Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Vincente Minnelli and John Houseman's Lust for Life is a love-it-or-hate-it movie. Viewers looking for Art and Culture are moved by its dramatic presentation of the tortured life of Vincent Van Gogh, and see Kirk Douglas' high-adrenaline interpretation of the character as representing the conflicting passions of frustrated creativity. Non-subscribers to Vincente Minnelli's art-directed approach to cinema call Lust for Life Kitsch or high camp, and roll their eyes at Douglas'es growling attempts to make artistic energies ooze out of his pores.
There had been a more sophisticated (and perhaps jaded) vision of the misunderstood artist in Albert Lewin's The Moon and Sixpence, but that neglected classic is about the relationship between the Artist and Society. Minnelli's film keeps its focus on the Artist as a lost soul struggling within him self.
Misfit Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) wants to become a preacher and is sent to a mining community, where he identifies so strongly with the hardships of the miners that his church superiors dismiss him. Returning home, Vincent alienates his family with his obsessive behaviors and his unwanted courting of his cousin Kay (Jeanette Sterke). After a depressing period living with Christine, an ex-prostitute (Pamela Brown), Vincent returns to his generous older brother Theo (James Donald), who helps him by providing an allowance, sending him to the country to paint, and introducing him to the vibrant Paris art scene, where daring new schools of painting are making news and painters themselves are growing hungry. Vincent tries working in tandem with the equally impoverished Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) but falls victim to increasing attacks of depression. More serious bouts of dementia follow, including one episode of self-mutilation.
Vincente Minnelli had been disappointed when MGM wouldn't let him film Brigadoon in Scotland, but for Lust for Life an extensive location shoot enabled him to bring real French backgrounds to the screen. The film uses a traditional approach to film the story of an artist -- make reality take on the look of the artist's work. Minnelli obviously had a fine time re-staging scenes from the famous canvasses, of fields of wheat and workers threshing with bent backs.
Cameraman Freddie Young used filters, Technicolor tweaking and probably a lot of paint on vegetation to make the live-action scenes dissolve beautifully with Van Gogh's real works. We're told that the paintings we see are originals, and that the producers were allowed access to them in museums and private collections around the world. The 1950s saw a spate of artistic movies on art and painters (as with H.G. Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso) and Lust for Life certainly knocked art aficionados for a loop with its widescreen Metrocolor vistas of Van Gogh's work.
Kirk Douglas is actually quite good as Van Gogh, once one gets used to the scale of his performance. Douglas tends to be an externalizer and viewers preferring emotions to be downplayed may think that his teeth-gnashing close-ups, tearing at his shock of red hair, are a bit too much. Douglas does look a bit like he's transforming into Popeye's Poopdeck Pappy in the central stare-in-the-mirror scene. But how else would one present a man so keyed up that he shreds one of his ears off with a pair of scissors?
The plot stays fairly faithful to the basic details of Van Gogh's life, adding a few foreshadowings of his demise that aren't all that alienating. Douglas pulls off the moment where he tells a friendly nun (Marion Ross of Happy Days) that death can come in a bright and sunny field. Norman Corwin's script alludes to prostitution and perhaps gives a nod (in an actor's reaction) to Theo Van Gogh's syphilitic condition, as more clearly elaborated in Robert Altman's later film Vincent and Theo.
Minnelli uses a fine supporting cast to bolster Douglas' central portrait. James Donald was in plenty of productions previously but his Hollywood career took off with this portrayal of Theo. His devotion gives us a reason to care about Vincent, as we respect Theo and his problems. Anthony Quinn makes a good Gauguin, good enough to win the film's only Oscar, which is all the more surprising considering that he's in the picture for barely over a reel.
Other actors are a list of talented favorites, Americans and Brits to the last. Perhaps the decision to have no French actors was taken to avoid a conflict of credibility. The wonderful Pamela Brown (I Know Where I'm Going!) is a desultory Christine, and Everett Sloane a doctor-to-the-art-world who seems less interested in curing Van Gogh than associating with him. Scattered through the tale are top talent like Niall MacGuinness (Curse of the Demon), Henry Daniell (The Body Snatcher), Jill Bennett (The Charge of the Light Brigade), Lionel Jeffries (First Men IN the Moon), Laurence Naismith (Village of the Damned) and, if you look quickly, William Phipps (Invaders from Mars).
Warners' DVD of Lust for Life looks great in a colorful enhanced transfer. If anything bad has happened to its original negative in the past 50 years, it's been corrected well enough to fool this viewer. The wide frame shows the limits of the CinemaScope system in 1956, as several attempted close-ups of Douglas or his hands at work are soft of focus, and it's not an aesthetic choice. Miklos Rosza's tumultuous music suits the film's stormy emotions well. Many of Rosza's themes sound alike (his noir themes are often indistinguishable) and while listening to this score I kept flashing forward to his wonderful work for Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
The visual extras are limited to the theatrical trailer, which means that the fascinating MGM short subject Darkness into Light about the making of the film on location in France, often shown on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, must have some legal impediment keeping it off the disc -- believe me, Warners' George Feltenstein would not omit such an item without a good reason. The audio commentary is by USC's Dr. Drew Casper, who has written extensively about Vincente Minnelli and knows his stuff. Casper makes a case for Lust for Life being one of the top MGM films ever, and I followed his points even if I'm not as mesmerized by the Minnelli magic. I mean, the man made that resounding studio clunker The Drapes (actually, The Cobweb), so he was a mortal like the rest of us despite the giddy exceptions of superb pictures like Cabin in the Sky,
The Band Wagon and Meet Me in St. Louis.
Warner's is taking its new policy of No Images on Library Discs seriously ... the Lust for Life logo is almost the only decoration on the disc. I'll miss the little pictures with the donut holes in the middle, but if it allows the company to keep other qualities high, it's a small price to pay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lust for Life rates:
Supplements: Trailer, Commentary by Dr. Drew Casper
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 12, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson