Friday, March 2, 2007

THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (Warner Bros. 1961) Warner Home Video

Widely panned as a minor work from playwright Tennessee Williams, Jose Quintero’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) is a rather maudlin excursion through the dingy streets of post war Italy. Largely a social critique of youthful desire and aging celebrity, the film stars Vivien Leigh as Karen Stone; a Broadway diva whose star has begun to cool. 

Middle-aged and widowed, Karen leaves the stage and her friends behind in favor of a rather shallow affair with Paolo di Leo (Warren Beatty); a handsome Italian gigolo whose pimp, the Contessa (Lotte Lenya) has threatened to cut off his finances, lest he can procure a lucrative cash flow from Karen for his services of which the Contessa undoubtedly takes her cut.

At first, Karen is not fooled by Paolo or the Contessa. But she does enjoys Paolo’s company even as she understands that he is only being kind to her strictly on a cash basis. These terms Karen willingly accepts. But then she finds herself succumbing to the prospects of imagined love. 

Soon Karen finds herself paying for Paolo’s expensive tastes and growing more attached him, even as he struggles for various ways to exit her life. When Karen discovers that Paolo has been having a very public affair with aspiring actress, Barbara Bingham (Jill St. John), the world of her own romantic fantasies is irreversibly shattered.

The veneer that separates life and art is very thin on this occasion. Vivien Leigh was by this point in her career as forgotten in films as Mrs. Stone. Leigh’s divorce from the love of her life, Laurence Olivier left her insecure and wandering, just like the character she portrays – a verisimilitude not lost on either the film's director or audiences. As Mrs. Stone, Leigh is exceptionally fragile. She paints an unflattering portrait of mid-life crisis with broad, yet strangely tender strokes that evoke our disgust and pity all at once.

Warren Beatty, however, is an entirely different matter. Handsome enough, but without either a firm grasp on his Italian accent or the depth of conflict brewing beneath the surface of his character, Beatty spends a large portion of the film sulking like a petulant child in need of his next sugar fix. He is, on the whole, unconvincing and quite unsympathetic even though his circumstances in the narrative are just as much based upon an entrapment as Mrs. Stone's. 

In the end, the film comes apart at the seams – unable to sustain the central love/hate relationship that is so essential to stir our emotions.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is quite an improvement over the way this film has looked on VHS and television. Colors are quite vibrant, rich and saturated. Flesh tones can appear a tad pasty, but on the whole have been accurately rendered. Contrast levels are nicely balanced; blacks are deep and velvety, whites are relatively clean. 

Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. Digital anomalies are not a problem for an image that is quite smooth and satisfying. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. A brief featurette on the making of the movie is the only extra of merit.

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



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