Tuesday April 12, 2016


Fred Zinneman's 1977 drama is based on a slice of Lillian Hellman's memoir "Pentimento," a word that's introduced early one (it's a term from the art of painting -- when aging pigment becomes transparent, allowing earlier ideas to be glimpsed underneath).

An intriguing title, that, given that Hellman claimed this story as her won in her memoir. Evidently, however, it was that of someone else entirely. But, as Julie states in the liner notes to this gorgeously restored, 4K-resolution Blu-ray edition from Twilight Time, despite the sketchy origins of its source material, the film remains a top-flight achievement in cinema, thanks to its production design, its cinematography (Douglas Slocombe makes everything glitter and captures exquisite light), and a collection of indelible performances.

The two pivotal roles belong to Jane Fonda, who plays Hellman's character, and to Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Julia, Hellman's oldest and dearest friend. It's the 1930s, and Julia -- a social justice firebrand from a wealthy family -- has gone to Europe, where she sees the spread of fascism and Nazism first hand. Back on Martha's Vineyard, Hellmen bangs away at a typewriter, attempting to write a play at the best of her lover, mystery writer Dashielle Hammett (Jason Robards), who is at the end of his own illustrious career. Hammett puts equal emphasis on "tough" and "love" as he mentors the fledgling playwright: "You better tear this up," he tells her, after reading her first draft. "Not that it's bad; it's just not good enough. Not for you."

Such encouragement, and a retreat to Paris, are surely the stuff of which writing careers are made. Eventually, Hellman writes a brilliant work and becomes a literary and social success. ("I'm the toast of the town!" she exclaims, drunk, to Hammett via long stance phone call.) It's while she's off on tour -- back to Paris, and then to Moscow -- in the company of Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell (Rosemary Murphy and Hal Holbrook) that Julia reaches out to Hellman for assistance, via circuitous means. A charming -- though mysterious -- man called Johann (Maximilian Schell) approaches Hellman with a couple of requests: One, that she buy him breakfast; two, that she participate in a money smuggling scheme to Germany's underground resistance movement. The mission entails a side trip to Berlin en route to Julia's scheduled stop in Moscow.

Cue the film's crux: A passage of taut scenes in which trains speed through the night and cross dangerous borders, while the Jewish Hellman, in a perpetual state of sweaty apprehension, tries to assess who among her fellow passengers might be friend, and who foe. It's in Berlin that Hellman meets Julie face to face once more, a fraught meeting that takes place months after Julia -- beaten to a pulp by fascists -- vanishes from a Paris hospital. The meeting is a wonder as Fonda and Redgrave -- especially Redgrave -- light up the screen with Oscar-worthy performances. (Redgrave won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in this film, while Robards took the gold for Best Supporting Actor; screenwriter Alvin Sargent also won.)

The rest of the film is denouement and pathos, as Hellman attempts to locate and rescue Julia's infant, a fruitless pursuit that takes place in the shadow of war and tragedy, but the cinematic high the viewer has caught carries one through, as does Hellman's boiling passion and furious ambition. The film is notable also for two small but memorable appearances, one by John Glover as a trash-talking would-be seducer and the other by Meryl Streep, in her first film role.

There are few extras here, including an original theatrical trailer and insulted score track. The standout, however, is an audio commentary track with documentary filmmaker/record producer/film historian Nick Redman and star Jane Fonda. Much of the track has an interview quality to it, though there are nice moments when Fonda, clearly enraptured, murmurs her thoughts: "Look at those faces!" she blurts, at the women's climactic final meeting. Kirk's booklet essay is, as always, informative and entertaining in equal measures, witty and gracefully written.