Judge Jim Thomas frequently wishes he could put his children at separate tables.
At the Beauregard hotel, the guests share one common trait: loneliness.
Separate Tables originated as a two-act play. The first act focused on one couple, while the second act focused on another. The same actor and actress played the leads in both acts, with the supporting characters unchanged. The play was a hit in London's West End, and its subsequent run in Broadway was equally successful. Movie rights were quickly snapped up, but during the development they realized that using four separate leads would simplify filming tremendously. The result is a touching movie that illustrates the power of simple kindness.
Facts of the Case
The Beauregarde, a hotel on the British shore, is home to an array of people with quiet, solitary lives: Major Pollock (David Niven, Murder by Death, nosy Mrs. Railton-Bell and her high-strung daughter Sybil (Deborah Kerr, The King and I), And John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster, Judgment at Nuremberg), a down on his luck American novelist. The hotel is run by Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller, A Man for All Seasons), who is secretly engaged to Malcolm. They while away their days in quiet seclusion, occasionally speaking to one another, but at meals they always retreat to the safety of their separate tables.
Two events threaten to destroy their placid existences: certain indiscretions of Major Pollock come to light, and Malcolm's ex-wife, Ann (Rita Hayworth, Gilda), arrives.
Separate Tables is the sort of movie that could easily descend into the worst of turgid melodrama; fortunately, a remarkably restrained cast avoids that pitfall…for the most part. The end result is a movie that might come across as quaint in our more jaded era; nevertheless, the honesty and charm of Niven and Kerr's characters are surprisingly affecting, as is the heartbreak Hiller conveys as Pat watches the drama play out between Malcom and Ann. The film was nominated for several Oscars, with wins for David Niven as Best Actor and Wendy Hiller for Best Supporting Actress.
Trivia: At 16 minutes, David Niven's performance is the briefest to ever win the Oscar for Best Actor.
The 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded picture is in some respects excellent; details are sharp (in some cases too sharp, as the white shoe polish used to give David Niven graying temples is really obvious), black levels are consistent, and there is little if any flickering. In that respect, the transfer benefits from the movie being shot entirely on a soundstage. On the down side, noticeable film damage remains, particularly in the opening scenes. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is as clear as you might imagine. This is a dialogue-heavy movie, and there is no trouble understanding anyone.
The primary extra is a commentary track by director Delbert Mann, recorded for the film's 2001 DVD release. It's an engaging track, covering his career as well as details small and large about the film. He notes that Lancaster—who was also one of the film's producers—recut the film without Mann's knowledge, dramatically reducing Deborah Kerr's screen time (Mann contends that Lancaster cost Kerr an Oscar), expanding his own screen time, changing music cues, and adding an opening song to the movie. Mann speaks of it without rancor, but he does note that at the time he was incredibly upset, to the point that he didn't even attend the film's premiere. You can't hear the commentary without wondering about the possibility of a director's cut. Sadly, Mann passed away in 2007, so that idea is a non-starter, short of a print of the original cut turning up. All in all, it's low-key, but surprisingly entertaining and informative.
Trivia: Rod Taylor (The Time Machine) was already an established star by this time, but he so liked the play and was so impressed with the production that he accepted what is little more than an extended cameo.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Earlier I noted that the movie generally avoided melodrama, but he Lancaster-Hayworth part of the plot does get a little out of control, in large part because Lancaster was genetically incapable of doing restrained. Fortunately, the plots are woven together, along with additional subplots, so deftly that the American's histrionics don't disrupt the tone or rhythm of the movie.
Separate Tables is a low-key drama about the little things that separate people, and the simple things that bring them together. I enjoyed it far more than I expected, in large part due to the strong performances from the British members of the cast.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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