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Forever Amber (DVD Review)

2 Jun, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via Fox Cinema Archive
$19.95 DVD

Not rated.
Stars Linda Darnell, Cornel Wilde, Richard Greene, George Sanders.

I started reading about Otto Preminger’s sumptuously mounted adaptation of Kathleen Winsor’s once scandalous Restoration novel at around age 8 or 10, and the consensus was that it was something of a drag that hadn’t remotely matched the revenue-marked popularity of a book that in the 1940s had been the hottest thing around this side of the Kinsey Reports (and to a great extent probably appealed to the same demographic).

On the second count, there isn’t much doubt, even though this was one of those movies to which 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck attached his own name in the opening credits, something that didn’t happen everyday. It was a costly endeavor from the get-go (IMDb.com claims a then-staggering $6 million) starting with the amount of time it took to get production underway after purchase of the literary rights and the dropping of initially earmarked lead Peggy Cummins (later of the ‘B’ masterpiece Gun Crazy) from the title role. And though the casting wasn’t wall-to-wall with big names, there was a lot of top-of-the-line talent behind the camera to support a 17th-century epic’s 140-minute running time.

Of course, had Hollywood stayed with Winsor’s full 900-plus pages of text, Amber would have had to have been a miniseries before its day — though this was far from the only compromise Fox and Zanuck had to make once the censors had their way with the kind of historical love story for which the term “bodice ripper” or “musical beds” was invented. Still, it’s not exactly obscured here that adopted Amber (Linda Darnell) advances her humble standing (left mysteriously at the door of a pious Puritan adoptive father via someone in a fleeing carriage) by bedding or wedding an array of men all the way up to Brit King Charles II’s court. George Sanders plays King Chuck, so it’s not off-target to expect a sometimes eye-twinkling approach to his manner.

Getting back the personal, I first got really curious to see the picture in the late 1960s after hearing an old 78 record album a friend of mine owned of David Raksin’s Amber score — which by now is possibly one of my 10 favorites of all time but certainly in my top 15 or 20. It is easily in the ballpark with the composer’s respectively before-and-after work on Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful, and all three combined to grace a Raksin tribute LP from a few decades ago much beloved by in-the-knows. On screen over the opening credits, the main theme is conducted by my pick for the greatest studio conductor in screen history — Alfred Newman — and is something of a late 1947 piece with Newman’s own spectacularly rousing music for Fox’s Captain from Castile, which opened the Christmas after Amber’s October bow.

A score is one thing, and an entire movie can be another — yet let it be said that the picture moves extremely well for its length, thanks to some punctuating set pieces involving highwaymen, crone strangulation, gun duels in semi-fog, marauding pestilence and a house (or near-castle) ablaze. And all this is atop scenes of Amber throwing her body at men just enough to get ahead but only saving her soul for one. This last would be a scavenger of sunken ships (though he keeps it clean by giving the king a cut) played by Cornel Wilde — who’s much less of a dippy presence here than he usually was in the ‘40s, though in fairness, he did get to be more interesting in later decades, courtesy of unforgettable toughies The Big Combo and The Naked Prey.

Of course, the production here had long, long fights with Production Code Joseph Breen, whose blue nose during this time continues to appall when you stop to think of the grown-up life experiences endured by all those who lived through World War II while Joe was trying to preserve a world that didn’t exist. I hope this still notorious figure is happy today watching the works he compromised from his hi-def vantage point in the afterlife — surrounded by mambas, black widows, the moray eel that swallows Lou Gossett’s head at the end of The Deep and piranhas deep down in the “Big H.”

Fox’s print is merely a serviceable rendering of a Leon Shamroy triumph, and it’s a pity that giving this epic the visual spiff-up it deserves might not result in the kind of payoff that in some cases rewards hefty expenditure. With her dark hair reddened, Darnell has to carry the show almost up to it all the way, though one probably can argue that her performance falls short of the tour-de-force that would have helped the movie even more (something along the lines of, say, Vivien Leigh’s all-timer in Gone With the Wind, which is no bad comparison as storylines go). In any event and like a lot of screen beauties, Darnell was underrated in the acting department, and the box office underperformance of this movie probably hurt her career momentum (that and, alas, alcohol). For those old enough and with any kind of memory, the big fire scene here is on the creepy side because Darnell died horribly of burns in a 1965 house fire — which, by then, severe career slump aside, made front page news, at least in my town. 

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