Return From the Ashes (1965) J. Lee Thompson

Return Poster

The opening scene in this 1965 J. Lee Thompson film sets the pace and the mood for this interesting thriller. We are on a passenger train; a young boy of about 10 is banging on a door in the compartment. His mother attempts to get him to stop by bribing him with chocolate. The door suddenly bolts open and the boy flies out the door falling off the train to his death. The other passengers in the compartment are all in shock except for Michele Wolf (Ingrid Thulin) whose face remains an emotional blank sheet. The camera then focuses on her arm revealing the tattooed numbers forever burned onto her skin.

Return Ashes Michele, a financially well off doctor before the war is returning to Paris, now that the war is over, under an assumed name (Madame Roberts) where she soon meets a former colleague, Dr. Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), a plastic surgeon. At first he doesn’t recognize her because of the scars she endured during her years of interment at Dachau. She undergoes plastic surgery to help restore her looks.

Before the war, Michele, a widow with a young step-daughter, met Stanislaus Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell), a devilishly debonair fortune hunting, brilliant Polish chess master. Younger, good looking Stan charms his way into Michele’s life. She quickly falls for the young rogue.  As the Nazi threat becomes more aggressive, Michele, who is Jewish is arrested despite the fact Stan, a non-Jew, and in a rare attempt at chivalry, married her. She taken away, sent to a concentration camp, and never heard from again. Stan assumes Michele is dead.

returnSeveral years later, after the war, with Michele now back in Paris with her newly constructed face and new name, Madam Roberts, she by chance, runs across Stan who still believes Michele to be dead. Stan notices the resemblance to his dead wife and becomes quickly intrigued. Meanwhile, during the time Michele was in the Nazi camp, Stan took up with Fabienne, aka Fabi, (Samantha Eggar), Michele’s step daughter, now a grown up and beautiful woman, as his lover. Fabi may be grown but she still retains an immature attitude and remains resentful of her dead mother for her neglect when she was a child.

Stan reveals to Madam Roberts that Fabi cannot claim her stepmother’s fortune because though she is dead, there never was a body identified and the law in France is Fabi would have to wait thirty years before she acclaim her inheritance. With her “resemblance” to the late wife, Fabi and Stan hatch a plan asking Madam Roberts to impersonate the supposedly dead wife in order to claim the dormant fortune. Michele agrees to go along with the plan but soon after slowly reveals to both that she is in fact the real Michele and takes back her position as wife and mother back.

Return Ashes1Fabi, jealous of her mother taking “her place” in Stan’s bed hatches a plan to kill her stepmother. Stan though has a more ambitious idea going one step further. He kills Fabi in her bathtub making it look like a suicide and then proceeds with Fabi’s original plan himself to kill Michele.

The film is a bit convoluted and it gets even more so toward the end, yet this is the rare kind of film that provides a good mix of character study and suspense. True, it gets farfetched but the two main leads, Max Schell and Ingrid Thulin, are convincing in their roles. Additionally, Schell and Eggar prove the old adage that there is no honor among thieves.

Ingrid Thulin is one of Sweden’s great actresses who has worked with Bergman (Hour of the Wolf, Cries & Whisperers, Winter Light) as well as some other great European filmmakers like Luchino Visconti (The Damned) and Alan Resnais (La Guerre est Finie). Thulin is a stunning looking female. Not your kittenish, sexpot type but more the sophisticated, cool, stylish kind of woman who does not need to exploit her sexuality. It comes naturally. She’s perfect for this role.

The film opened to mixed reviews primarily due to the implausibility of the plot but don’t let that stop you from watching it. You will stay interested throughout the running time, and if for no other reason, there are the performances of Schell and Thulin.


14 comments on “Return From the Ashes (1965) J. Lee Thompson

  1. david hartzog says:

    Good take on a fine film.


  2. Foose says:

    I had a huge crush on Maximilian Schell as an adolescent and I remember covertly staying up to 1am to sneak down and watch this film on TV. That’s the only time Maximilian Schell films were on during the 1970s! “The Condemned of Altona,” “Point Counterpoint,” the immortal “Krakatoa East of Java,” and the rest, all at 1am on school nights on grainy UHF channels loaded up with ads so you only got to bed around 4am. Well worth it.


  3. The Lady Eve says:

    John, Here’s another one I’ve never heard of! Obviously, I haven’t seen it either – and I’m wondering why the 10 year old boy flew out of the train compartment and to his death. Too much chocolate? You did say the plot was convoluted…I’m confused.


    • John Greco says:

      Eve – I am probably not clear in my review. The compartment door was on the side of the train that passengers would exit the train when they are at a station. Only they were not at a station and the train was speeding along. The kid keep kicking and kicking the door,it flew open, and out he went. Hope this is clear.


      • The Lady Eve says:

        Got it! I had the idea that the compartment door opened to the inside of the car and that somehow he flew out the other side…and, in a way, that might’ve worked with this crazy plot.


  4. John, this sounds terrific! I’m all for a convoluted film provided the acting is good.

    Thanks for introducing me to this film.


    • John Greco says:

      Ingrid Thulin is a wonderful actress. I have never seen her give a bad performance. Schell fits his part perfectly. It keeps you interested even if in the end you have to say this is a bit unbelieveable.


  5. Sam Juliiano says:

    John, I have never seen this film, nor do I remember it being brought to my attention. Yet the director J. Lee Thompson helmed the original CAPE FEAR, and as you note here with justified enthusiasm, two very great actors played lead roles – the always intense Maximillian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg) and Ingmar Bergman’s own Ingrid Thulin, one of the most extraordinary European actresses. You had me hanging on every word of this wonderfully written piece. By George I’ll seek it out!


    • John Greco says:

      Sam, It’s certainly not a perfect film but it’s worth seeing for the acting and the storyline does keep you interested. Thanks as always!


  6. Sam Juliano says:

    Ah my comment went into moderation, as My name was sent in misspelled. Sorry about that John.


  7. Judy says:

    Interesting to see how the poster says latecomers won’t be allowed ‘after Fabi enters her bath’ – I imagine the studio was probably hoping that cinema-goers would think of the similar gimmick with Psycho, plus showers and baths, of course! Sounds like an interesting film from your review, John, and of course Thulin was such a great actress.


    • John Greco says:

      Judy, I’m sure someone in the advertising dept. had PSYCHO in mind when they did the ad campaign. And I agree, Thulin was fantastic!


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