Monday, January 16, 2017

TWO FOR THE ROAD: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1967) Twilight Time

Few romantic comedies treat their adult subjects as adults; fewer still, willing to go out on a limb and explore what happens after the wedding bands have been properly affixed to the appropriate fingers. For one reason or another, Hollywood has always suffered from the chronic fairy tale affliction and myth that suggests ‘…and they lived happily ever after’ once the bloom of love has progressed from ‘cute meet’ to wedding chapel. T’ain’t necessarily so, according to Stanley Donen’s magnificent (and at least in its own time, stupendously underrated) Two For The Road (1967); a unique and wholly refreshing take on the slow, often morose disintegration of these fanciful notions about love and a life. Two For the Road is, at least in hindsight, a breakout movie; using the nonlinear narrative to chart the course of a pair of reluctant lovers who meet neither cute nor with their fifty shades of lust generally ascribed to the proverbial ‘hot-blooded’ romance; the narrative, juxtaposing a veritable potpourri of snapshots from their awkward first encounter to penultimate struggle in re-discovering meaning from their meandering and occasionally severely bungled lives. Each has an extramarital affair along the way. Ultimately, however, despite whatever differences, disappointments, elation and sins come their way, here are two for the proverbial road of life; perfectly mated if imperfectly matched.
The project has the mark of Stanley Donen’s originality to recommend it; also the ideal casting of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as Mark Wallace and his wife, Joanna; a superb score by Henry Mancini and Oscar-nominated screenplay from Frederic Raphael. In hindsight, the pieces seem to fit so succinctly, it is shocking just how close the picture came to never being made. Donen’s clout in Hollywood was considerable; a visionary in the director’s chair, who had begun innocuously as a contract dancer, brought from Broadway’s cast of Best Foot Forward by MGM; his services eventually picked up by star, Gene Kelly and graduating with seeming effortlessness from choreographer to director, along the way creating some of the studio’s most beloved musicals, including On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Funny Face (1957, and made at Paramount). When musicals fell out of fashion, Donen simply applied his craftsmanship to other genres; most notably, the light romantic comedy, but also showing off his creativity in a startlingly good Hitchcockian thriller, Charade (1963). Still, Donen could find no takers in Hollywood to produce Two For the Road. Worse, early on it looked as though Audrey Hepburn would not commit to the picture, despite having enjoyed working with Donen on the aforementioned Funny Face. Evidently, she believed the concept – as pitched by Donen over the phone long distance - and before Raphael had actually completed his script – simply would not work.
Donen was undaunted – I would suggest ‘relentless’ – in his pursuit of Hepburn, even flying to Switzerland to implore her the movie could only be done with her participation. At this point, Donen had already secured a tentative arrangement with Universal Pictures; the deal eventually falling through and leaving Donen perplexed and frustrated until Richard Zanuck and David Brown agreed to back the picture over at 2oth Century-Fox. Mercifully, Hepburn loved the script and her cache, along with Donen’s provided the impetus for Fox to push it on ahead. In casting Albert Finney, Donen made a risky choice. Although Finny had carved a name for himself in his native England immediately following the release of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) he was an unknown quantity in America, more so as he would be expected to play an American. Two For the Road’s narrative structure is slightly gimmicky, though eloquently reformulated in the editing process to provide the audience with an ingeniously stitched together travelogue through this marital relationship, complicated by waning love and missed opportunities, nearly torn asunder by lust, boredom, frustration and periodic feuds over money, lack of intimacy, child-rearing, etc. Donen begins his sojourn in the middle of this multifaceted, if unsatisfactory partnership; then grows the story out in all directions, finding causal links in Raphael’s narrative passages to provide us with visuals that are completely logical as excised in the nonlinear progression.  
