Friday, January 29, 2016

DOWNTON ABBEY: SEASON 6 - Blu-ray (Masterpiece 2015) NBC/Universal Home Video

We can officially pen the epitaph to one of television’s outstandingly sublime entertainments; Downton Abbey (2010-2015); writer/director, Julian Fellowes’ sumptuous character study of the slowly imploding Edwardian aristocracy as viewed through the occasionally close-knit, though frequently feuding Crawley clan. In hindsight, Gosford Park (2001), director, Robert Altman’s superbly assembled murder mystery – set in the same period and written by Fellowes – seems a dry run for the machinations unfurled in Downton Abbey; Fellowes, composing on a much broader canvas and in true epic TV miniseries style; these compelling vignettes sheathed in the lavish surroundings of Highclere Castle – a 19th century behemoth nestled in the rolling hills; also, the nearby picturesque village of Bampton in Oxfordshire, outwardly untouched by the hand of progress these many decades. Such locations add considerable cache and a timeless regality to the splendor of this generational gathering. For six years, the Crawleys have survived the upheavals of more graceless changing times; some, like patriarchal head of this reigning dynasty, Robert – the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his caustic mama, Violet – the Dowager Countess (played with delicious rigidity by Maggie Smith) and his ever-devoted and staunchly traditionalist butler, Charles Ernest Carson (the impeccable Jim Carter), dragged kicking and screaming into this ‘new world’; while others, particularly, the family’s trio of bright-eyed, determined and highly eligible maidens; ladies Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) have led a valiant charge into the age of modernity.
It has been a long and winding road to say the least, with all manner of intrigues intervening along the way; Fellowes, touching upon the topical tribulations of the Irish Revolution, woman’s suffrage and even the First World War. Wisely, Fellowes has kept these larger-than-life historical events in the ever-evolving 20th century tapestry a social commentary mostly set in the backdrop; the series, densely concentrated – at times with somewhat stifling myopathy – on the family and the goings on below stairs; the Crawleys touched by personal loss thrice – two cousins; Patrick, lost in the Titanic disaster even before the start of Season One; the other, second cousin, Matthew (Dan Stevens) unceremoniously killed in a motor wreck at the end of Season Three (to satisfy Stevens’ desire to pursue a semi-lucrative film career apart from the show); the quiet passing of second footman, William Mason (Thomas Howes) from wounds sustained in the war, and the shockingly unanticipated sacrifice of Lady Sybil from preeclampsia, thinning out the herd, as it were.  In hindsight, Season Three was the proverbial ‘game changer’ for Downton Abbey; what, with both Sybil and Matthew stripped from the very fiber of the show, leaving Mary and Matthew’s mother, the irrepressible, Isobel (Penelope Wilton) to grieve in their own way – apart and, later, together; Season Four, interrupted by the rather inexplicable disappearance of lady’s maid and formidable baddie, Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), skulking off in the dead of night to pursue another career in service with a rival employer (again, to compensate for Finneran’s refusal to renew her contract).
The first three seasons of Downton Abbey were so intricately centralized around these characters; Sybil’s enterprisingly of-the-day and spur-of-the-moment elopement with the family’s chauffeur, strapping Irish Republican, Tom Branson (Allen Leech); Matthew’s tempestuous – and frequently emotional roller coaster ride to the altar with Lady Mary – culminating in their all too briefly happy marriage and birth of a son, George (Oliver Zac Barker) – the future heir apparent – and finally, O’Brien’s ruthless alliance with closeted and venomous under butler, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) – his blackmail over her dirty secret (that she skillfully placed a bar of soap on the wet bathroom tile floor after falsely assuming her future employment with the household to be in question, causing the pregnant Countess of Grantham, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) to fall and miscarry, coupled with O’Brien and Barrow’s insidious scheming against the Earl’s new valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his ever-devoted young Miss; lady’s maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), soon to become the second Mrs. Bates after his first, Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is discovered strangled on the kitchen floor; ah me, the rich and their below-stairs appendages did have their artful follies and sins to confess.
Some of these were never entirely resolved – at least to my satisfaction. For starters, no one ever became the wiser over the circumstances surrounding the untimely demise of visiting Turkish dignitary, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James) in Season One; he, having barged into Lady Mary’s boudoir for a passionate midnight flagrante delicto, only to suddenly die in her arms of a presumed heart attack; his naked remains silently carried back along the darkened upstairs corridor to his own room by Mary and Anna – the incident secretively witnessed by Daisy (Sophie McShera), the kitchen maid. We must too recall how earlier, Pamuk was the object of Thomas’ affections; his ‘familiarity’ dashed away by the repulsed Pamuk with a promise to expose Thomas’ homosexuality to Lord Grantham in the morning (likely to have spelled certain dismissal at the very least, and possibly, charges laid by Pamuk for the crime of attempted buggery). This, of course, never happened since Pamuk expired before daybreak. Could Thomas have laced Pamuk’s nightcap with a narcotic strong enough to inadvertently prove fatal? Hmmm.
We will never know. Ditto for who killed Vera Bates. While a devoted friend of the deceased claimed to have seen the estranged, though as yet not divorced, John Bates leaving Vera’s home shortly before the body was discovered – and Bates was indeed later convicted of the crime of murder, serving a partial sentence before being exonerated (thanks to Anna’s due diligence, proactive investigation of the facts and never-waning faith in his innocence) the real culprit was never revealed.  Personally, I have my suspicions it was Lady Mary’s ill-fitted and rather sadistic suitor, newspaper magnet, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen). Having learned of Mary’s secret and menaced by Vera, Richard bought the rights to her story as ‘an exclusive’; determined to bury, rather than print it; Vera, pressuring Carlisle with a lawsuit and he, with steely-eyed resolve, openly threatening her in a manner suggesting he was capable of anything.  The first three seasons of Downton Abbey, which saw the Granthams through these scandalous times, tinged by improbably romantic notions of wartime valor and home front sacrifices, were so intricately and tightly interwoven that, at the end of Season Three the show’s creator was presented with a narrative conundrum, only partially solved by the arrival of the free-spirited Lady Rose; daughter of Hugh 'Shrimpie' MacClare, the Marquess of Flintshire (Peter Egan).
Even so, Season Four struggled to regain Downton Abbey’s verve for narrative finesse, wallowing for far too long in Mary’s mourning; her failed dalliances with two amiable suitors, Lord Anthony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) and his good friend, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), serving as a sort of efficiency expert working for the government to assess the damage done by the war on these feudal tenancies. As a modern woman, Mary begs Anna to buy her contraception; then, beds Gillingham and Blake, finding neither a suitable prospect to spend the rest of her days. In place of intrigue, as without O’Brien, Barrow’s scheming against the family steadily appeared as both insufficient and rather self-destructively misguided; ditto for his insidious endeavor to blackmail newly arrived lady’s maid, Baxter (Raquel Cassidy); herself, shielding a dark truth regarding her former employer. Instead, Fellowes shifted the series’ focus to an interminable cavalcade of almost lethally dull dead-end romantic entanglements; Rose’s impetuous affair de Coeur with black jazz band leader, Jack Ross (Gary Carr), mercifully rescued by the elaborate staging of a debutante’s ball at Buckingham Palace and edifying whirlwind romance (eventually leading to marriage) with a rather goony Lochinvar, Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber).
Also on tap throughout Seasons Four and Five; a bungled seduction between newly hired upstairs maid, Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring) and Sir Robert (suffering the briefest of momentary weaknesses after feeling neglected by Cora’s burgeoning desire to do something ‘useful’ in the community) and, an equally as stultifying attraction brewing, though never consummated, betwixt Tom Branson and outspoken Bolshevik-liberal school teacher, Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis). Even the elderly in this ensemble were not immune to Cupid’s arrow; Carson, warming to the transparently tender affections of housekeeper, Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) – the two toddling off into the quietly rolling surf on a gloriously sun-filled afternoon at the beach; The Dowager, inveigled in a twilight romance lingering only in her memory from a fondly recalled youthful tryst with Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija), since thrown into penniless exile after the Russian Revolution; the town’s resident physician, Dr. Clarkson’s (David Robb) genuine affections for Isobel quashed, almost as ruthlessly as her own dreams to wed Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) are insipidly wrecked by outspoken accusations of being a social climber, razed by Merton’s boorish eldest son, Larry Grey (Charlie Anson).
