Anastasia (1956)

Anastasia (1956), directed by Anatole Litvak.

£10 million is just sitting in a bank in London with no one to collect it, the entire Romanov royal family -- even the children -- having been executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The clever Russian ex-General plans to fix that by creating a convincing impersonator of the youngest daughter: Anastasia. She's good at the job, in fact almost too convincing. Could she really be...?

This is an example of the sort of lush, expensive production Fox could do in the 1950s. CinemaScope 2.55:1, rich costumes and sets, large ballroom crowds. I review it because with a rewatch I realize how my interpretation has changed over the years. The story has always been ambiguous -- is she or isn't she? -- but when young I just presumed she really was the princess, with that delicious irony of the con-men accidentally discovering the real heir.

Now I'm more inclined to think she isn't; she is either deluded or just going along with it. What struck me this time was how much people wanted to believe. In fact: how much they were willing to pretend to believe, to live in a fantasy they knew was not true. The fierce Dowager Empress is finally won over but tells the girl: "If it is not you, don't ever tell me".

Why is the fantasy so attractive? Most people will not get any money from the scam. Anastasia is not going to raise an army and invade Soviet Russia. You can understand the emigrees wanting their old life back. The population of Russian nobles and their retainers living in exile, reduced to driving cabs and running restaurants: that really happened and was often treated in film. See Ronald Colman in The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935).

What about the rest of us? Why do we care? Is the romance of royalty, or of a princess returned from the dead, so appealing? It must be.

In an odd parallel, Ingrid Bergman had been in exile from the US for many years following a scandalous affair and marriage with director Roberto Rossellini. This was her comeback role. And then she had to disentangle herself from the Svengali-like domination of Rossellini, just as her character cannot be controlled by the General.

Has any other actor had a year like Yul Brynner in 1956? This, The Ten Commandments (1956) and The King and I (1956), and he gave dominating performances in all three.

Director Litvak saw the Russian Revolution up close.

Historically there were a lot of Romanov pretenders and persistent rumors that Anastasia had survived. The film is inspired by the case of the most prominent candidate, Anna Anderson, who in life was apparently barking mad. According to the wikipedia, DNA research since the fall of the Soviet Union has proved that Anastasia's bones lie in the same mass graves as the rest of her family.

Alfred Newman score, Jack Hildyard photography.

Available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The black levels are just fair. Two commentary tracks.