BR: Bobby Deerfield (1977)

October 27, 2016 | By

BobbyDeerfield_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  September 20, 2016

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: A Formula One racer meets a terminally ill woman and slowly reassesses the priorities in his life.

Special Features: 2008 Audio Commentary with director Sydney Pollack / Isolated Stereo Score Track / Original Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Originally a project designed for Paul Newman, Bobby Deerfield went into creative turnaround when the blue-eyed star lost interest in the project, after which director Sidney Pollack approached Al Pacino, still glowing from the critical successes Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Godfather: Part II (1974).

Pollack had reached commercial success with the drippy The Way We Were (1973) and the taut political thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975), and his love for location shooting also took him to Japan for the action drama The Yakuza (1974), which made Bobby Deerfield an ideal project for both star and director searching for a small character piece that emphasized slow-burning emotions and allowed for sensitive performance and directorial nuances.

Screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Paper Moon, A Star Is Born , Nuts) had taken Erich Maria Remarque’s 1961 novel Heaven Has No Favorites and retained the core story of a race car driver who meets a terminally ill woman in a Swiss hospital and develops a romantic relationship, but for Deerfileld Sargent transformed their bonding into something more unique: a story in which a man who’s cut himself off from his past and emotions learns to live again, while a woman facing death seeks deep, personal thoughts from a man who regularly risks death on the Formula One racing circuit.

Most of what Pollack describes in the Blu-ray’s commentary track isn’t exactly present in the finished film, and the director admits he tried to find a way to let the heroine live, if not for a happier ending, than to avoid the innately maudlin tenor of a death scene that made Love Story (1970) both an audience favourite and a dartboard for critics unimpressed by manipulative filmmaking tricks and emotional mush.

The chief problems with Deerfield lies in its length, its slow pacing, and the cosmetic tease of a drama that’s initially about a racer trying to find the cause of the crash that killed his teammate, and whether the same flaw resides in his own car. Pollack returns to the sleuthing of the crash a few times (testing engines, re-watching footage of the deadly smash-up), but it’s ultimately abandoned once the romance builds over the film’s remaining two-thirds. In many ways one can find some lineage with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventeura (1960), a film that similarly begins with a mystery element – a woman disappears on a boat trip – and switches lanes for a different route, and has a finale without a firmly framed conclusion.

Pollack’s solution to keep the paceing tight in the lengthy first third that comprises Deerfield’s arrival at the clinic / meeting his friend / encountering Lillian at a dinner / a magic show and interaction with Lillian / a bar scene / the next morning and launching the cross-Europe drive with Lillian is a clever use of intercutting scenes of parallel and reciprocal actions. Sounds trigger reactions, one character leaving a scene allows for another to step forward, and characters watch and listen in to other interactions and zip in and out without changing a scene’s tenor, but leaving a character with some interest or quandary that’ll be investigated in a later scene.

All of this mastery is handled by editor Fredric Steinkamp, who cut a variety of distinct works including the complex Charly (1968), Billy Wilder’s dreary Sunset Boulevard redo Fedora (1978), Taylor Hackford’s slick neo-noir Against All Odds (1984), the cult Xmas comedy / satire Scrooged (1988), and Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985) and The Firm (1993). He was also supervising editor on Grand Prix (1966) and Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor.

Deerfield may not have any elaborate racing montages, but the clinic scenes bear the imprimatur of a veteran who knows how to circumvent narrative lethargy by finding points of movements where characters react – eyes, hands, swatches of dialogue – and by cutting on subtle action, creates a stable pace and a mass of invisible cuts. His mastery is perhaps evident in a jump cut that may not stick out until a second viewing: a wide shot of Pacino taking a phone call in his bathtub is backwards, but the cutaway is a normal close shot, and yet the discontinuity between the two isn’t initially evident because Steinkamp found the perfect edit point to seal a joint between the two shots and emphasize movement to distract what’s clearly an overt continuity issue.

BobbyDeerfield_People_mag_cvrThe presumptive racing footage that’s inferred by the Deerfield publicity stills never really amounts to more than two short montages. Besides the driving work of Jose Carlos Pace, Tom Pryce, and reportedly James Hunt (Rush), car racing fans have nothing to find here, as the racing circuit is merely a backdrop to an event and a faux mystery that ultimately sends American driver Bobby Deerfield (Pacino) on an existential quest throughout Europe (namely Switzerland and Italy) in his sleek Alfa Romeo. Lillian (Marthe Keller, who had a relationship with her co-star) joins him on a two-part road trip, humanizes him, and ultimately helps Deerfield a bridge between his humble childhood in Newark and high life in Europe.

And yet there is something weirdly engrossing, almost subliminally on the second viewing of Pollack’s odd ‘European’ drama; perhaps it comes from hearing his commentary on the characters, because there’s no doubt every scene is the end result of careful direction and cooperation between director and cast. Pacino’s underplayed, soft performance is very affecting, and although Pollack cast Keller for her quirky performance style, perhaps through her interpretation and their rehearsals, Lillian is also the bane of semi-tragic and tragic romances: the manic pixie, the ADD whirlwind creature that somehow entrances the reticent, staid, emotionally inert hero and shows him the path to laughter, self-deprecating silliness, and risk-taking.