Grey, who previously spiked Tom Branson’s drink, causing him to momentarily forget himself during a grand party, was later exposed for his deceit by Edith’s elderly beau, Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathhurst), soon to leave her jilted at the altar. The Crowley’s middle child, oft overlooked and generally exploited as Mary’s favorite punching bag, Edith eventually found temporary prospects in married magazine editor, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards); their love affair resulting in the birth of an illegitimate child, Marigold (Eva Samms); her shame covered up by an empathetic Aunt Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond). Alas, Gregson never returns from his fact-finding trip in Germany; presumably the victim of a fatal assault by Hitler’s brown shirts. Instead, it was later revealed he had successfully divorced his estranged wife and managed to bequeath his entire publishing empire to Edith before his demise; thereby making her an independently wealthy woman of this new century, destined to make a difference in ways Lady Mary can only dream about.  
Last, but certainly not least, of these fleeting complexities to be resolved – badly, in fact – was the rather too conveniently dispatch of whatever became of Mr. Green (Nigel Harman), the vial valet working for one of Lady Mary’s prospective post-Matthew suitors, Lord Gillingham; Green, having raped Anna below stairs while the others were enjoying a concert in the grand hall – his crime eventually unearthed by Bates, despite his wife’s tortured silence – suddenly pushed to his death in heavy traffic in a London street, suspiciously on the very same afternoon Bates was presumably ‘out’ on an errand. It was later explained away, with far too much convenience, how another undisclosed woman, wronged by Green, had exacted her revenge; Bates, then Anna, first suspected of the crime, the latter briefly charged but, predictably, released when the truth became clear. By the end of Season Five, Downton Abbey had ostensibly run its course and, bewilderingly, run mostly out of steam; the prospects for this final season leaving much to be desired.
Mercifully, Season Six returns to the series’ roots. Better still; Julian Fellowes is exceptionally anchored to restoring the principles that made Downton Abbey great in the first place. Elemental plot points are fleshed out with narrative arteries having both purpose and a past; the unanticipated arrival of Season One’s former housemaid, Gwen Dawson (Rose Leslie), now a lady herself but ever-so humble, a pleasant reminder of the old days in general, though particularly, the gracious rectitude of the late Lady Sybil. The action in Season Six is swifter too, perhaps because Fellowes knows he has a lot of ground to cover before the grand finale. We begin Season Six in April, 1925; Robert, more than ever, realizing his way of life is fast coming to an end and far more flexible, not only about accepting change, but also encouraging and embracing it, much to Carson’s chagrin.  Carson remains, as ever, steadfast and set in his ways. This does not bode well for expectations of his new bride, Elsie Hughes’; her meager culinary skills increasingly coming under Carson’s scrutiny, Hughes relying on Mrs. Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) expertise in the kitchen to please him.
Meanwhile, the pace of life at the abbey is anything but leisurely. The Dowager and Mrs. Crawley begin a tug-o-war over the new hospital administration: the larger York County concern preparing to annex the local administration. Dr. Clarkson sides with the Dowager – at first. But Isobel gains a valuable alley in Cora, who can see how joining the larger and more prosperous government-run hospital can only result in more advanced medical treatments made available to their local community. At the same time, Robert is plagued by chronic indigestion which Dr. Clarkson rightly has diagnosed as a peptic ulcer. Season Six begins with a minor intrigue: Rita Bevan (Nichola Burley), a former chambermaid at the hotel where Mary and Tony Gillingham engaged in their weekend affair, makes repeated attempts at blackmail. Mary staunchly refuses to pay Bevan one red cent. But Robert buys the girl off for a fraction of her initial asking price, also getting her to sign a confession, thus preventing any further schemes. Admiring Mary’s verve, Robert feels more securely than ever Mary has what it takes to manage the estate in Tom’s absence.
One of the minor misfires in Season Six is the chronic reappearance of Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward) who lingers around the abbey like a doting mother hen, overseeing various brouhahas concerning the staff. His first order of business is to alleviate Anna and Bates’ concern over Mr. Green, after an unknown woman confesses to Green’s murder. Later, Willis returns to encourage Baxter to testify against the man who once made her steal some valuable jewels from a former employer for him; this unseen lecher, preying on other young women – two, so we are told, having become prostitutes since; another, dead. At first refusing to comply, Baxter is stealthily coaxed by Joseph Mosley (Kevin Doyle) to reconsider testifying at trial in order to free her, once and for all from this evil man’s influence. Besides, the trial will allow her to permanently lay this sordid past to rest. Finally, Sergeant Willis informs Mrs. Patmore one of her recent tenants at the bed and breakfast she and her cousin have newly begun, is a philanderer; his infidelity shadowed by private investigator, the scandal splashed across the pages of a tabloid and marking Patmore’s establishment as ‘a house of ill repute’; much to Mrs. Patmore’s chagrin. To put these rumors to rest, Robert, Cora and Rosamund agree to have tea at Mrs. Patmore’s and be photographed leaving the establishment – something Robert, at least in the old days, would never have considered. The staged luncheon clears Mrs. Patmore’s name of any wrong doing and saves the fledgling business from being ostracized by the entire community.
Meanwhile, Anna, having suffered one miscarriage, grows gravely concerned she is about to have another. Mary whisks Anna off to London under a false pretext; the two visiting a highly reputable doctor who inserts a large stitch in Anna’s uterine wall to prevent a reoccurrence. The Crawleys attend the auction of a nearby estate – a sign of more ominous times on the horizon, as another once-prominent household falls. Daisy learns her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley) is being turned out of his tenancy by the new owner of the estate. Making an impassioned plea for clemency does not win Mr. Mason any favors, and Anna eventually turns to Cora to secure Mr. Mason a new tenancy at Downton; later, mistakenly assuming Cora has already managed a place for him at Yew Tree farm, presently occupied by Timothy (Andrew Scarborough) and Margie Drewe (Emma Lowndes). The Drewes have been in turmoil ever since Edith elected to regain custody of Marigold, previously placed in their care to conceal her identity. Margie has never been able to let go of the child as her own and, during a county fair, she kidnaps Marigold back to the farm. Realizing Margie will never be able to accept Edith as Marigold’s mother Timothy informs Robert he intends to leave Yew Tree for a new tenancy far, far away from the abbey’s influence. Of course, this bodes well for Mr. Mason.
As the family grapples with these changing times, Violet and Isobel’s tenuous friendship is superficially threatened by their polar opposite views on what is to be done about the local hospital. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ wedding plans present yet another short-lived crisis. Robert has offered Carson the servant’s hall for their reception. Mary suggests the great hall instead. Robert wholeheartedly concurs. But Mrs. Hughes urges her bridegroom to reconsider a fresh start would be better served in more familiar surroundings befitting their station in life. Such independence from the great house would have been frowned upon in the good old days. In truth, Carson regrets Hughes’ decision and, at one point, even refuses to discuss it with her. Eventually, the couple see eye to eye. Robert and the family support their decision; the service held in a modest church nearby; the reception, at the local school house. Having previously left for America with his child, Sybbie (Fifi Hart), Tom Branson makes a welcome return during the Carsons’ wedding reception, since realized he belongs at the abbey. Robert, Cora and the rest of the family could not be more pleased and the occasion is a joyous one.
But almost immediately, Edith begins to needle Mary about Tom coming back as Downton’s agent – managing the estate as he had begun with Matthew so long ago. Mary is hardly territorial, and suggests they jointly govern. Tom sincerely concurs. Meanwhile, it becomes rather painfully clear to Carson Robert intends to trim the already paired down staff even further. It is the perfect opportunity for Carson to rid himself of Thomas Barrow, whom he has always disliked – not without merit – though perhaps, occasionally misjudged solely on the basis of his homosexuality. Throughout the course of Season Six, Barrow experiences a remarkable conversion, thanks to Baxter’s kindly influence. At one point in Season Four, he tried to ‘cure’ himself of his homosexual tendencies in a desperate attempt to fit into the household. Now, Carson applies pressure on Barrow to seek employment elsewhere. But Barrow’s first few interviews are not promising, particularly one with an eccentric widower, Sir Michael Reresby (Ronald Pickup) who still lives in the past in the decrepit decay of Dryden Park. His fears about the future, coupled with an imploding sense of loneliness, lead Barrow to a crisis of conscience and later, a failed suicide attempt that proves an eye-opener for the rest of the staff and the family; rescued at the last possible moment by Baxter’s quick thinking, and ably assisted by Anna and first footman, Andy (Michael Fox), whom Barrow has been secretly tutoring to read.
Andy has agreed to help Mr. Mason work his land; also, to manage his books and take on more responsibilities wherever necessary. In truth, the lad is very much in love with Daisy, though it will take her nearly this entire season to recognize his true potential as the great love in her life. Season Six involves Daisy Mason in some rather interesting – although not altogether successful – vignettes. Part of Daisy’s appeal throughout the series was her rather backward timidity and innocence, marginally tinged by moments of fitful jealousy; mostly directed in Season Four at the more comely kitchen maid, Ivy Stuart (Cara Theobold) who very much had captured the heart of brash second footman, Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers), later expelled from Downton for a sexual indiscretion with his former employer. Perhaps to flesh out Daisy’s character, also to expand upon her maturity and personal growth, Season Six gives her a meatier chunk of the plot to digest; confronting Mr. Mason’s former land owner, then angrily proposing to challenge Cora after she has been falsely led to believe Mr. Mason will be appointed to manage Yew Tree farm.
It is an awkward evolution of the character at best, mostly because actress, Sophia McShera seems incapable of revealing more of Daisy without becoming somewhat harsh, shrewish and generally unappealing in the process. Daisy’s eventual acceptance of Andy is predicated mostly on Mrs. Patmore’s sustained – and occasionally, inpatient – guidance, rather than any great understanding or love for the man. At the same time, Daisy makes several clumsy misfires to prevent a burgeoning romance between Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason, though he clearly would like to see more of her; even sending Mrs. Patmore a letter of invitation, by way of thanks for helping him move into Yew Tree cottage and set up his housekeeping.
Meanwhile, the Dowager’s butler, Septimus Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and her lady in waiting, Gladys Denker (Sue Johnston) increasingly grate on each other’s nerves. In truth, the two have never seen eye to eye. In retrospect, Denker is a rather transparent ‘replacement’ to the post of series’ bitch vacated by the scheming O’Brien. Neither Denker nor Spratt is particularly engaging beyond mere comic relief, largely because they function apart from the abbey. Nevertheless, Gladys discovers Spratt has a wayward nephew, newly escaped from prison, and briefly sheltered by Spratt from the police. Denker uses this tidbit to blackmail Spratt into convincing the Dowager she should remain in her employ after a minor altercation between Denker and Dr. Clarkson threatens her with immediate dismissal. Spratt is successful at salvaging Denker’s reputation from certain ruin and thus, in preserving his own as well.
Prudence, the Dowager Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walter) arrives at Downton at Violet’s request to support her in the dispute over the hospital. However, Prudence quickly throws her support towards the amalgamation instead. Her nephew, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is a racing enthusiast, an enigmatic gentleman and the most promising young suitor Mary has had in quite some time. She, of course, resists him; partly to quell her understandable fear of automobiles, but also because Talbot is a strong male, virtually unintimidated by her formidable resolve. Isobel wholeheartedly approves of this match. But Mary remains unconvinced.  She does agree to attend Henry’s next race under the auspices of offering her moral support, the whole Crawley clan turning out for this grand races. Regrettably, tragedy strikes: Henry’s best friend, Charlie Rogers (Sebastian Dunn) killed in a hellacious wreck, incinerated when his car crashes into a tree-lined embankment and bursts into flames. Mary cannot bear the sight and, despite Henry’s obvious torment over the loss, immediately and tearfully breaks off their relationship.
Meanwhile, to bolster support in the fight for the hospital, the Dowager enlists the help of the newly appointed Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain (Rupert Frazer), whom she bribes with an old family scandal into attending a formal dinner at Downton. Alas, the evening proves anything but cordial. Bickering between the Dowager, Isobel and Cora quickly escalates and Robert, who has been unwell in the days leading up, suddenly has his ulcer rupture, spewing blood and collapsing at table. He is rushed to the local hospital where Dr. Clarkson performs the necessary surgery to spare his life. While Robert convalesces, Edith returns to London to manage her publication, ‘The Sketch’, hiring a new lady editor, Laura Edmunds (Antonia Bernath) to replace the caustic Mr. Skinner; the women jointly managing the magazine’s content.  Together they unearth yet another secret: their latest contributing writer, the reclusive Miss Charlotte, is none other than Spratt doling out advice on love, life and ladies fashions under a non de plume.
Season Six can justly be subtitled ‘the age of Edith’ – the mousy and generally passed over middle child – quiet suddenly and remarkably coming into her own. Not only does she unapologetically assume the upbringing of her daughter, but Edith also takes on the challenge of running a business while becoming romantically involved with Herbert ‘Bertie’ Pelham, the 7th Marquess of Hexham (Harry Hadden-Paton) and the first man since Michael Gregson to be truly Edith’s equal, passionately in love with her. In short order, Bertie proposes. Edith hesitates, but later reveals her mutual affections with a stolen kiss, promising to give Bertie her answer before too long. Meanwhile, Bertie’s cousin, Peter is tragically lost in Tangiers, instantly making him heir to the family’s formidable fortunes and title. Should she choose to marry him now, Edith’s status would be elevated above her own family bloodline. Naturally, this sticks in Mary’s craw. Inadvertently learning from Tom that Marigold is Edith’s illegitimate daughter, Mary wastes no time in hinting as much to Bertie, thus, forcing Edith to publicly confess it. Wounded that Edith did not think enough of him to confide the truth on her own, Bertie momentarily breaks off their engagement.
In a confrontation audiences have been waiting six seasons to take place, Edith and Mary have it out. Mary feigns ignorance. But Edith refuses to let her back-peddle from this grotesque betrayal. She chides Mary, calling her out as a cruel and unrepentant bitch, forcing Mary to look deeply inside herself and reconsider her sisterly spite. Below stairs, Baxter encourages Mr. Mosley to accept a part-time position at the local school; the headmaster, very impressed with Mosley’s rich and varied knowledge. At the same time, the headmaster offers to take Andy under his wing, to teach him to read and write so he might assume the rigorous responsibilities of managing Mr. Mason’s pig farm.  To help raise funds for the hospital, Cora agrees to open Downton to the public. Robert cannot see the point, but is pleasantly astonished when the intake from this one day’s open house contributes a sizeable endowment to the running of the house. The family contemplates making Downton available for public viewing on a regular basis; a proposition Carson finds distasteful. Sometime later, Carson begins to exhibit the first signs of Parkinsons Disease; his hands prone to uncontrollable tremors. 
Meanwhile, Isobel is perplexed after being approached by Amelia Cruikshank (Phoebe Sparrow), Larry Grey’s fiancée. Amelia suggests a truce, hinting Isobel reconsider marriage to Lord Merton. In previous years, Isobel declined Merton’s proposal, after the priggish Larry made it abundantly clear he despised her. Revealing the particulars of her visit with Amelia to Violet, the Dowager takes on the task to disinter Amelia’s true motives. What she stealthily uncovers is Lord Merton is ill with pernicious anemia, a condition threatening his life. Amelia is not about to look after her ailing father-in-law, but rather hoping to trick Isobel into marriage as Merton’s nursemaid, responsible for his short-lived, though chronic care until his death. Making a rather bad enemy of Amelia, who is revealed to be a rather heartless shrew, Violet explains the situation frankly to Isobel. Knowing something of loneliness after Matthew’s death, Isobel resolves to remain close to Lord Merton in whatever capacity he would prefer.
However, she is denied even access to his home by Amelia; the newlyweds holding Merton a veritable hostage in his upstairs bedroom. Violet backs Isobel and together the two barge into Merton’s estate, demanding to see him. Both Amelia and Larry order the women from the house. But Merton, who has overheard their voices echoing in the hall, descends the stairs to welcome them. Isobel reveals to Merton his diagnosis of pernicious anemia is a mistake. He has only anemia, not a fatal condition, and likely to live for quite some time. Aghast his own flesh and blood would deny him the solace of an old friend in his presumably waning years, Lord Merton divests himself of his ungrateful son and scheming daughter-in-law; granting them the title, house and grounds (all they ever cared about anyway), and thereafter marrying Isobel, the two determined to blissfully share whatever remains of their emeritus years together.    