Life is undeniably a succession of events from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. But the luxury of memory often clouds this chronology with regressions – fond and otherwise – from the not so distant past; haunting the peripheries and bringing everything to the present with a considerable amount of convolution, afterthought, and occasional clarity. In visualizing Raphael’s story, Donen’s imperative was every moment in the picture should be viewed as the present; in other words, despite the TripTik through various snapshots from this knotty love affair turned occasionally harsh, then exuberantly romantic, Two For the Road’s métier would illustrate each segment as though it were happening right now for the audience. Miraculously, the effect is never jarring or off putting; the stars sufficiently aged and/or regressed in their actual age to play younger than they are. In some ways, Two For the Road is a tragedy, while in others, an enthusiastic test of endurance for this couple, put through the paces of the proverbial thick and thin (in sickness and in health…for better or worse…yada, yada, yada) taking the curves and roadblocks in stride. In essence, it’s a ‘road picture’. Nearly all of its action takes place in a car – or rather – ‘cars’, as Mark’s affluence as a budding architect begins to take hold – the couple on a perpetual and ever-evolving holiday drive through the south of France.
We only ever see Mark and Joanna in their spare time, unencumbered by the grind of a nine to five. Curiously, they are largely friendless; Mark relying on his work to keep him focused and occupied/Joanna maintaining the façade of a doting wife and mother, while increasingly unhappy in either lot in life. Alas, this journey is anything but a lark and a spree. There are two reoccurring motifs in the picture; the first, Mark perpetually mislaying his passport, inevitably never too far from Joanna’s grasp. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an efficient woman,” he bristles with coyness, rarely with affection, and usually to suggest contempt. The second motif actually begins the film, as a brusque Mark and disenchanted Joanna wait inside an airport terminal.  "What kind of people can sit across from one another and say nothing to each other?" a forlorn Joanna inquires. "Married people," says Mark sternly. Joanna telephones home to check in on their daughter, Carolyn (Kathy Chelimsky); Mark so absorbed in his portfolio he momentarily is unable to connect with the name as Joanna hands him the telephone to say something nice to their child. Two For the Road is revelatory in the way it analyzes these awkwardly mated individuals. There is no judgement call. Neither is entirely to blame for what follows; the yin and yang in their turbulent follies never suggesting a ‘head over heels’ affaire de coeur; the arc in their emotional evolution from passing strangers to convenient lovers and finally, frustrated marrieds, creating a naturalized friction that anyone in any relationship for more than six months will instantly be able to recognize and relate to on a multitude of levels.
Donen intrudes with his first carefully-timed vignette: the first time Mark saw Joanna aboard a ship bound for France. His passing fascination as she shoots him a somewhat accusatory stare from a lower balcony is later compounded when he panics over his mislaid passport. She comes to his aid, discovering it all in his knapsack.  It is an inauspicious beginning. But sometime later, their paths cross again; Joanna now a part of a travelling girls’ choir, catching a glimpse of Mark from the back of their VW bus, lazily bumming a ride on the back of a hay wagon. Distracted by Mark’s good looks, the bus’ driver, Pat (Judy Cornwell) veers off the side of the road, leaving Mark to come to their rescue; hardly a gallant gesture. At first, he almost willingly ignores their dilemma with amusement, before convincing the wagon’s driver to hitch his tractor and tow them from their rut. In return, the girls give Mark a ride into town, the new designated driver, Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) becoming immediately attracted and flirtatious. Too bad the entire troop is stricken with chicken pox; everyone except Mark and Joanna, who have already had it as children. Mark would have preferred to spend a few ours alone with Jackie over Joanna and she knows it. He lacks imagination.  Now, his wandering feet itch to move on. Kismet: Joanna endeavors to become his travelling companion.
