AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 26th SEPTEMBER: from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 114 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Fedora, a Hollywood star who has seemingly retained her youthful beauty despite her advancing years, and who has virtually disappeared into reclusion, commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. Among the mourners is aging washed up Hollywood producer Barry “Dutch” Detweiler, with whom she once had a brief affair decades ago in 1947 when he worked as an assistant director on one of her films. Detweiler begins to recall how he had come to Corfu two weeks before to try to get her to star in a new and faithful screen version of Anna Karenina. Sneaking on to the small island where she lived, he discovered that she was living with people who were possibly keeping her a prisoner….
“The legend must go on” says the title character near the end of Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, but by then we’re left wondering at both the cost and the wisdom of keeping legends alive. The sadly neglected Fedora, which I feel is the best film Wilder made in the 70’s after the superb The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, seems to often be classed as an inferior revisiting of his earlier Sunset Boulevard, something helped of course by starring William Holden, whose character in Fedora could almost be the one he played in Sunset Boulevard nearly three decades on. Both films deal with a female movie star trying to deal with the passing of time, but Fedora, directed as it is by a person totally aware that he was in the twilight of his career [something which seems to affect virtually every frame], and suffused with the wisdom of experience, has a more bittersweet feel than the extremely harsh and cynical [though brilliant] Sunset Boulevard. It’s in some ways a bit of a flawed picture – its large employment of flashbacks, especially in the second half, reduces some of the emotional involvement one should get from the story, and some of the plot isn’t believable whatsoever – but the odd combination of mystery thriller, melodrama, and look at stardom and the inability to turn back the clock, beguiled and rather touched me when I first say the film some 25 or so years ago [it was on about 2.00 in the morning and, intrigued by its premise, I stayed up to watch it], and it did just the same watching it last night.
The script by Wilder and his usual collaborator I.A.L. Diamond was based on a novella of the same title from an anthology called Crowned Heads by Tom Tryon, who was inspired by the divorce trial of silent screen star Corinne Griffith in 1965, and also possibly by an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled Queen Of The Nile about a journalist who goes to interview a seemingly ageless silent star. Wilder’s last few pictures hadn’t been very successful, and his usual studio Universal put the project in turnaround. After shopping it to other studios with no success, he managed to proceed with the film due to some capital from German investors. He wanted Faye Dunaway to play Fedora and Marlene Dietrich to play the Countess Sobryanski, but they turned him down, Dietrich hating both story and script. When Marthe Keller came on board, the original idea was to have her play both characters, but facial nerve injuries suffered in a car crash meant that she could not wear the heavy makeup the role of the Countess required, so Hildegard Knef was cast instead. Both actresses were dubbed by Inga Bunsch as they were hard to understand. After almost being released as a TV movie, United Artists agreed to distribute it, but poorly received previews led Wilder to cut 12 minutes and remove some of Miklos Rozsa’s score, and United Artists, unsure of what to do with the movie, sat on it for nearly a year before giving it a very limited release.
Much of the first half of Fedora proceeds as a fascinating, if very slow burning, mystery. We see Fedora throw herself in front of the train in the very first scene, then her huge funeral, so we know that, when we meet Dutch and flash back to him arriving in Corfu two weeks previously, the title character is already dead, but it’s possible to forget that with the strange atmosphere and sense of intrigue that Wilder then builds up. Dutch wants to coax Fedora back to the screen, but something seems to be seriously up with her, or rather the strange people she’s living with; aged Polish Countess Sobryanski, overprotective servant Miss Balfour, chauffeur Kritos, and Dr. Vando, who is seemingly responsible for keeping the one-time star looking so young. They barely let her out of their sight and certainly don’t want others sniffing around. When she temporarily escapes they inject her with drugs, bundle her into a car and drive her back home. What’s going on? I certainly had no idea the first time I saw the movie and it’s all quite gripping in a slightly laid back way. Of course Dutch met Fedora back in 1947 when he had to strategically place water lilies on her naked body in a pool, something shown in an almost dreamlike flashback to the glorious extravagance and tastelessness of old Hollywood. And, while this film is very far from their usual dark comedies, Wilder and Diamond remember to give us some nice touches of humour, usually involving Mario Adorf’s always cheery hotel manager and Jose Ferrer’s heavy drinking Dr. Vando. “Don’t let this ear-ring fool you” says Vando when Dutchy, trying to get him on his side, tells him that he’s crazy about him.
