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Only three years into what would mature into a lengthy and diverse career on stage, in films, and on television, British actress Samantha Eggar was begging her agents to get her into a comedy. By age 26, the convent-educated daughter of a brigadier general had made a name for herself within the British film industry by playing the partner in crime of Donald Pleasence's wife poisoner nonpareil Dr. Crippen (1964) and a pretty young thing whose schoolgirl amorality drives pregnant sister Patricia Neal to hysterical blindness in Psyche 59 (1964). The actress topped these dark-adapted turns by earning a Palme d'Or, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination as the doomed object of kidnapper Terence Stamp's unhealthy affection in The Collector (1965) but was herself the picture of perfidy in Return from the Ashes (1965), plotting the murder of stepmother (and Holocaust victim) Ingrid Thulin so she can possess the woman's husband (Maximilian Schell) and personal fortune.
Based on the 1961 French language novel Phoenix from the Ashes by Hubert Monteilhet, Return from the Ashes had been optioned originally by Monteilhet's countryman, Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose Les diaboliques (US: Diabolique, 1955) had, if not changed the shape of cinematic suspense, added some beguiling contours and set off something an international incident. Clouzot had outbid Alfred Hitchcock to obtain the screen rights to the Pierre Boileau-Thomas Narcejac novel on which Les diaboliques was based, prompting the Master of Suspense to adapt another Boileau-Narcejac work for his masterful Vertigo (1958). Though Vertigo was a box office disappointment, Hitchcock rebounded with Psycho (1960), a veritable American Les diaboliques, complete with its own classic twist in the tail. Psycho's unexpected success spawned a host of like-minded thrillers worldwide, more than a few of which came from the United Kingdom.
Britain's Hammer Film Productions put its weight behind a run of Hitchcockian psycho-thrillers, among them Seth Holt's Taste of Fear (US: Scream of Fear, 1961) and Freddie Francis' Nightmare (1964) - both written by Jimmy Sangster. Seeing profit in paranoia, United Artists, then making a significant investment in British filmmaking, partnered with the Mirisch Corporation to add Return to the Ashes to the conversation. Purchasing the rights from Clouzot, UA put screenwriter Julius J. Epstein (Casablanca) on the adaptation and brought Bristol-born director J. Lee Thompson home from Hollywood, fresh from his successes with The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962). Thompson's involvement guaranteed a significant role for Samantha Eggar, then under exclusive contract to Thompson's production company. As the avaricious Fabienne "Fabi" Wolf, she was awarded second billing, after Schell (whose preferential billing reflected his 1961 Oscar for Judgment at Nuremburg) and ahead of Thulin, the film's actual star but less of a box office draw.
Though he had gotten accustomed to working with large casts and crews in Hollywood, J. Lee Thompson had cut his teeth on small-gauge British dramas film rooted in contradictory and conflicting human passions. Two early efforts, the noir Murder Without Crime (1950) and the fact-based Yield to the Night (1956), were crime tales - the latter scripted by his first wife, Joan Henry, whose insider knowledge of the workings of the British penal system came from a 1951 conviction for fraud. Thompson may have felt an uncomfortable affinity for the love triangle at the cold black heart of Return from the Ashes, having scuttled his marriage to Henry by entering into an illicit relationship with the actress Susan Hampshire. His personal life plagued as well by alcoholism and amphetamine use, Thompson likely welcomed the time away from the corrupting influence of Tinseltown however this latest project may have seemed to reflect darker aspects of his personal life. Though set in and around Paris in the aftermath of World War II, Return from the Ashes was shot entirely on the MGM backlot at Borehamwood, the illusion of location strengthened by the importation of a large supporting cast of French character actors.
For the film's American release, United Artists crafted poster art and advertising materials that drew a tacit parallel to Psycho, announcing that "No One May Enter the Theater After Fabi Enters Her Bath." Three months later, Return from the Ashes was given a gala premiere at the Prince Charles Cinema in London but critical indifference and poor word of mouth was already killing its forward momentum. It is likely that comparisons to Psycho did the film more harm than good; an unforgettable pre-title sequence set aboard a moving train and the aforementioned bathtub setpiece notwithstanding, Return from the Ashes lacked Hitchcock's perversion and seemed, by 1966, old fashioned. UA quickly fobbed the feature off on a double bill with Walter Grauman's trashy John O'Hara adaptation A Rage to Live (1965). Untouched by the poor reception afforded Return from the Ashes, Samantha Eggar was permitted at long last to star in a comedy - the featherweight Walk, Don't Run (1966), in which her costar was Cary Grant in his final film role.
By Richard Harland Smith
Sources:British Film Makers: J. Lee Thompson by Steve Chibnall (Manchester University Press, 2000)Joan Henry obituary The Telegraph, January 1, 2001"The Boys": Hollywood and the Awakening of a Young Writer by Leslie Epstein (lg-la.com)