Return from the Ashes

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Return from the Ashes
Return from the Ashes poster.jpg
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Julius J. Epstein
Based onnovel Le retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet
Produced byCecil F. Ford
J. Lee Thompson
Lewis J. Rachmil
Starring Maximilian Schell
Ingrid Thulin
Samantha Eggar
Cinematography Christopher Challis
Edited by Russell Lloyd
Music by John Dankworth
Mirisch Corporation
Orchard Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • 19 November 1965 (1965-11-19)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Return from the Ashes is a 1965 British thriller film directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Ingrid Thulin, Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar and Herbert Lom. [1] It is based on a novel by French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet, adapted for film by prolific screenwriter Julius J. Epstein. The novel would also serve as the source material for the 2014 German film Phoenix , directed by Christian Petzold, though the latter film makes multiple changes to the book's elements and concerns itself solely with the plot to reclaim an inheritance.


The films starts shortly before the Battle of France (1940) when chess master Stanislaus Pilgrin and the Jewish woman Dr. Michele Wulf have a romantic relationship. They get married, but Michele is sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Following the end of World War II, Michele is released and attempts to reunite with her husband and her step-daughter Fabi. The two plan to kill Michelle and claim her estate. The main theme of the film is attempted uxoricide.

Plot summary

Shortly before the German invasion of France, Dr. Michele Wulf encounters the younger Stanislaus Pilgrin over a game of lightning chess, not being aware that Pilgrin is a chess master. She becomes intrigued with the fortune-hunting Pilgrin and the two begin a liaison. Upon the German invasion, in order to protect Michele, who is Jewish, Stan marries her, to no avail it turns out when the Gestapo arrests her and sends her to a concentration camp.

Sometime after the war, Michele returns under the identity of Mme. Robert and encounters her colleague, plastic surgeon Dr. Charles Bovard, who at first does not recognize her because of her disfigured state. She undergoes plastic surgery to restore some of her looks and then by chance encounters Stan, who believes her to have died during the war. Surprised at the resemblance, Stan tells her that Michele's step-daughter Fabi cannot inherit her step-mother's estate because no body was ever produced. He asks "Mme. Robert" to impersonate Michele and she agrees. Upon moving back into her own house, Michele quickly becomes aware that Fabi, now a beautiful woman, resents her for her former neglect, and what is worse, is now Stan's lover. Eventually, Michele reveals herself and insists on resuming her relationship with her husband.

While taking a bath after consuming alcohol and barbiturates, the jealous Fabi tells Stan her plan for killing her step-mother. Stan will go to another city on the pretext of attending a chess championship. He will set up a gun to go off when Michele opens her safe. After establishing his alibi, he will call her and tell her that he has put a gift for her in the safe. When he hears the shot, he will know she is dead, and he can return home to adjust the scene to make the death appear a suicide.

Though it is not clear if Fabi is serious, the amoral Stan drowns her in the bathtub in such a way that it looks like an accident related to an overdose, and then carries out her plan. When he returns, he discovers what appears to be Michele's body, but is caught by the police in the act of manipulating the scene. Stan tries to flee but is surrounded by the police, Charles, and a very much alive Michele. By way of a flashback, Michele explains how she managed to avoid falling into Stan's trap. Stan makes light of his situation as he's escorted away by the police officers, making a joke about how he's going to face the guillotine because of simple act from Charles.


Original novel

The film was based on the novel Le retour des cendres (Phoenix from the Ashes) by Hubert Monteilhet, which was published in 1961. It was published in the United States under the title Return of the Ashes. The Los Angeles Times said if the plot "seems on the surface incredible, the marvel is that Monteilhet brings it off, achieving that suspension of disbelief." [3]

The film softens some of the darkness of the 1961 source novel, Le Retour des cendres. There it is her husband who betrayed her to the Germans and it is the girl, her daughter by a previous husband rather than a stepdaughter, who kills her in the end.


