In 1946, low-rent Republic Studios lured Oscar-winning writer Ben Hecht with the offer of being able to produce and direct films. But while the studio gave Hecht creative liberty, it imprisoned him within its ridiculously low budget framework. For his first (and, it turned out, only) Republic offering, Hecht had $200,000 to spend.
The resulting work, “Specter of the Rose,” turned out to be one of the most bewildering features of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Part-thriller, part-light comedy and part-ballet, the production was an emotionally bipolar experience. It also betrayed Hecht’s limitations as a filmmaker – cinematographer Lee Garmes shared co-director status, albeit with minimal prominence in the credits.
“Specter of the Rose” focused on the efforts of would-be impresario Max Poliakoff (played by Russian acting teacher and occasional thespian Michael Chekov) trying to pull together various dubious talents for a major ballet endeavor. Aging ex-ballerina Madame La Sylph (Judith Anderson) reluctantly agrees to get pulled into Poliakoff’s scheme, which involve bringing the elusive ballet star Andre Sanine (Ivan Kirov) back to the stage. Sanine had been sidelined following the on-stage death of his wife, and in his grief he began proclaiming that he was responsible for her death. But the offer to star and choreograph a new production, coupled with his sudden infatuation for Haidi, one of Madame La Sylph’s students (Viola Essen), brings Sanine back to performing.
However, the endeavor is wrought with endless problems: Poliakoff runs up debts and resorts to outrageous lies to keep his creditors pacified while a degenerate poet (Lionel Stander) whose love for Haidi goes unrequited stalks the ballerina. Haida winds up marrying Sanine, but his mental health begins to fray after their wedding – and it appears that his distraught claims about being responsible for his wife’s death had a ring of truth.
“Specter of the Rose” is notable for carrying some of the most pretentiously peculiar dialogue in the history of English-language cinema. Lines such as “The lunacy of great artists usually produces masterpieces, not murders” and “The suffering of the masses is a minor phenomenon beside one man’s tears” and “Hug me with your eyes” crash throughout the story, and it is hard to determine whether Hecht was trying to make an artistic statement or if he wrote the script while drunk.
There is also the bizarre performance by Chekov – with his wavy hair, oversized boutonnière and florid use of language (everyone is called “darling,” regardless of gender), his Poliakoff vividly shredded the Production Code’s taboo on obvious homosexual characters. The character’s atrocious behavior – deliberate mistruths, unctuous flattery and silly threats – makes him maddening rather than amusing. Matching Chekov for sheer strangeness is Stander, the gravel-voiced character actor whose line readings of Hecht’s overripe dialogue are so tortured that it feels like he is reciting his part phonetically.
And as for the grand ballet that is promised for the first two-thirds of the film, the resulting production is such a Republic-caliber cheapjack offering that it feels like the screenplay’s endless teasing of a masterwork was the ultimate bait-and-switch – especially since the title and a few dialogue references to the ballet “Le Spectre de la Rose” seem to suggest there would be a version of that masterwork on screen.
Nonetheless, “Specter of the Rose” keeps the viewer attention through Garmes’ effective noir-style cinematography (which mostly hides the poverty of the budget) and a stunning performance by Ivanov, a Broadway chorus dancer making his film debut. His rugged physical presence and offbeat interpretation of the increasingly unhinged ballet star dominates the film – and even if Tamara Geva’s choreography is less than stellar, Kirov’s physicality and emotional interpretation of the work saves the day. (Sadly, this was his only film appearance.)
And for all of its failings and weirdness, “Specter of the Rose” ties up brilliantly for its startling climax, where Sanine’s madness and sense of artistry duel over him. Without giving too much away, it can be said that this sequence embodies an astonishing mix of Garmes’ visual style, Kirov’s magnificent dramatic and physical talent and Hecht’s audacity to ratchet up the bizarre to a level of intellectual horror. This leaves the viewer with a sense of “what the hell was that?” – but, also, a subsequent consideration of “wow, that was really different!”