Noir City #3

Last night, Eddie Mueller paired two movies based on W. Somerset Maugham material. Maugham, who was the highest paid author in the world during the 1930s, had a good deal of his material produced for the screen — primarily because he was the kind prolific and popular writer to have four new plays running on the London West End at the same time. My own two-volume set of Somerset Maugham’s short stories alone runs several thousand pages. Often the long stories set in the tropics blur into each other, with Maugham recycling plots and characters without apology.

But that’s not to suggest that we should discount Maugham’s gift as a storyteller. He was a plot-heavy writer, who read every story of Guy de Maupassant in French at an early age. He worked the literary angle with Of Human Bondage but kept it real with his Ashenden tales. The Ashenden stories are considered by many to be the prototype for the modern spy story. Drawn from Maugham’s own experience in espionage, they were to prove so successful that Hitchcock used two of the stories as the basis for his film The Secret Agent. Fleming and Le Carre could not have existed without Maugham, much as Doyle could not have existed without Poe.

But Maugham was also concerned with intimacy, keen on domineeering figures in a family (he considered his happiest days to be his early ones with his mother). And it was two selections along these lines that Mueller presented last night.

Christmas Holiday (1944): Despite the presence of the great Herman J. Mankiewicz, this adaptation is bogged down by a flashback-within-flashback structure. It takes forever to get to the crux of the story. The camera ogles endlessly over Deanna Durbin — here, in her first adult role, cast against type as a browbeaten nightclub singer. After breaking down at Xmas mass, Durbin tells her story to army officer Dean Harens (the Matt Damon of his time, thankfully without the star status) and it is here that we are eventually introduced to her husband, Gene Kelly, who has just murdered an associate. Unfortunately, it takes so long to get to the film’s real goodies, best epitomized in a split-diopter shot of Kelly and Durbin hunkered over a piano while Kelly’s controlling mother (played by Gale Sondergaard) rocks in the background. It’s a pity, because there’s some nice lighting by Woody Bredell, and some magnificent shots of a concert hall. And the Durbin-described “pathological” relationship between Kelly and his mother, with the Durbin dynamic, is something special to behold.

But the problem with this movie is that it’s too much of a blatant vehicle for Durbin. At the time this movie was made, Durbin was desperate to break out of her wholesome teen singer image. It was she who read Maugham’s novel and she who convinced Universal to make the film. And while she does a commendable yeoman’s job, the camera cannot stop shoving itself up Durbin’s nostrils, a one-two punch with soft-light, as if to hammer home the point that we are seeing a wholly different Durbin.

The results are an underwhelming film directed by an underrated director (Robert Sidomak, the man behind The Killers and Criss Cross), with a few sparks. But it could have been much better.

The Letter (1940): Over the past few years, a friend and I have had an on-again, off-again dialogue over William Wyler. He claims that Wyler is overrated — the worst director of the studio system. I claim he’s hit-or-miss, but that you can’t discount The Ox-Bow Incident, Roman Holiday, Jezebel, or Ben-Hur. Whatever Wyler’s problems, I maintain, he’s still great with actors and knows how to deliver when he has a script in his hand. No, my friend says, Wyler couldn’t come up with a decent visual to save his overinflated pecs. Watch your back, he says. I’ll stab it in the morning. Sometimes.

The subject is so heated among film geeks that even a documentary was made in 1986 called Directed by William Wyler in an attempt to put Wyler alongside directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Up until now, I’ve had to agree with my friend’s stance on visuals. Wyler always struck me as a guy who was riding on Gregg Toland’s coattails, leaving Toland to frame that magnificent supermarket shot in The Best Years of Our Lives or make Bette Davis look nothing less than sensational in The Little Foxes.

But The Letter not only predates The Maltese Falcon as a potential missing link between German Expressionism and film noir by one year, but it may very well be a visual example I can use in the Wyler debate. This film is pure eye candy. It is a film I must see again. From the opening tracking shot, in which a murder is committed in a tropical wilderness, the photography offers endless semiotics to sift through, at one point even aping the movement of Bette Davis as she’s describing how she shoots a man to death. There’s one sequence that takes place wholly in a living room, in which three characters are sitting. Wyler and Toland frame them high to low. The man who has committed a highly unethical act is visually tainted in a gray suit. The pure character who had no idea of this act is in white. And the person who caused all this is dressed in black, seated on a striped soda that suggests a jail cell.

The blocking in this picture is exquisite. Characters arch their backs over to match the Venetian blind shadows on the wall. I’m almost certain that Bertolucci had The Letter in mind when he went off to make The Conformist.

Unfortunately, The Letter is hard to track down. Ironic, given that it might be the solitary film to restore Wyler’s status.