Monday, January 18, 2016

Blue-Eyed Ambition: FROM THE TERRACE (1960)

There is a moment in Mark Robson's FROM THE TERRACE, the moment that gave John O'Hara's novel its name, when its protagonist Alfred Eaton (Paul Newman) first glimpses Mary St. John (Joanne Woodward) dancing on a terrace at a posh party in 1948. It's the moment that steers his life down an unhappy path, as can happen with any roll of the dice preceding a first "hello", but in this case it is a decision linked to other decisions in the mind of this homecoming ex-soldier. The scion of a well-to-do but otherwise direly unhappy Philadelphia family, he determines to pursue great wealth and power and all its trappings, mostly to justify himself in the presence of a domineering father (career-best work from Leon Ames). He's several years away from achieving his ambitions, but fitting into his plans with more immediacy than anything else is this St. John woman, with her high society ways and Joi Lansing platinum blonde hair. When Alfred sees her, as you can see here, Newman's blue eyes earn their legendary status in a full-on, double-barreled bore of Technicolor. (Ironically, those beautiful eyes were themselves color-blind.) Robson and his cameraman Leo Tover prepare us for this moment, and help it to resonate, by limning virtually every shot in the picture with the exact same shade of blue. When Alfred and Mary share their first dance - he brazenly taps the shoulder of her sardonic psychiatrist fiance (Patrick O'Neal) - it's hate at first sight, but the kind of hate that is commonly mistaken for passion.

The sex, we intuit, was good - at least for Mary, who spends the rest of the film longing for it, as Alfred continues to focus his potency on career. For a film of its period, even for a film of its kind - this is, unabashedly, one of those schmaltzy romantic dramas for which 20th Century Fox was almost uniquely known - FROM THE TERRACE is remarkably frank about the female sexual drive, which also extends to Alfred's own mother (Myrna Loy), whose search for satisfaction has led her into a middle-aged affair and alcoholism. Much as Alfred had to join the military to escape his family, he flees his wife's rightful itch by taking longer and longer field trips for his company, until one such trip takes him for an extended time to a mining town in Philadelphia, where he becomes acquainted with a man, a family, and a daughter (Ina Balin - frankly, insufficient casting) whose examples show him everything of human substance that his life has been missing. Meanwhile, back at home, Mary embarks on an affair with her former fiancé, only to discover that love really had nothing to do with their attraction to one another. When she raises the question of possible marriage in their love nest, her swain's reaction to the word is so contrary that one wonders in retrospect why they had ever been engaged in the first place.

At two hours and twenty minutes, FROM THE TERRACE is long for a picture of its type, but screenwriter Ernest Lehman (SABRINA, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) applies that time to the sensitive unknotting of some unusually adult problems. It also takes the trouble to define some adult problems overlooked by 99% of other movies, particularly when Alfred's boss MacHardie (excellent work by THE MUMMY's Felix Aylmer) explains to his intense young executive that marriage is, above all, a contract; that businessmen are judged by their ability to honor their contracts; and that, from this perspective, infidelity is a lesser evil than divorce, though neither is excusable. MacHardie's logic is hardline and difficult to contest, but Alfred realizes that his decision to abide by it had less to do with honoring his agreements than with selfish ambition, which is demonstrated in time to bring out the worst in people - especially one's competitors - and soil all quality of life.

FROM THE TERRACE is now available from Screen Archive Entertainment as a limited edition Blu-ray disc from Twilight Time, sporting a sumptuous new 4K transfer (remarkable to think that Newman went on to cement his stardom with a string of black-and-white films like THE HUSTLER and HUD) with an isolated music track for a rather hectoring score by Elmer Bernstein.


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