Terence Rattigan's pair of one-act plays are deftly woven together into this intelligent, handsome drama, a kind of somber Grand Hotel of lonely and repressed lives at a British seaside hotel in the dreary off-season. David Niven and Wendy Hiller earned well-deserved Oscars for their subdued turns, as a blustery old warhorse hiding a guilty secret and the efficient hotel proprietress, respectively. Burt Lancaster is the alcoholic American whose secret affair with Hiller is complicated when his former wife (Rita Hayworth) breezes in and reopens old emotional wounds, and Deborah Kerr is a mousy woman whose secret love for Niven is shattered by scandal. Director Daniel Mann (Marty) remains true to the good manners and quiet desperation that keeps these sad souls isolated at separate tables. He gracefully floats between the two dramas and patiently allows his repressed characters to open up and reveal their true feelings in their own quiet fash
As the song goes, "One is the loneliest number," and few films express the agony of isolation and stabbing pangs of regret with more perception and sensitivity than 'Separate Tables,' Delbert Mann's all-star adaptation of Terrance Rattigan's hit play. Much like its structural prototype, 'Grand Hotel,' the film examines the lives, loves, quirks, and demons of a group of disparate guests, but instead of lounging in the lap of luxury at a posh metropolitan high-rise, these troubled transients languish at a modest English seaside inn during the off-season. The cooler outdoor temperatures reflect the chilly atmosphere inside, where guarded demeanors prevail, repressed longings percolate, and judgmental attitudes reign supreme. Come meal time, all the residents adjourn to their appointed separate tables, where they eat alone and retreat inward. A shocking revelation fuels the tale, but it's the intimate tête-à-têtes between the characters that resonate, and lend the story meaning and relevance.
'Separate Tables' spotlights two separate relationships. One story documents the stormy interactions between an estranged couple - an alcoholic, volatile author (Burt Lancaster) who's romancing the hotel's down-to-earth proprietress (Wendy Hiller), and an icy, past-her-prime model (Rita Hayworth) facing the harsh realities of encroaching middle age. The other story chronicles the tentative interplay between a painfully shy and repressed young woman (Deborah Kerr) who's completely under the thumb of her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper), and a retired army major (David Niven) who harbors a shameful secret, and whose affable attitude only emphasizes his all-consuming awkwardness and insecurities.
In the original stage version, each story was told in a separate act and both couples were played by the same actor and actress. It was a novel concept, and the idea intrigued the king and queen of British theatre at the time, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, both of whom signed on to star in the film version of the drama, with Olivier directing. Yet during the adaptation process, the decision was made to overlap the two tales and cast four actors in the parts. The Oliviers promptly lost interest and dropped out, paving the way for Kerr, Niven, Hayworth, and Lancaster to appear in the film. Lancaster's independent company also financed the movie, and the actor's executive involvement in post-production ultimately caused friction between him and director Mann. Lancaster and his team reportedly recut portions of 'Separate Tables' to introduce his character earlier in the film and showcase it more prominently, deleting some very fine early scenes between Kerr and Niven in the process. The meddling ruined Lancaster's relationship with Mann (the two never worked together again), and the director expresses some lingering bitterness in the disc's audio commentary, claiming Kerr certainly would have won the Best Actress Oscar (she lost to Susan Hayward in 'I Want to Live') had those initial interchanges not been trimmed.
Mann, who honed his talents in live television and won an Oscar for directing the 1955 Best Picture winner, 'Marty,' is a master of navigating small spaces and depicting the vagaries of interpersonal relationships. Though 'Separate Tables' at times flaunts a bit of a glossy feel, Mann seems to relish the raw moments of unvarnished emotion, and tarnishes the picture just enough to make the characters and their plights and foibles believable. His stellar cast, of course, helps, too. 'Separate Tables' is the type of film that lives and dies by its performances, and Kerr, Hayworth, Niven, Lancaster, and Hiller all file heartfelt, impassioned portrayals that bring out the best in the material. Niven won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar, though he holds the distinction of logging the shortest amount of cumulative screen time (23 minutes) of any victor in that category. Usually typecast as a debonair dandy or dashing military officer who relies on charm and wit to put over his characters, Niven - who told Newsweek magazine the role of the Major was the best and most difficult part he ever had - is forced to flex some muscle here, and his work is impressive indeed. From his nervous mutterings of "What? What?" and "Cheery bye" to his bouncy gait and false gregariousness that betray a painful insecurity, Niven perfectly captures a troubled, ill-at-ease man who desperately craves human contact, but is too frightened to seek it out.
Kerr, who received her fifth Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking work, plays a similar role, one that's reminiscent of the mousy, dominated daughter Bette Davis so astutely portrayed 16 years earlier in 'Now, Voyager.' (Coincidentally - or maybe not - the controlling mother in that film was also played by Gladys Cooper, who does a superb job here as an uptight, sneering dowager who lives to exert her influence and poison the attitudes of others.) Hayworth's character also possesses borrowed elements. The fading glamour queen who rues the onset of middle age recalls Blanche DuBois in 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' especially in the scene where Lancaster roughly holds her face under the harsh glare of a naked light bulb. As the pragmatic, even-keeled hotel manager, Hiller nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her sensitive, nuanced performance, and Cathleen Nesbitt, a young Rod Taylor, Audrey Dalton, and a few other notable character actors also assert themselves well.
In all, 'Separate Tables' garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It lost both categories to Vincente Minnelli's ethereal musical, 'Gigi.') Such lavish attention, however, seems unwarranted today, for although Mann's film remains affecting and entertaining - and the star wattage continues to dazzle - the script often feels too preciously constructed, polished, and finely oiled to engender the kind of emotional spontaneity and gut-wrenching reactions a timeless film requires. Though it aspires to reach the same heights as the dramas of Tennessee Williams, its distinct British tone and reserve keeps it grounded, and 'Separate Tables' ends up like many of the residents of the Beauregard Hotel - likable yet distant.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Separate Tables' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu wothout music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Kino Lorber exhibits a fair amount of nicks and marks, but the occurrences are sporadic. Long stretches of the source material are free of any imperfections, and the film as a whole looks surprisingly clean and crisp for a production of this vintage. Grain is evident, but it never overwhelms the image, and though a few scenes exhibit a bit of softness, the picture remains pretty consistent throughout. Solid contrast and excellent gray scale variance supply necessary depth and honor Charles Lang's beautiful cinematography (he received his 12th of 18 Oscar nominations for his stellar work), background elements are easy to discern, and shadow delineation during nocturnal scenes is quite good.
Black levels are full-bodied, whites are bright and stable, and intricate patterns resist shimmering. Close-ups are clear, highlighting the ever-present emotional stress on all the actors' faces, and no noise, pixelation, or other digital anomalies could be detected. Though film fans would certainly welcome a full restoration of 'Separate Tables,' this transfer will certainly suffice until such an undertaking occurs.
'Separate Tables' is a talky drama, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track nicely reproduces all the conversations so every word is easily understood. Subtle atmospherics, such as the distant surf crashing against the shore, add welcome texture to the audio, and David Raksin's appropriately romantic and Oscar-nominated score fills the room with ease, thanks to fine fidelity and tonal depth. A wide dynamic scale handles any level spikes without any hint of distortion, and no age-related issues, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, rear their ugly heads. Though this track won't impress anyone with sonic bells and whistles, it's a solid effort that does its job well.
Only a couple of supplements are included on the disc. A retrospective featurette would have been a nice addition, but will have to wait for a future release.
Audio Commentary - Director Delbert Mann sits down for an involving commentary that covers a wide range of topics. He kicks off his monologue by expressing his disdain for the syrupy title song that was added without his knowledge, then goes into the details surrounding his rift with Lancaster's production company. Among other things, Mann admits he turned down 'Separate Tables' initially, discusses the difference between the drama's theatrical concept and its film adaptation, and addresses the insecurity of Hayworth, who was quite nervous at the prospect of appearing with so many lofty actors. He also talks at length about his directing methodology, the recutting of the movie, and the tough reviews 'Separate Tables' received from British and French critics. Fans of the picture will find this commentary an essential companion piece, and classic film aficionados will want to give it a listen as well.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - Burt Lancaster, one of the producers of 'Separate Tables,' hypes the film in this awkward preview that interestingly includes more clips of his scenes than those of his equally esteemed cast mates.
Packed with star power and impressive performances, including Oscar-winning work from David Niven and Wendy Hiller, 'Separate Tables' chronicles the effects of loneliness and isolation on a group of eccentrics with sensitivity and insight. Delbert Mann's slick adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play goes down easy, but save for a few intense moments, lacks the bite that would make it truly memorable. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray presentation features a solid, if slightly scarred, video transfer, good-quality audio, and an interesting director's commentary. Drama fans won't be bowled over, but aficionados of fine acting will certainly appreciate the nuanced portrayals in this entertaining and affecting film.