• Fedora

    Released by: Olive Films
    Released on: October 28, 2014
    Director: Billy Wilder
    Cast: William Holden, Marthe Keller, Hildegard Knef, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Stephen Collins, Arlene Francis
    Year: 1978
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    The Movie:

    After the suicide of a former superstar who appeared to be much younger than her age suggested, has-been Hollywood producer Barry “Dutch” Detweiler recalls a troublesome series of encounters he had with the reclusive woman two weeks before on the Greek island of Corfu. Dutch had gone to the island to convince Fedora to star in a new film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. Instead, he finds her being held prisoner by the enigmatic Countess Sobryanski, her dutiful servant, and a chauffeur. Fedora manages to escape the group’s clutches and meets up with Dutch. She tells him that the aging countess is after her money and won’t let her go until she gets it. She also reveals that Dr. Vando has kept her young by giving her dubious medical treatments. Shortly after her revelation, she is apprehended but manages to escape again, this time killing herself by leaping in front of a train. At her funeral, Dutch confronts Countess Sobryanski, only to learn the terrible and melancholy truth about the beautiful and mysterious Fedora.

    Fedora is based on a novella by former actor Thomas Tryon. Tryon began his career on Broadway starring alongside such theatre greats as Jack Cassidy and Sheila Bond before making the jump to television. In the late 1950s, he rose to fame playing Texas John Slaughter for Walt Disney Presents on ABC. Around the same time, he also began to make a name for himself in the movies, starring in such memorable science fiction fare as I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Moon Pilot. After being passed up for the role of Sam Loomis in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, he landed the role of an Irish priest rising through the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy in The Cardinal. The film was directed by Otto Preminger, and Tryon later credited his abuse at the hands of Preminger as the reason he had decided to leave acting altogether. His change in careers was fortuitous for horror fans, however; it had the startling effect of helping to revitalize horror literature.

    In 1972, Tryon’s first novel, The Other, was published. It became an international bestseller and is often credited, alongside Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, as introducing modernity to literary horror. Two more novels followed, Harvest Home and Lady, both of which were likewise bestsellers, before Tryon turned his attention to a collection of four novellas, which he titled Crowned Heads. Each story focused on a member of Hollywood royalty. The first, “Fedora,” dealt with a Greta Garbo-like émigré who finds success during Hollywood’s silent heyday, which she parlays into success in the talkie era. Eventually she retires, only to return to the business some years later looking no older than she did the day she left. After several notable hits and a failure or two, she again retires. A journalist vacationing in Greece learns that she’s staying on a nearby island and goes in search of her, only to learn the disturbing truth about her youthful good looks.

    It’s easy to see why filmmaker Billy Wilder was attracted to Tryon’s story. Wilder had long been a major player in the film industry, and he no doubt recognized Tryon’s tale for what it was: a subtle satirical takedown of Hollywood’s obsession with fame and youth culture. The theme was one Wilder had dealt with before, and in his most critically admired picture, Sunset Boulevard. He approached Universal, whose interest in the project was piqued, but upon completion of the script, the studio turned it down. Wilder found backing from studios in West Germany and France, and the film went into production on location in Europe, though without Greta Garbo, whom Wilder had sought for the role of the countess. Garbo allegedly hating Tryon’s story as well as Wilder’s treatment of it, perhaps because it hit a little too close to home.

    Unfortunately, the film failed to make a splash at the box office and slipped quietly into obscurity. It signaled the end of Wilder’s long and distinguished career, which had included such box office and critical smashes as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, among many others. Yet, the film’s lack of financial success in no way diminishes its status as a work of art from a major talent. Despite accusations that it represents little more than Wilder attempting to emulate the success of Sunset Boulevard, the two films really aren’t that much alike. Sure, they both deal with an aging screen star, and both star William Holden, but that’s where the similarities end.

    Fedora is something of a masterstroke. It bears the mark of its director, beginning with its experimental structure. The first half is a flashback, the second half is comprised of multiple flashbacks, all of them orchestrated to reveal Fedora’s dark secret one small piece at a time. The revelation works, thanks to Wilder’s screenwriting and direction and the film’s earnest performances. Holden is excellent as Dutch, a film producer desperate to jumpstart a fading career, while Hildegard Knef is superb as Sobryanski, a wheelchair-bound countess who may be more than what she appears. Knef got her start in European films before the fall of the Third Reich, but her refusal to Americanize her name prevented her from being given a Hollywood contract. She went on to star in Hammer’s The Lost Continent, among other British, French, and German films, and remained popular in her native country until her death in 2002; she was given her role in Fedora in part because of the film’s German backers. José Ferrar brings wit and charm to his role as the notorious and drunken Dr. Vando, while Frances Sternhagen is believable as the sinister Miss Balfour. Unfortunately, Marthe Keller in the dual roles of Fedora and Antonia is woefully miscast. She bears some resemblance to Raquel Welch but somehow manages to be even more wooden; to add insult to injury, she’s dubbed by another actress (at least in the English- and German-language prints). Adding to the film’s verisimilitude are cameos from Michael York and Henry Fonda, who play themselves.

    Fedora may be kept from greatness by Keller’s performance, but it’s a surprisingly taut, moving film nonetheless, one that reflects its director’s obsession with moviemaking. As such, it provides a glorious and appropriate cap to a stellar career.


    Fedora comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an MPEG-4 AVC encode. It is presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 with 1080p resolution. The film was mastered in 2K by its owner, Bavaria Media, and CinePostproduction. It shows! The transfer is gorgeous. (The same transfer was also used for the French release of the film.) Throughout the majority of the film, the image is extremely detailed, with an appropriate and organic level of grain. Colors are strong, so much so that the flowers surrounding Fedora’s casket and the foliage dotting Corfu’s landscape pop vividly off the screen. Facial wrinkles, clothing threads, rippling water, and distant background details are surprisingly strong. There are a few minor instances of softness, almost all of which are related to Wilder’s use of optical effects. These are few and far between and should not be held against an otherwise visually splendid presentation. And despite the fact that the film, which runs at 116 minutes, is placed on a BD25, there are no distracting artifacts, though compression has a minor effect on movement (check out the rainfall against the trees at the beginning of chapter 4, for example). There’s no hint of speckles, scratches, or print damage; the film has been cleaned up nicely.

    Audio makes use of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track. It may not be directional, but it remains solid nonetheless. Dialogue is never difficult to understand, and background noise is never allowed to interfere with what’s happening in the foreground. Miklos Rozsa’s surprisingly low-key score is clear, sharp, and never bombastic or mixed too loudly. Its sole purpose is to accentuate the action and dialogue, not dominate it, and the audio mix reflects that fact. There are no subtitles.

    Unfortunately, Olive’s release comes without extras, which is too bad given the acclaimed, feature-length documentary that appears on the French BD. The film is divided into eight chapters, which seem a bit sparse given the running time.

    The Final Word:

    Billy Wilder’s penultimate film is a high note, even if it may not have seemed like it at the time. The film is terrific, with great performances (Keller aside), a smart script from Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and a wonderfully beautiful and understated score from Rozsa. It comes close to perfection and is worthy of a much larger audience than it has so far found. Like the film, Olive’s presentation also nears perfection. The visuals are stunning and the sound exactly what it should be. If there’s any problem with the release, it’s the lack of extras, particularly the documentary that can be found on the French disc. Regardless, for fans of Wilder, Holden, Knef, or Tryon, Fedora is a must-own and not likely to disappoint.

    Click on the images below for full sized screen caps!