Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Greek tragedy, Turkish delight - a Melina double-bill.

I came across Rex Reed's 1967 article on Melina Mercouri, when sorting out books in the garage, and just have to share this opening paragraph: "Years from now, when we're all dead and gone, they'll still be talking about Melina Mercouri. They'll talk, because in an age full of plastic people, she was the real thing." Melina was on Broadway at the time, in a musical ILLYA DARLING, based on her hit film NEVER ON SUNDAY.
PHAEDRA, 1962 is a retelling of the Greek myth of Phaedra. In modern Greece, Alexis's father, an extremely wealthy shipping magnate, marries the younger, fiery Phaedra. When Alexis meets his stepmother, sparks fly and the two begin an affair. What will the Fates bring this family? Alexis's roadster and the music of Bach figure in the conclusion. 

NEVER ON SUNDAY was that great surprise hit of 1960, as European cinema was getting more popular and outside of the arthouses, that song and the music of Mikis Theodorakis swept the world. (I still have the soundtrack EP with Melina singing the theme song). Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri were hot, after their previous films like STELLA and LA LOI in 1959. They next turned to Greek tragedy and Euripides:  PHAEDRA, instead of Elektra, Antigone or Medea. Its a brilliantly shot drama with great black and white images as the relentless Phaedra sacrifics all for the love of her stepson Alexis. 
It starts with shipping magnate Thanos (Raf Vallone) celebrating the launch of his latest vessel, the "Phaedra", then he unwisely sends his wife Phaedra to London to bring back his son - Perkins. They meet at the British Museum, by the Elgin Marbles (which Mercouri when a later MP campaigned tirelessly to have returned to Greece); she thows an expensive ring into the Thames as the price to pay and soon they are having a passionate affair in Paris. 
Back in Greece Thanos has plans to link his son with the daughter of a friendly rival thus making the the most powerful family in Greece, but Phaedra is burning up with passion which will not be thwarted, to the alarm of her faithful servant .... The sybolism is laid on as the Aston Martin car which Alexis loves and has been bribed with arrives in Greece in a big box - the natives bless themselves and say it looks like a coffin. The young people go dancing, and Alexis begs Phaedra to leave him alone.  Then disaster strikes - the "Phaedra" has sunk with loss of life of crew. Phaedra chooses this moment to arrive at Thanos's office as they are announcing the names of the dead, to tell her husband that she loves Alexis and there will be no marriage .... The Greek tragedy ending is clear - Thanos beats up his son who drives off in that car, which soon plunges over a cliff, as Phaedra, assisted by her servant, prepares to take her own life. The images are stunning - Phaedra all in white with a white turban and dark glasses, pushing her way through the wailing relatives of the dead, all in black. She has a great Dior wardrobe too.

Mercouri is a fascinating presence, like Moreau (they were both in THE VICTORS, 1963) or Signoret, able to look radiant or haggard at will. Pauline Kael has referred to her "drag queen baritone" and she does seem to have an unusual voice to suit a larger than life persona. She and Dassin continued making films, like PROMISE AT DAWN and A DREAM OF PASSION which were certainly interesting. She died in 1994 aged 73 after her later years in the Greek Parliament.  I remember an afternoon with her in 1968, that revolutionary year, when I was 22 and attending a march in Trafalgar Square about aid for Biafra in Africa. Melina was leading the march and looked splendid in a long red dress with lots of gold chains. 10.30 PM SUMMER in 1966 is rather a lulu, but quite enjoyable, a version of Duras with the intriguing threesome of Peter Finch, Melina and Romy Schneider, and considered quite daring at the time. (Review at Melina, Romy, Peter labels). During the '60s she was one of the great European ladies, along with Anouk Aimee, Monica Vitti, Romy Schneider, Liv Ullmann, Stephane Audran, Ingrid Thulin, Loren, Lollobrigida, Cardinale etc. Irene Papas of course was other great Greek actress, pity they were never cast together ...

Perkins too after PSYCHO had some good years in Europe, mainly for Welles' THE TRIAL (with Moreau, Schneider, Martinelli), GOODBYE AGAIN (Perkins label) in Paris in '61 from Francoise Sagan, with Ingrid Bergman and Yves Montand was popular, and teamed with Loren again in the thriller FIVE MILES TO MIDNIGHT in '62, and with Bardot in THE RAVISHING IDIOT in 1964. PHAEDRA in Greece in '62 seems to have been unseen for a long time, but its certainly fascinating now; Kael also commented that the film's flaw is how could anyone believe Phaedra would leave Raf Vallone for boyish Tony Perkins ...

TOPKAPI is a bright, dazzling, colourful comedy thriller, from Eric Ambler, which was a big hit in 1964, and won Peter Ustinov a best supporting actor award. Its set in Istanbul and is about a daring jewel robbery. Dassin recreates his great RIFIFI robbery again, as the gang prepare to steal a priceless dagger from the Topkapi Museum - will they get away with it? 
Fun and thrills abond in equal measure, as Melina and Maximilan Schell recruit down on his luck Ustinov, as well as that other great scene-stealer Robert Morley. Melina's friend Despo from NEVER ON SUNDAY, is amusing here too as the lady-friend of Ustinov in the early scenes, Its a light-hearted caper taking in the sights of Istanbul, including those oiled wrestlers. I remember sitting through it twice when it opened in 1964, when I was 18.


  1. Sorry to disappoint, but STELLA was not a Jules Dassin film: that film was written and directed by Michael Cacoyannis. The film which first united Jules Dassin with Melina Mercouri was HE WHO MUST DIE, which was a big international hit in 1956, but seems mostly forgotten now.

  2. You are right of course. Mea culpa.