Mary St. John (Joanne Woodward) is everything David Alfred Eaton (Paul Newman) thinks he wants: icily beautiful, sharp-tongued, and prestigious. The daughter of a family of pompous aristocrats, she oozes fine taste and proper breeding. David, the heir to a nouveau riche family of iron and steel magnates recently returned home from serving as a sailor in World War Two, sees Mary as the ticket out of an emotionally abusive family—the father a callous man who resents David for outliving his brother who died as a child of spinal meningitis, the mother an emotional basket case who can only find comfort at the bottom of a bottle or in the arms of men who aren’t her husband. Mary represents a life of success and freedom. When he sees her for the first time at a party, he doesn’t hesitate to step in and ask her for a dance.
But Natalie Benziger (Ina Balin) is everything David knows he needs: compassionate, affectionate, and comforting. The daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner owner, David discovers her while investigating her father’s business prospects for James Duncan MacHardie (Felix Aylmer), the most famous financier in America. For perhaps the first time in his life he finds someone willing to give him the love and validation he so desperately craves. Trouble is that by the time they meet David has already been married to Mary for over a year.
Mark Robson’s From the Terrace (1960) belongs to a long line of sentimental American melodramas which foregrounded romantic turmoil as metaphors for social and economic strife. Such films were the bread-and-butter of luminaries like Douglas Sirk and Robson who three years earlier had directed the meteoric cultural sensation Peyton Place (1957) based on the novel by Grace Metalious. But in From the Terrace Robson moves his sights away from Metalious’ milieu of small town Americana towards opulent inner city drawing rooms and business offices. In David we see a personification of the American Dream: “Like all well brought-up American males [I’ve] always been aware of the fact that nothing is more important in life than the attaining of wealth and high position.”
The metaphors write themselves: David the dispossessed post-war American populace struggling for purpose, Mary capitalist ambitions, Natalie down-to-earth American values. But Robson isn’t being strictly metaphorical. While From the Terrace centers itself on a man equally at war with himself and societal expectations, it is first and foremost a glossy, titillating romance. Woodward dazzles as the alternatively wronged and wicked Mary while Newman dutifully reminds audiences why he was one of American cinema’s most emotionally vulnerable leading men. There’s an elegant fresco quality to Leo Tover’s cinematography—whenever I paused Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of the film I could practically make out the cracks in the plaster. But for such a heady draught of melodrama, From the Terrace also features a screenplay with all the immediate, acerbic bite of a hard-boiled film noir. It should come as no surprise that the screenplay was penned by none other than Ernest Lehman, the man responsible for some of the most enduring scripts of the twentieth century including Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), perhaps the most compulsively quotable noir ever made.
From the Terrace scintillates and wounds with the scale and ambition of a CinemaScope epic and the intimacy of an old school Hollywood weepie. It might not be as revered as some of its brethren like Peyton Place or Imitation of Life (1959), but it deserves recognition for its power, truth, and beauty.