Tom challenges Mary to reconsider her relationship with Henry. His matchmaking pays off. To make a mends in her life once and for all, Mary confides in Edith a renewal of their sisterly bond; one, presumably to be predicated on more genuine affections than vindictive one-upmanship. As ever, Edith is the more forgiving, allowing Mary to move on and accept Henry as her husband. The two are married. Learning of Carson’s affliction at the wedding reception, Robert re-evaluates his decision to dismiss Barrow. Instead, Carson will remain on staff as an advisor, with Barrow assuming the reigns as Head Butler. The family gathers together for the Christmas holidays; Lady Rosamund, Rose and Atticus rejoining them for New Year’s Eve. As the countdown to midnight begins, everyone rejoices in the promise of the forthcoming twelve months; their optimism for better days ahead renewed.
Downton Abbey might have gone on for several more seasons. Clearly, there is a lot more to these characters’ lives that, sadly, we will only be allowed to speculate about from now on. Perhaps, Julian Fellowes is right to conclude the franchise on a high note. By 1925, the loves and lives of the real aristocracy in England were either a thing of the past or coming to a finite conclusion for many, if not all of the ruling class. Too, certain characters from this aging entourage would not be allowed to endure for purely logistical reasons; the show’s rapidly advancing timeline necessitating the Dowager, Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton among the first to go if the series had continued.  Besides, Fellowes has resolved enough of the story lines in Season Six to satisfy most of his viewership.
Hypothesizing aside, it would have been something to see where Lady Edith’s new life as an influential modern woman and wife of the Marquess had taken her; ditto for Mary’s marriage to the enterprising Henry and his fervent desire to go into business with Tom Branson. Aside: Allen Leech’s cherub-faced chauffeur cum estate agent and entrepreneur is rather wasted in Season Six; deprived of an identity, as it were; his sole function now as the deus ex machina in Mary and Henry’s turbulent trip to the altar.  Would the Crawleys have managed to keep the great house from falling prey to these swiftly changing winds or would they be forced to leave their beloved palatial estate? What of the onset of WWII and its’ crippling aftermath and effects on the household? Perhaps, Fellowes and some of the principle cast should consider a spinoff series, miniseries or reunion special.  Whatever the future holds for this franchise, one thing remains for certain. Downton Abbey has been a unique and intensely satisfying television experience not likely to be duplicated or even copied for a very long while. It has etched some indelible characters and situations into our collective consciousness and these too will endure as touchstones by which all other like-minded endeavors ostensibly will take their cue.
It ought to be stated: nobody does period drama better than the British – for obvious reasons; their legacy in culture, architecture and traditions well-preserved. Such devotion to the past is oft’ misconstrued as ‘backward’ thinking. But in retrospect it speaks well, not only of a national pride, but of a willingness in Britain’s entertainment industry to remain steadfast and loyal to ever-green and timeless aphorisms. Let’s be honest. If not for WWII, golden age Hollywood would not have achieved its legendary status as the envy of the world’s most popular entertainments. The surplus of Brit-born talent that came to Hollywood then, and has since found advantages to remain on this side of the pond have elevated the visual storytelling art form on both sides of the Atlantic. Out from under the yolk of war-time restrictions, Britain’s own picture-making biz has steadily evolved into a major competitor; Downton Abbey, a prime example of the cross-continental appeal in programming initially designed for U.K viewership.  
In America, change – of any kind - gets misconstrued as ‘progress.’ However, it is important to denote that simply moving in a forward direction does not necessarily guarantee ‘evolution’ – nee ‘progress. That Downton Abbey not only could have broken into, but equally gone on to thrive in the American milieu, increasingly dominated by comic book-based flicks and a fairly tepid proliferation of cheaply spun-off horror franchises is, in and of itself, a minor miracle; one that, frankly, gives me hope for the future – not only for more like-minded product to proliferate the small screen, but also to mark a sincere return to the kinds of entertainment that, as T.S. Elliot once put it, “enlarges the sympathies, stimulates the mind, the spirit, that warms the heart, punctures the balloons of hypocrisy, greed and sham, tickles the funny bone and leaves us with the glow that comes when we have been well entertained.” Bravo, indeed!  I could not have put it better myself.  I won’t even try.
NBC/Universal Home Video’s release of this final season of Downton Abbey on Blu-ray carries over the very satisfying hi-def mastering exhibited elsewhere in the previous five seasons. I have no doubt the distributors are probably already conspiring on a lavishly appointed box set to encompass all six seasons – likely for a Christmas reissue. Color fidelity on these Blu-rays is extraordinary, as is fine detail and contrast; all contributing to show off Caroline McCall, Anna Robbins, Susannah Buxton and Rosalind Ebbutt’s richly evocative period costumes; also Donal Woods, and Charmian Adams’ production design, revisited over the course of the series by cinematographers, Nigel Willoughby, Graham Frake, Gavin Struthers, David Katznelson, David Marsh, Adam Gillham, David Raedek and Michael McDonough. Here is a troupe of behind-the-scenes craftsmen who know how to light, stage and photograph period drama. Of course, it sincerely helps they are blessed with actors who can hold our attention in long takes. Suffice it to state, Downton Abbey Season Six is one hell of a treat in 1080p; Highclere and its cast looking formidably resplendent. The 5.1 DTS audio is, of course, up to snuff, capturing the subtlest nuances in this dialogue-driven series and celebrating John Lunn’s evocative underscore, richly designed around reoccurring leitmotifs. Extras are a little thin this time around, perhaps because so much has been covered in prior releases. It would have been prudent to have the cast reflect on their impressions – particularly since this is their swan song. We do get minor contemplations; alas, severely truncated and distilled into three very brief featurettes: Changing Times, The Cars of Downton Abbey, and Farewell to Highclere.
So, we bid the Crawleys adieu, though hardly goodbye, as I suspect we will all be revisiting this enigmatic ensemble for a very long time yet to come. Thank you, then, to Julian Fellowes, and to all working tirelessly in front of and behind the cameras; to you who made it not merely possible, but enthralling, heartwarming, and yes, thoroughly compelling ‘must see’ TV for six life-enriching years – hearty good thanks and cheers. As with all seminal moments in life, I find myself at a crossroads of mixed emotions herein; a sort of heart-sore affection and strange loss of something quite eloquent and unrepeatable – a feeling I have not had about any TV series for a very – VERY – long while. It is difficult to quantify, but it is a feeling that continues to resonate as I conclude this review. Around this household then, Downton Abbey will be profoundly missed.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Seasons 1 to 3 – 5+
Season 4 – 3.5
Season  5 – 3
Season 6 – 5+

Sunday, January 24, 2016

GHOST STORY: Blu-ray (Universal 1981) Shout!/Scream Factory

Universal amassed an impressive array of talent both in front of and behind the camera in a valiant bid to bring one of most daring novels of the previous decade to life: the result – Ghost Story (1981); a movie that in no way even scratched the surface of author, John Straub’s meticulously plotted vignettes, loosely strung together around the premise of a restless spirit quietly terrorizing a secluded town.  In print, Ghost Story was a truly remarkable work of fiction. Indeed, no less an authority than Stephen King called it “one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century.” Too bad, reduced to its most bare-bone essentials by screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, Ghost Story on celluloid quickly devolved into a rather clumsy tale of supernatural revenge; the picture only marginally achieving its' purpose – to scare the living daylights out of an audience, though never entirely satisfying the age-old cliché about ‘one picture being worth a thousand words’. In hindsight, Ghost Story’s greatest achievement is in getting four celebrated crocs from Hollywood’s golden age to appear together as its heavy-hitting ensemble.
The major hurdle to overcome resides in the material itself; Straub’s sumptuously descriptive and unsettling prose, incapable of full materialization in visual terms; the lumbering screenplay, a grotesque oversimplification of the various lives exquisitely detailed in the novel, with most regrettably, never even touched upon in the film. “It should have been a three or maybe even four hour picture,” Cohen later concluded, “Or a made-for-TV miniseries…that way there would have been enough time to tell the tale.”  As it evolved, Cohen made the heartrending decision to cut, and cut, and cut some more – removing all of the back stories to conform to 110 minutes of clichéd horror dreck; tertiary characters excised wholesale; the entire premise for the unsettling goings on in present-day Milburn, a tiny New York hamlet, now predicated on one youthful indiscretion and the misguided drunken folly that led to an ‘accidental’ murder so very long ago.
