Our reviews of Six Moral Tales By Eric Rohmer: Criterion Collection (published August 21st, 2006) and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romance (published March 24th, 2010) are also available.
"I want to protect you from these sordid matters I have to deal with."
Allied Artists, an independent production company that had developed out of Monogram Pictures, which had specialized in B pictures during the 1930s and 1940s, was attempting to compete with the major studios by the mid 1950s. A boost to Allied Artists' aspirations came when three of the major directors of the time (William Wyler, John Huston, and Billy Wilder) agreed to individual deals with the company. Wilder decided that his Allied Artists film would be based on a Claude Anet novel ("Ariane") that had previously been filmed in 1926. The original story was set in czarist Russia and concerned a young cellist in love with an older Frenchman, but for the new film version, the setting was changed to modern-day Paris. The completed $2.1 million romantic comedy was released in 1957 as Love in the Afternoon and opened to very good reviews, although box office returns were modest at best.
Warner Brothers, which owns the home video rights to all Monogram and Allied Artists product, has now released Love in the Afternoon on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Claude Chevasse, a Paris private detective, captures millionaire American playboy Frank Flannagan on film making love to the wife of his client Monsieur X. When he sees the pictures that Chevasse has taken, Monsieur X decides to take a gun and confront Flannagan and his wife. Meanwhile, Chevasse's daughter Ariane, a young cellist who has long been intrigued by Flannagan since she has secretly read all her father's case files (many of which deal with Flannagan's past escapades), decides to warn Flannagan and goes to his hotel room at the Ritz-Paris. When Monsieur X breaks into Flannagan's room, he finds not his wife but Ariane in Flannagan's embrace and has to leave in confusion.
Flannagan finds himself becoming interested in the young Ariane, who refuses to tell him her name or anything about herself. Ariane too finds herself attracted to Flannagan and agrees to meet him the following afternoon. A succession of meetings follow, but Ariane's father begins to be suspicious of her comings and goings. When an accidental meeting between Flannagan and Monsieur X at a Turkish bath sends Flannagan to detective Chevasse with a request that Chevasse investigate the mysterious girl, events quickly move to a climax.
With Billy Wilder at the helm, a fine cast including Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, and Maurice Chevalier, and a pleasing musical score by Franz Waxman, Love in the Afternoon could have been a slam-dunk. Indeed, for many people it was and is, but my own opinion is that too many people allow the film's merits to overcome two very significant detriments—its length and the presence of Gary Cooper. At 130 minutes, the film is at least a half-hour too long for its slight story. Perhaps that could have been overcome if the Frank Flannagan character had been played by Wilder's first choice—Cary Grant. Grant wasn't interested, however, and Wilder then considered the idea of casting Yul Brynner (with the idea of Flannagan being more of an international playboy than American). Once Wilder settled on the idea of Flannagan being a wealthy industrialist with an eye for the ladies, however, he turned to Gary Cooper to play the role. Even though he was only in his mid-50s at the time, Cooper looked too old for the part, nor did he convey anything that would have made him a plausible playboy-type attractive to women. The Flannagan role is of the kind that Cooper could had played successfully 25 to 35 years before—witness his efforts in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933) and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), but now his spare, weather-beaten figure identified him too much with a man of the west and the attempted garrulousness that went over all right in his youth now just made him look silly and out of place. Put him beside a wide-eyed and animated 28-year old Audrey Hepburn, who looked barely 20, and the disparity in years and vitality is just too much to accept, even if the story is about an autumn-spring romance.
That aside, one must recognize Love in the Afternoon's good points. Billy Wilder certainly tried hard on the film. His script (the first of several collaborations with I.A.L. Diamond) is a witty affair and the whole spirit of the film is very much in the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch. The presence of Chevalier and Cooper are physical connections to Lubitsch's films and the recurring appearance of the gypsy musicians (who provide a musical background to all of Flannagan's romantic episodes) is very reminiscent of the Lubitsch touch. The overall production is a classy-looking affair, reflecting both the costly sets that were built in France for the film and the extensive use of extras. For example, a full-scale, working replica of the second floor of the Ritz hotel was constructed and almost 1000 extras were employed for the "Tristan and Isolde" opera sequence.
Among the cast, Audrey Hepburn is fine as Ariane, but most effective are Maurice Chevalier and John McGiver. Chevalier has a good, juicy part as Chevasse, even if it doesn't give him an opportunity to flirt with any ladies as he used to do so delightfully in his earlier films. McGiver is a hoot as Monsieur X—so sure that he is going to catch his wife with another man and then totally flummoxed when he doesn't.
Warner Brothers' DVD release of Love in the Afternoon is a workmanlike effort at best. The black and white film is given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, but there is no Citizen Kane- or Now Voyager-like restoration here. The effort is quite watchable, but it's certainly not among the best transfers of pre-1960 black and white films. Although some segments are quite sharp, displaying deep black levels and good shadow detail, there is often a suggestion of softness to the image and it is regularly visited by speckles and nicks.
The disc offers a Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono sound track that provides a satisfactory audio experience. Dialogue is clear and free of age-related hiss and distortion issues. Franz Waxman's fine score and the recurring "Fascination" music are adequately conveyed. The disc includes subtitling in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The DVD's only supplements are the original theatrical trailer and incomplete cast and director filmographies.
I know Love in the Afternoon is an Audrey Hepburn film, and I know it has a witty script and able direction by Billy Wilder, but I'm afraid I can't go along with many who rate the film quite highly. It's clearly too long for its slight story and it has a fatal flaw in the casting of Gary Cooper as a suave, older man with an eye for the ladies. Warner Brothers makes no particularly strong case for the film either, with only a workmanlike DVD release.
The best I can do is suggest a rental on this one. Audrey Hepburn completists may feel more inclined to a purchase. This court is adjourned.
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