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Separate Tables (Blu-ray Review)

4 Aug, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Wendy Hiller.

Like the teleplay-to-feature-film Marty, also directed by Delbert Mann early in his career, this moderately unfocused compeller adapted from a pair of Terrence Rattigan’s one-act stage dramas was so overrated when it hit theaters at the end of 1958 that it’s probably underrated today — and possibly even an obscure title to anyone who hasn’t yet reached middle-age. Yet even allowing for actors who possibly lowered their salaries to be part of this ensemble, it’s still something of a surprise to see such a whopper of a cast (all with meaty roles) in the same movie — especially one that, on paper, didn’t have box office written all over it. This said, I know that in my football-dominated Midwest town (in other words, not exactly ripe Rattigan country), Tables got held over for a second week at one of my downtown movie-palace childhood haunting grounds — and without (even at 98 minutes) a second feature to bolster the bill. Good thing, knowing how my local double features used to get booked; the person in charge likely would have billed what was almost art house fare with a Jim Davis Western or something.

Getting a huge shot in the arm from production design by one of my favorites (Harry Horner of supremely evocative The Heiress-The Hustler-They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? fame), the story takes place in a Brit beachside hotel that’s not the equivalent of anyone’s happy hour. The two main stories, never quite smooshed together successfully from their respective Rattigan sources, deal with a mismatched American couple toying with reconciliation long after their divorce — and a plain, mother-dominated type who has taken a liking to a retired major whose past military record and claims of higher education have the aroma of fish to just about everyone in the place. Complicating matters is the fact that the Yank ex-wife (Rita Hayworth) is aging but still a stunner, which is not what the joint’s proprietor (Wendy Hiller) needs to see, given that she and the ex-husband (Burt Lancaster) are secretly engaged.

This is a real actor’s show. As the major, David Niven took the Oscar, as did Hiller in support, and nominated Kerr for the most part pulls off the budding spinster bit — though even here, one senses that if someone could give this poor thing just a few Seventeen magazine makeup tips, she could tell her mother (Gladys Cooper, in need of a James Cagney grapefruit in the puss) where to get off. (Matter of fact, Tables came out almost six years before The Chalk Garden, in which Kerr demonstrates how to turn heads in a tennis outfit). And though there are allusions here to Hayworth’s character (a former model) looking middle-aged loneliness in the eye, she’d still have a lot of teenaged pool boys offering to clean her leaves were she around today. This, however, is a movie in which Hayworth really acts — and though Niven, Kerr and Hiller got the ink and awards at the time, I think word has kind of gotten around over the years just how good Hayworth is here.

The Hayworth-Lancaster part of the story is on the high side of watchable, but the drama really turns on the major, who has gotten involved in a local scandal that may get him booted from the hotel if Cooper has anything to say about it. (And she likes to “say” a lot.) Niven-the-actor gets help from some really splendid makeup here, but this is a completely on point characterization — arguably the performance of his long career aside from maybe Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, where he was at least as much of a perfect presence than actor. I had a college journalism instructor who’d previously been a newspaper film reviewer, and he used to tell me how much exhibitors used to complain about the grosses on most of Niven’s movies. But at the time of this movie, he was in a brief heyday in a career of ups-and-downs — though, even at that, his memoirs sold hugely after a ga-zillion publishers turned them down. Plus, of course, and he had one of the all-time Oscar moments standing as a presenter at the podium when the streaker zoomed by on network television back when the Oscarcasts were fun.

This is a very solid Blu-ray presentation of a handsome drama photographed by Charles Lang for one of his (cough) 18 Oscar nominations. Apparently, the movie was supposed to feature Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, but they dropped out with Lancaster’s casting, which was needed to secure financing for this Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production. (The Hill was James Hill, then married to Hayworth – which recalls Henny Youngman’s remark that he went to Hollywood every year for Hayworth’s wedding). Though Lancaster does rely once or twice on trademark “Burt” hand gestures, his doesn’t seem like inappropriate casting for a character who is originally from the wrong side of the tracks and thus intimidated (or as intimidated as much as Lancaster could ever be) by his ex-wife’s glamour. Speaking of casting, John Schlesinger reunited with Julie Christie in the early ‘80s for a television Tables in which she had the Kerr role. I’d love to see it just on general principles — but also to see how they made the actress look drab, not a word that comes to mind in Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, Darling or Far from the Madding Crowd). 

Director Mann, featured on a recycled vintage commentary (which is good because he’s deceased), won an Oscar first time out for Marty — but his career stalled out fairly fast because he wasn’t one to make something out of nothing, and he eventually did almost exclusively nothings after the still funny Doris-Rock-Tony farce Lover Come Back. At least this picture was a ’58 bounce-back from his wanting-and-then-some take on Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, which tried to convince us that Sophia Loren (in earthy mode) could get really hot and bothered over Tony Perkins (of course, I wouldn’t believe Loren and real-life husband Carlo Ponti, either, if I saw it in a movie. Movie nuts with no historical perspective always get bent out of shape in a how-could-they kind of way that a Separate Tables could get all kinds of critical love when Vertigo and Touch of Evil were being ignored, but those two were largely ignored by the public, and you’ve got to catch the Zeitgeist. Vertigo had to have been Hitchcock’s lowest Paramount grosser after The Trouble With Harry, and I saw Touch of Evil upon release at age 10 under Universal-International’s Kathy-O, which is consistent with the studio treatment it received.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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