Mark really isn’t up to it. However, unable to come up with at least one good reason why they should not continue on together, Mark instead decides to make their journey as marginally unpleasant for Joanna as he can; cracking oversimplified sexist statements about a woman’s ambitions for a man and casting generalized responsibility for all men’s unhappiness squarely at the high-heeled shoes of all women, to which Joanna astutely comments, “Who was she?” Indeed, Mark has been wounded by a previous amour. He is bitter with a sizable chip on his shoulders; his defenses and his dander up: hardly any woman’s ideal. Still, there is something refreshingly affecting about him. The pair pauses in a small town so Mark can photograph the exquisite architecture of a century-old church. Joanna is oblivious to the fact Mark doesn’t want her in the picture – figuratively and literally. Simultaneously, both assume correctly what the other is thinking, Mark explaining his camera has been designed to document three dimensional objects. “I’m three dimensional,” Joanna coyly persists. “I meant buildings,” Mark insists. “Well, I’m not a building,” she begrudgingly admits.
A short while later, Mark and Joanna come to a parting of the ways. Mark suggests the reason they have not been successful at bumming a ride is because they are together. A passerby is much more apt to pick up a hitchhiker if there is only one. Reluctantly, Joanna agrees and very quickly she manages to land herself a ‘ride for one’ along this open road. However, she takes pity on Mark, appearing from behind a construction sign post a short piece up the road and quite suddenly earns his respect. After all, she has sacrificed her own comfort to be with him. This too will be a reoccurring theme in the plot, Joanna’s increasing unhappiness, mostly inflicted by Mark’s burgeoning career with wealthy builder, Maurice Dalbret (Claude Dauphin). But first, we are introduced to Mark’s old flame, nee – the girl who done him wrong back when, Cathy Seligman (Eleanor Bron), now married to a level-headed/philosophy espousing accountant, Howard Maxwell-Manchester (William Daniels). Embracing the child-rearing liberalism of Dr. Spock, the two have a thoroughly spoilt daughter, Ruthie Belle (Gabrielle Middleton); a little monster who dictates the particulars of their tension-riddled road trip shared with Joanna and Mark. The brat tosses the keys out the car window, repeatedly embarrasses Howard with her accusatory line of questioning and enjoys pinching Cathy to the point of inflicting pain. “You still want to have a child?” Mark mutters beneath his breath. “Yes, I still want a child,” Joanna insists, “I just don’t want that child!”
Before they were married Mark and Joanna had agreed they would not become parents. But now Joanna’s biological clock is ticking and Mark begrudgingly agrees to sire an offspring. Although Carolyn is well brought up and behaved, she nevertheless adds yet another layer of dissatisfaction to their least, for Mark, who by now considers married life a nuisance and detriment to his career.  Mark and Joanna met Maurice and his wife, Francoise (Nadia Gray) while they were struggling to make ends meet; the road trip nearly turned disastrous when Mark’s MG caught fire. Mercifully, Mark and Joanna escaped unharmed, taken into the comfort of the posh country retreat where their car stalled and burst into a hellish ball of flames. Unable to afford both their meals and room, Mark smuggles fruit and canned goods into their suite until the insurance company can square away the details. Not long thereafter, Mark and Maurice become partners, leading to even more time spent away from Joanna: also, an afternoon dalliance with Simone (Karyn Balm) - a playful sex bomb who races Mark along the open road in her convertible, the two eventually meeting at a remote hotel. Mark’s affair is one of the cruelest vignettes in Two For the Road; played as pantomime with Mark’s voice over narrating a letter he has supposedly written to Joanna, proclaiming not only his fidelity, but also how he longs to return to her at the earliest possible convenience.
Tensions brew at Maurice’s estate, Joanna bored and feeling neglected, taking up with one of the couple’s intimate friends, David (Georges Descrières). Mark is wounded by this infidelity. Joanna returns to his side, tearful and chaste, only to be admonished by Mark after a series of passionate and redemptive kisses. “Are you sure you know which one I am?” he coolly inquires. Joanna’s heart is shattered. She races from the room, pursued by Mark who clumsily topples into the pool in his pursuit of her. Not long thereafter, the couple attends one of Maurice’s chichi parties; Joanna momentarily reunited with David and Mark becoming jealous once more; taking up with Sylvia (Dominique Joos); a random girl he grabs off the dance floor. Mark playfully introduces Maurice to Sylvia as his fiancée, insisting he has left Joanna once and for all. But only a few moments later, David and Joanna intrude on the lie; Joanna explaining David is engaged to Sylvia. At this point, Maurice is utterly confused. Indeed, he has his own wrinkles to iron out on a new construction project giving him grief; one he intends to inveigle Mark into yet again, thereby sacrificing his relationship with Joanna. An impromptu power failure provides the perfect escape; Mark and Joanna disappearing in the dark. “I love you Joanna,” Mark confides on the car ride home. “Well, then,” she quietly insists, recognizing that whatever pain each has inflicted on the other, ultimately their bond is marked by a genuine commitment that keeps them coming back for more.
Two For the Road is extraordinary in so many intangibly truthful ways it is difficult to quantify them all with any degree of critical clarity in brief. Any proper analysis of the film would have to begin by deconstructing Mark Wallace; incredibly selfish, driven, obsessed with being successful – at the expense of becoming a mensch – and usually concerned only with his own satisfaction. There is really nothing about this man any woman in her right mind should find endearing. And yet, Albert Finney manages an incredible coup. He wins us over with an undercurrent of conflicted insincerity. Part of Mark’s appeal is Finney’s good looks; blonde and blue-eyed and exuding independently-minded masculine virility; the kind that generally proves catnip to all women, goaded by ego-driven machismo and a turbo-charged engine of self-appointed/testosterone-infused vanity.  Nevertheless, Finney lures us into his court in other unexpected ways. Mark is a fellow utterly misguided in his intent, but ultimately with a soft center buried somewhere beneath his genuinely caustic and occasionally imperious outer shell; his brutal aloofness coming across as a defense mechanism. And Finney, lest we forget, even in his youth, is an actor of rare qualities. While some actors rely on their eyes or vocal capabilities to convey more intimate thoughts and ideas, Finney is using the full-faculty of his free-form body politics to get across and sell the notion Mark Wallace really is not a bad apple or a gross pig of a human being, despite leaning – occasionally with desperation – toward that end of the guy’s guy spectrum. It’s the internalized conflict Finney gives us that translates so intoxicatingly well and salvages our opinion of Mark as just someone stumbling through the emotional content of his character, discovering some unexpected surprises for himself along the way.
Audrey Hepburn’s Joanna is far from the love-struck little lamb or sex-driven viper a la her counterpart, Jackie. Jackie might have given Mark a real run for his money and made his life a complication full of reckoning. Joanna is less resolved to chase after Mark as a woman and far more interested in pursuing him as her equal. She is fascinated by his byzantine struggle to make meaning from a lonely life, perhaps partly because it appeals to her mothering instinct, but moreover, because she too is a very complicated lady of substance and brains. She wants Mark, but not enough to make him want her back. He has to come to this decision on his own and in his own good time. But Hepburn’s Joanna is willing to wait, and not about to let the interim pass without exploring other options along the way. Yet, even her affair with David is not meant to make Mark jealous; rather, to quell a temporary frustration in their marriage. While Mark has used Simone to satisfy this same urge, and later, exploits Sylvia merely to spark some jealousy within Joanna, she takes a lover to pass the time until her husband comes to his senses. Within this milieu of the swinging sixties, such laissez faire sexual attitudes and diversions were perhaps less pronounced. Despite the equal opportunity in these infidelities there is no salaciousness to the exercise itself, and, in the end, the marriage bond is strengthened rather than ruptured.
