Monday, March 11, 2019

RETURN FROM THE ASHES 1965


Independent of what one might ultimately come to feel about Return from the Ashes after seeing it, no one can say it isn’t a bargain. Helmed by Oscar-nominated director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone -1962, Cape Fear - 1962, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud - 1975) and written by Julius Epstein (Oscar-nominated co-writer of Casablanca - 1942), the stylish and undeniably entertaining Return from the Ashes gives you three movies for the price of one: 1) A drama about a Holocaust survivor readjusting to society after 5-years internment in a concentration camp; 2) A deception melodrama with a couple persuading a lookalike stranger to impersonate a deceased relative in order to claim an inheritance; and 3) A romantic crime thriller involving a love triangle, a fortune in money, and a complex murder plot…complete with double-crosses.
Shot in atmospheric, close-up intensive, high-contrast B&W by veteran British cinematographer Christopher Challis (Two for the Road – 1967, Evil Under the Sun - 1982), Return from the Ashes drips noirish élan and mystery from every frame. And why shouldn’t it? Its delicious mélange of a plot is essentially A Woman’s Face meets Mildred Pierce meets Vertigo meets Anastasia meets Diabolique meets The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Ingrid Thulin as Dr. Michelle Wolf
Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin
Samantha Eggar as Fabienne Wolf
Herbert Lom as Dr. Charles Bovard

A gripping pre-credits sequence establishes the place and time as postwar France, 1945 (make sure to drink it all in, for it’s the first and last instance of the film making any kind of serious attempt to accurately depict the era) while simultaneously setting the tone for what will be the film’s dark exploration of moral relativism, solipsism and survival, and the ways in which our experiences shape who we become.
On a train traveling from Germany to France, a child in a crowded compartment is making a nuisance of himself by repeatedly kicking an exit door and fiddling with its latch (Mother: “[pleadingly] If I give you another bar of chocolate, will you stop then?” child: “[kicking intensifying] Perhaps”). When tragedy strikes in the form of the door giving way and launching das schrecklich kind out into the darkness, the passengers all react with appropriate shock and horror. All but one.
The individual closest to the now-yawning chasm that claimed the little brat…er, boy, is a gaunt, graying woman whose face bears a scar, upon whose wrist are the tattooed numbers of a death camp, and whose haunted eyes stare without seeing…a past witness to horrors far worse.
The Holocaust survivor and titular Phoenix returning from the ashes of Dachau is Dr. Michelle Wolf, a Jewish radiologist en route to Paris in hopes of reclaiming her earlier life. Presuming, of course, that there’s still a life to reclaim, for everyone who knew her now presumes she is dead. 
She's gone but not forgotten by confidant and medical colleague Dr. Charles Bovard (Lom), a plastic surgeon whose feelings for Michelle run deeper than friendship. She's recalled (less than fondly) but not missed by the rancorous Fabienne “Fabi” Wolf (Eggar), Michelle’s estranged, neglected step-daughter from an earlier, widowed marriage. And she's unmourned but thought of with gratitude by her handsome, penniless younger husband, Stanislaus “Stan” Pilgrin (Schell), freelance chess master and master freebooter who wed Michelle mere moments before she was seized by the Gestapo (suspicious, that), granting the otherwise homeless fortune-hunter legal access to Michelle’s now-vacant home. 
Well, not vacant for long.
Out of shared grief (not), Stan and Fabi take up residence as lustful cohabitants driven mad with frustration by a law prohibiting them from collecting on three hundred million francs bequeathed to the presumed-to-be-dead Michelle due to the absence of an identifiable corpse.

Michelle’s return from the ashes may not be swift—transformed internally by her ordeals in Dachau, she waits until she can be transformed externally by plastic surgery to restore her former beauty—but when it happens it is most definitely seismic. With scores to settle and amends to make, Michelle’s return sets into motion the labyrinthine machinations and stratagems outlined earlier. Schemes Stan himself describes as “Bizarre, grotesque…” leading Michelle to feel “Revolted, curious, shocked, even thrilled…all at the same time.
Which just so happens to be exactly what some critics felt about Return From the Ashes in 1965.
You Had One Eye in the Mirror

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
A problem I once had with the glut of sound-alike, ersatz film-noir erotic thrillers that sprang up like weeds in the ‘90s in the wake of Body Heat, Fatal Attraction, and Basic Instinct, is that they always seemed to happen in a kind of void; never occupying a recognizable world nor appearing to be tethered to anything other than the absurd, gimmicky requirements of the genre. 
Return From the Ashes is just as convoluted and far-fetched as those erotic thrillers, but for some reason, it works so effectively for me and never feels as contrived as perhaps it should. Maybe this is because one accepts a certain level of artifice with older films, or maybe it's due to the fact that everything about the film's construction—from its visual style to its setting to its characters—is indeed arch, but of a thematic whole. The characters and the world they inhabit appear to be an extension of one another.

Chess, the activity that brings the two lead characters together, is used as both metaphor and symbol. 
Through a flashback, we learn that on an evening in 1938, while most of Paris is off listening to news of the French Prime Minister’s meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich, Michelle and Stanislaus meet in a near-deserted chess club. The two individuals are thus linked in their mutual self-interest and apathy.
The good/bad morality contrasts suggested by the black and white chessboard is stylistically referenced in Michelle's expensive clothing (which contrasts with Stan's modest pullover and tie). When invited by Stan to play a few games for money, Michelle (exposing and embracing her dark side) removes her stark white evening jacket to reveal its jet-black lining and her elegant, funereal frock.
"You have the advantage."
And indeed, she does. All the game-playing strategizing and manipulations of chess serve as both motif and thematic through-line in Return From the Ashes. As the two strangers play their first game, the charming and penniless Stanislaus (who, significantly, has the black pieces) thinks he is fleecing yet another unsuspecting older woman. But it is Michelle--essentially making a down-payment--who is setting the cash bait necessary to lure the handsome young man. Audiences who know Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin from her many films with Ingmar Bergman are apt to find this sequence an inferior reminder of Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) and its iconic scene of a medieval knight playing a game of chess with Death.
"If there is no God, no immortality, no heaven, no hell,
no reward, no punishment...then everything is permissible."
Indicative of her own deeply flawed character, Michelle begins to fall in love/lust with Stanislaus (she strokes the hell out of that candle) as he expounds on his amoral personal philosophy, paraphrased from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Return From the Ashes is a melodrama that utilizes the stark contrast of black and white to tell a story of stark evil and moral relativity. Set in the era of WW2 and German-occupied France, the sociological fallout of Hitler's dominance forces the collision of ethical principles and survival instincts. In a world where clear-cut distinctions between right and wrong have been blurred and minimized, the film asks us to look at its dissolute characters not solely as individuals inherently good or bad, or even victims; but as individuals imbued with free will who are shaped, scarred, and perhaps reclaimed by their circumstances.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Return From the Ashes takes place roughly between the years 1938 and 1947 (just how much time transpires between Michelle's release from Dachau and eventual return to her former life is rather murkily conveyed), but the film is almost hilariously disinterested in making any of the lead characters look remotely period-appropriate. Michelle's lacquered flip hairstyle and pale lipstick recall Sixties-era Dina Merrill; Fabi's long, flowing locks are pure Carnaby Street Jean Shrimpton: and Stan walks around with a traditional pomaded '60s Rat Pack cut that makes him look like John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby.
Although the practice of setting a film in the past while wholesale ignoring historical accuracy in everything but automobiles and dress extras is very common in sixties films, it still plays havoc with one's suspension of disbelief and the ability to lose oneself in the narrative. I found I had to keep reminding myself at crucial points just when all this was supposed to be taking place.
Let's Do The Time Warp Again
SS agents from 1940 confront a stylish couple from 1964.
This reminds me of that musical number in  Xanadu where the '40s blend awkwardly with the '80s.


PERFORMANCES
With the characters in Return From the Ashes all fairly morally repugnant, it serves as no small compensation that they are all at least so strikingly beautiful. I’ve always liked Ingrid Thulin, an actress possessing an intelligent beauty that conveys both self-assured dignity and vulnerability. Her Michelle Wolf is a surprisingly modern character, written in a dimensional manner that allows her to be independent, smart, selfish and self-possessed, weak, willful, and ultimately empathetic.
Return From the Ashes was released four months after Samantha Eggar made her star-making (and Oscar-nominated) appearance in William Wyler's The Collector. As the delightfully devious and unhinged Fabienne Wolf, Eggar is all petulant malice and emotional greed. She makes for a dangerously unhinged romantic rival while managing to bring a pitiably wounded quality to her character's rigid self-defensiveness. In the key role as the unapologetic cad so charming that two women are willing to overlook his black heart and shameless narcissism, Oscar-winner Maximillian Schell (Judgement at Nuremberg - 1961) gives an assured, witty, and utterly fascinating performance.
Capturing all the ambiguity the role embodies, his Stanislaus is a real charmer who is never all villain, never all hero, and always maddeningly hard to read...though the always-welcome Herbert Lom has Stan's number from the start and never passes up an opportunity to let us know.)

Vladek Sheybal as Paul, the chess club manager
Familiar from several Ken Russell films, Vladek Sheybal, portrayed
 chess master Tov Kronsteen in the Bond film From Russia, With Love (1963) 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Return From the Ashes wasn’t a success when released, and I suspect it disappeared from theaters rather quickly. It most certainly seems to have disappeared from people's minds. Studios tend to bury underperforming films when it comes to TV broadcasts, and Return From the Ashes bore the double burden of having been marketed as a film for adults, so perhaps that's why I have no memory of it cropping up on The Late Late Show when I was a kid. I don't even know if it ever even had a home video release. I do, however, remember being scared out of my wits by the TV ad that ran when it opened in theaters in 1965. YouTube reveals it wasn't all that explicit, but I was only about 8-years-old or so at the time and distinctly remember hearing the sinister-sounding title and leaping to the conclusion that it must be a ghost story or vampire movie. All other details had previously remained vague save for the kindertrauma warning "No one may enter the theater after Fabi enters her bath!" and a shot of a shadowy figure opening a bathroom door. Yikes!
Taking a page from the William Castle promotion playbook while drawing intentional parallels to both Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Clouzot's 1955 film Diabolique (Clouzot initially owned the rights to the 1961 novel upon which this film is based Le Retour des Cendres by Hubert Monteilhet) Return From the Ashes was misleadingly marketed as a shocker. Moviegoers expecting edge-of-your-seat thrills and a Samantha Eggar bubble bath equivalent of Janet Leigh's shower must have felt duped when served a somber crime drama instead. 
In spite of my fearful awareness of the film as a child (between this and Psycho, the family bathroom became a chamber of horrors for me...I have no idea how my mother ever got me to bathe at all), I didn't get around to actually seeing Return From the Ashes until it became available through made-to-order DVD around 2011. But even now it's rare that I come across someone anyone familiar with the title, rarer still to meet someone who's seen it.


BONUS MATERIAL
Return From The Ashes - Theatrical Trailer
Too lengthy to be the TV ad that terrified me as a child, still,
you get a good taste for how this movie might have come across to an 8-year-old. 
 

Hubert Monteilhet's novel makes for only the first third of the film adaptation. Many of the film's most sensational elements are the invention of screenwriter Julius Epstein. If you're interested in how the film deviates from its source novel, check out a breakdown of the novel HERE, where you'll also find information on a 2015 feature film remake/adaptation titled Phoenix.







Talitha Pol as Claudine
A year after appearing in Return From the Ashes, actress/model Talitha Pol wed John Paul Getty Jr. and the pair became major style icons of the hippie-chic jet-set '60s. The color pic is from a 1969 Vogue photoshoot of the hard-partying couple by Patrick Lichfield. Pol died of a heroin overdose in 1971.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. I was lucky enough to catch this on satellite TV (can't recall which channel) a couple of years ago and thought it contained a captivating cast. Sturdy, ever-solid Ingrid, dreamy Max, delectable Samantha and the underrated Herbert. What a unique storyline, even as it borrows elements from so many other films. I have to admit it slipped my mind (I can't say why...!), so it was fun to rediscover it through your tribute to it. I do so agree about the 1960s films that never seem to have made a scintilla of effort to provide period hair & clothing! I recall the hairdresser for "Dr Zhivago" stating that she couldn't get Julie Christie to give up her bouffant because NO ONE would wear hair that wasn't teased at that moment in time. It just wasn't done (though Julie Andrews had short, flat hair in SOM! LOL But even that movie had no period hair unless you count the Baroness's. I guess braids and dual side buns were not going to have their moment in the sun.)

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      At last! A person who’s seen this! As good as I find it to be, it does seem to be a movie that has not only slipped through the cracks, but as you attest, slip your mind as well.

      And yes, the whole modern look of period films made in the '60s is such a standard you feel you should grow used to it, but it can be so disorienting at times. Glad you mentioned Doctor Zhivago because it seems we both remember the same thing from that self-congratulatory "making of" featurette they have on the DVD (and show on TCM from time to time). They keep patting themselves on the back for their meticulous period detail...until that hairdresser makes her appearance and throws Julie Christie and her bangs and bouffant under the bus. (By the way, I've always thought Ingrid Thulin had the same, almost masculine jawline as Julie Christie, which I find looks most appealing and sensual in her closeups. most appealing and . It's most appealing and makes her look very sensual in closeups.)
      I tend to forget how anachronistic Julie Andrews looks in The Sound of Music, but you’re right. What works for period accuracy could probably wreak havoc with a star’s audience appeal.
      Cheers, Poseidon!