The novel was optioned by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who ended up selling the rights to director J. Lee Thompson, whose films Clouzot admired. [4] In May 1963 Thompson listed the film as among his projects. [5]

In October 1963 the Mirisch Company announced that the film would be one of six films which the company would make over four months at a total cost of $17 million. The other films were A Shot in the Dark, The Satan Bug, Bandoola, The Confessor, and The Dazzling Hour (which became Kiss Me Stupid). [6] In November Julius Epstein was reportedly working on the script. [7]

In March 1964 Hedda Hopper announced that Sue Lyon would star. [8] Filming was pushed back – in June 1964 the Mirisches said the movie would be part of a slate of 14 films made over 18 months worth $51 million (others including Hawaii, The Hallelujah Trail, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, A Rage to Live , Bandoola, The Confessor, The Law and Tombstone, Cast a Giant Shadow, What Did You Do in the War Daddy, A Garden of Cucumbers, Return of the Seven, The Off-Islanders and Richard Sahib). [9]

In November 1964 it was announced the stars would be Maximilian Schell and Gina Lollobrigida. [10] Lollobrigida was replaced by Ingrid Thulin, and sued the production company for $1 million. [11] Samantha Eaggar was under exclusive contract to Thompson's production company.

The film was shot on the backlot of MGM's Elstree Studios. in February 1965. The sets were designed by the art director Michael Stringer. Thompson said he liked to move the camera "to accent the restlessness, the emotional strains of these people, who are highly strung and neurotic. For once, I hope, the camera will help create characters rather than just reflect them." [12]

Thompson says Schell's character "lives by the creed of The Brothers Karamazov . Anything is permissible that is necessary to achieve an end. He does not mean to commit murder." [4]

Critical reception

Variety in its original review said that "Return from the Ashes does not always reach its mark as a thriller... Thompson... establishes a tense mood frequently, but level of interest suffers from character fuzziness which occasionally clouds the issue." [13]

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  1. "Return from the Ashes". British Film Institute Collections Search. Retrieved 24 June 2024.
  2. 1 2 Return from the Ashes (1965) - IMDb , retrieved 29 November 2022
  3. Kirsch, Robert R. (17 March 1963). "Whodunit Fan? Then Forget Guilt Feelings". Los Angeles Times. p. M14.
  4. 1 2 STEPHEN WATTS (9 May 1965). "Miss Thulin's 'Return'". New York Times. p. X9.
  5. Scheuer, Philip K (6 May 1963). "Mastroianni May Take 'Short Cut': 'Return From Ashes,' Novel, 'No Flowers,' Play, Bought". Los Angeles Times. p. D17.
  6. Scheuer, Philip K (7 October 1963). "The Conjugal Bed' Target of Italians: Comedy Cynical but Funny; Mirisch Slate $17 Million". Los Angeles Times. p. D15.
  7. Scheuer, Philip K. (26 November 1963). "TV 'Probes' of Film Troubles Draw Fire: Producer Denies 'Obsession'; Dreyer and Bergman in News". Los Angeles Times. p. F9.
  8. Hopper, Hedda (23 March 1964). "Looking at Hollywood: McQueen to Star in 'A Thousand Clowns'". Chicago Tribune. p. a7.
  9. "Mirisch Productions Will Cost $51 Million". Los Angeles Times. 9 June 1964. p. C9.
  10. Hopper, Hedda (10 November 1964). "Looking at Hollywood: Gina, Max Schell Co-Star in Film". Chicago Tribune. p. b1.
  11. "Gina to Sue Studios for Million". Chicago Tribune. 9 January 1965. p. n_a9.
  12. Scheuer, Philip K. (10 March 1965). "Hitchcock: Plying His Bizarre Trade: Director Amends Statement That All Actors Are Cattle". Los Angeles Times. p. D13.
  13. "Return from the Ashes". Variety. 1 January 1965. Retrieved 5 August 2019.