Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What I Watched With My Mother (The Finale): Home Before Dark (1958)


Home Before Dark (New Year's Day night) (Note: Home Before Dark is showing tomorrow (Thurs. 1/31/13) at 1 pm EST, as part of TCM's all-day birthday tribute to Jean Simmons.)

Of all the movies the Siren saw with her sainted Mom, this was the nicest surprise.

Jean Simmons plays Charlotte Bronn, who's being sprung from a mental hospital after a year-long stay. Opening shots show deep snow around the magnificently lugubrious Danvers State Insane Asylum (it's got a pseudonym, but that's Danvers all right). Before Charlotte shows up, her professor hubby, Arnold (Dan O'Herlihy), asks the head doctor something that paraphrases as "Gee, doc, shouldn't my recently crazy wife be, er, occupying her own bed for a while?" The shrink tells Arnold oh no, ho-ho, there's no reason for that.

Back home Charlotte's greeted by her slinky, shifty stepsister, Joan (Rhonda Fleming), not to mention her stepmother (Mabel Albertson), whom we immediately suss could drive Anna Freud into a mental ward. And what does Arnold do when his too-long-celibate mate makes a play for some affection? He tells her she needs her own bedroom for the time being--doctor's orders, you know.

This absolute whopper establishes, definitively, that Arnold doesn't love Charlotte. And, because Fleming makes such suggestive eye contact with O'Herlihy, we also know immediately that something's up between Stepsis and Hubby. Maybe they did the deed, maybe they didn't, but in any case, neither one of them has any business telling Charlotte she's delusional.

This may not sound like much of a set-up, especially for a movie clocking in at 136 minutes; add less than a half-hour and you've got enough time to blow up The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet neither the Siren nor her sainted mom minded the running time. The considerable suspense comes from waiting for Charlotte to realize what drove her around the bend in the first place. She has to, or she'll be back in Danvers, perhaps for good. The script (by Eileen and Robert Bassing, from Eileen's novel) makes the audience piece together the past events at the same time that Charlotte's recognizing, bit by painstaking bit, all the things that are driving her mad.


Crazy-Making Thing No. 1 is Arnold, with a Stepmama appetizer and Joan on the side, but there's definitely more. Home Before Dark was shot mostly on location in Marblehead, Mass., during a winter so cold the camera had to be de-iced like a plane on a runway. (One reason the beach scenes look more relaxed: They were filmed in Malibu.) The Bronn house is played by one of those lovely New England colonials that, properly lensed, resemble a cozy tomb. Inside, the ceilings are low, the halls are narrow and a person can't walk five feet without running into Stepsis and her torpedo bra. The cook (Kathryn Card) is a battle-ax who rules the kitchen with all the bighearted warmth of Ivan the Terrible. The house faces a slushy street where the other houses are so close that in spring you could probably sit on your own porch and prop your feet on someone else's. In this nosy college town, Charlotte can't so much as go shopping without facing a sales assistant who insists on calling Arnold to make sure his wife doesn't have a form of insanity that makes you run out and buy a silk dress. Encounters with other residents find them treating Charlotte like she's a kid who just got over chicken pox: "My dear, they told me you were ill. But you look so well!" (To which Charlotte replies, with a chilly half-smile, "They lied to you.")

Charlotte does have an old friend (Joanna Barnes) who's sensible and sympathetic, and an old flame (Stephen Dunne) who still lusts for her, but both have troubles of their own, and neither of them has much luck pointing out the obvious about Arnold and Joan. Charlotte says they're wrong, that she was wrong. It was all in her mind. Her denial is incredible, but after all, if a man you loved kept telling you that you're delusional, maybe you'd go crazy, too. It worked in Gaslight.

The Siren was impressed by the entire cast, but it's Simmons' show, and she's in almost every scene. It would be tempting for a leading lady to emphasize Charlotte's charm and victimization, a wounded-but-titillating-gazelle sort of thing. Instead Simmons plays up the woman's intelligence. Sarcasm, rebellion and reproof keep creeping into her voice, and each flash of her perception offers hope for more. Those supreme Simmons eyes tell so much about denial, about why Charlotte believes that everything's her fault and that she should be what her family wants her to be.


