With its sardonic alcoholic protagonist, a pathetically adorable moppet, and Roman Polanski producing and scripting (from the 1962 novel by Heere Heeresma, who died this June), you know you’re in for a wrenching experience with the obscure A DAY AT THE BEACH, on DVD for the first time from Code Red Releasing.
Unemployed alcoholic intellectual uncle Bernie (Mark Burns, Visconti’s DEATH IN VENICE) picks up polio-stricken Winnie (Beatrice Edney, HIGHLANDER) for a drizzly day at the beach. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Bernie and poor Winnie stumble across various eccentric characters as he searches for his next drink and sends her off to play on her own. Bernie gets thrashed by a loan shark (Bertel Lauring, ALONG CAME A SOLDIER), accuses a seaside cafe proprietress (Eva Dahlbeck, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT) and her daughter of propositioning him to get out of paying for drinks, endures the flirtations of a pair of gay shopkeeps (Peter Sellers – billed as “A. Queen” – and A SHOT IN THE DARK's Graham Stark) for three bottles of beer (and a souvenir shell for Winnie), and reconnects with a successful friend Nicolas (Maurice Roeves, THE DAMNED UNITED) for more free booze and a possible assignation with Nicolas’ wife Tonie (Joanna Dunham, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD). As night falls, Bernie may be too drunk to take Winnie home.
Co-producer Polanski (with Gene Gatowski, who produced his CUL-DE-SAC) was originally slated to direct, but bowed out when the Manson murders claimed his wife, actress Sharon Tate. As directed by Simon Hesera, whose only other credit is the 1973 documentary BEN GURION REMEMBERS, the film follows Bernie and Winnie’s loosely plotted trip with British New Wave-esque style perhaps a half-decade too late. One wonders what Polanski might have done with the script, if he might have planned to show us a more REPULSION-esque interior perspective of the alcoholic protagonist. In the finished film, Hesera only gets experimental in a few rare instances. Early on, Mort Shuman’s (Vadim’s GAME OF SEDUCTION) score gets atonal when Bernie tries to resist taking his first drink of the morning. When Bernie is coaxing some bottles of beer out of the gay shopkeepers, there is a brief shot of Winnie getting caught up in the fishing nets. Since she says nothing about it later, this may be a mental prick of conscience as Bernie is distracted from watching Winnie by the lure of alcohol. In some ways, Winnie is wise beyond her years. She tells Bernie that she smelled alcohol on his breath, but did not mention it in front of her mother because she did not want to start an argument; yet, in later scenes, she seems resigned when Bernie orders one beer after another. Although Bernie is harsh with Winnie himself, he does defend her against insensitive comments from others. When he discovers a handgun in Winnie’s mother’s easily accessible bedside table, he empties it of bullets and drops them down the garbage chute, but he becomes less and less able to defend her or even comprehend that she might be scared or in danger as drinks more and more. The encounters with the supporting characters – who vary from bland to eccentric – also feels quite random. When Polanski had to bow out, it may have been that the direction of the film was seen an exercise for Hesera, but it seems like Burns, Edney, and cinematographer Gil Taylor (REPULSION, THE OMEN) were running the show.
Burns’ screen career included such respectable titles as Visconti’s DEATH IN VENICE and LUDWIG, Michael Winner’s I’LL NEVER FORGET WHAT’S’IS’NAME, Pete Walker’s drama HOME BEFORE MIDNIGHT, as well as Christopher Miles’ films of Jean Genet’s THE MAIDS and D.H. Lawrence’s THE VIRGIN AND THE GYPSY, as well as drek like Ray Austin’s South Africa-shot HOUSE OF THE LIVING DEAD – for which he won a best actor award at Sitges – and the Jackie Collins/Joan Collins duo THE BITCH and THE STUD. I’ll leave you to argue over the merits of his final credit: STARDUST (2007). While Burns is intense whether he’s being boorish or pretentious, it is Edney’s remarkable performance that keeps the audience caring about where this film is going (as if it wasn’t obvious). Sellers gives an unsubtle, campy performance, which is supported by partner Graham Stark’s predatory stare. Fiona Lewis (FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) turns up early on as Winnie’s mother. Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh – who was assassinated in 2004 in reaction to his film SUBMISSION about the treatment of women in Islam – directed a second adaptation of Heeresma’s novel in 1984 starring Cas Enklaar (MASTERCLASS) as Bernd, and featuring a vocal cameo from Heeresma himself.
Code Red presents the first home entertainment release of this little seen Paramount pick-up in the United States. The anamorphic widescreen transfer – dedicated to Burns, who died in 2007 – is letterboxed at the British widescreen ratio of 1.75:1. It would perhaps be better framed at 1.66:1 since the Paramount copyright and MPAA logo are flush with the bottom matte and Bernie’s face occasionally disappears above the top matte during some handheld long shots. Although shot by the great Taylor, these faults may have to do with rushed location shooting schedule conditions (the film would likely have been projected at 1.85:1 in the US). The anamorphic, single-layer transfer is fairly clean, apart from some small blemishes and some more noticeable edge enhancement, while the Dolby Digital mono is strong with clear dialogue, music, and sometimes detailed sound design. The only extras on Code Red’s disc are trailers for CHOKE CANYON (an Ovidio G. Assonitis production starring Stephen Collins, Bo Svenson, and Lance Henriksen), THE FARMER (which is now due out from Code Red’s “brother” company Scorpion Releasing), the Canadian POWER PLAY (with David Hemmings, released by Scorpion in early 2010), the execrable CAN I DO IT… ‘TIL I NEED GLASSES (whose theatrical reissue capitalized on two unfunny scenes by a suddenly popular Robin Williams, which had been cut from the initial release), and the Ovidio G. Assonitis THE OMEN knock-off THE VISITOR (the souped-up 2010 Code Red special edition of which was one of my DVDBeaver 2010 top DVDs of the year). (Eric Cotenas)
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