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Phaedra

Phaedra(1962)

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teaser Phaedra (1962)

"I gave you milk and honey/In return you gave me poison."
Melina Mercouri, translating the lyrics of a Greek song, in Phaedra

As a follow-up to the international smash Never on Sunday (1960), which had put Jules Dassin back on top after years on the Blacklist and made Melina Mercouri a star, the American expatriate director turned out one of the most maddening films in his oeuvre. Phaedra, a 1962 modern-dress version of the classic Greek play Hippolytus, manages to justify Dassin's most ardent champions and his most vehement detractors, often within the same scene. Even its box office fate was a study in extremes, with the film becoming a hit in Europe and flopping dismally in the U.S.

Euripides had first treated the legend of the young man pursued by his stepmother and accused of attempted rape when he spurns her advances in a lost play titled Hippolytus Veiled. The depiction of a love-maddened Phaedra brazenly attempting to seduce her husband's son had so offended the ancient Greeks that it had failed on its initial presentation (some sources claim it was hissed off the stage). Still drawn to the material, the playwright reshaped it, focusing more on psychology and having Phaedra proposition the young man through her serving woman. The result, first performed in 428 B.C., captured first prize at the yearly festival devoted to tragic plays.

This tale of forbidden love leading to tragedy has continued to hold audiences, inspiring a version by the ancient Roman writer Seneca, 17th century French playwright Jean Racine's Phedre, an opera by Hans Werner Henze, a dance piece choreographed by Martha Grahame, a cantata by Benjamin Britten and a British version by Tony Harrison, Phaedra Brittanica, set in 19th century India. In 1924, Eugene O'Neill updated the story to a 19th century New England farm to create one of his most successful early plays, Desire Under the Elms.

With the success of Never on Sunday, Dassin could have produced just about anything as long as Mercouri took the female lead. Producers tried to convince him to make a sequel but instead, inspired by his love of his adopted country (and Mercouri, whom he would marry in 1966), he decided to adapt Euripides' story, long a test of great actresses, as a vehicle for her. With her soulful eyes and oversized mouth, Mercouri seemed a natural for tragic roles, while the contemporary story, in which Phaedra's royal husband becomes a shipping magnate, not only gave her the chance to show off a high-fashion wardrobe, but also capitalized on the headline-making romance between Aristotle Onassis and opera star Maria Callas.

Although Phaedra was shot on locations in Greece, England and France, Dassin cast most of the supporting roles with Greek actors. Mercouri's husband was played by Raf Vallone, a burly Italian leading man who was just breaking into American films with A View from the Bridge (1962). As the son who falls for Mercouri, Dassin cast Anthony Perkins, who had recently resettled in Europe. Perkins was extremely popular because of the success of Psycho (1960), but at the same time, had left the U.S. because he didn't want to be typecast as deranged killers. Ironically, he had already played a role modeled on Hippolytus in the film version of Desire Under the Elms (1958). That adaptation had not fared well with critics or at the box office, with one complaint being that Perkins and Sophia Loren had no on-screen chemistry, despite the fact that the two had become friends while shooting the film.

The same would happen when Perkins worked with Mercouri. They too became such close friends that she kept a picture of him by her bed for years afterwards. But though their rapport shows in their dramatic scenes, as romantic partners, they didn't click for the same reasons that Loren and Perkins weren't convincing as screen lovers. Pauline Kael would later claim the casting ruined his career, because "when Melina Mercouri leaves her rich, powerful bull of a husband, Raf Vallone, to run away with his skinny young son, Anthony Perkins....She scoops him up in her arms, like a toy." (Pauline Kael, 5,001 Nights at the Movies.

When Phaedra opened, it was met with mixed reviews. It fared best in Europe, where it won praise for Jacques Natteau's wide-screen black-and-white cinematography and the love scenes, particularly the stars' first sexual encounter, in which rain on the windows creates a series of erotic, out-of-focus images. But even the European critics carped about some of the updating, particularly the use of cynical peasants as a Greek chorus, who are simultaneously entranced and repelled by the family's lavish lifestyle. When the sports car in which Perkins will die is delivered to his father's estate, an old man, played by an unbilled Dassin, says, "To me it looks like big coffin." Although Variety's critic predicted the sex and star power would make it a box-office winner, Phaedra was a box office failure in the U.S., only performing well in Europe.

In later years, the film's reputation has both grown and diminished. For some critics, like David Thomson, it represents a betrayal of the promise of Dassin's early film noir pictures. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, he describes Dassin's later work as "some of the most entertainingly bad films of the sixties and seventies: pictures that outstrip their own deficiencies and end up being riotously enjoyable as one waits to see how far pretentiousness will stretch." But the film also has a devoted following who watch for its rare television screenings and clamor for its release on DVD.

Producer-Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Dassin, Margarita Liberaki
Based on a script by Liberaki and Hippolytus by Euripides
Cinematography: Jacques Natteau
Art Direction: Max Douy
Music: Mikis Theodorakis
Cast: Melina Mercouri (Phaedra), Anthony Perkins (Alexis), Raf Vallone (Thanos), Elizabeth Ercy (Ercy), Olympia Papadouka (Anna), George Sarris (Ariadne), Jules Dassin (Christo).
BW-116m. Letterboxed.

by Frank Miller

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