Monday, April 4, 2016

Greek Tragedy

Film: Mourning Becomes Electra
Format: Internet video on laptop.

No matter what, there’s no drama like family drama. Everything is far more intense when it comes to family. I guess that’s why there are so many movies about screwed up families: the drama almost writes itself. This is especially true in Mourning Becomes Electra. The story, originally written for the stage by Eugene O’Neill, plays out very much like the Greek tragedy on which it is based. This is a surprisingly twisted film with some very disturbing and creepy Freudian elements that, based on the name, should be expected.

Set the Way-Back Machine for the end of the American Civil War. In New England, the Mannon family awaits the return of both General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey) and son Orin (Michael Redgrave) with the news of the end of the war. Awaiting them are daughter Lavinia (Rosalind Russell) and wife Christine (Katina Paxinou). Lavinia is engaged to local Peter Niles (Kirk Douglas) but has been canoodling with ship captain Adam Brant (Leo Genn). As the film begins, Lavinia discovers that her mother Christine has also been spending time with the not-so-good captain.

This upsets Lavinia less for her own sake and more for the betrayal of her father. Lavinia is more than a little loyal and devoted to her father, again as the title of the film suggests. Worse, she discovers not only that her mother is taking her position with Adam and that Adam is taking her father’s position, Adam Brant is actually her uncle, her father’s brother from a discredited side of the family. Lavinia confronts her mother and discovers to her horror that her mother not only admits to being in love with her estranged brother-in-law but that she has never loved Ezra and wants out of the marriage. Lavinia promises her mother a complete destruction of her good name unless she promises never to meet with Adam Brant again.

Of course Christine does meet with Adam and conspires with him to kill her husband when he returns. Since Ezra has a heart condition, this turns out to be staggeringly easy, and when Lavinia discovers the treachery, Christine realizes it is just her daughter’s word against her own. Better for Christine, son Orin is completely devoted to her—almost pathologically devoted to her, and their relationship is disturbingly Oedipal. In fact, he tells her that his earlier romance with Peter Niles’s sister Hazel (Nancy Coleman) was just to make her jealous. But Lavinia is not satisfied with this. All she wants is justice for her father and damn the consequences. As we move into the third act, we discover that those consequences are dire, indeed.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a terribly slow build. Fortunately, this is also a film that gets better as it goes on. I have to admit that I was terribly disappointed with it for the first half of it. Once the deaths start racking up, though, it becomes quite a bit more interesting. I was also initially puzzled by the Oscar nomination for Michael Redgrave, but he truly comes into his own in the final hour of the film. It’s evident after a certain point that Orin is starting to lose his mind a bit, and Redgrave displays this almost entirely through his eyes. What he says is threatening and disturbing, but couple with the glint that appears in his eyes frequently, it becomes maniacal and frightening. It’s grand stuff, and what started as a fairly standard role turns into something of genuine power.

Rosalind Russell plays something tangential to her normal woman-in-charge role here. Lavinia is demanding, but is also brutal and vicious, brooking no interference and no deviation from what she wants to have happen. Everything she does initially is in reference to finding justice for the untimely death of her father. Once this is achieved, everything Lavinia does is to save whatever scraps of her dignity and her family’s name that she can. It’s not until the end of the film that we learn exactly how far she will go to avoid destroying the remaining scraps of her family’s legacy. It’s a good performance, perhaps even a great one, but it’s also a very ugly one, which makes it an interesting nomination for its time.

I was fully prepared to dislike Mourning Becomes Electra based on the very slow start and the overall length. IMDB claims that the film is just over two hours long; it’s closer to 159 minutes, and some of this is dross that could be cut, especially in the first hour. Once things go, it becomes a lot more interesting and a lot more engaging just because of how creepy and salacious it gets.

That’s my beef here, and it’s what prevents this from being a true classic in my opinion. This would be a better film with a two-hour running time, especially if the cuts come in the first 90 minutes. It simply takes too long to get started, and while it manages to build up some good will in that last hour, it’s got a great deal to overcome because it takes so long to get there.

Why to watch Mourning Becomes Electra: Family drama on the grandest scale.
Why not to watch: While the last hour is cracking, it takes 90 minutes to set it up.


  1. I wanted to love this but having seen a better version of the full five hour O'Neill play that PBS did back in the 70's with Roberta Maxwell as Lavinia and Joan Hackett as Christine this was just so incomplete.

    Your so right that the pacing is off and it's a long slog to get to that drama packed finale. Russell gives it everything she's got and it's an interesting performance but I still feel, as she did, that she was miscast nor do I think it was worthy of a nomination. It is however miles above Loretta Young's winning one. I can't help thinking that Olivia de Havilland would have been a better fit. I can't really fault Roz's work nor Redgrave's however there is one completely misjudged performance in the film and that's Katina Paxinou's operatic overly empathetic take on Christine. I found her intolerable, the part was offered to Garbo but sadly she found the idea of playing the mother of 39 year old Russell unacceptable when she herself was only 42 at the time. A pity since it would have been an ideal part for her to return to the screen in.

    1. How much cache did Paxinou add to the film, having won an Oscar a few years earlier? I can only think that that was the goal here. I agree that Garbo would have been a near-perfect fit, able to pull of being both seductive and conniving convincingly.

      I think de Havilland is a good call as well. She could have handled this ably--evidenced by the fact that she won two years later for a role that has a lot of similarities.