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Fedora (Masters Of Cinema)

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    C.D. Workman
    Senior Member

  • Fedora (Masters Of Cinema)



    Released by: Eureka/Masters of Cinema
    Released on: September 26, 2016
    Director: Billy Wilder
    Cast: William Holden, Marthe Keller, Hildegard Knef, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Stephen Collins, Arlene Francis
    Year: 1978

    The Movie:

    After the suicide of a former superstar who appeared to be much younger than her age suggested, has-been Hollywood producer Barry “Dutch” Detweiler recalls a troublesome series of encounters he had with the reclusive woman two weeks before on the Greek island of Corfu. Dutch had gone to the island to convince Fedora to star in a new film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel Anna Karenina. Instead, he finds her being held prisoner by the enigmatic Countess Sobryanski, her dutiful servant, and a chauffeur. Fedora manages to escape the group's clutches and meets up with Dutch. She tells him that the aging countess is after her money and won't let her go until she gets it. She also reveals that Dr. Vando has kept her young by giving her dubious medical treatments. Shortly after her revelation, she is apprehended but manages to escape again, this time killing herself by leaping in front of a train. At her funeral, Dutch confronts Countess Sobryanski, only to learn the terrible and melancholy truth about the beautiful and mysterious Fedora.

    Fedora is based on a novella by former actor Thomas Tryon. Tryon began his career on Broadway starring alongside such theatre greats as Jack Cassidy and Sheila Bond before making the jump to television. In the late 1950s, he rose to fame playing Texas John Slaughter for Walt Disney Presents on ABC. Around the same time, he also began to make a name for himself in the movies, starring in such memorable science fiction fare as I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Moon Pilot. After being passed up for the role of Sam Loomis in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, he landed the role of an Irish priest rising through the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy in The Cardinal. The film was directed by Otto Preminger, and Tryon later credited his abuse at the hands of Preminger as the reason he had decided to leave acting altogether. His change in careers was fortuitous for horror fans, however; it had the startling effect of helping to revitalize horror literature.

    In 1972, Tryon's first novel, The Other, was published. It became an international bestseller and is often credited, alongside Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and William Friedkin's The Exorcist, as introducing modernity to literary horror. Two more novels followed, Harvest Home and Lady, both of which were likewise bestsellers, before Tryon turned his attention to a collection of four novellas, which he titled Crowned Heads. Each story focused on a member of Hollywood royalty. The first, “Fedora,” dealt with a Greta Garbo-like émigré who finds success during Hollywood's silent heyday, which she parlays into success in the talkie era. Eventually she retires, only to return to the business some years later looking no older than she did the day she left. After several notable hits and a failure or two, she again retires. A journalist vacationing in Greece learns that she's staying on a nearby island and goes in search of her, only to learn the disturbing truth about her youthful good looks.

    It's easy to see why filmmaker Billy Wilder was attracted to Tryon's story. Wilder had long been a major player in the film industry, and he no doubt recognized Tryon's tale for what it was: a subtle satirical take down of Hollywood's obsession with fame and youth culture. The theme was one Wilder had dealt with before, and in his most critically admired picture, Sunset Boulevard. He approached Universal, whose interest in the project was piqued, but upon completion of the script, the studio turned it down. Wilder found backing from studios in West Germany and France, and the film went into production on location in Europe, though without Greta Garbo, whom Wilder had sought for the role of the countess. Garbo allegedly hated Tryon's story as well as Wilder's treatment of it, perhaps because it hit a little too close to home.

    Unfortunately, the film failed to make a splash at the box office and slipped quietly into obscurity. It signaled the end of Wilder's long and distinguished career, which had included such box office and critical smashes as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, among many others. Yet, the film's lack of financial success in no way diminishes its status as a work of art from a major talent. Despite accusations that it represents little more than Wilder attempting to emulate the success of Sunset Boulevard, the two films really aren't that much alike. Sure, they both deal with an aging screen star, and both star William Holden, but that's where the similarities end.

