While possibly not reaching quite the emotional peaks of Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows, two of producer Ross Hunter’s previous cinematic high spots, Back Street will undoubtedly please the many fans of the stars who have been awaiting its release on Blu-ray.
The Production: 3.5/5
David Miller’s 1961 version of Back Street is the third time around for Fannie Hurst’s soapy melodrama, but with Ross Hunter as the film’s producer, you can be sure that the protagonists this time are suffering in luxury with swank surroundings in the chicest cities, gorgeous clothes, and emotions that ping-pong between the heights of ecstasy and the dregs of guilt.
Ambitious fashion designer Rae Smith (Susan Hayward) crosses paths with decommissioned marine officer Paul Saxon (John Gavin) in his stopover in Lincoln, Nebraska, and one day together finds them instantly in love, clearly fated to be each other’s soulmate forever. But as a millionaire owner of a department store chain, Paul’s civilian life is more complicated than even Rae knows, and when they fail to make a plane connection together, each goes his or her separate ways: Rae to New York as the assistant and later partner of famous dress designer Dalian (Reginald Gardiner) and he also to New York to run his family’s prosperous company. But their paths can’t help but cross, first in New York and later in Rome and Paris where Dalian has sent Rae to establish fashion houses, and despite his failed marriage to shrewish alcoholic Liz (Vera Miles), his heart belongs only to Rae. But Liz has a private detective snooping around trying to find out the identity of the mystery woman in her husband’s life, and Paul’s oldest child (Robert Eyer) is also becoming old enough to hear whispers about his father and know something is going on.
The novel and film may be called Back Street, but Rae Smith in this version of the story written by Eleanore Griffin and William Ludwig is not ensconced in some dingy room in a seedy part of town but rather in a luxurious Mediterranean villa and a charming farmhouse in the Parisian countryside where her long-term affair with Paul runs hot-and-cold depending on how guilty one or the other feels about Paul’s infidelity. The screenplay makes no secret of the fact that Paul’s promiscuous wife Liz has a slew of lovers on the side (her best friend played by Natalie Schafer brags about the matador Liz recently bagged on her vacation in Madrid) even though she refuses to grant him a divorce, but the unfair dichotomy between a shameless wife carrying on recklessly and a private man having a discreet affair isn’t made enough of in the script, much to the film’s detriment and the audience’s frustration (the movie may have been released in 1961, a time when America was beginning to raise the curtain on affairs which would have been unforgivably scandalous in earlier decades, but its moral compass is most definitely tuned to a generation or two earlier). Still, director David Miller does well with blending second unit Paris and Rome footage with Universal backlots where his stars are acting and films the joyous romantic scenes between the lovers with an emphasis on innocence, all the better to set those waterworks springing from our eyes when things turn tragic and a tear-jerking ending becomes inevitable.
Susan Hayward suffers beautifully in mink and haute couture, the dozens of Jean Louis creations making her look like a million bucks (there’s even a Jean Louis mini-fashion show which precedes the showdown between the two ladies vying for the love of one man), and she plays the extreme emotions with all of the restraint she can muster, difficult with some of the purple dialogue passages she’s being asked to recite. John Gavin also plays with nobility and control but shows his earned disgust in several over-the-top scenes with Vera Miles as the wanton Liz who has never been viler, more contemptuous, or more disreputable. Ross Hunter regulars Virginia Grey as Rae’s loving sister and Charles Drake as Rae’s hopeful suitor get one or two scenes apiece and then fade from view. That’s true, too, of Reginald Gardiner who’s marvelous as the haughty couturier who eventually warms to Rae’s charms and talent. Doreen McLean as the children’s nanny and Natalie Schafer as Liz’s gauche friend make welcome additions to the cast.
3D Rating: NA
Though the liner notes claim an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the transfer appears to be set at Universal’s house 2:1 aspect ratio in 1080p using the AVC codec. While the image is sharp and detailed and contains a very film-like grain structure, color dynamics sometimes seem a bit dated with occasional brownish-yellow skin tones. There are also an occasional scratch or a bit of dirt along the edges. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is quite robust and involving, all the better to enjoy the lush strains of Frank Skinner’s emotional background score. Dialogue has been well recorded and has been combined professionally with the music and sound effects. There are no problems with age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: film historian David Del Valle and director David DeCoteau have a lively gab fest, but be prepared for some extreme whiplash particularly early when the men jump from one topic and one film to another quite haphazardly. Later on, they begin to pay more attention to the events and performers in the film before them, but the early going here is quite a ride.
Theatrical Trailer (2:25, HD)
Kino Trailers: Rawhide, I Want to Live! Midnight Lace, Portrait in Black, Madame X, All I Desire, The Tarnished Angels.
David Miller’s 1961 version of Back Street is a lush and melodramatic wallow. While possibly not reaching quite the emotional peaks of Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows, two of producer Ross Hunter’s previous cinematic high spots, Back Street will undoubtedly please the many fans of the stars who have been awaiting its release on Blu-ray.
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