Despite all the plus factors, Desire under the Elms is not satisfactory entertainment. It is painfully slow in getting underway, the characters are never completely understandable or believable, and the ghastly plot climax (of infanticide) plays with disappointingly little force.
Eugene O’Neill’s play has been given a reverent translation. But Irwin Shaw, who did the screenplay, has not improved the story. O’Neill wrote a modern version of a Greek tragedy, as raw and chilling as anything in Oed ipus or Med ea. He chose the craggy New England of 1840 and its flinty characters with care. The casting of Sophia Loren in the role of the young (third) wife of farmer Burl Ives is a key error because it injects an alien-to-the-scene element that dislocates the drama permanently.
The passion of greed and lust that takes place, in which Anthony Perkins and Loren embark on a semi-incestuous love affair that ends with Loren’s having a child that Ives thinks is his, has been handled with discretion. Too much, perhaps.
O’Neill saw it as men fighting the gods and losing. Shaw apparently sees it as men understood through modern psychology, still doomed and damned, but for different reasons.
Despite Loren’s unsuitability for the play, she exposes a great variety of emotion and manages the scenes of tenderness with special value. Perkins’ character is not as exciting or vivid as it should be. Ives is the best, a bull of a man, cold in emotion and hot in passion.