Discovering worthy oddities is one of the joys of mining cinema history. Hence the “impulse shopping” of Return from the Ashes (1965), an overlooked noir that’s both stylish and compelling. Set just before and after World War II, the film chronicles the ill-fated romance of Dr. Mischa Wolf (Ingrid Thulin), a Jewish radiologist, and Stanislaus Pilgrin (Maximillian Schell), an aspiring chess master. It’s an unlikely couple—Mischa a wealthy, connected professional, Stan a dashing but destitute layabout. Their lives take a dark turn when war erupts, prompting Stan to finally propose, hoping to “erase” Mischa’s Jewishness and save her from the Nazi regime. The scheme doesn’t work, and Mischa is spirited off to a concentration camp. She survives the horrific ordeal, but returns drastically changed, so much so that Stan doesn’t recognize her. Worse, he has taken up with a devious, much younger woman (Samantha Eggar), creating a web of treacherous scheming.
The production values of Return from the Ashes are modest but effective, and while the drama is almost entirely dialogue driven, there are moments of suspenseful artistry to hold the attention. (The look and feel is mildly reminiscent of early Frankenheimer, with choice Hitchcockian suspense worked in.) The relationship between Mischa and Stan feels doomed from the start, but Thulin and Schell—the latter so obviously bent, the oft-villainous Herbert Lom is permitted a nice-guy supporting role—do a fine job selling its complexities. It’s Eggar, however, who steals the film, bringing sneering ruthlessness to her key role as the sharpest point on the fake-love triangle. It’s surprising this wasn’t based on a play, given its talky staginess; it’s unsurprising, after the fact, to learn it inspired Christian Petzold’s more recent film Phoenix, since the cynical scenario is so full of dramatic fireworks. It’s not precisely a classic, but it’s quite good and unjustly obscure.