Wednesday, January 17, 2007

THE SANDPIPER (MGM 1965) Warner Home Video

Heavily criticized upon its release, Vincente Minnelli’s The Sandpiper (1965) is a fairly turgid love story whose main attraction is the pairing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Perhaps no other couple in the history of films is as renown or as infamous as Burton and Taylor - more for their stormy off screen relationship than their movies. 

The screenplay by Irene and Louis Kamp, Michael Wilson and Dalton Trumbo treads familiar territory in a woefully familiar way, and mirrors the real life Taylor/Burton romance in many ways. Wayward husband, dutiful wife, free spirited vixen. The fictional story doesn't cleverly complicated so much as it simply throws a bunch of movie cliches into the mix, hoping one or all of them will stick. None do and what we're left with is a sort of travelogue through California's breathtaking Big Sur, sumptuously photographed by Milton R. Krasner.  

Taylor is a beatnik unwed mother, Laura Reynolds who lives with her young son, Danny (Morgan Mason) amidst this craggy splendor and supports herself and her child as an artist. Laura believes that her son’s interests will be best served by a life removed from the rigid structure of modern society. Danny isn't home schooled so much as he is allowed to explore the world around him at his own pace and level of learning by doing. Unfortunately, the courts do not agree with Laura's unorthodox methods.

Enter Dr. Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton); an Episcopalian cleric who runs a private progressive boy’s school. Hewitt and his wife Claire (Eva Marie Saint) seem to have Danny’s best interests at heart. And although Hewitt starts out mildly despising Laura, he softens the blow of having Danny attend his school when he commissions her to paint a series of stained glass windows for the school. Laura accepts the offer and Hewitt begins making regular visits to her cliff side hideaway where a torrid sexual affair begins.

In the passionate mishmash that follows, Hewitt forsakes his calling and his wife for Laura's liberating free love. The pair are  discovered in their infidelities by Ward Hendricks (Robert Webber), Danny's absent father. Ward arrives at Laura’s one afternoon, tries to rape her, then exposes Hewitt’s affair with Laura to Claire and the school's Board of Directors during a dinner party. The bond between husband and wife is shattered. But the affair between Hewitt and Laura ends after her current lover, sculptor Cos Erickson (Charles Bronson) engages in some fisticuffs with the man of the cloth...and wins.

The Sandpiper is not a great film. I'm not even sure it is a good one. Personally, I've never found the on screen chemistry between Burton and Taylor anything to write home about. In this film they seem platonic at best. Minnelli's direction is fairly dull. Lest we forget this is the visual artist who gave us Meet Me In St. Louis and The Bad and The Beautiful, to name but two of his many immortal films. But The Sandpiper lacks virtually any and all of the director's usual flair for pictorial value. Viewing the film today without Minnelli's title credit, one could easily assume the film was shot by just any run of the mill warhorse director instead of one of American movies true artists.  

The screenplay desperately wants to take a frank look at marital infidelity and its fall out, but winds up spinning a melodrama for the audience instead, minus the intrigue and the sex, or even a hint that the couple off screen (playing the couple on screen) are lusting after one another. The Sandpiper's title tune, ‘Shadow of Your Smile’ won the Best Song Oscar. 

Warner Home Video’s transfer is admirable. Colors are subtle but refined. Blacks are black. Whites are clean. Fine details are realized throughout. Very few age related artifacts exist. There are no digital anomalies for an image that is quite smooth and consistently rendered. The audio is stereo and adequate though dialogue does tend to be quite frontal and unnatural sounding at times. There are two short subjects as extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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