The Champagne Murders [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (9th July 2019).
The Film

Suffering from depression and blackouts since he was attacked in an incident that left a prostitute dead, alcoholic playboy Paul Wagner (Purple Noon's Maurice Ronet) is content to hold his family name over the head of Christine Belling (Repulsion's Yvonne Furneaux). The daughter of the business partner who swindled his father out of the "Wagner Champagne" empire - chateau, vineyards, and all - workaholic Christine needs the rights to Wagner's name in order to sell off the business to a pair of American buyers (Topaz's George Skaff and The Bad Seed's Henry Jones). Paul's best friend and Christine's former gigolo husband Chris (Crimes of Passion's Anthony Perkins) is comfortably caught in the middle, aiding and abetting Paul's exploits and pretending to side with his wife while angling for a yacht to call his own. Worrying about the brand's reputation with Paul jetting off to Hamburg outside of her surveillance, Christine sends her husband along to keep an eye on him. When Paul wakes up from a drunken stupor beside a strangled escort girl, he has no memory of what happened and tries to forget it until a news clipping about the crime from a German newspaper comes across Christine's desk and she starts asking questions. Ostensibly believing his friend to be innocent, Chris tries to cheer Paul up by taking him to a party given by British abstract artist Evelyn (That Riviera Touch's Suzanne Lloyd) but Paul becomes paranoid when he catches a glimpse among the eccentric party guests of Lydia (Babette's Feast's Stéphane Audran), an actress who was with him and Chris in Hamburg the night before the murder. When Paul wakes up beside another dead woman, Christine sees providing Paul with alibi as leverage over him, but she may be playing fast and loose with her life when she confronts him with a contract. A stylish and breezy sixties thriller from the great Claude Chabrol (Merci Pour le Chocolat), The Champagne Murders has all the right elements, from leads Ronet, Perkins, Furneaux - along with a prominent supporting performance from Chabrol's wife Audran - a jangly score by Pierre Jansen (Pleasure Party), and sleek photography by Jean Rabier – who lensed virtually all of Chabrol's film and television projects from Le Beau Serge through Madame Bovary – but the story feels as if it might have been compromised by the participation of Universal Pictures who not only shortened the English-language version by roughly seven minutes but also may have had a hand in blunting the story's sexual aspects, including a seemingly homoerotic underpinning to the friendship between Paul and Chris who antagonize the household's women like mischievous children. Claude Brulé (Barbarella) and Derek Prouse are credited with the screenplay in the English version – the latter a film critic known for his translation of Eugene Ionesco's play "Rhinoceros" who had served the previous year as dialogue director on Tony Richardson's French-language Mademoiselle scripted by Marguerite Duras from a story by Jean Genet – while Chabrol collaborator Paul Gégauff (Les Biches) is credited with dialogue in the French version.

Video

Difficult to see after its Universal Pictures theatrical release, The Champagne Murders was unreleased on VHS in the United States and even bypassed a Universal "Vault Series" DVD-R edition. English-friendly versions appeared on DVD in Germany from Koch Media and Australia from Umbrella Entertainment (the latter in NTSC but Region 4-locked) reflecting the shorter English cut of the film (see the commentary notes below). Presumably it was the English version that was exported and dubbed in other countries considering the German DVD (as well as the possibly unauthorized Italian DVD which sports English and Italian audio tracks). Kino Lorber's Blu-ray cover states a 105-minute running time on the back cover but the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen transfer on the disc is the 98-minute English version. Shot in Techniscope – a non-anamorphic system that produced a scope image by exposing only two perfs per film frame rather than the standard one, benefitting production by allowing the use of then-faster spherical lenses rather than slower anamorphic ones as well as exposing twice as much footage per roll of raw stock than 4-perf, with the lab costs to optically convert the 2-perf to anamorphically-squeezed 4-perf for projection figured into the budget – the image is a tad grainier and softer than 4-perf CinemaScope but the high definition transfer's uptick in resolution over the DVD better calls attention to some aspects of the photography, the crisper image showing subtle gradations of focus that draw the eye to the "out of focus" portion of the image that still retains enough "focus" to overshadow the foreground (also noted in the commentary). The image appears, possibly subjective on my part, brighter and sharper than the DVD. There is depth that is evident during the party scenes as well as the more public rooms of the chateau while it appears to be a stylistic choice to use longer lenses in some of the bedroom scenes in which the camera follows characters through scenes decorated with what the commentary describes as "psychological clutter."

Audio

The sole audio option is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track which is clean and clearly renders dialogue and scoring while a couple sound effects goose the soundscape without truly jolting the viewer. The optional English SDH subtitles are welcome but unforgivably flub one in-joke for those who need them as they have a TV commentator attributing Death in the Garden to "Luis Bunuee" before the TV set is shattered by a wine bottle.

Extras

The primary extra is an audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson make a case for the film being the highpoint of what Chabrol considered his low point. The suggest that critics and viewers were let down because they expected a Hitchcockian thriller of a "sardonic social drama" of "mannered sarcasm." They also discuss the film's style – likening Rabier's photography to the color work of Hitchcock regular Robert Burks (Vertigo) and the "psychological clutter" of the set design to the work of Alexander Golitzen (Play Misty for Me). Their film analysis includes note of the uncredited input of Gégauff as Chabrol's "go-to guy" for such dislikable characters – also suggesting that the scenario of venal characters battling over a legacy to have been an influence on Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood – the twining of characters (Chris/Christine and Paul/Paula) and the homoerotic underpinnings in Christine and Paul and Chris and Paula being the fragmented mirror images of one another, as well as the ways in which the "fun" of Chris and Paul is always mediated through other women. Contrary to my observations in the review, Berger and Thompson explain that the differences between the film's simultaneously-filmed English and French versions – with Perkins acting in French in the latter and the French principals performing in English in the former – apart from the first scene after the credits which appears only in the English version consists mainly of a more sedate pacing in the French version and even argue that the pacing and performances of the English version are more suited to the hysterical direction the film takes in its latter half. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:29) as well as a Trailers from Hell version (3:01) with commentary from Tim Hunter (River's Edge) who reveals that the aforementioned low point was when Chabrol was making light thrillers to pay off his taxes, and that The Champagne Murders was his not only his only U.S. co-production but also his only film made in widescreen and Technicolor. The disc also includes trailers for two unrelated films.

Overall

Viewers expecting Hitchcockian thrills will be disappointed with The Champagne Murders which instead offers a sardonic and biting look at the venal lives of the leisure class.

 


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