After her return from the death camps, does her unscrupulous husband want to love her . . . or kill her?
UK, US / 107 minutes / bw / Mirisch, UA Dir & Pr: J. Lee Thompson Scr: Julius Epstein Story: Le Retour des Cendres (1961) by Hubert Monteilhet Cine: Christopher Challis Cast: Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar, Ingrid Thulin, Herbert Lom, Talitha Pol, Vladek Sheybal, Jacques Cey, Jacques Brunius, Eugene Keeley.
Occupying the same sort of territory as The THIRD MAN (1949), this is the first of—to date—three screen adaptations of Monteilhet’s novel. The other two are:
- Le Retour d’Élisabeth Wolff (1982 TVM) dir Josée Dayan, with Malka Ribowska, Niels Arestrup, Clémentine Amouroux and Roland Bertin, and
- Phoenix (2014) dir Christian Petzold, with Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf.
The latter is covered here.
It’s the winter of the liberation of France from the loathed Nazi occupation. Aboard a train bound for Paris, a disobedient small boy, Robert (Keeley), opens the door and falls out into the night and presumably his doom. All of the passengers in the compartment are distraught, save one. The woman in the corner (Thulin) seems completely unmoved by events. The others are prepared to be critical of her until they notice the numbers tattooed on her forearm; she’s a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps, and her seeming imperturbability is born not from heartlessness but from traumatic alienation and the crude reconstructive surgery that’s been done on her face.
Arriving in Paris, she books herself into a cheap hotel under the name Julia Robert, even though, as the desk clerk (Cey) points out, according to her papers her name is Michele Wolff-Pilgrin. She tells him she wishes to hide under an assumed name for a while . . .
The Michele we first meet (Ingrid Thulin) bears the scars of her ordeals.
Soon, in a prolonged flashback, we learn her story—and that the face she now bears is not the one she had a few years ago, before the torment of the camps and a clumsy reconstruction job after injury.
A widow, by the latter half of the 1930s she was working as a successful X-ray clinician in a Paris hospital. From her late husband she inherited a stepdaughter, Fabienne, whom she rarely saw, just shuffling her around from one English boarding school to another.
One night at her local chess club Michele ran into the impoverished would-be professional chess player Stanislas “Stan” Pilgrin (Schell), who took her for three games of chess to the tune of ninety francs. Later that night, even though she recognized he was a scoundrel, she let herself be seduced by him. (We actually see the moment when she makes that decision, thanks to a brilliant and very subtle piece of facial acting by Thulin.)
Stan (Maximilian Schell) seduces the rich widow Michele (Ingrid Thulin) with his poverty.
Soon they were living together on her income, to the annoyance of her colleague and close friend Dr. Charles Bovard (Lom). On one occasion she and Charles were working together when the phone rang:
Michele: “It’s Stan.”
Charles: “It can’t be. He would want you to pay for the call.”
Michele: [laughs] “He’s practically self-supporting now. The Chess Federation is paying his expenses. You forget that he’s highly thought of in the world of chess.”
Charles: “In the world of chess and in the boudoir. In every other human habitat he’s a louse, and you know it.”
Michele’s colleague Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom) despises the liaison.
The outbreak of war infuriated Stan not for any matter of principle but because it spelled the end, at least for the foreseeable future, of the European Chess Tournament. Even so, after the Germans occupied Paris and started to round up the Jews, Stan insisted at last that they get married—to marry a Jew, he told her, was his small act of defiance against the Nazis.
Immediately after the wedding, however, she was arrested by the Nazis. Could it be, we think, that this was orchestrated by Stan, marrying her in order to have a legal claim on her money and betraying her so he could enjoy it alone? It’s a question the movie never answers, but all our suspicions insist that indeed this must have been the case.
Stan (Maximilian Schell).
Back in the present, Michele roams Paris nostalgically and eventually, one cold, dark night, reintroduces herself to Charles. He doesn’t recognize her at first, not least because everyone “knows” she’s dead: “No, Charles,” she says sadly. “I’m alive. Technically, that is.” And she adds: “The concentration camp at Dachau did one thing for me. It made me a Jew, and a mother.” She also confesses that she volunteered for the “house of pleasure” in Dachau because it improved her chances of surviving to see her beloved Stan again.
Charles does some plastic surgery and, implausibly, within a few weeks she looks just like her old self. As such, she’s recognized in the street by her stepdaughter Fabienne “Fabi” (Eggar), now grown up (of course) and living with Stan as his lover. Fabi assumes the woman she’s seen is Michele’s spitting image—again, everyone “knows” that Michele is dead—and hatches a plan. She and Stan have a problem. Because most of Michele’s family were wiped out during the war years and left all their money to her, Michele’s estate is worth a fortune. Unfortunately, Stan can’t touch the loot because, under current French law, in the absence of a body heirs must wait thirty years to claim their inheritance. Fabi’s plan is that they persuade “Julia Robert” to pretend to be the long-lost Michele, claim her “own” fortune, and then share the proceeds with them.
