Sidney Lumet Directs Film Ensemble Adaption of Mary McCarthy’s Novel of Upper-Class Women’s Problems.



Sidney Lumet’s 1966 drama The Group is a challenging film to distill.  An ensemble to the core, the story tracks an intentional collective of eight young women beginning with their graduation from Vassar College and through their increasingly separate lives in the years immediately following.  Marital infidelity, politics, communism, psychotherapy, and the then-newfangled notions of woman’s rights orbit in close thematic proximity.

As adapted by Hollywood screenwriting great Sidney Buchman, and directed by Lumet, it’s fairly remarkable to see such a female-centric film land so close to its mark.

Stocked with an array of future television stars (Candice Bergen in her big screen debut; Jennifer Walters, Larry Hagman) and relative unknowns, The Group nevertheless follows form within the top-notch-acting through-line consistent in the filmography of Sidney Lumet.  Although there are plenty of insufferable characters, there are no bad performances.  This is merely one factor that raises The Group as entirely watchable, despite its niche social world (wealthy erudite modern women in pre-WWII New York City) and its 150 minute running time.  

The Group’s unapologetic yet detached depiction of the upper class female experience during the Great Depression is a curious thing.  One might assume that this particularly bourgeoise subset of an otherwise highly troubled world wouldn’t have much to be greatly depressed about, but of course their own reasons emerge.  This being a film by an open-minded and still relatively young director in the volatile year of 1966,  it balances remarkably well on its tightrope of sensibilities.  A little more in one direction, and The Group would be just another antiquated-on-arrival costume drama that Hollywood was desperately burning resources with at the time.  Alternately, too much in the other direction, it would be a Whit Stillman film decades before audiences were ready for such a thing.  While Lumet doesn’t exactly land upon a perfect medium, The Group is not ever uninteresting or ugly to look at.  (The latter thanks in large part to legendary cinematographer Boris Kaufman [On the Waterfront]).  

As challenging as The Group might be to distill, it is considerably less challenging to contextualize.  Based upon the 1963 bestselling novel by Mary McCarthy, it’s easier to see why, in a time of such cultural unrest and tumult, that this material would resonate.  Independent women trying to navigate their way in the world was a novel enough concept to sell quite well, particularly as the women’s liberation movement was ramping up.  Mark Robson’s notorious adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls would follow the following year, cut from much of the same lurid literary cloth.  Yet, for all their shared cattiness, lofty living, and women ensembles in trouble, their underlying sensibilities couldn’t be further apart.  While Dolls rolls in what’s supposed to be hot trash, The Group sticks to a carefully cultivated down-to-Earth approach, treating its characters with a certain chic detachment, it’s true, but remaining matter-of-fact in even its most brazen (for the time) dealings.  (Including lesbianism, contraception, free love).  

As adapted by Hollywood screenwriting great Sidney Buchman, and directed by Lumet, it’s fairly remarkable to see such a female-centric film land so close to its mark.  The Group, while undeniably lower-tier Lumet, is further proof that even in with his deeper cut, was always a filmmaker of greatly honed intuition.  He defied genre pigeonholing in favor of exploring emotional truths in a variety of story types, yet he always maintained the air of a working director.  Even Lumet’s most crime-addled outings share the emotional texture of The Group.  

Newly released on Blu-ray (sans any bonus features) by Kino Lorber Studio Classics, The Group looks downright vibrant at times.  At other times, its film grain betrays its age.  For the most part, though, The Group, like its namesake, is a thing of striking, aloof beauty.

Images used in this review are used only as visual context for the film. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray review copy.