Two Posers for the Memory Test: 'Queen of Hearts' & 'Return from the Ashes'

Return from the Ashes (1965)

That's what the best thrillers do: mine society's realities and fears to present funhouse metaphors.

Queen of Hearts

Rated: PG
DVD: Queen of Hearts
Director: Jon Amiel
Cast: Anita Zagaria, Joseph Long
Year: 1989
Distributor: MGM Limited Edition
Release date: 2011-03-01

Return from the Ashes

Rated: Unrated
DVD: Return from the Ashes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Ingrid Thulin, Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar
Year: 1965
Distributor: MGM Limited Edition
Release date: 2011-03-01

What is the memory test? It's my personal version of what critics call "the test of time". I watch a lot of movies, and I like them or I don't or it's all mixed, and sometimes I'm expected to give some kind of opinion although I don't know what good my opinion does anybody including myself in comparison to what's really interesting about a movie. But anyway, time goes by as they say and I watch a bunch of other movies, and then all I can sometimes remember about something is the vague memory of having liked it (or not) but nothing specific about it, and then I can totally forget I ever watched something and be watching it again when the scratching at the back of my cerebellum says "Wait a minute, didn't you see this once?" and sometimes not even that and it all seems new, whereas another movie I saw just as long ago remains fresh in my mind.

What's crucial, you see, is that all this has nothing to do with whether I liked the picture or not. I might have completely forgotten a movie I liked, or I might vividly recall one I didn't. The latter means there was something interesting about the film, like it or not, and that's the memory test.

These thoughts are triggered by my memories or non-memories of two movies freshly issued as part of the MGM Classics Limited Edition Collection, which is a new wave of manufactured-on-demand DVD-Rs by which MGM is joining the example of Warner Archives' similar made-on-demand discs. (Ironically, the real MGM classics are part of the Warner Archive line, since Warners now controls the old MGM catalogue, while MGM Classics are mostly later titles acquired when the studio merged with United Artists and also material from Orion and other indies. To make it more complex, these MGM Classics are offered through Fox. Of course there's a lot of interesting stuff there, no matter where it's from.)

The British film Queen of Hearts (1989) is a smooth piece of work from director Jon Amiel, best known for the British TV masterpiece written by Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective. Leonard Maltin's 3 1/2 star review calls this movie an "extraordinary and unusual film, better seen than described....Tony Grisoni's original screenplay embraces elements of romance, humor, melodrama, mysticism, and fantasy in a heady mix". That sounds great (and it's even accurate) but the problem for me is that I saw the picture when it came out and all I could remember is that it had a flowing feeling and some bright, artificial colors.

Revisiting it 20 years later, I see that after the fairy-tale opening with certain disorienting moments out of the blue, it settles for much of its running time into "My big fat Italian stereotype family" from the point of view of a boy (Ian Hawkes) whose immigrant parents run a cafe in '60s England. There's a solidly lovable dad and a lovely, hardworking mother who's hardly there as more than a figurehead. There's the broadly funny and tiresome grandma from the old country, eternally feuding with the dad's father. There are the modern teen kids with their generation gap and their rock and roll. It's a bit unusual to see this in an English working-class setting, and it's interesting to realize there was an Italian neighborhood in London, albeit presented in deliberately artificial style ("At least that's how I remember it," says the boy).

In other words, this is a fuzzy childhood reminiscence with the Italian inflection, half Cinema Paradiso, half Hope and Glory, and shamelessly manipulative in terms of what the narrative shows and what's withheld when it wants to pull a double-whammy. Mind you, storytellers are supposed to manipulate their listeners. As I always say about the movies, we pay good money to be manipulated.

By the last 20-minutes, you must admit that if you've stayed with it this far, the semi-mystical folderol is working because it's so grounded in these conventional characters, and you can indeed find yourself swept into the bittersweet musical motifs lathered all over the wrap-up. And yet, there's the fact that it all passed right out of my mind like a satisfying plate of carbonara when you've used up the last napkin. Some movies pass the memory test and others don't. Which brings us to our next item.

Return from the Ashes (1965) has one of the great pre-credits sequences of the '60s, and that's saying something. I caught this movie on late-night TV as a kid. That mood-setting humdinger of a scene burned into my brain, and I will not attempt to describe its action, its web of observation, or its complex emotional flow. Then come the credits, backed by the slinky, jazzy music of Johnny Dankworth (later he throws in harpsichord to jarring effect) and framed in the cool widescreen black-and-white of photographer Christopher Challis.

In 1945 Paris, Ingrid Thulin (ruefully smart, even when dumb) plays a woman who returns from the Dachau concentration camp, intending to return to her former life as a doctor with the chessmaster husband she bought before the war (Maximilian Schell, handsome and caddish as all get-out). During her absence and presumed death, he's taken up with her brittle but beautiful stepdaughter (Samantha Eggar, shot sharply enough to cut her profile into the screen). They play out a sizzling, twisty three-handed game of reversals and false moves in which everything is uncertain. (The DVD package incorrectly states that Schell and Eggar's characters are married, so perhaps even MGM was uncertain of what was happening.)

This was produced and directed by J. Lee Thompson in the mid-period of his reputation for action and suspense. The hits The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear were behind him, and for my money this trumps them easily. He'd go on to make a couple of interesting Charles Bronson movies, for which he paid by making all the uninteresting ones for the rest of his career.

Here he's in tune with the vogue for sleek French twisty thrillers triggered by the novels of Boileau & Narcejac (Vertigo and Diabolique) and Sebastian Japrisot (The Champagne Murders and The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun). In this case, the novelist is Hubert Monteilhet, another of that tribe, and the script is by one of Hollywood's major writers, Julius Epstein (Casablanca). Epstein also adapted the 1958 version of The Brothers Karamazov, and that novel plays a role in this film.

Some might have wondered at the taste of using the Holocaust as a background device for a slick bourgeois thriller, but that's what the best thrillers do: mine society's realities and fears to present funhouse metaphors. In its way, this is a three-person microcosm of betrayal, brutality, exploitation, complicity, narcissism and greed, all the fun stuff that makes life worth dying for. Some of the many careful details don't hold up to scrutiny (how did Thulin hold on to her precious cat-brooch in Dachau?) but make up for it with their hostile poetry. What matters is one's inability to tear one's eyes from the screen. Decades later, I found I recalled it all vividly, and the brew was no less smooth, disturbing and potent.


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