BluRay/DVD Reviews

PHAEDRA

By • Jul 5th, 2011 •

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Oh, joy! This was another one of those obscure titles I was living for, hanging on till it came out on DVD. After the success of NEVER ON SUNDAY, Jules Dassin had his pick of projects. He chose this Greek legend as a vehicle for his wife, the deep-throated, masculine, visually aggressive Melina Mercouri. And for her love interest, still hot off his biggest film (PSYCHO -1960), the gangly, feisty, subtly effeminate Anthony Perkins lent the proceedings an odd vibe. What a bizarre, inspired coupling. And the two of them take your breath away in one of the greatest love scenes ever conceived for film. Speaking to Dassin by phone in his Athens home a few decades ago, I referred to it as ‘the tear-drop sequence,’ and he excitedly called out, “Melina. They call it ‘the tear-drop sequence’ in America.” I didn’t hear a response. She was dying by then, of lung cancer, which I didn’t realize at the time, and he was obviously trying to cheer her up. She’d been scheduled to appear at Lincoln Center in a tribute film series, but cancelled at the last minute due to illness.

Strikingly filmed in B&W, the film has the hard, dynamically shot and art-directed look befitting an updated Greek myth. Mercouri is at the center of it, with her heavy make-up and dark, marble-black eyes doing every last mesmerizing thing Dassin intended them to.

Raf Vallone is commanding as her husband, a shipping magnate. Perkins is his son, whose affair with Mercouri brings king and kingdom down.

The passionate score is by Mikis Theodorakis, my favorite composer, an artist who’d been through a lot, losing family and being tortured during the military dictatorship in Greece. I met him at a dress rehearsal for his opera Electra at Carnegie Hall some years ago, and he made no effort to speak in English until I told him I was presenting him with an LP that included part of his great score to THE LOVERS OF TERUEL. Then, suddenly, his grasp of the language returned, and he asked how many minutes from the score were on the album. He hadn’t retained a copy of the score himself. His handlers were beaming with delight at my gift. It was a small thank-you for the many hours of enjoyment his music had given me. PHAEDRA is one of his best, at times absolutely euphoric in effect, but I wish THE LOVERS OF TERUEL would some day make its way to DVD or BluRay, and that the score would be released as well. (I have a story about that film, but I feel guilty about how it went down, so I won’t tell it here.*) I’m also looking forward to the appearance of a Michael Powell film – HONEYMOON – for which Theodorakis composed yet another version of ‘Les Amantes de Teruel.’

The quality of the DVD is good, but less than great. The opening title sequence jiggles, and there is a band of negative damage that appears during it a few times. Afterward, it isn’t as bad, but never quite as good as it could be. I don’t want this to read as a complaint; I think it’s a miracle that the film has finally surfaced on home video, and it’s far better in ‘good’ condition than not at all.

* But I’ll tell it here. Back in the mid-90s, while Managing Editor for ‘The Perfect Vision’ magazine, I arranged an interview with Ludmila Tcherina in Paris. She received me graciously in her fabulous apartment looking out at the Eiffel Tower, and practically begged me to do what I could to see that THE LOVER OF TERUEL, which she controlled, was preserved. She suggested I bring the film to Marty Scorsese’s attention, that maybe he could do something. I published the interview, which mentioned her interest in Scorsese, but didn’t pursue it further than that. Ms. Tcherina supervised a restoration of the negative, but has since died, and I have no idea if the LOVERS negative still even exists. Periodically I feel guilty that I didn’t do more, not only because she asked, but because it has always been one of my favorite films.

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