Blu-ray | DVD
Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Based on the novella by Tom Tryon
Starring William Holden, Marthe Keller, and José Ferrer
Release Date: October 28, 2014
Aging and the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system has made Barry “Dutch” Detweiler (William Holden) cynical about the redefined business of filmmaking. Now a struggling independent producer exhausting what little finances he has to develop a new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece Anna Karenina, Dutch has traveled to a remote Greek island in search of the legendary actress Fedora (Marthe Keller). It’s been years since Fedora, once one of the most beloved stars of the silver screen, suffered the emotional breakdown that sent her into permanent seclusion and Dutch hopes to lure her out of self-imposed retirement to star in his newest production. But he finds his efforts to approach Fedora thwarted at every turn by her mysterious and overprotective benefactors, the haughty Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and the ethically-suspect plastic surgeon Dr. Vando (José Ferrer).
Dutch becomes increasingly suspicious of the Countess’ intentions when Fedora comes to his hotel room one night claiming to be a prisoner in Sobryanski’s estate. When Fedora is spirited away to a clinic in France and later commits suicide under debatable circumstances Dutch comes to her funeral looking for some definitive answers from the Countess and Vando. They give him far more than he demanded in return.
Put into turnaround by Universal Pictures, orphaned by Allied Artists after an unexceptional early screening, nearly dumped onto network television by Lorimar after audiences at a sneak preview started laughing at the wrong times, Billy Wilder‘s second-to-last film as director Fedora was one of the most difficult and stressful of his long and storied career. The legendary writer and director who helped shape a century of American cinema with classics such as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment to name but a few had to endure many tribulations and humiliations just to get work in the 1970’s.
The old studio system was no more. Young turk directors like Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, DePalma, Bogdanovich, and Cimino had seized control of Hollywood with their inexpensive and immensely profitable and personal films. No longer were audiences flocking to see the last widescreen musical extravaganza or epic historial adventure. Even a revered master of the moving image like Wilder couldn’t get one of his trademark acerbic comedies financed without a fight. Times had certainly changed. To avoid being put out to pasture for good Wilder sought backing for Fedora, an adaptation of a novella penned by actor-turned-writer Tom Tryon, from the Germany-based Bavaria Film, a studio that in the past had provided the funding and assistance to vaunted filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, and Orson Welles. Their sound stages had played host to films like The Sound of Music, The Great Escape, Cabaret, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
It seemed the ideal place for the fiercely independent Wilder to find the creative freedom and lack of restrictions imposed by the new Hollywood system that were making it impossible for him to make films in the country he had come to call home after fleeing the former Austria-Hungary following the rise of Adolf Hitler. While the “New Hollywood” had used the great filmmaking of previous decades for inspiration and guidance many of the directors who made those films and were still quite active had to emigrate abroad to continue working or retire altogether. That still holds true to this day.
The art of creating cinema has been relegated to the young. Once you reach a certain age in the entertainment industry you are expected to bow gracefully out of the industry and accept the status of a venerated legend, but if you decide to forgo this forced treatment you are practically blacklisted. Directors who continue working into their twilight years often must have a younger replacement director in play in the event they are unable to complete their current feature. To think, we wonder why so many retirement home occupants tend to stay angry and bitter when there was no reason for them to be ripped out of their own homes and compelled to submit to round-the-clock medical care.
In making Fedora Wilder was ready to show the world that he still had the capacity to make a film as good as the masterpieces on which his reputation was established (and deserved). I’ve read reviews of Fedora comparing it to his 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, but this film offers a much different take on the same themes explored in Sunset while sharing with it a star in the person of William Holden. Here the late Holden was cast as a well-meaning but destitute film producer who seeks out the reclusive Fedora because he wants to help engineer the comeback she has earned, not to exploit her beauty and talent and further his own ambitions. In an early flashback we see a young Dutch (Stephen Collins) carrying on a brief affair with Fedora while he was employed as an assistant director at MGM and she was at the height of her popularity. Moments like that not only stay with a person but haunt them to their grave.