Offering one escape route is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Jake Diamond, the handsome temporary lecturer who's boarding at the Bronn house. Arnold's trying to shore up his own position by sponsoring Jake, who's Jewish. (One bully-for-Charlotte bit comes when Arnold is tsk-tsking over Jake's aggressive manner with the college brass, and she says, calm but pointed, "I thought you said they didn't like him because he's Jewish.") Much of Home Before Dark finds Simmons looking as bad as she could look in 1958--little or no make-up, hollow eyes, hair that's turned gray and straw-like, dowdy clothes hanging off a hospital-shrunk body. But she's still Jean Simmons, and Jake takes in her beauty the first time he sees her, when she's coming down the stairs one morning in her robe. Then Arnold emerges--from a ground-floor room. As she gets a good-morning embrace from the plaster-of-paris otherwise known as her husband, Zimbalist does an eye-flick up the stairs to where the marital bedroom is located, and back to Arnold. Arnold moves to the dining room, and Charlotte turns around to find Jake is still at the door to his room, still looking, already figuring out what the true problem is.

Zimbalist makes Jake's kindness seem like the way any good person would respond, which naturally brings up the corollary that Charlotte's other household members are not good people. His attraction to Charlotte is potent but not sleazy, and he gets points just for being willing to joke with her. Everyone else is afraid she'll set fire to the furniture or something. Charlotte, however, is in no shape to reciprocate, and besides, "I want her to rescue herself," the Siren announced. Mom nodded. The great thing is, so does Jake.

You do wonder why on earth Charlotte's so stuck on Arnold, with his fleshy mouth and his suck-up manner with almost anyone who isn't married to him. You find out in a flashback to a few years before. She wasn't--isn't--entirely comfortable with herself, so she uses Joan's bubbly flirting techniques to set her cap for the older, established Arnold. She thinks he's sophisticated, nothing like the "hey baby how 'bout it?" guys her own age. She's dead wrong, of course. Arnold's intellect is trained entirely on his own advancement, and sexually Joan is much more his type.


Late in the movie, Charlotte drags Arnold to what's supposed to be a romantic Christmas getaway in Boston (because where else would you go for one of those). The scenes where she decides that if Joan is what Arnold wants, Joan is what she'll be, are so horrifyingly funny, and then so horrifying, that the Siren couldn't believe what she was watching. Mad respect to the line delivery of Joel Marston, who plays a hairdresser named Frederic. Charlotte tells him that her husband wants her in Joan's platinum-blonde coronet, which makes even scrumptious Rhonda Fleming look like Brunhilde's understudy, and Frederic responds, "I hate him." The Siren and Mom had been waiting the whole damn movie for somebody to say that.

Pauline Kael wrote that "Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance" (hooray! cried the Siren) "that is so much better than the material that at times her exquisite reading of the rather mediocre lines seems a more tragic waste than her character's wrecked life" (DRAT). Oh well. Even if Kael thought the movie was too long, she appreciated Simmons and didn't use the dreaded words "soap opera."

The Siren has said before that a movie "isn't for everyone," and she should stop, because how fatuous is that? No movie is for everyone. This movie is for Jean Simmons fans and Mervyn Le Roy fans (the Siren's both). It's for those who like New England coastal settings and comeuppances and beautiful opening-credit songs with lyrics that Sammy Cahn seems to have written before checking out the script. Most of all, it's for people who think it can be just as fascinating to spend more than two hours with a woman who's figuring out that her husband doesn't love her as it is to watch gangsters or spies or a president getting a bill through Congress.

What Mom said: "That was our kind of movie, wasn't it."

Bonus:
The new banner is from Seraphic Secret. (Robert Avrech also has a wonderful memoir out about the love of his life, Karen--whom he was lucky enough to marry. It's on Kindle, and you should check it out.)

Jean Simmons would have been 84 tomorrow, but she died in 2010. Since the Siren wrote that adoring tribute, she's grown to admire Simmons' acting even more. You can order Home Before Dark at the Warner Archive Store. Should that not be enough, you can do what the Siren did and watch this here. Since she's had her knuckles rapped for drawing attention to these things, the Siren won't name the movie except to say that it's the uncut U.K. version of a gorgeous, full-rigged Gothic, based on a novel she's loved since girlhood, and Simmons is utterly marvelous, as always. [Redacted] also comes with a built-in mystery; it's a great-looking movie that should have spawned a good career for its director, so what happened to this man?

