SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (Basil Dearden, 1948) ***1/2
I have always wondered why this movie which is generally accorded the rank of a minor classic by film critics and historians is not better known today and more widely discussed; having now watched it for myself, while I would readily proclaim it a near-masterpiece, I can perhaps also pinpoint the reason behind its relative neglect: the thing is that its production company Ealing Studios (whose first color production and, in hindsight, its costliest flop it was) is more associated with its celebrated run of droll comedies than with tragic historical romances. Although SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS may initially seem to pertain to the "Gainsborough school" of costumers then in fashion in British cinema that were spearheaded by the box-office popularity of THE MAN IN GREY (1943), the film was clearly intended from the outset to be on a higher artistic plane altogether. Co-written by the great Alexander Mackendrick (who would soon go on to direct some of Ealing's finest comedies), the film greatly benefits from Michael Relph's sumptuous décor, Douglas Slocombe's gleaming Technicolor cinematography (that indeed makes one bemoan the fact that Optimum's far from optimally restored R2 DVD does not really do it justice!) and Alan Rawsthorne's majestic score; on top of it all, we have masterful direction (undeniably one of the finest showcases for the distinguished Basil Dearden) and impeccable acting from a splendid roster of actors: Stewart Granger (as the dashing but ill-fated Swedish soldier Konigsmark, SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS was reportedly the one film of his he liked best!), Joan Greenwood (a very moving performance as the doomed Princess Sophie Dorothea), Flora Robson (excellent as an unlikely courtesan/king-maker with her own designs on Granger), Francoise Rosay (as the formidably inflexible matriarch), Peter Bull (typically loathsome as the future King George I), Michael Gough (as his martyred younger brother), Frederick Valk (as one of Robson's 'conquests' and Rosay's kin), Anthony Quayle (as Robson's reptilian spy), Megs Jenkins (as Greenwood's empathizing maid), Guy Rolfe (appearing in the opening sequences as one of Greenwood's wardens) and, allegedly in bit parts, even Peter Arne, John Gregson and Christopher Lee!! Among the various impressively-staged sequences in the film, two particular highlights stand out: a masked Greenwood's panic-stricken passage through a crowd of Carnival revelers being terminated by the sudden appearance of a facially uncovered Granger; and the climactic swordfight in a darkened hall which depicts a wounded Quayle mortally knifing Granger in the back, followed by the latter (having just uttered the name of his beloved Sophie Dorothea with his dying breath) being stomped in the face by a vindictive Robson!
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