[5 March 2012]
John Houseman produced this lush widescreen soaper in England and Greece, although he disowned it in his memoirs, saying he never watched it. Nobody seems to have been happy with this movie, perhaps because it lacks the self-consciously overripe gloss of Douglas Sirk or Delmer Daves (or even Guy Green in the masterly Light in the Piazza, another Italian vacation soaper), and it takes much longer than necessary to get where everyone knows it’s going (its lead characters in the sack). Still, this movie is always watchable and visually engaging for such a grand piece of silliness.
Murray (Peter Finch) is an editor for the London office of publishing firm Atlantic House (clever name). He made them take a risk on a prize-winning book called Below the Angels, which I’d like to hear more about. He’s stuck in a marriage to the impossibly brittle and bitter Sybil (Angela Lansbury), who begins as the movie’s most tiresome and clichéd character and gradually metamorphoses before our eyes into its most surprisingly realistic and mischievous one, and the only one with a notable character arc. By an interesting coincidence, Lansbury had earlier played a Sybil in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but her older Sybil is better at seeing the future. By the time they get to Delphi, she’s become positively oracular.
She’s introduced in a curious moment listening to Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow”, but she puts it back into an LP sleeve called “Strictempo”, a ballroom dance album! (A post-production decision?) She also watches a loud TV program called Let’s Twist on the Riviera, slapping her shins to the vulgar rhythms of the day, so perhaps it’s foreshadowed that this self-exiled shut-in with a barely noticeable scar by her ear (cue the tragic flashback) will go along to Greece and do her own twisting while her husband seems wrapped in ancient history.
It’s she who gets tired of waiting around on our would-be adulterous lovebirds and finally shoves their plot along; she’s almost the viewer’s stand-in, offering cutting commentary on the non-action. She looks her most foolish flouncing down the spiral stairs with a handkerchief fluttering in her hand, and she looks her best when she sashays out of the picture just as we’ve decided she’s not a bad gal to have around in this plot.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Our supposed heroine is the impulsive yet frail Christine (Jane Fonda), who has the mysterious coughing sickness of beautiful movie heroines. She’s had two lung operations, so you’d think she shouldn’t be smoking like a chimney, but nobody ever mentions it because those coffin nails are the perfect accessory to her black Orry-Kelly get-ups with a Cleopatra pageboy swinging around her head. (In the TCM.com article on this film, Houseman is quoted as hating the Cleopatra look—but as the producer, didn’t he have any say in the matter? Very mysterious.)
During the brief scenes where characters are sitting at a Manhattan cafe, we’re treated to very clumsy and obvious projections, but when they begin their Greek tour halfway through the picture, it’s all lovely postcard location work. (The dirty print on this Warner Archive made-on-demand disc shows a movie in need of restoration and color correction, always fading and fluctuating during transitions.)
The film’s languid pace within its short running time seems to be a function of several things: the sense of emotional arrest among the characters, the Mediterranean pace of ocean and sun, the inevitability of “tragedy” (more Hollywood than Greek, despite a quotation from Oedipus), and the conventional delays of a still-skittish Hollywood that didn’t want to rush forward with romantic adultery even when it would be punished anyway.
Although our attention keeps being directed to the Murray/Christine arc, we’re distracted by all the characters and touches along the way. For example, there’s the design of Ken Adam, best known for the James Bond movies. You can recognize his spacious elegance in the milieus of the various supporting characters—Arthur Hill as Christine’s clueless hubby, Alexander Knox as his dying father, Constance Cummings as the jet-set mama flanked by male escorts. He makes a good case for the art director as auteur.
Manos Hadjidakis (Never on Sunday) wrote the title song performed by Nat King Cole, while the score itself is a surprisingly modernist orchestration of emotional turmoil by Francis Chagrin. That’s another curious point about Houseman’s remarks, since he says he got Hadjidakis to score it for free and never seems to be aware of Chagrin; apparently he was locked out of post-production and final cut.
This was the last and biggest of a handful of features directed by Robert Stevens, whose theatrical career is negligible but whose TV career as a director and producer is very important. Perhaps it’s best that he stayed with the small screen and its emphasis on close-ups.