Then, about half way through, Fedora does a very odd thing. We return to the funeral, are told some information which is quite a surprise, then flash back again and again as things are gradually clarified, though these flashbacks are not always in order. There are moments of horror [a botched operation], emotional family drama [Fedora not having time for her later wayward daughter], romance [Michael York playing himself], and a rather beautiful scene, full of, for once in this film, unashamed warmth, photographed just as the sun is beginning to go down in the garden of Fedora’s villa, where Fedora gets an honorary Oscar from no less than Henry Fonda. However, some of what occurs really is hard to swallow, though this is a movie that seems to have at least half a foot in the world of the fantastic anyway [sheep embryos and baboon semen are apparently two of the ingredients that keep people looking young] what with allusions to mad scientist films, The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, and others. I remain not entirely sure that Wilder and Diamond really sorted out how best to tell their story, but on the other hand the way they do so is actually quite innovative. It also becomes a bit hard to be sympathetic towards Fedora herself, who is extremely cruel to her daughter and virtually becomes the villain of the piece, but then I suppose that is the idea and connected to Wilder’s mixed feelings about Hollywood himself. With Dr. Vando too likeably quirky to seem evil, the only totally hateful person turns out to be Miss Balfour, whose fanatical devotion to Fedora hints at a lesbian aspect. It’s a cliched character, but Frances Sternhagen is really formidable in the part despite never once engaging in histrionics.
Partly dealing as it does with the passing of the studio system [whereas Sunset Boulevard looked back at the silent days], Wilder and Diamond can’t help providing a few digs at ‘modern’ [well, as it was in the 1970’s] Hollywood which may rub some viewers up the wrong way. “The kids with beards have taken over” says Dutch at one point. “They don’t need a script, just give them a handheld camera with a zoon lens” [thank God Dutch wasn’t around nowadays]. But then there’s so much to ponder upon in this film and agree with as it takes on ever-important issues like the price of fame, the longing for eternity, our obsession with youth, and the idea that image is everything. And Wilder not only takes a good hard look at the artifice, glamour and cruelty of the Golden Age of Hollywood, something he clearly waxes nostalgic for but understands its negative aspects too, but also, in a sense, himself. Fedora also seems to show a filmmaker taking a good look at his own place in the world of cinema, hoping that the legacy he will leave will be enough [of course he had no fears on that score] despite changing fashions, and coming to terms with his own mortality. It’s probably the most personal film Wilder even made and, partly because of that, also his most moving.
While Holden is fine and Jose Ferrer damn near steals every scene he’s in, Marthe Keller, while she certainly has an air of mystery about her, doesn’t quite possess the magnetism to convincingly play a Hollywood superstar clearly inspired by Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, though she does okay for the most part. Cinematographer Gerry Fisher helps give Fedora a look than is a bit more interesting than your typical later Wilder picture, especially in some of the Corfu scenes which have a hazy, white glow to them. Miklos Rozsa’s score is one of his simpler efforts, built largely around a theme for Fedora which is full of longing and tragedy, but it helps link Fedora to the past with its unashamedly old fashioned approach, despite the obvious lack of music in some key scenes which originally had some scoring. Fedora may have a few clunky aspects but it is a fascinating and really quite philosophical film that deserves to be much more widely seen than it is. And it may not be an all-time classic like Sunset Boulevard, but in some ways it’s more relatable and more pertinent to the times we will live in now. Norma Desmond’s career may have been destroyed by the talkies, but Fedora’s was ruined by her own vanity.
Fedora has had previous Blu-ray releases in Germany where it underwent a restoration, France and the US. I haven’t seen any of these previous releases but I believe that these Blu-rays of the film are based on the same print. The colours in Eureka Entertainment’s release are very strong and the detail in the panoramic shots is just stunning, though some may find some of the outdoor Corfu scenes a bit too grainy. Eureka’s disc sadly lacks a documentary about the film that was on the European discs, but it does retain a very brief restoration comparison and adds the footage that was deleted in 1978. It reveals that what was cut was mainly little pieces of scenes rather than scenes themselves, though you get a bit more of the amusing hotel manager character, a moment where Frances Sternhagen’s character actually utters a smile for once, a much longer hospital escape containing most of Rozsa’s discarded music cue for the scene, and a much longer 1947 flashback with the young Dutch becoming exhausted from rushing around doing loads of jobs, which explains why he yawns at the sight of Fedora’s breasts.
*New high-definition 1080p presentation*
*English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
*A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard, a new essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, a vintage piece on the film’s production, and archival imagery