Then, because the Siren loves you, you can watch another one here. The Siren hasn't seen this one yet so do try to be discreet. She has no idea what to expect. What she's read of the premise seems only slightly less yucky than Susan Slept Here but then again, it's Simmons and Granger at their youngest and most physically dazzling.

30 comments:

Howard Fritzson said...

To all Jean Simmons fans: There is an exquisite little known TV film from 1987 directed by Stephen Frears starring Simmons and the great Mona Washbourne (the "Lion Aunt" from "Stevie" opposite Glenda Jackson, and "Nanny Hawkins" from the TV version of "Brideshead Revisited"). It is well worth seeking out. Both actresses are in top form.

Howard Fritzson said...

I didn't mention the title of the TV film with Simmons and Washbourne. It is called "December Flower."

Vanwall said...

My kind of Simmons movie, indeed. She was very good at playing reality-shrouded individuals - "The Clouded Yellow", "So Long at the Fair", "Uncle Silas", and "Angel Face" come to mind, along with this one, as faves. The rest of the cast is somewhat opaque, and only prop up Simmons well enough, but not greatly. Nice run down...or would that be more apt for "Angel Face"?

testingwithfire said...

Now I'll definitely have to check out this movie. I live near Marblehead (not to mention the old Danvers loony bin, now spiffily converted to luxury condos, how insane is that). Hope I can recognize some of the locations.

Dan Leo said...

Somehow I think this movie has escaped me, but I'm definitely adding this to my to-see list now.

Gerg said...

Note also that Home Before Dark is available on Amazon Instant Video for $9.99.

The Siren said...

Everybody: Casee on Facebook pointed out to me that Home Before Dark will be on TCM tomorrow at 1 pm EST, because it's Simmons' birthday. Some other goodies too, including The Actress, which is a wonderful performance.

misospecial said...

I saw this for the first time a few months ago on TCM and was slowly drawn in. It was a little slow and I think the two-hour rule applies (unless you can establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that you need the extra time, your movie should come in at two hours or under), but the writing and directing were a little smarter than average, and Simmons was terrific. As was Zimbalist, who I mostly know from his '60s TV show, The FBI, which was pretty torpid... Glad to see this noticed and written up. Not a great film, but adult and worthwhile, even at 136 minutes.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, The Clouded Yellow still eludes me. :(

Vanwall said...

Siren -

It was long, long between viewings every time, but it pops up on the web off and on. Trevor Howard was wonderfully himself on it, too.

The Siren said...

Howard, thanks--I would love to see Simmons in a good late-career role.

Testingwithfire, when I was researching it turned out that they demolished a lot of Danvers when converting it, which is a pity. But at least they left up some of it, unlike Pickfair-vandal Pia Zadora whose name makes the Siren spit tacks.

Dan, Gerg, Misospecial, thanks. This movie was hard to find for a while but now it's all over everywhere, which is good since people who've seen it tend to like it. But actually, I don't believe there are any rules about filmmaking, especially not about length. As I said, I think it's refreshing to decide that a one-woman psychological study deserved deep, lengthy treatment; Home Before Dark earned its length and didn't drag.

panavia999 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Siren said...

It was like, I kept *thinking* I should be finding it awfully long because most of the pre-1960 stuff I watch is well under two hours, sometimes under 90 minutes, and I admire elegance and economy in storytelling. But then I realized that I wasn't sitting through *any* scenes thinking, "get on with it." She was really in terrible shape and you needed the build to the wonderful denouement.

Kirk said...

Well, I'm a Jean Simmons fan. I saw this not too long after she died, and was suprised I'd never heard of the film before. It's very good.

Incidentally, Simmons had played mental illness before. Remember Hamlet?

Kirk said...

I should say Ophelia

The Siren said...

No no, I LIKE Jean as Hamlet.

The part she plays in Uncle Silas is similar in a few ways--being driven around the bend by horrid relatives, basically, and being convinced for a long time that they all have her best interests at heart. And of course she truly is moon-barking-mad in Angel Face. In Footsteps in the Fog she isn't crazy, but she's certainly deluded. And of course in So Long at the Fair (another under-the-radar film beloved by all who watch it) she's got people who are very deliberately trying to drive her mad.

