When your starting point is an arcane French inheritance law and the plot revolves around swindling a concentration camp survivor you are immediately on “icky” ground. Throw in a relationship between an adult male and the step-daughter of his deceased wife and the audience might already be backing off.
So it’s a tribute to the acting and that each character is not so much unlikeable as both vulnerable and predatory that this turns into a very involving drama. On the eve of World War Two in Paris Dr Michele Wolf (Ingrid Thulin) buys the love of penniless Polish chess player Stanislaus (Maximilian Schell) but at the cost of abandoning her step-daughter Fabi (Samantha Eggar). For him, love is contingent on wealth, but he marries Michele, a Jew, in a (failed) bid to save her from the clutches of the Nazis. Fabi, shorn of maternal love finds turns to a paternal variation, but is capable of coming up with an ingenious murder plot.
Just quite how hollow Michele has become is demonstrated in a brilliant opening scene set after the end of the war. In a railway carriage, a bored small boy endlessly kicks a door. Pretty much for 90 seconds we either see or hear that door being kicked. Foolishly, his hands wander from the window to the door handle. Next thing, he has fallen out. Cue screams, chaos, shocked passengers racing out of the carriage.
But when the conductor turns up to investigate the incident he finds Michele still sitting in her seat, oblivious to any death, even that of a child. When she returns to Paris, she takes a room in a hotel under a pseudonym, fearing that her ravaged looks make her unattractive, guilty at surviving (by volunteering to work in the camp brothel) when all her relatives were wiped out, unaware that she has unexpectedly inherited all their combined wealth.
So the story begins in a different way. When Stanislaus meets her accidentally under her false name, he immediately assumes she is just a dead ringer for his deceased wife and enrols her in a scheme to win the millions currently held in escrow under this inexplicable French law.
Since she continues to play the part of a different woman, she hears the truth about her relationship with Stanislaus, that although he committed the only unselfish “gallant act” in his life in marrying her nonetheless his prime reason was money. Already Fabi, in full femme fatale mode, is planning to rid the couple of Michele once the money has been legally acquired.
To his credit, Stanislaus initially balks at this notion, but when Michele reveals her true identity and scuppers his relationship with Fabi while at the same time trying to win back the affection of her step-daughter, matters take a deadly turn.
For the most part what we have is a menage a trois, equal parts driven by money and love, but in each instance propelled by innermost desire. Stanislaus is adept at pulling the wool over Michele’s eyes, she only too willingly blinding herself to his sexual deception. But Michele is equally willing, even when she knows his true feelings, to use her money to win him back while Fabi, aware that for her lover money will always trump romance, is determined to use her body to achieve the same effect.
What makes this so compelling is that, unusually, it avoids sentiment. It would have been easy to load each character up with such vulnerability that an audience would not condemn them. Instead, in addition to their individual weaknesses, we are shown their inherent predatory natures.
What makes it so enjoyable is the acting. So often Maximilian Schell is called upon to play stern characters, often typecast from his accent as a villainous German of one kind or another (Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, The Deadly Affair, 1967), rather than allowing him to invent a more rounded character as he did in Topkapi (1964). This is a wonderfully involving performance, the wannabe chess grandmaster who uses his considerable charm to buttress his fears of poverty, and is only too aware of his failing, full of joie de vivre, bristling at being a kept man yet at the same time only too ready to financially exploit the situation.
Where in The Collector (1965) Samantha Eggar was constrained by circumstance and in Walk, Don’t Walk (1966) saddled with an initially cold character, here she is permitted greater freedom to develop a conflicted personality, loving and deadly at the same time, drawn to and hating her step-mother, attracted by the thought of the money that would secure Stanislaus but repulsed by the cost.
Ingmar Bergman protégé Ingrid Thulin (Wild Strawberries, 1957) is given the least leeway, another of the tormented characters in her intense portfolio. Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968) puts in an appearance as a friend trying to warn her off Stanislaus.
Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) takes the bold approach of allowing characters and situation to develop before moving into thriller mode. There are a couple of quite superb scenes, running the opening segment close is the much-vaunted scene of Fabi in the bath (“No one may enter the theater once Fabi enters her bath” was a famous tagline). It is brilliantly filmed in film noir tones, bright light slashed across eyes rather than through windows, and Johnny Dankworth provides an interesting score. Julius J. Epstein (Casablanca, 1942) wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by Hubert Monteilhet.
2 thoughts on “Return from the Ashes (1965) ****”
Quite a name cast for a film I’ve never seen. What were you allowed to do in the theatre after she enters her bath? Obviously you can’t leave, but how did they enforce that? Is it like when lines of stewards in tabards appear at the end of a football match?
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My guess is “bath” was the come-on rather than anything else. Star in bath why would you want to leave?
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