This classic follows a dysfunctional couple – a history professor (Richard Burton) and the daughter of the university president (Elizabeth Taylor) – on a drunken night of arguing, as a hapless pair of newlyweds (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) come over for a drink.
Originally a play, this film is set in very few locations, and as such it’s surprising that it was, at the time, the most expensive black and white film ever made. The reason is because of the hefty fees paid to its stars in their fifth onscreen pairing.
The dialogue is as pithy and enticing as All About Eve, with Taylor’s performance having something of Bette Davis about it. Burton on the other hand has the soft voice and Welsh lilt of Anthony Hopkins. They snap lines back and forth with such ferocity and speed that it can be hard to keep up.
Controversial for its lewd content – references to swingers and orgies abound – it suggests a darker side to respectable, middle class couples not typical of the films of the era. There are even hints at bisexuality implicit in the open attitude to sex and occasional moments of intimacy between the two men.
The script is peppered with black comedy and tragedy, and just as we don’t always know how much of our couple’s animosity to each other is game playing and how much is deep-seated resentment, neither do they. In spite of their constant conflict it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they’re made for each other, and one of the most perfect couples ever put to screen.
Segal and Dennis also deliver impressive performances, and with its stars at the top of their game, this is a masterclass in how to make a dialogue-driven film exciting and engaging. It’s the best film about a night of heavy drinking since Downfall.