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David Lowell Rich Madame X

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Turner Gets Turnt in Rich’s Classic Melodrama Madame X (1966) | Blu-ray Review

Turner Gets Turnt in Rich’s Classic Melodrama Madame X (1966) | Blu-ray Review

Remakes may seem like a contemporary Hollywood trend, but the process has been a staple of the medium since the inception of cinema. Whether it was adapting silent successes for the talkie era, reconfigured pre-code titillations for the conservative mainstream, or the advent of enhanced technological capability, it seems pulpy narratives are prone to resuscitation merely for and because of their mainline familiarity. While melodramas aren’t so much victim to this cycle any longer (at least if they’ve recently been made in English starring American actors), one such popularized item was once French playwright and vaudevillian Alexandre Bisson’s 1910 stage play Madame X, which has been adapted a whopping nine times for the screen. While Lionel Barrymore directed a notable 1929 version starring Ruth Chatterton, it’s David Lowell Rich’s 1966 version starring Lana Turner, in one of her last well-received performances, which remains the penultimate undertaking of the material. Sporting a narrative which plays like Douglas Sirk veering into a nervous breakdown, it’s a bit of hyperbolized hokum oozing sentimentality out of its tear-lubed pores.

Holly Parker (Turner) is a beautiful woman from the wrong side of the tracks who catches the eye and heart of the wealthy Clayton Anderson (John Forsyth). Despite his mother Estelle’s (Constance Bennett) reservations on the union, they marry and have a son, Clay Jr. But as the senior Clay’s political ambitions take fruition, Holly finds herself left alone in their Fairfield, Connecticut mansion. During one of his lengthy absences, Holly is introduced to Phil Benton (Ricardo Montalbon), a playboy lothario who makes Holly “feel like a woman again.” When their affair begins to become uncomfortable for Holly, she attempts to break it off, which leads to a tragedy allowing for Estelle to blackmail her into faking her own death in exchange for a yearly stipend to live in Switzerland. Holly reluctantly accepts the offer of salvation, and falls into a life of degradation. Twenty years later, after she’s blackmailed by an insidious con artist (Burgess Meredith), Holly finds herself defended by her now-grown son (Keir Dullea).

Turner throws herself into the role with zealous exaggeration in what many consider her best role, if certainly one of her most pronounced performances (it’s certainly comparable to Turner’s sole Oscar nod for the then-tawdry soap dish Peyton Place in 1957). But even by 1966’s standards, the narrative conveniences of Madame X are the stuff of pure dime-store pulp, topping the ridiculousness of something like Douglas Sirk’s more handsome tragedy porn Magnificent Obsession (1954), which was also a remake based on a novel written during a period where its characterizations elicited provocation and awe. Curiously, Madame X featured the final return of Constance Bennett, who hadn’t appeared in a feature in over a decade, and who died shortly after the film’s production. Strangely, the gaunt but regal Golden Era star looks more polished than Turner, who descends into suicidal ideation, emotional destitution, alcoholism and prostitution before the plot is done with her.

The tale of Madame X turns on class issues and the ‘dangers’ of marrying above one’s station. Turner’s lonely housewife allows herself to get into a sticky situation with Ricardo Montalban (who previously played Turner’s lover in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1953 Latin Lovers), who dies unexpectedly as she tries to extricate herself from their ongoing affair. Driven from home by Bennett’s cruel and cold-hearted mother-in-law, her tenure in Switzerland immediately attracts the attention of other men who insist on caring for her and ‘owning’ her, whether she reciprocates their love or not. It sets up a catch and release parable of women who are victims of circumstance (i.e., women without money of their own), and who aren’t allowed to exist socially in polite society without a man.

Turner lets herself look appropriately ravaged for the purposes of the narrative and by the time we get to Burgess Meredith’ nasty little blackmail scheme for Holly Parker, Turner elevates, for just a moment, to the snarling fury of a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford. But she’s declawed into a handwringing, pitiable victim by the film’s third act, a trial in which her child (a dead-behind-the-eyes Keir Dullea) appears to be the only character who’s actually aged in the years since their separation. With a defense that’s laugh-out-loud silly and a final showstopper which will move one to cynical derision or schmaltz sprung tears, Madame X is an emotional Grand Guignol, a hysterical soap opera that would end up being the final and potentially most memorable hour of Lana Turner.

Film Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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