“Julia Robert” watches Stan.
“Julia Robert” goes along with the idea. As she discusses it with Stan they slip almost immediately and very easily into the “charade” that she is indeed Michele. But, overconfident, he goes too far:
Stan: “Oh, and another thing to remember. She in a sense bought me, and everybody knew it.”
Michele still hasn’t realized that Stan and Fabi are lovers; the pretense is that he’s nobly supporting Michele’s stepdaughter out of a sense of duty. So she doesn’t know just how much consternation she causes the pair when eventually she admits to Stan who she really is.
A bathtime conference between Fabi (Samantha Eggar) and Stan (Maximilian Schell).
During the touching scenes of reconciliation there’s a glorious sequence in which a restless, chain-smoking Fabi tries to deal with the fact that, in the other bedroom, her lover and her abhorred stepmom are getting it on. The situation causes spats between the lovers:
Stan: “Stop looking at me as if I was an idiot.”
Fabi: “Well, I’ll try, but it won’t be easy.”
Fabi (Samantha Eggar) paces the room, chainsmoking, as the old folks make whoopee in the bedroom next door.
Everything changes the evening Michele gets home early to find Stan and Fabi in bed together. She storms out but in due course Stan finds her and smooth-talks her into coming back—but on the obvious condition that Fabi go live elsewhere:
Michele: “He’s the first man in your life, Fabi. He’s the last in mine.”
Michele (Ingrid Thulin) arrives home to hear the sounds of lovemaking.
It’s a foolish thing to say to a little sociopath like Fabi, who soon works up another little scheme to get hold of the money, this time one that involves the untimely demise of Michele . . .
I’ve already alluded to how well Eggar handles the sequence in which Fabi knows that Stan and Michele are making love in the other bedroom. Throughout the movie Eggar makes a very good femme fatale, a role that she clearly relishes. She’s much underestimated in such parts. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1973 TVM), for example, while one can tritely say that her performance as Phyllis wasn’t a patch on Barbara Stanwyck’s in the 1944 original, that’s only so if you think she should somehow have reproduced Stanwyck’s Phyllis. If you judge Eggar’s characterization of Phyllis in its own terms—as a different remodeling of the character in James M. Cain’s novel—then you may find yourself acknowledging Eggar’s rendition as a very creditable one.
Femme fatale Fabi (Samantha Eggar) plots Michele’s early demise.
Eggar is noted for a few other good performances in noir or noirish movies:
- The COLLECTOR (1965) dir William Wyler, with Terence Stamp
- La DAME DANS L’AUTO AVEC DES LUNETTES ET UN FUSIL (1970; vt The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun) dir Anatole Litvak, with Oliver Reed, Stephane Audran and John McEnery
- PSYCHE 59 (1964) dir Alexander Singer, with Curt Jurgens, Patricia Neal, Ian Bannen and Beatrix Lehmann
Of the remaining cast members, Schell gives a performance of which Dirk Bogarde would be proud (there’s a splash of James Mason in there too), while Lom seems to be channeling Charles Boyer (with whom his character almost shares a name). There’s a good small performance, too, from Talitha Pol as Claudine, the prostitute Stan hires at one point to establish himself an alibi.
Stan (Maximilian Schell) tells Claudine (Talitha Pol) that it’s not for sex that he hired her.
But the movie really belongs to Ingrid Thulin, best known for all the movies she did with Ingmar Bergman. In Return from the Ashes her role is made especially difficult because, no matter how infatuated with Stan Michele might be, she still makes some decisions about their relationship that stretch the bounds of our credulity (at one point she even recognizes this, telling Charles that “I came to you for advice, not the truth”), and would likely snap them entirely were it not for the assurance with which Thulin carries through the role. It’s all part and parcel of the Boileau–Narcejac-style mind games that the plot is playing with us; it doesn’t do to look too closely at the behavior of some of the characters in, say, Les DIABOLIQUES (1954) or VERTIGO (1958) either, but that doesn’t detract much from the status these two have as great movies.
Stan faces the questions of the investigating cop (Jacques Brunius).
Thompson’s direction is excellent, without ever being too intrusive, and the same can be said of Challis’s cinematography. The combination is perhaps seen to best advantage in the splendid opening sequence, set on the train. The first we see of the small boy, Robert, is from outside the compartment window, as he wipes the condensation away from the glass to reveal his intent little face. Then we’re inside the crowded compartment, where no one dares admonish the overindulgent mother for failing to call her irritating little brat to order. When the tragedy occurs, it does so right out of the blue, leaving us gasping. From there on, the movie never really lets go of us.
All this and a Johnny Dankworth soundtrack too!
This is a contribution to the Film Noir Blogathon, currently being hosted by The Midnite Drive-In. Click on the flyer below to get taken to the blogathon’s home page: