DirectorCy Endfield, Roger Corman, Gordon Hessler
Release Date(s)1969 (May 17, 2022)
Studio(s)American International Pictures (Scorpion Releasing/Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
De Sade was an uncharacteristically lavish, big-budget production from American International Pictures in 1969—a paradoxical attempt to make a “respectable” mainstream film about subject matter as lurid as the life of the Marquis De Sade. Since exploitation was the bread-and-butter of AIP, gaining respectability was always going to be challenging, and the film’s troubled production history didn’t help. Worse, it received an X rating from the MPAA. While Midnight Cowboy had managed to garner both critical and commercial success with the same rating, De Sade was treated far more dismissively, and it was a dismal failure at the box office. It’s still an interesting film, but appreciating it fully requires a willingness to meet it on its flawed yet fascinating terms.
De Sade passed through the orbits of several different directors during its lengthy development process, including Michael Reeves, Gordon Hessler, and Roger Corman. Corman spent some time working with writer Richard Matheson, who based his screenplay on the book by Gilbert Lely, The Marquis De Sade: A Biography (aka Vie du marquis de Sade). Corman wasn’t sure that he could do justice to the material, so he moved on, and Cy Endfield ended up taking over. Endfield restructured the script, eliminating the non-linear nature of Matheson’s narrative, but for reasons that have never been entirely clear, he wasn’t able to finish shooting the film. (He supposedly became too sick to continue, but Sam Arkoff later claimed that Endfield’s illness was a charade, and that he was simply unwilling to shoot the sex scenes.) So, AIP brought back Corman to complete the film, though Endfield still received sole credit.
The director’s chair wasn’t the only aspect of the production that featured a revolving door, as there were multiple cinematographers and editors involved, some of them also working uncredited. The end result from all of that behind-the-scenes chaos is admittedly somewhat incoherent, yet it’s hardly unwatchable. Some of the eroticism is unintentionally laughable, but the costuming and production design are both quite striking, and the performances are generally strong. Keir Dullea displays a bit more energy in the title role than he did in some of his other roles, but the film is really anchored by the remarkable Lilli Palmer as de Sade’s scheming mother-in-law, the Madame de Montreuil. The rest of the cast is memorable, featuring Anna Massey as Renee de Montreuil, Senta Berger as Anne de Montreuil, and the one and only John Huston as Abbe de Sade. (For the scenes of the Marquis as an old man, Dullea’s father Robert actually stepped in, dubbed by Keir.)
De Sade ended up being an orphan, rejected by its studio, the filmmakers involved, and most of its cast as well. No one really wanted to take ownership of the final product, and film history has tended to be equally unkind. It’s undoubtedly a messy, thematically muddled film, but that’s what makes it so interesting. Perfection can sometimes seem quite dull, but misadventure is often more rewarding for those who are willing to roll with the punches. De Sade may be confounding, but it’s never boring.
Cinematographers Richard Angst and an uncredited Heinz Pehlke shot De Sade on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85 for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing describes this Blu-ray as utilizing a “brand new 2K master,” but the scan doesn’t appear to be recent. Reframed at 1.78:1, the source element appears to have been a print. The changeover marks are visible, and there’s persistent speckling and other damage marks throughout. Befitting the source, the image is a little soft, and while the contrast range is good, shadow detail is poor. The costuming is suitably colorful, but darker wardrobe tends to lose most of its subtle details and shadings, and so it can look somewhat featureless. Despite all of those deficiencies, De Sade still looks fine overall, and this is yet another case where your mileage may vary depending on the size of your display—flaws that stand out in projection may be less noticeable on a flat panel.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The audio fares a bit better than the video, with no significant flaws. Some of the dialogue sounds post-synced, so it doesn’t necessarily integrate well into the rest of the soundstage, but that’s how it was recorded. The brash, ostentatious score from Billy Strange isn’t always the most appropriate for the film, but it at least sounds good here. The only mystery is that the opening titles do credit a stereo version created by the MGM sound department, but there’s no information as to whether or not the film was ever actually released that way. Regardless, most prints would have been mono, and that’s how De Sade is presented here.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas
- Interview with Richard Matheson (SD – 8:35)
- De Sade Trailer (SD – 2:55)
- Privilege Trailer (SD – 2:55)
Novelist and author Tim Lucas says that he fought to do this commentary, and he does offer a full-throated defense of the film. It’s a typically well-planned effort from Lucas, who always scripts his commentaries carefully rather than speaking extemporaneously, and the results speak for themselves. He covers the entire history of the troubled production, and also gives biographical information for most of the major players involved. He drew his information from a variety of sources, including vintage interviews from the cast and crew, and later materials like Sam Arkoff’s 1992 autobiography Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants. (Arkoff called De Sade the biggest disaster in AIP’s history.) Lucas also spends time dissecting some of the mysteries involved with the production, like the variant running times that have been given for it. It’s a great commentary track for those who may need a little gentle nudging to appreciate what De Sade has to offer.
The vintage interview with Richard Matheson was originally produced for the 2002 MGM DVD release of De Sade. Matheson says that he regards himself as a storyteller, regardless of what genre that he may be working with. He describes his screenwriting process, and then talks about his experiences with De Sade, including the conflicts between his narrative approach and Endfield’s.
The release of De Sade on Blu-ray is further proof that the death of physical media has been greatly exaggerated. Oh, it’s true that sales figures continue to decline, but it’s equally true that we continue to get titles like this that were never going to sell many copies anyway. Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing deserve full support for bravely walking off the beaten path to offer lesser-loved films like this on both Blu-ray and UHD.
- Stephen Bjork