Ghost Story ought to have turned out better; the combined talents of John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (all of them making their last filmed appearances) alone, adding cache and credibility to this ghoulish outing. Universal also wasn’t taking any chances in John Irvin to direct the picture – his first feature, The Dogs of War (1980) a potent thriller already in the can, though yet to be released. Pooling their in-house resources and employing resident matte artist/genius, Albert Whitlock to create the spookily lit process shots, adding both scope and dimension to these starkly foreboding wintery vistas, Universal sincerely thought it had a hit. In truth, they did. Ghost Story made money, as practically all horror movies do, feeding upon the unerring and insidious public fascination with the supernatural; as much a part of our DNA as it serves as a cathartic release for our suppressed desire to be scared – at least, safely – within the darkened recesses of a theater. Tragically, the movie is an extremely far cry from Straub’s novel; wallowing in some truly horrific travelling mattes, suffering fits of unnecessary gore, and, bogged down by two overly long ‘flashback’ sequences (one set in the tea dance 1920’s milieu) that bring the thrills to a grinding halt; ditto for the leaden performances by Ken Olin, Kurt Johnson, Tim Choate and Mark Chamberlin; respectively cast as younger versions of the leads.
Throughout this past imperfect and ghostly present, is Alice Krige; the perpetually nude seductress, terrorizing the men folk. Krige has since gone on record as saying she only consented to the nudity as it was necessary for the plot. I wholeheartedly disagree. The nudity herein is deliberate, gratuitous and frankly, not altogether flattering of Krige’s anemic and limited assets as a figure study. Ah well, at least there is equal opportunity sexism at play: a brief flash of co-star, Craig Wasson’s protracted twig and berries as he plummets from a high rise through an atrium to his rather ironically bloodless demise on a cold concrete floor. Wasson’s turn as twin brothers Don and David Wanderley may be an unwieldly mess of goony masculinity. But Krige’s is the most disheartening performance in the movie; clearly out of her depth; her lugubrious and cryptic utterances tinged with a faint whiff of embalming fluid emanating from her lips. Krige’s turn as the flesh and blood Eva Galli, riffing off a late seventies cliché as the fallen women, is reconstituted as the erotically charged and frequently naked twenty-cent tart. Her reincarnation as the ghostly Alma Mobley, who efficiently morphs into variations of a wormy and rotting corpse (a la Rick Baker’s gross-out effects), a Freudian to the end, her transformations achieved at the height of her sexual arousal, appear as nothing greater than a dulcet and intoxicating vapor of insidious spite.
In a nutshell, Lawrence Cohen’s reconstituted plot went something like this: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – particularly, a dead one: the lives of four (instead of 5) old men, held in high regard by their community, haunted by a far more unnerving secret they collectively share: Milburn’s mayor, Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), resident physician, Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire) and Sears James (John Houseman) – having long ago formed The Chowder Society - courtiers of spooky tales – are equally the conspirators covering up a murder they inadvertently committed in the 1920’s while still in their twenties. The victim, socialite, Eva Galli (Alice Krige) is reincarnated in the present as Alma Mobley, a mysteriously aloof British-born seductress who gets a job at Orlando College where one of Wanderley’s sons, Don (Craig Wasson), works as a professor. Don is the lesser of the Wanderley boys; his twin, David (also played by Wasson), a hard-nosed New York attorney who lacks an understanding heart. A few drinks and one rain-kissed jog back to her house and Don and Alma predictably wind up in bed.
The courtship, however, turns rancid; Alma suffering from curious, chronic and almost hypnotic trances. During these episodes, Alma suggests to Don she will take him to places he has never been, show him things he has never seen, and (here’s the deal breaker) see the life rung out of him. Not exactly a romantic prospect, Don puts the breaks on their grand amour – also, their engagement. In short order, his once promising academic career implodes; Alma disappearing overnight, but miraculously turning up in David’s life as a one-night stand. With David, she does not make the same mistake twice. The morning after, he awakens to find her lying naked, cold and oddly damp in his bed, rolling her listless body over to find it a freshly rotting corpse; the fright causing him to be supernaturally hurled through the window of his penthouse, plummeting head first and buck naked into an atrium far below; his remains landing just a few feet short of the pool.
Word of David’s demise reaches Edward in Milburn. He encourages Don to come home for the funeral. Father and son never having seen eye to eye, Don intuitively reveals his suspicions to Edward: that he and David were having an affair with the same woman – who possibly is not yet finished inflicting harm on their family. Edward will hear none of it. The next morning, while Don is still in bed, Edward stumbles out in a blizzard wearing only his pajamas and a bath robe; driven by some unearthly presence to the bridge overlooking the river where Eva’s body was dumped so many years ago. She suddenly appears to him on the trestle in her mourning clothes; face, half-eaten away from all those decades submerged. The sight of her horrific startle causes Edward to lose his footing. He falls to his death; the moment witnessed by one of the town’s snow removal drivers. News travels quickly and The Chowder Society convenes to discuss the matter.
Their tête-à-tête is momentarily interrupted by Don, who demands to know what secrets are being kept from him. Undaunted, the austere Sears decrees none of the remaining survivors shall speak about the cause of Edward’s death. Ricky is the only one to show any genuine remorse, later meeting Don in a restaurant, but still unable to confess the truth to him. Both Ricky and John have very sympathetic spouses; Stella (Patricia Neal) and Milly (Jacqueline Brookes); each, imploring their significant other to share this part of themselves kept hidden for far too long; now, systematically pecking away at their very sanity. While John stubbornly refuses to talk about anything, Ricky sympathetically vows to make a mends, promising Stella all will be revealed on a planned vacation to the south of France after this unpleasant business in Milburn has been resolved once and for all.
That night, the men are revisited by their nightmares; John falling victim to a surprise visit by Eva, masquerading as a patient come to call on his expertise as a doctor. Her inescapable presence causes John to suffer a fatal heart attack. Meanwhile, Don begins to piece together the history of The Chowder Society. In a magnificently staged, though insufferably scripted flashback, we regress to the youthful dalliances of these four friends; inseparable and lusting after Eva Galli – the new girl in town. Intuitively, she senses the foursome is smitten with her; the town agog with gossip about Eva’s inheritance and reasons for leaving the bright lights of New York to take up residence in this quiet and half-forgotten town when she might otherwise have her taste of every excitement in the real world. From the start, the blue-noses of Milburn shun Eva. Yet, she finds distractions aplenty, supplied with adoration by The Chowder Society. Sears, Ricky, John, Edward and Eva frolic in these pastoral grasses, picnicking together and playing rather childish games of courtship. Eva favors Edward whom she takes to bed. Unhappy chance, he cannot live up to her standards when called upon.
Eva is patient, but not so much after Sears, John and Ricky arrive at her home, thoroughly inebriated, to serenade the couple beneath Eva’s bedroom window. Ushered away by the group, Edward lies about his ‘experience’ with Eva – calling their moment together sublime and hinting the lady was no lady in the bedroom. Discovering Edward’s deception, and thoroughly disgusted by it, Eva decides to live down to the reputation he has given her. She dances with Ricky and engages John in a rather sadistic kiss; Sears calling Eva out as a slut. She slaps his face. Inadvertently, Edward pushes Eva away. She slips on the hardwood floor and strikes her head against a marble pillar. Without knowing for sure, John pronounces Eva dead. The boys panic and decide to hide the body to conceal their crime. They drive Eva in her automobile to the nearby lake, allowing the car to sink into the waters. However, as the vehicle begins its’ fill up with these icy cold waters, Eva stirs in the backseat; her screams muffled by the rapidly submerging waters pouring in on all sides. Edward makes a half-hearted try to dive in after her, but he is pulled back by his friends. Eva presumably drowns and Sears makes everyone swear to never speak of the incident again.
We return to the present; Don utterly shaken by the news his own father was involved in a terrible crime, and quite unable to wrap his head around the fact no one in Milburn ever questioned the sudden disappearance of the rich socialite. It is, after all, rather remarkable such a high profile vanishing act never warranted even an inquest, much less a full out investigation.  Don suggests Eva’s evil spirit has returned to Milburn for avenge herself upon the surviving members of The Chowder Society. Ricky concurs with this assumption. Together with Sears, Don decides to return to the scene of their crime: Eva’s abandoned home. Earlier, Ricky was confronted in these ruins by a pair of pitiless/homeless hustlers, Gregory (Miguel Fernandes) and Fenny (Lance Holcomb); the two luring, then frightening Ricky half to death as part of Eva’s planned revenge. But now, the house is empty – save Eva’s ghost. In short order, the collapse of a staircase causes Don to break his leg; Sear’s binding the wound before making a valiant gesture to drive into town for medical help. Along the deserted road, he encounters Eva’s ghostly manifestation. She materializes through the windshield of his car and causing Sears to drive his Mercedes into a heavy embankment of snow; Fenny and Gregory finishing off the old geezer as he is trapped in his car.
