You’d never know it from the way he’s written about but George Cukor is one of American cinema’s greatest directors. His best films (Dinner at Eight, David Copperfield, Holiday, Camille, The Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born, Adam’s Rib etc) are amongst the greatest American cinema has ever produced and thus impossible to ignore. But the critical treatment of his lesser films proves my point. Every Hawks bomb is trawled through like the Dead Sea Scrolls for signs of the great man’s ‘signature’. Yet, films like A Woman’s Face, very considerable ones, are largely ignored except, in this instance at least, by Joan Crawford fans, who tend not to appreciate that much of what they love about Crawford in this movie is due to Cukor.
The film is a remake of the Swedish En kvinnas ansikte (Sweden, 1938) with Ingrid Bergman, itself based on a play, Il etait une fois, by Francis de Croisset. I saw it many years ago in a retrospective of Bergman’s Swedish films at the Cinémathèque Québécoise and remember thinking how great a director Gustaf Molander was and what a pity that Bergman was never allowed to play roles like that in Hollywood. But I did not take notes and my memory remains vague. I must see it again.
Moira Finnie writes that, “according to producer Victor Saville, he and George Cukor were brainstorming in his office at MGM when Joan Crawford entered one day in 1941. Nearing the end of her 18 year tenure at MGM as the studio turned its attention to fresh faces such as Greer Garson and Lana Turner, Crawford put her need matter-of-factly, “Look boys, I haven’t made a picture in a year. This one has got to be good and I’ll do anything you want me to do.”
A Woman’s Face is a courtroom drama. Joan Crawford plays Anna Holm, the head of a blackmail gang accused of murdering Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt). Anna is in love with love but rendered bitter because her face is so deformed she thinks no man will love her. When the aristocratic Barring shows her the least attention, she falls for him, even though he’s only using her for money. They’re really opposites: she outwardly monstrous but good inside; he the picture of genial aristocratic bonhomie on the outside but evil inside. Anna cruelly extorts Vera Segert (Osa Massen) for being pretty, desired, comfortable, unfaithful – all that she’s not – but this is interrupted by the arrival of her husband, Dr. Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas) a famed plastic surgeon, who sees Anna and decides to maker of her a project and restore her face. As Anna is rendered beautiful – which is to say she begins to be shown as the Joan Crawford everyone recognises – all her goodness comes to the surface again and she’s unable to go through with the plot to kill Barring’s nephew, Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols), the child who stands in the way of Barring inheriting a great fortune. As the case proceeds Anna and Dr. Segert admit their love for each other. There’s a letter, initially forgotten, that will absolve Anna.
The rough outline of the structure is simple: Joan Crawford is accused of murder and Cukor does a marvellous job of withholding her face, filming her only from the back, then showing only the part of her face that is whole, then showing her as a shadowy outline (see above), before revealing her disfigurement. Whereas most stars get one entrance; here Crawford gets a whole series of them in a marvellous coup-de-théâtre. The witnesses are also introduced in a clever and engaging way (Donald Meek as a mild-mannered swindler, Marjorie Main as the no nonsense housekeeper etc.)
Cukor is generous and gives each actor their moment to shine. They each also get to tell part of the story, thus briefly becoming the centre of it. This telling is not as sophisticated as it could be. Their knowledge is not narratively restricted and they’re also not restricted to their point of view. The information conveyed by the story in flashback exceeds that which each of the characters might be privy to. It’s been simplified so that each character is merely an excuse for the story to be told as it would ordinarily have been – linearly. Each character’s telling is a touchstone to the story rather than a point-of-view on it, but told in flashback to create tension around particular ‘reveals’, not the least of which is Joan Crawford’s many faces.
The material is second rate. Donald Ogden Stewart’s structure of it is clever in that it streamlines it but in doing so it irons out complexities that more sophisticated explorations of knowledge and point-of-view could have wrung out of the material. But Cukor’s direction is a marvel. You might have already seen the glorious Crawford ‘reveal ‘, a shadowy outline brought into the light as an embodiment of ugly bitterness, in in the clip above. I’d here like to further demonstrate only a few aspects of it. In the clip below, note simply the humour Cukor injects with the way he films what seems like a nice middle-aged lady knowingly smoking where she shouldn’t, revealing her rebellion through her nose. It’s characteristic of the the sly, witty direction in the film. It’s also indicative of the wonders Cukor draws out of actors. Veidt and Ossa Massen are superb and no one is less than good. Crawford herself was very proud of her performance here and credited for setting the ground for her Academy Award later on for Mildred Pierce.
In the clip below, note how Cukor generously allows Osa Massen her close-up. See how Massen says the line ‘as usual’. Then the dissolve into the fashion magazines, the camera moving to the nuts, chocolates and bibelots on the coffee table, the flower, the un-made bed. This is a pretty, frivolous woman of many appetites and little willpower. Also she’s in trouble. When she tells us the doorbell rang, the flowers are shown in shadow and the travelling shot on the staircase focusses on the bars rather than the feet. Note the contrast between Anna and Vera. Vera’s taller and prettier. But see how the angles change once the tables are turned. It’s a great scene marred only by the dialogue so typical of the phony high-culture aspirations of so many Crawford characters in this period: ‘Such cheapness. You call these love letters. Have you ever read any real love letters: Georges Sand. Debussy. Keats. Browning.’ Vera might not have. But Cukor draws out a wonderful comic performance out of Massen in the midst of a very threatening and shadowy extortion scene where Anna’s danger and her longings are clearly expressed. It’s very good.
