At Long Last Love (1975), unavailable for decades and regarded as one of the great cinematic calamities of the '70s is, at long last, out on Blu-ray and available for reassessment. Ultimately, the picture doesn't quite gel like it should, but neither is it anywhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest. It's witty and on several technical levels quite daring. Watching it is rather like joining a big karaoke party with everyone wearing top hats, white ties, and tails (or gowns by Edith Head).
Ultimately, the critical and commercial failure of it and Daisy Miller the previous year derailed the, up to then, unimpeachable career of writer-director Peter Bogdanovich, justly lauded for striking a balance between Hollywood classicism and "New Hollywood" innovation. After At Long Last Love, Bogdanovich continued making movies (with Saint Jack and They All Laughed... among his best) but his reputation as a kind of savior drawing from the best of both worlds was largely over.
At Long Last Love flopped so badly Bogdanovich himself publically apologized for the film's quality, but its terrible reputation was really cemented when it was mercilessly mocked by the writers of The 50 Worst Films of All-Time and The Golden Turkey Awards. Despite the presence of Burt Reynolds, arguably the biggest movie star of the late 1970s, the picture was rarely shown, and never released to home video until now.
The Blu-ray comes from Fox, though Twilight Time is, according to their Facebook page, "handling all production ... on behalf of the studio, and it will not be a limited edition," and, presently, it's also listed as an Amazon Exclusive. Even more strangely, this "Director's Definitive Edition" is not the original, 118-minute release version from 1975 but rather the result of a different, unauthorized cut prepared around 1979 by a studio cutter named Jim Blakely. On his own, he reedited the film to something more closely resembling Bogdanovich's first preview cut, surreptitiously replacing it as Fox's official version of the film. Amazingly, no one seemed to realize this until 2011 when the director finally saw that version, which he preferred to the original release cut. He made some additional adjustments, thus this new, 123-minute release.
The slight plot gravitates around 19 Cole Porter songs, and is both set and filmed in the style of a 1930s Hollywood musical. Heiress Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd, very sexy and notably bra-less throughout), not having received a check from her mother recently and low on cash, meets suave Italian gambler Johnny Spanish (Duilio Del Prete, also in Daisy Miller) at the racetrack. Meanwhile, wealthy playboy Michael Oliver Pritchard III (MOP III for short), in a limousine driven by manservant Rodney James (John Hillerman), nearly runs down stage star Kitty O'Kelly (Madeline Kahn).
Later, backstage after a performance of Kitty's stage show, the two couples meet and Kitty and Brooke, old friends from public school as it turns out, are reunited.
Much frolicking, singing and pining away follows, for Brooke falls in love with Michael, while Kitty is anxious to drop her MOP for Johnny instead. Also, Brooke's maid and companion, Elizabeth (Eileen Brennan), seems a good match for Michael's acerbic manservant.
Few critics then as now acknowledge the picture's strengths while generally misunderstanding its weaknesses. Few, for instance, ever even mention Bogdanovich's excellent dialog, which spot-on captures the essence of Lubitsch and other masters of the screwball comedy, and musical comedies of that era. Similar to the Hawksian lines Bogdanovich wrote for What's Up, Doc? (1972), the witty dialog here suffers a bit because it feels rushed, lacking the expert pacing, ebb and flow of that earlier film. But it's still very funny and highly quotable. And, to its credit, it evokes the period and style of filmmaking with obvious great affection.
The picture was savaged for a variety of reasons, but most charged that the leads save Kahn could neither sing nor dance. The former complaint is odd considering Reynolds, Shepherd, and Del Prete all have entirely pleasant, if not particularly outstanding singing voices that serve their characters perfectly well. The movie definitely plays like it was written around the songs rather than selected from the Porter canon to best fit a particular scene, but the actors' phrasing is pretty solid.
Conversely, the four leads (and Hillerman and Brennan for that matter) hardly dance at all, just a few simple steps here and there. Instead, while often obscuring their feet beneath long dresses or from-the-waist-up framing, Bogdanovich tries compensating for this by having his actors and/or the camera constantly on the move. It's not so much choreographed as blocked and dollied, and there's a lot of singing in moving cars. Indeed, it's possible there's more total screentime with the cast singing in moving vehicles than there is actual dancing.
At Long Last Love really could have benefitted had Del Prete (among others) been replaced by an expert dancer who could have taken some of the pressure off the other leads while breaking up the vocals with two or three outstanding dance numbers. (Who, in 1975? Tommy Tune, maybe?)
Related to this was Bogdanovich's decision to record the actors' vocals live, on-set, rather than the standard practice of having them lip-synch to a studio-perfected recording of their songs. With a couple of exceptions, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady and Doctor Dolittle for instance, that hadn't been done since the earliest talkie musicals of the late 1920s and early '30s (though famously since, on the recent Les Miserables ). At Long Last Love clearly is evoking a later post-42nd Street era, so why bother? It helps a few of the numbers, making them more intimate and allowing a more actorly phrasing (a la Harrison), but others suffer. While the director's technical virtuosity is apparent, "But in the Morning, No" suffers because it was photographed in a tiled and stainless steel-filled kitchen, while the numbers filmed in automobiles come across as muffled, like they were recorded in a closet. I suspect the DTS-HD MA mix helps minimize this on Blu-ray, but in a movie theater in 1975 I strongly suspect this had an unconsciously negative impact on audiences.
Bogdanovich further experimented making parts of the film "black and white in color," with sets, costumes, and props various shades of black, white, silver, and gray. While interesting, it's also distracting and artificial in the bad sense. When the movie gets away from this extreme look the director's use of color, as in subsequent films, is generally excellent. Just as it's impossible to imagine The Last Picture Show or Paper Moon in anything other than black and white, At Long Last Love benefits from color while the monochrome-like scenes (about one-fifth the picture) really aren't necessary.
The cast is good, particularly Kahn - What a treasure she was! - and Hillerman, perfectly cast in the Eric Blore role. Reynolds during the 1970s and Shepherd later on excelled playing unflappable characters who could convey an awareness of the absurdity around them. In At Long Last Love they commit to the film's intentions, never condescending toward this older style of musical comedy. Partly that's the idea, that the characters should express their inner emotions through music. And yet the film lacks the kind of sincere, Gary Cooper or Fred Astaire type lead whose emotions the audience could more easily identify with.
Video & Audio
At Long Last Love, presented in 1080p, 1.66:1 widescreen, looks great, probably better than it did in theaters in 1975. The image is impressively sharp, colors are rich and serve the film as intended. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is also quite strong, supported by optional English subtitles and an isolated score track. The only other Extra Feature is a 4:3 widescreen, SD trailer, which doesn't sell the film well. And, as with other Twilight Time titles, Julie Kirgo has written another nice booklet essay.
Not a lost classic but still very much worthwhile and a long way from lousy, At Long Last Love is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.