Back at the house, Ricky grows restless. Something is decidedly wrong. Venturing into the snow on foot, and leaving Don to Eva’s return – Ricky gets Sheriff Hardesty (Brad Sullivan) to dredge the lake for Eva’s submersed car. Meanwhile, Don is visited by Eva, now dressed in her bridal veil and gown. She descends the stairs, her rotting flesh tearing away to reveal a wormy and decomposing visage that terrorizes Don.  At the lake, the Sheriff’s tow brings Eva’s car to the surface. Opening the door, Ricky is startled to find a very much alive corpse ready to pounce on him. However, greatly weakened – seemingly from being discovered after all these years – Eva’s spirit evaporates from these petrified human remains; the body collapsing in a heap upon the snow. At Eva’s house, the phantom bride vanishes into thin air, sparing Don his fate. It’s over. Ricky and Don are free of Eva’s avenging dark angel for good.
In its' present form, Ghost Story is virtually incomplete, incomprehensibly second-rate and uninspiring; frightful instead of frightening and mostly tired, dull and silly to boot.  Its singular drawing power as a cult movie is primarily in witnessing Fairbanks, Astaire, Houseman and Douglas in their swan songs. For here, indeed, are four massive figures from Hollywood’s golden era; some, more instantly recognizable than others. One has to sincerely wonder what went through Astaire’s mind in accepting this part. He certainly did not need the extra money. Nor was he particularly pleased with the finished film. Houseman’s participation is a little easier to grasp. Only the year before, he had appeared in a thrilling cameo as a crusty, but benign, old sea captain, telling ghost stories to small children in the prologue to John Carpenter’s superior horror classic  – The Fog (1980). Doing ‘another’ fright fest probably seemed like ideal casting for Houseman. If only the material given these fine actors was more to their speed and level of accomplishment, then Ghost Story might have survived these many years as a truly remarkable last act finale. Tragically, it achieves no such lofty ambition.
Albert Whitlock’s matte work is superb; his paintings on glass, of a sleepy Milburn by moonlight or in the stark realization of an early morning sun, glimmer with moody magnificence the rest of the picture entirely lacks.  And then there are the ‘new stars’ to consider – such as they are. I have written at some length herein of Alice Krige who, although possessing a remarkable longevity in her chosen craft since Ghost Story, has managed to appear in generally commonplace big and small screen entertainments which have neither aggrandized her dexterity as an actress nor withstood the test of time as memorable touchstones in the cinema firmament. The same can be said of Greg Wasson; a calling mostly spent in television: minor parts as forgettable as the programming. Krige at least manages to infuse her dual role in Ghost Story with a sense of creepy dread; something about her tone and ephemerally slinky manner. She lacks the competency to make the most of this supernatural femme fatale, but spares up a goodly portion of this oversight with an air of respectability – even in the raw – and more than a touch of class. It still doesn’t work, at least, entirely, but nevertheless suggests the possibility of something better than what we are given herein to digest. As either of the Wanderley brothers, Wasson is a lame duck; the limitations of his B-rated TV acting woefully on display in these expanded dual parts. He can show us Don’s panic, but not David’s contempt for humanity. He cringes with affecting charm, but there is no substance behind the eyes and the result is far more a child’s play-acting than a real thespian exercising his craft. Bottom line: with a best-selling novel as its inspiration, Ghost Story ought to have rattled and roared with chills and thrills. Instead, it stumbled and bumbles like a drunken party guest having outstayed its welcome at last year’s Halloween party.  Badly done and memorable only for the epic sense of ennui it continues to instill.
Scream Factory – the horror division of Shout! Factory – has issued Ghost Story to Blu-ray in a 1080p transfer that, while hardly perfect, is nevertheless, mostly satisfying. Color fidelity is rich and absorbing; much more so than on Universal’s old DVD incarnation from 2005. Alas, Shout! is using a hi-def transfer culled from Universal’s flawed archives without the necessary clean-up required to make it glow. While the original elements are in remarkable solid shape for the most part, a few scenes – presumably in which two reels have been joined together – are plagued by a considerable amount of exaggerated grain and age-related artifacts. Nicks, chips and scratches are rather obvious. Ghost Story is a very dark film, so white dot crawl and other age-related anomalies are very distracting at a glance. Contrast, however, is quite respectably solid, preserving the inky blacks in Jack Cardiff’s meticulously half-lit cinematography.  Albert Whitlock’s mattes were photographed on glass and synced in-camera to achieve the highest possible level of first-generation image clarity. The results remain seamless on Blu-ray; all except for the final long-shot of Milburn at daybreak; herein, quite heavy on distorted grain and looking rather thick and slightly dull in its color-balancing. On the whole, the results are better than middling, though not by much.
The audio is DTS mono and quite adequate for this presentation. Given the turgidity of the film’s plot, I sincerely doubt a new 5.1 remix would have improved anything. Extras are less plentiful than on other Shout!/Scream Factory horror releases; new interviews with Peter Straub, actress Alice Krige, screenwriter, Lawrence Cohen, producer, Burt Weissbouro and matte photographer, Bill Taylor. Director, John Irvin weighs in on a fairly comprehensive audio commentary that, in truth, I confess to finding infinitely more stimulating than the movie: definitely worth a listen. We also get a theatrical trailer, radio spots and photo gallery. Ghost Story isn’t the sort of movie to which one can easily warm up. So let us just classify this one as a tall tale gone to seed, some snowy night in front of the fire. Bottom line: the time has indeed come to tell the tale – pass, and be glad that you did.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

FROM THE TERRACE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1960) Twilight Time

Unabashedly premeditated to take advantage of then ‘numero uno’ hot stuff marrieds, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, a screen team having set cash registers aglow in 1958’s The Long Hot Summer; also, to catch the tail fires from author, John O’Hara’s flush of success and the big screen adaptation of his other incendiary page turner, Butterfield 8 (1960), Mark Robson’s From the Terrace (1960) promised scandal, sin and seduction; taboo subjects in Hollywood then. That the resultant movie became tepid, turgid and terrifyingly dull is therefore something of a letdown; also, a folly, as the film industry of the late fifties endeavored to put the proverbial cart before the horse – desperate to stave off the implosion of their once seemingly shatterproof, but now crumbling, empires by offering the paying public something it could not get at home on their TV’s for free – sex. Robson would have liked nothing better than to address head-on the scandalized vignettes in O’Hara’s book. Alas, under the yolk of strict censorship, all Robson could do is ‘suggest’ and not even all that much, in a screenplay by the usually brilliant, Ernest Lehman who, regrettably, on this outing could think of no better metaphor for class distinction and the torrid flagrante delicto it launches than a restless dinghy moored next to a yacht, rocking back and forth in the surf. In case you were wondering; Newman is the dinghy; Woodward, the yacht.  
Undeniably, the best thing in From the Terrace is Paul Newman – by then, unquestionably, a star of the first magnitude. Only a few years earlier, Newman’s method-acting stud factor had been brought into question by a garish misfire in The Silver Chalice (1954); his taut body looking uncomfortably effete in Roman laurels and a toga. Mercifully, better parts in better movies were to follow, each steadily building upon the actor’s foundation as an indestructible sex symbol. Newman is rather magnificent in From The Terrace; glib and insolent to a fault. He is given some wonderfully cruel barbs to bandy about and carries most of them off a la the resplendent and casual uber-chic of a method-acting Cary Grant. But oh, what most any woman could forgive Newman with that devilish smile and a flash from those piercing blue eyes; most any on the planet, except the tight-lipped and stuffy wasp, Mary St. John (Joanne Woodward, herein, rather harsh-looking in her ironed platinum tresses, cinched into a never-ending franchise of elaborate haute couture designed by Travilla). Like so many trashy novels of its generation, the suppositions in From the Terrace are rather obvious to downright cliché; Newman’s David Alfred Eaton (simply referenced elsewhere in the movie as Alfred), a noble returning war hero, the spawn of an unhappy marriage; his father, Samuel (Leon Ames) a crass industrialist; his mother, Martha (Myrna Loy) a sentimentalized drunkard.  We can empathize with Alfred’s desire to escape both his past and his future – inheriting Sam’s iron and steel mill. Alfred wasn’t meant to get his hands dirty, although as the plot wears on he will dig himself a hole plenty big to get enough dirt all over his businessman’s chic.   
