Secret Ceremony | Joseph Losey’s darkly decadent 1968 psychological thriller dazzles on Blu-ray

A young girl, Cenci (Mia Farrow), sees Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), a middle-aged prostitute, visiting the grave of her child in a London cemetery. Struck by the resemblance to her own dead mother, Cenci takes Leonora to the opulent mansion where she lives alone and installs her in her mother’s old bedroom, dressing her in the dead woman’s clothes.

Leonora, in turn, humours the neurotic girl by adapting to her fantasies and rituals. But their private masquerade is interrupted by two strange aunts, Hannah (Peggy Ashcroft) and Hilda (Pamela Brown), and Cenci’s abusive stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum)…

In between his collaborations with Harold Pinter – 1963’s The Servant, 1967’s Accident (both starring Dirk Bogarde) and 1971’s The Go-Between, UK-based American director Joseph Losey helmed a trio of cinematic curiosities – the campy 1966 cartoon strip spy thriller Modesty Blaise (again with Bogarde), the spectacular bomb that was 1968’s Boom! (based on Tennessee Williams’ play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) and the baffling ritualistic 1968 psychological thriller, Secret Ceremony, which is now getting a world Blu-ray premiere release from Indicator.

Having already worked with her on Boom!, Losey felt Elizabeth Taylor was ideal for role of Leonora. She ended up not only being a dream to work with (unlike Mitchum, who was somewhat a handful), she also took a vulnerable young Mia Farrow under her wing. Farrow had just completed Rosemary’s Baby, which had yet to be released, and had Frank Sinatra’s minders watching her every move as they went through their messy split.

Interestingly, Farrow wasn’t Losey’s original choice for the role. He wanted Vanessa Redgrave, but she proved too expensive, and his other choice, Marianne Faithfull, was unavailable. But it was Viveca Lindfors, the wife of the film’s screenwriter George Tabori, who recommended Farrow. But Farrow is a great choice as she brings a genuine amount of fragile vulnerability to her role as the disturbed girl trapped in her own imaginings. And she and Taylor make for a winning combination.

Boasting exquisite production design (by Richard MacDonald), opulent cinematography (from Gerry Fisher), an elegant Victorian music box inspired score (Richard Rodney Bennett) and some wonderful gowns for Taylor (by Marc Bohan, the chief designer for Christian Dior, who based his palette on the mansion’s colourful mosaics and Taylor’s own iconic violet eyes), Losey’s psycho-thriller is a darkly decadent offering from the normally naturalistic director that’s so hypnotic that even the most baffled viewer will be left dazzled.

The mansion used in the film is Debenham House in Addison Road, Holland Park. Also known as Peacock House, this extraordinary romantic stew of sensual, Victorian oriental fantasy built in the Arts and Crafts Style by architect Halsey Ricardo (in 1905) was chosen by Losey because he had walked past it every day while taking his young son Gavrik to school.

Losey also makes excellent use of some other London locations, including Kensal Green’s All Souls Cemetery (which was extensively used in 1973’s Theatre of Blood0, the streets around Chepstow Road, W2 (and St Mary Magdalene church), and the historic Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin in Noordwijk aan Zee in the Netherlands (a favourite of the Dutch royals, and also of Taylor and Burton).

NBC TV paid US$1.5m for the TV rights, and without consulting the film makers, Universal fatally edited 18 minutes of the film for its showing on TV in September 1970. They cut some footage to substitute a discussion between Robert Douglas and Michael Strong playing a lawyer and psychiatrist who analyse the motivation of the film’s characters. In doing so, they bizarrely changed Leonora from being a prostitute to being an assistant in a wig shop. Losey was so incensed that he demanded that his name be struck from the credits of the edited TV version. These sequences are included as an extra on the Indicator release.

• High Definition re-master
• Original mono audio
• Audio commentary with author/critics Dean Brandum and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (2019)
• Archival Interview with Joseph Losey (1969, 15 mins): extract from the French television programme Cinéma critique
The Beholder’s Share (2019, 25 mins): interview with Gavrik Losey
• TV version: additional scenes (1971, 18 mins): the epilogue and prologue produced for US television screenings
• Original theatrical trailer
• Larry Karaszewski trailer commentary (2015, 3 mins): short critical appreciation
• Image gallery
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Collectors booklet with a new essay by Neil Sinyard, an archival location report, Joseph Losey on Secret Ceremony, a look at the source novella, an overview of contemporary reviews, and film credits

About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on November 30, 2019, in Cult classic, Drama, Must-See, Psychological thriller and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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