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  2. It was definitely on the Late Late Late show (2am) in the Seventies, because that's when I caught it the first time as a teenager absolutely determined to stay up for a rare opportunity to see my secret dreamboat Maximilian Schell. (Other Max flicks shown at 2am were "Point Counterpoint" and "The Condemned of Altona," the latter of which I recommend unto you, with Nazi "Butcher of Smolensk" Max locked up in his father's postwar attic until sister-in-law Sophia Loren uncovers the family secret). I loved "Return from the Ashes" but what shocked me on first seeing it was the way the Holocaust was kind of used as an introductory hook and then not really referred to in flashbacks or even the rest of the plot. In school in the Seventies, we had all learned about what the Nazis had done and in TV shows and movies made during the period, it was usually central to the dramas it figured in and those plots constantly referred back to it. Here it was just used as a sort of explanation for the setup (woman is away for some years and her husband and stepdaughter get together) and as I recall Michelle's character didn't seem all that affected by her experience. (I'm not trying to dismiss the moral horror -- it's just that you couldn't have made the film in the same way in the Seventies).

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    1. Ah, the days of forcing oneself to stay up to watch a desired film on The Late Late Show! It was such a big deal to have an extended bedtime (let alone the thrill of a TV channel that didn't sign off at 1 am) no wonder movies felt so special.
      I've seen only a handful of Maximilian Schell movies, but the one you described with Sophia Loren sounds terrific, so I’ll have to keep an eye out.

      The issue to take with film using the Holocaust as a plot device being used as a brief plot device is a good one. The first time I saw ASHES I kept thinking Michelle’s ordeals in the concentration camp would figure more into the story as it progressed.
      What’s there (and perhaps not as well conveyed as it could be) is in her brief discussion with Charles when she says that before the war she never much saw herself as a Jew and that she never saw herself as a mother. The war seemed to instill in her an empathy she didn’t display in the early part of the film (when she and Stan are ignoring the radio broadcasts about the war) and the realization that she has treated Fabi very badly by ignoring her so.
      If the film had any larger points to make about war, indifference, moral relativity, etc., I think the viewer has to work hard to seek them out between the lines. Once she’s released there is a great deal of plots and twists to unravel, and I think the Holocaust element (if it was ever thematic to begin with) get a little lost.

      The novel sounds as though it is a great deal darker than the film, and I think you're right: had the film been made in the'70s--withs it's call for realism, and the war in Vietnam commanding so many film parallels, the entire approach to ASHES would be different. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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  3. This sounds very intriguing! I've admired Ingrid Thulin's bravery as an actress ever since I saw her in Visconti's The Damned (1969). She's a very striking woman, and pairing her with Maximilian Schell, one of the most attractive men in cinema history, surely doesn't hurt! The way you described the beginning of them film strongly brought to mind Phoenix, a marvelous German film from 2014. I think you would enjoy it, in case you haven't already seen it.

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    1. Hi Sandra
      That 2014 German film PHOENIX you reference is adapted from the same novel as RETURN FROM THE ASHES. According to a site I read, it's said to be a much more faithful adaptation. I'd never heard of it before, but I look forward to checking it out.
      I too think Ingrid Thulin is marvelous in THE DAMNED. What a performance! Helmut Berger, her co-star felt she deserved an Oscar nomination for it. I'm inclined to agree.
      The cast and the twisty plot of RETURN FROM THE ASHES makes it a worthwhile film to check out should it ever reappear on cable. I'd be interested to hear how it compares to PHOENIX. Thank you for for reading the post and for the film recommendation!

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  4. For decades all I could remember is the ending of this movie which I saw on TV in the 60s. Maybe TV. Knowing my mother she may have taken me to the theater with her to see it. It always bothered me that I could never place the movie itself. It wasn’t familiar to anyone I described it to. I couldn’t even remember the actors. Just the surprise, which apparently had quite an impact on a 9-yr-old boy. The funny thing is, I’ve had it on DVD for a few years and it was in my “to watch” pile forever. I only got around to watching after I saw PHOENIX. Finally it all came back to me. But still, no one I talked to knew the movie. Thank you for resurrecting it!

    I was reminded of it again only a few weeks ago after watching the 1964 Samantha Eggar movie, PSYCHE 59. Another odd triangle thriller, kind of muddled, but absolutely gorgeous black and white scope cinematography.