Stanley Donen would later comment that while most movies about love end in marriage, or with the understanding ‘they lived happily ever after’, Two For the Road is a valiant attempt to illustrate merely that ‘they lived ever after’ – though only occasionally in harmony, often with discord or under a cloud of self-inflicted disillusionment and/or disappointments. The interwoven texture of Mark and Joanna’s tapestry of life is fraught with such frayed threads. But these are never enough to split the couple apart, perhaps because each is stubbornly resolved to make something beautiful from the mess of their lives. Stanley Donen trundles out his series of ingeniously concocted vignettes, made all the more extraordinary by his unconventional editing; creating the very antithesis of the traditional ‘road picture’ as established in films like Frank Capra’s immortal classic, It Happened One Night (1932). It is Donen’s intuitiveness and aestheticism in the editing process that makes the picture click as it should; his juxtaposition of semi-humorous, somewhat tragic and impossibly poignant moments to cumulatively capture the luminosity of this martyred love affair. It all works spectacularly well and such a shame the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not acknowledge Two For the Road as the obvious masterpiece it is; sinful too, audiences failed to make it the smash sleeper hit of the season. In years yet to follow, Donen would recall how he was repeatedly approached by marrieds and new couples alike who found the film’s verisimilitude of this modern marriage in crisis a poignant reminder of their own struggles in love and life; high praise indeed for which Donen has remained extremely grateful.
In fact, he regards Two For the Road as the very best of his non-musical movies…and so do we. What Donen had originally perceived as a relatively inexpensive and presumably ‘easy to shoot’ road picture evolved into an entirely different animal; the menagerie of weighty camera equipment, dollies, cast and crew being trucked around France leading to an ordeal of sorts, one rescued in the editing process; the pieces coming together with brilliant clarity and precision. One curiosity about Two For the Road persists: in two biographies written about Audrey Hepburn there are passages attesting to the actress’ apprehensions to film a ‘skinny dip’ sequence. Although Hepburn does appear – presumably nude – in a bathtub (shot only from the neck up and surrounded by bubbles), with only her exposed back to the camera, and Donen has attested in interviews to Audrey’s intense fear of deep water, reluctantly committing to a sequence in which Mark tosses her fully clothed body into a swimming pool, there is no ‘skinny dipping’ scene in Two For The Road! None was ever even scripted by Frederic Raphael. Today, Two For the Road’s clear-eyed take on ‘modern marriage’ seems even more vatic. The purity of the work itself and the performances given have made it as relevant today; perhaps perennially so.     
It has taken far too long to get Two For the Road released in North America. Twilight Time’s new to Blu appears to mirror the quality of Eureka! Masters of Cinema release from several years ago – which is a blessing. We gain a new audio commentary from Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, also TT’s usual commitment to providing an ‘isolated score’ (and actually, the first time the actual film score has been available anywhere – previous album versions were re-orchestrations done by Mancini). They have also managed to port over Stanley Donen’s originally produced audio commentary for the now defunct Fox Studio Classics DVD. Regrettably, we lose the featurette, Frederic Raphael - Memories of Travelers – 25 introspective minutes with the screenwriter; also, the 36 page booklet with introspective critique by Jessica Felrice, replaced herein by Julie Kirgo’s usually adroit, though too brief 4 page liner notes. I like Kirgo’s writing style, but on this outing I prefer Felrice’s more thorough reflections. When extras like this are cut from intercontinental reissues it is usually due to a ‘rights issue’. Pity that. To my eyes, the new TT is identical to the MoC Blu-ray, everything looking gorgeous; colors eye-popping brilliant and fine detail in hair, skin, clothing and those gorgeously lit location backdrops revealing a startling amount of razor-sharp/picture perfect clarity. The DTS audio is predictably robust. Remembering that virtually all the audio had to be post-sync back at Fox - Jacqueline Bisset actually dubbed by another actress after Donen could not get Bisset back in time to do her own vocals - the Blu-ray seems to handle the limitations of then complicated post sync rather well. Bottom line: Two For the Road via Twilight Time comes very highly recommended. Your old Fox DVD is officially a coaster for your drink while enjoying this classy classic remastered in high def.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


1 comment:

Travisman said...

Hey Nick! No reviews for February. Are you ok? Hope all is well. Travis