Almost universally derided as lurid, overwrought, excessive: I liked it very much. The title at the intro warns us that the film is a story of evil. In Beyond the Forest, evil is personified by a woman, Rosa Moline (Bette Davis), married to the too-nice local doctor (Joseph Cotton) but desperate to get out of that one-horse town and into the nearest big city – Chicago – for the sophistication and excitement she craves. Why is she evil? Because she’s a slattern – the house is full of dust — because she cheats on her husband, because she’s killed a man. But the worst bit – the bit that got cut out of prints in several US cities – is because she’s willing to jump off a hill to abort the child that’s keeping her from the bright lights of the big city. At the beginning, she says that life in Loyalton is like waiting for a funeral to start. The film shows us just how true that is, as she collapses and dies just as she’s about to make the last train outta there.
The film is probably best remembered for Davis’ speaking of the one line ‘What a dump!’, a camp classic made respectable when re-deployed by Edward Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and even more famous when Elizabeth Taylor spat it out in the film version. But the fame of the line obscures what surrounds it and makes it potent: Rosa’s refusal of the constraining and defining options for women in Loyalton.
‘I don’t want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when they don’t like me. It means I don’t belong.’ When her dull milksop of a husband — shown drinking a glass of milk in case you didn’t get it — tells her he just saved a woman’s life, her retort is ‘Saved her for what?’ Hating everyone makes her feel alive, keeps her from accepting the conditions of the existence she didn’t choose, keeps her in revolt. ‘I’m going to bed,’ says the husband. ‘That’s big news. Where else could you go?’ Gay audiences of the time might have laughed at the line but surely the feeling that if they didn’t get out of their small towns and into a big city, they’d die, that towns like Loyalton would kill them, is a situation they could connect to, one that spoke them and dramatised their plight?
Beyond the Forest has many great scenes but one worth lingering over is the one where she leaves the husband and runs off to Chicago only to find Neill Latimer (David Brian), her lover, doesn’t want to marry her (see above). He offends her by offering her money. But even as she refuses, she’s interpellated by everything that surrounds her as laughinstock and a whore: she’s kicked out of a bar for being a single woman, a drunk thinks her a prostitute, the police have their eye on her, even the newspaper boy seems to detect her plight. It’s a fantastic scene. Some might think it too much. But too much for what? King Vidor directs this is as if it were an opera, all is emotion and he’s finding the right pitch to convey it, with situation, camera, setting and angles, even the tone of a stranger’s laughter. Everything here symbolises, creates, evokes and conveys feeling. Clearly.
Ruth Roman is in the movie merely as an ideal of womanhood, everything Davis’ Rosa Moline isn’t. Max Steiner’s score is so unimaginative he has to rely on underscoring Fred Fisher’s ‘Chicago’ over everything. And yet, Beyond the Forest is lurid, is excessive, is overwrought. It is also great. The film achieves the latter through, not in spite of, the former.