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The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe

The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe(1991)

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In a desolate, dusty Southern town during the Great Depression, local eccentric Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave) entertains the locals on the first floor of her house, often spending her nights dispensing her secret stash of moonshine to appease the citizens who spend their entire days doing backbreaking hard labor. However, the monotony of the town's daily existence is disrupted with two arrivals: hunchbacked Lyman (Cork Hubbert), who claims to be Miss Amelia's cousin and helps her run a café from her home, and Miss Amelia's estranged husband, Marvin Macy (Keith Carradine), whom she threw out shortly into their unconsummated marriage. Now fresh out of prison, he's fuming over her mistreatment of him (including usurping his land); furthermore, Lyman finds himself gravitating to Marvin as well. Soon the dysfunctional relationships devolve as the former lovers square off for a literal war of the sexes, delivering physical blows for public entertainment.

Based on a novella by Georgia novelist and southern gothic specialist Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye), this peculiar drama contains the usual gender-bending themes and physical grotesquerie which characterize much of her work. Barely seen in theaters, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe went straight to video in most territories and came during a strange period in the Merchant Ivory cycle, which also included the far less successful Slaves of New York.

Though it marks the first (and so far only) directorial effort for frequent Merchant Ivory actor Simon Callow, this film is really held together by Redgrave's forceful performance. With her close-cropped hair and androgynous affectations, she's a dynamic force throughout the film even when much of it doesn't seem to make much sense. The dusty look of the film is quite successful, with some graceful poetic touches that lift it close to a grim fairy tale. (Callow refers several times to Night of the Hunter as an influence, which makes perfect sense.)

Part of Home Vision's ongoing line of Merchant Ivory releases, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe benefits tremendously from a new anamorphic transfer that easily outdoes the blurry VHS edition, which looked like was literally being projected through a cloud of dirt. Here the details are sharp and colors are bold, with the often intriguing locales finally discernable even in the darkest night scenes.

The disc also includes optional English subtitles and audio commentary by Callow, who obviously holds a great deal of affection for the film and worked for many years to get it produced. In fact the project started outside of the Merchant Ivory circle but became entangled when it came to acquiring the rights, which had merged with the Edward Albee estate after he bought the novella for his play of the same name. Fortunately this filmic rendition - the story's third manifestation - offers an effective showcase for talent both behind and in front of the camera. The disc also includes liner notes by Merchant Ivory specialist Robert Emmet Long, who discusses his experiences on the set and offers a fair appraisal of this one-of-a-kind film's virtues.

For more information about The Ballad of the Safe Cafe, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson