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The Black Orchid

The Black Orchid
Paramount Home Video
1958 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Street Date August 31 2004 / 14.99
Starring Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Peter Mark Richman, Ina Balin, Naomi Stevens
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Howard Smith
Original Music Alessandro Cicognini
Written by Joseph Stefano
Produced by Marcello Girosi, Carlo Ponti
Directed by Martin Ritt

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Black Orchid is a domestic drama with good acting and some no-nonsense direction from the talented Martin Ritt, fresh from the blacklist. Its emotional story generates genuine pathos, but doesn't quite works its way past a feeling of contrivance. It's like a contemporary live TV drama with bigger actors. Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn make a winning couple, however.


Rose Bianco (Sophia Loren) is in mourning for her husband Tony, who was murdered by gangland hoods. Widower Frank Valente (Anthony Quinn) begins courting her and won't take no for an answer. Cheerful and optimistic, Frank gives Rose new hope, especially when he proposes the idea of moving to the country and providing a good home for Rose's son Ralph (Jimmy Baird) who is having trouble with the law. But a serious problem comes from Frank's side of the family. His daughter Mary (Ina Balin) is dead set against dad marrying the widow of a gangster, and becomes disturbed enough to break up her engagement with Noble (Mark Richman) and lock herself in her room. As Frank's first wife died a madwoman and spent years locked in her room, Frank is understandably concerned. How will Rose solve these problems?

Although Anthony Quinn will always be first remembered for his Earth Father role Zorba the Greek, I prefer him as a more normal guy in films like this one and Hot Spell with Shirley Booth. Quinn already has a bluff heartiness that's charms, and making him a grubby free-spirit ethnic adds little except his all-purpose foreign accent.

His teaming here with Sophia Loren is a success. He's just handsome enough to attract her, but not so much that she couldn't resist him if he wanted to. While a lot of The Black Orchid rubs the wrong way, the stars have a winning chemistry that pays off in the sentimental scenes. We take every threat to their relationship personally, which seems as good a way as any to say that a film is working. After Anthony Perkins and Tab Hunter, Quinn is the mature man Loren needs on-screen. She overpowers the average male co-star.

Martin Ritt seems be trying to structure The Black Orchid like Marty, with a light ethnic background. Rose's husband was killed by the Mob and the movie begins with a funeral. It takes a while to overcome the initial impression that the story is going to be about crime or something horrible. Until the domestic issues take hold, we're wondering when the gangsters are going to show up. Rose is called The Black Orchid because she wears only mourning blacks, downbeat message that only goes away when the characters lighten up and start laughing more often.

Mark Richman and newcomer Ina Balin play Quinn's daughter Mary and her fiancée well enough. But the plot sticks Balin with a prejudice that's frequent enough in real life but difficult to sustain in a movie. Perhaps panicked by her own impending marriage and too strongly attached to her father, Mary freaks when she finds out dad's going to marry a woman she thinks is a gangster's moll. Her mother died insane, and weird Outer Limits- like wailing music is heard on the soundtrack whenever Mary flies into rages. With screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Psycho) in charge, we start wondering if Mary and Frank have a fruit cellar they haven't told Rose about.

The Black Orchid tries to be naturalistic. Everyone must struggle in jobs and try to get by. It's produced by Loren's husband Carlo Ponti and another Italian. But the fake Paramount back lot is a far cry from Neorealism and Rose Bianco is far too stylish to be an impoverished worker in an artificial flower factory. Her son lives in the nicest reform school you can imagine, where all the bunks are neat and the boys have pictures of jets and baseball players on the wall.

The various family traumas snowball until Rose straightens out the problems by forcing Mary to listen to her. Since we like the people, we're glad this has a happy ending (or at least no dead babies like Sophia's other movie that year). Just the same, it goes on a bit too long. Martin Ritt's actor sensitivity is keen but his judgment isn't quite honed yet.

Besides the stock studio settings, the only other bothersome angle is the script's insistence that women are the cause of all trouble. In this movie they tend to go crazy and drive their men to distraction; Rose's big confession is that it was she who "forced" her husband to steal and become a criminal, to satisfy her desire for consumer goodies. It bares comparison to Shelley Winters' phony revival confession in Night of the Hunter, blaming herself for her husband's crimes. The men aren't held responsible for anything. Poor little Ralph is desperate to get out of jail and takes the temporary split between Frank and Rose as a betrayal. It's Mom's fault, of course.

Finally, it's quite a stretch when the movie threatens us with the idea that young Mary might be going bonkers, with that weird 'crazy' music. She either is or she isn't, but the screenplay wants it both ways.

The best scene in the picture is when Frank shows off his outdated dance steps to Rose and they take a spin on the living room rug together. They really look like they're having fun.

Naomi Stevens and Frank Puglia are the neighbors and Virginia Vincent is their daughter who is also getting married. Whit Bissell is the concerned warden at the reform school farm, and he doesn't want to turn anybody into a werewolf, as he did teenager Michael Landon the year before. Star Trek's Majel Barrett is said to be in the cast playing "Luisa." I don't see Majel Barrett as a Luisa, maybe they put a dark wig on her and she sneaked by.

Paramount's DVD of The Black Orchid looks great; it's another B&W VistaVision production, this time shot by Hitchcock's fave cameraman Robert Burks. The audio is okay but the track has few occasions to show off. With an unsmiling Loren on the cover, I really thought the movie was going to be a murder mystery.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Black Orchid rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 18, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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