As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
Garson Kanin once wrote a script for Twentieth Century-Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck intended to show a single character, a girl, living three different lives, branching out in separate paths depending on which of three couples adopted her as a child. A novel alternate-universe idea, perhaps ahead of its time for the fifties. To Kanin's dismay, however, Zanuck ruled that because he didn't have one big star who could carry a picture, he would cast three different starlets, one for each timeline. Kanin declared that this was the exact way to ruin the movie.
"Jesus Christ," responded Zanuck, "I thought you were different. But you're not. You're just a writer!"
That movie was never made. Crack in the Mirror, though, personally produced by Zanuck in 1960, is some kind of inverted variant on the notion: in this case, the six main characters in the story (credited to one Mark Canfield but seemingly the work of Jules Dassin, Marcel Haedrich and Zanuck himself—yes, he was a writer) are played by three actors, each doubling up.
For the first act, two storylines set in France are told in parallel. Each is a romantic triangle. Juliette Gréco is with Orson Welles in each, and cheating on him with Bradford Dillman. One trio is working class, the men working on a demolition site, the other is wealthy, with Welles the top lawyer and Dillman his protégé. Then, the poor versions of Gréco and Dillman kill poor Orson. And now the stories link up: rich Dillman is defending poor Gréco. Nobody seems to notice the uncanny resemblances. Only Orson is wearing a false nose disguise... in both his roles.
(Writer Dassin, "yearning after tragedy and transcendence," as Carlos Clarens put it, would revisit the idea of the imprisoned murderess in his late film A Dream of Passion, with Ellen Burstyn, a modern version of Medea that's part overblown tosh, part cinematic wizardry.)
Gréco, who died earlier this month, was a star but not a movie star: she had a tempestuous, as they say, affair with Zanuck, who shoehorned her into every movie he was making, as he had done with his ward-turned-lover Bella Darvi. "Darryl," diagnosed his friend Elia Kazan years later, "started taking his fucking too seriously." Here, he was producing films for Fox but was no longer running the studio: the crisis of Cleopatra (1963) would shortly allow him to take back control.
When she sang, Gréco was heart-stopping, and in still photographs, breathtaking. Playing an actual killer she's good, but nobody in this odd conjoined scenario is exactly sympathetic and there seems no reason for the weird stunt casting. Does it matter that everyone's supposed to be French but only she has a French accent, whereas Dillman's is American and Orson adopts an English one for reasons best known to himself? It's not as distracting as seeing two Dillmans onscreen at once and wondering why nobody else is amazed at his powers of bilocation.
Richard Fleischer, our director, had previously directed Welles and Dillman in Compulsion in 1959, indulging Welles' every whim, and obtained a fine performance. Welles was again playing the nation's greatest lawyer, and when the jury's gaze made him self-conscious, he got Fleischer to order them to all close their eyes for the shots looking past them at Welles. It must have looked quite strange on that set, with the jury of somnambulists, but my philosophy is that when what you are doing on set makes no sense except through the camera, you are doing cinema, and you should continue.
With a pleasing three-fold symmetry, Welles also co-starred with the other points of the triangles, Gréco, in one of Zanuck's African adventures, The Roots of Heaven (1958), where everybody got sick from drinking the water except Errol Flynn, who only drank booze, and Orson, the king of creative geography, who wisely shot all his scenes in Paris.
And here he is in Paris again, a lawyer again, being cuckolded twice over by the same people, and it's kind of hard to tell if it's any good because it seems to exist only in a lamentable pan-and-scan form. Of all the diabolical inventions, from colorization to dubbing, this must be the worst. Whole sequences don't seem to have been directed at all: no composition, no cutting that makes sense. And then some sequences come off a little better: you can appreciate what Fleischer is doing when he slowly tracks in on a frosted glass window behind which a murder is being accomplished.
Dillman is both sculpturally beautiful and a good actor, but is he this kind of actor, whatever "this kind" means here? Hard to think who could utter the denatured dialogue provided, which is a language without idiom, meant to suggest everyone is really speaking French and somehow being autotranslated before we hear them. Never a good approach. Sometimes it's purely incompetent, and I suspect Zanuck, "he of the air-conditioned teeth," as Welles wickedly dubbed him, who once wrote intertitles for Rin Tin Tin, must be blamed.
Dillman: "I want your mouth."
Gréco: "You will."
So we have three different styles of acting, multiplied by two, covering a script that's trying to sound bland and geographically unfocused, with the movie hacked up visually and rhythmically so that two-shots become singles. Nobody stands a chance, and yet there are good scenes and suggestions of skill from Fleischer (a wiz with 'Scope and even 3D: formal challenges excited him). Gréco's murderess is the only sympathetic character, but moments of reality or truth squeeze in, and at least the reframing and recutting can't destroy the dynamic and dramatic scene transitions. Wondering how to dispose of the enormous corpse he's saddled himself with, Dillman says "Maybe we need a..." and we cut hard to Gréco staring at hacksaws in store window, her reflection superimposed over them, a Langian cut accompanied by a Langian image right out of M. The love scenes (from which Welles is mercifully excluded) are surprisingly spicy: Zanuck exploring/exploiting his mid-life crisis onscreen? And, as pure narrative, the courtroom finale is gripping.
There's no fair way to judge this mutilated film until a widescreen copy is permitted to surface. A final, pathetic note: when CinemaScope became the compulsory format for all Fox releases in the fifties, it was discovered that the famous Fox fanfare was not long enough to allow the average movie theater curtains to open all the way, given the enormous width of the screen, so that extra set of drum rolls was added on the front. But here we have a film shot in 'Scope but chopped, like poor Orson's corpse in the film, down to Academy ratio, so we stare at the Fox logo for ages as the music grandly plays, with no 2.66:1 ratio, and no curtains, and no current hope, it seems, of getting any.