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Merchant Ivory Productions presents
The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991)

"Every lover knows that deep, deep in his soul, his love is a lonely and a solitary thing." 
- Rev. Willin (Rod Steiger)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 08, 2005

Stars: Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine, Rod Steiger, Cork Hubbert, Austin Pendleton, Beth Dixon
Director: Simon Callow

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:40m:18s
Release Date: January 18, 2005
UPC: 037429198629
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- C+B-B C

DVD Review

Odd things sometimes happen when the British decide to travel south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Occasionally we get indelible performances—Viven Leigh would be Exhibit A here, for her incomparable work as the yin and yang of southern belles, Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Du Bois. More often, though, we get stuff like Laurence Olivier in The Betsy, making a mash of the cadences of the South and emoting as if they needed to project to the sixth tier of the opera house. That's sort of the territory we're in with The Ballad of the Sad Café, a hothouse of a movie with not just a British star, but a British actor directing, as well. It's being released on DVD as part of the Merchant Ivory Collection, but the film's connection to the standard Merchant Ivory body of work is tenuous at best; it's produced by Ismail Merchant, and that's pretty much all the overlap.

The film is based on a novel by Carson McCullers, and had been previously adapted for the stage by Edward Albee, who shares screenplay credit here. It's vintage McCullers, and it's easy to see why Albee was drawn to the material, for it's principally about odd and twisted love gone wrong. (Albee also did a theatrical adaptation of Lolita, which is more interesting than it is successful.) This small southern town is presided over by Miss Amelia, who is the local tyrant—she's the de facto town doctor, the whiskey distiller, the figure who is respected and feared but not much loved. A stranger comes to town: Lymon, a hunchbacked little person, is Miss Amelia's previously unknown cousin; she takes a liking to this strange little man, who often starts to cry for no reason, and takes him in. Lymon convinces her to put a few tables and a proper bar into her general store, thus turning it into the establishment of the title; more trouble comes about halfway through the picture's running time, with the return to town of Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia's partner in a brief, strange and unconsummated marriage.

Vanessa Redgrave is legendary, but not even an actor of her stature is above the tutelage of a dialect coach, and her Southern accent as Miss Amelia is deeply strange, often unrecognizable. (She had recently starred on Broadway in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, and perhaps she thought that she had the cadence down. If she did, she was wrong.) Still, she's fiercely committed to the role, and brings an eerie dignity to Miss Amelia. As Lymon, Cork Hubbert is a strange presence; it's a tough part to cast for obvious reasons, and Hubbert probably does as well as anyone could, but Lymon is the story at its most grotesque and Gothic, and it's hard to take him at face value as just another character. Keith Carradine has his typically smoldering quality as Marvin; and Rod Steiger pulls out the stops as the town's preacher; he doesn't have much screen time, but he's suitably loopy when we do see him.

The director is Simon Callow, who also wrote a biography of Charles Laughton; Callow's efforts to echo Laughton's sole directorial effort, Night of the Hunter, are evident throughout. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that as a director, Callow is more interested in stereotypically eccentric images of the South—it's all about the teakettles being distressed just so, the moonshine being sipped out of jelly jars, the overalls weathered to exacting specifications, and of course the requisite images of the Klan; it all kind of looks like DorotheaLange by way of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The frequent use of dutch angles add to our visual disorientation; but the film doesn't cohere, and works principally as an exercise in evoking a ghoulish sort of style.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The source material seems to be dulled down and frequently scratched, which makes for an occasionally unpleasant home viewing experience; the ghostly palette is well preserved, though.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Fairly well balanced, and largely without aural interference.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Simon Callow
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet with an essay by Robert Emmet Long
Extras Review: Simon Callow's commentary track takes us through the usual topics, on the history of the film's production; he's candid about this being an homage to Laughton. Some of the information is most interesting—for instance, the movie was shot principally on Willie Nelson's ranch, outside of Austin—but for great swatches, Callow doesn't have much to say. But that doesn't stop him from providing an additional commentary, over a rather arbitrary selection of scenes (17m:03s), covering much of the same ground; he describes going for a Walker Evans look, about Albee making McCullers' characters a bit too articulate, and defines the theme of the piece: it's "a savage and bleak statement about the impossibility of love." In other words, not a date-night flick.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

A strange and Gothic effort that indulges the scenery-chewing tendencies of many of those involved.


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