This is the small New England town of Peyton Place shortly before the Second World War; it looks like many another small town, but it has its secrets. As Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) drives into the locality on his way to his job interview for high school principal, Selena Cross (Hope Lange) is living with her mother, brother and abusive stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy) in the poorest area of the town and soon things will get worse for her. Her mother, Nellie (Betty Field) works as housekeeper to Constance Mackenzie (Lana Turner), a widow who stays with her teenage daughter Allison (Diane Varsi), a schoolfriend of Selena's. But there are things you don't even tell your friends...
It was said that one in six Americans read the novel Peyton Place when it was published in 1956 - or at least read parts of it, the bits with the sex anyway. A scandalous book at the time, it was written by flash-in-the-pan Grace Metalious, an alcoholic who discovered that America wasn't quite as forgiving as the townsfolk are by the end of the movie adaptation of her blockbuster. Which begs the question of how faithful the filmmakers could be in the censorship-heavy climate of the fifties to a book that everyone knew of because of how racy it was.
Scripted by John Michael Hayes, who had tackled a light hearted version of small town scandal with Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry, the final result was surprisingly near the knuckle for its era, with its sex talk and family controversies. It's still not anything that would bat anyone's eyelids even on twentieth century television soap operas, but soap opera is what it was and it naturally went onto spawn a successful TV series in the sixties, a more tasteful version of the shocks of the book. Publicity was helped by star Turner's real life scandal when her daughter supposedly murdered her boyfriend.
And so Turner settled into a revitalised career of playing stressed out mothers of unruly teens, although in this film nice Allison seems like the reasonable one after Constance objects to her overenthusiasm about boys which culminates in a birthday party that sees the teens necking in the dark for Constance to be horrified by when she comes home from the pictures and turns on the lights. She has a secret in her past, you see, and Allison won't like it when she finds out the truth about her father. However, it's poor Selena who has the worst of it when Lucas takes an unhealthy interest in her.
The whole Selena plot might remind David Lynch fans of Twin Peaks with its incest terrors and the elemental, mysterious aspect of the surrounding forest which brings out all sorts of desires and fears. When she is raped by Lucas Selena falls pregnant and implores the long-suffering Dr Swain (Lloyd Nolan) not to tell anyone. A chase through the woods later and the furious Lucas has caused her to miscarriage, but that won't be the end of it, as there's a grand court case to finish off the melodrama with the troubled teen at the centre of it. Peyton Place is more glossy than gritty, too much like an upscale "woman's picture" for its grim subject matter, but it is compelling for the whole of its two and a half hours and it must have provided some encouragement for those viewers suffering family abuse at a time when such things tended to be swept under the carpet. Music by Franz Waxman. Watch for: Varsi adopting the pose of the book's famous author photo.
Workmanlike Canadian director who occasionally rose above the mainstream. A former editor, he got his break directing some good quality Val Lewton horrors for RKO: The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Excellent boxing drama Champion led to more high profile work: Home of the Brave, Phffft!, The Harder They Fall, Peyton Place, enjoyable Hitchcock-style thriller The Prize, Von Ryan's Express, campy Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake.