Like much of his post-Rififi work, Jules Dassin's Phaedra is a rhythmic curiosity featuring his wife and muse Melina Mercouri. The film occupies minimal space in the usual discussion of the director and his work, and it carries little reputation either good or bad. And yet, it's another strong example of the depth of Dassin's abilities and his masterful skill as a filmmaker.
Dassin and Mercouri collaborated a total of nine times, with Phaedra close to the middle as their fourth project together. It immediately followed their most commercially successful teaming, the 1960 film Never on Sunday, which earned both director and actress Oscar nominations. Decades later, it's perhaps the caper movie Topkapi which enjoys the greatest notoriety among their pairings. Also available for home viewers are The Law, released by Oscilloscope last year, and 10:30 P.M. Summer. The latter is a delirious drama of sexual alienation that also stars Peter Finch and Romy Schneider. It's perhaps the director's most underrated film, and was made available on DVD in R1 by MGM but has now gone out of print.
These collaborations between Dassin and Mercouri, which also include He Who Must Die, Promise at Dawn, The Rehearsal, and A Dream of Passion, dominated the director's career after the international success of Rififi. Indeed, he made just one picture absent Mercouri (Up Tight!, the all-black remake of John Ford's The Informer) until his last, highly regrettable time behind the camera for Circle of Two. I do find it necessary to more or less introduce this phase of Dassin's career to those only familiar with his big five noir films (including Rififi, and also Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves' Highway and Night and the City). To think that Dassin was only capable of making these sorts of pictures would be incorrect. They have certainly become his most well-known to the DVD generation, helped no doubt by their presence one and all in the Criterion Collection, but this quintet is hardly the end of the inquiry regarding Jules Dassin. His interests leaned heavily on the dramatic and the tragic, and many of the same strengths seen in the earlier crime dramas extended into the movies he made with Mercouri.
The Greek influence in this latter half of Dassin's career also seems to be a highly significant development. Mercouri was Greek, and even later served in the country's Parliament, and Dassin made it his adopted home, living there until his death in 2008. This creative merging of the two makes for an interesting opportunity to present Greece on film through an outsider's perspective but with the help of something like a native tour guide. In Never on Sunday this is especially obvious, with Dassin appearing onscreen to act as someone whose background is very much like his own and then given an education of the local culture via Mercouri's character, a prostitute. Phaedra is more incidental in its Greek setting, at least on the surface. The narrative set-up relies on Greece's nautical accessibility since Raf Vallone's character Thanos is positioned as a rising shipping magnate, easily conjuring up thoughts of Aristotle Onassis. The geography does get a wonderful showcase at times in Phaedra, as the scenic ocean waves also facilitate Mercouri's frequent donning of a bathing suit.
Phaedra uses its Greek elements most overtly in the decision to essentially retell the mythological story of the title character. The central point of tension is her deep, obsessive falling in love with her stepson Alexis, played in the film by Anthony Perkins. What begins as a normal enough visitation in London of stepmother checking up on her husband's son quickly turns sexual. The scene where Mercouri and Perkins first consummate their affair ascends to operatic heights in Dassin's hands. It's indicative of how Dassin views the material. Such treatment supports the heightened emphasis on the story's drama to what could seem to be an over the top feeling. It's more measured than that, though, if necessarily not restrained. Dassin appreciates the roots of what he's filming and allows for an insistence on portraying extreme conflict. The journey of the Phaedra character is one which finds her toeing the line aggressively between passion and insanity. Mercouri, with her wild eyes and typical rawness, plays her like Phaedra is rediscovering her youth. There's a fatalistic insistence on her future being with Alexis and not her slick, one-dimensional husband Thanos, even if it completely defies any sense of logic. The performance is superb, and it earned Mercouri recognition from both BAFTA and the Golden Globes.
What's particularly needed on the viewer's part when watching many of these Dassin-Mercouri films is a patience for the melodramatic style that tends to be pitched so high. There's one scene in particular in Phaedra, near the picture's end, that involves Perkins driving his beloved car and it's in a key all its own. Indeed, much of Perkins' acting here sticks out as seeming uncomfortable or inconsistent. When opposite Mercouri, as he often is, Perkins can come across as weak, even whiny. It generally fits the character of Alexis though, and Perkins should have been well-versed in playing awkward young men who get a little too close to their mother figures by 1962.
The beauty in a film like Phaedra is primarily as a showcase for its director and actress tandem. She gives herself to the moodiness of certain scenes, like when she's alone in her bedroom and the shadows from the blinds are prominent. Dassin and Mercouri are probably never going to be spoken of in the same breath as Fellini and Masina, Rossellini and Bergman, Godard and Karina, etc., and that's fair enough, but their collaborations remain fascinating in their own right. Phaedra is a major work in that vein, both for its focus on Mercouri and as a successful exploration into the themes and setting that occupied much of their shared output.
Phaedra finds a home on recordable media via MGM's Limited Edition Collection, a fate that supports my earlier assertion of the film's relative invisibility. The single-layered DVD-R actually has a sort of nice cover art that is nearly ruined by the awful bootleg-style back of the sleeve. Far too much white space there MGM, and even the large-size font can't mask the laziness of that one-sentence plot description.
Once the meaningless aesthetic complaints are abandoned, it's easy to accept the about average transfer given the film. It's presented in the Euro-friendly 1.66:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The muck and mire has mostly been removed so that we're left with a clean enough image that nonetheless contains a healthy amount of grain and interfering noise. Upgrading to a dual-layered disc with a higher bitrate probably would've lessened some of this mostly benign noise and such. The sharpness is also less than ideal, with some scenes looking softer than others. Contrast yields no complaints. Those interested still shouldn't be bothered with technical concerns if they don't mind laying out the twenty dollars or so being asked.
Audio sounds limited, including a noticeable pop or two and hiss on occasion. It's an English mono track spread across the front two channels. Dialogue is emitted with adequate success. The music in the film fares a tad better. Subtitles would have been nice but surely we know better than to expect those by now from these types of releases.
MOD discs typically abandon substantial extra features in favor of expensive retail costs and questionable duration. Phaedra contains only a theatrical trailer (3:41), which is non-anamorphic.