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Fedora (1978), directed by the legendary Billy Wilder and restored by Eureka Entertainment as part of the Masters of Cinema series, has a fascinating premise ripe for compelling drama, but spends too much of its runtime focusing on the wrong parts of the story.
Washed up producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler (William Holden) tries to lure the legendary, reclusive actress Fedora (Marthe Keller) out of a retirement for one final movie that would revive both of their careers. A famously private individual, Fedora is shrouded in mystery and surrounded by people who will do anything to keep Detweiler and others like him away from her – perhaps for good reasons.
The main problem with Fedora is that it spends more than half of its runtime telling the story like its a mystery. The movie opens in medias res with the tragic death of Fedora and explores the circumstances leading up to it through flashback. The first half of the movie is all about questions – Who is Fedora? Who are the people that live with her and never leave her side? Why did she suddenly retire at the height of her career? The mystery angle was a huge gamble and it doesn’t pay off, because the answer is painfully obvious.
Fedora takes the cornerstone of the narrative and tries to play it off like a huge reveal, but it doesn’t work. The real meat of the story and the richness of the characters comes in the final third of the movie, which makes the most of the captivating premise – but it’s too little, too late. Even if the reveal caught you off guard the first time you saw the movie, it still feels like a misstep. Once you know the answer, whether by deducing in on your own or having it revealed to you, most of the movie becomes an exercise in building up to nothing. There’s no real benefit in revisiting the early parts with the foreknowledge of the reveal.
Even the later half, which is by far the most compelling, suffers from pacing issues. All of is told through flashbacks, laid out one after the other and that robs the story of some of its urgency and drama to an extent. It feels like an explanation of the mystery, rather than an true exploration of the dramatic potential of the premise. It’s unfortunate, because at its core, Fedora weaves a powerful tale, with a gripping performance by Marthe Keller. This restoration is also very well done – it comes with a short comparison video that lets you see the level of detail of clarity that has been added.
At best, Fedora seems misguided – the heart of its story is brilliant and the performances are great, but it never quite sticks the landing. However, there’s enough here to keep you invested and if you can overlook its faults, it’s certainly a tale worth telling.
A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard, a new essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, a vintage piece on the film’s production, and archival imagery