Max (Dirk Bogarde) is a middle-aged gent living a quiet existence as a porter in a Viennese hotel. We first see him trundling to work through a dull, rainy street: perfectly symbolic of the drab life he has fallen anonymously into.
Polite and accommodating to guests, surly but reservedly so to his colleagues, it seems that Max doesnít exactly relish in his role as night porter Ė but tows the line and performs his duties well, so as to never rock the boat.
On occasion, he welcomes old friends into the hotel and shows them the way to its back room where they speak about the secret history they share with Max. It quickly transpires that he and his cohorts are former Nazis now living incognito in Europe.
The set-up seems cosy, until a visiting entourage brings with it a surprise from Maxís past.
Atherton (Marino Mase) is a famous Italian conductor who has brought his troupe to perform an opera performance in Vienna. As they check in to the hotel, Max is assigned the task of handling their baggage Ė and catches a glimpse of Athertonís demure wife, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling). He manages to conceal his discomfort Ö but then, her eyes catch his and itís clear the pair of them share a back-story.
Through episodic flashbacks enjoyed by both Max and the withdrawn Lucia, we learn that she was a young prisoner in the concentration camp he presided over. A sado-masochistic affair developed between the pair of them, him filming her naked and enticing her to dance for him, she singing for her supper and receiving the severed head of a fellow prisoner as her reward, the pair of them indulging in a kind of sex that would prove to be both destructive and habit-forming.
As the flashbacks give way to present tense and Max moves in on Lucia, first from a distance at the opera, and later in the hotel room that she persuades Atherton to stay on at for a while, his old pals start spying on their activities. They begin to grow anxious of Maxís relationship with Lucia Ė a tryst that could ultimately expose them all as the war criminals they are.
Something must be done. This affair cannot end happily Ö
Tellingly, the first character introduced to the film is Bogardeís. And even though Ramplingís character follows soon after, Cavani is very careful to keep the focus on Max for the best part of the filmís first half: we are invited to relate to his character, not hers.
Of course, the dynamics change as events progress and things get more complicated. Itís only then that Lucia is afforded any real backdrop or emotional core. But by then we know she is spiritually crippled, dead on the inside and longing to relive the thrill of self-destruction.
Both characters are sufficiently ambiguous and deeply defined, resulting in a rough ride for casual viewers. The more disconcerting audience, however, will enjoy their well-rounded, plausible foibles and recognise the tragedy that comes with their acts of guilt, confusion and compulsion.
As well-written as director Liliana Cavaniís screenplay is in this regard, full credit must go to Bogarde and Rampling (reunited here after meeting on the set of THE DAMNED) for breathing such convincing life and sympathy into these ostensibly unredeemable characters. There is a sense of loss and longing conveyed in both of their performances that lends gravitas to what couldíve been a dour exercise in S&M cod-psychology.
Aesthetically sound in its decaying look and feel, Cavaniís film is also superbly controlled in terms of pace and mood. Donít go into it looking for a companion piece to SS EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP; this is a slow-burning examination of how people fall apart. And itís done very well, rarely submitting to sensation.
Of course, itís also a political allegory all the way. Anyone familiar with Cavaniís oeuvre will know that. From her earlier TV documentaries through to films like THE CANNIBALS and FRANCIS OF ASSISI, which translated religious tales into modern social musings, hers is a career steeped in the examination of left-wing Italian politics, the origins of fascism and beyond.
However, as much as itís a sombre meditation on the habitual nature of addiction and all its complex ambiguities as it is a study of fascistic culture, THE NIGHT PORTER was still wrongly dismissed as exploitation upon its 1974 release. Although it does flirt with exploitative content (mainly of the soft-core variety), itís aged in this regard and doesnít really retain the power to shock.
Full-frontal nudity, some rough (though, paradoxically, soft) sex and an oppressive tone aside, this film is likely to be far more enjoyed by those looking into its subtext and subtle nuances of the central performances, than those on the hunt for cheap thrills.
Anchor Bayís blu-ray comes with a region B encoding and presents THE NIGHT PORTER fully uncut. Donít worry about the back coverís claims that the main feature is 113 minutes in length: itís a good 5 minutes longer than that.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for 16x9 television sets in a surprisingly nice 1080p HD MPEG4-AVC transfer.
While colours are muted and much of the interior scenes do have a look thatís as drab and grey as the deliberately washed-out exteriors, Iíd wager this is all down to stylistic choices on Cavaniís part. Certainly, Iíve never seen the film looking cleaner or clearer than it does here. Detail in close-ups is sometimes amazing, and thereís a satisfying lack of edge enhancement or fussy DNR to report.
Despite the fact that Anchor Bay UKís DVD release of this film a few years back was a travesty, Iím delighted to report that THE NIGHT PORTER here looks great. Iíve never seen the Criterion R1 DVD to compare this blu-ray against, but I understand that transfer also had problems that have been ironed out here.
As an aside, readers may be interested to learn that this presentation opens with a "Wild Side Cinema" logo Ė suggesting this is the exact same transfer as was used on the recent French blu-ray (issued by Wild Side).
English audio comes in options of 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Master HD. Both are solid propositions, offering equal channels for dialogue and sound design, while boasting a healthy lack of pops or hiss.
The disc opens up to an animated main menu page. From there, a pop-up scene-selection menu allows access to the film via 12 chapters.
Alas, there are no bonus features. This is a shame, as the aforementioned DVD had a few interviews to its credit. However, the improved picture and audio quality here are more than worth the format upgrade. Just bear it in mind that, if youíre a huge fan of the film, you may wish to keep your DVD too. The French blu-ray contains around 70 minutesí worth of extras, although they are not English-friendly (and the English soundtrack on that discís main feature plays with forced French subtitles Ö).
Available at a nice price and blessed with by far the best transfer this film has yet received domestically, Anchor Bayís blu-ray provides a great opportunity to catch up with this controversial cult classic in HD. Itís just a shame the DVD extras werenít ported across to this release.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|see main review|