Les Miserables (1935) and Candlesticks

les miserables 1935 march and laughton

There’s a biblical verse that warns against storing up treasures in heaven where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in a steal. Jean Valjean keeps two silver candlesticks with him always — they’re probably the nicest things he owns — but their true value signifies something more than worldly wealth.

While it cannot cope with the sheer scale and transcendent grandiloquence of Victor Hugo’s eponymous work, 20th Century Fox makes a valiant go at it using all the resources at its disposal to deliver the 1930s version of a prestige period piece.

Jean Valjean (Fredric March) is before the courts in the year 1800. The judge utters the purposefully grating words “guilty until proven innocent.” After all, the law is explicit. It makes no provisions for a man who stole out of desperation since he couldn’t get work with none to be found. His sister and nephew were starving. It makes no difference. Retribution is swift. 10 years in the galleys for his infraction.

Watching March in such abhorrent conditions is akin to any major movie star being forced to suffer so. Errol Flynn suffered a similar fate in Captain Blood. Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas being enslaved years later also springs to mind. There’s a fortitude they earn in conjunction with the audience. It makes us commiserate with their lot in life — especially when the world seems so unfair.

Stylistically, the direction is a bit clunky with nothing particularly appealing with how Richard Boleslawski handles the material but given who he’s taking from, perhaps it’s for the best there are not many undue flourishes. Although artistic license is taken with innumerable details, the general essence of the novel (from what little I know) is still present, and, if anything, it has been shaped into a social piece to speak to the times.

But we have yet to speak of the story’s other crucial figure. Javert (Charles Laughton) is a devoted lawman with a sordid family history hanging over him. He’s trying to do everything in his power to get out from under its legacy.

There’s a recalcitrant timidity to Laughton even as he plays another fellow with power (like Captain Bligh) who is wholly beholden to the law. It becomes more and more apparent how relentless he is in his line of work — to the point of obsession and steep paranoia.

But make no mistake. He is no Captain Bligh. Laughton brings something of a different sort to him going beyond convenient descriptors. He’s merciless in another way with a deceptive even evasive cunning. And again you can’t help but feel sorry for the compulsive way in which he adheres to his duties. There’s something behind his eyes crying out even as his posture is always uncomfortable.  Can we say he’s fragile? Somewhere in there is the little boy making amends for his parent’s failures. He’s part of the same legalistic system that put Jean Valjean into prison.

Here the candlesticks come back into play. The 10 years are up and after an escape attempt, our protagonist gets out of prison hardened and totally skeptical of the rehabilitation the government has in mind for him.

It’s not simply about there being no room; no one wants a scraggly social pariah like him in their establishment. He’s subsequently kicked out of every tavern and evey inn. It gets to the point that he sits in the pelting rain covering himself feebly against the elements. There’s one person he hasn’t tried and on some friendly advice, he seeks asylum with a local bishop (the quietly unperturbed Cedrick Hardwicke).

He soon is introduced to a kind of up-side-down radical generosity (involving the very same candlesticks), which feels so foolish by the world’s standards. And yet it makes people sit up and take note. For one, Valjean, who is a beneficiary, is blessed by charity in ways he’s never experienced in his life.  It changes him, even melts his jaundiced attitudes. Angelic choruses are sung over triumphant imagery as Valjean takes on a firm resolve to change his life.

The movie makes it obvious. He literally becomes a new man — more like the well-groomed, charismatic Fredric March we typically know. He’s robed with a new character and from henceforward March wears the role quite regally going from forlorn criminal to man of the people, held in the highest regard. It’s not an altogether straightforward transformation, and he still manages it with relative ease.

Javert is his obvious foil. The two of them are incongruous. Valjean at his new post as mayor is forever dogged by the inspector’s unyielding ways. Yet again, justice cannot be tempered by mercy. If it’s not already obvious within the dramatic situation, Valjean’s own past must collide with Javert’s hound-like instinct.

les miserables Rochelle Hudson and Fredric March

As a charming background detail informing the film, March gets the opportunity to play across from his real-life spouse of many years Florence Eldridge. However, it is her cinematic daughter who is the other most integral piece. Cosette is a charming girl and an even more effervescent young woman (Rochelle Hudson). She makes her adopted father all the happier and fast becomes his most cherished treasure in the world.

The final sequence in this Les Mis is the first great show of period hubbub with gunfire, swords, horsemen, and smoke all conjoining on the screen. The youth movements have stirred up against the authoritarian forces of the status quo. It’s their fearless leader, Marius (John Beal), who is smitten with Cosette and vice versa. However, it never feels like a purely political story. We never hear the gory details of Napoleon or any of the trials and tribulations besetting Hugo himself for his outgoing stances.

It’s all about giving Valjean a stake in this cultural moment even as he and Javert must have their inevitable faceoff. First and foremost, it must be understood as a broader tale of sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. These are big words but then again, there are few books more deserving of such consideration.

It’s no wonder Valjean and Javert are archetypes unto themselves. One of sacrifice, the other of tragedy. The weight of the debt he owes — one he cannot repay — is far too much for Javert to bear. He takes a leap into the realm of Judas Iscariot as the story’s great catastrophe. Is he a villain? Aren’t we all?

The conceit at the center of this adaptation might be simplified, but it gets the theme across. Namely, it takes someone showing us the depths of grace and mercy for us to truly experience what radical love looks like. The law in all its nobility, justice, and truth will crush us under its weight. We cannot stand up against its regulations or else we’ll die trying. It’s best to realize our shortcomings and lend a generous hand to others.

Also, it gives a striking new meaning to candlesticks. They are no longer a blunt instrument with which to murder someone in the parlor. Instead, they are tokens, even tools, of redemption. Though only for some.

4/5 Stars

 

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935) with Gable, Laughton, and Tone

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More recently I’ve found myself straying away from period pieces and epics and not necessarily because there is something fundamentally off-putting about them. Nor do I think it can solely be blamed on my admittedly short attention span in this increasingly inane and vapid social media-fueled society we live in.

To prove my reasoning, I only need to express a couple of repurposed lines, “To whom much is given, much is required.” It’s not from Spider-Man, no, but it does suggest a movie like Mutiny on the Bounty already has a mountain to climb. It needs to do more to wow me than one of its shorter more economical brethren. Therein lies the issue at hand: greater expectations.

The year is 1787 and the Royal Navy is on a mission to acquire breadfruit trees as sustenance for slaves in the West Indies. This is implied to be a tale about how a mutiny led by a man named Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) laid the groundwork for modern British sea law still ruling the seas to the present day (that is, 1935).

Thankfully, it never feels quite like we are being taught a moral or a lesson of social significance. It’s nothing more than entertainment, though it’s still one of the great seafaring epics (not starring Errol Flynn).

A handful of hapless men are pulled out of a tavern away from their wives and loved ones and conscripted into a two years voyage with a Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Another man of privileged stock takes his post gladly (Franchot Tone).

When his crew is finally aboard and assembled, Bligh sets the precedent of unyielding discipline with a flogging of some poor unfortunate chap. His men look on gravely, no doubt questioning what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s true the sea is a fierce adversary with gales whipped up and immersive wave-drenched decks swaying madly under their legs. However, if there is a touch of man vs nature in the drama, it’s even more vehemently about bouts of human conflict and insurrection.

Director Frank Lloyd makes liberal use of claustrophobic close-ups played in sharp juxtaposition to the more grandiose naval imagery. It signals the tone of the world even as this grand scale is made tactile through the onscreen relationships. Namely, that of a tyrannical captain and his hapless crew as he ceaselessly dishes out lashes and other sordid punishments indiscriminately even unto the point of death. There must be a breaking point. For now, we wait as they grin and bear their taskmaster.

One of the few sources of jocularity is the ship’s surgeon (Dudley Digges) a blustering old sea dog who dubiously lost his leg — the story of how it happened is the source of many of his largest yarns. Still, he too is in danger of being a casualty. No one is safe on a boat where the most precious cargo is botanical and not human. It’s these plants that are given preferential treatment when rations are concerned.

The crew is half-raving, stir-crazy as they finally weigh anchor on the shores of Tahiti — taken by the country’s beauty, coconut milk, and native girls. Our voyage has reached its midpoint and dipped its toes into what feels like paradise. Is it a coincidence that Bligh seems to all but disappear? Instead,  Tone busies himself picking up as much of the dialect as possible, and then Gable is taken by the pretty woman making eyes at him; they don’t need language to communicate.

mutiny on the bounty Gable and Tone

It’s the interim period of leisure and romance. But this respite must come to an end and with it, we arrive at the beginning of the end. After all, the whole story has been mounting to this precise point as we’ve all but avoided the inevitable.

If I’m to engage with my boyhood proclivities, Mutiny is not much of an actioner or at least not in the sense of a rip-roaring swashbuckler. It’s a war between titans, men of differing ideals, only to be interrupted by the unpredictable ferocity of the sea. So in this way, it’s more of a character piece injected with action. Still, this is not the bottom line.

The conflict is in staying the voyage (and the film) to see whose will is enacted in the end: Bligh’s or Christians with Byam forced to navigate the turbulent waters of ambiguity in-between. One positive of the picture is how none of the three men seem to entirely steal the show; they seem to be on surprisingly equal footing.

Yes, Laughton is an impudent, bull-headed taskmaster but hardly one of the most nefarious villains of all time. This is a tribute to the actor. He sculpts Bligh into a wretched, small-time human being who’s too big for his britches.  A paranoid weasel blinded by his devotion to duty and the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t forget those who revolt and his retribution is swift.

However, he is all but cast aside and forgotten, an insignificant little man, who knows how to make his way amid the rules and regulations of the Navy. It’s a more galling ending than if he had been lost at sea or most preferably eaten by a shark. But Laughton is a credit to the role showcasing his mind-boggling dexterity and range among actors of his day and age.

Gable is ultimately made into a kind of mythical figure out there on the ocean somewhere, but he is not destined to wander aimlessly — he and his rag-tag crew find a place to rest and call home. He wears the fierce, proud masculinity of Fletcher Christian just as you would expect him to (with our without his trademark pencil-thin mustache).

But if they are the two behemoths doing war against one another with the ship and the sea as their arena of battle, it is Tone who actually gets the final word as our initial in to the story. He is the every man, and therefore, the voice of reason for all of us. While I wouldn’t go out on the plank to say The Mutiny on The Bounty is a so-called “great film,” it does a service to its genre as one of MGM’s most prominent period pieces of the decade and a fine showcase for some of their most acclaimed stars.

4/5 Stars

Rain (1932): Joan Crawford and Walter Huston

Rain finds its origins in a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, and it was also preceded by a picture starring Gloria Swanson titled Sadie Thompson. She is indeed the central character of this adaptation as well, although the title of this version focuses in on the dreary poeticism.

It’s true that a kind of rainy exoticism defines the entire mood of Lewis Milestone’s movie as this perpetual gloominess sets the tone for the story at stake. A few years before Safe in Hell, we have another picture set on an island. This one is named Pago Pago, and it serves as a weigh station for passengers during a cholera scare.

Among those laid up are Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi), a pair of religious reformers, who are intent on completing their voyage so they might begin administering to the nonbelievers. They are reformers who’ll gladly break your back to save your soul.

The good, innocuous Doctor MacPhail (Matt Moore) feels like an author’s creation; he’s a character we can identify with as an audience — a stand-in of sorts — who ably fits into the company of respectable folks but remains an impartial observer.

Then, you have a much different ilk, part of the earthier, more salacious crowd, headed up by the island’s local proprietor (Guy Kibbee) and made a lot more enticing by the one and only Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford). With her checkered dress and made-up eyes, she falls in with the soldier boys on leave, introduced in saucy fashion through a mixture of appendages and hot jazz. In her own estimation, some lively music and a nip of liquor are what rainy days are for.

The movie itself can easily be summed up by a clash of moral prerogatives; it becomes plainly apparent who’s on each side. Kibbee’s character is especially wary of their latest visitors because it’s crusaders like them who readily sully the last remnants of earthly paradise. This is his picture of Eden — freedom to do whatever he sees fit — although it’s quite different than their conception of it. He’s got a gripe with their kind because they represent the age and the newest commandment, “thou shall not enjoy life.”

Throughout the movie, Milestone’s whips and whirls make the film feel all the more alive even as it rages to burst out of the restraint and aestheticism of its more pious players. This obvious motion accentuates what otherwise feels a bit like an island chamber piece.

Because it’s built completely out of the performances. First, it’s Mrs. Davenport (Bondi) denouncing the lady of loose morals dancing on the Lord’s Day — the sabbath — and she wants her husband to put the fear of God into the tramp.

Soon enough, he does just that, confronting Sadie with the fervent belief that it is up to him to save her incorrigible soul. Though he admittedly burns with conviction, it’s his overall demeanor that’s offputting to the likes of her. She doesn’t take kindly to his Pharisaic demeanor.

Their words, thoughts, and deeds are worlds apart as exemplified in this more understated confrontation. We see them for who they are fundamentally at the core of their beings. He talks of presenting her “a gift.” He’s speaking of eternal things — salvation as Christians think of it — this is her chance to be saved. Meanwhile, she’s thinking about life on this terrestrial rock. Where people get knocked down and beaten up and the like. It’s in this world where she reckons to make out and survive, living her happy-go-lucky kind of life day-to-day.

More than rejecting his religiosity, she rejects his self-righteousness even as his pronouncements come off almost incomprehensible to her. What she does understand is his dismissiveness, his callousness toward her precarious station in life. The doctor, standing by the wayside for most of the picture, finally lets his companion know he thinks the man harsh and tyrannical,  although Davenport affirms his heart bleeds for the poor wayward sinner.

The reformer evokes the Lord’s Prayer as Sadie rails into him with her own indignant tirade only for it to evaporate around her. It comes out of a place of fear and dejection. For all her outward confidence, she really doesn’t know what she’s doing. Shellshocked piety is a strange garment for her to wear if altogether understandable. But others must judge the outcomes for themselves and the same goes for the denouement.

For all its provocative flaunting in the beginning, Rain relies on an ending of inference, happening between the lines. A lot is at play in the final moments on a subtextual level — be it latent desires or closeted hypocrisies. Instead of a hangman’s noose in a discarded field, it’s a cut throat on the shoreline, but the similarities are undeniable.

It sends shockwaves through the population even as it suggests the conflicted nature of humanity. As far as its impact on Sadie, it leaves her much where she began, though now at least she has a man (William Gargan) to take her by the arm.

Rain was not much of a box office attraction in its day and part of this might have to do with the brazen ending. It’s not a straightforward picture, but like Safe in Hell, between loose morals and redemptive religiosity, the picture jockeys for an uneasy equilibrium. If nothing else, Joan Crawford and Walter Huston make it feel like a seismic battle that’s eyecatching in fits and starts.

3.5/5 Stars

Letty Lynton (1932): A Hidden Classic

Letty Lynton is one of those hidden movies cinephiles look to unearth from the sands of time. In this case, it’s namely because it’s notoriously difficult to view after a court case in 1936 deemed it was too close in plot to the play Unfaithful Woman, which, coincidentally was made into a later movie with Hedy Lamarr.

It’s rather astounding, as we near a century later, the film is still fairly hard to come by though not entirely obsolete. Could it be that this plays mostly into its mystique as a forgotten classic? Partially, yes. But it’s yet another stellar showcase for Joan Crawford’s unparalleled stardom in the 1930s even as it highlights the perils and burden of womanhood.

Letty (Crawford) is a gorgeous socialite who has all the men fawning over her and why not? She’s Joan Crawford draped in luxuriant furs and the immaculate creations of Adrian. However, one of her suitors, Emille (Nils Aster) is particularly persistent. She’s made a habit of leaving him only to return for more passionate romance. This time she’s ready to end it for good.

It’s not healthy for her and so she and her faithful maid prepare to run to another far-off destination by ocean liner never to be seen by Emille again. This is of primary concern. It just happens she is birthed across from Robert Montgomery and you hardly have to tell him twice when he’s caught a pretty girl in his sights. He makes a note of it until the right moment…

Still, two can play the game. They’re both intent on making each other’s acquaintance, and so it is arranged. They spend a jaunty evening cavorting until the wee hours of the morning, being chased around the decks by the crew of sailors washing it down for the night. Their rapport builds fast and easily.

Crawford is a modern girl with her puffed sleeves as decadent as can be. It seems obvious that you need a certain amount of confidence or, dare I say, audacity, to pull off such a look, and Crawford was nothing if not audacious. It helps to cement her legacy in the annals of cinematic fashion.

Christmas comes with streamers and ice sculptures. Despite the gaiety, she has a few bittersweet tears, and he does everything to cheer her up. There they are in her cabin, their feet kicked up on the furniture, and he proposes marriage with a glance as he holds a lit cigarette.

Letty is incredulous, even mesmerized by him. He’s a different sort of man. In a world swimming with men all clawing to get their hands on her, Jerry’s not like that at all. He never tries to kiss her or hold her hand or any of that. He’s not looking to get fresh because his character is genuine.

It wins her over. And then we remember it’s still Christmas, and they are deliriously happy banging on every cabin door as they stroll down the corridor madly in love and rousing the deck with some late-night yuletide cheer. For the first time in her life, she’s going straight and sincere, and Letty’s never felt better.

But it’s inevitable. The boat docks and waiting on the other side stands Emille. It’s wishful thinking to assume he would leave her be. She’s faced with a problem: there are two men in her life. One she doesn’t want to lose and the other she wants desperately to get rid of.

Not taking “no” for an answer, Emille pulls her in his arms and kisses her — trying to seduce her — and she rears back to slap him.”I’ve never had anything in my life I’ve loathed like that,” she says.

In a world hopefully far more aware of the burden of proof thrust upon women, Letty Lynton hardly feels dated. The import of its core drama is here with us today, despite the obvious notes of theatricality. It’s all spelled out through the crazed expression on Crawford’s face, a mix of relish and abject horror at what she’s witnessing.

Because she was prepared to end her life with poison rather than be forced to be blackmailed by her former lover, but she never has the chance to drink her medicine. In a development analogous to future dramas like Blue Gardenia, she becomes both a victim and the accused simultaneously.

Again, she looks to delay the repercussions and kick the can down the line. There’s the obligatory meeting with Jerry’s parents. They are decent, down-to-earth folks who welcome her in, thankful their son has settled on such a fine woman.

Imagine the embarrassment when a police detective shows up to take Letty in for questioning as she is closely implicated in a crime. Her fiance stays by her side as they go before the judge (Lewis Stone) in the privacy of his office as he deliberates on whether or not to bring the case to court. It doesn’t look good.

In her state of hopeless helplessness, Letty receives some steadfast aid from all sides. The ending is too pat — with looming consequences of perjury — but they insinuate the theme of the movie: happiness is tenable when we surround ourselves with loved ones who will loyally intercede on our behalf. So often relationships are tossed by the waves or racked with tension. What a wonderful thing it is to find the kind of renewed stability Letty installs in her own life.

The movie employs a bit of a cornball ending, but between the amiable chemistry of Montgomery and Crawford, and the redemptive arc, for such a hard-sought picture, Letty Lynton is a worthwhile film to seek out.

3.5/5 Stars

When Tomorrow Comes (1939) and Romantic Shelter From The Storm

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Waitresses bustle about on their beats passing along the news like busy bees: eight o’clock tonight unity hall! It caused quite a stir in the ranks and the girls are currently walking on eggshells afraid to get canned. A few of the gals are especially jumpy including poor Lulu who drops a whole tray laden with plates.

So when a Frenchmen sits down during the dinner rush it’s how do you say, disconcerting. He’s not rude by any means. His manners are fine. But he’s a foreigner and he asks for things outside of her comfort zone like bouillabaisse for instance (I had to look up the spelling just now). For instance, we can’t hold it against her when she says “To me all foreigners are spies until I learn different.”

The prevailing thought is he might be with the management to check them out. So they put their most level-headed colleague on the assignment. It’s none other than Irene Dunne. He has no malicious intentions at all. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. After making the acquaintance of such a charming lady, he wishes to see her again.

Irene Dunne feels like the original Norma Rae. She has spirit — the kind of spirit that stands up against injustice and will not allow others to be bullied into submission. But this is grounded by a charitable heart and a sense of decency. It’s what makes people get up and take note within the clamor. Because there’s genuine substance to her words. We believe them to be true.

Amid the host of admirers is one very special one. He’s attended in hopes of seeing her, a man oozing with names (and the Boyer charm). What might have been a chance encounter in real-life, in turn breaths life into an entire movie romance. The humid streets of New York don’t exactly scream love nest, but the man is so taken with his company, he doesn’t mind if he has to meet half the city just to be with her.

There are other interludes in this budding relationship, though we might as well focus on the focal point. It comes during the onslaught of a tropical storm. The man, she now learns is the famed pianist, and he welcomes her into his home to get out of the elements. Far from feeling surreptitious, it seems like an oasis from the world outside.

She walks around one of the bedrooms scanning around, leafing through an album of pictures, trying to glean more about the man downstairs. What follows is an enchanting zoom mimicking Dunne’s gaze as she returns from freshening up. She’s brought down the stairs by the sound of his playing. There’s a forceful authority to it to, matching the gale raging outside the windows. On her face, we see the love brooding right in front of us.

The dramatic situation is made plain by the inclement weather (that’s an understatement) and falling trees overhead. Blaring coast guard bullhorns warn of waters rising. They must find high ground.

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Rest assured, this is hardly a survival film. The scenario itself is ripe with more intimate pleasures as Helen and Philip seek asylum in a church during the brunt of the storm. After the crowded, liveliness of the city, the actors are contented in one another’s company, and it provides an understated satisfaction.

They light candles, she raises a prayer to the unnamed Providence for getting them to safety. He has the subtle tact to take her up into the balcony to the organ as the water starts to flood inside. It’s a thoughtful act, and they continue their genial conversation unencumbered. As she sits, listening to him quietly play “Fur Elise,” she thanks him. Because she saw what he did too.

What a lovely digression it is for those willing to partake of the solace. The gentle hospitality of the minister and church organist is yet another touch of decency in a picture ripe with such encounters.

If this sounds blase, rest assured, it plays to the rhythms we might attribute to a Stahl melodrama. They somehow bend away from the brunt of drama and pierce our hearts far deeper. Like Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage, there’s the sense of a destined love of the highest most ethereal kind — a love that can never be — it can never fully acted upon.

Because if it’s not evident already, they are people of principle and conscience. It goes unspoken for so long — the impediment between then. But she knows. He is not free. He is married to someone else, albeit loosely, as Mrs. Chagal (Barbara O’Neil) is a sick woman.

When Helen’s roommate notes it looks like she’s been away for 20 years like Rip Van Winkle upon her return, there’s some truth in the words. Even an evening can feel like a lifetime under the circumstances.

She eventually meets his catatonic wife and lovely mother-in-law. There’s no malice or ill-will, only a bit of sadness on her part to see what his life really is. She feels obligated to leave him behind — to not make this any more difficult for either of them. So she goes back to her picketing and wins the victory she helped champion. The film has gone too far though. It is no longer about unions or these type of ideals. At the very least it is about romantic ones.

There is another scene where she answers a caller at the door. It’s the wife, out on the street, as if she’s perfectly fine, and she might very well be. The scene has been written many times before: A wife confronts the other woman. We’ve seen the scene play out in so many stories it’s mind-boggling. Here it’s different. You almost don’t realize what is upon you.

There is a curious energy about it. Quieter and yet not unsure. Forthright and devastating in its very simplicity. What could be incisive and vindictive feels blunted and equally delicate in the hands of Stahl, and I believe this is quite purposeful. The main characters pull back, compelled by their sense of good and decent feelings. The “villain” in actuality is a helpless victim.

In another film the ending of When Tomorrow Comes would feel uncomfortably abrupt. Here it somehow works for me and not because the swelling music is cued. It’s because we know there is a foregone finality. It might not be today or tomorrow exactly, but it will have to end, going their separate ways and holding onto the love they had and what could have been. That is all.

Because unrequited love is not the most tragic form; it is the uninitiated followed closely by the unfulfilled romances that sear the most. If you are inclined, this is a tender drama more than capable of inducing a few misty eyes. I’ll never get over the grace of Irene Dunne, the adroitness of her reactions, touching on each and every emotion. Boyer has never been more gentlemanly. Together they feel sublime.

If my praise sounds too effusive, I’ll admit I haven’t seen Love Affair for some time. Have I simply forgotten what their chemistry was like? I’d like to believe Stahl brings something of his own to the material as well.

3.5/5 Stars

To Be or Not to Be (1942): Lubitsch Vs. The Nazis

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“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland.” – Ehrhardt about Josef Tura

Our story begins in Warsaw during peacetime. In some sense, this is a period piece because the gulf between the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the comparably idyllic years prior could not be more starkly different. The world still maintains its innocence.

And yet, what’s this! A stir in the streets. Taxis stop. Heads turn. What are they gaping at? It’s none other than Adolf Hitler walking down Main Street! How in Hades did he get there? It catches the audience off guard, though not as much as seeing Jack Benny in a Gestapo uniform.

Of course, this sequence is all part of a performance as the stage elements fall away. The story focuses on a theater troupe trying to carry on with Europe in an uproar. From a purely theatrical perspective, this allows To Be or Not To Be license to literally lift Hamlet’s own play within a play (or in this case a movie) structure. So now with the framework set in place, there is ample space for meta qualities, breaking of the fourth wall, and with it, satirical commentary.

Joseph and Maria Tura are an acting power couple with dueling vanities headlining Hamlet. Carole Lombard, in ravishing dress, is elegance personified. Imagine, this was my first impression of her before dipping into her screwball filmography. It suits her in her final screen performance.

What an odd choice Jack Benny seems for this picture. Even today, he’s far more well-known for his radio show, violin playing, and his public persona as the hand-to-cheek comedian. He was a contemporary of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby but never managed the same share of the box office. Regardless, Lubitsch saw something in him no one else was willing to consider. He’s not exactly Laurence Olivier, but that’s precisely the point.

However, we are also reminded how theater is communal. The hammy Lionel Atwill is always pushing the envelope, both in life and reality. It takes his colleagues to rein him in. The spear holders Greenberg and Bromski, meanwhile, dream of roles that might one day actually utilize their talents. Their exacting director Dobosh (Charles Halton in one of his more animated performances) keeps the egos in check and the performances grounded in the material.

Circumstances always seem to get in the way of the best-laid plans. Maria has a handsome admirer (Robert Stack), who repeatedly visits her backstage, much to her husband’s chagrin. No, he doesn’t know about their private meetings. It’s the fact the young man gets up repeatedly during his “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy; he doesn’t take kindly to the insult. Yes, he’s a jealous husband, but his whiny, puffed-up ego is the first thing to be affronted.

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Another slap to the face comes when their new play, “Gestapo,” gets nixed because it might offend Hitler, so they keep Hamlet going instead. It signals a change. It means War! The Nazis roll into Poland, and the city takes a hit. Bressart looks on glumly, uttering a fitting observation, “There was no censor to stop them.”

The embodiment of evil — in all its grotesque idiocy is Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) — his orders posted up all around the city. We don’t get the fine print, but we get the gist: concentration camps, the death penalty, and being shot on sight are frank enough.

But the roots of Nazism are even more insidious. They have snuck behind enemy lines. Stack is among those who band together in the Polish branch of the RAF freedom fighters. In good faith, they pass on goodwill to loved ones to a Professor Siletsky — only for his wires to get crossed. They must eradicate the mole.

This is no goofy charade and Lubitsch sells out to tell the story. In this regard, he lends his players an amount of dramatic integrity. The menace is overt throughout the picture. For instance, when Stack parachutes back into Poland and flees into the night as a patrol of German fan out to intercept him.

In her own harrowing arc, Maria Tura is taken by the Gestapo. However, there’s nothing quite so sinister about it — at least in terms of her person — they offer a proposal for her to become a spy. She has to think about it.

Her husband, Joseph, has his own conundrum in the form of a befuddling Goldilocks moment, finding a young man sleeping in his bed. He does one of his iconic double-takes followed by others in quick succession as he makes his way around the room leaning over the bed. It couldn’t possibly be his soliloquy defector, could it?

For the entire acting troupe, their greatest performances are called upon to intercept the Nazi spy with his incriminating cache of papers. They rebrand their theater as Gestapo headquarters with Tura cast as their irrepressible lead, struggling to originate such an uncharted role. He’s eventually relieved of his ad-libbing responsibilities when he can take on a more biographical role — based on, shall we say, previous experiences.

The petty feud and marital jealousies between Mr. and Mrs. Tura remain an undercurrent to all their valorous acts. One of their constant marks is the oaffish tyrant portrayed by Ruman and his bumbling underling Captain Schultz. In fact, with Rugman later playing a joking barracks guard in Stalag 17 (1953), it’s hard not to see the origins of Hogan’s Heroes own roly-poly Sergeant being conceived.

There’s an obvious issue at the core of the story. Because, despite their best efforts, there are now two Siletskys running about. It leaves a lot of explaining to do, and the Nazis are reasonably suspicious.

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The final act is the finest. They make the most solemn Nazis out of the bunch the night of the show. Even if it is fiction, it still makes the hair on my arms stand on edge — all the men in Nazi uniforms streaming into the theater, standing in unison to salute.

Felix Bressart finally gets his chance to play Shylock in the most crucial turn of his career, and he brings every ounce of pathos he has into the performance. The recontextualization of the passage takes on new import pregnant with so much meaning. It is an assertion of such dignity in the face of such an egregious and ugly juggernaut as the Nazi war machine.

Truthfully, one of the hardest elements to appreciate about To Be or Not to Be is just how layered and multifaceted it remains. Being bred on Hogan’s Heroes and knowing a bit of the Lubitsch repertoire, there are some preconceived notions about what we might be exposed to. And the film certainly has wit, but we must be careful here lest the indignant get the wrong idea.

It’s quite alright to not like the film. I can only gather there are many detractors because this history is so deeply devastating. It carries so many wounds and grievances for the atrocities committed against not only Poland, but the Jews, and anyone else who was considered a target of the Nazis. The controversy is founded for these reasons. Rightfully so, I might add. Perhaps the picture is making light of this.

In my earlier days, I even believe I tried to defend this and other earlier films suggesting they could not have known the extent of the Nazis. This too seems a weak argument. And yet when I watched the film this time, I was reminded just how sincere even profound it is in-between the lines.

Yes, Benny at the center seems vain and conceited — this American comedian known for a very particular shtick — but then I look to Carole Lombard. Never has she been more majestic and extraordinary. Then the likes of Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan are forlorn while still carrying a quiet dignity about them. They get the laughs but with a straight face. They understand the gravity of what they are taking part in.

It’s too convenient to say To Be or Not To Be was ahead of its time. Certainly, there was controversy and the resolution to WWII was far from a foregone conclusion. Thus, it makes Lubitsch’s perceptiveness all the more startling. Likewise, there’s the defense he made of his work even going to the papers to do so. This is an excerpt of what he said:

“What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be, but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view.”

Ironically, here the touch of Lubitsch is not so much a comic fingerprint or sophisticated implementation of visual or even sensual comedy. What I am left with is the veracity and the bravery of his humanity. Not many men would be bold enough to make this film and then double down on what they had created.

4.5/5 Stars

The Eagle and The Hawk (1933): March The WWI Flying Ace

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There are two elements in the opening of The Eagle and The Hawk that might catch some viewers off guard. First, is the matter of a plane landing upside down. Second, being the fact the pilot is an uncharacteristically abrasive Cary Grant. He’s still playing support to our true lead Fredric March.

It’s alright to admit the shoe never quite fits and, thankfully, Grant was not forever relegated to such unseemingly roles again (well, there is Suspicion or Notorious). Regardless, in this WWI picture, a group of American aviators ship out from London to give their British allies a lift in France.

New forms of technology like aeroplanes still feel a bit rudimentary, yet to be time-tested, and therefore they carry with them a bit more danger. They must take recon photos flying close to the ground and often engage the enemy in aerial combat. The footage of the dogfights is lively if equally rudimentary.

It’s Grant’s Lt. Crocker who has aspirations to be a pilot, not an observer — the less glamorous posts going to those who take pictures and gun. Cary’s got a chip on his shoulder, and it’s turned him sour. Jack Oakie is the complete opposite — chipper, well-liked by all, and conveniently supplying comic relief.

However, it is the final star, the leading man, Fredric March who stands head and shoulders above the rest, at least on this occasion. He goes through a startling transformation over time. He soon learns the hard lesson. For every two kills of a jubilant Jerry Young (March), there’s the searing reality of a comrade dead.

We are instantly reminded war never allows a man to rest on his laurels before inundating them with the sheer callousness of such a conflict. It shows no favoritism. Officers or enlisted men alike. Doughboys or flyboys. It makes no difference. Everyone is susceptible.

In a matter of minutes, the weight of war is made obvious. It happens between a letter written to a dead man’s spouse and a blackboard with names constantly being erased and added.  Beyond being indiscriminate, war also waits for no man.

As time progresses, the dogfight sequences maintain quite the impressive pace for their day and age. The sequences use the resources at their disposable and varied shots to develop something fairly immersive beyond mere back-projection fillers.

Finally getting his first go, Grant shoots down an unarmed parachuter with great relish, his first day on the job, only to kill the mood after hours. They say he’s a “dirty deuce,” but perhaps he’s the only realist around. He treats it like war. They treat it like an exhibition in some contrived form of chivalry.

There are rules to war and gentleman’s agreements to be abided by on one side and then the “killed or be killed” mentality of Grant. And yet even as March remains one of the righteous ones, he starts medicating with alcohol to get over what he’s been privy to.

Soon he can’t get over the insanity or reconcile with the consequences set before them. They are bestowed medals by the French military with the rain pouring down — it’s a wet affair — and he’s still soused. 

A new batch of fresh-faced youngsters come to replace those who have already expired. He’s enlisted to speak to the new recruits, sharing a message for the sake of moral, though it’s evident he barely believes what he’s spewing. Because some of them will die before even getting to the front. What’s the purpose of it all? So the folks back home might cling to some misguided patriotic fervor?

The night terrors begin — Jerry’s mind now filled with burning, blood, and snipers at night. A change of scenery is suggested and so he’s given leave.  But in the households, the conversations are boorish and needlessly taken with the romanticism of war and glory.

Here are people drunk on the same wine. Men laugh about the enemy going down in flames. Curious young boys ask questions about what it’s like to meet the enemy with hopes to be up there one day. No one seems to understand, and how can they. They haven’t been there.

Watching from a distance, there is at last one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong, of course, to Carole Lombard. She slides her way into Jerry’s cab as he tries to leave the idle chatter behind. Instead, they find a quiet park, out of the way, to share some champagne and engage in genuine conversation.

She has only a momentary part — it really is a glorified cameo if we should call it that — and this is a movie that’s already so succinct. Still, it’s a memorable spot, and she offers a sympathetic countenance in a world all but lacking such consideration. It makes her all the more attractive.

Still, Jerry must go back to the lines and maintain the burden of being a shining example for others. After all, he is the fitting emblem of what a military hero should be. Fearless in the face of the enemy. All but indestructible with a stirling flying record.

However, we become jaded with the same persistent cynicism of Jerry pulling him from the airs above back into the parties and routines down below at the base. He can’t even manage to muster any kind of good-natured sentiment in such a jocund company.

All he sees are the chunks of flesh and bone on his chest in the form of medals. And all he can think about are the boys who have died either by his hands or at the hands of others. He’s gotten his medals, gained hero status and adulation from his peers, for killing kids. What’s worse, few seem to acknowledge him, going on their merry way. Surely he’s merely drunk. He’ll get over it in the morning. Except he doesn’t.

The film’s ending is a brutal shock to the system, but it settles into an honorable arc. If anyone was worried, Cary Grant is redeemed in the final moments preparing to soar off toward bigger and better successes.

What I’m most impressed with is how The Eagle and The Hawk does such a phenomenal job distilling some of the most pressing themes of war in its harshest and most bitter realities in such a meager allotment of time. It’s like All Quiet on the Western Front lite, and I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. It adeptly hones in on the essential elements of the prior film as another stark, unfaltering statement exploring human conflict on this seismic scale.

It comes not through heedless idealism but a sobering, unblinking examination of what war really is. Any pretense is stripped away in a matter of minutes while March gives one of the most piercing performances, arguably, of his entire career. If you haven’t already, go seek it out. My hope is that you’ll be glad you did.

4/5 Stars

The Aimless Bullet (1961) in Post-War Korea

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The film sets a precedent when a group of men is tossed out of a bar. They lack the funds to pay their tab and they’re wasted, singing the old war songs they used to know in the military. One refrain goes like this, “We march over the bodies of dead soldiers.”

One of their company is a crippled former commander who bemoans the fact he’s a has-been — a broken bowl of a human being — resigned to a life on crutches. It’s a telling annunciation of the South Korean experience after the war.

It positions itself as an important film on par with The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bicycle Thief, The Third Man, or Floating Clouds. Because it shows a Korea racked with post-war degradation, depression, and economic disparity comparable to the manner these other films provided a lens to their respective cultures.

This is vitally important. Especially for those of us from the western world. It’s difficult to understand the Korean War’s total effects because we were not altogether present to see them out. The U.S. often has the privilege of leaving the battlefields of other countries behind. Even with monetary aid, it’s usually others who are forced to pick up the pieces.

Let’s face it. You can only glean so much about the wartime circumstances from MASH episodes shot in Malibu Creek State Park 20 years after the fact. Rigid historical accuracy was never the crux of those stories anyway.

Once we’ve sorted out our setting, the story is really about two brothers. The older one is Cheolho, and he’s ended up as an accountant of all things. It doesn’t seem like a bad job, but it’s also not terribly lucrative working away on an abacus all day.

After the daily grind, he lives in a glorified shack with his wife, who’s nearly catatonic, a babbling mother with PTSD, a sister struggling to get work, and a little girl always coveting pretty things she can never have. His own private pain is the toothache he’s been living with because he doesn’t have the money to get it checked. It plagues him ceaselessly.

But there’s also his little brother. Yeongho is the handsome one drifting along, trying to find himself a living so he can come through on all the grand promises he makes to his niece. It never seems to pan out.

However, there are a couple of high points in an otherwise dreary and oppressive reality. For one, he rekindles an old flame with a nurse (Hye-ran Mun) he knew during the war. It’s nothing too passionate at first, but sweet and affectionate — the kind of romance that people go to the movies to watch. And it feels like a much-appreciated digression from the rest of the film as Yeongho gets back with the alluring Seolhui, who has a smile to light up the screen.

But even her life is far from idyllic. She manages to get by living in a humble apartment way up high and spends her nights unnerved by her next-door neighbor — an unsettled teen boy smitten with unrequited love — who bursts into her room after hours. Peace is nowhere to be found.

Even in one distinctly self-reflexive moment showcasing the nature of movies, our protagonist makes a go at being a movie actor for a brief stint. He finds himself called upon to play a soldier, not unlike his reality in real life. However, the mention of his real wounds — a pair of bullet scars in his side — literally cut to his core wound as a character.

It absolutely scalds him to be forced to dwell on them in any manner. He’s not about to take part in a film trying to capitalize on his hurt, and he stomps out in a rage. Thus, he still has no job, and he’s still disaffected.

What’s so compelling about Aimless Bullet comes with its brand of Korean neorealism because within my own limited grasp of world cinema, it’s something I’ve never been fortunate enough to witness outside of documentary. But the images, matched with the story, tell us so much about the society — what it was still going through — and honestly, how these types of issues feel universal wherever they take place.

While the metaphors are different, the implications are very much the same between Floating Clouds and Aimless Bullets, and they draw on a similar dynamic. Ironically, whether they’re considered enemies or allies, on the ground level, the world feels very much the same.

People are poor, and they can’t get work. Women scrounge for anything they can get and that means picking up American servicemen who are looking for a one-night stand and a good time. There’s nothing more to it than a business transaction.

Meanwhile, the individual and also their related communities are impacted in the most adverse ways possible. One of the characters bemoans the fact people have become burdens for one another these days.

There’s yet another heartwrenching scene on the streetcar. Two strangers are looking down below, grinning at a Korean woman who is romancing an American G.I. Cheolho cuts between them having experienced something much the same with his sister.

Whether or not he heard them entirely, he’s experienced his share of familial shame, and the moments are instantly linked in our minds. In the very same moment, there’s this conflicting duel going on between some bouncy American tune and a more somber Korean song providing another piece of complementary audio commentary. It’s a devastating reminder of what we have observed with this cultural clash.

Ultimately, the brothers have it out because they are prone to two different philosophies — two different ways of life — and yet neither one seems satisfied. Cheolho questions why they have to forget about their conscience and morality to be rich. Because that’s how the contemporary world around them seems to function.

However, Yeongho decides to take matters into his own hands. He gets one of his old war buddies to keep the engine running for him, an acquaintance Miri can vouch for his alibi, and then he proceeds to slip under the shutters of the local bank as it closes. His intentions are made clear enough even as a procession of Christian passerby sing “Nearer My God to Thee” in a highly ironic touch.

How we get from here to our other protagonist eventually bleeding out is anybody’s guess. I won’t pretend to understand everything. However, it underlines the bitter, persistent adversity that proves the bedrock of this story. One brother on the outside wandering like a zombie and the other wounded to his core.

When the film purportedly got banned in some form because of its finale, this feels like a slight misnomer; it got banned because the entire third act is weighed down by tragedy upon tragedy in relentless, pulverizing succession. Don’t expect any relief.

4/5 Stars

The Housemaid (1960) and a Living Hell

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The opening credits are more self-assured and breezy than I was expecting as the brass sounds off against a pair of kids playing cat’s cradle in the family living. Even with the rain outside, it somehow feels like a fitting depiction of postwar modernity in the 1960s. Films like Ohayo and When a Woman Ascends The Stairs capture a similar cross-section of life.

But this is simply the initial feel — the artistic flourishes being implemented. The most obvious element is the opening conceit between a husband and wife. He reads in the newspaper how a man had an affair with his maid. His wife scoffs at the news. Disgusted that such filth would desecrate the home she’s worked so hard to cultivate. Instantly we have the inkling of tension.

By day Dong-sik Kim is a music teacher. It feels like an all-girls dormitory, although it is actually a factory. He’s fairly straight-laced in his work, but it doesn’t stop the girls from having crushes on him. One in particular. It’s another seed of drama the film sows early on. Because if we learn nothing else, The Housemaid‘s forte is draining the reservoirs of theatricality for all they are worth.

If it’s not already apparent, the film has unabashed tinges of melodrama end to end. I know next to nothing about modern K dramas — apart from their reputation — but could they perchance have roots in films like these? Because we have brazen jumps in narrative and scenes where the story changes almost instantaneously from a sudden tragedy or a paradigmatic shift of some sort.

Of course, the vivacious Cho can’t have the composer, but she does something else instead. She starts getting lessons from him and then another idea comes into her head. You see, the family needs a new maid. It’s almost nonchalant how she offers her roommate the position because she knows the girl will be accepted almost without question. Here the film really begins as a kind of domestic thriller.

It’s all because of this peculiar girl who offers none of the warmth or instant charisma of Cho. She looks rather forlorn and dowdy, hardly the domestic type nor personable. Yet sure enough, she’s enlisted as the newest occupant of the Kim’s impressive two-story abode.

Much like some of Hitchcock’s great achievements (ie. Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Pyscho) or even Bong’s recent success Parasite (paying a great homage to the Housemaid), the domestic space becomes such a lethal vessel for dramatic tension.

If used effectively, there’s an inherent claustrophobia, constriction, and isolation such spaces can bring out. And the directors are able to make it a character unto itself, ripe with all sorts of thematic ideas and visual cues to act as an extension of their story.

Instead of a luminescent glass of milk, it is rat poison stuck away in a cupboard proving a deadly fulcrum within the movie. Packed in that tiny canister of household goods is so much threat and menace.

Director Kim ki-young augments his already contentious dynamics through sheer visual motifs. The stairwells become the most prominent piece of the home — a symbol of wealth — certainly but also social mobility and the seesawing power struggle.

Meanwhile, the sliding doors keep the space tight and confined such that you begin to expect the conflict and then feel it in turn. What’s being developed before us is a kind of cinematic language to go with the raging plonking on the piano taken up by several characters, all disposed to releasing their emotions on the keys. The music alone packs enough rage to pump up the blood pressure.

It succeeds in lending a continual fire to this overwhelming even crippling intensity. It reaches the point of being taxing. We are privy to the duplicity of illicit love that feels like two sides of the same coin. Cho’s puppy-like love for the teacher is forbidden but still youthful and a touch of naive.

However, the other is pernicious in a totally destructive manner as is made plainly evident. One day the wife must go off, leaving her husband with the maid in the house. What’s been alluded to the entire movie finally comes into being. She throws herself at him and he does very little to resist. In the heat of the moment, he’s not about to put up a fight. It’s the repercussions that will come to destroy him and cripple his family.

One must acknowledge all of their indiscretions would come to nothing if not for the fact his new “mistress” is now pregnant with his son even as his wife is about to have his child as well. It plays as a salacious piece of scandal and the maid can willfully wave it around as her bargaining chip — a mode in which to blackmail them.

Because she’s running scared even as she jealousy hangs onto the man who wants nothing more than to cast her off. Now he feels shackled by her. In some harrowing way, the film makes it apparent he is all but powerless to stop her as she ruthlessly scraps for herself. It’s the urban nightmare: held hostage in their own middle-class lifestyle with their kids, their TV, and new home, and it all means next to nothing. It becomes this futile trap they’re perpetually stuck in.

The commentary is so closely tied to the persistent intrigue and there’s the key — how this pursuit of upward mobility, of social status in a vertical society, winds up being their very downfall. They are strangled and then undone by the very tokens of wealth they have craved their entire lives. First, it begins with wifely ambitions and then the unseated desires of her husband compounding the situation.

However, there would be no picture without the self-seeking, crazed intentions of the maid. In her own right, she rivals Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney’s character) in Leave Her to Heaven. She’s so possessive, obsessive in her love, it threatens to tear up every relationship in its wake. There is no peace while she’s alive and her unwavering envy only sows chaos before jumping off the deep end entirely.

Because she haunts them — staring at the children through the sliding glass doors, rain pouring down, even as she harries their dejected father to the point of helplessness.

I mentioned the blackmail — the threat of being social pariahs — as being a kind of force holding them where they are. In this manner, one cannot help but think at Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel where some unnamed force keeps a group of aristocrats trapped in a room.

