least a question Dassin raised with these movies. In the end I think I'm with him.

Perkins' Liebestod death drive in Phaedra, after a ferocious beating by his blood father (a cutely named "Thanos" played by a terrific Raf Vallone) seems to give vent to every soul who has ever suffered impossible, forbidden passions, or ever dared to transgress. In some ways it seemed to be the ideal next role for Perkins, after Psycho in 1960.  Perkins himself was not someone without internal torment, at least Psycho and Phaedra seem to have taken the actor into a two-decade long string of parts for which he became perhaps the most memorable spokesman for the tortured heart.

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