No wonder she was so good at this sort of thing by 1958.

barrylane said...

A real treat. Thank you for putting it up.

The Siren said...

Thank you, Barry!

gmoke said...

Once upon a time I was walking up Fifth Avenue and on a corner near the Plaza Hotel was Jean Simmons and two men, one of whom, I realized later, was Richard Brooks. I did what I always do when I recognize an actor or musician on the street: stop and say, "Thank you for your work" and then walk on.

Glad I had the chance to say it to Ms Simmons.

barrylane said...

Adam and Evalyn is not yucky and is far more sensitive than Susan Slept Here...Stewart Granger glues this thing together and the cast beyond Jean Simmons is nearly flawless. Jean Simmons, of course, like Jimmy Granger, is what...? No words grand enough.

The Siren said...

Barry, I still haven't watched it but I am glad to hear that. I looked at a synopsis and thought, uh-oh. But I do adore Granger (we know, Siren, we know) and this movie was them falling in love so how could it not be good?

The Siren said...

Gmoke, I don't think I had many chances to meet or encounter anyone which is just as well; I am a starstruck gusher.

Pamela said...

I have seen the two films you linked to, and loved them both. The 2nd is nowhere near as icky as you would imagine (I had the same thoughts)

Lovely piece on HBD - thank you so much!

The Siren said...

Oh goody, that's two hearty "NOPE not yucky" votes for the [redacted] film that I'm pretending isn't there even though it is. Must see asap. Nice and short too. And thanks, Pamela!

Anna Schmidt said...

Home Before Dark was on TCM a couple of months ago, and my husband and I caught the last hour or so. Normally we DO NOT watch the end of an old movie we haven't seen, but we couldn't turn it off because we loved poor, not-crazy Jean and wanted her hideous husband and stepsis to be found out!

mas82730 said...

Great Preminger-Mitchum anecdote. After watching pretty, miscast Jean Seberg struggle through 'Saint Joan' I wanted to slap Preminger, too.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Jean Simmons began her career as the cinema's most overwhdelming nymphet in Great Expecations and Black Narcissus. It was obvious from these performances that she had tons to offer, but as Hollywsood is obsessed with surfaces her beauty proved confusing to many. They couldn't se she was a real actress.

Home Beofre Dark shows she really knew what to do wit complex roles. Likewise Elmer Gantry and The Happy Ending. Back in the mid-80's when the "Los Angeles Herald-Examiner" was rining down the curtain Richard Brooks showed up to sow us all his Deadline USA. I got a chance to talk with him one-on-one at length and he said (unbidded) that the greaest regret of his life was the failure of hs marriage with Simmons -- for which he took full responsibility. He said if she would ahve him he would come back to her in a second. That of course never happened.

Just looked at The Actress for the umpteenth time on TCM. It's a film dear to Mr. Cukor's hart for he was the same age as his heroine when he fell in love with the theater just as she did.

In the Cukor files at the Academy libary there's a note from Tony Perkins apologizing to Cukor for his performance in the film. Appaently the whole experience unnerved him. Mr. Cukor wrote back assuring him that he was just fine and would have a long and sucessful career.

X. Trapnel said...

An off-topic clutch of weeds offered to our hostess in the spirit of a bouquet. I hope she enjoys it:

A friend just returned from the TCM cruise and related the following: Prior to a screening of Woman's World, Robert Osborne introduces cruise guest Arlene Dahl as the nicest, most good natured person in the world. Whereupon the lady (to RO's visible displeasure) begins to denounce JUNE ALLYSON for her unprofessionalism and all-around personal nastiness. On the other hand, Miss Dahl had only nice things to say of Van Heflin and Jean Negulescu.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Doesn't Arelen Dahl know that. . . .

barrylane said...

After watching Adam and Evelyne on the net via your link I purchased a DVD copy at Amazon. Certainly not remastered but a worthwhile souvenir. Stewart Granger is the glue and as good, better then in almost anything else. I met him twice. Initially in Toronto on his book tour, 1982. He was imposing, funny and a pleasure to be with.