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Viva Maria! (Blu-ray Review)

24 Nov, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Star Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau, George Hamilton.

I had never seen anything quite like Louis Malle’s revolutionary romp when I drove from one end of a city to the other in 1965 to see it twice in a five-day period, which was the Midwest run one could just about expect from a movie whose director and lead actresses were French, not withstanding that the latter were probably the most top-drawer babes France’s cinema had to offer at the time. I still haven’t seen many big-screen goofs quite like it, though the  clerical despots here are right out of Bunuel — perhaps no surprise, given that Maria! producer Oscar Dancigers worked with Bunuel several times, including on two of my all-time favorites: Los Olvidados and El. It’s tougher going when one tries to reconcile anything here with the zig-zaggish career of third-billed George Hamilton — preserved here from a time when he had already played Moss Hart and Hank Williams on screen but not yet Evel Knievel, Dracula or Zorro. (What have you done lately?)

A prime “it is what it is” comedy that just misses wearing out its welcome until expectedly lurching into fourth gear during the final half-hour, this one’s about a pair of anarchist Marias who earn their living on stage while traveling from town to town via covered wagon transport not far removed from what the characters experience in Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach. One Maria is blonde, so that’s the role for Brigitte Bardot — cast as one raised by an Irish father and political activist who likes to lob explosive devices (a talent picked up by his now grown-and-then-some little girl). The brunette Maria (Jeanne Moreau) already has the act but no longer a professional partner-in-pulchritude because the woman with whom she’s been performing has killed herself for love just before these two M’s meet. Once she washes the grime off her face, blonde Maria is a quick study, and the act takes little time becoming a pick-to-click. Along the way, the two invent, or at least refine, the striptease following a wardrobe malfunction on stage, and the male audience reciprocates by shedding its own duds. Well, the ladies do put you in the mood.

In casting that would still have been unlikely at any time in his career, Hamilton plays a revolutionary fighting against a corrupt “Don Rodriguez,” which would probably be like combating a John Smith in the United States. In terms of the actor’s big-screen career (that is, not counting TV), Maria! was sandwiched between the Hank Williams biopic (Your Cheatin’ Heart) for producer Sam Katzman and the Sandra Dee exercise Doctor! You’ve Got to Be Kidding. Right around the same art-for-art’s-sake time, Katzman was also notorious for producing two of the Elvis Presley follies that, for a while, did the most to dethrone The King from serious consideration on any level: Kissin’ Cousins and Harum Scarum. Thus, you have to wonder what Hamilton had to be thinking of his work milieu when he finally found himself on sweaty location with director Malle, who was himself coming off something totally alien to Maria! (Maurice Ronet drinking himself to death in The Fire Within). Malle had worked with both Bardot and Malle in the past — respectively, A Very Private Affair and Moreau’s Elevator to the Gallows/The Lovers duo — none of which prepare any viewer for some of the climactic farce we get from a filmmaker not really known for a raucous sense of humor (avoid 1984’s Crackers at all costs, even if you’re intrigued by the concept of Malle working with Prof. Irwin Corey).

Sight gags abound involving everything from bombs to horse statues to firearms that shoot around corners to, finally, a delightfully surreal bit whose semi-equivalent I can only recall from, of all things, Re-Animator. I’m not certain how good all of this really is, but it plays really well if you’re in the mood, and the Kino Blu-ray colors are vibrant after a few instances of scratches and wear in the early going (not at the very beginning but shortly thereafter). Malle wouldn’t hit full stride until the ’70s and early ’80s with significantly better films, but simply in terms of pure star-power showmanship, this one’s right up there in terms of his full career.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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