Retro Cinema: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

BeatonBabs 729595Vincente Minnelli’s 1970 adaptation of the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” has widely been dismissed as a failure, although the film has generated a small cult following that consider it to be an overlooked gem. As with the case of many critical extremes, opinions have been overcooked.

If the film never truly clicks, blame is not due entirely on Minnelli – his original production, created as a three-hour roadshow presentation, was brutally chopped by Paramount Pictures prior to its release. One hour of footage, including six Lerner-Lane songs, was jettisoned, resulting in a film that often feels like a half-told tale full of choppy storylines and sketchy characters. (A fully restored director’s cut has yet to materialize.)

But devoting a cult following to this title is equally wrongheaded, since the film is simply too light and rickety to warrant serious attention. And while the cult following is centered on Barbra Streisand’s kinetic starring performance, this is not a one-woman film and no one else in the cast comes close to matching her energy and gusto.

On the surface, the plot is fascinating: Streisand plays Daisy Gamble, a kooky New York college student who seeks the help of a psychiatrist to cure her cigarette addiction. The psychiatrist uses hypnosis as part of his therapy, but he accidentally taps into a regression where the contemporary Daisy recalls a previous life as Melinda, a scandalous early 19th century English aristocrat. The psychiatrist finds himself smitten with Melinda, not realizing that Daisy mistakenly believes he loves her.

To its credit, the film presents Streisand with an extraordinary vehicle that she drives peerlessly. Her Daisy is a variation of the raucous Fanny Brice-Dolly Levi persona she nailed in her first two films, but Melinda provides her with a level of glamour and daring that took her star power to a new level. Thanks to Harry Stradling’s cinematography and Cecil Beaton’s period costumes, Streisand epitomizes Regency-era chic. Plus, her attempts at various English accents (both royal court posh and Cockney growl) are genuinely entertaining, and few things are funnier than hearing the girl from Brooklyn shouting out, “‘Allo, mum!”

But beyond Streisand, the film is somewhat lacking. French star Yves Montand, in a rare Hollywood foray, is too bland as the psychiatrist – he seems more indifferent than intrigued by Daisy/Melinda, and his line readings are so emotionless that the performance often seems phonetic. The film’s heavy editing also took away whatever depth was originally given to the supporting characters. Thus, the input of Bob Newhart as a humorless college president, Larry Blyden as Daisy’s uptight fiancé, John Richardson as the ne’er-do-well hottie who ultimately drives Melinda to ruin and Jack Nicholson as Daisy’s ex-stepbrother and possible suitor are reduced to one-dimensional commentary on the Daisy/Melinda dynamo. (Nicholson, incredibly, was given a solo musical number that was among the chopped footage.)

As for the score, this was among the weakest of the Lerner-Lane collaborations; only the title song has any verve, and that receives a pair of very different interpretations (Montand’s anemic light ballad rendition and Streisand’s out-of-the-park belting). The film may have actually worked better if the score was dropped and the story was presented as a straightforward comedy, since Minnelli’s staging of the musical number is curiously stagnant (mostly stationary camerawork focused in medium shots) and the songs often seem to halt the action rather than enhance it.

If “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” never truly soars, it also never truly sinks. Despite its numerous faults, it succeeds as a Streisand showcase – and for those who are simply satisfied with that set-up, it provides perfectly satisfactory (albeit art-free) entertainment.

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever"
1970, Musical, 129 minutes
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Starring Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand and Jack Nicholson

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