Review: 'Rosebud' a Mangled Curiosity, but Worth a Look

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 30, 2021

Review: 'Rosebud' a Mangled Curiosity, but Worth a Look

Otto Preminger's penultimate film, "Rosebud," is a messy thriller with a checkered production history, but it's also a prescient work that arguably predicts the formation of groups like ISIS. The long-awaited Blu-ray release is worth a look, especially for a bizarre but terrific turn by star Peter O'Toole.

An entire book was written about the making of "Rosebud" titled, "Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture," by Theodore Gershuny, who was given full access to "the planning, casting, crewing, and producing of a major movie." The book is a scathing and honest account of a production that was, arguably, doomed from the get-go. It's an amusing read that acts as a warning, but it deems the film a total disaster and dismisses it as a bad movie, which, all these years later — with all the filmic debacles that have piled up since — seems harsh and extreme.

The film is far from perfect, and was certainly commercially ignored and critically maligned upon its release in 1975. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "a suspense melodrama of such ineptitude, lethargy and loose ends that only someone with his arm being twisted would take credit for it." But all these years later (like most films made in the '70s) the movie is more than worth a re-assessment.

Preminger was at the tail end of a career that included "Anatomy of a Murder" (a 1959 Best Picture Academy Award nominee), "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Carmen Jones," "Exodus," "Hurry Sundown," "Laura," and "The Cardinal" (the latter two were his only Best Director Oscar nominations), as well as the groundbreaking 1952 film "The Moon is Blue," which shook the production code to its core and signaled its eventual demise.

Based on the novel by Joan Hemingway and Paul Bonnecarrere, "Rosebud's" multi-layered plot involved a Newsweek reporter recruited by the CIA to help hunt down Palestinian terrorists who have kidnapped a quintet of young daughters of affluent fathers aboard a yacht called the Rosebud. Suffice to say, it's an attempt to be a sprawling, exciting suspense drama.

The production's Murphy's Law history began with Preminger hiring his newfound son, Erik Lee Preminger, to write the screenplay, probably out of guilt for not having known he actually had a son (with Gypsy Rose Lee!) until almost three decades after his birth. But the younger Preminger was a novice, and the screenplay was apparently constantly being rewritten, even during shooting.

Add to the early insanity the fact that the original leading man, Robert Mitchum, was let go, very shortly after filming began, because he was constantly drunk on set. Mitchum would later remark that being replaced by Peter O'Toole was "like subbing Ray Charles with Helen Keller," snarkily referring to O'Toole's love of alcohol.

Casting O'Toole, IMO, was the only stroke of genius for the movie. The actor was off a brief screen hiatus. He delivered three amazing cinematic performances in 1972, "Under Milk Wood" "Man of La Mancha," and "The Ruling Class," which brought him an Oscar nomination, and then shifted focus to stage work at the Bristol Old Vic for a few years.

O'Toole is his aloof, charismatic self, which helps the meandering and convoluted script. His CIA operative doesn't seem as invested in his duties as he should be, making for a less serious approach to such a heavy-handed character. It is hard to imagine stern-faced Mitchum having any fun with the role, at all.

There are too many characters introduced in the first 10 minutes, and none of them matter, except O'Toole's, who doesn't appear until 27 minutes in. The dialogue vacillates between the obvious cliché and the hard-hitting ("Jews don't walk into gas chambers anymore. They fight, and they fight hard!"). Add a ton of jarring cuts, confusing transitions, and subplots that go nowhere, and you have a sense of the nonsensical endeavor.

Richard Attenborough appears, way too briefly, as a highly educated Osama-type before there was an Osama. It's an odd, beguiling bit of casting.

A very young Isabelle Huppert and Kim Catrall are among the gals held hostage. In a rather hilarious bit, Huppert tries to seduce a very uninterested O'Toole.

Camp moments like this keep the film enjoyable. But there is a creepy salaciousness about the way the girls are filmed (as seen through a 2021 lens, admittedly).

Preminger was known as an irascible, intimidating filmmaker. He certainly created a paranoid mood well (a lot of that is thanks to composer Laurent Petitgirard), as well as a keen ability to present the Israeli/Palestinian geopolitical conflict in a believable manner.

And "Rosebud" has quite an ending, chilling and downright ballsy (especially for its time).

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray transfer is to be commended for both for the visual and aural transfers. The striking vistas of Corsica and the French Riviera, in particular, pop.

Filmmaker and historian Daniel Kremer provides an absorbing audio commentary that sheds more light on all the film's troubles and woes. The only other extra is the theatrical trailer.

For cinephiles, Preminger buffs and Peter O'Toole fans, "Rosebud" is a chaotic but transfixing must-see.

"Rosebud" is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber on March 30.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute