Enough bloodshed. The Siren caught a movie called The Forbidden Street (1949) a few weeks ago on the Fox Movie Channel. Here they occasionally show movies that the Fox studio, for whatever inscrutable boneheaded business-suited reason, has not deigned to release on DVD. (You can read Dave Kehr elaborating on this here and here on his blog.) The original title was Britannia Mews, and it was directed by Jean Negulesco.
I love Negulesco. Some people have guilty-pleasure movies; the Romanian is my guilty-pleasure director. He helmed some genuinely good movies, like Three Came Home and the 1953 Titanic. But since I spent some time mocking Eli Roth, I should step up and admit that my beloved Three Coins in the Fountain and The Bestof Everything do not exactly measure up to Jean-Pierre Melville, either. (Thanks, Noel, for reassuring me that I am not the only person crazy enough to find good stuff in The Best of Everything. And here is a nice take on Negulesco's Woman's World, which the Siren has not seen yet.)
Anyway, like most interesting movies on the Fox channel, Forbidden Street is shown at hours the Siren usually slept through in her pre-mothering days. It opens by showing us Adelaide, a girl from a high-toned family who becomes fascinated with the teeming life of a slum street, Britannia Mews, that lies behind her house. The girl soon grows into Maureen O'Hara, and she remains enthralled with the street. Adelaide falls in love with an alcoholic and penniless artist, Gilbert Lauderdale (Dana Andrews). She marries him against her family's wishes, and together they move into a house in the Mews.
Several things make this movie worthwhile, particularly Andrews, who winds up playing a double role, first as Adelaide's downfall and then her salvation. O'Hara does well with a character who goes through several mutations, some of them rather abrupt, and Dame Sybil Thorndike is a treat as a hideous slum dweller the Mews residents refer to as the Sow. The plot has surprises, as threads are not drawn out the way you would expect. Instead the conflicts come one after the other, the one constant being the street and how it evolves. It is really the story of the Mews, and not Maureen.
But what had the Siren hooked was the beauty of the movie. From the beginning, when the camera looks over Adelaide's shoulder, through a window and down onto the Mews, I couldn't get over how gorgeous the darned thing was. The street is poor, but the camerawork is rich, full of velvety blacks and the glow of the Victorian lamps. I missed the credits so I spent a long while marveling at the way the photography preserved a childlike perspective, from the way we see the marionettes carefully fashioned by Gilbert, to the way Maureen is pictured in her lodgings, a doll in a house she must grow into. A mews has its lodgings on the second floor, as the first one is given over to horse stalls and a carriage house. The characters frequently play scenes in front of the windows in O'Hara's rooms. The camera shows you the other shabby buildings across the narrow street, but the life of the Mews is usually heard and not seen. Adelaide remains suspended above it even as she is trying to join it. Who did this? Was I about to write a scintillating blog post on the wonders of a previously unknown DP?
Eventually the Siren's morning coffee kicked in and she remembered she had IMDB. The site informed her that the cinematographer was Georges Périnal. Yes, Blood of a Poet, The Thief of Baghdad, À Nous la Liberté, The Life and Death ofColonel Blimp, The Four Feathers, that Georges Périnal. The Siren felt as though she had been reading a short story and thinking, hey, this is brilliant, I can't wait to tell people about this unsung genius that I, Campaspe, have discovered, and then she turns to the index and realizes it's Tolstoy.
Due credit also to the art director, Andrej Andrejew, and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., who did the screenplay based on Margery Sharp's novel. Like a cinephile version of Justice Potter Stewart, at least the Siren knows it when she sees it.
P.S. In her autobiography, Maureen O'Hara dismisses this one, saying the only reasons to catch it are Andrews and Thorndike. Well, she disses Sinbad the Sailor, too, and the Siren thinks it's swell. O'Hara also says the British and American versions are cut so differently they almost amount to different movies.
(Above, Dana Andrews, handsome and successful as he was in the 1940s. His career later skidded due to a crushing alcohol problem. Unlike a lot of other actors, he eventually overcame his drinking. He was admirably candid about his recovery in an era when admitting to addiction was still stigmatizing.)