    Thanks Ken!
    Max

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    1. Hi Max
      Such a coincidence that you brought up PSYCHE 59! It’s a title I never heard of before today, but I came upon it when looking on YouTube for other Samantha Eggar films to explore. They only had the trailer, but for the reasons you cite, it does look appealing. I’m going to have to add both PHOENIX and that one to my own “to watch” list.
      I’m impressed that you got to see this so young. I’m not sure how I missed it on TV, but it obviously was broadcast. I also like that you have seen PHONIX and thus have the best perspective so far of which adaptation is the most effective (or perhaps they are so different there is no comparing).
      I read that a stage production of RETURN FROM THE ASHES was mounted here in Los Angeles in 2011…of course, I’ve no recollection of that, either.
      Thanks, Man, for reading this and adding your name to the short but growing list of folks who have actually heard of/seen this movie. It's no lost masterpiece, but I think it's a very entertaining thriller a lot of classic movie fans would get a kick out of. Thanks for commenting! Cheers, Max!

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    2. Ken, what I like about PHOENIX and RETURN FROM THE ASHES is that they can be seen back to back without spoiling either's enjoyment or surprises. They each have completely different twists of their own. I have the movie tie-in novel, too, but have yet to read it. I really should. Thanks!

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    3. Now I'm really intrigued! Thanks, Max

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  5. I saw this one on the big screen, about 10 years ago, at the American Cinematheque on Hollywood Blvd., formerly the Egyptian Theater. It must have been the first time it had played in a theater since it's first release (and probably hasn't been shown on a big screen since.) The Cinematheque used to have a great policy of showing these semi-forgotten movies (and double features, too!) Now, they seem to stick to showing and re-showing the same handful of films that are more likely to draw a crowd (West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones movies, etc.) As to the whole issue of '60s fashions in movies set in the 30s 40s & 50s: I believe they used to think women went to the movies primarily to look at the clothes and hairstyles, and they weren't interested in looking at frocks and 'do's from 20 or 30 years before then.

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    1. That must have been quite the experience seeing this on the big screen! Not only because it's such a strikingly shot movie, but because, as you note, rarely-seen films are growing scarcer and scarcer on the revival circuit.
      I've enjoyed a few screenings of unusual films at American Cinematheque (usually during it's Mods & Rockers festivals) but, indeed, they do seem to be focusing more on familiar titles. Wonderful venue, though. And the reason you cite for the anachronistic look of period films in the '60s is on the money. Studios strongly believed that people came to movies for glamour, their philosophy being that is people wanted accuracy and realism, they should watch a documentary.

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  6. Ken, for once, I have to disagree with you. I saw last night Return from the Ashes on the very fine Blu-ray that was recently released by Kino Lorber. I couldn't find anything worth of interest in what is (for me) an overlong misguided flop. All those embarrassing scenes right in the beginning with Ingrid Thulin made up as a KZ-Zombie with an accent. The atrocious acting from Samantha Eggar and Maximilian Schell, who was never much of as actor really (have you seen his over the top antics in "The Man in the Glass Booth" ? It brings another Holocaust linked film into high camp). He his handsome though, that yes. And then, the story is not interesting enough to sustain 105 minutes, it is very poorly written. All that for this? I started fast-forward around the 70 minute mark, always a bad sign. On a larger scope, I have a problem with a lot of 1960-1965 films which still have one foot in classical Hollywood and try to push the other in Sixties Modern. Intimacy in Cinemascope never worked. So, for me it is Back to the Ashes, sorry.

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    1. Hi Tom
      No apologies are necessary for holding a different opinion about a film that I do. You’re not contradicting me, and neither point of view is more valid than the other. They’re just different, not opposing, or even comparative…just a subjective impression you’re sharing.
      And I write about films to offer my own personal insights, not so that readers agree with me. I hope they discover a film and just embark on a journey of their own, like you did. NoNo guarantees of a similar outcome because we’re totally different people.

      It’s enlightening to read about what aspects of RETURN FROM THE ASHES didn’t work for you, and how the film failed to engage you or hold your interest. The comment about the problems in creating intimacy in Cinemascope is interesting, for that has been the gripe of many cinematographers and directors of the era, forced to work in a format geared for boxoffice, but not always the best fit for the film’s themes.
      I have never seen Maximillian Schell in THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH, but now that’s it’s more readily available I should, since he’s an actor I like a great deal. And don’t get me started on Samantha Eggar…she’s bliss!
      I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts on the film, and that you didn’t allow your having a different experience of the flm stop you from sharing with the readers here. I just hope you didn’t buy that Blue-ray!
      Much appreciated, Tom.

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