In the Housemaid the narrative devolves into its own form of living hell. You have to see it in order to understand how insidious it really feels. Because this prison (or noose) is not of a supernatural variety — it is very much implemented by the social structure on hand. And ultimately, no stabilizing cop-out ending can neutralize the frankness behind the nightmare.

One only needs to recall the wife’s desperate assertion to her husband. “My corpse may be silent, but my will won’t be!” In the end, Kim ki-young delivers a shocking portrait boldly mechanizing the multifaceted underpinnings of melodrama as all things romance, thriller, and satire. To this day, it remains an unflinching touchstone of Korean cinema at a time when the world was rapidly changing and still coming to terms with its gains.

4/5 Stars

Middle of the Night (1959): Chayefsky Does May-December Romance

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Middle of The Night proves instantly placeable thanks to its black-and-white, New York streets aesthetic. Although the name Paddy Chayefsky, emblazoned over the credits, gives us as much of an inclination of the story we are about to experience.

Because to this day, his name carries with it a hallowed note of reverence and a few distinctives. Not only did he garner the unprecedented acclaim of The Academy, his films were also always centered on characters in their individual spaces and mundane lives. His prose propelled the script into a place of primacy and his words were a form of gospel to center the story around.

While he did time in the nascent days of television where the lines between stage, screen, and theater were relatively thin, he ultimately propelled himself into the movies by maintaining his personal ethos and letting his words speak for themselves.

You might term them kitchen sink dramas, but whatever the phrase, they tackle issues of life as they happen in unfiltered ways. Analogous examples might be Marty, A Catered Affair, even a non-Chayesfy piece like Love With The Proper Stranger.

These roles were delivered on the stage by stalwarts E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint, then another illustrious pair: Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands. In the film, they fall to Frederic March and Kim Novak. Who you like most might fall to personal preference.

Far from having ice in her veins, Novak is nervous and skittish in all circumstances. It almost takes some getting used to and yet when you do, she feels more relatable than any other point in her career. Because she’s given up her self-assured cool and husky tones for a voice of a far more timorous nature.

March is always a splendid performer — he has a likability and an innate honesty to his characterizations. In principle, the same can be said of his overall performance here, but the element getting in the way at times is his lapses into an ethnic patois. Authentic backstory or not, it doesn’t quite suit him nor does he need it. But then my feelings started to evolve.

Because I became aware he seems to change how he speaks depending on who he’s talking to. After all, it’s not too farfetched as I have friends who lapse back into shorthand and slang to accommodate certain friends or family from a certain cultural subset. Whether or not this holds true in Middle of The Night, it hints at the complicated patchwork of interpersonal relationships human beings are constantly grappling with.

Recently I watched another Kim Novak romance, Strangers When We Meet, and its strengths fall to its extravagant Technicolor and a certain Hollywood opulence augmenting the middle-class romantic drama burning between Novak and Kirk Douglas. It is a West Coast counterpart to Middle of The Night because they are poles apart, both thematically and in the environments they take time depicting.

Here our main tension builds out of a May-December romance between an aging widower (March) and his beautiful young secretary (Novak). But while it gives the pretense of a superficial affair on the page, the brilliance of Chayefsky’s script is how he’s able to tease out the warm and tentative love budding between two people.

Lee Grant and Martin Balsam’s screentime might only accumulate to a few scenes each. However, even on the outskirts of the drama like they are, they still manage to leave a lasting impact on the story. It’s a testament to the scripting and the veteran caliber of the performers.

One scene, in particular, feels like a masterclass in stringing conversations together through overlapping ideas, cut-off sentences, and the types of asides that dot real-life conversation. Jack (Balsam) is talking about getting a sitter so they can take a vacation before tax season hits him. His wife Marilyn (Grant) — Jerry’s daughter — is preoccupied with her father’s romances. They are mismatched and going off on their own separate tangents.

Jerry doesn’t want to end up like his contemporary, the ostentatious shell-of a man (Albert Dekker), who talks a big talk about his romantic exploits while feeling generally regretful of the life he’s led. Jerry’s far from envious, especially as his live-in sister constantly tries to subtly influence his love life in unwanted ways.

Despite their mutual affinity, the disparate couple has their share of reservations. Because for the here and now, they are happy; they need each other and they love each other. But they can’t help but consider the obvious barriers around them.

If I’m remembering the underlying themes of Marty, the same elements hold true here too: the imprint of family and related peer pressure shape our decisions and ultimately our happiness. Since the days of Romeo & Juliet oftentimes family influence only serves to make matters all the more confusing. If romance happened in a vacuum, it might be a lot more manageable.

Because Betty and Jerry get away together and have a grand ol’ time at a rambunctious New Year’s party where everyone and their wife seems to be their new best friend. The age gap feels inconsequential when you’re full up on bubbly and at the top of the world.

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Still, they must return home to reality and with their mutual feelings not quite sorted out. They tell themselves the only thing that matters is them, and yet that’s a fallacy because there are so many strings attached. It’s a reminder of how serious relationships make those involved come to terms with everything. Because every person brings with them a plethora of familial relationships they must navigate.

Mother raises hell yelling down the stairwell at her daughter’s suitor with all her nosy neighbors crammed in the hallway to get a good look at Betty’s Spencer Tracy. And that’s not the end of it. Everyone else is agitated and high-strung, compounded by their own problems, and it’s these prolonged scenes providing a platform for the talents of Grant and Balsam.

My heart really breaks for Novak when her scuzzy ex-husband stops by from the Vegas circuit to try and win her back along with the “half hours” she used to give him. But she’s tired of it. Tired of being desired or more exactly objectified in this manner. She deserves better.

With Jerry momentarily out of the picture, it gives us the time and space to realize the gravity of her individual predicament and the struggles of her own life. She desperately needs Jerry. Constantly clinging to him, wringing her hands, biting her thumb as signs of her constant uncertainty and distress. Because there has never been any type of stability in her life.

Meanwhile, he’s continually obsessed with her but also about how others perceive her — jealous of any younger man who might have eyes for her. His fits of temper become exacerbated over time as he’s overcome by chippiness on the turn of a dime. It’s inconsequential until it totally blinds him, almost crippling their relationship. You could call these neuroses or you could simply acknowledge them as traits of two frightened little people.

Later, they share a fateful exchange in the snow. It looks like what they have has finally imploded. Can it be salvaged? We can’t be sure. He says, “It’s a lousy kind of love.” She replies tearfully, “It’s the only kind I know.” It’s pitiful and real and honest. Sometimes I feel like Chayefsky is on a soapbox — in a movie like The Americanization of Emily — here he just seems human.

This sums it up, doesn’t it? None of us are perfect at love. We have our own hangups, issues, and idiosyncracies getting in the way of loving our spouses and the significant people in our lives well. Whatever the outcome of The Middle of The Night, surely we can agree it intersects with all of us on some primeval level. This is the brilliance of Chayesky at his best. Because the humble origins allow him to shine through.

3.5.5 Stars