Appellate Judge James A. Stewart likes stunt casting; he's rooting for Martin Clunes to become the Twelfth Doctor.
"In her world, Phaedra was queen, but one day…"
Phaedra opens with—is that a scream offscreen? It could be that I'm just imagining that because Anthony Perkins is one of the stars in Jules Dassin's story of ill-fated romance, released just two years after Psycho. Melina Mercouri, Dassin's real-life wife, plays one of the other corners of a triangle, which leads to everyone being cornered in Greece, a beautiful place for an ugly ending.
Facts of the Case
Phaedra (Melina Mercouri, Never on Sunday) may have a rich husband who names ships after her, but he's not around much—and even copters off on business during a party in her honor (or at least in honor of the ship he named for her). Soon he's sending her off on personal business in London. It seems Phaedra's stepson Alexis (Anthony Perkins) has fallen in with—gasp—artists; his father wants him brought back to Greece to become part of the family business. Somewhere along the way, Phaedra falls for Alexis, and they make love. This could be problematic when Alexis turns up in Greece.
Casting Anthony Perkins essentially made this movie. That's not to say that Jules Dassin's direction is flawed in any way or that any of the performances falter, but there's a certain extra level of foreboding for anyone who's seen Perkins as Norman Bates. His Alexis starts out with a polite naivete, with an occasional hint of something nasty underneath turning up as the movie progresses. Dassin throws in a few obvious things—like the eerie way the lights flicker as Alexis tries to make a plane reservation on the phone or the way he practically makes love to his "girl," an Aston Martin car he can't afford—to make sure audiences get nice and nervous. The odd thing is that once I realized this was pretty much a red herring, everyone else in the movie suddenly had that sinister quality about them, especially Melina Mercouri as the jilted adulteress. At one point, her face just said "murder." As things get tense in Greece, Alexis and Phaedra play head games with each other, even as Dassin's playing head games with us, and you'll be sure something bad is going to happen, gluing you to the screen.
Mercouri mostly looks miserable, though, as she's sitting alone at her party after her husband's departure or throwing an expensive ring from her husband in the Thames. In the latter scene, she's joking about it, but her unhappiness in marriage comes through. Her performance hits home the message that her husband's fond of showiness—naming a ship after her or tossing flowers to her from his helicopter (a thorn could really hurt that way)—but not actually very loving. Points to Dassin for his bravery in casting his wife this way.
This was filmed in 1962, so the actual lovemaking scene is…a little weird. It starts with Phaedra kissing Alexis in front of the fireplace, and then things get blurry, literally. The justification is that Phaedra cries as she makes love. You'll see glimpses of writhing naked bodies, but the picture gets intentionally fuzzy enough that it's mostly in your imagination, like much of the rest of the movie.
It's a limited run, so don't expect any remastering, but except for the blurry bits, Phaedra's black-and-white picture looks good, as does the Greek scenery. Mikis Theodorakis' score, with Grecian hints, comes across well, too.
The only extra is a trailer which avoids the ickiness of the movie's stepmother theme.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Because of the way Jules Dassin uses memories of a certain other Anthony Perkins movie, Phaedra might not mean much to anyone who hasn't seen Psycho. Perkins' performance is understated enough that someone who came on this movie and didn't recognize him might just think Alexis was just an annoying goof, albeit one who could inherit millions. I have to admit that, although the ending took me by surprise, it was still kind of predictable and probably would have been completely predictable without the distraction of Perkins.
As with other films in the "MGM Limited Edition Collection," you'll want more extras or, at the very least, a sharper-looking back cover for your shelf. It's a made-to-order disc, so make sure your player doesn't have trouble with these.
In the end, Phaedra is a movie that's more in your imagination than on the screen. If you've seen Anthony Perkins in Psycho, though, you'll enjoy the way Jules Dassin plays with his scary screen image.
Not guilty, if you're a Hitchcock fan with a weird sense of humor.
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