Release Date(s)1953 (July 12, 2016)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) is the third filmed version of a W. Somerset Maugham story that proved surprisingly enduring in the decades following its 1921 publication. That story, initially titled “Miss Thompson” and later retitled “Rain,” served as the basis for a hit play in 1922, a silent film starring Gloria Swanson and Raoul Walsh (who also directed) in 1928, and a racy pre-code adaptation with Joan Crawford in 1932 before Columbia’s color and 3-D incarnation in 1953. (Along the way there was an unofficial 1946 “race film” inspired by the story with the lively title Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.) As actress Patricia Clarkson points out in a brief but informative introduction to the film included on Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray, the story’s success can be attributed to its two main topics: sex and religion.
In all versions of the tale, prostitute Sadie Thompson clashes with a religious “savior” whose protests of Sadie’s immoral behavior hide his own repressed – and ultimately dangerous – urges. The 1953 edition stars Rita Hayworth as Sadie and Jose Ferrer as the self-righteous Mr. Davidson, and their performances are positively terrific – though, according to reports, neither was in a particularly happy place at the time of the film’s production. Ferrer was coming off of the blacklist and took the part under protest in order to prove he was a box office attraction; Hayworth had only recently returned to the screen after a few years off and was suffering from both the aftermath of a failed marriage (her third) and Columbia chief Harry Cohn’s attempt to use Miss Sadie Thompson as a test to see if Hayworth still had her old star power.
The verdict on that last point was mixed at the time, but viewed today Hayworth’s performance in Miss Sadie Thompson is mesmerizing precisely because she’s not quite her old self – she’s wearier, and smarter, and more self-aware. Yet her old star quality merges with these qualities to create a genuinely poignant portrait of a woman who has been used and abused by men and has just one last chance to get through life with her dignity and faith intact; it’s what makes Ferrer’s ultimate betrayal all the more harrowing and brutal, and the ultimate happy ending so satisfying. The movie is essentially a somber character study dressed up like a tropical musical, with show-stopping numbers (one of which, “The Heat is On,” was decried as “filthy” by the censors at the time) and a sumptuous visual style courtesy of old Hollywood pro Curtis Bernhardt. Bernhardt’s use of 3-D is stunning; rather than use the process as a gimmick, he uses it as an expressive tool, emphasizing the depth of the frames as a moral statement counteracting the limited point of view of Davidson. Some commentators (including Julie Kirgo in the liner notes for this Blu-ray release) have dismissed 3-D effects in Miss Sadie Thompson as unremarkable, but I wholeheartedly disagree – I think it stands alongside Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder as one of the great 3-D films of its era.
This makes Twilight Time’s flawless transfer all the more precious; the disc contains both 2-D and 3-D versions of the film, and the 3-D edition made for one of the most visually spectacular viewing experiences I’ve had all year. The sense of detail and depth is awe-inspiring, as is the fidelity to cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.’s ravishing tropical palette. The monaural soundtrack is surprisingly vibrant and robust as well, with an isolated music and effects track available as a special feature. The disc also includes a top-notch commentary track by film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros, who provide a comprehensive history of all the different versions of Sadie Thompson along with fascinating biographical information on Hayworth and other key players. Their audio narration is so insightful that it informs repeat viewings of the movie and makes it seem even richer – thankfully the A+ presentation makes those repeat viewings a consistent pleasure, time and time again.
- Jim Hemphill