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Desire Under the Elms

Eugene O'Neill's intense, gloomy, Oedipal play made for a rather soapy, depressing — but nonetheless impressive — 1958 film. Anthony Perkins turns in a fine performance as Eben, the son of a bitter, tyrannical farmer (Burl Ives) who married Eben's now-dead mother for her land. Believing that the farm is rightfully his, Eben buys out his two lunkhead brothers (Pernell Roberts, Frank Overton), but then 70-year-old Dad returns to take over the farm, having quickly remarried a young Italian woman, Anna (Sophia Loren, in her first American film). Loren is excellent as the temptress/earth mother who awakens uncontrollable Freudian lusts in Eben, who recognizes his new stepmother's greed for the farm — greed that inspires her to seduce Eben in order to provide an heir to the old farmer. But when her feelings for Eben turn to love, she makes a tragic sacrifice to prove herself to him. Stagy and patently artificial, Delbert Mann's adaptation of O'Neill's modern-day Greek tragedy feels appropriately claustrophobic but uninspired, and while Perkins' performance lays down just the right tone of mopey, incestuous lust, it's hard, given the character and the material, to not see a little Norman Bates in Eben, since he made Psycho just two years later. Elmer Bernstein's score is good but largely forgettable, with large swaths stolen outright from Aaron Copland. Paramount bumped up the contrast nicely for their bare-bones, anamorphic (1.85:1) widescreen DVD release of Desire Under the Elms, and probably used the best source-material that they had on hand — but it's still a very dirty picture, with an awful lot of dust and scratches. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (in English or French, with English subtitles) is serviceable. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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