Monday 16 March 2015

Movie Review: Serenade (1956)

A comeback showcase for tenor Mario Lanza, Serenade is a galumphing story of music melding into complicated romances, enlivened by many interludes of extraordinary operatic singing.

In California, Damon Vincenti (Lanza) is a humble field worker with a remarkable talent for singing. Through family connections he gets an opportunity to perform at Lardelli's, a San Francisco restaurant, where he is quickly spotted by the well-connected Charles Winthrop (Vincent Price) and rich society girl and arts patron Kendall Hale (Joan Fontaine). Winthrop introduces Damon to legendary vocal coach Maestro Marcatello (Joseph Calleia), who hones Damon's talent and sets him on the course to stardom. Meanwhile, Damon is very much falling in love with Kendall and uses her as his inspiration, but she remains aloof.

On Damon's grand debut with the New York Opera, all goes wrong, and his career appears to be finished before it starts. Damon retreats to Mexico in a depressed state, where he meets Juana Montes (Sara Montiel), the feisty daughter of a deceased bullfighter. She revives his spirits, but Damon has unfinished business back in the United States, including a reputation to repair and the relationship with Kendall to resolve.

Directed by Anthony Mann as an adaptation of a steamy James M. Cain novel (but excluding most of the sexual escapades that would have been too complicated for a 1950s film audience), Serenade amplifies the melodrama and layers on emotional catastrophes. The film about an opera singer takes on the grand airs of an on-screen opera, with themes of infatuation, betrayal, depression, confrontation and redemption all played at the highest possible volume and in the most vivid colours. The overflowing broth is both the film's charm and limitation. It's impossible to take any of it too seriously, and it's equally easy to surrender to its husky spell.

While the passion and fervour are consistently engrossing, Mann is unable to achieve an even tone, and the film's resonance fluctuates wildly. The singing interludes are packed into bunches, and there are long stretches devoid of Lanza doing what Lanza does best. The two halves of the film almost play out as two separate stories. The first US-based portion is all about the rural boy doing good, while the second Mexico-set segment is an arduous journey of recovery. The final 15 minutes, with the two women in Damon's life finally confronting each other, oscillate recklessly and feature rampant cattiness and pointy swordplay before collapsing into an unsatisfactory heap.

Lanza is much better as a singer than an actor, and he unsuccessfully struggles to convince that he can carry off dramatic scenes. His line delivery is stiff and hesitant, his lack of comfort when not singing painfully apparent. Joan Fontaine is adequate, but she is not a natural self-centered vamp. Fontaine does not disgrace herself as Kendall Hale, but neither is she fully convincing. She also disappears for a long stretch once Damian relocates to Mexico. Sara Montiel and Vincent Price emerge with the best performances. Montiel gives Juana a genuine passion for life, while Price gets the snappiest lines and best attitude as the worldly Charles Winthrop.

Serenade is never dull; it's just smothered with the thick sauce of operatic excess.

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