THE GREAT MOMENT
(Preston Sturges, 1944).
Joel McCrea plays William T. G. Morton, the 19th century Boston dentist
who, according to the book Sturges based his screenplay on, was the
first to discover the effective use of ether as an anesthetic. Sturges
was fascinated with inventors, and in this case the hero was something
of a martyr—cheated out of the patent because of his own kindness
The story is told using an unusual flashback structure, jumping back
and forth in time and then ending with a crucial event that happens
roughly in the middle of the hero’s story. It’s obvious
that Sturges was deeply moved by Morton’s integrity, and the shamefulness
of his treatment by the medical establishment. It’s his only serious
drama as a director, and I wish I could say that it works.
Period films are more difficult to pull off than some might think. A
film can have realistic, historically accurate sets and costumes, and
the actors can have good mannerisms and accents, yet with all that,
a lot of period dramas remain unconvincing because the filmmakers are
unable to transport us into the seeming atmosphere or sensibility of
another time. The Great Moment takes place in the 1840s and
50s, but Sturges has a style of expression that seems unalterably of
the 20th century. Other than in the western genre, the smart and genial
McCrea also seems out of place in an earlier time.
In addition, the relationship between Morton and his wife (Betty Field),
while given central importance, is not developed well enough. The long-suffering
wife role doesn’t give Field anything interesting to do. Perhaps
because of a lack of confidence, Sturges also makes the mistake of having
William Demarest play comic relief. Demarest is never less than wonderful
in a Sturges comedy, but here he’s like a sore thumb.
The film was actually shot in 1942. Paramount didn’t like it,
and it was shelved for two years while studio editors tried to clean
up the flashback structure, mangling the picture in the process. Reportedly,
the original cut was easier to understand. It flopped when released
in ‘44--I doubt if it would have succeeded even in the original
cut. It’s not that The Great Moment is a travesty; it’s
watchable and occasionally absorbing. It just doesn’t have the
spark or the energy one expects from a Preston Sturges movie.
LOVE AFFAIR (Leo McCarey, 1939).
Witty, level-headed Terry (Irene Dunne), an American returning from
Europe on an ocean liner, encounters the notorious French playboy Michel
(Charles Boyer), and they hit it off despite Terry’s natural caution.
Michel is attracted to Terry’s down-to-earth qualities, in such
contrast to the women who usually flock around him, and before the trip
is done they have fallen in love. It’s all rather sudden, and
they both have prior commitments, so they agree that they will meet
six months later at the top of the Empire State Building if they’re
still interested by then. But a cruel twist of fate prevents Terry from
making the appointment.
McCarey really had a knack for bringing the best out of his actors,
and in this film Dunne and Boyer are relaxed and radiate charm, making
the romance believable. What I find admirable about the script (Donald
Ogden Stewart and Delmer Daves) is that the lovers are attracted by
each other’s personalities and brains, and this manages to come
across convincingly despite the overly fast development of the affair
typical of Hollywood movies.
Then comes the big plot development in the middle. Without giving too
much away, I must say that I find the obstacle that prevents the couple’s
happiness artificial and perplexing. It requires Dunne’s character
to be silent and self-effacing in a way that seems more like a trick
to get the audience worked up than a plausible response from someone
in love. I suppose it might have seemed more likely in 1939 than it
does now, but the upshot for me is that it almost changes a good adult
romance into a five- hanky pile of emotional hooey.
Almost, I said. Because I must admit that even though I think the plot
mechanics are ridiculous, McCarey gets the two leads to play the long
final scene with such tact and nuance that it moved me anyway. Dunne’s
clenched-teeth type of cheerfulness can sometimes get on my nerves,
but her chemistry with Boyer is excellent, and he behaves with the contented
air of an actor thoroughly at home in a part. Not a great film, just
an enjoyable bit of old-fashioned romance. It was remade twice, once
by McCarey himself in the 50s, but this is really the only version worth
DESTINY (Fritz Lang, 1921).
In the Middle Ages, a young couple (Walter Janssen and Lil Dagover)
stop at an inn, where the husband is taken away to a walled palace by
a stranger (Bernhard Goetzke) who turns out to be Death himself. The
wife implores him to restore her husband, and he replies by showing
her a vast room full of lit candles, each candle representing a soul.
Three of them are about to go out, and he tells her that if she can
save one of these souls through love, her husband will be free.
This is the framing story for a series of three tales involving lovers
in Baghdad, Venice, and China. Janssen and Dagover play the lovers in
each story, and in each one their love is opposed by a powerful and
The picture reflects a fatalistic trend in the period right after the
Great War in Germany, when depression and defeat dominated the public
mood. The theme of conflict between love and death was undoubtedly a
vital one, but the story in this case is too schematic and predictable
to sustain much interest. The acting is fortunately restrained, at least
by 1921 standards, although Dagover’s range seems too narrow for
the central role. Yet the film is still very interesting for one reason:
its outstanding visual style.
Lang and his team of art directors created an eerie and beautiful alternate
universe with spectacular sets and production design. The huge wall
surrounding Death’s estate is an awe-inspiring effect, and the
fanciful elements in the three stories are beguiling in ways that had
not been seen before on screen. The Chinese episode, in particular,
is full of architectural oddities and flourishes that make a world of
magic and myth almost tangible. The film also features clever special
effects, including a flying carpet, and a magician producing a miniature
army from a little box. Throughout, Lang’s use of light to delineate
screen space is boldly innovative. On the other hand, he rarely moves
the camera, so to present-day eyes the fantasy retains a static character.
One need only compare this to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of
Dr. Caligari from a year earlier (a film Lang was originally supposed
to direct) to understand how much of an advance it represents. The former
film, with its outrageous painted sets, was an essentially theatrical
precursor to the true cinematic expressionism we see in Destiny.
Lang had already made a name for himself as a director, with seven films
to his credit. Destiny failed in Germany at first, but French
audiences and critics were impressed, and this propelled it to success
in Germany as well. It was Lang’s second movie with co-screenwriter
Thea Von Harbou, and his breakthrough film on the world stage.
SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN
(Fei Mu, 1948).
In a village decimated by the recent war with Japan, a married couple
live a sad, passionless existence. The tubercular husband Liyan (Shi
Yu) wallows in depression while his wife Yuwen (Wei Wei) labors dutifully
for him, finding her only solace in walks along the town’s ruined
wall, when she can be alone with her thoughts. The only spark of life
in this world is the husband’s 16-year-old sister (Zhang Hongmei).
Then an old friend of Liyan named Zhichen (Li Wei) comes to visit after
a long absence. We soon discover that, unbeknownst to the husband, Zhichen
and Yuwen had been in love when they were teenagers, but his family
would not approve the marriage, he went off to Shanghai, and she eventually
entered into a loveless union with Liyan. Zhichen’s return now
stirs old feelings back to life—Yuwen becomes gradually convinced
that she must leave her husband and run away with Zhichen. Zhichen hesitates,
unwilling to hurt his old friend. Meanwhile, the clueless Liyan tries
to arrange a marriage between Zhichen and his sister.
The triangle theme is one of the world’s oldest (the script was
adapted by Li Tianji from his own short story) but the treatment in
this film is anything but tired. Fei evoked performances of quiet emotional
containment from his actors. Meaning is divined more from what the characters
refrain from saying than what they actually say, and momentous feelings
are expressed by the most delicate and minute expressions. The voice-over
narration by Yuwen is soft-spoken and minimal in what it reveals. Complementing
the acting style is Fei’s graceful, gliding camera movement, following
the characters as they walk outdoors or go rowing on the river, the
pace of the camera matching the gentle pace of the dialogue. He also
uses dissolves within scenes—an unusual technique that mirrors
the hesitancy and uncertainty of the interactions between Yuwen and
her former lover.
This beautiful movie portrays deep sadness and loss by defying romantic
conventions. The characters act like real people, often confused as
to their own motives and desires, rather than the kind of storybook
characters typical of romantic melodrama. Fei’s commitment to
realism and emotional subtlety is the key to this exquisitely crafted
After Mao’s victory in 1949, Fei was one of the figures from
the Shanghai film industry accused of being “rightist.”
He fled to Hong Kong and founded a production company there, but never
directed again. During the post- Mao cultural thaw of the 1980s, his
long-neglected work finally gained critical reappraisal.
The Cinema Epoch DVD was made from a recently minted reprint—it’s
unclear whether the original negative exists. I suppose most of the
scratches, spots, and missing frames are due to the fragile nature of
the print, but there are other flaws that must be due to the ineptness
of the DVD production, especially the subtitling, which is too rapid
and occasionally non-existent. I wish Criterion could get their hands
on this one, but in the meantime, this is what we’ve got, and
it’s still well worth your time.
BORN TO KILL (Robert Wise, 1947).
An essential element in the postwar American crime film (later termed
“film noir’) was a fascination with the experience of breaking
moral taboos. Rather than simply shuddering a little at the spectacle
of cruelty and violence, and then turning away, as most films from the
1930s tended to do, the noir films offered the vicarious thrill of reveling
in the forbidden world of life outside the law. No movie exemplifies
this aspect more than Born to Kill, which was adapted from
James Edward Gunn’s pulp thriller Deadlier Than the Male.
Sam Wild (Laurence Tierney) has his eye on a girl he meets at a Nevada
casino. He follows her to her rooming house, but when he finds her boyfriend
there, his hair-trigger temper goes off and he kills them both. Later,
Helen Trent (Claire Trevor), also staying at the rooming house while
she gets her Reno divorce, discovers the bodies. The self-centered Helen
flees on a train rather than go to the trouble (or take the risk) of
calling the police. There, unaware that he’s the killer, she runs
into Sam, whom she had met previously at the casino. He wants her, but
she resists her own urges because she’s already engaged to a wealthy
businessman (Phillip Terry). Unfortunately she introduces Sam to her
stepsister (Audrey Long), and he ends up marrying her for her money
while still pursuing Helen. Helen is a woman attracted to mean, domineering
men, so she succumbs. Meanwhile, the landlady at the Reno rooming house
has hired a corrupt detective (Walter Slezak) to find the killer of
her tenant, whom she was fond of.
The bizarre and convoluted plot suffers from too much coincidence as
well as a contrived and mechanical structure. It’s entertaining
anyway because of the utterly irredeemable main characters. Tierney
plays a snarling hunk of antisocial impulses—he’s scary
because his crimes can’t be explained by calculation or self-interest.
His rage makes him do stupid, self-destructive things that cause havoc
wherever he goes. You wonder why anyone would be attracted to him, but
that’s really the picture’s main theme—Helen is attracted
precisely by that which would repel a normal person. This is really
her story, and Trevor never seemed more neurotic or intense than here.
Just to make things weirder, we have Elisha Cook, Jr. as Sam’s
insanely loyal friend and sidekick Marty, who’s always trying
to calm the psychopath down before he kills somebody. But once Sam has
made up his mind to do something, Marty, as if under hypnois, goes along
for the ride. (Can you say homoerotic subtext? I knew you could.)
Ultimately everything collapses in a bloody mess, of course, but the
fun, if you will, is in seeing just how that happens. Personally I prefer
stories about more disciplined criminals, but that’s just a matter
of taste. Born to Kill is without a doubt one of the noirest
of film noirs.
©2009 Chris Dashiell