On the other end of the social spectrum are Mr. Eugene St. John (Raymond Bailey) and his hoity-toity trophy wife (Kathryn Givney); self-professed paragons of propriety with too much starch in their britches, whose only daughter, Mary (Joanne Woodward) just happens to be a heartless and fickle twenty-cent tart, toying with men’s affections.  She courts a dalliance with Dr. Jim Roper (Patrick O’Neal), but dumps him to go slumming with Alfred after he publicly insults her at a party given by his best friend, Alexander ‘Lex’ Porter (George Grizzard). Porter and Alfred are about to go into business together, making private aircraft – literally, jets for the ‘jet set’. Porter fancies himself a playboy without either Alfred’s drop dead looks or arrogant confidence to carry it off. Why do the people with all the money, who usually populate these tales, rarely have anything else going for them? Better question: what more do they need? After all, money talks…looks fade. So, Alfred begins to ascend the ladder of success, selling out old friends and business partners, entering into a marriage he quite suddenly – and inexplicably – loses all interest in; taking a mistress, Natalie Benzinger (Ina Balin - of the virginal ‘good girl can’t help herself’ - and who can blame her ilk), only to discover it’s not only the cream that rises to the top…so does vermin.
The believability in Mary’s ongoing affair with Jim – equally as callous as she – is brought into question, not so much for the narrow and raunchy premise in O’Hara’s novel – made even more tinny and unconvincing in the movie (namely, that any housewife with plenty of cash and time on her hands will spend both on whatever damn-fool frivolity happens to pop into her sexually-frustrated cabeza in the moment); feminine arrogance superseding all good sense and intuition (so much for the 50’s stereotype of the ‘little woman’), to say nothing of common decency. Ah me; with the straight-jacketed conservatism of the Eisenhower generation breathing harder than a ten dollar whore in the bedroom, such lurid escapisms at the cinema had both their place and their fascination. Yet, From the Terrace is not an exemplar of this not so subtle art of turbulent titillation. It lacks narrative impetus, for one; and suggestiveness, for another. Silly, heavy on the saccharine, and, pointless to a fault, except to say it borrows nearly every bad soap opera cliché, better expressed elsewhere - even in the bloated, but still highly watchable, Peyton Place (1957) - From the Terrace’s primary objective, to shock the average moviegoer’s middle class morality to its very core with depictions of rampant alcoholism and tawdry extramarital love affairs; the sacrifices one man greedily makes to attain wealth, power and privilege (in the end, giving up all three vices for the love of a good woman), only to be knocked down a peg or two by his boss’ intervention in his craven marriage – yada, yada, yada…and the beat goes on…and with lethal antipathy - on.  At 149 minutes, From the Terrace easily outstays its welcome by a good 30 min. or more; a coming attraction for grandiloquent  misbehavior never to live up to its opening credits, superimposed over Rodin’s triumphantly passionate statue of ‘The Kiss’; two partially nude figures erotically clasped together.
It has always been something of a source of consternation to recognize a good many Fox Cinemascope films made during the waning years of this glamor factory seem grotesquely incapable of filling the vast expanses of the anamorphic screen with anything better than some very obvious sets, cobbled together from some left over and borrowed props and false fronts.  In the case of From the Terrace, art directors, Maurice Ransford, Howard Richmond and Lyle R. Wheeler have conspired to give us some of the ugliest monochromatic edifices, photographed by Leo Tover with dead-on key lighting that in no way enhances the drama of our story. What limited use of locations remain, are marred by interior cutaways, so transparently not the reverse shot to seamlessly match up with the exteriors from which characters have only just entered or exited. Indeed, the artificial surroundings depicting these palatial homes appear as though some well-intentioned set dresser has dipped a firehose into a single can of paint; spraying the walls, doors, trim, fireplaces, ceilings et al in the same drab hues of swamp frog green, dull beiges and/or acrid blues; the furniture as plain and nondescript as the action taking place in front of it. Granted, a great movie – even a good one – is not rescued by the props on display. But at the very least, a movie’s visuals ought to provide the audience with something interesting to look at; ideally, to augment and help express the general mood of the scenes played within them.  
After composer, Elmer Bernstein’s supremely lush main title, we settle in on the action – such as it is; Martha Eaton, severely drunk and passed out on a train pulling into station in Philadelphia from New York City. Whisked away by the family’s doctor before even the whiff of a public scandal can be surmised by the waiting press, Martha is taken to hospital and later discharged in the ‘care’ of her rather heartless hubby, Samuel. One has to pity Samuel Eaton – pining for the son he lost in boyhood to meningitis and all but ignoring Alfred (who has done his utmost to take a dead brother’s place as the good son); saddled with a self-pitying harpy for a wife, who slinks off to see her rather abusive lover, Charles Frolick (Lauren Gilbert) when the going gets tough. Even Sam’s chauffeur, George Fry (Malcolm Atterbury) can barely tolerate the ‘great man’. Poor little rich industrialist: he’ll never be king, not even of his own castle. In the meantime, Alfred has come home. The year is 1946; the war in Europe, at an end, just as the battle at home is about to heat up. Learning of his parents’ escalated marital strife through a closed bedroom door, and quietly informed by a kindly nurse of his mother’s affair, Alfred wastes no time giving Frolick a good thrashing; the young buck defending mama’s tarnished honor and threatening worse, should the middle-aged Lochinvar ever contact this fallen matriarch again.
It does not take very long for father/son antagonisms to stew, brew and eventually boil over. Alfred forsakes the family biz, settling into an arrangement with his best friend, Lex, whose wealthy uncle has agreed to finance their fledgling research and build private aircraft for the uber-rich. Al attends a house party to seal the deal; the lecherous Lex more readily interested in getting blued and screwed (though never tattooed) by some of the more amiable, power-brokering female flesh ripe for the picking. Alfred is suddenly, if cagily, captivated by Mary St. John, presently being sashayed around the dance floor by her lukewarm fiancée, Dr. Jim Roper. Alfred’s brashness wins him a dance with this debutante, though precious little else. He chides Mary for her appalling taste in suitors and suggests himself as a valiant successor. She resents the implication she doesn’t know her own mind and quickly dispatches a brush off with ice water running through her veins, glibly adding “You’ve touched me,” to which Alfred smacks back, “Just not in the right places!”
Alfred’s father may be one of the wealthiest men in town, but from where the old-moneyed St. Johns sit, Alfred is just nouveau trash, slumming with their daughter to get ahead. They may have a point – an idiotic one at that, since Alfred’s blood seems to be inexplicably poisoned with his lust for Mary. The on-screen chemistry between Newman and Woodward is most affecting in the scene where Alfred shows up on Mary’s front porch unexpected; the St. Johns – particularly, the crusty Mrs. – about as hospitable as a pair of sharp-eyed vultures – Mary hosing down the palpable venom being spewed in Al’s direction before skulking off for a little lip lock behind the shrubs.  For raw intensity, this is a moment never duplicated hereafter; even in the post-marital bedroom scene shortly to follow; Newman and Woodward – two of the most perfectly formed creatures ever put on God’s green earth – lying together in close proximity, she in a silken slip; he, bare from the waist up – yet, strangely unable to generate any sort of sexy friction, despite Woodward’s exotic Miss laying on top of her fictional and real life husband to silence Alfred’s business talk with a sweaty embrace; Robson nervously dissolving into the next scene. Draw your own conclusion. They weren’t playing tiddlywinks.
