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)

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