The direction of A Woman’s Face is wonderful at creating and maintaining a mood, at inserting comic elements into the bleakest of situations, at drawing out complex characterisations. All this Cukor is renown for. But this film also has two wonderful action set-pieces, one Anna’s attempt at killing a child in an areal cablecar over snowy mountains. The other, a magnificent chase scene in snow sleighs which you can see below:
Note the alteration of angles, with Conrad Veidt and Crawford often filmed from the same angle, from below and in medium close-up. See how purposefully the compositions go under the sleigh to allows us to see how close the pursuing horse and sleigh are approaching. Note too the timing of each. It’s clever, imaginative and beautifully done in order to create tension and excitement, all in the middle of a great confession from Anna and even as she demonstrates her goodness by performing the most evil action we see her do. It’s magnificent direction in a fine film that, though not one of Cukor’s best, certainly deserves a great deal more attention.
According to Finnie, twenty years after the film was released , Joan Crawford commented that A Woman’s Face was “my last happy part at MGM and my last good part for a long time. A star’s career proverbially lasts five years. Ten years was exceptional. Well…I’d had it. I was over 30, as a matter of fact, over 34. Years ago Willie Haines had told me that when you start to slide in this business it’s like walking on nothing, the career of no return. I hadn’t understood. Now I was walking on nothing”. That might well have been. But Crawford fans will see in this film the seeds that would come to flower in the noir world the star would explore and make her own from Mildred Pierce onwards.
The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way (1944); both by Leo McCarey and both the most successful box-office his of their respective years. It is according to Richard Corliss ‘officially loved’; Pauline Kael thought it a recruiting poster for the Catholic Church matched only by The Exorcist (William Friedkin); writing in 1973, Joseph McBride wrote that ‘If you don’t cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis, I never want to meet you and that’s that’. Much as I admire his work, perhaps it’s lucky we’ve never met.
How is The Bells of St. Mary’s in any way acceptable? It’s false through and through and offensively so: hip priests and cute nuns, pretending to be all self-sacrificing and cheerful, solving all the world’s problems, manipulating everyone with prayer, conning an old man out of his building. There’s a big Leo McCarey retrospective here at the Cinema Ritrovatto. Yes, he is the director of beloved films such as Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937); and, yes, they are greatly to be cherished. But he is also the director of My Son John (1952). Why isn’t the falsity in his work also part of the discussion of McCarey? How can critics let such lies go through? Yes, there’s Ingrid Bergman, gloriously radiant, enraptured in a halo of faith that is beautiful to see; Bing sings skilfully in that marvellous baritone of his; McCarey is great at staging the comedy in a low key, famously improvised manner; the actors are excellent; but excellent in the service of what? It’s an insult to one’s intelligence; a testament to the power of lies, the American equivalent of a Stalinist film about the redeeming values of cement and the glory of sacrificing individual life and happiness to the five year plan. A film that turns from pleasant to hateful as soon as the thought it fights so hard to displace is applied to it. Yet, also one of the most popular films of all time and thus perhaps all the more reason to think about it seriously.
Before Midnight is adult, focused on character and relationships; with smart non-stop dialogue, almost musical in the jazzy way characters riff on ideas and interact and improvise with each other, that dramatises, hides, highlights, symbolizes, but is nonetheless recognisably the way emotionally intelligent and highly educated people speak. It’s filmed in long fluid takes that focus on people and show off the skill of the director and the actors.
It’s a film about the important things in life: love, loneliness, family, sex, children, work; one that requires patience. It insists you submit to its gentle beat but then rewards you with laughter, emotion and thought. It’s modern in the way Celine (JulieDelpie) fights for her choice of life and in the way it shows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) giving in to her whilst still seeming so ruggedly male; it’s old fashioned in the way she flirts and in the way he courts. The bickering is the bickering in all relationships; the preference to remain two solitudes together, and the wisdom of that choice, is not.
I didn’t like seeing Patrick (Walter Lasally – is he based on Patrick Leigh Fermor? Leigh Fermor is the British war hero who also wrote two famous books on his travels walking through Europe as a young man – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – and who ended up living in Greece), the semi-sage in the writer’s colony or the rest of the Greeks we see at a writer’s colony – they seem to prick a pin through the bubble of charm that is my idea of Before Sunrise (1995), the first film; as if introducing other people darkens the warm romantic glow. But Before Midnight is a more sombre, more mature film than even the equally touching Before Sunset (2004). I suppose the film had to be opened up in some way but the other people seem to prick a pin through the bubble of romance, though I suppose that’s the point — it’s no longer a bubble, it’s no longer a holiday romance, it’s no longer a romance — it’s a relationship. And love. But love in a relationship, as the film so beautifully dramatises, is not quite the same..
The film begins with Jesse saying goodbye to his 14-year old son at the airport. The talk is awkward and loving. He leaves his son so that he can go back to his mother whom Jesse has a terrible relationship with. Celine seems to be part of the problem. She’s too opinionated, self-centred, can only see her point-of-view, has obviously poured oil on flame. She gets some of the best laughs in the film. He’s overwhelmed with sadness and self-doubt. Has he been a good father? Should they move from Paris to Chicago to be near his son? Her whole life and that of their daughters is in Paris, and the very question threatens Celine’s whole life and begins a questioning of the relationship itself.
It all takes place in one day, once again in a beautiful location, this time the Peloponnese, full of ruins of civilisations past and of beautiful churches with murals choc-a-bloc with icons that have had their eyes removed. They talk about Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, and what to make of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1954) seeing those skeletons wrapped in an eternal embrace in Pompeii. They know they are not the ideal or romantic lovers but maybe they too are blind to what is in front of their face: that they still love. American directors in the 1960s used to look enviously at the works of art being produced in Europe and wonder what cinema they might be able to create had they the same freedoms. Just as with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Before Midnight would have proved a very satisfactory answer.