In between his big comic hits “Never On Sunday” (1960) and “Topkapi” (1964), Jules Dassin helmed this modern-day adaptation of Euripides’ heavy-lifting tragedy “Hippolytus.” In a way, Dassin scored a cinematic trifecta, since “Phaedra” is only best appreciated as a comedy – albeit an unintentional one.
Dassin’s favorite leading lady, the sensual Greek star Melina Mercouri, gets the plum role as the second wife of an Onassis-style shipping magnate (Italian actor Raf Vallone). Her marriage is profitable – she gets eyeball-sized diamond rings and shopping trips to Paris. However, things get icky she falls in love with his adult son from her husband’s first marriage. And in the tradition of Greek tragedy, things go seriously awry from this uncomfortable launching spot.
Unfortunately, Dassin cast skinny, twitchy Anthony Perkins as the object of Mercouri’s affection. The lack of chemistry between Mercouri and Perkins is overpowering – she smolders with the least subtle emoting this side of Theda Bara while he seems to have problems keeping a straight face.
Perhaps realizing that this Euripides-lite melodrama lacked sparks, Dassin overindulged in flashy distractions. Playing to an early-1960s mindframe of a “jet set” society, there are travelogue-worthy sequences in London and Paris, endless talk about characters going to exotic foreign locales, and a to-die-for designer wardrobe that Mercouri effortlessly models. (The film’s sole Oscar nomination was for costume design.)
But when lines such as “Get out of Greece! Carry my curse wherever you go!” generate audience laughs instead of shivers, you know that something went very wrong – and no amount of chic clothing can cover the mess.
“Phaedra” has barely been seen in the U.S. following its disastrous 1962 theatrical release. It was recently dug out of its well-deserved obscurity for a DVD release. But unlike wine, bad films do not get better with age.