Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category
I’m really starting to dig the meek, outwardly-sheepish Edward G. Robinson of “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” and “The Whole Town’s Talking” over the confident and bombastic Robinson of of “Double Indemnity,” “Key Largo,” and, well, “The Whole Town’s Talking” (even if his performance in “Double Indemnity” remains one of my all-time favorite performances), because while the ruthlessness of his Johnny Rocco in a film like “Key Largo” is as plain as day with no room for deeper interpretation, that sinister side is much more subtle and insidious in his more mellow roles; it’s a side that even his own character may not be aware is in him until he’s covering up a crime with no opportunity to turn back. It’s almost like he’s two different actors, if not for that obscure, dark instinct inherent in his characters. Here, that instinct is initially invisible as his Professor Richard Wanley enjoys teaching, sees off his loving, happy family as they head off on a vacation, and enjoys an evening with friends as they discuss the painting of the eponymous woman in the window next door to their little men’s club. It’s when that woman manifests herself in the form of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) while he admires her portrait that his world comes crashing down, as an initially innocent rendezvous in her apartment to admire her other portraits turns into a death by self-defense. In the moments that follow, Robinson is fascinating to watch, as Richard almost immediately shrugs off his first inclination to call the police and instead methodically works out, out loud, how to dispose of the body and evidence. It’s as if this previously-infallible academic was born for a forbidden moment like this, had the entire plan swimming around in the deepest recesses of his head for years and decades, and he’s just realizing it as it happens, remaining calm, collected and professional as he tells Alice what to do and when to do it – he might as well be teaching one of his classes, doing his job without a second thought. And yet, a sense of excitement, of having fun, of arousal, is barely concealed by that matter-of-factness; as he gives both himself and Alice explicit instructions and she struggles to control her nervous hysteria and then becomes as calm as he is, this might as well be their version of sex, as if committing this crime is his unique version of, and only way of justifying, being unfaithful with that Norman Rockwell-esque wife of his. It’s an interesting commentary on what must have been the people of that time’s natural mistrust towards authority, that any intrusion on a previously-unblemished lifestyle had to be dealt with personally lest you inevitable get blamed. But in the here and now, it raises very interesting questions about Richard; if he can so smoothly transition from soft-spoken, girl-shy professor into self-assured death cover-upper, what else is lurking in that id of his?
Unfortunately, at least until the very end, that question isn’t explored all that deeply. Richard may have a yen for covering up a (justifiable) death, but that yen certainly doesn’t translate to skill, as he and Alice leave behind a trail of evidence and witnesses as long as eternity. Granted, that’s about what you’d expect for first-time offenders such as these two, but that’s where this interesting character study collapses, as Richard is generally out of the picture and Alice must deal with a blackmailing snake who witnessed the crime. It’s standard, even boring, noir shadiness and backstabbing, and I quickly lost interest and was eager for a resolution, disappointed that a reflection on a macabre shift in a character’s psyche became standard, forgettable pulp noir. At least it led to a downright astonishing final shot in which the blaring sound of a ringing telephone gradually mutes and the camera pulls into a glass: an abrupt punctuation mark of irony as this sordid saga that never needed to happen reaches its (extremely convenient and tidy…) conclusion.
Except it wasn’t the final shot, as an additional Hays Code-mandated five minutes nearly ruins even the best parts of this film. At the very least, it off-handedly reminded me of “Mulholland Dr.,” of all films, but otherwise it’s unforgivable (other than perhaps adding a shred of analysis to Richard’s psyche, but that’s really stretching it given the jarring change of tone from the 100+ minutes that came before). Just pretend that the pull-out from the glass and all that comes after it never happens, and the pull-in will, as it should, seal Richard into his self-made fate of guilt-ridden eternity.
As the crippled failed musician Nicholas intently, and nearly obsessively, watches his ward, and gifted piano student, Francesca during her first professional performance, comparisons to “Citizen Kane” become easy – not just in this scene, but with Nicholas’s near-abusive, and at the very least possessive, treatment of Francesca being comparable to Charles Foster Kane’s treatment of his bride Susan in general. Difference is, turns out I much prefer the dulcet tones of James Mason to the blustery ostentatiousness of Orson Welles, because Mason’s Nicholas comes off as the consummate elegant gentleman, making his misogyny and mother issues and abuse of Francesca, and his intentions in general, that much more of an intriguing mystery to decipher, arguably rivaling the intriguing mystery that is Anton Walbrook’s obsessive ballet impresario Lermontov in “The Red Shoes.” What’s this guy’s angle? They’re merely second cousins, why revolve his entire life around making this girl’s life miserable and shaping her into an impossibly talented, but soulless, pianist? Project his own failed musical aspirations onto the much more talented Francesca, perhaps? Try to act like a father figure while barely concealing a weird kind of attraction? Just use her as an outlet for his hatred of women (when she first comes under his care, he practically brags that he despises having women in his home, and she’s one of the first)? Tough to figure, since Nicholas is so deplorable, yet James Mason has an impossibly elegant disposition, but really, that’s about where this film’s ascendance over Kane comes to an end. Even when not comparing the two films, as to compare this or nearly any film to Welles’s orgy of technique and filmmaking deftness would simply be unfair, there isn’t that much that stands out apart from trying to figure Nicholas out, and some vague suspense in the concert scenes (will she faint or do something rebellious? even if she doesn’t, the music selection’s still great). Francesca and the other men in her life who inevitably fall in love with her are cardboard cutouts, the flashback-utilizing story structure doesn’t add anything, and the ending is downright stunning and startling in its misogyny, at least as I read it. Francesca’s desire to move apart from the controlling Nicholas is admirable, and you do get caught up in her plight as Nicholas’s cruel treatment of her is subtle yet truly psychological and compelling, but that ending, after a film’s worth of a protagonist’s enduring mental and emotional abuse, really makes me wonder whether this film’s actually putting up its heroine as a mere object to be saved or even won as a prize by men, men like Nicholas.
Edward G. Robinson was really, really good at acting. Two types of acting, really…over-the-top, confident, mile-a-minute talker, and shy, hunched-over, and soft-spoken. Polar opposites, and you literally got to see both of those types of Edward G. Robinson in Ford’s “The Whole Town’s Talking” as he played two totally different but lookalike characters. Here, he falls squarely into the latter category, as his unassuming bank cashier / wannabe painter Christopher Cross is painfully timid, completely emasculated by a loud monster of a wife, and desperate to be liked and/or loved. Enter Joan Bennett’s Kitty March, whom Chris believes he saved from a mugging (in an outstanding scene, by the way…all outside sound is drowned out by the soft, steady drone of a train. It’s probably the most single-minded and focused Chris has been on a particular task, and the most powerful he’s felt, in a very, very long time). In actuality, he saved her for a moment or two from her abusive rat of a boyfriend, and the couple then decide to con the poor sap when they figure he’s a well-to-do artist. Both sides are fooled by their misconceptions about the other based on their respective desires – Kitty and Johnny want money, Chris wants love, but it’s Chris’s fawning over Kitty that is the truly pathetic misconception at work here. In no time, he’s asking Kitty if she would marry him if he wasn’t already married, timidly knocking on the door of her apartment he’s putting up the money for like a dog scratching at the door to come inside, and even when she woefully screws up the con and he discovers that she’s profiting off of his paintings as if they’re her own, he’s happy for her. It reminded me of the unsuspecting dwarf Hans’s pathetic courting of the amused Cleopatra in “Freaks.” She has this poor sap Chris twisted around her finger. Kitty and Johnny as characters are utterly ridiculous and over-the-top, and frankly so is Chris, but there’s just something so pitiful in Edward G. Robinson’s performance that he stands out…a man so beaten down by his own insecurities, that even though we’re in on the secret he isn’t, that he’s headed towards inevitable heartbreak by being willfully ignorant enough to fawn over the deplorable Kitty, at least something is making him feel alive, pathetic as that ‘living’ may be. It’s all pretty standard fare, as Fritz Lang doesn’t really make his presence truly felt until one of the final Telltale Heart-esque scenes, when Chris finds himself alone in a shitty hotel room, the neon sign outside the window flashing on and off, as he confronts his own sense of guilt. Minus the imaginary voices, it’s something right out of silent expressionism, and in as memorable a way as possible, this film puts Chris right back where he started (and really, never left): alone. All you need is love…
It had potential to be, and often is, more than a typical one-last-heist story because of a particularly interesting sub-plot involving an old farmer and his crippled granddaughter that Bogart’s Roy “Mad Dog” Earle keeps going back to in the midst of planning that one last heist. Never mind the creepiness factor of the older Bogart wooing the obviously much younger girl through small talk, paying for her surgery without asking for a penny in return, etc., I’d say it was sweet if it wasn’t utterly bizarre…but it’s effective. Earle may say he wants to marry the girl and that he loves her, but that’s probably not true. He doesn’t want the innocent, naive girl, he just wants to get out of the fast, crime-ridden lifestyle he’s been drowning in. Ida Lupino’s wannabe-mob girl Marie won’t give him that ticket to the good, easy life, and he knows it, so the next best thing mustbe the young girl and her poor but honest family, by his logic. Marie, and Earle’s cohorts in the upcoming hotel heist, grow increasingly confused at Earle’s behavior as he keeps going back to that family, and indeed it sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the heist planning and mobbish threats as penned by John Huston (the scene where Earle tells the job’s inside man the story of the gun, punctuated by the ‘taptaptap’, is great, showing a terrifying side to Earle that we’ll learn may be little more than a mask of his true self). That family is the specter and the symbolic embodiment of a good life, of the good person that Earle is fascinated by the prospect of becoming, that may even want to be…but is not to be. It’s upsetting that that subplot is all but abandoned as it soon becomes little more than Ida Lupino crying in the passenger seat with the dog in her lap while Bogart acts all manly and shut up-y, but in a way it makes sense. In a surprisingly disappointing screenplay by Huston, complete with the token dog, token black indentured servant with the funny voice and lazy eye, and the farmer’s family coming right out of a Rockwell painting, at least it’s bleak when all is said and done. Earle, from a philosophical and psychological sense, is arguably one of Bogart’s more interesting characters – desirous of a good, crime-free life as seen by his seemingly inexplicable fascination with the granddaughter and her family, and even seen as a good man despite being a criminal, the way he defends a lady’s honor when he sees a black eye, or honors an agreement with his superior despite that superior lying dead on his side, or has an unremovable soft spot for that pesky dog (Bogart’s dog in real life…makes sense when you see how attached it is to the man). Chivalry lives, but crime never pays.
It’s interesting how from the outset, we’re put in Van Heflin’s shoes, a character who we will soon find out did something well-meaning but utterly terrible during the war, thus making him anything but the vulnerable, innocent family man and potential victim. It certainly doesn’t put us in the shoes of bad guys to the outstanding extent of, say, P&P’s “49th Parallel”, which is to its detriment, mainly to the extent that Robert Ryan’s character is woefully underdeveloped. In the beginning, his crippled war veteran hell-bent on revenge for an as-yet unspecified reason is certainly depicted effectively as a foreboding boogeyman, the way the sound of his boat’s rusty oar can be heard way off in the distance, gradually getting closer and closer right when Van Heflin learns exactly who’s stalking him on that lake, or how Ryan’s lame leg scraping across the ground goes from one side of the screen to the other as the man stalks outside Heflin’s house, while Heflin and wife Janet Leigh stand there in terrified silence. It’s a lazy, but effective, use of sound to evoke suspense, but once the film turns from a cheesy suspense churner into a wannabe-character study, it loses its focus. Granted, Heflin is great in the scene where he admits his terrible war deed to his wife, evoking genuine guilt that’s been stewing inside him for years, unexpectedly forcing us to remain sympathetic with him, rather than the deranged but genuinely wronged Ryan, but we could’ve really had something here if more of an effort was made to study Ryan’s character. He had to live with that terrible day in the prison camp just as much as Heflin’s character did, from an entirely different point of view, and a deeper look at his alleged madness and lust for vengeance would’ve done this film well. Instead, he barely rises above his initial characterization as that far-off boogeyman, which I’ll admit is an effective way to symbolize the far-off but tangible sense of guilt that’s been haunting Heflin’s character for years and is now all too real, but for sure, a character played by the great Robert Ryan deserved better.
There’re so many little, seemingly throwaway things going on here that make this story of 19th century courtship and deceit so much more real than it ought to be. Things like Montgomery Clift fumbling with his pen before writing something in his faux date book when he first meets the plain doctor’s daughter Catherine, or awkwardly coughing before serenading her on the piano, or the way Olivia de Havilland’s hands are fumbling and dancing all over the place with nervous energy as her Catherine is unexpectedly courted and receives words of passion for the first time in her life, or stares off into space when she returns Morris’ declaration of love – again, seemingly for the first time in her life – or how Ralph Richardson simply stirs his tea calmly yet intently, quietly enraged that his daughter has innocently fallen head over heals for a man he claims is no more than a penniless fortune hunter. In fact, it’s that quiet, inward rage that his daughter’s suitor can’t provide the ever-important $30k a year, and petty need for possession, and arguably a forbidden sexual tension not unlike the one displayed by, say, Judy’s father in “Rebel Without a Cause”, by Ralph Richardson’s Dr. Austin Sloper, along with a general expectation of a woman’s submissiveness in the face of a providing husband being more important than a little something called love, that ruins de Havilland’s Catherine. And her transformation about halfway through this film, seemingly at the snap of a finger, is downright startling. Her sexual and communicative innocence when we meet her is almost too much to bear, but her reaction to the charms of Clift’s Morris Townsend are so incredibly believable as a result – we absolutely expect her to dive headlong in accepting his advances with both surprise and humility and childlike exuberance. Perhaps the sudden change in character is to the film’s detriment and takes away from the realism of it all, but it’s still nearly terrifying in how absolute it is, how her father and her role and expectation as a wealthy young woman ripe to taken away by an equally wealthy provider and the perceptions of her father and society in general towards men like Morris who dare to be poor, turn her into a jaded, cynical, humorless, stone-cold monster. It’s both sad and frightening, and de Havilland essentially plays a dual role in the same character’s body to pull it off. In a film that initially gives off the impression of a nice romance between a charming young man and an innocent, childlike woman beating the odds, men like Dr. Sloper and settings like 19th century aristocratic New York are there to throw a bucket of cold water in our faces, and the face of a young woman who would never be the same.
“Paths of Glory” in the old west? Not quite, as you have barely a shred of the remorse for and sheer intimacy with the condemned men here as you have with the condemned men in Kubrick’s masterpiece, and Fonda as the de-facto voice of reason can’t hold a candle to Clenched-Jawed Kirk. And “Paths” had settings ranging from a no-man’s-land battlefield to a regal palace to a grimy holding area for the condemned men to a makeshift execution area as its backdrop, while “Ox-Bow” essentially uses one crappy-looking set with about 30 smelly men packed into it like it’s a can of sardines (although some select shots are quite impressive, particularly those involving the three on-the-spot condemned men huddled together and filmed like the world itself is crowding in on them). To its credit, though, “Ox-Bow”, like “Paths of Glory,” did genuinely get my blood boiling to see these three men – a family man, an elderly simpleton, and a mysterious and highly intelligent bandit – get treated like garbage by what amounts to a lynch mob. It all feels rather scripted and not all that “real”, whatever thatmeans, but nevertheless, to witness this group of men’s pack mentality, their bloodlust, their desire to see three necks snap, really for the heck of it rather than their claim that they want to see justice done, did genuinely piss me off in a good way and make me lament man’s continued inhumanity towards man in general. Solid western that I’m probably not giving enough credit to.
It’s about a group of French convicts who escape from Devil’s Island to make their way to the motherland to fight the good fight against the Nazis, and the Captain whose ship picks them up and becomes sympathetic to their goal.
But oh, if only it were that easy. Instead of a relatively straightforward premise like that, we’re treated to perhaps the only instance I can ever remember of a film employing the dreaded flashback within a flashback within a flashback. It still isn’t that hard to follow despite that insanely unusual story structure, but the way the story just goes backwards, and backwards again, and backwards again, it stops being revelatory of characters’ motivations and what-not and becomes a “Memento”-esque gimmick, and even more egregiously, like four separate movies in four separate time periods, some noticeably less interesting than others. On the bright side, no pun intended, some of the lighting, especially in what I’ll call the boat chapter and the prison chapter, is simply spectacular. As Claude Rains’ Captain Freycinet interviews the escapees in a cabin on his small vessel following their rescue, the lighting of the cabin and each of the men is very hard and evocative, and the shadows distinct, so that the cigarette smoke is very, very visible and these men, whose motives and reason for being stranded at sea is still unknown at this point in the film, are shrouded in shadow and mystery, particularly Humphrey Bogart’s Jean Matrac, as Bogart’s mannerisms of a mysterious sadness and despair makes his character the one who really stands out, and not only because it’s Humphrey Bogart. In a similar vein, the prison chapter (the second of three consecutive flashbacks and third of four periods in the film’s backwards-traveling timeline, if you’re keeping score…), by far the most interesting and attention-grabbing portion of the entire film, is genuinely thrilling and suspenseful, most notably because the dank, Turkish-like prison is lit so evocatively, that at one point during a rather astonishing near-birds-eye tracking shot as we move from cell to cell in the isolation ward, when we come to Matrac’s cell and Bogart struggles to stand and look into the light, it was like that insanely amazing moment in “Frankenstein” where the creature looks up into the light. Yeah, it’s that impressive.
Following that, we’re treated to a rather suspenseful, step-by-step escape, but that’s right around the end of where I was tuning all-in to this movie. Surrounding the 15 or so minutes of gorgeously-lit prisons and boat cabins and Great Escapes and a very, very cool naval battle is 135 minutes of poorly-written, archetypical characters looking out into the great blue yonder with a gleam in their eye extolling the virtues of patriotism and fighting for freedom while saying Vive la France a lot. At least Curtiz, et al seem to make an attempt to disguise their propaganda as a well-made action/adventure/thriller picture, which this is, but despite anti-Nazi propaganda maybe being the most worthwhile of all propaganda, this was still pretty eye-rollingly lame when everyone outside of Sydney Greenstreet’s cowardly and mutinous Major Duval is preprogrammed to sacrifice everything for country and to tell everyone else why it’s so important to sacrifice everything for country. “Casablanca” had a similar message but managed to conceal it rather well, but Curtiz just misses the mark in trying to repeat that success in his big follow-up. And that leads to what might be my biggest problem with “Passage to Marseille,” and that’s that Bogart is just all wrong for the main role, at least for a good chunk of it. In so many films, from “The Maltese Falcon” to “The Big Sleep” and even “Casablanca,” he’s a rugged, hardened cynic, and yes, he sticks his neck out for no one. That’s why the flashback-within a flashback-within a flashback, when we see him as an anti-war, revolutionary journalist on the lam with his girl, just seems so false and out of character for him. He’s Bogart for god’s sake, the ultimate cynic…it just felt completely wrong to see him so nationalistic and devoted to a higher cause. Later, when we move forward in time (a couple of times…) and Matrac’s been hardened and sapped of his willpower from his experiences in prison, that’s more like the Bogart we all know and love…hell, the wrinkles on his face actually seem more accentuated than usual with how bitter and toughened his character’s become. But that was too little, too late, when everyone else around him by that point is thoroughly established to be as shallow as they are. Above all, though, this film as a whole just felt wrong somehow. It felt wrong to see Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, four great, great actors, all sitting in the same shtunky cabin with other character actors reciting lame lines when each of them has the acting chops to carry a scene all by himself, it felt wrong to be force-fed the notion that country is the most worthwhile and virtuous thing to live for, it felt wrong that just when I’d start to really get interested in the story, there’d be another flashback to a point in the story whose tone was completely different than what came before (the transition from the gritty brutality of Devil’s Island to Matrac’s backstory, which feels an awful lot like the lovey-dovey flashback from “Casablanca,” couldn’t possibly be any more awkward), and it felt wrong for a Bogart character to actually care about something besides his own well-being. This was exciting for a moment or two, but eh, I guess I’m just not the patriot that Matrac is .
These two magnificently framed and lit shots are telling of “They Live By Night”’s two protagonists, Keechie and Bowie, at least from the outset. Bowie, an escaped convict whose youthful exuberance/optimism and good-naturedness puts him at odds with his more vicious fellow escapees Chicamaw and T-Dub, was imprisoned at 16 and thus has never been able to live and love as a normal young man can. Keechie, the daughter of Chicamaw’s brother, who takes the men in when they’re on the run, is a hardened tomboy when we meet her, and later admits to Bowie that she’s never been in a relationship, and indeed it’s rather apparent that she’s rarely, if ever, really opened herself up to anybody before. The first time we meet Keechie is in that outstanding shot, as she’s concealed by the shadows when she meets Bowie, and later we see Bowie’s obscured reflection in that store window as he ponders buying Keechie a present – while his accomplices are planning a bank robbery right next door. These images of the two, concealed by shadows or what-not, are indicative of how they see themselves, and each other. They’re enigmas, totally beguiling and mysterious, and made for each other.
Neither has had an opportunity to interact with or relate to the opposite sex, hence Keechie’s ambiguous and mysterious appearance at the outset, so that when the lightbulb goes on that they might just fit together like a glove, they’re of such a similar mindset that that lightbulb goes on in both their heads at once – it’s such a new experience for them that their romance feels that more genuine despite an otherwise outwardly fictitious crime tale. It not only works because the prospect of romance is so new for both of them that they’re both in the same boat, but because Nicholas Ray doesn’t treat it from beginning to end like they’re on cloud 9, doesn’t treat it like the ultimate allegory of true, limitless love. That would be shameless, unrealistic romantic drama. True, the actual implications of Bowie resorting to bank robberies and being on the lam with Keechie are rather glossed over from time to time – there are times when they’re living happily and comfortably off of stolen money, as if that’s completely well and good – but the entirety of their relationship is far from happy. There’s an incredible scene where one night they just up and decide to get married in a 24 hour chapel; as they slowly make their way across the street towards the chapel, arm in arm, there’s dead silence – maybe some of the most deafening silence I’ve heard in a film in some time. Suddenly, a wedding, what should be the happiest moment in the lives of two people, becomes SO ominous, like Keechie and Bowie are walking towards their doom. It reminded me of the scene in “My Darling Clementine” where Wyatt Earp and Clementine Carter are walking to the church service, slowly and arm in arm, while “Shall We Gather at the River?” is sung softly and slowly in the background like a funeral dirge, making this stroll between the kindly Clementine and the smitten Earp into something very eerie and foreboding. Keechie and Bowie are smitten with each other, and their romance is very, very endearing, but boy is that silent march a portent of their difficulties to come, and of the very, very impressive direction by Ray. I could’ve done without the abundance of helicopter shots following the convicts in their speeding getaway car or Bowie on the run – the first shots of action scenes of their kind, but relied on too heavily to the point of becoming a distraction – but moments like that wedding march in the dark, of the sultry nightclub singer regaling the happy couple in that cigarette smoke-filled lounge, of Keechie watching with a beaming smile of amusement as Bowie tries to quiet a screaming baby on the bus, of the two of them simply holding each other in their car, driving at night, make this a very moody, very atmospheric experience, and showed that even at the beginning of his directorial career, Ray was one of the best in the business.
By the time you figure out the ominously foreshadowing nature of that wedding scene, after all the strife and arguments they have due to the stress of being on the run from the law and from the alcoholic, one-eyed, and wildly unpredictable Chicamaw, a late scene shows Bowie, alone, walking out of that same wedding chapel after unsuccessfully lobbying the heavily-connected proprietor for passage to Mexico, this time with the organ and the “Here Comes the Bride” at full blast, as if mocking this sudden unfortunate situation he and his bride find themselves in. Powerful stuff. I criticized this film before for failing to take into account the full implications of Bowie being a full-blown criminal, and that for much of the duration he fails to appreciate the consequences of such, but really, that could also be a strength, that what begins as a heist caper a la Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out” soon abandons that narrative frame to focus on a young man and a young woman discovering love for the first time, in most unusual circumstances, where outside influences like Chicamaw and the law feel like invading forces. As with the likes of “Johnny Guitar” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray subverts some gender roles in this, his first feature, at least from the outset as the tomboyish Keechie runs her father’s gas station and doesn’t glamorize herself in the least, and Farley Granger’s Bowie isn’t exactly, shall we say, the manliest of escaped convicts and bank robbers, and certainly not the hardened criminal the papers make him out to be. Despite that, though, the moment where Keechie lets her hair down and combs it and rubs all that grime off her face, seemingly for the first time, is so great, and Cathy O’Donnell’s smile conveys Keechie’s excited feeling of discovering a new world and a new purpose in life so magnificently – subdued, but bubbling just beneath the surface. Their courtship is hasty, filled with passion, and utterly charming and endearing, but it’s precisely that haste, in a rather dire on-the-run predicament, that causes all the worry and disagreement between the two – in other words, exactly what you’d expect from such a sudden courtship between two people who’ve known each other for so short a time. It all leads to a predictable but still somewhat poignant conclusion – Keechie and Bowie’s story, in this quasi-noir, crime-ridden world couldn’t end any other way than it does – that shows not that the problems of a not-well-thought-out marriage and life on the run won out, but that they always loved each other regardless, and that ‘s what really makes their relationship so endearing. A film that begins as an adventure for escaped convicts becomes a journey of romantic discovery for two sheltered youths, and maybe one of the most compelling depictions of a spur-of-the-moment lifestyle you’ll see, and their gradual discovery of what it means to devote yourself to another is the ultimate adventure. It’s rough around the edges, but boy, what a debut for Nicholas Ray.
“Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death?”
Wow. Did this movie really begin with a narration like that? An introduction showing the heavens and the clouds and speaking those heady, heady words, and quoting Eurypides and Keats, no less? With an intro like that, you’d expect “Portrait of Jennie” to be the most philosophical and symbolic work of fiction ever conceived…which of course it isn’t, and thus that introduction where a booming voice says, “Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever” comes off as pompous, over the top and incredibly ill-conceived. Like the blank canvas used by Joseph Cotten’s penniless artist Eben Adams to passionately draw the titular portrait, this film should’ve been a blank slate, allowing the actors, the unearthly atmosphere, and the oddly supernatural take on the romance and mystery genres to speak for themselves, allowing viewers to interpret for themselves. That introduction is over after a couple of minutes, but it nonetheless left a sour taste in my mouth for the duration of the film – what I was looking at was a somewhat endearing story of romance and finding the will to fulfill one’s true purpose in life, and a pretty interesting mystery and quasi-ghost story, but what that introduction was setting me up for was something with a lot more depth and symbolism – the kind of stuff you’d study in a literary theory class, and this worthwhile yet relatively minor piece of supernatural melodrama was not that. I felt gypped, and fooled into expecting one thing and getting another, but putting that aside, what you do get is flawed, but very nice.
To its detriment, there’re plenty of lame lovey-dovey lines that’ll make your skin crawl, to the effect of “I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart” and “there is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death” and all the standard we-were-made-for-each-others in between. In a similar vein, there are some instances in which you’ll practically be blinded by the high-key lighting emphasizing every pore of Jennifer Jones’ face, in an overdone at best, shameless at worst attempt to overly-glamorize the girl. The bottom-line is that every high-key light in the world could’ve been shined on Jones’ face and the screenplay could’ve made use of some of the most romantic words you’ve ever heard in her interactions with Cotten, but I still wouldn’t be able to understand Jennie’s appeal or buy completely into the romance, because frankly the whole concept is just too weird for any kind of traditional romance to succeed as a narrative device. Never mind the fact that Jennie is either a ghost or a figment of Eben’s imagination and that she grows from artist’s muse into love interest as the film progresses, consider how Eben meets her as a precocious little girl unknowingly plucked right out of the 1910s and transposed into the 1940s, and every time they meet in the park, she inexplicably grows years older, until she becomes a young woman and college graduate. She begins as Eben’s muse, young and playful and with a crush on the older man, only to age decades in the span of a few months to the point that that crush can be consummated, and an artist/subject relationship becomes a romance. I’m sorry, that’s just plain creepy, the thought of a man meeting a little girl and then all of sudden being able to romance the young woman who mere months before was dancing around and singing songs in the park.
That creepiness may’ve made me shudder and made my skin crawl, to the point that any genuine passion that this romance has (and there is genuine passion, despite the dialogue clichés and what-not) is practically negated by that creepiness lurking in the back of your mind, but that could also be a testament to just how bold this film is. In the height of the Code era, when studios were practically puritanical in dictating what was and wasn’t morally acceptable on the screen, what other film would dare to involve a grown man falling for a little girl, albeit innocently and purely for artistic innovation at first, and then for all intents and purposes consummating that love? Even disregarding the odd romance, there’s a surprising amount of narrative subtleties at play here, making for some damn fine psychological mystery. As far as I can remember, you never quite find out what the real deal is with Jennie – if she’s a ghost, why is Eben of all people the only one who can see her – not his friend at the bar, nor the acerbic yet sympathetic art curator Miss Spinney (played wonderfully by Ethel Barrymore as a kind of confidant and quasi-mother figure to Eben)? If she’s a figment of the imagination of Eben, a struggling artist desperate for inspiration, how would he know all the details of her life as they happened decades before, now being relived in the mind of this mysterious apparition? I’m glad there are lots more questions in regard to this matter than there are answers, as well as how Eben simply accepts the fact that this girl is pretty much aging in dog years and rarely questions how odd that is, and that the film simply lets him accept it without outside commentary nudging us and saying ‘look how weird this is.’ Over the course of this film, Eben quite clearly loses touch with reality, going along with the situation of the his rapidly-aging, chronologically displaced, ghostly love interest as if it were as commonplace as buying groceries. It may not be realistic, as he investigates the mystery of what happened to Jennie at that lighthouse years before and tries to prevent it from happening again, and then at the drop of a dime try to woo what is essentially thin air, but what it is is weird, and in an era like the ‘40s when clichéd melodramas and dull romances were being churned out to theaters by the dozens, weird is good.
I could’ve done without the green tint during the big climax – probably meant to signify that by this point Eben is way, way within his own surreal world but is just more distracting than anything – ‘cuz the way I see it Joseph Cotten’s performance perfectly represents Eben’s dogged, near-crazed determination on its own. Always a low-key actor, Cotten’s understated dryness and wry, swaggering persona are a perfect complement for the subtle nature of Eben’s madness – his passion for Jennie becomes outright obsession, but that obsession always remains bubbling below the surface, as Joseph Cotten keeps his emotions at bay in a way that only Joseph Cotten could. If the actual meetings between Eben and Jennie are disappointing – Jennifer Jones just being shrill whether she’s playing a child or a grown woman, and their sappy words for each other being utterly useless and detrimental to an otherwise fine film, then it’s when they’re apart, when you can feel the loneliness and feelings of worthlessness oozing out of Joseph Cotten’s stone-cold face, when this film’s really in its element. A late scene in which Eben simply sits in his dark apartment while his friend plays the harp – yes, the harp – and sings a song with the constant refrain of ‘yonder, yonder’ is absolutely beautiful. The harp and the singing sound lovely and mournful, the shadows palpable and the cluttered room filmed perfectly (maybe the highlight of the entire film’s great cinematography), and as Eben stares off into space – there may have never been a better actor at staring off into space than Joseph Cotten – you know exactly what, or more precisely who, he’s thinking about. If more of this film were this ethereally beautiful and peaceful, if Eben’s loneliness and the nature of Jennie were more of an enigma instead of the film trying to turn this metaphysical mystery into a typical romance, this would’ve been a masterpiece. As it stands, a culturally risky premise and an air of unsettling ambiguity make this into something unique, where the answers about Jennie and about Eben’s passions and desires and morality lie yonder, yonder.