Sun 27 Jan 2013
BRIDE OF VENGEANCE. Paramount, 1949. Paulette Goddard, John Lund, Macdonald Carey, Albert Dekker, John Sutton, Raymond Burr. Director: Mitchell Leisen.
BRIDE OF VENGEANCE sounds like one of those syrupy, echt-Hollywood projects: an economy-minded trip to Renaissance Italy via the studio backlot, peopled with American actors like Paulette Goddard and Macdonald Carey as the Borgia siblings, wrapped around a simplified “historical” story that serves mainly as an excuse for lavish costumes and sets — done in black-and-white as if to signify that Paramount had little interest in the project to start with — how surprising, then, that this emerges as an intelligent, even beautiful bit of work.
Some of the credit has to go to writers Michael Hogan (who adapted REBECCA to the screen as faithfully as possible) and Clemence Dane (author of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT) and to cinematographer Daniel Fapp (he went on to WEST SIDE STORY) who provides baroque deep-focus imagery reminiscent of Olivier’s HAMLET. There are also some evocative (if cheap) sets offered up by Paramount’s art department. But the true beauty of this film seems to come from director Mitchell Leisen.
Mitchell Leisen was never a major auteur of The Cinemah, but he maintained a highly satisfying output over the years, with favorites like HOLD BACK THE DAWN, GOLDEN EARRINGS and especially the morbidly balletic DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. All of them are done with an almost painterly eye for composition and mise-en-scene, like a classical landscape from the Pre-Raphaelites.
For BRIDE he provides an intriguing visual style that seems to define the characters; most of them (including John Lund as an Italian prince!) sport a colorful renaissance look, bright, vivid andperhaps a bit effeminate. In contrast, the Borgias and their entourage all have a vaguely medieval look: throw-backs to a more primitive time, capable of all sorts of nastiness, mostly done for them by Raymond Burr, typecast as usual in those days as a heavy in every sense of the word. The scene where he consoles Lucretia on the death of her latest husband (engineered by himself) without a trace of irony is one of the high points of his career in villainy.
But getting back to director Leisen, he infuses each scene with a clear-eyed romanticism that simply dazzles the eye and moves the plot (such as it is) along quite nicely. There’s a wonderful bit about Prince Lund dabbling in the arts, trying to cast a statue of Jupiter, followed by a baroque tracking shot down into the stygian bowels of his foundry where we discover what “Jupiter” really is as the music pounds to a crescendo worthy of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
There are other moments too. Moments that lift the tawdry story and suffuse it with a lovingly artistic moodiness. Enough of them to make BRIDE OF VENGEANCE something memorable. And definitely worth seeing.