Keller’s performance style isn’t wrong; it’s the decision to render her as a manic pixie who invades, plays word games, and coaxes Deerfield that may have seemed like the perfect tale of opposites who collide and coalesce after some bruising, but it makes Lillian often interminable. Yes, she’s dying (and remains cinematically beautifully straight to her deathbed adieu), but she’s fighting to remain alive by refusing to sit still and allow death to claim her in hefty morsels.

Pollack’s film and Sargent’s adaptation isn’t perfect, but Deerfield will find new fans after the critical derision it received in 1977, because it’s the vision from an American director rooted in the aesthetics and risk taking of the seventies within the Hollywood system who sought more than a change of pace by seeking to craft a drama that burns as slow and interminably as an Antonioni drama; Pollack may claim to echo the French New Wave, but perhaps due to locations at the odd elements in Remarque’s novel that were retained by Sargent, it’s an unconscious homage to nuanced aestheticians like Antonioni (albeit with Pollack treating actors like actors rather than objects within a frame or landscape).

The main draw for the curious is a ludicrously young, baby-faced Pacino underplaying a role to add mystery, psychological density, and create a kind of anti-matter that energizes a character who ostensibly lacks such qualities except when he’s on the racetrack.

Keller never broke into the American market, but she’s nevertheless interesting to observe, making Lillian perhaps more physically reactive (and twitchy) than Remarque’s original creation. And then there’s Henri Decae’s extraordinary cinematography that makes the film almost worth the price of owning.

Rooted in the French New Wave and France’s cinema aestheticians (Elevator to the Gallows, The 400 Blows, Le Samourai, Joy House), Decae gradually ‘emigrated’ to Hollywood productions in the sixties and seventies, starting with international productions (Night of the Generals), oddities (The Only Game in Town), Nazi sleaze (The Boys from Brazil), and moving towards the odd directorial misfires (The Island, Exposed), but the magic he burned into celluloid remains top-notch. Deerfield contains exquisitely framed, lit, and atmospheric images that always feel natural in spite of the rich colours. Decae was a master cinematographer, and Pollack’s prior collaboration, the similarly measured story of corruption in Castle Keep (1969), benefits from Decae’s brilliant eyes.

Pollack’s longtime composer Dave Grusin wrote a gentle score that contrary to the director, does drip into treackly material, but it’s a subdued score that swells up only when there’s a need for clarifying character subtext, and Deerfield’s quiet inner transformation.

In his generally consistent commentary, Pollack recounts how his love for widescreen became soured when he saw how his movies were being dumped on to videotape in panned and scanned versions, an issue that pushed him to shoot in full frame and non-anamorphic formats for a good 20 years. (Deerfield also lost 25 minutes of material for its network and cable TV airings, adding further insult to Pollack’s efforts.)

It’s an ironic statement because Pollack’s thoughts in the commentary track, intended for Sony’s 2008 DVD release, were restricted to European releases. Seeking to tie Deerfield with Pacino’s 2007 film 88 Minutes, the Region 1 DVD features a ‘sneak peak’ featurette, whereas the Dutch and Australian DVD releases contain Pollack’s commentary plus a vintage making-of featurette.

It’s a shame Twilight Time wasn’t able to license the featurette “Filming a Love Story: Bobby Deerfield”, but the late director can finally have satisfaction that his maligned film isn’t just released in HD in a stunning transfer, but is married with his words, recorded as he watched and reacted to the film after 30 years.

Grusin’s score was (thus far) only released on LP, making the isolated track a treat for fans wanting the music uncompressed in DTS stereo.

In the set’s booklet, TT’s resident film historian takes the stance that Pollack tended to favour his handsome male stars – especially Robert Redford, via several collaborations – and Pacino similarly received more camera time than Keller, unless the two were in two-shots. Pollack wasn’t an auteur, but one can argue he did have a fascination with beautiful, reticent men forced into emotional whirlwinds, whether physical (especially in genre thrillers like The Firm and Condor), or on a barely perceptible level, as in Deerfield.

Deerfield’s cast includes veteran Italian actor Romolo Valli (Holocaust 2000, What?, The Leopard) as Lillian’s protective uncle, a tiny role for always underused Jaime Sanchez (The Pawnbroker, The Wild Bunch), and Anny Duperey (Les femmes, Stavisky) giving far more depth than expected in the thankless role of Deerfield’s long-suffering girlfriend who ultimately vanishes from the narrative (due in part to Pollack’s trimming of scenes).

Marthe Keller’s American soujourne consists of several interesting productions during the late seventies – The Hornet’ Nest (1976), Marathon Man (1976), Black Sunday (1977), Fedora (1978), and The Formula (1978), plus Tony Palmer’s epic Wagner (1981) – but her body of work in film and TV remains overwhelmingly in Europe.

As for Paul Newman, perhaps his reasons for passing on the project lay in having already made his own racing film, Winning (1969), and seeing Sargent’s adaptation veering towards a melodramatic finale.

Selected film and TV productions based on novels by Erich Maria Remarque include All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 and 1979), Three Comrades (1938), Arch of Triumph (1948,  1980, and 1984), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), and Bobby Deerfield (1977).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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