Peter Bogdanovich’s ’70s films consistently straddled the line between pensive nostalgia for a withering classical cinema and the grittier genre-bending renaissance of young filmmakers fashioning a new American aesthetic. Frank in its speech and sexuality, The Last Picture Show had a visual style that suggested Ford and Hawks. Ditto Paper Moon, where an effortlessly playful story clashed within hardened black-and-white naturalism. Which makes At Long Last Love something of an anomaly, its distinct métier a total replication (down to the very last backroom fuck and sly dick joke) of Pre-Code 1930s musicals, eschewing somber realism for re-appropriated Cole Porter song and dance, a singular auteurist work disguised as a cure for post-Watergate paranoia. Of course, making a complete homage picture (and a musical!) risks alienation, and so At Long Last Love’s fate was sealed before it was ever released; thrashed by critics and practically unseen by audiences, the film has remained unavailable until now, arriving on Blu-ray in what’s said to be Bogdanovich’s preferred cut, and just in time for reappraisal.
The film is tonally driven, if anything; there’s barely even a plot to speak of, as New York’s high society cavort and frolic while the rest of the world succumbs to the Great Depression. Playboy millionaire Mike Pritchard (Burt Reynolds) falls in love with actress Kitty O’Kelly (Madeline Kahn), while across town the same thing is happening to Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd), a parent-free heiress, and down-on-his-luck Italian gambler Johnny Spanish (Duilio Del Prente). The two couples subsequently meet, jealousies arise, and they begin a roundelay of changing partners against tommy gun-speed railleries on gender, sex, and class politics. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Bogdanovich’s interests aren’t necessarily invested in story (a potential dramatic conflict in which Brooke is unaware of Johnny’s true financial standing is quickly resolved and evaporates before the next musical number), but within the acute distillation of genre, even blocking scenes and dances in beautiful, sinewy long takes to showcase such commitment to its complex production. Although shot in color, the film’s design is made to look black and white, with hat, tie, and tails continually matching decadent clubs or stately manors, sets that all come off as appropriately “fake” to match the unfolding superficiality of the film itself.
But a commitment to the memory of Lubitsch or Astaire shouldn’t suggest Bogdanovich is keenly aware of the modern world, subverted ever so subtly within sight gags or seemingly throwaway dialogue (notice that FDR headline on the newspaper one of the characters reads). The very casting of Reynolds, a ’70s mainstay, provides an odd yet hilarious detachment when he sports the debonair threads of a ’30s socialite. At one point, Mike’s mother, Mabel (Ford regular Mildred Natwick), advises that he shave his (read: Reynolds’s) trademark mustache. Never mind that Reynolds can’t really sing a lick; the result of this caricature is never meant to be taken seriously, since Reynolds never plays it as such. And for that matter, neither does the whole cast, since, as it is, personality is what counts, and the film is certainly brimming with it. But Bogdanovich’s mischievous self-awareness, aside from a few moments when characters comment on others singing aloud, never gets the best of him. First and foremost, the film is an experimental throwback: As the tone-setting images of two pairs of metallic dancers atop a mechanical music box under the opening credits insinuate, the characters in the film are merely copies, surrogates of bygone actors or entertainers with their legacies carried over into new terrain.
A lot can be made on the supposedly smug and frivolous approach to the class hierarchy, even in the face of the Great Depression, but it offers a compelling reflection of the acquiring of material goods as opposed to finding a soul mate, whether fleeting or permanent. By the end of the film, with seething jealousy having raged and vengeful schemes hatched, the characters have ostensibly settled on one lover, yet an air of uncertainty and melancholy still clouds their minds like the ever-present effects of their constant champagne-swilling. Can these spoiled patrons of hedonism ever truly find happiness, given how their heedless spending tries to fill an ever-expanding void? A life of loneliness, without ever feeling satisfied, is certainly an enormous burden to carry. It’s to Bogdanovich’s credit that he undermines this somewhat rote motif by setting us at a certain remove from the characters. How fitting that the only couple to walk away in love and unscathed are Mike and Brooke’s long-suffering servants (John Hillerman and Eileen Brennan, respectively). And how fitting, after such grandiosity, to end on a restrained and delicate note with the pairs of music-box dancers separating once again…then stopping.
A first since the ’30s, At Long Last Love was shot in a direct-sound approach, with actors singing live on the set. It’s translated beautifully in this transfer, with the singing seamlessly blending with the gleeful spontaneity of the dialogue without either ever sounding drowned out. Levels are even all around, resulting in sterling harmony and clarity. And the film’s "black and white in color" palette makes the leap to 1080p with a cleanness and crispness that’s often striking, with stark whites clashing with murky blacks, especially in the big dance numbers. The bright greens and yellows are vivid as well, but there are a handful of sequences (especially nighttime exteriors) that don’t appear to have gotten the same amount of attention, as they show excessive grain and overexposure.
An eight-page booklet by Julie Kirgo gives some enlightening context (Bogdanovich says the studio liked the film "too much" and rushed it through post-production, delivering a cut no one seemed to be proud of), but it leaves you wanting more, like a commentary from the engaging Bogdanovich. Also included is a trailer and an isolated score soundtrack, which is really only essential as background music for your next Woody Allen-themed party.
Never mind the shit-talking canary, At Long Last Love is the top; critically reviled upon release and ripe for reappraisal, the film’s title may (hopefully) prove sweetly prophetic.