Fedora is an elegiac tribute to an idealized Hollywood that no longer exists, but the way its studios treated their aging talent (mostly their actresses) still remains to this day. The mystery of why Fedora took a permanent break from stardom and the public eye provides the focus of the film’s first half as Dutch arrives on the small Greek island seeking her out though ultimately it becomes a considerate meditation on the industry’s treatment of their aging talent and how those desperately attempt to fight off on the physical and spiritual damage that comes with the years Adapting the Tryon novella with Wilder was his longtime writing partner I.A.L. Diamond. Together in the past they worked on the scripts for some of the director’s finest films, from Some Like It Hot to the underrated The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Wilder and Diamond have a fondness for the old studio system in spite of its myriad of flaws and the way the stars and directors were often on equal footing due to the fact that every part of the filmmaking process began and ended with the studio chiefs.
Without spoiling the secrets revealed in the second half of Fedora I will say that it was at this point where the film started to lose my interest. Until then Wilder and Diamond’s adaptation of the Tryon story had built up a good amount of steam and the stage was set for an absorbing detective story, but the filmmakers just about blow the exquisite artistry and care that went into the set-up by bringing the story to a dead halt for a prolonged information dump masquerading as a third act. This section of the film is thick with flashbacks that could have proved more effective had Dutch’s search for the truth unfolded carefully like a mystery. Instead our main character spends pretty much the majority of the last hour standing around while the supporting characters fill him in on the rest of the story. In the process any established tension is immediately deflated in the face of a predictable resolution that is sad but unnecessary all the same.
It’s a shame because until then Fedora had my attention and I was prepared to stick with it to the end enraptured. Holden, coming towards the end of both a remarkable late-career renaissance that began in effect with a brilliant lead performance in The Wild Bunch and his life, makes for a capable and empathetic lead though he’s saddled with a two-dimensional character and that aforementioned third act that reduces his presence to a glorified cameo. As the enigmatic Fedora Marthe Keller (Marathon Man) has a haunting beauty of the body and soul that captivates. The casting of Keller had been suggested to Wilder by Sydney Pollack (who had worked with the Swiss-born actress and fashion model in Bobby Deerfield) and her embodiment of a fading star imprisoned by her own greatness is starling to watch for most of the film though Wilder had to have her voice redubbed by another actress in post-production. The same fate befell the long-deceased Hildegard Knef (The Snows of Kilimanjaro), wonderfully cast as the duplicitous Countess Sobryanski.
The cast is rounded off by colorful turns from José Ferrer (Lawrence of Arabia) as the plastic surgeon with a hidden agenda like almost every character in the story, Frances Sternhagen (The Mist) as Fedora’s eternally loyal and dutiful assistant, Mario Adorf (The Tin Drum) as a cheerful hotel manager, and Gottfried John (GoldenEye) as the countess’ menacing chauffeur. Both Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men) and Michael York (Logan’s Run) make memorable cameo appearances as themselves in the third act, with Fonda turning up as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to belatedly present Fedora with an award and York unwittingly becoming the object of the legendary screen siren’s affections (or so we are led to believe). And though the writing by Wilder and Diamond is not as sharp and witty as their previous collaborations they do managed to get in a rancorous line of dialogue here and there. My personal favorite moment is when Fedora bitterly refers to her honorary Academy Award as “just another knick-knack in need of polishing”.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Fedora boasts an impressive new MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1080p high-definition transfer of the film that was restored in 2K resolution from the original camera negative and framed in its intended 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The restoration was produced by Bavaria Media in cooperation with CinePostproduction and for the film’s age and relative obscurity in director Wilder’s oeuvre it looks stellar in HD. The cinematography by Gerry Fisher (Highlander) that captured the Greek and French filming locations in all their luscious, dreamlike splendor has been given a remarkably detailed overhaul with warm, balanced colors and a pleasing reduction in grain. There are no traces of print damage. No subtitles have been included.
The lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track provided by Olive Films does a fine job of keeping the dialogue and music components of the sound mix each at a comfortable volume level that allows for them to come through with perfect clarity and not a single trace of distortion. The swooning orchestral score composed by the great Miklos Rosza is glorious to behold on this restored audio track.
There are no extras, not even the original or re-release trailers (the latter of which I have included below).
Though he was hardly at his best with Fedora the great Billy Wilder proved as he was approaching his eighth decade on this planet that he was able to craft a film that functioned as a moodily effective mystery, an imaginative ode to the Hollywood of yesteryear, and a caustic treatise addressing the struggles actresses must endure as they surpass their promising salad days. Fans of the legendary filmmaker in search of his later, unjustly ignored works will find a lot of love about Olive Films’ sparkling Blu-ray presentation of Fedora with its amazing new restored high-definition visuals. Check this out and behold as a master of the silver screen rages against the dying of the light.