Fedora (Blu-ray Review)27 Oct, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars William Holden, Marthe Keller, Hildegarde Knef, Jose Ferrer.
Just before Irma La Douce was about to become the biggest box office hit of his career during the summer of 1963, Billy Wilder gave a Playboy interview in which he said he would be doing serious dramas again — a question that had arisen because he hadn’t done one since Ace in the Hole unless one counted The Spirit of St. Louis (which I love, but it’s no serious drama) or the Agatha Christie shenanigans of Witness for the Prosecution. But as it turned out, the only true-blue one to materialize for the remainder of his career was with Wilder’s troubled penultimate project, which has enough qualified admirers to make its Blu-ray release something of a minor event for moviegoers who hit major league pitching when it comes to historical knowledge or perspective.
This said, the result itself isn’t exactly major league itself and feels more than a little compromised, given that Wilder no longer had major-studio deep pockets at his disposal despite the involvement of some big-time past colleagues (Miklos Rozsa for scoring, Alexandre Trauner for production design). But if you love the movies enough to regard Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard as the greatest screen achievement about the movies (which it is), it’s hard not to be grabbed at least a little by seeing three-movie Wilder veteran William Holden (just off Network) play a filmmaker facing some of the same problems his own writer-director was facing during production as an old man in a young man’s business (at this point, not many women were yet directing).
Fedora’s source was a novella by onetime actor and Otto Preminger punching-board Thomas Tryon, whose huge best-seller The Other had been previously turned into a flop screen adaptation by Robert Mulligan (Twilight Time brought it out on Blu-ray a while back). As in Sunset Boulevard, a reclusive old-time movie queen is involved — weird and eccentric but not as all-out batty as Boulevard’s Norma Desmond. Though the picture gives the dominant plot twist away at roughly the halfway point, a lot of it is ripe for spoilers — and given that not too many people (relatively speaking) have even seen Fedora, let’s tread lightly here. Matter of fact, I caught the movie at its New York City premiere engagement downtown at the Quad — which guaranteed that not a whole lot of people saw it because I’ve been in White Castles that weren’t a whole lot smaller.
Fedora came off as almost risibly old-fashioned at the time, but at its best (and this is the only one of Wilder’s final three films I like it all), it’s definitely in a classical tradition — which is one reason some people stick up for it. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it, among other things, “a little bit mad,” and that’s the description I like the best. The cruel truth, however, is that co-lead Marthe Keller couldn’t project mental instability herself — or much of anything else in a movie for which Wilder dreamt of landing Marlene Dietrich. (Yes, there’s an age difference there, but this is part of what the story concerns.)
With his onetime real-life handsomeness long ground down by alcohol, Holden is good in his first Wilder outing since 1954’s Sabrina, and I like the conceit of having Michael York play not just himself — but one who drives his co-star to a lovesick nervous breakdown. There’s even Henry Fonda as “the president of the Academy” — whose real identity turns out to be … well, Henry Fonda (more madness). If it all feels quaint, the movie was definitely ahead of its time in anticipating the more-prevalent-than-ever practice of actresses turning to quacks and plastic surgery to regain their youthful appearances but instead ending up (though Garbo-like Fedora at least avoids this kind of tabloid treatment) as part of a National Enquirer cover story about “Hollywood’s Most Botched Cosmetic Surgeries.”
Olive’s transfer appears similar to, and possibly even replicates, the foreign region Blu-ray for which I previously shelled out — only to discover that it had the same kind of un-removable subtitles that generates a lot of nasty chat-room vitriol about France, the only country that engages in such home-market nonsense. (Jerry Lewis is relatively easy to defend — but not this.) Cinematographer Gerry Fisher gave Fedora a soft look in the first place, possibly because actress-appearance is such a key factor in the story; a fairly recent restoration makes it look pretty well as it did in theaters. We’re a long way from the razor-sharp noir look that John Seitz gave Wilder’s early black-and-white Paramounts, but what we get here kind of does serve the picture because (Sunset Boulevard aside — and not even that after a point) the whole package has a different feel from that of any other Wilder movie. Thus, it’s a major curio.