    Fedora is something of a masterstroke. It bears the mark of its director, beginning with its experimental structure. The first half is a flashback; the second half is comprised of multiple flashbacks, all of them orchestrated to reveal Fedora's dark secret one small piece at a time. The revelation works, thanks to Wilder's screenwriting and direction and the film's earnest performances. Holden is excellent as Dutch, a film producer desperate to jump start a fading career, while Hildegard Knef is superb as Sobryanski, a wheelchair-bound countess who may be more than what she appears. Knef got her start in European films before the fall of the Third Reich, but her refusal to Americanize her name prevented her from being given a Hollywood contract. She went on to star in Hammer's The Lost Continent, among other British, French, and German films, and remained popular in her native country until her death in 2002; she was given her role in Fedora in part because of the film's German backers. José Ferrar brings wit and charm to his role as the notorious and drunken Dr. Vando, while Frances Sternhagen is believable as the sinister Miss Balfour. Unfortunately, Marthe Keller in the dual roles of Fedora and Antonia is woefully miscast. She bears some resemblance to Raquel Welch but somehow manages to be even more wooden; to add insult to injury, she's dubbed by another actress (at least in the English- and German-language prints). Adding to the film's verisimilitude are cameos from Michael York and Henry Fonda, who play themselves.

    Fedora may be kept from greatness by Keller's performance, but it's a surprisingly taut, moving film nonetheless, one that reflects its director's obsession with moviemaking. As such, it provides a glorious and appropriate cap to a stellar career.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Fedora hits Blu-ray in Great Britain thanks to Eureka's Masters of Cinema line with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio and comes from the same 2K transfer used for Olive's Region 1 North American release from two years ago. That said, this is the superior release of the two, the reasons of which we will enumerate shortly. As for the visual quality, the transfer is superlative, offering a consistently sharp, beautiful, and colorful image. The film has been placed on a BD50 (this is, after all, a fairly lengthy film, clocking in at just under two hours), which allows for more space and less compression; as a result, there is absolutely no artifacting, and what appeared sharp on Olive's release remains so or is slightly sharper here, from the many-colored flowers and other vegetation to the rocky detritus of Corfu's sublime landscape, from the rippling ocean waves to the features of individual actors' faces. Depth and shadow detail are excellent, with no loss of detail in the darker areas of the frame, and grain is entirely organic without ever being obtrusive. The image has been cleaned of dirt and debris without noticeable and distracting DNR or edge-enhancement tools in effect. As with the previous U.S. release, a couple of scenes appear mildly softer than the rest, but this has everything to do with director Wilder's photographic choices and nothing to do with the transfer itself.

    Eureka has opted for a lossless LPCM 2.0 audio track that faithfully replicates the film's theatrical sound without artificially separating out individual dialogue and aural effects. Miklos Rozsa's original, low-key score is sharper than ever, though it remains secondary to the dialogue (with which it never interferes). And unlike Olive's release, Eureka's does contain optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.

    And finally, while the feature-length documentary that graced the French Blu-ray release is still missing in action, Eureka has seen fit to add a couple of notable extras, including an accompanying booklet with new essays from film historians David Cairns and Neil Sinyard, among others. Best of all, however, are a number of deleted scenes, which run in total just shy of 13 minutes. The scenes would have done little to perfect the film, merely to prolong it unnecessarily, though it's cool to have them preserved. The image looks generally pleasing, if slightly grainer than the actual film. Detail levels are strong, however, and colors are mostly good (though they appear faded in a few of the snipped sequences). Rounding out the extras is a four-minute restoration demo showing before-and-after scenes that detail how much work was put into restoring the film to its proper and much-deserved glory. What the demo reveals is not only how much sharper the film is now but also how much brighter and more colorful.

    The Final Word:

    Billy Wilder's penultimate film is a high note, even if it may not have seemed like it at the time. The film is terrific, with great performances (Keller aside), a smart script from Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and a wonderfully beautiful and understated score from Rozsa. It comes close to perfection and is worthy of a much larger audience than it has so far found. Eureka's Blu-ray is now the superior English-language release, thanks to a couple of smart choices, including the placement of the film on a BD50, a better audio track, and the addition of deleted scenes.

    Note: Eureka's release is a dual-format edition featuring both the Blu-ray and the DVD. The DVD was not provided for review and is not discussed here.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the Silent Era: Book One (1895-1915) and Book Two (1916-1929) due out later this year.
    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!



















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