Curiously, while Mary resisted Alfred initially, she is easily drawn to his animal magnetism; perhaps, caught in a trap that doesn’t seem to excite Alfred anymore. Al and Samuel have words – sharp, hurtful and life-altering; the ole bugger suffering a massive and fatal heart attack after Alfred has left the room. As Al heats up his enterprising ways in the boardroom, he decidedly cools toward Mary in the bedroom. She wastes no time taking up with Roper, who steps into the part of ‘gigolo’; albeit, one with his clothes left on. The most we get of their ongoing affair is an innocuous skating scene and a few veiled hints Mary has been seen in Roper’s company; albeit in public with a select troop of their mutual fair-weather friends; Jim taking the place of a husband, or rather, playing weekend sugar daddy to Mary’s steamy urges. Things begin to fall apart between Al and Lex; Alfred growing exceeding impatient their Nassau Aircraft Corporation requires more test flights. The repeated delays put a genuine crimp in Alfred’s plans to become a great man overnight. Fate intervenes one frigid afternoon in the form of a very young boy having fallen through the ice and about to drown. Rescuing the young lad, Alfred’s heroism is rewarded when the boy’s grandfather, James Duncan MacHardie (Felix Aylmer) turns out to be one of the reigning wolves of Wall Street. Sensing a kindred spirit in Al, who aspires to be as shrewd a businessman, MacHardie offers him a job in his investment firm.
Alfred accepts the position. It keeps him on the road a lot – too much, in fact, for Mary’s liking, and leaving her with plenty of free time to invest in Roper. Meanwhile, Creighton Duffy (Howard Caine), MacHardie's bulbous-shaped Humpty-Dumpty of a son-in-law, who lacks even one tenth of Al’s money-driven acumen, begins to feel threatened by Al’s passion for the work. Indeed, Alfred has brains, guts and ambition; another movie-land cliché applied to illustrate how the offspring of the hoity-toity rich lack such qualities, having been weaned on the expectation of luxury and rather lazily resigned to the idea they no longer have to work for it. Duffy astutely sends Al on a two-month fact-finding mission to Pennsylvania, to assess the aptitude and prospects of coal mine owner, Ralph Benziger (Ted de Corsia). By now, Mary has had quite enough. A terrible row with her hubby sends him right into the arms of Benziger’s daughter, Natalie. She is somewhat naïve – mostly about the depth of her own wellsprings of suppressed desire; denying an immediate attraction to Al, even after he openly admits he could throw caution to the wind in a heartbeat to satisfy the urge. After all, it really wouldn’t be all that much of a sacrifice. Mary’s turned callous, toxic and bitchy; the cliché of the good guy caught in an unhappy marriage unconvincingly meant to take hold.
Problem: Alfred has been chiefly instrumental in driving a wedge between himself and Mary. After all, when Mary said ‘I do’ she meant it and desperately wanted Al to take her in his arms nightly. Exactly what made Al – who initially wanted the same thing – turn as cold as a fish in the boudoir is never entirely explained away in the screenplay. Natalie, who behaves mostly like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, says ‘no’ to Alfred, but then decides ‘what the hell?’ and begins the kind of sizzling rumpus, capable of igniting one’s toes and selling a lot of copy in the tabloids. Indeed, Duffy has Alfred tailed; the discovery of their sideshow amusements, very ripe fodder for a blackmail. Meanwhile, MacHardie has discovered in Alfred’s absence, Mary and Roper are a very hot item. MacHardie threatens Alfred with dismissal from the company, equating a man’s failings at home to his personal integrity – or lack thereof – at the office. Oh, the days when a nosy employer could get away with such a ‘morality clause’ and not be rife for a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.  And yet, MacHardie may not even realize he has helped promote Al’s marital implosion by keeping him apart from his wife. Even if he does care, its business before pleasure; MacHardie sending Alfred to analyze his old business buddies at the Nassau Aircraft Corp. for a possible investment.
Mary inadvertently meets Natalie outside the Algonquin hotel; the mistress and the wife regarding one another with mutual contempt. In the meantime, Alfred begins to prepare his dossier on Nassau. The report is highly unfavorable; the company having fallen on some rough times and entered into a league with the devil; Duffy, heavily invested and threatening Alfred with exposure of his extramarital romance should he not wholeheartedly back the plan for MacHardie to invest in Nassau, thus, rescuing his own bacon from the fire. To seal the deal, Duffy has Al and Natalie shadowed; his private eye and photog bursting in on the couple as they are about to make love and taking some rather ‘shocking’ pictures. What to do? Natalie flees to the relative safety of daddy’s home in Pennsylvania, certain Al will do ‘the right thing’ – at least, for himself – by backing the Nassau deal; thus, silencing Duffy and preserving the myth – if not the integrity – of his own marriage. But Al has had quite enough of being pushed around.
With Mary present and preening as the proud power behind the throne, MacHardie announces to his enthusiastic Board of Directors he has decided to appoint Alfred as the youngest Vice President in the history of his firm. But Al has a few surprises of his own. Not only will he not be accepting the post, he makes his scathing – but factual – report about Nassau public, shattering Duffy’s hopes for the merger. He confesses to his affair with Natalie, exposes Mary’s indiscretions with Roper, and emphatically resigns from the responsibilities of being an A-number one schlemiel. Mary is outraged, threatening not to give Alfred a divorce so he can marry Natalie. “With what I have on you, you’ll have to!” Alfred cheerily replies before getting into a taxi, “How do you like them apples?” Naturally, Mary finds them sour. But there is precious little she can do. Al is reunited with Natalie on her dad’s farm; the two presumably bound for happier times.  
From the Terrace is so remarkably tepid and forgettable I really had a time getting through it in one sitting; dully acted, dreadfully written and executed with only a layman’s finesse for the visual. From top to bottom, it speaks to a different time, I suppose; and yet, the artifice does not work anymore. Not, that it ever did. Newman is a minor amusement here, but Woodward is pouty and unremarkable; no acting feats or dramatic cartwheels from The Three Faces of Eve herein. Having read O’Hara’s incendiary novel, the movie remains a minor fascination at best, lumbering from one isolated vignette to the next, the turgidity of the exercise weighing heavily on its continuity, particularly in establishing the ‘relationship’ between Alfred and Mary at its’ beginning. Mary hates Alfred at the debutante’s party, but then, inexplicably, winds up alone with him aboard a yacht where he wastes no time seducing her. Also, and I realize this will be misconstrued as nitpicking by some, but the yachting expedition is supposedly Mary’s feeble attempt to point out the finer Newport mansions to Alfred while the two lazily take in the summer sun. So why are the trees bare and the grasses brown in the reverse stock shot presumably seen through Mary’s binoculars? Hmmm…continuity again.
Okay, we’ll leave the scenery alone. Alas, From the Terrace fails to generate even a modicum of sustainable dramatic tension.  No sexual friction either; nor joy in seeing Newman and Woodward together again, mostly, because Ernie Lehman’s screenplay frequently keeps them apart or feuding, or, being spiteful toward each other; code for taut sexual frustrations of which there is zero: not even anything beyond mildly amusing acrimony.  Suffice it to say, the view from this terrace is wanting and deprived of clever innuendo and double entendre. I will simply differ to my previous post herein on Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946); a picture made under much more stringent conditions and social mores; yet, positively reeking of homoerotic subtext and insidious sexual humiliation – all in all, good stuff (at least, within the context of the movie). From the Terrace desperately wants to be of this same racy and mildly perverse ilk; a real exposé on the high class whores and whore-mongers who supposedly tear at one another with the hearts and hands – other appendages optional. Instead, it quickly becomes a poor man’s show and tell – little show, very little to ‘tell’ too; just a reason for Travilla to show off some vintage haute couture and Newman to strut around like a peacock, but without ever ruffling his peerless plumage. I’ll pass – having seen both he and Joanne Woodward do far better and more important work elsewhere in their respective careers.
There is very little to complain about in Fox’s new transfer via Twilight Time. I don’t know if this signals a change in regime and/or attitude over at Fox or merely gives one false hope to believe the deplorable blue/teal bias having plagued a good many Fox Cinemascope catalog titles of late is at an end. The new 1080p image is fairly stunning. It appears to mildly lean toward an azure tone, though nothing as egregiously awful as the flawed color-timing on other titles like The Best of Everything (1959) or The Blue Max (very ‘blue’ indeed!). I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised this one turned out as well as it has in hi-def, given Fox’s track record. Now, if we could only get them to go back and color correct the two aforementioned titles, along with Desk Set, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Black Swan, The King & I…but I digress.   Overall, color saturation on From the Terrace is very good. Flesh tones appear natural. Contrast is bang on. The audio is 5.1 DTS and very crisp. The one aspect of this picture I confess to thoroughly adoring – Jerry Goldsmith’s frothy and over-the-top score – has been given its due via TT’s usual commitment to a separate isolated score. Apart from this, extras are limited to a badly worn and truncated Fox Movietones and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: this presentation gets top marks. But it’s still a gaudy and gawd-awful flick IMO.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)