Back Street (1961) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jul 09, 2021
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Back Street (1961) (Blu-ray Review)

Director

David Miller

Release Date(s)

1961 (August 10, 2021)

Studio(s)

Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: C+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B

Back Street (1961) (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

Back Street, based on the 1931 novel by Fannie Hurst, has been filmed three times—in 1932 with Irene Dunne, in 1941 with Margaret Sullavan, and in 1961 with Susan Hayward, by far the most lavish version. Hayward had recently won the Best Actress Academy Award for her wrenching performance as Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! and was a logical choice for the lead.

Young dress shop owner Rae Smith (Hayward) accidentally meets department store heir Paul Saxon (John Gavin) in Lincoln, Nebraska, as he is returning from military service in World War II. They have a romantic fling but she breaks it off when he confesses that he’s married. Ambitious to become a fashion designer and eager for a new environment, Rae moves to New York. She starts as an assistant to top designer Dalian, works her way up to partner, and moves to Rome to open a salon.

Paul continues to woo Rae, explaining that his wife, Liz (Vera Miles), is an unstable alcoholic and won’t grant him a divorce. Ultimately accepting this and willing to become Paul’s “other woman,” Rae vacations with Paul whenever they can at a Mediterranean villa outside Rome or a rebuilt farmhouse in the country near Paris. The affair continues until Paul’s young son gets wind of his father’s affair and confronts Rae.

The potboiler aspects of the screenplay are balanced with rich production design and spectacular locations, art direction by Alexander Golitzen, gowns by Jean Louis, jewels by David Webb, furs by Alixandre, and several Harper’s Bazaar models. Shot in color, the film virtually drips with eye candy.

Hayward does her best with the melodramatic story and cliche-ridden dialogue, but she was 44 at the time and too old for the part. She looks great as photographed by Stanley Cortez, but never convinces as a woman in her mid-twenties and early thirties. Gavin, a handsome leading man in the style of a human Ken doll, is so stiff in his delivery that he might as well be a telephone pole. The script calls for him to express deep feelings for Rae, but Gavin’s Paul seems more like an awkward clod than a passionate lover. His performance is further undermined by the cringe-worthy dialogue in Eleanore Griffin’s and William Ludwig’s screenplay.

Despite a large budget and luxurious visuals, this big-screen soap opera is emotionally empty. We watch Rae and Paul go through the motions of their illicit affair but never feel the heat. Director David Miller is curiously stand-offish in a film that depends so heavily on the irrepressible attraction between two souls. Yes, the film was restricted from being too graphic by the Production Code, but the actors’ chemistry should fill in the blanks of what isn’t shown. Hayward and Gavin come off as good friends, not lovers.

Vera Miles has a field day as Liz, chewing up the scenery with her drunken rants, vicious jealousy, and cold vengefulness. The character is an utterly contemptible, vindictive shrew. Miles steals every scene she’s in.

Ross Hunter (Imitation of Life) produced Back Street in his customary lush visual style, but it seems more attention was paid to the costumes, sets, and locations than to the leads' performances. Gavin seems barely alive. Hayward is never given a really big scene, just many little scenes that portray her as a woman content to live in the shadows and accept her lot. With her angelic, long suffering expression, she comes off more as a deluded romantic than an independent woman selflessly sacrificing for the man she loves.

Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray release of Back Street from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There are no scratches, dirt specs, or other debris to impair viewing enjoyment. Color saturation provides soft creamy tones for faces and a radiant palette of primary and pastel hues in the fashions. The Eastmancolor photography is at its richest showing off Jean Louis’ gowns, Hayward’s red hair, and the beautiful locations outside Rome and Paris. A scene in which Rae and Paul picnic is a pastoral idyll, with the deep green grass and Rae’s orange print dress standing out. The jewels that the women wear sparkle and shimmer, especially in close-ups. A body double, seen only from the back, is used for scenes of Susan Hayward in the streets of New York, Paris, and Rome. Rear projection of the streets is used when we see Hayward from the front. Rear projection is also used in conjunction with studio automobile mock-ups when the characters deliver dialogue while driving. Several medium shots, supposedly in Paris, are on back lot sets dressed to resemble Parisian cafes and shops.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear throughout, but Gavin’s wooden delivery is a distraction. Hayward’s emoting never convinces. Frank Skinner’s opening theme, in keeping with the overall style of the picture, is lush and dominated by strings. At significant dialogue or visual moments, the music serves as unsubtle punctuation making sure the viewer takes note. Car engine sounds are nicely balanced with dialogue, and ambient street noise suggests bustling city life.

Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.

Audio Commentary – Film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau share this chatty commentary. Fannie Hurst, whose novel is the basis of Back Street, is known as the Jacqueline Susann of the 1920s. Her novels combined sentiment and romance with social issues, particularly women’s rights. In the original story, Rae has no career, gives up everything for the man she loves, and lives in poverty. Producer Ross Hunter created his own world at Universal, noting that you start with a good story and then you dress it up. His films look as if they were made a decade earlier. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez makes Susan Hayward look terrific, and does wonderful work with shadows. John Gavin, 6’4” tall, is compared to actor Henry Cavill (Superman in Man of Steel), as both men are similar in appearance and body type. Susan Hayward’s role model was Barbara Stanwyck. Both played tough women trying to make it in a man’s world. Vera Miles was under contract to Alfred Hitchcock and was groomed to be the star of Vertigo, but was bypassed when she became pregnant. The outdoor European scenes in Back Street were filmed on the back lot or in Monterey and Big Sur, California, with only a few shots filmed in actual remote locations. The idea that star-crossed lovers had to hide in the shadows was old-hat in 1961. Adultery was no big deal in Europe. Reginald Gardner, as Dalian, plays an openly gay man. In preparation for the role, Hayward was put on a liquid diet and lost 15 pounds so she would look chic in the designer clothes. It’s difficult to sympathize with the two main characters because they are wealthy and do not want for anything. Hayward is compared to Lana Turner, who could have played Rae believably with added glamour. Back Street did not fare well with audiences or critics in 1961. It was compared unfavorably to the two previous adaptations.

Theatrical Trailers – Eight trailers for titles available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics are included: Back Street, Rawhide, I Want to Live!, Midnight Lace, Portrait in Black, Madame X, All I Desire, and The Tarnished Angels.

Back Street harks back to an era in Hollywood when women’s pictures were a staple. Made at a transitional period when the studios still had actors under contract but were looking more to epics and widescreen extravaganzas to attract audiences, Back Street is a quaint anachronism.

- Dennis Seuling

 

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