Small town America will never be the same again.
When it was first published, Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel Peyton Place was the book that everyone read and few admitted to reading. Examining the dirty secrets lurking beneath the bright, shiny surface of an ordinary American town, the book proved an irresistibly salacious treat for American readers. Most critics – who wouldn’t be so easily bowled over by frank discussion of abortions and erections, thank you very much – were less impressed by Metalious’ work. “Never before in my memory has a young mother published a book in language approximately that of a longshoreman on a bellicose binge,” huffed the New York World-Telegram. Still, the novel remained on the New York Times best-seller list for a whopping 59 weeks, and a film adaptation arrived the following year.
Unfortunately, the limitations of the Hays code prevented the movie (directed by Mark Robson and scripted by John Michael Hayes) from even beginning to capture the sordid depths of Metalious’ novel. In storyline after storyline, scenes are toned down, edges are sanded off and plot details are altered until all that remains is an overlong soap opera that constantly seems to be biting its tongue. The film benefits from attractive cinematography, some decent performances and a flat-out gorgeous Franz Waxman score, but after a certain point the film’s endless stream of tame provocations begin to grow routine and wearisome.
As in most soap operas, a sprawling cast of characters are thrown into a series of assorted plot strands that occasionally bump into each other and create melodramatic waves. We’re introduced to local drunk Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy, Some Came Running), whose wife Nellie (Bettie Field, Bus Stop) works as a housekeeper for local dress-shop owner Connie MacKenzie (Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Nellie’s daughter Selena (Hope Lange, Death Wish) and Connie’s daughter Allison (Diane Varsi, Wild in the Streets) are best friends, and attend the local high school together. The high school has just hired a man named Michael Rossi (Lee Philips, Flipper) as its new principal, which dismays the students: they had been hoping that long-time teacher Elsie Thornton (Mildred Dunnock, The Trouble with Harry) would land the position. Rossi makes an effort to win over the town, and soon begins developing a romance with Connie.
After spending some time establishing these and other characters, the film launches into a seemingly endless string of increasingly dramatic developments. Illicit romance, skinny-dipping, debates over sex education, domestic abuse, rape, secret pregnancies and even murder are on the table, along with a host of other complications. Most of these are discussed in the tamest possible way (perhaps even tamer than the restrictions of the era demanded), which is only a problem because it feels as if the film is substituting one kind of artifice for another. It’s enjoyably melodramatic up to a point, but the film simultaneously manages to feel too long and too short: it seems to go on forever (particularly once you hit the blandly-staged courtroom drama of the third act), but too few of the stories have the time they need to breathe.
Still, the cast deserves credit for doing the best they can with the material they’ve been given, and were handsomely rewarded for their efforts: a whopping five actors (Lana Turner, Arthur Kennedy, Diane Varsi, Russ Tamblyn and Hope Lange) received Oscar nominations for their work in Peyton Place. Tamblyn – who serves as the through-line between the ordinary melodrama of Peyton Place and tonally similar (but much stranger) melodrama of Twin Peaks – is particularly terrific, offering a nuanced portrait of a sheepish young man reluctantly attempting to get out from under the thumb of his overprotective mother (in many ways, the character feels like a point of inspiration for Norman Bates).
Peyton Place (Blu-ray) offers a terrific 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that does a fine job of highlighting the film’s sumptuous Maine locations. The imagery is bright and vibrant, with rich, full colors and impressive detail. Depth is strong throughout, and flesh tones are natural. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track gives a terrific boosts to Waxman’s score, which sounds particularly rich and full. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and there’s no hissing, crackling or popping. Supplements include two audio commentaries (one with film historian Willard Carroll, one with actors Russ Tamblyn and Terry Moore), a 25-minute “AMC Backstories” making-of featurette, an 8-minute “On Location in Peyton Place” featurette, newsreel clips, trailers and a booklet featuring an essay on the film.
Peyton Place is simultaneously a polished entertainment and a patience-testing melodrama that hasn’t aged particularly well. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release certainly treats it well.