Release Date(s)1969 (January 19, 2016)
Studio(s)United Artists (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: N/A
Director Richard Brooks was at the height of his commercial and artistic powers following the one-two triumph of The Professionals in 1966 and In Cold Blood in 1967, and rather than sit back and rest on his laurels he doubled down for one of his riskiest, most emotionally naked and visually accomplished films, 1969’s The Happy Ending. His first original screenwriting credit since Deadline USA in 1952, it's a poignant, devastating, romantic, agonizingly clear-eyed yet sweetly empathetic portrait of a marriage in free fall – a portrait made all the more resonant and bittersweet by Brooks’s casting of his own wife, Jean Simmons, in the female lead. Simmons plays Mary, a gorgeous housewife who seems to have it all: a successful attorney for a husband (John Forsythe), a bright teenage daughter (Kathy Fields), a caring mother (Teresa Wright), and a housekeeper who keeps all of her secrets (Nanette Fabray). Unfortunately, one of those secrets is that Mary is deeply, deeply unhappy – she doesn’t know exactly what she wants or needs, but she knows that she wants or needs something more than (or at least different from) what she’s got.
Brooks charts Mary’s emotional breakdown via a variety of impressionistic cinematic devices and a flashback structure that conveys the broken promises of her marriage with heartbreaking clarity. It helps that Simmons – who, like her character, was dealing with her own addiction problems at the time – is flat-out fantastic in a role that foreshadows similar roles played by Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978) but cuts deeper than even those fine performances. She expertly expresses the emotional and social contradictions at the heart of her character, a woman who has everything but a purpose. Forsythe is almost equally good as her husband, a man living in a state of willful denial about the shambles into which his marriage has fallen, and Brooks shoots their story with an unusual blend of old-school Hollywood glamor and freewheeling new wave naturalism. It’s an odd blend, but it works brilliantly in terms of making the audience long for the romantic ideals that the movie bluntly proclaims to be shallow myths. Brooks has it both ways, savagely critiquing the institution of marriage as a social and economic construct while still fulfilling the key requirement of any great love story – creating two characters the audience wants to see end up together – and then subverting that formula with the most ironically “happy” ending imaginable.
It's a monumental achievement, and one which will hopefully be rediscovered in the way that it deserves now that Twilight Time has given it a first class Blu-ray treatment. The cinematography is by the legendary Conrad Hall (Brooks’s collaborator on the aforementioned Professionals and In Cold Blood), who applies a soft, hazy romanticism to the film that relies on a an extraordinarily delicate interplay of light and shadow – the subtlety of his work would be lost on a lesser transfer, but here no detail is lost in the deep, rich blacks that often surround the emotionally empty characters. The monaural DTS track is exceptional as well, enabling the viewer to fully appreciate both the highly original and expressive sound design and the sumptuous score by the legendary Michel Legrand. Legrand’s score is also included as an isolated stereo track, and the disc contains an original theatrical trailer. There are no other extras, but the film itself – and a booklet containing liner notes by the erudite film scholar Julie Kirgo – provides more than enough entertainment value and emotional impact to make this Blu-ray essential viewing.
- Jim Hemphill