Desire Under the Elms (1958)

Promotional poster for Desire Under the Elms

Promotional poster for Desire Under the Elms

Based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, Desire Under the Elms explores the strained relationship between Ephraim Cabot (Burl Ives) and one of his sons, Eben Cabot.

Before Eben’s mother dies, she warns him about what a bad man his father is and tells him where the family’s money is hidden so he can escape from their farm some day.

Flash forward quite a few years and Eben (now played by Anthony Perkins) has grown up. His brothers, Simeon (Frank Overton) and Peter (Pernell Roberts), are leaving the farm. Only Eben, his father and all of the anger that exists between them will remain… that is, until things become even more complicated by romance.

Ephraim marries a much younger woman named Anna (Sophia Loren) and brings her back to the farm, where she and Eben take a liking to each other.

Directed by Delbert Mann and adapted for the screen by Irwin Shaw, Desire Under the Elms is a romantic drama and period piece, set in the mid-1800s.

For the first few minutes of the film there is absolutely no dialogue: a tactic that successfully keeps the viewer in anticipation, waiting to find out what is going on.

We see Ephraim digging something out of the ground and Eben and his mother secretly following before she begins speaking and the stage gets set for the less-than-happy family life on this farm. Once the action does kick in, the mood remains pretty tense.

This is an interesting role to see Burl Ives in. Ephraim is a grumpy old man who talks down to his children and doesn’t seem to care about them much.

Loren and Ives as Anna and Ephraim

Loren and Ives as Anna and Ephraim

At first it was difficult for me to adjust to seeing Ives this way, since I grew up knowing him as the kind and grandfatherly snowman narrator in the Rankin-Bass version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. His voice is unmistakable, so the fact that he appears in human form in this film rather than animated snowman form did nothing to help the adjustment. Still, he gives a very sold performance here, the best of the film.

Other than Ives’ performance, this film is kind of oddly cast. Tony Perkins and Sophia Loren are both great performers, no doubt about it, but I’m not sure they were right for these roles.

If anyone should be able to play a captivating woman who wins the affections of both father and son it should be Sophia Loren, but the interactions between Anna and Eben don’t always come across with as much chemistry as they should. The two stars flip-flop between giving understated but powerful performances in some scenes to giving extremely stiff delivery in others. In the scheme of the film overall their performances are mostly successful, but they’re not always highly emotionally charged, and for that I must knock down the film’s score a bit.

Loren and Perkins as Anna and Eben

Loren and Perkins as Anna and Eben

In contrast, the tense scenes between Ives and Perkins are the best of the film. Familial relations take precedence over lukewarm romantic drama.

One aspect of the film that I was impressed by was its ability to be very atmospheric. I expected a textbook melodrama with standard visuals going into it, but the use of shadow and visual mood-building are pretty phenomenal. Visually, Desire Under the Elms stands out from other films of its type.

The script, on the other hand, does venture into standard melodrama fare every now and then, particularly in the final quarter. It also sometimes seems too wordy, as though trying very hard to impress the viewer with its use of language, instead coming across as try-hard. This isn’t a consistent problem, but it’s noticeable.

Desire Under the Elms is a film I can’t quite make up my mind about. The performances are puzzling and the dialogue isn’t stellar, but the story itself is engrossing and the film is visually beautiful. The level of drama remains high throughout, despite the film’s problems. I’ll give it a score of 2.5/5 with plans for a re-watch to better evaluate it in the future.

Images courtesy of fanpix.net. This film is available for viewing on Netflix Instant.

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