Return from the Ashes (MGM LE Collection) Review
Strangely undervalued and apparently little-known, the 1965 psychological thriller Return from the Ashes remains unpredictable throughout, full of tension to the very end. J. Lee Thompson produced and directed the adaptation of Hubert Monteilhet's French language novel. It stars Ingrid Thulin, a Swedish actress probably best known for her work in Ingmar Bergman films, and Maximilian Schell, with Samantha Eggar also adding a deviously bratty performance as the third lead. Thulin plays a prominent medical doctor who deals with X-rays in Paris just prior to World War II. She meets the skilled, ambitious and impoverished chess player Schell, a Pole, and falls for him despite his clearly manipulative intentions. They are married, but Thulin, a Jew, is taken by the Nazis on the very same day.
That section is told early on as a flashback, following the film actually beginning in 1945 on a train which Thulin's character is taking in her return to Paris. Here she resembles little of her former self and is now a concentration camp survivor. This opening is a little too eager to show that the character is a woman who's been forever scarred by her experiences. It sacrifices a young passenger who falls off the locomotive, to everyone's horror except the almost oblivious Thulin. She later meets a former colleague (played by Herbert Lom) on the sidewalk but he doesn't recognize her and has to be told of her identity. It seems that everyone assumed she was dead since the camps were closed months earlier and no one, including her husband, had heard from her. Then things get interesting, plot-wise. It seems so impolite to spoil any of what happens in Return from the Ashes. The film has a keen structure that sometimes jumps ahead in time a little, with barely any warning, but nicely propels the action and developments forward.
The usually lovely Samantha Eggar appears here as an absolutely wretched beast of a person. She is Thulin's stepdaughter and also her rival for Schell's affections. With mummy away it seems that quite a bit of playing occurred between these two leechers with the pretty faces. Again not wishing to spoil anything but the scene that's heavily referenced in an included trailer for the film, which involves Schell and Eggar, is quite the whopper. On some level it becomes obvious how cruel and selfish these two characters are but it just continues to escalate. It proves again and again to be worse than initially feared. Schell gives a deliciously slick, unapologetic, even naughty performance as a man who approaches life in much the same way he does a chess game. We're warned that he's quick, offering to play Thulin in their first meeting with only five seconds allowed per move. He's a few mental steps ahead at all times.
Schell's character seems to operate on the idea, mentioned soon after he meets Thulin and again at the end of the movie, and inspired by Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, that anything is permissible in the perceived absence of God, the devil and immortality. Interesting notion, and perhaps the most important insight into this man's actions. None of the characters in Return from the Ashes, which was adapted by Julius Epstein, are overly developed. At some point the question might arise as to why Thulin would be so committed to Schell. She knows he doesn't share the same type of feelings for her as she has for him, and she even finds out he hasn't been faithful. But is it really that difficult to understand? The character Thulin plays is a widow, with plenty of money that nonetheless seems to hold little value to her. In a word, she's lonely, and Schell is a charmer. Spending money on him is of no concern to her.
Return from the Ashes is in gloriously wide black and white. It was photographed by Christopher Challis (who also lensed, among many others, the Archers' The Small Back Room and Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes). This is typically my most preferred, and, I suppose, arguably the ultimate, presentation in all of film. There's something wonderfully undone and surprising about black and white Scope cinematography. In this instance, though, it comes across as maybe unnecessary, and there are precious few scenes where the framing wouldn't have been equally effective in a more narrow aspect ratio. Too many close-ups or medium shots. The lighting, however, is great and it's not uncommon to see one of the main actors with his or her mouth heavily shadowed so as to reveal only the eyes while speaking. Certainly this heightens the mood, which was presumably the intention. It, along with a terrific score credited to John Dankworth, helps to make Return from the Ashes a far better viewing experience than its absence of a reputation might suggest. This is a good one, not without its flaws but still full of kick and intrigue.
The disc being reviewed here is a DVD-R, made on demand from MGM's Limited Edition Collection. It's single-layered and comes housed in an Eco-Box keepcase.
The best news is that the transfer is anamorphic, enhancing the 2.35:1 aspect ratio image for widescreen monitors. Beyond that, there does still remain some easily seen dirt and damage in the print used. Reel change markers, speckles and the occasional scratch all pop up during viewing. It's not the sharpest of images either, though nothing would be so harsh as to dissuade potential buyers from a purchase based solely on picture quality. It is a progressive transfer. The contrast remains less than perfect but acceptable.
No real problems with the English mono audio. It's functional without going much beyond that. Dialogue can be made out cleanly and clearly, without any major obstructions. Volume is consistent and fine. No subtitles are offered. (Boo! Hiss!)
The sole extra is a trailer (2:18) which tries to sell the film, seemingly, with Samantha Eggar's bathtub scene.