Indiscreet (1958): In Honor of Stanley Donen

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Note: This post was written soon after the passing of Stanley Donen.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman on adjacent title cards is all you should need to watch the movie. Although I came for an entirely different name because this past spring we lost Stanley Donen — the last remnant of Hollywood’s Golden age — and it seemed necessary to pay him the highest tribute I can. It’s not with words, no, but by actually sitting down and enjoying one of his films.

Ingrid Bergman is one of the sweetest screen stars. She’s not altogether impervious to vengeful thoughts, but you never see her taking it too far.  We always want the best for her, and it’s little different here. Her preexisting life is utter humdrum. Everything about it is just too immaculate.

As a well-to-do, internationally acclaimed actress, she is, nevertheless, a woman who comes back from a tour abroad totally dissatisfied with the men she’s been able to come across. It’s not that they aren’t handsome, rich, good dancers, or the like. But she wants someone interesting, an intellectual equal, and a little old-fashioned charm wouldn’t hurt. Her usual circles don’t appear to be a ready breeding ground for such types.

Anna’s emotionally involved sister — married to a high-ranking official — questions why she has never settled on a man. Perhaps her standards are just too high (don’t listen to her Ingrid!). No matter, it looks to be another dull evening out on the town at a foreign dinner. The speaker is no doubt a snooty new candidate for NATO. It’s a high-class bore.

However, the stuffy ordeal all of a sudden gets a lot more swoon-worthy for everyone involved when Cary Grant walks through the front door. We’ve all but been guaranteed a diverting evening. So Margaret, ever prying into her sister’s affairs, gets set to play a bit of a matchmaker, relishing the setup, and the predictable outcomes. We have our story. Grant being charming and Bergman enjoying his company while still remaining aloof. He’s almost too good to be true. What of skeletons in his closet?

Dare I say, it’s all inconsequential, lest you get the wrong impression? Because there’s no doubt about it. The plot is facile. The conflict is thin. On the other hand, the tete-a-tete is most agreeable. One would habit a guess, without our stars, the picture would be quite flat. With them, all of a sudden, characters and the subsequent story is given texture. Their chemistry is present before the picture begins, and it exits with them after the final curtain. This is one of the keys.

Stanley Donen doesn’t have to do too much touch-up around his already spectacular talent, but he does utilize a split-screen to conveniently mollify the production codes, with the two lovers sharing a telephone conversation in their respective beds. Nora Ephron purportedly loved this movie thus, When Harry Met Sally got much the same treatment. It can be seen as another homage just as Sleeping in Seattle came out of the tradition of An Affair to Remember.

In Indiscreet they occupy themselves talking about the mundane things from the weather, to playing the violin, elder statesmen, and lamb chops. We don’t care all that much because the bottom line is spending time with Cary and Ingrid. There is Grant’s mild reveal. He’s got a big secret. Well, it’s not too big, but I’ll avoid spoiling it all the same.

If Fred Astaire’s dancing is immaculate, then Grant’s is equally so for entirely different reasons.  It’s not from any amount of meticulous choreography, but his spry and innumerable graces. He always walked this phenomenal thin line between suavity and comic pratfalls, no doubt learned in his early days as an acrobat.

His physical prowess hasn’t atrophied, aiding him splendidly on the dance floor in Indiscreet, through every step of his flailing, jumping jig. What’s more, Bergman, eyeing him with an unfettered look of disdain, is equally important. There’s no question it’s a defining scene in an unassuming trifle of a rom-com.

The final act is consumed with Anna’s attempt at a bit of friendly revenge. She puts on a pitiful charade to get back at her masquerading lover, engaging the services of her in-house help. The final punchline is a genuine amount of sincerity coming over the man as the clock strikes 12. Why you ask? Because we want a happy ending.

It’s a strange sensation to see Cary Grant’s profile in an embrace, with Ingrid’s head nestled on his shoulder, smiling off past the camera. I felt like I’ve seen this all before somewhere. Was it in Notorious, An Affair to Remember, North by Northwest, Charade? Maybe it was all of the above. It never gets old. When the greats get together, it’s not always perfection; sometimes all we’re looking for is diverting entertainment.

It seems apt to call upon a line Cary Grant sneaks into the end of the film. He’s harried. It seems like he’s being laughed at for being vulnerable. He hasn’t understood the underlying joke.

So pacing around in front of his giddy romantic partner, he surmises men are the true romanticists. I cannot corroborate if this is true or not, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that Stanley Donen might believe this as well. It’s hard to dispute when you watch his movies, as buoyant and propelled by romantic fancy as they are. Indiscreet is little different. It’s a fitting testament to one of the unsung greats. He will be dearly missed.

3.5/5 Stars

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