’50s melodrama hard to capture on film

Does 'Revolutionary Road' stay on course?

IN THIS SEASON of constant appraisals of year-end films and awards contenders, I’ve noticed that discussions of “Revolutionary Road” rarely go very far before someone says something like, “But ‘Mad Men’ is the real ‘Revolutionary Road.’ “

I take this to mean that Matthew Weiner’s scintillating AMC series captures the zeitgeist of the late 1950s — the period’s look, attitudes, frustrations, hypocrisies and thrilling dash — with more panache and precision than does Sam Mendes’ estimable but problematic film. Given that “Mad Men” is about as good as it gets on either film or television right now, I would wholeheartedly agree.

But “Revolutionary Road” presents a separate set of problems that reflect not just on the era in question but on the artistic prisms through which they are viewed. The cinematic antecedent of “Mad Men” is obviously Billy Wilder’s 1960 “The Apartment,” a fact directly acknowledged in season one when the ad agency boss asks his secretary-mistress to go see that very film.

For its part, “Revolutionary Road” must shoulder comparisons with the superb 1961 Richard Yates novel on which it is based as well as with the numerous previous films dedicated to revealing the aridity and gnawing dissatisfactions of comfortable suburban life.

THE MENTAL DISLOCATIONS and prejudices surrounding such subject matter hit me strongly when, with the December rush of new releases done, I finally caught up with a film I had long wanted to see, the 1960 drama “Strangers When We Meet.” With a script by the ever-prolific Evan Hunter based on his own 1958 novel and directed by Columbia Pictures’ reliable inhouse veteran Richard Quine, then still in his 30s, the story of adultery between two attractive parents, played by Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak, who live on the same well-manicured Los Angeles street was widely regarded at the time as a well crafted commercial item of no special distinction. Although the picture, which is now on DVD, was quite successful, its genre alone — romantic melodrama — all but disqualified it from serious consideration by the era’s tastemakers.

Still, through the years I had heard from several smart critics that not only was this Quine’s best work, but also a great L.A. film. Both claims are true, and anyone fascinated by the way the real city has been used in movies will be endlessly absorbed in trying to identify the many locations captured by the great Charles B. Lang’s perceptive color and widescreen camerawork.

The neighborhood where the central characters live — where Douglas and Novak first see each other, dropping off their kids at a school bus stop — is unidentified, but would seem to be in the northeast section of Santa Monica or Brentwood. One sequence takes place in and outside the legendary Romanoff’s restaurant, and for those whose memories predate the Beverly Center, the lovers and their children have an encounter at the pony ride lot that long occupied the property.

Douglas’ character is an architect designing a modernist dwelling for Ernie Kovacs’ neurotic, womanizing author, and one watches the house go up in the mountains above Malibu as the film progresses. And then there is Malibu itself, where Douglas and Novak commence their tryst at the now-gone Albatross Hotel Restaurant with the assurance they’ll run into none of their friends way out there.

But the real issue here is the perception of a disconnect between the film’s familiar melodramatic format, which is what made sophisticates condescend to it half a century ago, and the absolute emotional and dramatic truth of every scene in the movie, which render it virtually undated after all the years (it’s also a pleasure to note that the film’s leads are still with us).

The operative cliche is that two attractive neighbors, both a bit itchy after some years of marriage, won’t be able to resist lighting a fire in their lives; the truth lies in the details of how the characters deal with their desires in a realistic context, and it’s here that a one-time alleged potboiler like “Strangers When We Meet” seems more credible and mature than a committed truth-teller such as “Revolutionary Road” or, for that matter, Mendes’ earlier “American Beauty.”

MUCH AS I ADMIRE many aspects of “Revolutionary Road,” the film has some issues that just won’t go away and become magnified in light of “Strangers When We Meet,” which naturally and purely evoked the time in which it was made, rather than showing the hard work that went into recreating the moment.:

  • Unusually for a novel in which the male protagonist is obviously a partial stand-in for the author, the leading man in “Revolutionary Road” has no latent artistic ambition, despite his wife’s belief that he does or should, nor even any sense of careerism. Neither the idea of Paris nor his former Greenwich Village haunts possess any allure for him (even the suits in “Mad Men” head down to MacDougal Street from time to time), all of which makes Frank Wheeler a rather equivocal, unrepresentative character. By contrast, Douglas’ architect struggles constantly with the far more pertinent pressure of family life compromises on his artistic ambition.

  • The Wheelers, in “Revolutionary Road,” for some reason can’t consider the possibility of escaping the spirit-killing ennui of the suburbs by simply moving back to New York City. The restlessness formented by the home-and-garden lifestyle is implicit throughout “Strangers When We Meet,” but so is the advantage Los Angeles enjoys in offering non-urban neighborhoods within a big city.

  • “Revolutionary Road” seems to subscribe to the old adage that children are best seen but not heard; the kids in this picture are conveniently never around to provide an incumbrance to the grown-ups’ misbehavior.

  • April Wheeler’s discontent ultimately proves suicidal. The validity of her reaction cannot be discounted, but it nonetheless represents an extreme, whereas the coping mechanisms, resignation and complex blend of feelings in the disappointed characters of “Strangers” ring more true and universal.

  • “Revolutionary Road” positions itself as a serious assessment of a certain aspect of American life by virtue of its corrosive look at its characters’ self-deceptions, evasions and willing conformism. The film offers many keen insights and ironies, and is intelligently handled. But its narrow vision runs directly contrary to the view, which I endorse to a considerable degree, that the years from about 1957-1963 represented not only the best time to be alive in the United States for the greatest number of people — not for minorities, obviously — but also the period when all the cultural explosions of the ’60s were already latent, even evident. “It was all happening in the ’50s,” a lifelong hipster friend who was around at the time has assured me, but for the cognescenti, the young, the adventurous, not for the masses.

The characters in both “Revolutionary Road” and “Strangers When We Meet” may have suffered from societal constraints and just missed out on the opportunities they were looking for, but I get the lay of the land much more clearly from the older than from the newer film.

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