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The novel by Peder Sjögren (published 1944) on which the film is based on is set in Valencia, Spain as the film is set in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The reason for this is that director Lars-Magnus Lindgren wasn't satisfied with the Mediterranean filming locations. See more »
Failure still worth watching, from an unjustly forgotten director
I am a Lars-Magnus Lindgren fan: his DEAR JOHN and also THE SADIST are two terrific films. He ambitiously mounted this adaptation of Peder Sjogren's novel and the result is unsatisfying but fascinating nonetheless. It evidently hurt his career, since he only made one more movie (THE LION AND THE VIRGIN) which has sunk without a trace.
Lindgren's DEAR JOHN was a truly trend-setting film when first released in the U.S.: the epitome of "cross-over" adult cinema before the term had been invented, winning stand-in-line couples audiences when released here on the art house circuit in 1966, two years after its initial Swedish release. Scores of sexy foreign imports followed contributing to the popularity of softcore porn in the Sixties and Seventies.
BLACK PALM TREES, its name suggestive of one of the novel's themes, was I title had heard of, but never got to see until the Sandrews DVD became available 40 years after its debut; the slangy British subtitles are very poor, but allow one to follow the plot.
The story is told as a fable (initially with helpful narration which later lays out) and reminded me of the approach often favored by Orfson Welles, particularly in his films of THE IMMORTAL STORY (also from a Scandinavian author) and LADY FROM SHANGHAI. But Lindgren's filming style is radically different from Welles, lacking the showy visuals and using strange editing which often seems intentionally crude, as if to give the film a documentary feel.
Shooting on location in Brazil emphasizes folkloric elements, and even allows Lindgren to cling to his softcore sex roots, by featuring full-frontal nudity (in subplots concerning lively Brazilian girls on the beach or in a brothel).
Deceptively simple plot has elements of Eugene O'Neill, focusing on a trio of drunken Swedish sailors who hang out at the local Scandinavian Sailors Home in the village of Niteroi, across the bay from Rio. Their pipe dreams consist of turning over a new leaf and getting sober (which seems an impossibility), and traveling to Rio to collect the youngest guy Colett's $3,000 in salvage money held by the local consul.
Bibi Andersson is featured as a Finnish girl searching for Colett, who saved her life. With Lindgren's confusing editing deliberately obfuscating the early action, we learn that she had a tryst with another sailor resulting in a baby, and the main action picks up two years later.
As with many novels turned into movies, there occurs a succession of scenes which are wholly unpredictable, though cumulatively contributing to the story's resolution. A holier-than-thou local priest (Toralv Maurstad) is the nominal bad guy, giving our ne'er-do-well heroes a hard time and standing for a harsh society that curbs the free human spirit.
I didn't know Anthony Quinn was originally proposed to star, but a supporting role as a crook married to the brothel madam is played by Jose Lewgoy in exactly the manner of Quinn in his larger-than-life assignments (like Zorba in particular). Tragedy ultimately befalls the protagonists, especially Colett who foresees his own doom, as the authorities plan to send in a "black ship" to round up all the local bums and deport them.
Max Von Sydow, sporting a "lobster" style sunburn throughout, is cast in a change-of-pace role as a well-meaning but clueless guy who wants to do right but feels constantly guilty for the consequences of his drunken behavior (even when it isn't really his fault). Revelation that he is the father of Bibi's child is poorly handled.
Bibi is lovely as always but is stuck with a poorly developed character. The great Thommy Berggren is almost unrecognizable as Colett, sort of a touring company Billy Budd by way of Terence Stamp. That reminds me that perhaps Peter Ustinov (a la Welles) could have been a better choice for the director's chair here.
Finale way too neatly tries to tie up plot motifs, especially involving a sympathetic young girl who often is involved in the action. Absurdist humor reaches its peak when her blind black musician dad drowns after the otherwise sympathetic local police chief pushes him into the bay, thinking his blindness is just a panhandling scam.
Besides being essential viewing for a Lindgren follower, film exemplifies a useful truism: the leading Ingmar Bergman players went on to make many minor classics (unfortunately now obscure but well worth hunting down) shortly after becoming international stars. For example see: BLOW HOT, BLOW COLD starring Bibi opposite Gunnar Bjornstrand; Bibi in LE VIOL; Ingrid Thulin in LA GUERRE EST FINIE; Gunnel Lindblom in RAPTURE; Harriet Andersson in PEOPLE MEET AND SWEET MUSIC FILLS THE HEART, and of course Max in the unjustly maligned NIGHT VISITOR (also featuring Liv Ullmann and Per Oscarsson!), THE KREMLIN LETTER and STEPPENWOLF among so many others.
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