Judge Bill Treadway manages to avoid making any botanically questionable implications about Sophia Loren's charms in his review of this film version of the Eugene O'Neill drama.
Based on the play by Eugene O'Neill.
Religious zealot and tyrant Ephraim Cabot (Burl Ives, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) rules over a piece of prized farm land he received from his late wife. The rightful owner is son Eben (Anthony Perkins, Psycho), a calm, sensitive soul whom Ephraim browbeats endlessly. Eben's claim on the land is taken from him after Ephraim takes a new bride, Anna (Sophia Loren, Houseboat). Anna has plans of her own regarding the land and butts heads with the angry Eben. Little do the two realize that from hatred can spring love…one that is forbidden, with consequences of its own.
So begins Desire Under the Elms, a film that is maddening yet interesting. The interesting aspects of the film remain the earth-shattering performances, gorgeous photography, and haunting Elmer Bernstein score. The maddening aspects consist of the pacing and flaws in the thin story.
The film is based on a play by Eugene O'Neill, whose best-known works are Long Day's Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. O'Neill remains one of the greatest authors of tragedy in American theater, often using single locations and leisurely pacing over a mammoth running time to get deep within the characters he creates in his dark material. On the basis of this film, I have a suspicion that Desire Under the Elms must not have been one of his major works. At 111 minutes, this is awfully brief for an O'Neill adaptation. Previous film adaptations of O'Neill works run anywhere from three hours (Mourning Becomes Electra, Long Day's Journey into Night) to four and a half hours (The Iceman Cometh) in length. Then again, those films used O'Neill's text, while this film was scripted by Irwin Shaw. The structure is rather sloppy, with a painfully slow beginning followed by a quickly paced middle, capped by a confusing, muddled ending that doesn't make clear what exactly happens. I have seen the film three times, and I still can't make heads or tails of it.
Yet there are good things about it. Despite the uneven pacing, Desire Under the Elms is an absorbing piece of cinema. I remained interested in what was going to happen next, even while shaking my head in disbelief during the routine self-destruction of the third act (which I will not reveal since it would involve revealing a major series of spoilers). A great deal of that success lies in the solid lead performances. Anthony Perkins is superb as Eben, the sensitive soul trapped within a sham of a life. Perkins brings not only his trademark nervousness to the role but also strength and gumption. His performance is sincere and convincing, managing to win the viewer over in spite of the problematic material. Many critics claim that Sophia Loren was miscast as Anna, but I cannot think of more perfect casting; her earthiness and strength foreshadow her Oscar-winning work in Two Women, and her great beauty is well showcased along with her fine acting in a most difficult role. Perkins and Loren also have excellent chemistry, making the romance completely believable and full of life. Best of all is Burl Ives, who is brilliant as the tyrannical Ephraim. Ives was known primarily as a singer but made the leap into acting in 1946 in Smoky. Unlike many singers who attempt to become actors, Ives had a genuine acting talent and a radar for finding superb material to work with. Desire Under the Elms was his fourth standout performance in 1958, following great work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Wind Across the Everglades, and The Big Country, the latter of which earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor. Looking at those four performances, note how different each one is and how well Ives does with each one. In Desire, he takes the clichéd role of the vile father and adds real human qualities to it. This isn't a one-dimensional riff but rather a fully fleshed-out characterization that manages to provoke anger, sadness, and even sympathy in the viewer.
The moody black-and-white cinematography is by Daniel L. Fapp, a first-rate cinematographer whose credits include West Side Story, The Great Escape, and Billy Wilder's underrated One! Two! Three!. Fapp's work remains among the finest black-and-white photography ever done for a major studio. There is something about the unique textures of black and white that suits O'Neill's material. Those textures are beautifully realized by Fapp in work that earned him an Oscar nomination. Pay close attention to his lighting choices; every choice helps bring out an extra dimension to the story that the printed page alone cannot evoke. Shadow contrast is also well used in this film.
The score is by Elmer Bernstein, and I cannot think of a more perfect score for this film. It is haunting and moody, with Bernstein using the pipe organ to particularly great effect. I have always been a firm believer that music should enhance a scene without giving away the content and feeling at the same time. Bernstein keeps that in mind and delivers a score that helps bolster the film without giving away any crucial secrets.
Desire Under the Elms was shot in VistaVision, a widescreen format developed by Paramount to counter the then red hot CinemaScope format. There were two primary advantages to this new homegrown widescreen format. First, CinemaScope was not without problems, particularly regarding depth of field, leaving the image vulnerable to distortion. Second and more important, Paramount wouldn't have to pay a steep rental fee to rival studio Twentieth Century Fox in order to use CinemaScope. Instead, they could rent out VistaVision lenses to other studios, therefore creating healthy competition. Paramount would continue to use VistaVision until 1961 (Marlon Brando's One Eyed Jacks was the final film shot in the format), when they switched to the new Panavision widescreen format.
Paramount presents Desire Under the Elms in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. VistaVision was unique in that the film was shot and projected horizontally instead of in the traditional vertical method. This allowed for a smoother projection, resulting in a crisper, cleaner image. The transfer accurately recreates the VistaVision experience. Except for a few scratches and specks here and there, the image is clean and crisp. The luscious deep focus photography is beautifully recreated. Blacks are dark and brooding; whites are chalky and luminous. This is the best way to see Desire Under the Elms if you cannot see it on film.
Audio is presented in a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix. Unfortunately, the audio isn't nearly as impressive as the video transfer. It doesn't have the sweeping majesty a film score from the fifties should. The tone is awfully muted, and dialogue is sometimes difficult to comprehend. Don't get me wrong; this isn't a terrible mix. But it should be much better than this.
Desire Under the Elms is the latest entry in Paramount's series of budget-priced catalog discs, which means one thing: barebones city. Not even the original theatrical trailer is included. I would have liked an essay or featurette drawing comparisons and noting contrasts between the original O'Neill play and the film adaptation, especially since this is one of the few O'Neill works that I have never read or seen performed on stage.
I have doubts about whether a purchase of Desire Under the Elms is the right idea. It is the kind of film that one can easily watch and admire but will not be compelled to revisit multiple times in the future. It does make a nice rental for a dreary Saturday afternoon. The acting, photography, and score almost make you forget the film's shortcomings, until the final shot, when your negative feelings arise once more.
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